In May 2018, I set off with a team of fellow expeditioners (real word?) to cross Greenland. Not a ski tour, but a full expedition (the differences are subtle, but important especially when it comes to finding the massive surety required should a team require extraction from the ice cap). Before we delve into the story, I have to thank Lou Rudd (the British Army office who recently became the first Briton to cross the Antarctic) for all his effort in arranging the trip.
If you’ve read my recent ‘How to cross Greenland guide’ you’ll understand that there is no easy way to traverse this massive island. The logistics alone proved to be a thorny issue and so hats off to the team for the serious legwork they put in to ensure our gear arrived at the respective start and finish points.
Our story begins in Kulusaq, Greenland (not really the beginning of the expedition – if you want a step by step then you’re best off reading the saga…). Weather will always be an issue on any major trip and travelling through the Arctic is no different. On arrival we were met with what can only be described as glorious conditions: the air was cold, really cold, and the sun was high in the sky. Perfect you might think. We’ll come back to that thought…
West to East, that was the route we’d chosen. And travelling in early May we were pretty much assured of good weather – as one person put it, “An excellent opportunity to get a suntan.”
The first couple of days were a shock to the system. Warm weather and the climb up the edge of the icecap took a heavy toll with the team managing to cover only a relatively short distance each day. Warm sunlight accompanied us as trudged across blue ice, our feet stamped hard to ensure the crampons we were wearing got a good grip. It was bloody hard work and at the end of each day the team was glad to set up camp, eat and rest.
Early fluctuations in weather and temperatures set the scene for the rest of the journey. Even during those first few days we found ourselves switching between skis and crampons as we navigated snow and ice. For short periods of time skiing was the better option, but these times of relative bliss were cut short when we had to climb icy inclines, terrain where our skins would not grip. In a cruel and recurring cycle, we became accustomed to having to pause as each team member slipped off their skis and fitted their crampons.
Strong winds stripped the route up the glacier of snow and carved lines of cold in our skin. Unusually high temperatures turned snow to a cold slush and forced us to shed layers of clothing to prevent overheating and the onset of dehydration. I remember one of the team saying, “It can only get better.”
Strike one to the gods of Greenland.
Looking back, and at the finger I broke when I slid on the ice and went tumbling down a slope, I have to chuckle – and be amazed at – our positive attitude towards the crossing. Like any expedition, there were grumbles: “Never coming here again.” “This is just shit.” But if there’s no hardship involved it’s not a challenge.
And challenges were to come.
One week into the ski we received advance warning of a storm. The evening before the first gusts were due to hit we gathered in one of the tents to discuss our response and, even though the predicted windspeed was not too high, decided to take an early rest day. In hindsight, this was a good decision; the wind battered the tents and kept us from moving for about two days.
Strike two to those angry deities.
At this point we’d lost two days, yet still making good progress. During our time on the ice cap we’d managed to catch up with a joint Australian/New Zealand, led by Bengt Ermil Rotmo (legend!), which had set off three days before us. Even though those damned deities of snow and ice had done their best to hinder our progress we were feeling pretty good.
Whilst we weren’t complacent about the weather, most of assumed the ski would be a pretty simple affair. I can only imagine the unsympathetic gods decided otherwise.
Several days later we received warning of another storm, one that would make the previous weather look like a stiff breeze. Reports suggested wind speeds of up to 60 knots, with gusts of up 80 knots. If only that frigid blast had been so gentle! Once more we called a meeting and discussed options and, at first, a number of the team suggested we ski for the first few hours of the next day in order to claw back some of mileage lost during our last layup. The majority of the team disagreed, a fact we are eternally grateful for.
That evening we built snow walls in an attempt to keep the storm at bay. And when the gods exhaled it was a storm the likes of which I’ve had the misfortune to experience only a couple of times in my life: memories of the dune-sculpting inferno of heat and wind in the Sahara desert; the jagged bite of heavy monsoon rains in the jungle – these and more were recalled in vivid detail as the I lay in my tent and listened to the raging just beyond the thin walls that sheltered us.
