Sticking it Out on the World’s Largest Inland Ice Cap, from East to West Greenland.
By Mark Thomas - Jöttnar Mountain Professional
Greenland’s inland ice, with its treacherous glacial fissures, unpredictable winds and extreme cold is a challenge the like of which is found in no other place on earth.
The inland ice is the largest in the world and was first conquered by the Norwegian, Fridtjof Nansen and five of his comrades in 1888, who fought their way from East to West five years after a similar attempt from West to East was abandoned. Today, the crossing of the ice cap is considered the ’Mount Everest‘ of inland ice expeditions and requires the same physical and mental dedication for success.
The environment is unforgiving and relentless, yet wonderful and inspiring. At its highest point it stands just over 3000m above sea level. This, combined with the dry polar air, complicated terrain including satstrugi, deep snow, crevasses and glacial melt water as well as extremely low temperatures and high winds creates a truly wonderful adventure as well as a real test of endurance.
Wed 3 Jun/Day 27 – A Tough Day in the Office.
Throughout my occupation as a mountain guide and arctic guide/explorer, I have some ’not so tough days’ and ’tough days‘. Day 27 of my Arctic ice cap expedition is a particularly tough one.
I wake up at 3am and go through the normal routine: pee into an empty food sachet from last night’s dinner, put on my duvet jacket, fight with the petrol stove and begin the process of melting snow while at the same time de-frosting the inside of the tent and preparing my de-hydrated breakfast and morning coffee. Then, I’m set up for yet another big day on the Arctic ice cap – bring it on!
Today is a pretty special day, as for the first time in over a month we can see land and the mountains of the West coast of Greenland. This is our final destination on this grueling voyage from East to West Greenland.
Our expedition has been hampered by endless storms and deep snow in the early couple of weeks as well as plummeting temperatures and strong winds along the summit of the ice cap at 3000m above sea level. These conditions have caused us not only to suffer physically whilst hauling our 100 kg sledges uphill in thigh-deep snow, but also to drain us mentally as a result of moving at such a slow pace, barely 8 km a day during 14-hour hauling sessions, often in complete whiteout and with nothing else to look at but a compass needle. The daily workload has left us on some evenings almost too exhausted to even set up camp and eat our dehydrated rations.
Some days earlier, as a result of fatigue and a lapse in concentration, we were suddenly minus a tent. During a raging storm with winds in excess of 100 kph and with a wind chill of -40 DegC, our second tent was ripped from the ice by a gust of Arctic wind whist the occupants were frantically bundling gear into their pulks. The tent was gone in a second, into the white out of the storm, to finish its journey somewhere on the vast white desert of the ice cap. That night was a warm one with four in a tent, but with barely an inch to move, packed in like sardines head to toe while the canvas rattled and flexed in the ongoing storm which seemed to last forever. In fact, it went on for over a week.
Then a miracle! As I follow my compass needle for another day in yet another Arctic whiteout, we notice a shady area to the south of us. As we draw closer I can’t believe my eyes; the tent! Completely mashed up and flattened, but after a few hours in the haven of our remaining tent, over a hot brew with lots of bodging with bits of metal and gaffa tape, Tent 2 is back on the scene. Looking a little worse for wear, but liveable!
End in Sight
But the ice cap seems not to let us go without a fight. Our final day on this journey is a a 14-hour battle through the worst glacial conditions imaginable. Amidst soft snow, hidden crevasses, huge pressure ridges and seracs, glacial lakes and rivers, I find myself up to my armpits in hollow chasms trying to swallow me up whilst heaving the pulks over bus-size pressure ridges, seracs and sheer ice cliffs. At one point, I break through a glacial bridge on one of the river crossings and to my horror, find myself up to my chest in icy cold, fast flowing glacial melt water. The only anchor to stop me being sucked under the glacier is the weight of my sledge. I am pinned, as the icy water saps my energy deep into the depths of the Russell Glacier. I manage to stab my ski pole into the ice on the opposite side, reach under the torrent to release one of my skis. Then throw my leg onto the bank, release my waist and shoulders from the sledge harness and drag my sodden and frozen self onto the ice. We’re still only halfway through this punishing day.
The adventures continue in the same manner, through a labyrinth of glacial troughs and death traps during our final 25 km of this 600 km crossing. Finally, after all the sweat and toil, including breaking pulks, skis, skins, crampons and bodies, we arrive at the last crevasse and the welcome of land and the West coast of Greenland.
Just a mere final obstacle: vertical glacial scree. This is navigated via another session of pulling, lifting, pushing and heaving the sledges over this boulder-strewn mountain, each stone perched like Jenga blocks, until we arrive, bleary eyed, covered in glacial silt, at a place we have dreamed about for the past 27 days, ‘Point 660m’, a piece of rocky and grassy headland jutting out into the jaws of the monster that is the Russell Glacier. On the horizon, the Inland Ice Cap. Peace again.
Lowest Temperature: -28 degrees C
Lowest Temperature inc. Wind Chill: -40 degrees C
Longest Pull: 14 Hours
Shortest distance in a day: 6.5 Kms
Longest pull in one day: 36.1 Kms
Deepest snow: Waist!
Highest point: 2750m
Number of days: 27 (40 whole expedition)
Total distance travelled: 600 Kms
Longest storm: 8 days
Thanks to Mark for supplying the original text. He can be reached on [email protected]