Parry of the Arctic II

by Katie Parry (France)

I didn't expect to find Norway


I pause with just my head outside the tent, daunted by the lunar landscape, but cabin fever pushes me on. Blinded by the ice crystals that dance across my vision, I catch my foot on the guy rope. The tent holds firm, but I do not. I end up sprawled across the grey, jagged rocks of the moraine. Swallowing back tears, I lie still for a long moment. I have pinned so much on this trip, but nothing is going right. I am running out of time. I get to my knees and realise that I am facing the direction where the glacier must be. This act of impromptu genuflection feels oddly fitting; somewhere above the fog are the blue ice and deadly crevasses that have long exercised a powerful hold over me. My earliest memory is of the map that hung in our sitting room. I am nestled into my father’s arms, his not-yet-grey beard tickling the top of my head. He is telling me about our ancestor, who led four voyages to the Arctic. “These are named after him.” He is gesturing to a swathe of land above Canada. My knowledge of letters is limited to my name and I feel a swell of pride as I recognise it in the elegant italic letters that drape ‘Parry Islands’ like a banner across the roof of the world. For my first sleepover my parents pack me off with a map duvet cover; I remember waking up homesick and running my fingers over the letters of my name until, soothed by something I was too young to name, I again submitted to the tidal pull of sleep. Fifteen years later, the wall map has passed to my sister and the duvet has disintegrated, but I am within a hundred miles of the spot from which my ancestor made his assault on the North Pole. It has cost me my entire life savings and—as I crouch against my tent, sucking gravel fragments from an ugly rent in my hand—I wonder for the first time if it has been worth it. In my two weeks in Svalbard the weather has prevented any attempt to climb a mountain or even spend significant time on the ice. The only event left in my day is another meal of rehydrated lamb curry, spiced with the aluminium tang of my army-issue mess tin. I set off down the spit of rocks. My reading and dreaming had promised me the soaring sense of freedom that comes with being surrounded by serrated peaks and endless sky. Instead, the low visibility and uniform greyness of the clouds, rocks and sea turn the landscape into a featureless prison. Dejection wheedles its way under my thermal layers and settles clammily against my skin. This is supposed to be my big adventure, and perhaps even the major turning point of my adult life. I had hoped that following in the blurred footsteps of my ancestor would somehow bring back the sense of belonging and of forward motion that came so effortlessly in childhood. Instead, it is as the sense of inertia that followed me through my colourless London life has taken solid form in my surroundings. The only clues to my whereabouts are the chunks of ice that dot the bay. The nearest—around 20 metres offshore and 7 metres in diameter—is like a perfect miniature Mount Fuji. The ghost of an idea strikes, and, without conscious decision, I strip down to my underwear and stride out through the waist-deep water. My head knows that the sea is just a few degrees above freezing, but my nerve-endings register only disbelief. Close-up, the iceberg is surprisingly steep. On my first over-eager attempt I am summarily deposited back into the water. Lesson learnt, I inch upwards on my belly until I reach the summit. It is my first arctic peak. My nineteenth-century explorer would doubtless think me a silly little girl, but I realise that I am laughing—a long crow of delighted defiance aimed at Mother Nature herself. Sometimes we have to make our own adventures.