The Hardest Decision of All

Submitted by Thorsten on 15th December 2019

Early February this year, Lauren and I found ourselves on the slopes of a mountain pass leading from the Mogen tourist hut up to the Hardanger plateau. We had spent four hours that morning hauling our pulks through a forest without seeing a clear path, getting stuck again and again. We had stowed our skis on the pulks early on, switching to snowshoes, as those were less prone to get caught in the bushes covered by the loose snow. Despite that, we routinely found ourselves sinking into snowdrifts up to our waists. We dragged our pulks through channels in the snow deeper than themselves. Those hours are among the most physically challenging of my life so far. It was a grind, but we knew every step was taking us closer to our goal: Finse.

We were 46km into our 120km crossing of the Hardangervidda and were already a day ahead of our schedule, so we weren’t too worried by the slow progress. As long as we’d clear the mountain and get onto the flat plateau by the end of the day, we’d be fine. We were worried about one thing, however, and that was avalanches. It had snowed quite a bit near Mogen in the days before we arrived there, and all morning we observed worrisome signs of unstable snow conditions: creaking noises under the fresh snow and snowdrifts sliding downhill even on the moderate slopes covered by trees as soon as we stepped into them. Finally, we reached a small cluster of huts at the edge of the tree cover. We decided to take a rest and regroup. The wind had picked up by now and we were wearing our goggles and face masks to protect ourselves from the elements. While we had been able to see the top of the pass, our goal, for the entire morning, now a thick cloud cover was rolling in and soon we weren’t able to make out our path up the mountain any longer. We had to make a decision. Was it safe to go on?

If you’ve read our expedition report already, then you know we did decide that it wasn’t safe enough for us to carry on and that we could not sit out the weather. So the only sensible choice remained to turn around and heading back the way we came. In hindsight, it’s easy to say that I’d make that decision again, given the conditions I outlined above. But at the moment, of course, it wasn’t that easy. This was our first big expedition together. We had planned for this trip for over a year, learned vital skills and trained hard to get fit enough to make the trip. It was supposed to be our test for Greenland. To make matters worse, we had planned to arrive in Finse in time for the Expedition Finse festival, an annual gathering of Polar explorers. We figured with a Hardangervidda crossing to our name, it would be easy to mingle with the crowd. All these things were spooking around in my head when Lauren said: “we need to make a call”. The temptation to be a badass explorer and just keep going was strong.

Now luckily, Lauren and I had talked about how to handle that exact situation before our trip. We had agreed that if one of us feels it’s unsafe, we’d turn around. No questions asked, no discussion. If you’re currently preparing for an expedition, I fully recommend having “that talk” with your team and support staff while you’re at home with clear heads. I gather it saved Lauren and me an hour-long discussion in a worsening blizzard that day. But that’s not the only learning I took from that day. Reflecting upon our decision and experience over the past year has sparked a few realisations that will in the future help me when facing the decision to abort again.

Remember why you’re out there

So remember a few sentences ago, when I talked about how this was supposed to be our big test for Greenland and now everything was for nought? Turns out it wasn’t really. We were out there to gather experience with self-supported Polar expeditions. We did that. We wanted to test our teamwork and compatibility for future, bigger adventures. We did that. Probably better than we would have on a flawless trip. We wanted to get out of our comfort zones and we did. The only thing we didn’t do was ski 120km to Finse. Instead, we skied 90km up and down lake Møsvatn. Not so bad actually.

On a grander level, we definitely were not out there to risk our lives recklessly in avalanche-prone territory. I guess when you’re out on a Polar expedition, it’s easy to confuse your geographical goal with your purpose of being there. On any outdoors adventure, I am going there for the experience. And I think it’s the same for most people, otherwise, it wouldn’t make sense to hike up a mountain only to go back down again. If you suffer through the worst conditions and have to abort your trip, you still have an amazing story to tell and a great experience to learn from. My purpose is not to complete a crossing or reach a pole, but to come back alive with an experience that lasts a lifetime.

You’ll find people will support you

As I briefly mentioned earlier, we were going to attend Expedition Finse after our Hardangervidda crossing. But instead of having a successful traverse to our name, we’d now go there as losers who bailed out the first sign of danger. It’s easy to think like that with all the big name Polar explorers there, who have faced far worse on their trips. But guess what? Not a single person we talked to that weekend uttered a word of criticism. And we told our story quite a few times. Everyone agreed that we made the right call. We really appreciated the support at the time. In hindsight, it is also the only possible way to react when someone tells you a similar story. If you weren’t out there, if you didn’t see what they saw, you can’t judge the validity of the call.

Back home nobody cared about the fact that we had to turn around. If anything it made for a better story. Being out there for multiple days in the snow, dragging all your gear, battling the elements is already so far from the minds of most people that they will admire your courage regardless.

And finally, history is on your side. Shackleton abandoning his Antarctica traverse before it even began turned into one of the greatest tales of heroism of the golden age of Polar exploration. Nansen and Johansen realising they couldn’t make the North Pole and still have a chance at a safe return didn’t make a dent in their resulting fame after they got back to Norway safely. Børge Ousland aborted his solo Antarctica traverse in 1995 at the South Pole, only to come back and do it the next year. And there are countless other examples. So if you ever face the hardest decision of them all, my advice is to consider what you’ve learned, reevaluate your purpose, and maybe live to fight another day.

The Hardest Decision of All

Thorsten

Keen hiker and ÖAV trekking and hiking guide, in love with Nansen. Owner of the most walk-averse rescue dog ever. Ice cream lover, kit junkie, runner and mad software genius.