Ben Horton: Calm after the Arctic storm
Story & Photos: Ben Horton
February 1, 2019
When you're training for a trip to the Arctic that you think will be your biggest challenge yet, and it turns out the training is the toughest part. After being pushed to the limit of his endurance in blizzard conditions across impossible terrain, National Geographic photographer Ben Horton discovered there's comfort in the monotony of survival, with companions working towards the same goal.
It was the final 32km of a 240km training race in Arctic conditions. We were almost home. Ahead should have been flat, hard-packed ice for our sleds to glide across. Instead, the blizzard we had been battling had piled up snowdrifts like sand dunes. Night had fallen. After an unscheduled three days out in the elements, searching for our injured team mate, we were desperate to finish. As the storm fluctuated we glimpsed the occasional light of the city, calling us home. For hours through the dark, we pushed the sled over drift after drift, and at one point, I collapsed behind the sled from exhaustion, hanging on as it dragged me through the snow. How had I got to this point, and how is it that it would end up leading to one of the happiest times of my life?
Trip of a lifetime
It had all started with a goal: to cross 2,300km of Arctic ice and bring back a first-hand account of the effects of global warming to the world. I was the trip’s photographer, sent by National Geographic, with Arctic explorers Sarah and Eric McNair-Landry, Iditarod Trail racer Sigrid Ekran, Arctic sailor Tobias Thorleifson, adventurer Sam Branson, and our mentor, Arctic legend Will Steger.
Training on the Arctic Circle in Baffin Island, Canada, I soon started to question whether I should be on the expedition. I wasn’t in shape to ski 25km a day, nor was I used to dealing with extreme sub-zero temperatures. Even working out what to wear was a steep learning curve. Too many layers, you begin to sweat, which turns to ice. Too few layers, and well, you’re cold and miserable as well. I needed efficient, lightweight layers and only two sets for the entire trip, due to space restrictions. I chose merino wool because it stays warm even when it’s wet, and it has a natural ability to kill bacteria. I needed to minimize body odor if I was going to be in this gear for two months.
Our greatest test
With the preliminary training and planning done, it was time to test our efficiency on a race from Iqaluit to a small town called Kimmirut, 240km away. The race was a “there-and-back” trip, over a mountain range, against five other teams. We felt ready, our dogs were getting better at heeding our commands and we were getting comfortable with the environment. What we hadn’t anticipated was having to do without skis, following the historic conditions endured by dogsledders. Finding this out on race day was a blow. Unlike the other teams, we were two people to a sled, not one, and our dogs were not ready for heavy loads, so one of us would be running alongside the sled for 480km. I had never run in my life.
Despite this added challenge, we set off, and the first half was testing, but manageable. I was certain we’d be able to make the return trip with style. But then disaster struck. One of the Inuit safety crew went missing and it took three days to find him. Incredibly, besides a broken leg, mild frostbite and dehydration, he was in good condition even after laying in the snow for three days in below-freezing conditions after falling off a cliff. During that time, we had run low on food for ourselves and for the dogs, and a massive storm had begun to build against the mountains.
The storm would end up being the worst blizzard this region had experienced in 16 years, dropping 2m of fresh powder on the ice. The Arctic rarely sees such deep snow. Now our trail was waist-deep powder for the humans, and the dogs were essentially swimming.
The final push
Halfway back, we ran out of dog food. Getting home fast was our only option. This meant covering 120km in a single push. The day was a blur. I was in the lead, nose buried in the GPS tracker. We needed to stay as close as possible to the original track to avoid falling into ravines. And then night fell. The final push. Those wind-deposited mountains of ice and snow. The only choice but to keep going. The dogs were exhausted, collapsing into a deep sleep each time we stopped to rest. But then something changed. They sensed we were getting close to home. A raw energy took hold of them and we cruised through the last stage of the 18-hour push. The whole town was there to welcome us, but we were beyond words. We put the dogs to bed and wandered to our own in silence.
Happiness in the most unlikely place
One month later in the High Arctic, a few hundred kilometers from the North Pole, on the edge of Ellesmere Island, I was alone, skiing along a mountain ridge. I had covered 60km already that day, and it was one of our rest days. I’d been following wolf tracks in hopes of capturing a photo of the rare white Arctic wolves. Thinking back to the stress of the race, this was a breeze. The sun was now shining 24 hours a day, my body was tuned to the challenge of covering massive distances.
Home was in a single-walled tent in a place where the temperatures dropped to as low as -40°C. When that happened, to stay warm, we had to either be in constant motion, or curled up inside four layers of sleeping bags. We ran or cross-country-skied 25km a day alongside 500kg sleds being pulled by 10 mighty huskies. Our breath would freeze to the tent walls each night, and then fall off, to be collected up each morning as snow.
Being happy and content seems impossible in an environment like this, but in truth, I was happier than ever. It makes me wonder if perhaps we really don’t understand what it is that brings us joy. We look for happiness in comfort and warmth, and by surrounding ourselves with friendship and love, but we can find it with only a well-defined goal and trusted companions.
Up here, there was nothing really to worry about – no taxes, jobs, drama. The main focus, survival. The goal, to chase the horizon, cover ground and bring home a story. One of the most improbable places you can imagine to be happy, but, I’ve never found that peace again. Maybe it’s time for a new challenge, something else that I don’t think I can do to push me to my breaking point. Maybe, my happiness came from overcoming a challenge that even I didn’t believe I could.