I don’t know what to do…
Coast Mountains, February 2017
I’ve led us into a trap of menacing, hanging seracs. Crevasses gape everywhere with dark, endless pits and narrow snow bridge teeth that I ski across while holding my breath. The last snow bridge collapsed with a resounding “whoomp,” dropping me an inch but holding. It’s the whiteout. I thought this way would work, but it keeps getting worse, every ski-length forward is more dangerous than the last. My navigation tools are useless, all I have is luck and intuition. And Mum, tied half a rope-length behind. My vision blurs with tears of frustration.
Mum looks as calm and optimistic as ever. She’s waiting for me to decide – no sympathy there. I take off my skis and clamber up a neighbouring serac to try get a view out of this enclosed white world, some hint of where to go.
It’s been weeks of traversing already, so much struggle, and we’ve covered only a tiny fraction of the route – Squamish to Skagway. Something like this happens almost every day now, the weather is not our friend. I’m so damn tired of feeling desperate and scared and angry… and responsible.
Czechoslovakia, April 1984
Don’t look down…
We’ve come too far, sacrificed everything to get here. Everything depends on them, these foreign border officers. If they look down, we will go to jail. One glance from the comforts of their solid stone building to the river below and they will spot two sodden, desperate refugees flailing urgently upstream. One glance and we will have nothing. They will send us back with no opportunity ever again.
Our lives, and the life of this tiny baby I’m trying to keep warm and alive inside me, hinge on luck and intuition… this moment decides everything that is to come.
We can do this. My husband Hak and I struggle up a river canyon, our backs pressed against the wall. Under the gushing snowmelt of waist-deep water, my foot meets a slick river rock and despite Hak’s firm hand in mine, I go down. The icy, springtime snowmelt envelops me, but other
than the splash, I don’t make a single sound. Hak helps me up, I can see the strain and fear in his eyes. Now the only dry thing left on me is my handmade wool tuque. I take it off and hold it over my pregnant belly, trying to keep my unborn child warm as I start to shiver through the early stages of hypothermia.
We are so close to freedom. Together Hak and I inch upstream as close as possible to the stone wall directly beneath the border guard station. Upstream is Switzerland, safety, freedom, opportunity, a new life. I take another step… This child will be born free.
Coast Mountains, February 2017
A little over three decades after my escape from communist Czechoslovakia, I watch Martina snowplow through the white of the oncoming storm, down the remote Klattasine Glacier. She is stubborn, a little naïve, and optimistic… until she is not.
But slowly, she is learning the power of luck and intuition, the power behind a single moment. Just a few hours ago, I watched her meltdown, fighting to lead us out of a maze of towering cerulean seracs and crevasses. The meltdowns are a frequent occurrence these days, but she always gets through it, always finds a solution and moves us on.
Arriving at Skagway has always been irrelevant, I am living my dream and finding my freedom every day out here. And now, so is Martina.
Skagway seems impossibly far away, but not as far away as Canada felt from behind the iron curtain of Czechoslovakia’s suffocating constrains of communism and propaganda. Over the decades, I’ve learned to enjoy the journey, that with determination, can take us anywhere, let us do anything. I am here in the mountains to experience the entire process with Martina, and I love it.
I love it, even though we are often cold and hungry, and faced with danger. I love the perfect, stellar snowflakes that land on my sleeve, I love the jagged ridgeline that extends east off the ice encrusted Klattasine summit. Distance means nothing, out here there is only this moment and the next.
Life is a teetertotter of conflicting opposites – darkness and light, happiness and fear. I love watching my daughter learning these sublime lessons. For now, the wind has dried and frozen her tears.
Coast Mountains, May 2017
Three days. Three, goddamn days stuck in this unending storm on a lonely pass, essentially right on the border of BC and Alaska. For three days, the view has alternated between the inside of the tent, the inside of the cook shelter, and the gloomy white tempest outside of both. We need visibility to move on and we don’t have it. Over 200 millimetres of precipitation have dropped in some form or other over the preceding days. Sometimes snow, sometimes rain. Sleet, graupel, hail, take your pick; it piles up around us creating extreme avalanche hazard and masking crevasses. We’re so close now, just a month away from Skagway and the completion of a dream which had finally started to feel achievable. Now I feel anxious, trapped and cagey, stuck in this lonesome spot.
