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Greenland is the worlds largest island and contains the second largest ice body in the world. The ice is more than 3km thick and if the entire ice were to melt it would lead to a global sea level rise of 7,2m. It took us 22 days to ski the 580km across its enormous ice cap. Starting from Kangerlussuaq in the west, to Isortoq in the east.
When two of my colleagues returned home after a warm summer of work in another country they pitched the idea of going on a long and cold expedition. We quickly put together a team of five and a few months later we were on our way to Greenland!
I’ve always dreamt of doing something bigger, longer and more challenging. Given my interests for skiing and climbing, Greenland offered a good possibility to test myself. Challenges as extreme cold, hard winds and polar bears was some of the things that captured my curiosity.
As soon as we had decided to go we started with the preparations.
We quickly realised that some parts of this expedition were a little outside our comfort zone. This mainly applied to all administrative and logistical parts. We spent a lot of time researching, comparing and booking transports, reading about insurances and formulating different applications. This period was stressful but also very educational.
In connection with this, we also applied for Herman Friedländer's military scholarship. This scholarship will be “used for studies abroad of activities important to the Swedish Armed Forces, to broaden and increase personal knowledge.” We argued that our Greenland expedition fell within the framework of this and would be of benefit both to us and to our battalion. We were granted the scholarship and therefore received money to cover costs for transports, accommodations and insurances.
The next step in the preparations was a little more fun, equipment and food. We already had a few things we needed, we bought some new equipment and others we were sponsored with or borrowed. We also could borrow a lot from our battalion: for example climbing equipment, tents, windbags and glacier goggles that we use in work.
We did a lot of research when it comes to equipment: read books, talked to experienced people and compared previous tours packing lists. The packing we would have with us needed to be as light as possible but still so all-encompassing that we would be able to fend for ourselves for a month in such a demanding and remote environment. We should be able to repair equipment and take care of any injuries and illnesses.
We wanted to be ready for the worst so I made sure we had with us a pretty solid medical bag with everything from patches to strong medicines. Including 3 types of antibiotics.
During a long expedition like this you will lose a lot of energy, we calculated for about 7000 kcal per day. With regard to weight and flexibility the choice falls on freeze-dried food, which we supplemented with fat in the form of rapeseed oil and chips. With the help of our Battalion and Outmeals we got to design our own menus and was sponsored with all the food we needed.
We drove three fully packed cars down to Stockholm and prepared the last details for 3 days before we drove to the airport early in the morning on April 13th. We had an absurd amount of packing and even though we booked all the excess weight in advance we were nervous that we would either not get everything with us or be forced to pay outrageous extra fees. Fortunately everything was in order and the staff was very helpful. We boarded the flight from Stockholm to Copenhagen and shortly after the next flight to Kangerlussuaq - Greenland.
We landed on a warm and sunny Greenland. We could finally start focusing on the expedition itself and our biggest worry, travelling with all the equipment, was now in the past.
We had landed in Kangerlussuaq which actually mostly consists of Greenland's largest airport. The USA built the airfield in 1941 due to Kangerlussuaq's stable climate and even today this is where all major air-traffic to and from Greenland departs, even though they only have about 500 inhabitants. Here we spent 3 days packing the sledges and preparing for a month of isolation on the ice cap.
On the morning of April 16th it was finally time. A large off-road bus picked us up and drove us for about an hour along the road up to point 660, the “official” starting point for crossing Greenland. In the past you could actually drive directly up on the ice sheet but it is very obvious that the Greenland ice is melting. Where there was ice only a few years ago there is now a rocky and surprisingly inaccessible moraine you have to cross.
After the moraine comes the icefall, the part of the trip that we thought in advance would be the toughest. We were prepared for the worst: glacier cracks, meter-deep snow and storm winds. We did not experience any of these phenomenons. Instead the first day started with about -15°C, calm wind and sun. We navigated our way through a maze of ice formations with crampons on our feet and heavy sledges behind. What we did experience however was that equipment was already starting to break down. The sledges were pulled and overturned in all directions which caused carbines on the shackles and straps on the sledges to break. But we suspected this would happen and so we could quickly fix these problems with our repair kit. We continued to meander through valleys and over sharp peaks with our 80 kg heavy sledges. When we reached small heights we could see the ice maze in front of us. When out in the wild and exposed to nature like this you feel quite small and humble. After the first day we had come a full 6 km, longer than we had expected.
Day 2 was about the same as day 1 but with slightly worse weather. By lunch we could start to imagine how the terrain actually flattened out in front of us and a few hours later the surface became almost skiable. After another full day with crampons on our feet we had covered further 12km. With the knowledge that we would start skiing the next day it was easy to fall asleep.
It was incredibly nice to be able to start skiing after walking with crampons for two days. The weather the following days was sunny and moderately cold. The constantly upwards slope flattened out more and more and the surface went from consisting of small annoying ice formations, which slowed down the sledges a lot, to becoming smooth and fine. There were still a few small hills and formations to use as benchmarks and some days we could ski towards the same point all day long.
Day three we actually saw two people far north of us snowkiting very slowly in the same direction as us. A few days later we could see them again but this time behind us. Just like us they were moving against the wind and therefore we could keep a higher pace than them.
