Greenland – a country we could all locate on a map with relative ease, but a place that is otherwise a mystery to many. For those that choose to venture there, it is often a once-in-a-lifetime experience, the ultimate goal being to cross the Greenland ice sheet, the second largest body of ice on the planet.
On the 14th August, I set out to not only cross the ice sheet, but to cross the whole of Greenland, following in the footsteps of the great polar explorer, Fridtjof Nansen who made the first east to west crossing in 1888. This was vital training and the ultimate preparation for my solo, unsupported expedition to the South Pole. Many say that Greenland is a tougher challenge than Antarctica, and successful completion would be a major tick on my ‘Polar CV,’ gaining respect and recognition from those closely following my progress.
The native Greenlanders think that people like us are positively nuts. To them, the ice is a place to stay away from, where the infamous qivittoq, a wandering spirit, is exiled and a place to threaten to send naughty children to. It is definitely not a place to voluntarily spend over a month.
It was impossible to hide the nervous anticipation, which was mixed with a generous dose of excitement as the start date loomed. The countless hours of training gave me confidence for the physical challenge, but I knew that the journey was to reveal untested aspects of my character, areas that only a long expedition could truly unveil.
After a few days of preparation in Tasiilaq, organising kit and preparing food rations, we set off on an incredible boat ride, racing past towering icebergs, before reaching our start point.
The first week is seen as one of the toughest parts of the expedition. Dramatic icefalls mark both the eastern and western edges of the ice sheet, which present a daunting challenge. It’s a steep ascent, traversing the unforgiving gaps in the ice and finding safe bridges to cross the rivers, whilst burdened with around 75kg each, of food, fuel, and equipment.
We were a multi-national team of 5, plus an experienced polar guide, all sharing similar ambitions. Although we were strangers on day one, we soon became a tight unit, working together to overcome obstacles and problem solve when needed.
Herman was an Icelandic powerhouse and soon earned the nickname, the ‘Hermanator,’for obvious reasons. Aurélien was the humour and enthusiasm. His Michelin-starred food offerings, French singing from the back and daily shouts of ‘Good Morning Greenland,’ no matter what weather he was greeted with as he unzipped the tent, never failed to make me smile. Alyssa brought colour to the expedition. With rainbow hair and an incredible talent with words, she soon became the ‘go-to’ when the blog needed updating. Anders came from Norway and was therefore born with skis on his feet and mittens on his hands. He was the dependable navigator and proved steady and unshakeable when things got really tough toward the end of the expedition, skiing cautiously whilst roped up and searching for crevasses, with visibility near zero. Kathinka was also Norwegian and our guide. She had years of polar expedition experience which gave us confidence to know that we were in safe hands. I was all ears to soak up every bit of advice on offer and eager to make a good impression. What was my role within the group? Well, I guess you’d have to ask everyone else that question, but it would probably have something to do with my trading of ‘Pringles’ to those in most need!
I didn’t leave my dentist role at home whilst on the expedition and couldn’t help but offer a bit of preventative advice when I saw team members rinsing with water after brushing or perhaps not quite achieving the full 2 minutes (or any minutes at all!). With a high sugar diet and a snacking interval of an hour, that Stephan curve and the potential damage I was doing to my teeth was etched in my mind.
As we gained height, temperatures dipped to minus 30, and I found myself warming up my frozen toothpaste on the stove in the morning. I’d forgotten to find space for it amongst all the other extras keeping toasty in my sleeping bag overnight. After shocking my sensitive teeth by placing a frozen retainer in my mouth before bed, I also had to resort to warming this a little too.
It was when temperatures reached their coldest that I immediately noticed something feel odd with my teeth. I only have one filling in my mouth (LL6 occlusal composite, circa 2006) and one day I realised that this tooth was feeling particularly proud when I closed together. I panicked slightly, surely the dentist couldn’t be the one member of the group that ultimately got a toothache?! I gingerly ate on the opposite side, letting the frozen chocolate melt in my mouth, worried that one wrong bite could fracture a cusp. I was grateful that my retainers would offer some limited protection from my teeth grinding at night and I kept my concerns to myself. I felt reassured that there was no pain, used the small mirror on the compass to check for any swelling and then crossed my fingers and hoped for the best. As the temperature became less dramatic, my proud tooth settled and a I breathed a big sigh of relief, but noted that it was something that I would have to investigate before Antarctica. I’m guessing it might have been a possible gap under the filling or a reaction of the composite to the cold temperatures and increased altitude, but I’m open to anyone offering further insight.
Leaving the icefall behind was a cause for celebration, as we could ski without the worry of falling through crevasses. The terrain wouldn’t be easy though. It was continual uphill, with snow that, depending on the temperature, would stick to the skis. This created towering platforms to balance on until a short break allowed us to scrape them free, apply wax, only for it to build again over the next 60 minutes. It was frustrating.
The person at the front had to put a lot more effort in to cutting the track with their skis, so we took it in turn to lead. This person was also in charge of navigating along a bearing, keeping as straight a line so that we all headed in the right direction as efficiently as possible. This sounds like an easy task, but without any landmarks to fix your eyes on, a shout from the back would alert you to look back and see the snaking line that would occasionally/frequently occur.
Greenland threw every type of weather at us, with more than our fair share of white-outs. If you can imagine what it might be like to ski inside a ping-pong ball, then that’s a pretty accurate description of what we had to face. There is no way of differentiating between the snow and the sky, and this can feel extremely disorientating. To travel in a straight line requires teamwork, as the person at the front puts effort in to make progress whilst the ‘number 2’ has their eyes glued to the compass, calling “step left” or “step right” to keep the lead going in the right direction.
We had to pay very close attention to the weather forecast as this would dictate our routine for the day. The wind combined with the cold temperature is a deadly combination and its effect can be extremely serious. It was 20 days before I would realise just how serious. Read the upcoming part 2 of this blog entry to find out.