Travelling over 560km across Greenland with the Hvitserk group of seven other adventurers from Norway, Denmark and Sweden, was a truly fantastic and memorable experience.
The whole environment.. skiing on those days when everything was just so completely still and you could hear a pin-drop… Through that vast expanse of just ice and snow around for hundreds of miles in any direction. Seeing the occasional flock of geese as they flew over, and even small snow buntings popping over to visit our encampments. Going through those whiteouts where you feel like you are floating in a void, and dealing with the temperatures as they dropped and made your fingers go numb with the cold. It was all very humbling and a privilege, being in the middle of this raw, harsh, beautiful and pristine place. And making it to the other side!
The whole experience was made even more amazing by the fantastic team we had with our group. Eight very different people who had not really known each other before the expedition – and it was absolutely tremendous!! Travelling across the ice, learning something new from everyone not just every day, but every hour… (especially with my dodgy “skiing” technique! hahah!)… facing the challenges together, working as a team to get through that rough icefall and move on over that ice. Enjoying good laughs and jokes together, and the lunches and dinners we were able to have as a group outside the tent when the weather permitted. Singing along as we skied – I will never forget our rendition of Bohemian Rhapsody as we sped along to the final glacier! And our tent-to-tent sing-along as we awaited the helicopter, really helping as we faced another night down there in the rain and gloom. I enjoyed every moment and the whole month was incredibly special. Everyone in the team helped make what was truly a tough challenge into something that almost seemed effortless and smooth… and completely unforgettable.
Back in the UK now, and it’s great being here, being in the warm and comfy bed! And coffee!!!! But I miss the ice, and I miss the team. Looking forward to getting back out there again, to staying in touch, and who knows, doing more expeditions with the team in the future!
We were lucky with the weather and conditions over the full course of the journey. A couple of days’ worth of total whiteouts made navigation a little tricker, with some… interesting diversions from the main course witnessed… and also a couple of days with colder temperatures and stronger winds. Winds that meant we had to put our sleds parallel alongside each other rather than one behind the other as otherwise they just got blown upside down. One day saw a windchill factor of around -39C, making it slightly harder to ensure that our fingers stayed warm. I was pretty happy that managed to keep everything reasonably under control, though had to move from my lighter mittens to the big down-filled mitts to make sure that stayed okay as I could feel the fingers getting colder as we travelled. They took longer than what I would have liked to warm back up. On previous nights in the tent it had been warm enough to fire up the stove and eat without gloves, but our fingers quickly became numb when doing that as the temperatures plummeted. Definitely nice to get in the sleeping bag at the end of a long day!
Our daily distances started to increase further as we started the slow descent from 2,500m. The sleds had become lighter as we ate our way through our supplies and our best day was around 35km or so as we skied for around 11 hours. Fortunately, we didn’t have to have any other long days and we generally managed 30km or so on normal 9-hour days without too much effort. The plateau was so high, we couldn’t see any of the eastern coast mountains for many days as they were all much lower than where we were skiing. They only started to reveal themselves about two days or so before we reached the end. It was a big moment as we saw the first summit peaking up in the distance ahead of us. Then it was just amazing seeing more mountains appearing as we got lower and lower, and then seeing the coast and all the sea ice and icebergs floating their way calmly along through the water.
For the last night on the icecap we camped around 35km away from the end of the glacier at around 1,200m. We didn’t want to camp further down due to the risk of crevasses. We knew that snow was due to start mid-afternoon the following day so we started our final descent at 2am to have the best possible visibility. And it was stunning. Breathtaking views of the mountains on the other side of the glacier and the sun rising, and great skiing conditions. Before we knew it we had already completed 20km in time for lunch. Almost straight after we ate, however, we entered pretty dense cloud making it harder to see the best path, and we entered a maze of melt water channels that took a while to escape from. Narrow paths alongside deep chasms where the glacial melt water would flow as the temperatures increased; not places you would like to fall into. We tried to work our way through to a waypoint which had been clear on previous years, but it was impossible to see through the cloud and eventually we had to turn back and try a different way. Fortunately with the second route to a different waypoint, it became clearer and safer, and again it was full speed ahead and before we knew it, the end of the glacier and the end of our expedition was ahead of us… We had done it!!!
Only not quite..!
