Bleak Streak

Trapped! On the tundra! and having a cold, hard time...

Oct 1, 2005
Outside Magazine

A FEW YEARS AGO, a magazine approached me to write about a quirky and very rich British adventurer who was determined to cross the ocean by car. He planned to put in at the Bering Strait, a 53-mile-wide gap of ice-choked sea. The story sounded like fun—Shackleton meets Chitty Chitty Bang Bang—and I went to the British countryside to observe a test of the adventurer's customized floatable steed, which looked like a Zamboni mounted on barrels. I should have known something was off. The vehicle entered a farm pond and sank. I spent two days standing in a muddy field while the adventurer, undaunted, struggled to drag the machine ashore. I petted some sheep.

Two months later, I arrived in a tiny Inupiat village on the strait. In short order, I learned that the adventurer had offered a documentary film crew exclusive access to his trials and triumphs, and that my presence in the village was little welcomed. I was tempted to high-tail it home, but the weather—lashing horizontal winds, whirling snowdrifts, sub-zero temperatures—meant that planes could be grounded for weeks.

No doubt the remoteness of the setting influenced my mood. But I experienced a crushing flare-up of the kind of childhood wound that comes from being left off the team. I had some practical problems, too. The adventurer and his crew had taken over the only guesthouse in the village—the weapons-studded compound of a bearish Vietnam vet—and I wandered the outpost's single lane in search of accommodation. A sorrowful-looking man of around 40 opened his door to me. His name was Echo. He could offer me an old, stained mattress on the floor of a storage room. It was as cold as a meat locker.

I liked Echo. He was as depressed as I was. He spent his days in a monotony of idleness. At night his friends would drop by and play cards until dawn, chain-smoking. I smoked a good deal, too, and did nothing to discourage the card players' mockery of the adventurer.

So it went, until one morning, a few weeks into my stay, I woke to find clear skies and still winds. I strayed from Echo's house and trudged to the frozen beach. The sea looked like the world's biggest, most dangerous Slurpee. I was elated to be outdoors, and to know that the clear skies meant my plane would come soon to take me away. I decided to celebrate by climbing the hulking, ice-encased mountain at the edge of the village.

The footing was a bit tricky, but as I climbed, the view of the strait was glorious. I saw Russia, floating on the sea below. That's when I slipped. My boots flew out from beneath me. I slid, and kept sliding, and accepted that my last moments on earth would be spent as a missile sailing across tundra.

A few hundred feet down, my backpack got snagged on some stones, and I came to a halt. I traversed the slope on all fours in search of a safe place to stand. In this proud posture, I heard a sound overhead. It was the adventurer, hovering in his helicopter. He shouted down to me. "You OK, mate?" I gave him a thumbs-up. He looked toward me with his toothy, charismatic smile. "Join us for dinner tonight, mate?" I nodded and waved him on. Then I crawled back to the village, packed my bags, and whiled away the night with Echo, the card players, and a giant bag of Doritos.

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