Ski across Greenland they said… What a grand adventure I thought… but does anyone else have this problem with wearing rose tinted glasses when dreaming up the next big adventure? I get these magical images come surging into my head about how it is going to be. It always involves perfect weather and me looking like a strong, warrior goddess who is absolutely in her element. My hair blowing theatrically in the wind while I throw my head back in laughter. It is a classic image that accompanies each new far out dream I have. Pity they never quite work out that way, but to hell with happy endings. Ultimately, we are in it for the story.
Skiing across Greenland was one of the most difficult journeys I have ever completed. I was part of a small-handpicked team led by the NZ-based Antarctic Heritage Trust, for their third Inspiring Explorers’ Expedition. The Trust are the guardians of the early explorer bases down in Antarctica. The aim of their expeditions is to connect young people with the spirit of exploration. As an adventure therapist encouraging youth to step outside of their comfort zones and be more curious about life is a huge part of the work that I do. I had lost touch with that feeling myself though and this expedition helped me regain that by throwing me over the edge with its continuous challenges.
I have always been strong, and I have always been a leader. I grew up in remote western Queensland and I guess all of that country air and farm life prepared me for the rough and tumble of the outdoors. We were constantly adventuring as children which then bubbled over into my adult life where I became an outdoor instructor and therapist. In my twenties I managed to live and work on every continent taking up every strange and wonderous opportunity that came my way. I normally charge through life full of vibrancy and flair.
Greenland however was a different story. Even though I envisioned myself being this graceful, powerful, ski warrioress, there was nothing glamorous about that crossing at all. Most days I felt completely useless. It would take me fifteen minutes every morning to pull on my rock- solid frozen boots. After slipping those dreaded ice-blocks onto my feet, my tentmate Hollie and I would clumsily take down our tent. With three layers of mittens on, our dexterity was seriously debilitated. From there it was anywhere between 10 and 16 hours of skiing before we would set up camp again. We would ski in a line, one behind the other and have a 10-minute break every hour. It was a world of vast nothingness and the best way to describe it is to imagine being on the inside of a ping pong ball. White stretching out all around you. Some days the blizzards were so intense you didn’t even know where up or down actually was. You just felt like you were floating in a cloud, waiting to fall out of it.
We battled wild weather conditions including experiencing two hurricanes. Each time having to dig down our tents into what I imagined as their own grave. Then using the excess snow we had dug out as a huge wall and barricade against the ferocious winds. I have never been in a situation like this before, where I couldn’t stand up against the wind or was literally blown upwards in my tent from the wind howling underneath it. We bunkered down for 36 hours at time, snow falling like cement around us, enclosing the tents in on us. These delightful moments were considered as our rest days and there is nothing like the steady drum of 180km/hr wind against the tent to lull you into sleep.
We often talked about why people are crazy enough to do expeditions like this in the first place and our magnificent guide believed that people did it for the suffering. While in those first few weeks we were still having a great time, there still seemed to be our fair share of suffering going around. Both gastro and a terrible chest infection swept through us causing me through one week to cough up blood daily. We were often dealing with temperatures of Minus 40 Celsius. Even though there was no real exposure my legs became ridden with frost bite. Believe it or not, the fat in my legs had frozen. It turns out, ladies, that cellulite is the gift that just keeps giving, not only does it look fabulous in bikini’s, but it also can catch frostbite. Because of all the illness that was plaguing us and poor weather conditions we needed to extend the number of hours we were doing on the ice each day. It went from 10 hours skiing per day to 16. My body was exhausted, and these extra hours started to bring back brain injury symptoms.
Five years ago, I was involved in a dog sledding accident where a client lost control of their sled and ran over my head. The sleds we were using were 250 kg and then add the weight of two people on top. In the end, you get a very crushed skull. My vestibular system was severely damaged, and my brain forced me to sleep to repair itself for days at a time. I lost my short- term memory and my ability to balance. It took months of physical therapy to be able to function normally again.
Now my brain injury affects me mostly when I am tired. My body goes into survival mode, it shuts down everything that isn’t needed to function including my personality. I lose my sense of balance and tend to fall over a lot. My vision becomes foggy and my brain feels like it is on fire. I find it incredibly hard to concentrate on anything at these times and noise or over stimulation acts like a knife being stabbed over and over within my skull.
I was thrown into this position of having to rely on others to help me make it through. I needed extra sleep, so Hollie boiled water for me at night before she went to bed herself. The boys carried extra weight for me and Hollie, so it was less strain on us. This didn’t sit well with me at all. I felt like a complete burden on the team. Deep down I know that everyone needs extra help at certain times, but I just wasn’t comfortable with being that person.
I realised that my sense of self-worth is wrapped up my level of productivity. This belief system was instilled in me throughout childhood. It molds its way into my life in many forms, one of which is perfectionism. If you are not the best or doing your best, then it is not enough. YOU are not enough. If I was sick I would consider myself to be weak and less than because I am not as productive as usual.