We were meant to get picked up by helicopter from that ending point but the bad weather meant that it was cancelled for three consecutive nights… frustrating!!! But we were able to make the most of it, despite it raining and being pretty miserable at the bottom, having sing-alongs between the different tents and relaxing as much as we could, with one of us always on polar bear watch (seeing polar bear tracks before arriving helped enforce the need for that!). It was difficult though after having been on the move for so long and having been looking forward to celebrating in Tasilaq where there was good food and drinks waiting for us. For the third night, rather than staying put yet again, we decided to ski down to the fiord and on to the sea ice, up to the edge of the water, and were picked up by boat. It wasn’t possible to go to Tasilaq but they took us to Isertoq where it was nice to actually have a night inside and celebrate the journey before getting finally picked up by the helicopter in the morning. This time, we had done it!
After DYE2 we had a few more days of skiing slowly uphill before it was pretty much flat for a while, and we eventually started the slow and almost imperceptible descent towards the eastern coast.
We had mixed weather conditions, with some whiteouts, some windier days, and some hotter and colder conditions. I have talked about it in another post but… I have to mention it again… whiteouts are really quite tough and surreal! The last time I had dealt with them was in Norway. At least there every now and then you could see rocks in mountain-sides, which helped a little, helping you feel like you are actually getting somewhere. But this time, nothing. Everything white: above, below, and beside you. Absolutely nothing to see for reference and a true limbo, in which you feel like you are floating; moving but going nowhere at the same time. With the temperatures, the worst it got down to was around -39C with the windchill, making it harder to control the temperatures in our extremities with the fingers and toes. But we all came through alright. On one of the hotter days, with temperatures around -1C or higher, clumping became a problem with the skis, as did over-heating, making life really hard. We had to stop for an early an extended break to wait for the temperatures to cool down–and it was remarkable: just one or two degrees difference and the clumping just stopped.
We went 13 days without a break from the start so took a rest day on which it was great to sit with the group and have lunch outside. Our guides, Elisabeth and Calle, prepared a treat for us all with pancakes and soup; a brilliant surprise! A few days later after more travelling, we also took a weather day because of the strong winds, but we had made good progress so it was fine and we were still going according to plans and schedule with the timings to get to the other side. When we got going, we had a day when we saw another expedition–almost right in the middle of the icecap. It was quite an exciting moment for all of us considering how we hadn’t seen anyone for a while. We first saw their silhouettes on their ice in the distance and took a while trying to work out what they were as we approached. They were coming from the other direction, from east to west, and both of our groups veered slightly away from our courses so we could meet and chat for a few minutes before continuing on our journeys. They were from Iceland and had taken 20 days to get as far as they did. When we finished the expedition, we flew to Iceland and apparently they were local celebrities and people we met asked us about them. They might have taken a few more days, but made it eventually which was great to hear.
As the plateau is so high we were unable to see any of the eastern coastal mountains until the last couple of days of the descent. Our eyes were constantly looking to the horizon, scanning for signs that we were getting close to the end, though the icecap would give very few clues to what awaited us…
We started the expedition off slowly: three 50 minute sessions on the first half day with 5km travelled, then doubling to six sessions on day 2. Following this we added an extra session each of the next three days, until we were travelling nine sessions over the course of each day. We didn’t want to go all-out straight away due to risk of injury and we wanted our bodies to adapt to the demands of the expedition. While we had all been training hard, it was still important to be careful.
At the same time, the terrain of the icefall didn’t allow us to move very fast as we were snaking around and looking for the best ways through for quite some time. Indeed, we took three days to get through this part of the challenge: the ice ridges slowly became less prominent, the chasms became shallower and the crevasses became fewer and farther between. It turned into an undulating landscape of smooth snow and ice in all directions. As the landscape changed, our speed increased: more than doubling from 8km travelled on day 3 to 18km on day 4 and increasing up to 24km by day 6.
It would be easy to describe the terrain as featureless but that would be unfair: the glorious weather and the sun sheds all sorts of characteristics to the ice that help catch one’s attention. And we had wonderful weather with bright sunshine, clear skies, and temperatures that hovered around -10C for a good week or so. The conditions were so good, we were skiing in our base layers, and even able to have a dinner as a group outside of the tents on one of the nights! In these conditions, the randomly scattered rougher and exposed ice could be clearly seen, making navigation straightforward as we could use them as reference points for our headings. At the same time, the eyes could play tricks: we could see what looked to be steep snow walls in distant hills though as we got closer, the slopes were barely noticeable. As an added bonus – we even saw a flock of geese migrating west on one of the earlier days. Just imagine the distance they have to travel!
It was quite amazing and a privilege being in the middle of all this; the serene and pristine environment that just took our breath away. Being here and the mind also goes on its own journeys as we listened to the sound of our breathing and the skis. It’s tough, but it’s all so peaceful at the same time.