My thoughts drift to the true start of this journey. Me, sitting in an airport on my way to Colorado to work, while my mum and sister canoed in the Arctic. I remember realizing I’d never done anything truly difficult in my life, never had to fight for my freedom or push myself beyond comfort. That moment, feeling something missing, I wondered, Could I accomplish something remarkable? Could I ski tour from Squamish, BC to Skagway, Alaska? Would Mum join me?
A month later she says yes without a moment’s hesitation.
I went back. I forgot to bring the box of photos from my childhood, so I returned to find them – to Czechoslovakia. I don’t remember how I got back, but I found the box and now I’m at the airport in Prague ready to board a plane to my new home, in Vancouver, Canada. That’s when I see them, the Státní bezpečnost communist police. There are three of them and they spot me just as I notice them from the corner of my eye. Instantly, they are running straight for me.
I’m filled with paralyzing, uncontrollable panic. Why in hell did I come back here?! For some stupid photos? What was I thinking?! I’m confused and terrified and panicked, with only one thought; RUN! It’s like running through syrup, slow motion and clumsy. They catch me in an instant and throw me into a van. I’m a mess, sobbing and pleading with them to let me go, I need to get on the plane, I need to get back to my family! A hard man with cold eyes and an even colder voice tells me I’m not getting on that plane. I’m going to jail and I will never, ever see my children and husband again…
… I wake, screaming in my bed in Vancouver, the second time that week. My husband Hak and every refugee I know who escaped the Iron Curtain has these night terrors, these horrible recurring dreams always with the same theme: suddenly back in Czechoslovakia searching for something silly like a book, or photo, or trinket. Always, we are caught by the authorities and told we will be trapped forever, separated from our families and the new lives we fought so hard to build.
For Hak and I, these nightmares continue consistently until 1989, when coinciding with the collapse of communism in Czechoslovakia, they stop abruptly, forever.
Coast Mountains, May 2017
Martina told me today she feels trapped here. It’s been three days now and I can see she is anxious about running out of food again and managing the hazards the storm is bringing. How can I tell her that this storm is not a cage, there are no real boundaries here? This storm, this remote pass in the mountains, is not lonely. This here, right now, is freedom in every sense.
Stuck in a tent in the mountains with my daughter, I want to explain this freedom. How do I articulate that the sound of graupel and wind against the tent walls is the sweetest sound in the universe compared to a cold steely voice telling me that I will never see my children and husband again? I look over at her, staring impatiently at the tent ceiling, and I begin: Your dad and I had these dreams when we first escaped….
This storm, this remote pass in the mountains, is not lonely. This here, right now, is freedom in every sense.
Coast Mountains, June 2017
We are days away from the end now. The mountains and the weather never really did cut us a break in the end, and by this point I’ve stopped expecting them to.
Even now, a few days before the summer solstice, it’s snowed over a metre and stormed every day this week. We skied right through it, the difficulties are part of our daily life and we’ve learned to deal with them as a team, until they don’t seem like difficulties any more, they just are.
Over the past six months, Mum and I have adapted to our environment, we’ve compromised goals, and fought for our lives when we had to. I once heard that real adventure starts when everything else goes wrong, and after almost 2,300 kilometres of ski touring, I understand that completely. The difficulties are what make life interesting, and finding the beauty despite the chaos is what makes it worthwhile.
I no longer expect suffering and serenity to be doled out in equal doses and I’ve learned that the universe does not, in fact, owe me anything. If I want serenity and beauty I need to look for them, and the truth is they are everywhere. In the odd moments I can’t find them, I just need to look at Mum, smiling at a freshly fallen snowflake on her glove.
Coast Mountains, June 2017
Months have passed since those first gruelling weeks where Martina struggled with dealing with hardship every single day. So many times, I saw how much she wanted to give up but somehow persevered anyway.
Proudly, I’ve watched her grow and learn while traversing these mountains. Together, we have been totally immersed in the freedom my husband and I fought to reach and sacrificed so much for. Arriving at Skagway has always been irrelevant, I am living my dream and finding my freedom every day out here. And now, so is Martina.