A Skier Goes For a Glacier Walk
I am a skier when on a glacier, first and foremost. In the mid-1980s, a twenty-plus day
ski tour on Baffin Island’s Penny Ice Cap and its finger-like extensions taught me to love the
clean, open white vistas and the gliding. Ah, the gliding.
There had been little grieving on that trip for glaciers lost. Our grieving and concerns
back then were more about specific global environmental hot-spots, acid rain, and threats of
nuclear armament escalation. Human-caused climate disruption would come to the public
attention first as ozone hole issues as I remember. Eroding glaciers were happening but
strangely, I remember a vagueness to cause and effect. I wonder now if I was just a skier in
denial or if there was a culture ambivalence or ignorance or both.
At the Cooper Hut and adjacent glacier in the Canadian Rockies, I had a feeling of the
hut being in the glacier. The glacier and I were alive and well and “becoming,” yet the wind
could rise up and blow us away off the glacier, hut and all. You had to rope up to use the
outhouse. It was sublime and exciting and for me, one of life’s pivotal touchstones. No grieving.
The glacier and I were thriving or so it seemed. The Cooper Hut was soon after
decommissioned, deemed unsafe. It was a thousand foot drop from that outhouse.
But that was then and this is now. Indeed, the 1980s Auyuittuq National Park guide book
for that Baffin glacier ski tour was called “The Land that Never Melts.” Indeed again, Auyuittaq
in Inuktitut, loosely translates to “the land that never melts.” In May 1984, that was our
impression. Frankenstein’s monster’s destination. A place to ponder Nansen’s Greenland
crossing or the shaman’s Qitdlarssuaq’s polar migration. Now that land — that glacier — melts.
I wonder if the park has felt compelled in recent years to rename the guide book. Friends have
recently been helicoptered off their summer hike up the Akshayuk Pass because of impossible
glacial melt rivers of the Penny Ice Cap. There is grieving here. Now, I stick to winter for more
than just a love of skiing. I don’t think I was aware that I may be avoiding grieving. Until Finse.
Among summer walkers in 2019, I was among grievers. I had looked forward to the day
hike to the toe of the Hardangerjokulen Glacier: the disruptive moraine activity, the
demarcations of recession. I had not prepared myself for the summer melt. The quiet time at the
melting glacial edge was sad. The hike back to Finse was quiet and still sad. In the lodge lobby,
I revisited old summer photographs of this glacier in the 1920s and 1950s. It was much larger.
In winter, when I was last in Finse, the snow fields and ice cover lake mask the recession; mask
the grieving. In summer, the recession and melt is in your face, like gum disease.
On that 1984 Baffin Island trip, we hatched a plan to pitch a piece to a popular magazine. My
friend Mike Beedell had stunning photographs and we wanted to tell folks about the white vistas,
the sun and shade contrasts, comfortable ways to haul loads by creating caches of food, the
feel of being on a glacier presumed to have spawn in the last ice age. Deep time, that.
It was an invitation to look at the place through us and through our modest humbled
adventure narrative. I was proud of the trip and proud of the writing. We were rejected, not
because of Mike’s photos or my writing, but because our travels were not “epic enough.” Now, if
we had crossed the Penny Ice Cap, A to B style in an epic endurance punishing dash or some
degree of heightened hardship, or a misadventure of some sort, then we would have been in
business. Smooth, lyrical, informed (how to enjoy this place comfortably) travel doesn’t sell. That
is what I was told.
I got over the rejection and was happy to see the work printed later on in Canada’s Arctic
magazine, UP HERE. The rejection has always lingered, though, in a menacing way; not for me
personally, but for all of us culturally, including now my fellow Finse grievers, watching a glacier
in distress on that fine, hot August day.
What that publisher wanted was a “look at me — you can’t do this” adventure narrative.
Something that might start like this: “there I was clinging by my ice axe for dear life to the
menacing glacier. Etc, etc.” The “look at me” is a direct message. The “you can’t do this” is more
a subtle gesture. What is preferred by publishers for adventure narratives is the grunt laden, ego
driven, superhero quest fueled at least in part by toxic masculinity. It sells. BUT, are other styles
of adventure narratives given a chance? A well-run trip with no major mishaps in a welcoming
place isn’t catchy enough. I have read one “superhero” adventure narrator, character builder,
self-aggrandizer state, “I revel in the punishment.” There are other kinds of avventure narratives
that do mention human disruptive climate change grieving, or the relational learning that can
come with embodied engagement with a place, or learning about the place vis-a-vis ecology
and/or heritage. There is character building in such narratives as well. “To serve and strive and
yield when the time is right. To BE with/in a place carries qualities of character building too. Our
culture needs to get to this point. Publishers and writers often are not helping here.
I do not bemoan the travels of such superhero others. People can go for punishment all
they like. I do bemoan the messaging of nature as a sparring partner; the glacier as a menacing
conquest of wilderness, a space to endure: to make oneself resilient, to “not to yield!” There is
little use for summer melt glacial grieving for the “look at me” type.
The narrative approach that invites the reader to experience a place through the writer
instills other moral traits. It is a place-responsive narrative that reveals nature as welcoming;
nature as home — home as a peopled place past and present. Nature is shown as a place (not
a space) to care about for a lifetime. Again there is character building here too. It is a quest for
relationality — to be part of or to belong to something and somewhere — not the conventional
character building notion of physicality and all that such hardship can bring. Can the two exist
together? I think so. But it is rare to see this in the writing of adventure narratives which seem
After a day of mountain skiing, a friend of mine, Pete Higgins, once asked me, “Is it
better to be a big person on a small landscape or a small person on a big landscape?” I’ve
never forgotten that one.
The ego-driven, “look-at-me” narrative in all the punishing, grunt glory, gives up a subliminal
message that says that the place — the small landscape — doesn’t really matter. Move onto the
next sparring partner/big ego coming through. But now, with glacier skiing and walking, the
landscape is truly getting small. The sparring partner is losing. Our ego is winning.
This is now the wrong message for humanity. Wait, was it ever the right message? But it
is confidently perpetuated. I’d like to think that, getting close to forty years later, that publisher
would accept the story Mike and I pitched. The truth is, we are still fed a heavy dose of
ego-driven adventure narratives that perpetuate our separation, our fears, our ego with little
We need to grieve.
“Nature as other,” we should now start to see, is problematic. We need to grieve,
embrace our nature, care with it and respond where and how we can. Nature as home is
ecologically centered. This dynamism with nature is a more accurate focus for us in the world.
Nature is not an opponent, gymnasium or even a cathedral. Nature is …well… natural; it is our
being, our life force, our spiritual impulse. We need this to be told in adventure narratives.
I’ll continue to ski on glaciers. Ahhhh, the gliding. After walking to the Hardangerjokulen
glacier, I have a visceral awareness of the grieving that accompanies such intense melting. The
skiing will never feel quite the same and that is a good thing. And I hope to see more and more
narratives that invite readers to look at a place through the writer. These stories project the
cultural messaging we need to advance wisely as we grieve a loss we can work to alleviate.
Written at Camp Pathfinder, Algonquin Park