The weather as we started was positively mild – around 5C at the bottom of the icefall at point 660, the starting place of pretty much all west-east Greenland expeditions around 90 minutes’ drive outside of Kangerlussuaq. 660 metres above sea-level – we knew we would have to slowly pull our 80kg pulks up to around 2,500m over the next couple of weeks before descending on the other side of the icecap. We were a little worried about whether the ice would be good and solid enough to ski on at the start, or whether we would have to carry the pulks over the moraine up to the glacier. Fortunately, while it was wet, we could still ski across the first few kilometres, saving a lot of time.
Progress was slow. The icefall is where the ice from the glacier leading up to the icecap descends down and crushes against the land, melting and fracturing as it comes to an end. The huge pressures and the warmer climate melting the ice create a maze of ice ridges, deep chasms and crevasses that await any adventurer making their way up. We were fortunate in that we had good visibility all the time we were on the icefall so we could work out a way through it all – had it been whiteout conditions it would have been a complete nightmare and we would have all had to be roped together in case anyone fell into any of the traps around us. Our guides, Elisabeth and Calle, were able to go ahead to try see the best route – it always seemed that as we got closer to the other side of the various ridges, we might be greeted with flatter ice to ski over… but no. On the other side of each ridge, there were just more ridges, more chasms and more challenges!
We all had to work together to make sure we got through alright: The pulks were at their heaviest, laden with food and fuel supplies for the next four weeks, and they would do their best to drag us back down the ice, or run into us as we went over ridges and down the other side. A lot of fun for sure, and it was good working our way through everything, but very limited with the distance we could go. We must have averaged around 6-7km those first three days. It was a relief as we got closer to the top and the ice gradually smoothed out and from then it was a matter of full speed ahead!
With all the fitness training over the past few months, time really did seem to fly by to the end of April when we eventually started the journey across the icecap. So long in the waiting, but still always training as much as possible to be in the best possible shape for the journey; trying to squeeze in as much as possible but not to overdo it. More mountains climbed in Scotland, plenty more tire-pulling and lots of strange looks from people. Braeriach, the third highest in the country, is always an amazing mountain to climb and is quite accessible for me from Carrbridge, and it becomes even more stunning with the snow. Also, an opportunity to climb Ben Nevis in winter could definitely not be missed and it was nice climbing the UK’s highest mountain in cool and lovely conditions.
Before we knew it, the time had come. 25 April: Inverness to London, to Copenhagen. 26 April: Copenhagen to Kangerlussuaq. Always that anxiety about whether the bags would come through–imagine that! One flight to Kangerlussuaq every couple of days… no, it was too terrible to think about…! Fortunately they all came through and no problems. It was great in Copenhagen with the hotel being next to the airport – could take the trolley from the airport all the way into the hotel room; not seen that before! Quite a change from Oslo when there are barely any trolleys at the main railway station!
We had one night in Kangerlussuaq to organise all of our supplies for the next four weeks, splitting everything into weekly bags and sorting out the pulks. Had a bit of a scare when realised that I didn’t have my mountaineering harness, which we need for going through crevassed areas. Almost a disaster, though fortunately we we were able to find one from a local guide – such a relief! Then that was it… just a bus ride to the bottom of the glacier on a gloomy and overcast early afternoon of 27 April, and we were off…
Getting boots for polar expeditions is not entirely simple – you have to consider the warmth of the boots of course, but you also have to consider the bindings that will let you attach to the skis.
On the Auyuittuq and Cross Canada journeys, Natalia and I used the Baffin Boots – Polar Series (Impact); rated down to -100C, with removable liners. They are harder to get a hold of in Europe as opposed to Canada or the US, but are excellent. They are pretty big boots (and you need to get at least one size larger than your normal size as you have to think about the number of socks you’ll wear), but… they’re not compatible with any standard ski bindings. Instead, you have to get specialised bindings that can be used with large boots, and we found that the famous Australian explorer Erik Phillips designed and sells “Flexi bindings” for this purpose. Erik skied from the Siberian coast to the North Pole using these. The bindings are very simple–after you have installed them on the skis at least: you just slot in your boots and then tighten the straps. And they are also very easy to remove when you want to take your skis off. Sometimes when we were skiing the straps did become a little lose, and when the straps got wet, this would make them harder to tighten, but on the whole, we were very happy with them. They are pretty much indestructible, though only problem is that they are expensive, and you have to import them from Australia.
