(Introduction written 3 June 2013) / (Reproduced account written 29 April 2013)
Greenland has been nothing but smiles, love, and happiness for me since Day 1. But in East Greenland I was reminded that this land is still very wild and can be brutal to human life…
If there is one point to take away from Greenland, it is that one’s everyday existence is always at nature’s mercy. This is a lesson that one British expedition team learned the hard way and which gave me a jolt of reality while I was on the east coast. Though I only knew these men for about a day, I was still shocked and emotionally affected to learn that their expedition failed because of an extreme windstorm called a Piteraq.
Below is a very revealing account of my experience on Sunday 28 April 2013 – the day after the Piteraq hit East Greenland. I originally wrote this for one of the expedition members’ family only. But, as I tried to write more about my time on the east coast for this blog, I realized that this tell-all account was the only thing that could do justice to the experience. And so I asked the family if they would be willing to let me share it here. It is possibly the first negative experience I have ever written about, and in fact, I debated whether to include it at all. But ultimately, I think it is imperative to represent Greenland in a realistic light and to not sugarcoat anything.
So, my personal account is copied here with the permission of the family.
The Piteraq on Saturday 27 April 2013 had grounded all passenger flights in the Angmagssalik district, so everyone had to stay put until further notice. Everyone whose flight was cancelled had been told that Air Greenland most likely would not fly until Monday, so it was settled that Sunday would be a quiet day with no air traffic and no events…
Around 0715, I was awoken by the unmistakable thumping heartbeat of a helicopter. I thought to myself that I must be mistaken since there were not supposed to be any passenger flights until the next day. I got out of bed and opened the window for a better look. I could hear it, but I could not see it. These steep East Greenland mountains capture sound so well that one can practically hear the helicopters the entire 26 km (16 miles) from Kulusuk to Tasiilaq!
Many minutes passed before I could actually see the machine as a speck on the horizon. As it continued to approach, I could see that it was no ordinary Bell 212, and instantly I started to feel sick. The machine landing at Tasiilaq was the massive Sikorsky S-61 helicopter. It was retired for passenger flights at the end of 2012, and now only operates for Search and Rescue (SAR) missions and other special events. So it is not necessarily a good thing to see this machine coming in. My thoughts went immediately to the three British men I had met just days ago. They were only four days into the expedition and I feared it was already coming to an end. I later learned that the S-61 had flown all through the night from Kangerlussuaq, down the entire west coast, around the south, and finally over to the east. The Piteraq was still too fierce for it to fly directly over the Inland Ice.
I only took a moment to dress and ran out the door down to the heliport. Perhaps some people may question why I was so interested, so involved, so emotionally charged, but how could I not be?! Just three and four days earlier I was eating dinner with these men, talking and laughing for hours, playing Foosball with [the expedition leader], photographing them the morning they got into the helicopter to go up to the Ice, saying good luck to them and that I looked forward to following the Live Tracking on their expedition website… It is true – I knew them for less than 24 hours, but sometimes time is just an arbitrary number. When you feel that another human being is in trouble – you instinctually react!
When I got to the heliport, there were police out front, and I asked them what was happening. They told me they were going to the Inland Ice to rescue an expedition team. I asked them which expedition they were going after, but they did not seem to understand my question. I offered the men’s nationality, the number of team members, the specific expedition name/ID number, even the men’s names… but nothing seemed familiar to the policemen. Finally, when I repeated [the expedition leader’s name] that sparked recognition, and one of the policemen said, “Yes, that’s him!” There were so many things going through my head that I could not think coherently or ask questions in the correct order. I think maybe I was even stupid enough to ask if I could go with them on the rescue!
Once the S-61 departed at 0744 and I had some time to think, I considered the options of why the expedition was being rescued. [The expedition leader] had told me that one of his previous expeditions was pulled because the Greenland government deemed it too dangerous. I thought this was probably not the reason for this rescue, though, because by Sunday morning the Piteraq had subsided, so why would the government see any harm in letting them continue? Finally, I concluded that what MUST have happened was that they lost a lot of their gear and could not continue for another 30 days on what they had left. I never once considered that they were in mortal danger.
