By the time we set our second camp, clouds and flurries have merged sky and snow into a horizonless world -- a blank sheet of paper marked only by the dark lines and dots of our bodies and tents. We hunker down and wake to the same the next morning and the next, joke about the absurd brightness of our gear: "Have you seen Craig? He was here a minute ago. But then he put on that orange jacket and poof!" Q and Craig ski restlessly in circles around camp to test our sleds and investigate what it's like to navigate by GPS alone. They blur within a hundred feet, disappear. When they return, we mug for each other's cameras in the tent, scribble in journals, grow sick of our stench, eat too much sausage.
Who crossed places like this thousands of years ago, when the Ice Age opened the Bering land bridge onto North America from Asia? Craig says the people who came may not have known they were migrating, may have been simply exploring or following prey. How much more dangerous their experience must have been without the tools we enjoy -- Gore-Tex, precise maps, white gas, ice axes. And yet Craig suspects they were far better prepared than we could ever be. I laugh that our mantra should be WWABD: What Would the Ancient Beringians Do? Would they have waited out the storm? I ask. He's not sure.
To us, he says, this world is alien and inscrutable. But their survival would have depended on knowing its scents and signs, its weather and wind. Maybe they could smell the direction of the sea licking into Resurrection Bay, of green things growing, would have known they were closer to food and shelter by animal tracks in snow, a blown leaf melted into the crust.
Then, just like that, the clouds dissolve into a string of clear days that John dubs "the blue window." We finally make headway a few miles onto the ice, ski pack-free to the nunataks, whooping from the top of a small one where we sit on bare earth for the first time in a week. While Craig, Q and David climb a larger peak, I hunker with John in the lee of the first to draw -- traveling with my pencil those mountains and glaciers too far to reach in our brief visit, trying to remember them as if I had leaned against their broken rocks, struggled through their snow.
Late that night, as the sun sinks low and we pass around a Nalgene of tequila, Craig hands me a baggie of coppery brown dust from Utah's Bright Angel shale. He loves the desert so much that he has brought it with him, has flung a handful from the top of the second nunatak. As he tells me this, I mix some of the dust with melted snow in my palm and paint it across my sunburned cheeks, then his, then Q's -- the distance of our passage, from the red-rock Southwest where we live, to this icy, beautiful wasteland, closed to nothing in a few lines of mud, a red handprint in the snow.
A few days later, as we labor back down the trail towards our minivan and, eventually, the bars of Seward, I remember something I wrote during my last season of trail crew about fetching tools from 13,000 feet in the wake of a heavy winter storm. "After us: silence. Wind-sifted snow filled our tracks. When I glanced back at the mountain, my cold hands seemed suddenly small. And beneath my skin, the bones -- nothing but pebbles in this place of vast time, grinding down to wind and dust."
But now I feel more elated than fearful. How strange and wonderful the tiny enterprise of each our lives, the way everyday moments add up across weeks, years, generations, eons, to movement across mountain ranges, icefields, continents. How strange and wonderful that journeys that once took so long now happen in a matter of hours. That you can fall asleep on a frozen sea with the desert still smeared on your cheeks.