As a note, you can now get Baffin polar boots that are compatible with three-pin bindings, but I can’t comment about what these are like, aside from their being twice the cost of the standard polar series. Probably worth investing in Alfas…
With the Greenland Expedition, I will be with a team led by Hvitserk of Norway, and for the sake of making repairs easy with a group of ten of us, they have requested that we use BC bindings, which are much cheaper than the Eric Phillips bindings. Okay… the only problem is that while obviously normal ski boots can be used with such bindings, normal ski boots aren’t designed for polar expeditions and are way too tight and cold. You need to get Alfa Polar Expedition boots, which are… darn expensive (eliminating any savings from the bindings!). The good thing about the Alfas is that they are very warm and again have the removable liners that are also vapour barriers that prevent the inner boot getting wet from sweat; they are also considered the best expedition boots out there. And after having skied with them a week in Norway… well yes, they are really very comfortable. It takes a little while to get used to the BC binding system as opposed to the Flexi bindings – you have to place the bar at the front the of the Alfa boot in the lock on the bindings, so have to make sure it’s in the right position and it can take a little practice. Also, snow can get in behind the binding lock making it hard to open or close properly without removing it, so it can be fiddly. But overall, it seems more comfortable and solid skiing and moving with the Alfas than the Baffins, so I am (at least, I think I am) happy with the change! Again, let’s see after Greenland!
There are two main brands of skis that are used for polar expeditions – Fischer E99s and 109s (a number variations over the years), or several types of Asnes skis, such as the Amundsen, Nansen and Ingstad cross country skis. They have slightly different widths, so weight distribution differs a little, but they all have steel edges, making them more durable and robust in the polar conditions, easier to cut through icier and harder snow. The newer versions have slots to lock in half skins, which is very handy to have when you know you’ll be doing climbing, but can easily take them off; though Fischers can come with waxless grips so you don’t need to put skins on.
For the Cross Canada expedition, together with the Auyuittuq Traverse, I used the E109s, which were great, and they had waxless grips so were pretty decent when climbing up. Natalia had the E99s, and were neither waxless nor had slots for the skins, so we screwed the half skins on… while they do have glue to stick onto the bottom of the skis, when temperatures get down to -40C and below, the glue is not so effective and the skins are liable to come off. It felt terrible screwing into the body of the skis, but it worked.
There was one tough day when on the way to Churchill during Cross Canada, despite the extreme cold, when we were going over a small river, the ice broke a bit and our skis went into the water. The water then froze on to the skis (and the skins), together with a load of snow, and it was a real hassle getting it all off, so it took a while before we were able to ski properly again. Though I think we would have had this problem regardless of what skis we were using!
Now for Greenland I have got the Asnes Amundsen skis, which I tested for the first time in Norway. It was a joy being able to just slot in the skins – so easy! And climbing in them (using mohair skins) felt pretty comfortable and I never really had any problems. But I don’t know… I miss the E109s… maybe because they were the skis I learned to (cross-country) ski with, and I spent so long on them with the previous journeys; maybe because I felt more confident with them being slightly wider… I guess I’ll only be able to judge properly in the course of Greenland.
A good comparison between two of the main types (E109 Crown Extralite v the Asnes Nansens) is on the Telemark Talk ski website – pretty interesting and worth checking out!
So much gear to think about and to get for journeys like these… got to get the right skis and bindings; polar boots that are compatible with the bindings… base layers, mid layers, outer shells and down layers (both for legs and top); sleeping bags and vapour barrier liners, liner gloves and mittens and then the bigger mitts. Light hats; heavier hats; googles and sun glasses; face masks, balaclavas… water bottles and thermos flasks… That’s not mentioning the tent and the stoves, and communications devices (locator beacon and sat phone), solar panels and spare batteries… the list just goes on and on!
All of it has to get into the sled, together with the bags full of the food and snacks that have to be prepared in advance, and the gasoline to cook with and melt water every morning and every night as the expedition proceeds…
Thanks for visiting this site! Over the next few weeks and months I will be updating it with news about my training for the forthcoming Greenland Expedition (and training in New Delhi where we are already getting temperatures in the 20s, when Greenland will be -30C or so… isn’t the easiest thing to think about!), and other adventure-related news. If you yourself are planning any adventures, I would love to hear from you! I always love chatting about such journeys, and if I can help you in anyway with your preparation, I would be delighted!
I hope you find it interesting and that you can follow me – of course, if you are able to donate to Cancer Research to support my cause of raising funds for them, that would be wonderful! But if not, no worries – It would be fantastic if you could follow, share, or even just visit occasionally!