To prove that I never considered this option, the entire time I waited for the S-61 to return I was imagining watching the men walk off the helicopter and into the heliport and asking them what on Earth happened up on the Ice!! Unfortunately, walking off the helicopter was the furthest thing from what the men were physically capable of doing. This realization did not actually hit me until I saw the S-61 return just before 0900 but continue past the heliport. I took half a second to wonder where it was going, and then I heard the bells tolling. It was going to the hospital. I wanted to kick myself for how little I was thinking, and again ran out the door and over to the hospital. When I got there the S-61 was perched on the snow, so huge and massive in comparison to the buildings and residences close by. There were a few locals standing on their front steps trying to see what was happening, but other than that there was nobody around and only silence in the air.
Members of the SAR team were already on the ground around the helicopter but it was unclear to me whether they had already unloaded the men or not. I waited still, and then I saw the edge of a stretcher appear at the top of the helicopter stairs. I held my breath and braced myself because I did not know what I was about to see. The stretcher continued out the doorway and what I saw was a person strapped to the stretcher and wrapped from head to toe in a bright, gold, and blindingly shiny thermal bag. I could not see who it was, and I could not hear anybody saying the person’s name. The SAR team went directly inside the hospital and I did not see that person again. Having arrived to the hospital a little bit after the helicopter landed, I was unsure whether I was seeing the first person come off the helicopter or the last person. So still I waited to see what would happen next, and eventually a second person came off the helicopter in the same condition as the first – strapped to a stretcher and wrapped head to toe in a gold thermal bag. Nobody else came off the helicopter, so I assumed that I had seen the third of the three men get unloaded, and I went inside.
At 0930, the doctor passed in the hallway, and I asked him if he could give me any information at all. He was hesitant, asked if I was a family member, and I said, “No, just somebody who cares”. He told me I would have to ask the police instead. When the policemen passed in the hallway, I saw that it was the same officers as I had spoken with outside the heliport, and I asked them if they could give me any information. They [mentioned two of the expedition members by name and said they were okay]. I said, “And what about [the third man]?” They would not say another word. My heart sank, and my gut feeling was that [the third member] was in big trouble, but still I was holding out hope that he was alive and just in very critical condition. I stayed at the hospital for probably an hour or more watching the doctor, nurses, and SAR team go in and out of one of the treatment rooms with IVs, blankets, and medical supplies. At one point I could actually hear one of the men speaking saying that he felt numb and that he could not feel anything, and then he got sick over and over again. But it was a relief just to hear a voice. I have no idea what was happening inside that room, but I can only imagine it was a nightmare. Eventually, I had to return to The Red House to pack my bag and catch my helicopter to Kulusuk. It was so hard for me to walk away from the hospital, and I definitely did not want to leave the town. I desperately just wanted to stay in Tasiilaq and wait for any piece of news, no matter how big or small.
When I got back to The Red House around 1030, the air was silent and heavy. The Polish ice climbers, the Austrian film crew, the solo French backpacker, the staff at The Red House… everyone was holding their breath waiting for news. Like me, none of these people knew the men for more than a week, but yet there was still so much love and support in the room. It was very special.
They had all heard about the SAR mission, but in fact they had heard incorrect information. They were under the impression that [everyone in] Greenland Icecap-Crossing Expedition A-13-22 was deceased. It was at this point that I realized that I was probably the only one who knew what was happening in real time – and even I knew very little. But I knew that I had seen two men come off the S-61 alive, and I knew I could even hear one of them speaking inside the treatment room. And I knew the police were confident in telling me that [two of the expedition members] were alive. So I shared the few facts that I knew and nothing else. Then we all sat with our thoughts and nobody said a word. When I left The Red House at 1215 to catch my helicopter, the air was just as silent and heavy. At that time it was still unclear what [the third man’s] condition was. It was even unclear whether he had actually been rescued from the Ice or not. I hoped and prayed that he was alive.
It was not until Sunday evening in Kulusuk that I heard the official word that [the third man] had passed… Since then, I have not been able to stop looking at the pictures I took of the expedition team the morning they left up to the Ice. Again, some people may question why I was so interested, so involved, so emotionally charged, but how could I not be?! There is something about knowing you were one of the last people to spend time with the expedition team before they went to the Ice. There is something eerie about looking at some of the last pictures of [the third man] alive and well. Even more eerie is getting a Facebook notification that you are now friends with [him] because his family has logged onto his account to make an official post about his passing…
My heart is heavy 😦 Greenland has been nothing but smiles, love, and happiness for me since Day 1. But now I am reminded that this land is still very wild and can be brutal to human life.