In July 2002, LTF/X fitness instructor and mountaineer Sean Burch was part of a climbing expedition to a previously unexplored area of Greenland known as the Gronau Nunatakker range. While there, he became the first American to summit several first ascents. Burch had previously climbed in Alaska, South America and Tibet. This spring, he plans to summit Mt. Everest without supplementary oxygen – something that, to date, only six Americans have done. Here, Burch shares a little of his Greenland experience, and also reveals some of the philosophical underpinnings that support his passion for extreme, cold-weather excursions. Even if the mere idea of frigid outdoor frolics has always left you – well, cold – don’t be surprised if after hearing Sean’s views, you find yourself warming to the notion of bundling up for an adventure of your own.
When my crampons punched through the thin layer of crusty snow, the ground dropped away like a freight elevator whose cables had been cut. I plunged up to my armpits into nothingness and then found myself sinking fast in loose, quick-shifting snow. It sucked at my body like quicksand. Instinctively, my arms shot out from my sides to fight the pull and then it dawned on me: I was sinking into a crevasse – a crevasse of undetermined width and depth that seemed intent on swallowing me whole.
This was not how I wanted my first trip to Greenland to end. I gathered my wits and remembered the ice axe in my right hand. Extending it as far as I could reach on the upward angle of the crest, I anchored it into the ice and proceeded to heave myself out of the now semi-exposed abyss.
Once on solid ground, I lay down in the snow for a moment and took several deep breaths, thinking about what had just happened. Here it was, the last evening of a successful mountaineering expedition in Greenland, with half a dozen much tougher peaks behind me, and I’d managed to step through a snow bridge, alone and unroped to a climbing partner.
Bad luck? Bad decision? Maybe a little of both. Then again, maybe everything had worked out perfectly.
In the Face of Perversity
Solo ascents are considered taboo in Greenland because of its remoteness. You climb at your own peril, knowing that if seriously injured, you have a slim chance of getting out alive. But several times during this expedition, the challenging mountains that I’d climbed alone turned out to be some of my favorite moments on the icecap.
The limits-testing aspects of cold-weather adventuring and mountaineering are what many climbers (including me) relish the most. A plethora of obstacles, including bad weather and unpredictable terrain, go hand in hand with cold-weather adventuring – guaranteeing a certain level of challenge, excitement and self-reliant problem solving that some of us just can’t get enough of.
I’d definitely gotten my share of excitement on this one. Glancing toward the edge of the blue void that had tried to gobble me down, I realized I had, in fact, just narrowly escaped death. The virgin mountain ridge, just moments before so smooth and uninterrupted, had become a crumpled sculpture with a miserable, open pit gashed into its side. I could have wound up in a similar condition, I knew. But fortunately, I hadn’t, and that – at least in the slightly perverse mind of this mountaineer – was reason to celebrate!
I down-climbed to my sled, pulled a candy bar from my jacket pocket and took a bite. Facing the sun’s fading light as I ate, I watched the blue sky melt into a pale gold. With the sun’s rays warming my face and neck, the intense fear I’d just experienced morphed into a physical and emotional rush that made me feel incredibly alive – so alive that dying didn’t even seem like an option. It was glorious to be in Greenland.
The Tao of Deep Freeze
I know that falling into a crevasse and staring death in the face in the Arctic Circle may not be your idea of an ideal adventure. Frankly, I’m not sure it’s mine, either. But now, looking back at my experience on that glacier, I realize that it does contain many of the essential ingredients that make winter adventuring great.
And what’s so great about it, you ask? Well, for one thing, death-cheating aside, there’s immense satisfaction in pitting oneself against the elements, or even just respecting them for what they are: forces to reckon with.
These days, we spend so much of our time in artificial, climate-controlled environments – on carpeted, polished and paved surfaces, under wind-proof, waterproof super-insulated shelters – that it’s easy to forget what Mother Nature is really made of, namely some seriously, majestically tough stuff.
Being out in the cold is exciting because it is real, and it’s especially real when you are moving under your own steam out in an environment you can’t negotiate any other way. It’s a means of connecting to the authentic, the intense, the immutable – both in nature, and in you. It’s a way of getting intimate with the essential parts of being human – of being on, and of, this planet.
Then there is the challenge. Cold weather kicks your butt and hands it to you freeze-dried. It sure tries, anyway. This is especially true at altitude. The thinner atmosphere breaks you down and messes with your resolve, forcing you to push yourself, to stretch your limits, to confront your reactions to your own discomfort.
As an athlete, I like to see how my body and mind respond to these challenges, and to the challenges of extreme endurance. I realize that hardcore mountaineering isn’t for everyone, but I believe that most people stand to gain from challenging their own comfort levels in some way. And even relatively tame cold-weather adventures – including cross-country ski trips and winter-camping excursions you can do close to home – create a context for that kind of discovery.
I want to emphasize that adventure doesn’t have to be dangerous or death-defying to be exciting. As a fitness instructor, I regularly challenge my students to get out of their comfort zones in cycling class – to allow themselves to feel uncomfortable for a little while, just to see what it’s like. Most find it liberating and exhilarating to realize they don’t have to be a slave to comfort – that it’s okay to be uncomfortable sometimes, and that being able to tolerate a certain amount of discomfort without serious reaction can offer you distinct advantages, including all kinds of opportunities for personal and physical development.
The other great thing about cold-weather adventures is that relatively few people ever participate in them, so you tend to have space and time to yourself – or with a few good friends – to fully enjoy and integrate the experience.
The downhill ski runs may be packed with screaming maniacs and speed demons all winter, but get more than a few miles from a warming house – or better yet, get off trail altogether – and you’ll find a whole different world.
It’s a relatively unpopulated world, one where you can hear the rhythm of your skis in the snow, and the breath in your lungs, and notice when they start to sync. It’s a world where you can appreciate nature’s beauty because you are moving at a human-powered pace. It’s a world where individuals – even those traveling together – tend to instinctively respect the value of solitude, peace and quiet.
Cross-country skiing is one of the preeminent forms of winter exercise, and if you aren’t already into it, you should check it out! Most ski resorts have areas where you can cross-country ski, and it’s pretty straightforward to learn. Once you master the basics though, seize the opportunity to set out somewhere more remote.
Bring a friend, if you like. Dress warmly, pack some snacks and a thermos of something hot to drink, and head out for at least a couple hours. Look around as you go, and take in the scenery. Notice the sights and sounds. Give this cold new world a chance, and you will probably find that it grows on you.
During most evenings in Greenland, I would be on my skins (special tip-and-tail tread covers for cross-country skis) for up to three hours (each way) to reach a peak, climb it, and then return to camp the way I’d came. This left me ample time to observe such phenomena as snow bubbles separating around my skis, the white-paste texture of the icecap snow, the ever-changing colors of the glacier and sky, and the steady, resonant cadence of my own kick and glide. I felt incredibly connected to nature, and I experienced just how essential that connection is to the formation and evolution of the human spirit.