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…
As we sped across the ice, and left the western mountains and the icefall behind, we spotted the DYE2 abandoned radar station from around 28km away. A small black spot on the horizon that gradually loomed larger and larger as we got closer over the next day and a half. It provided a nice reference point for navigating – a welcome change from constantly looking at the compass and looking for snow patches that stood out in the distance to help us maintain straight lines. I didn’t know what to expect though it was undoubtedly one of the highlights of the journey.
DYE2 was one of a network of over 60 radar stations built by the US across Canada and Greenland to provide early warning against possible missile attacks by the USSR during the Cold War. It was abandoned in 1988 as the Cold War came to an end and the technology was pretty much obsolete. It has just been left to the mercy of the elements since then. It felt like quite a milestone to get there and was a real sign of the progress we had made. It was difficult gauge how tall it was as we approached. We thought it must have stood around 30m above the ice but then as we slowly but surely got closer we could see how the snow and ice had built up around it and there was at least another 20m or so that had been obscured by the drifts that had accumulated since the facility was abandoned. It felt like quite a milestone to get there and was a real sign of the progress we had made.
Once we finally arrived, we looked for ways to get in. Morten Obel found one, walking on a roof that was easily accessible from the snow, to reach an open doorway. It was like a museum. Some rooms had been filled with snow over the years as the weather took effect, while other rooms were in really good condition, as if people just disappeared a few weeks ago. Various documents with instruction manuals for the running of the facility. Magazines and sofas, as if people just upped and left; very spooky in many regards – could definitely imagine it being a great setting for a horror movie or series as we went through it with their flashlights! Rooms where other expeditions had actually stayed after they got caught there in bad weather. A poignant moment was seeing a mock trip advisor review written on the walls of one of the bedrooms, signed by members of an expedition team that had been pinned down at the station for five days due to fierce storms in May 2021. One of those was “Dixie”, who we later realised was Dixie Dansercoer, a Belgian explorer who died just a month later on 7 June 2021 while on a south-to-north kiting expedition across Greenland, after falling into a crevasse. A tragic death of a great adventurer.
We managed to make our way to the radar dish inside the dome at the top, from where we were able to get amazing views of the icecap in all directions. Klaus brought some schnapps with him as a surprise for all of us to celebrate the moment. The view was fantastic but at the same time it was pretty much the same in all directions accept for a nearby ice runway and small airbase. Still plenty more travelling to do over the next weeks!
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…