Cyclones of snow danced around our tent and, little by little, they became a light dusting resting where the tent valances touched the ground. All good, the tent’s design – the tunnel shape and steep walls – deposited the snow on the valance and kept the weight off the main body. My tentmate and I were going to sleep well that night.
Have you ever dreamed of a presence standing looming over you? You know how it plays out: your sleeping mind registers a threat and finds a way to manifest the danger. A number of feelings are woven into a mental alarm that rips you from the comfort of sleep and hauls your mind kicking and screaming into consciousness.
My eyes flickered open. I was confused: why was it so dark in the tent? What was this resistance I felt in my breathing? It took a matter of seconds for me to realise the body of the tent was only inches from my face. I had two options: panic, or wake my team mate and let him know we were in deep trouble. Years of training kicked in and I took the latter option. Minutes later we were partially dressed (much of my clothing was trapped under an immovable mound of snow that snow covered the storm-facing end of our tent) and ready to go. But where? The fury of Greenland’s gods had reduced visibility to a matter of metres.
In those moments when insanity fades from the world world, quiet descends and the very real threat of death knocks at the front door we make unusual decisions. Pete, my tent mate, and I had a cigarette. I haven’t smoked for a long time, but at that moment in time, and with the possibility of meeting my maker, it felt like the right decision. Even as we smoked the weight of snow moved forward, collapsing more and more sections of the tent. Poles screeched under the strain, then failed with a high-pitched cry: the sounds a tent make as it dies.
Now Pete and I were huddled in a tiny space. As a whole, the team had made the mistake of not having a way to communicate during the storm. Pete and I had to make a dash for the nearest tent – I would go to the tent to our left, he would run right. I elected to go first.
I stepped out in pure fury. Wearing only the few garments I could pull from under the collapsed tent – including a pair of tent boots (down filled footwear not designed for use outdoors) – I staggered into the wind. Only a short distance lay between each of the tents, but winter’s song had become a screech of fury accompanied by the lash of ice crystals and snow on my skin. I stood for several seconds and estimated the direction of travel and said to myself, “It’s not far.”
Even a few minutes on the frigid ice cap can be dangerous. When a storm arrives danger is amplified. Many, many times.
In all likelihood only a matter of two minutes passed as I lurched and stumbled into the maelstrom, but that short time was long enough for me to remind myself that Greenland has claimed many lives.
There should have been a sensation of icy teeth raking my skin, but after a very short time I felt nothing. My fingers, face and legs were numb. And I knew that I must have walked too far into the storm.
I was lost.
The obvious decision was to turn around, follow the route along which I’d travelled. I placed my back to the wind and stared. I could no longer see our tent.
Have you ever had one of those moments when your emotions surge and mix into one, indistinguishable wave of feeling? I’ve travelled to many dangerous places, felt the thrill and fear wash over me as mortars explode nearby and bullets crack the air as the race by. But this was different. Now I was afraid. And angry.
The words are still fixed in my head: “Fuck you! You’re not having me.”
My feet felt as if they no longer belonged to me – the cold had numbed them past the point of pain – but I stepped forward. Then took another step. And another. All the while the furious gods exhaled, their breath occasionally driving me to the ground. Each time I righted myself, walked on.
At last I saw a vague shape at the edge of my vision. I ran.
The two team members in the tent were pretty surprised to see me: no jacket, hat or boots. I fell into the vestibule, zipped the door shut and was about to the crawl into the tent footprint when a huge lump of ice fell from my face. Looking down I saw an icy impression of my face looking back at me. A shudder ran through me.
Greenlandic gods had the last laugh of the day.
That night I slept deep.
The next day, after the storm had cleared, the six of us gathered around the remains of the smashed tent, salvaged all we could and started to ski once more.
I could only assume those furious gods had grown tired. For the time being.