The 6th of August 1987 was the day before my 16th birthday. I had spent the previous night in a small 2-man tent on a patch of fine white sand at the bottom of a tumble of moraine at the side of an as-yet unnamed glacier. From the entrance to my tent I could look out across the ice-flecked waters of Raudfjorden and to the left the open Arctic Ocean and over the horizon, some 500 miles away, the Pole. After a hurried breakfast we climbed the glacier to the icefield beyond. Our destination, a previous unclimbed peak, lay off in the distance. This early in the morning the ice was still firm and we made swift progress. As we prepared for the final push our team leader turned to me and offered me the chance to lead. And so I did. A first ascent. Heart-pounding, I turned full circle. At that height, the icefields of north-western Svalbard stretched as far as the eye could see. From that height the only way was down. From the highs of polar exploration the only way was down. Down to the more prosaic concerns of teenage life. I didn’t bring my heart back with me. I’d left it in the Arctic.
I went back to the Arctic again three years later. And there, among the wolves, the hares and the musk oxen, I found my heart on the tundra. But, returning south once more, a piece of it stayed behind. I swore I’d return. But I never did. Ever since, I’ve felt the hollow sensation of its absence. I had dreamed about the Arctic since I read about the exploits of the early explorers as a wee boy. I never dreamt it would claim a part of me so profoundly. So profoundly that many experiences since have felt a trifle hollow. This missing part of me isn’t filled by the whisky of which I’m so fond. Or by going up mountains to ski. It’s where I am when I’m not here. On a train, but not here. In an office, but not here. In the canyons of the city, I’m most often there and not here.
The Arctic I saw is long gone. Cruise ships now visit the fjord where I first lost my heart. The tourists return more reliably than the sea ice. And gone with the ice are the seals. And with them, the bears. The boy is gone too and I don’t know how to go back.