The Expedition Amundsen Series: Part 3
When a 30-mile ski mission turns sour, partnership is everything.
Crouched in the snow, headlamps glaring red inside our Bothy Bag, Dan and I were temporarily sheltered from the raging blizzard outside. For the third time that day, we had been forced inside the cramped, emergency shelter. With shaking hands, I unscrewed the top of our Thermos.
“Cocoa?” I asked, pouring a cupful and handing it to Dan as he nodded. I rummaged in my stuff sack for the cheese. I abandoned the knife and gnawed into the mostly frozen chunk. I switched between cramming cheese and pieces of chocolate into my mouth until Dan finished his cup of cocoa and then we swapped food items. At the same time, we both began to shiver violently I could barely screw the top back on the Thermos.
“I’ve never shivered like this,” Dan chattered.
“I’ve read it’s a good thing. It means your body is working on warming up,” I replied, having no idea where I was pulling this from. I was saying it to make myself feel better. I took deep, calming breaths, picturing a raging fire burning inside of me.
We were eleven hours into a ski that would turn into a fifteen-hour epic journey. It was a route we’d been eyeing for several years that moved up and down drainages and danced along ridges 30-some-odd miles at 10,000 feet near our house. We needed a training day focused on endurance in our preparation for The Expedition Amundsen and with good coverage, a couple inches of snow in the forecast and little to no wind, it seemed like a decent time to try it.
As we started off, nothing indicated the slog in which we were embarking. Waxing was easy, breaking trail a breeze, it was snowing but not dumping, and the wind was nonexistent. Four hours into the ski however, the snow and wind picked up and we realized we were in for something much greater. The snow had turned into a tempest, and we were now in a regular pattern of breaking trail for ten minutes before swapping turns. We had yet to see a single person, and the trails were becoming less and less discernible. After missing a crucial turn, we added five miles to our ski on a trail that hadn’t been skied in weeks.
Dan has these incredibly long legs that make him perfect for trail breaking. He sinks beautifully up to his shins, and like a loping gazelle, simply keeps moving. But this five-mile detour crushed him. Even after taking a Bothy Bag break, I could sense his dropping energy levels.
It is an amazing thing about your partner in life being your adventure partner - Dan and I know each other so well, verbal communication is not necessary. Changes in demeanor are noticed quickly when you know your partner. Small nuances that, if I didn’t sleep next to him every night, I might not catch. He slouches to the right a bit more when he is bonking. He becomes quiet, responds in single syllables and vehemently disagrees when I suggest a food break. These signs tell me it’s time for a break. We devoured an entire chocolate bar, several hundred calories worth of cheese, a massive cookie, water and hot chocolate. The Bothy Bag reached a balmy 35 degrees and it was the warmest we’d been all day.
"...with headlamps off, it was pitch black, and with them on, all we could see was snow."
Hours later, dusk came, the snow was falling fast and furious, the wind was ripping, and the temperature was dropping quickly. Navigation was extremely challenging—with headlamps off, it was pitch black, and with them on, all we could see was snow. We traveled a quarter of a mile in half an hour as we struggled to stay on course and push through 20-foot snowdrifts. My hip flexors screamed and my mind wanted to panic at the thought of getting lost in the dark and having to spend the night outside. I shoved the panic down, shoved the cold down, and shoved the hunger down. These are the times when mental toughness is key.
"My hands were unworkable stubs and my mental clarity was failing. My body knew it needed to push, to move, because stopping was just not an option"
As I deteriorated, Dan quickly caught on. This is another thing about our partnership that makes us work so well together: when one of us is truly struggling, the other always steps up. Dan says he can tell when I’m hurting as my stride changes. It becomes short and choppy, my shoulders rock, and if I’m pale, it’s time for food. We ended up in the Bothy Bag for the third time.
The timeline after this stop is blurry in my memory. The two hours it took to cover the next two miles were lumpy and discombobulated. My hands were unworkable stubs and my mental clarity was failing. My body knew it needed to push, to move, because stopping was just not an option. As we crested what felt like an insurmountable rise and my headlamp beam illuminated the trail head sign, relief swept over me.
“Dan, Dan!” I hollered over the blizzard. “We made it!”
“We still have to get down to town,” he shouted as we tore into the last of our food before beginning the descent.
“Yeah, but I know this road!” I had never been so happy to be back on track.
Dan and Elaine Vardamis are self-proclaimed “Nordic nerds” living nearly off-the-grid in Eldora, Colorado. They were married at the top of Loveland Ski Area in 2010, have skied at least one day 75 months in a row, have podiumed in races like the Grand Traverse and obviously like to go on really long adventures. This series will follow their preparation and execution of The Expedition Amundsen. Track their training on Instagram @nomadwolf360 and @elainevardamis