My last week on the Ngozumpa glacier and its large supraglacial lake was a unique experience. In recent months, when working with a team, I set a pretty demanding work schedule. But when working on my own, I kind of let my body dictate the schedule. That’s because when working alone, there is a lot more at stake. Being strong, physically and mentally, is important. Keeping your wits about you, crucial.
So, what’s it like out there, on your own? Well, for one, it’s quite the surreal experience. You feel as if the surrounding terrain – the soaring white peaks – have been photoshopped in. The sky is a darker blue. Sensory overload! The silence is imposing – at least until you hear the ice cracking underfoot, or strange “squid” noises coming from the nether regions of the lake. Your senses are more attuned to your surroundings.
When I first ventured out onto the partially frozen glacial lake, I was cautious and wary. I tested the ice cover with an ice axe, then an ice drill. And I brought along a lifevest and safety rope, anchoring myself to shore, when attempting to remove instruments in the ice/water. I trusted my previous experience to guide me and, if in doubt, I’d either get off the ice, or crawl, creating more surface area in case of cracking. I sometimes had music playing from shore, to keep me company and sane.
The nice thing about working in this way is that you are free to do what you want, when you want, how you want, and only if it feels safe – you have to trust your instincts. The latter I particularly enjoy, as it’s easy to get “soft” when living in civilization for too long. I also like not necessarily having much guidance out in the field. Have I made mistakes out there? Sure. Have I learned from them? An unbelievable amount; more than I would have if someone was standing over me, telling me what to do. I’ve seen my abilities and attitude towards challenging situations change since my first time out on the ice more than 2 years ago. More confidence and detachment (not getting emotional if instruments fail), along with healthy doses of humility when things don’t go according to plan (more times than I care to count!).
Though I enjoy the company of others while up here, I also appreciate when I can spend time on the glacier, get to know it better, on my own terms and my own timeline. I’ve said it before, but it continues to ring true for me. When you can just sit, watch and listen, you learn so much more. The data – in number form – that I’ve collected are invaluable. But, giving the glacier a “face” from all the imagery and time-lapse sequences, I find important, too.
Do I take risks while out here? Yes. I’ll be the first to admit that. But they’re calculated risks, not reckless. My years of experience in the outdoors – from soloing in Greenland when I was 21, to now soloing in the Himalaya at age 27 – guide me and keep me safe. After all, I have much to live for and a special someone to come back to.