So far everything had gone better than expected: transport to Greenland, the icefall, the weather and the day stages. But one of us had been ill since we left Kangerlassuaq and on the third night he vomited. Despite that he does not slow down the rest of our group. The next day another team member suffers from severe pain in the knee which we solved by relieving his sledge for a few days and gradually giving him back his weight.
Day six we meet our first weather challenge, whiteout. It can be very difficult to keep a straight course when skiing and seeing nothing but white, you can even get a little dizzy and lose your balance.
When you have started to get into the routines and the days and the surroundings feel the same it is valuable to gild everyday life with something special. We all had small surprises for each other to share during the tour, usually something extra good to eat or drink.
The hard and wind packed surface of the ice cap meant that we could often ski in width and talk to each other. Usually about the different books we read during the evenings which led to really interesting conversations. But some days we skied completely to ourselves.
Day nine we saw in the distance the only clear milestone on the trip: the huge American radar station DYE-2 from the Cold War. Next to the station was a red tent and inside was the two kitesurfers we had seen a couple of days earlier who must have finally found wind and passed us. It turned out to be 2 very nice guys from Great Britain. They had been trying to kite up north but due to bad weather and wind in the wrong direction they had constantly been forced to turn around and were now on their way back to where they started, Kangerlussuaq.
Day ten we start the day by exploring the radar station. The building is huge, 5 storeys high and with a large dome radar on the roof.
It is windless which means that the British can not kite so we make sure to entertain ourselves and them with some rope activities on the radar station. At lunch we say goodbye to our new friends and continue our way east. Not far from the station we cross an enormous runway which is marked with flags in two long and straight lines on the ice. It has a few different small buildings around it and is actually an air base still in operation.
During the following three days we consolidated knowledge in whiteout orienteering. In the morning on the fourteenth day we finally reached (in altitude metres) the top of our journey. To celebrate we shared some dried moose meat and a splash of whiskey. It was a very diffuse “peak” and without GPS and altimeters we would not have known we had just passed it.
The next few days looked more or less the same. Nice weather one or two hours followed by whiteout, wind, snow and of course drift snow. Our slightly optimistic theory that we would get downhill and tailwind after the “top” turned out to be incorrect. The further east we came the snow became more and more sticky, we moved slower and slower and it felt pretty heavy for everyone.
Just a few days later the weather became nice again. We realised that we would most likely arrive earlier than planned. I knew that if we were to ski a little longer each day than we had done so far we would be able to catch up with an earlier helicopter from Isortoq, the small fishing village near the end of the ice cap. Otherwise we would have to wait for almost a week for the next one. We quickly agreed to try to catch the earlier helicopter, but nature disagreed. After having had snowfall and without for several days the weather now turned out really nice, a little bit too nice! All the snow that had fallen combined with a radiant sun and warm weather resulted in very heavy and sticky snow. It was day 19 and by 10am it was impossible to ski any more. The sledges got sucked into the moist snow like a suction cup and became unshakable. We decided to start skiing at night instead, hoping it would get colder and freeze as the temperature should drop by night. Said and done we set up camp and started skiing again at 10 pm. It was then both dark and whiteout, the surface did not feel much better than it did during the day and just like all other days before this we had headwind. A few hours into the night the surface became a little better and even though we all felt a little tired we pushed on. We slept during the day and it was so hot that the tent poles melted from the snow and we woke up to the tent starting to flutter even though it was barely no wind at all.
When we started skiing again I had a completely different feeling than the night before. We skied in light wind with a clear sky, in comfortable temperatures on a surface of hard and frozen snow. And in the middle of the night we could enjoy one of the most magical and stunning sunsets I have ever seen in my life. Followed by an equally stunning and magical sunrise which seemed to never end. We had two fabulous nights like this before we, on day 22, changed course from east and instead set course to the south, straight in the fall line towards the sea.
For the first time of this entire journey we had tailwind and downhill and of course we noticed a huge difference. Previously we had not come further than 4 km per hour and now we skied 5, 6, 8, 10.. For each kilometre that passed the inclination increased and we went faster and faster. In the end we were able to take off our skins from our skies and then it went really fast. It was like downhill skiing. At the beginning of the night we had 60km left until the end of the ice, a distance we planned on doing in 2 days. We came 30km in just a few hours so we continued. The terrain became incredibly beautiful towards the coast with both mountains rising up from a sea of clouds and also a glimpse of the ocean.
When it was less than 10km left the heat from the sun had made the surface sticky and wet again. A river meandered in the snow. If we had chosen to do the expedition a little later the whole area would probably have been covered with water and ice. We continued down towards the sea and finally came down to the cloud base. It lay like a lid on the terrain below, it was also here that we saw our first polar bear tracks. We could barely see between the first and last person in the group and held our breaths as we quietly moved through the dense and warm cloud. As we got out of the clouds it was not far to Isortoq Hut, the place where the ice sheet and our Greenland crossing actually ends. We saw some more very fresh polar bear tracks before we continued down the last bit of steep terrain followed by the very last 2 km which we made on the sea ice. As we got closer to the edge of the ice we could see the blue ocean and the place where we would later be picked up by boat from a seal hunter living in the small village of Isortoq.
Lovely bearded and tanned we had now finished skiing and were ready to go home.