Throughout the time that my head injury symptoms returned on the expedition and I couldn’t contribute much to the team physically, I felt so much shame. This shame ate away at my soul. It affected my mood and state of mind even more. It was like a deep seeded sense of fear that I was the weakest link. The primal part of me was expecting to be kicked out of the tribe. The brain is a remarkable thing. What thoughts you feed into it becomes ingrained within your reality. In short, your thoughts become things.
Imagine the scenario, there I was in Greenland telling myself that I was useless and going to be kicked out of the tribe for ten hours a day. You can see how that affected my emotions and my energy. My emotions would be rock bottom and I wouldn’t be able to find pleasure in anything around me. My headaches would worsen with the strain of intensified emotions and that would then affect my balance and vision. It was a vicious cycle.
I knew this about the brain though. This wasn’t new information to me. What I needed was a massive shift in my perspective about the situation. That shift came in the form of Hollie, my beautiful tent mate. Both of us had been struggling through a lot and I was just so lucky to have such an incredible person to be with on a daily basis. We made each other laugh through the suffering and she inspired me with thoughts of what we could become. Every day we would pull out motivational quotes she had carefully prepared before the journey to keep our spirits up. This particular day the quote was ‘Pain is inevitable, but misery is optional.’ I hadn’t been able to step out of my misery to see past the pain of what was going on with my body and the shame of being less strong than I expected.
As women we are expected to be all these different things. A nurturer with the patience of a saint, a passionate warrioress, a fashionista but also an adventurer who likes to get grubby, an empowerer, a pillar of strength, yet a gentle carer, a lover but a lady on the street, a brilliant cook, an intelligent woman who stands in her truth but doesn’t voice her opinions too loudly. The list goes on and on. It’s exhausting. And if we don’t measure up to those labels and expectations we are led to believe we are not enough.
What is beautiful to me about this expedition is the friendship I had with Hollie. Where she accepted and loved me as what I thought was my ‘less than’ and ‘not enough’ self. If she and the others could accept me in this state, then why couldn’t I?
On the last few days of the expedition we crossed paths with another team. We had met them originally weeks earlier when they raced for days to catch up to us. As a team we were on the slow side, due largely to the sickness and weather obstacles. In the early days we had compared ourselves to them but now here they were, in front of us, battered and beaten. They were a total emotional wreck. They had pushed themselves far past their limits and were barely talking to each other. I was so grateful towards my team for having such a sense of unity and giving it all to help each other through.
Witnessing this teams lack of empathy towards their weaker members made my compassion for those women soar. I really came to appreciate that even though we are taught to value strengths like being the fastest or the strongest, or the best at something; there are far more important traits to value like emotional strengths. I was not doing my entire self justice by judging myself on my lack of physical strength, when I have so much more to offer. My migraines and symptoms had finally started to ease at this point and my energy surged. I was no longer worried about being a burden but rather focussed on making life for these other women more bearable. Even though there was still some pain I shifted my energy into joy.
The most awe-inspiring scenes enveloped us in the last 21 hours of the expedition. It was a magical, fantasy-like day. We started to see mountains emerge out of the vast whiteness around us – the first real thing we had seen in 27 days. As the mountains grew into view, we skied closer to the sea and were finally going downhill. We were giggling and laughing, this unified team. We were having such an amazing time and feeling so pumped up on good energy. As the day grew into night, the sun set over four or five hours, blanketing us in this stunning light that sparkled off the snow. The moon was rising, a huge, gorgeous, firey orb. The scene looked like we were skiing down on this sea of clouds to meet the moon. It was the most beautiful evening of my life, and the images will be forever imprinted on my memory.
The night turned into day and we were still skiing. Somehow through all of the exhaustion we could still carry on. The gravity of this expedition only truly sank in when I returned home. I walked across an entire country. Even though at times the dramatic part of me felt like I was being marched to my death, I continued to put one foot in front of the other. The human body is capable of way more than we give it credit for. The human mind, even more so. We get so caught up in what we expect ourselves to be that we sometimes forget to see the beautiful gift that we can be at all. I am so appreciative of the fact that I am still able to adventure after the accident and capable of the feat that I just completed.
My physical strength doesn’t define me, neither does being ‘the best’ or perfect at things. The greatest thing that this journey taught me is to accept my body and myself in all of its seasons. While I generally operate in a flourishing state of Summer and Spring especially while I am traveling and working (my vibrant self); I find it so difficult to accept it when my mind, body and soul are exhausted. And giving myself full permission to be in those states and feel those emotions without feeling shame has been one of the most powerful learnings I could have gained. I am enough in all states and seasons.
Photography by Keith Parsons and Bengt Rotmo