When I wrote this story a few months ago I had in mind the circumstances of Scott’s last expedition to the South Pole and Mallory’s last expedition to Everest, both of which I’d read about recently. I originally called it simply ‘Cold’, but a blog post needs something more eye-catching. It’s quite short and contains scenes some readers might find distressing.
“I’m cold Grandad, can we go in now?”
I’m tempted to make a comment about how spoiled some children are today, compared to my childhood, but I bite my tongue. She is only six, after all. And I have to admit I’m ready for a coffee, liberally laced with Whiskey, accompanied by one of my daughter-in-law’s delicious scones. We’ve been snow balling and I’m starting to feel the pain from the chilblains in the toes my brain refuses to admit were removed a half century ago.
“Come on, then,” I say. “I’ll race you!”
She giggles. My racing days are long past and I need her pushing to help me propel the wheelchair up the icy hill. It’s electric motor is powerful enough, but on this surface wheel spin is always a risk. As we climb slowly towards the house my mind drifts back to that terrible final journey. My wheelchair is transformed into a sled drawn by huskies. My face is lashed by searing winds that even the deep fur hood of the Parka cannot completely protect against. Behind me, stretching back for miles, a trail of empty tins. If I am to survive I’ll need to start eating the dogs tonight.
The expedition had gone well enough to begin with. We’d reached the pole in record time. It was two days into the return leg that the storm hit. We hunkered down in our tents as the blizzard raged. When we finally crawled out, after three days and nights of frozen hell, it was to find the landscape transformed. We stared in horror. Not one of us dared to utter the thought that was on all our minds. The caches of food we’d left at intervals along our route would be buried. We had little chance of finding them. We couldn’t even be certain which direction to take.
The decision to split into two teams had been arrived at after a long and often heated argument. Tom’s team never made it. Their bodies were found just a few years ago, buried in the ice a hundred miles off the course that could have taken them to the anchorage; the course that I took with James and Peter.
I can only imagine what befell them. Did they suffer any more than us? At least they had the consolation of dying together. Neither of them had to complete the journey alone. After James was pulled into the crevasse trying to rescue Peter, I was on my own. I carried the only hope of reaching the anchorage and telling the story of our success and the terrible events that followed.
I was alone with those searing winds and the tins of sardines and bully beef that quickly became empty tins. Part of our planning had included the possibility of eating the dogs when supplies ran out. After the loss of James and Peter I thought I’d to be able to make it without having to resort to such extreme lengths. But the dogs needed food, too, if they were to perform their task.
Some people ask me how I chose which one to sacrifice. It’s a question I refuse to answer. Others want to know if we explorers become attached to the animals; the horses, the mules and, yes, the dogs, we rely on to take us to the furthest ends of the Earth.
I wonder why they feel the need to ask. Have they never owned an animal themselves? If they have they will know that animals have personalities. They become attached to us. To a dog we are part of the team. They trust us implicitly. Were we to be attacked they would defend us. Everyone who has ever walked a dog and met with another knows this.
Suffice to say it was an impossible choice, but one I had to make. Without it I would not be here. Minus hands and feet, of course; taken by those ancient enemies of polar explorers, frost bite and gangrene. But here, able to enjoy the company of my delightful grand daughter on this cold but bright winter’s day.