Traveling through whiteouts

Some of the most intense days when skiing on the Hardangervidda plateau were spent skiing through whiteout conditions. Whiteouts are when you can’t tell the difference between the snow beneath your skis and the sky. Whiteouts are not necessarily blizzards, and indeed, blizzards are often incorrectly called whiteouts. More often you will be travelling over the snow through fog or cloud. You might be able to see dark objects like rocks in the terrain, but that will be about it. Travelling through a whiteout is like travelling through limbo: you feel like you are moving yet going nowhere. Nothing seems to change. There are no shadows and there is no contrast. It can be disorientating and strangely claustrophobic at the same time. If you’re not prepared, it can be dangerous, no matter where you are.

Skiing through such conditions can be tricky enough even on flat snow as navigation becomes much harder. If you are lucky, there will be some rocks, and you can use them to help with the navigating, though these can easily disappear from view, behind a small hill or in even denser cloud. The rocks can be deceptive as well as you have no sense of scale; they might be small rocks close to you or larger rocks further away. There could easily be a few small hills or large snowdrifts between you and the rocks as well, but you won’t know until you reach them because they are covered in snow so are indistinguishable from anything else. You will need your compass and GPS – even better if you got a compass mount so you can have the compass extended in front of you without having to hold it in your hands, so you can constantly see your heading. Failing that, if there is wind, you will feel the direction from which it is coming in general. Then you can use that as a navigational support: if you’re heading north and you have an easterly wind, for example, keep it so it’s hitting you from the right.

Going up or downhill, or across sastrugi where the wind has cut through the snow to create those amazing ice sculptures beneath your feet, is even trickier. Especially with an 80kg sled behind you. Yes, you will have your compass and GPS, and you will know your general heading. But the maps will only show so much; the contours will most likely measure 20 metre differences in the terrain but nothing more detailed. Snowdrifts and slight dips and small mounds aren’t shown and you can’t keep looking at your GPS anyway, especially as battery is a consideration. Even when armed with your heading, any undulations through the snow will be invisible. It is impossible to see where the snow is steepest and work out the best route up. You might be struggling up a steep climb one moment, inching your way up, but then you suddenly come to a dip in the snow and before you know it, you are skiing down into a small dip. Maybe a frozen rock pool or hidden stream beneath the snow or some other feature. And your sled hurtling down the slope behind you…

I found myself slowly zig-zagging my way up and down the hillsides, especially with the sled being pretty heavy. Keep calm and keep breathing. Judge the feeling of the snow beneath the skis, the pull of the sled on the harness getting heavier and lighter as the terrain changed. The general balance and feel. It was slow, often painful, and challenging–especially when the snow got really deep–and there were points when it just seemed the climb would never end; going into that endless white void.

But then it gets flat again and you realize that the hardest parts are behind you and that you managed it. And you keep going.

Norway training, 2022: Part 1

For one month or so from the middle of January 2022, I went to Norway. First to meet with the group organised by Norwegian company Hvitserk with whom I will be going to Greenland, and then to go out by myself. The aim of the training: to get ready for both Greenland and the planned solo journey to the South Pole.

In going with Hvitserk to Greenland, I will be in a group of seven other people, including two guides. A nicely sized group and it was great getting to meet them all to go skiing with them and get used to the equipment we will be using on Greenland. So we spent a good four days or so, skiing around near Ustaoset, on to the Hardangervidda.

It was a good few days. Definitely felt the effects of not having skied properly for a few years–though am not sure if you can call my skiing “proper” anyway! I had only really been on the flat sea ice before this, and here we were going up and down these hills, which proved pretty challenging. I struggled quite a bit especially at first, trying not to fall over on the downhills, and going slower on the climbs up. But eventually I improved and wasn’t falling over too often when going downhill by the end of it! Uphills… it was varied. The snow can make such a huge difference. When there was slightly softer snow that wasn’t deep, it was fine. Though then there are times when it is really hard, wind-blown and compact, and it was difficult to dig the steel edges of the skis into it and get grip to go up, even with the skins on.

Then there was the time skiing across a frozen lake: rock solid ice with no snow cover on top and no way to get any grip with the skis. While I didn’t fall over, we crossed it in pretty strong head winds so occasionally I found myself actually being blown backwards! A bit frustrating and slow progress on that day, but good all the same!