By late February, however, a novel coronavirus was beginning to spread beyond the borders of China. In the midst of a growing storm, the team set sail, only to return to a world forever changed by a growing crisis. Watch the film “Changing Course” and read Mary’s words on her life-changing adventure.

Video: Anne Cleary & Florence Gross

In August of 2019, I got the most exciting Facebook message of my life. It was from an Icelandic friend, Siggi, who I met during a spring ski trip in Iceland a few years earlier. He owns a sail-to-ski company called Aurora Arktika and he usually runs trips near his home in the WestFjords. 

But this time, he had another idea: He suggested that we (myself and a few friends) take his sailboat for three weeks the following March to sail from Iceland to Greenland and explore ski zones on the west coast. We’d get an amazing trip out of it, and he, in return, would get beta on where to bring clients in the future. We, of course, said yes. 

After months of planning, assembling a group of skiers, sorting budgets and logistics, I was nervously anticipating the four-day sail crossing of the Denmark Strait between Iceland and Greenland. I was also beginning to worry about the novel Coronavirus that was moving beyond China’s borders and imagining how this could impact our trip. I texted my friend and co-planner, Keree Smith, on February 27th, six days before I left Salt Lake City: 

“Ps I’m getting nervous about Corona virus.” At the time, I questioned even sending the text. It seemed silly—even a little ridiculous—the virus still felt like such a distant threat. 

Once our group of eight had assembled in the small town of Ísafjörður, where we’d be setting sail, the virus situation started to escalate quickly. We weren’t able to leave immediately—we were forced to wait a few days for gale force winds to die down. When we finally had a weather window, but also had the first news of the rapidly growing outbreak in Italy and Spain of travel bans, and of Denmark considering closing Greenland’s borders … we set sail into the unknown.

The search for new rock is the ultimate lesson in curiosity and acceptance. You walk aimlessly through the woods for hours on end motivated by this vision of something in your head, an idealistic representation of the perfect boulder problem or the perfect cliff band, and you never find it. But on the search, you usually find something else. Maybe it’s something abstract, like peace of mind or a solution to a life problem that’s been occupying head space. Sometimes you find something physical, like a piece of rock that inspires you or a new vantage point from which to explore the world around. Chances are what you find is never what you were looking for, but it’s exactly what you were meant to discover.

We left the harbor on Friday the 13th in a blizzard and 40-knot winds—what our Polish deckhands Wojtek and Piotr called “sailable weather.” Not being an ocean person (growing up in land-locked Utah, I’m much more comfortable in the mountains), I wasn’t excited about the four-day crossing. I was scared of being in the middle of the North Atlantic in early March, especially in the midst of a storm. But the crossing was a mere fraction of the trip; most of our days would be spent assessing the snowpack and skiing as many of the remote mountains and couloirs as we safely could. Plus, knowing that this strange new virus was spreading around the world, it seemed like being on a sailboat in the middle of the ocean might actually be one of the safest places to wait out the pandemic. The boat was stocked with three months of provisions and we would be on our own for nearly three weeks, effectively self-quarantining, meaning that we wouldn’t be spreading any potential sickness onboard to the people of Greenland when our trip was over.

skiing is hard

Once the Aurora left the protection of the harbor, I entered an incapacitated dream-state of seasickness that would last for the next 48 hours. With the boat pitching and rolling, I finally made the effort to lift my head off the pillow, only to see Julia, in her bunk a few feet away, spewing puke into a bucket. I slammed my head back down, not wanting to see or smell the vomit for fear I would join her. Every movement was a struggle: sipping water took several minutes to prepare for and recover from, stumbling five feet down the hallway to the bathroom felt like the most demanding physical effort I’d ever endured. I couldn’t sit up long enough to pull on waterproof pants and a jacket to go on deck, so I was stuck in the cabin with my vomiting boatmates.

We had returned to a very different world than we’d left behind just a few days earlier. Travel bans were in full effect, stock markets were crashing, virus chaos was mounting, and we knew we needed to get home sooner than later. But that wasn’t easy, because flights were changing and being cancelled by the minute. Our departure kept getting delayed but we finally boarded and took off in a blizzard. Landing in JFK, New York, the flight was met by medical workers in masks. They took my temperature and asked if I had shown any flu symptoms in the past 14 days. The airport was eerily empty. 

The privilege of returning home safely and with relative ease, to a healthy family, felt immense compared to what communities were going through in Italy, Spain and Iran. As the virus reaches its next stage in most areas around the world—with gradual reopenings after weeks or months of lockdown—I’m increasingly grateful we turned around when we did. Greenland will still be there, and we’re more eager than ever to explore its wild, remote mountains, when the time is right. 

* Hayat tested negative for COVID-19 and Pneumonia. She had over-worked herself leading up to the trip and was suffering from a bad case of the seasonal flu. She has since made a full recovery.