A Journey to the Edge of Faith

Over the horizon is where faith begins, or ends.

Over the horizon is where faith begins, or ends.

Faith is a powerful word that carries different meanings for each of us. For some it is an acknowledgement of religion; the belief that, no matter what, God, or some other deity, is watching out for us. Other people see the word as something that’s internal to them - an anchor used to root themselves firm during times of mental or physical turbulence. And pretty much every man and woman on the planet understands the act of having faith in others.

Now ask yourself what happens when this linchpin snaps and leaves us floundering as we search for answers, meaning or, more often than not, an escape route.

During the course of my life I’ve had come notable failures. Not minor blips, but body checks that left me staggering and sometimes fearing for my own life. More important, what questions did I ask myself? Were the answers obvious, or not?

A Tale of No Fire and Abundant Ice.

Several years ago, in 2014, I decided that skiing to the North Pole would be a great idea. Some of the story is captured in a previous post where I delved into mindset and getting things done. But there was more to the tale than I told.

Prior to heading off on this expedition I spent some time training with Conrad Dickinson, a certified polar guide, who has trained the likes of Blue Peter presenter Helen Skelton as well as leading one of the Walking with the Wounded teams on their journeys to the North and South Pole.

After an intensive weekend where I learned the essentials required for polar travel I decided to put some of my refreshed skills to good use by heading over to Finse, Norway and spending a few days skiing the edge of the Hardangervidda.

As you’d expect, prior to leaving I spent several days preparing my gear and researching historic weather conditions. The graphs and stats shown on the Norwegian xxx website suggested an average of -10C during mid-February. I erred on the side of caution and packed a sleeping bag rated to -15C.

Two days into the journey I came to an incline affectionately called ‘Hell hill’. The day had been long and darkness was drawing in so I persuaded myself to camp for the night, rest and be ready for a hard climb the following day.

After pitching my tent, I transferred essential gear from the pulk into the vestibule. So far so good.

A cool breeze rolled down off the hills and across the valley where I’d camped. For a time it felt as if I was on some idyllic holiday. Until my cooking stove decided to stop working.  At first I wasn’t concerned - the MSRs can be temperamental - it had been tested before I left the UK and I’d also packed spares parts.

Twenty minutes later, the valves and pipes cleaned, I attempted to fire up the MSR. No luck.

It was at this point I became aware of a significant temperature drop. Even with a pair of down-filled tent boots my feet felt cold. Half an hour later I’d replaced every component of the stove and still it wouldn’t work. I cursed the useless hunk of metal.

The cold was starting to bite.

Rifling through my grab bag I pulled out my Kestrel portable weather station, opened the cover and waited for the temperature to settle. Finally the moment came, when like a perverse roulette wheel settling on black when I’d bet on read, the reading stopped at -19C.

Gusts of wind ripped through the valley, shifting and battering my tent from ever changing angles. Cold bit deep and my toes became numb. At this point most people would start to worry. Being a normal person that’s exactly what I did.

Darkness had now settled across the land. I was cold and hungry. A thought came to me: climb into the sleeping bag and sleep. In the morning have another attempt at repairing the stove, eat and then move on.

So I slid into the comforting embrace of my sleeping bag and slept. For a short time. Even wearing an extra layer of clothing failed to keep me warm - I knew at this point the temperatures had dropped even further.

Numbness nipped at my fingertips. My feet felt like… nothing. Really, nothing. No pain when I pinched the pale skin of my ankle (having suffered frostbite on an Army course I no longer have any feeling in my toes so it’s pretty pointless using them as an indicator of how bloody cold I might be).

A couple of options now presented themselves: to remain in my sleeping bag in the vain hope that the now raging storm would back off and the temperatures rise, or move in order to generate some heat.

Fifteen minutes later my equipment was packed in the pulk and I was ready to go. Before collapsing the campsite I’d examined my maps and plotted a route to an area that would provide shelter from the storm.

Long shadows stretched out before me - silhouettes of high rock formations and vast snow drifts that made the terrain look more angular and difficult to cross. I laughed at the tricks my mind had decided to play.

Gusts of wind screamed down the valley, slapped me hard on the back and nudged my pulk into life.

The cold leeched heat away from my hands. Holding my skis poles would soon be impossible.

I set a bearing, identified a reference point and skied.

The next three hours are a blur. Hulking shadows and nature’s violence are constant memories of what was an incredibly hard ski needed to climb out of the valley and reach a natural shelter.

Tired, but warm from exhertion, I found a spot where the wind was less violent than down in the valley. In the pale moonlight I pitched my tent, threw my gear inside and crawled in. A few minutes later, my sleeping bag zipped closed my fully clothed body, I was asleep.

Morning came, but the temperatures were still low. I’d slept fitfully. From time to time I had been woken by gusts of frigid wind, but fortunately the hills kept the worst of the storm at bay.

Another attempt at lighting my stove was successful. My curses and laughter mingled into one as the flame first burned amber, then, accompanied by the familiar hiss that comes with an MSR cooker reaching optimal temperature, blue.

The food tasted great. Breakfast in the wake of a storm.

Once I’d packed up I spent the next 8 hours skiing. Along the way I met a number of Norwegians who were intrigued as to why an Englishman would be camping in one of the worst storms to hit the region in ten years (their words, not mine). One couple - a husband and wife from Oslo who regularly came to Finse to ski - informed me that the previous night’s lowest temperature was -28C. 

Hearing those figures was almost as painful as my frost nipped fingertips!

What of faith ? It was gone. That’s not to say I don’t believe in myself. I know how capable I am and have proved this point to myself, and others, on many occasions. But we’re human and sometimes faith fades; more specific - it crumbles to nothing and we are left standing naked, feeling abandoned.

When we reach a tipping point - be it the possibility of death, or some other highly traumatic events - faith frequently deserts us. I know that some people might argue this point, but for me and many others it a simple fact. Sometimes holding faith in others - be they people or gods - more often than not leads to disappointment.

So what better than faith? Training and calculation. Through all of this experience I knew that I had to warm my body and that meant generating a lot of heat through movement. Packing up camp and travelling by night was a risk, but I learned to navigate well in all conditions. There was no faith in my skills. Instead I weighed up the risks and came to the conclusion that to remain in the valley would be a poor decision. Probably worse.

This message is not one of: ‘Have faith in your skills.’ The point is this: when your back is against the wall you sometimes have to discard faith and do what you think is right. Whatever the outcome, it’s better than simply sitting and waiting for the Grim Reaper.