For the past couple of days, we’d been skiing in that ping pong ball again, the continuous white-out making us long for the day when we would see a horizon. On day 19, we were unsurprised to wake up to zero visibility and the morning satellite phone call to Norway failed to fill us with optimism for the day ahead. A storm was due to hit that evening, the high wind speeds making it too dangerous to continue.
Every morning would start with one of these calls, to receive the weather forecast and to report on our route and our progress. I would take a particular interest in the strength of the winds and their direction, as it would dictate how the day was going to feel and whether the wind would be useful when it came to having an extra tool for navigation.
The weather that day meant breaks were kept short, and there was little, if any conversation. Everyone was concentrating on getting enough food down in a short space of time, without losing the body heat that had been generated.
Initially, there had been a lot of excitement and anticipation for this day. It was the day that we were expecting to reach DYE-3, a formidable sight and a reminder of the Cold War and previous presence of people on an otherwise empty landscape. We only had an estimate of its exact location, as it had been a couple of years since anyone had been in the area. This was the day that it was due to come into view, however with weather conditions making it a challenge to even see the person leading at the front, we very much believed that we might just ski straight past!
For those of you that don’t know, DYE-3 is one of 58 Distant Early Warning Line radar stations built by the USA between 1955 and 1960, across Alaska, Canada, Greenland, and Iceland. It served as an early warning system, listening for the arrival of Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles. The structure was abandoned in the early 90s but has been preserved by the frozen arctic air. If you can gain access and have a torch, you will be taken back in time and discover shelves full of machinery, newspapers resting part-read on a table, and in the case of DYE-2, a well-stocked bar, as when it came time to leave the station, only sensitive technology was taken. DYE-3 has since become engulfed in ice, slowly moving with the glacier.
Incredibly, just as the winds picked up, and the time came for us to shelter, we saw the outline of the dome through the white and felt a mix of joy and relief that we had hit this milestone in the expedition. Little did we know that we would have to wait nearly 48 hours before getting a clear view, as we now needed time to prepare ourselves to be tent-bound and shelter from the incoming storm.
Having slept the best we could, we were woken early by the sound of the wind and the sides of the tent buffeting against us far more than they should. The wind direction had changed.
We were still waking up when the seriousness of the situation was brought to our attention, Kathinka launching herself into the tent. She needed us to get ready as quickly as possible, put everything into the main section and prepare to move the tents.
When a tent is positioned well, it can withstand strong winds, and sitting inside feels reassuringly safe. When the wind attacks from a different angle, however, the tent becomes vulnerable, risks damage and being engulfed in snow. We had to move quickly, and I was soon to discover that it was time for Greenland to teach me a lesson.
Feeling the pressure to hurry up, I had put on what I thought would be sufficient clothing for the time that it would take to move the tents. I had my liner gloves as well as a main pair of gloves over the top. I reached for my goggles and found that there was a layer of ice covering the lenses, as they hadn’t had the usual time in the morning to warm up. They would have to do.
Exiting the tent was a shock to the system. I was instantly knocked off my feet by the wind, and the snow was hitting me with such force that it felt like I’d be buried in seconds if I didn’t get up quickly.
It took all 6 of us to move one tent at a time (3 in total). We were instructed that when we had hold of the tent, “NO MATTER WHAT, DON”T LET GO!” We all had a role to make sure that this was as efficient as possible, and that no tent pegs got lost. Keeping hold of the tent once it was unsecured and moving it to a new position, was a textbook example of teamwork. It was impossible to hear instructions over the noise of the wind, so non-verbal communication and intuition took over.
Despite wearing two sets of gloves, I instantly regretted not putting my mittens on. The position of my hands, gripped tightly on to the tent, made it difficult for the blood to flow well to the extremities. I could feel them getting colder and colder until I struggled to feel them at all. At the same time, I realised that the buff I was wearing was just my fleece ‘bedtime buff’ and it was slowly slipping down past my nose as I was helpless to be able to pull it up. I immediately felt the icy wind biting at my cheek as I desperately tried to turn my whole body away from the attack.
The reality was that turning the tents was a relatively short exercise, but the environment was brutal and unforgiving, and as I fell through the door back to safety, I knew that there would be a consequence for my mistakes.
I slowly tried to re-warm by numb, wooden fingers and felt relief when the painful tingles returned. Over the following days, some of the fingertips blistered, but surprisingly, they didn’t hurt. I kept a close eye on the blood supply, ensuring they were warm in both mittens and pogies (wind resistant gloves attached to the ski poles). The skin on my cheek and part of my chin became like tissue paper and an accidental rub of this brought a sharp stinging pain as it simply peeled away, leaving a raw injury beneath. Left untreated, it could have been the end of the expedition for me, so I diligently applied zinc, kept my face covered at all times, and watched with relief as it gradually started to heal. As awful as it was to experience, I knew that I would never risk it happening again and that it was a lesson I was taking with me to Antarctica.
It wasn’t until 5pm the following day that we were able to get a couple of hours of skiing in. This delay meant that we would need to increase the hours we were moving if we were to make sufficient progress. Earlier starts and later finishes increased our calorie output and I couldn’t help but torture myself with fantasies of home-cooked food and hearty puddings…….. “Mmmmm, apple crumble and custard……!”
Looking back at my diary for reference, it wasn’t until day 27 that visibility finally returned. The difference this made to progress and morale was undeniable. There were high fives as the solar panels kicked into gear and batteries reached full charge again.
Our days got longer, waking at 5am and skiing until we set up camp at nearly 8pm, desperate to cover as much ground as possible. In the back of our minds was the knowledge that we still had to navigate the most challenging terrain of the journey, the heavily crevassed, west coast ice fall.
From the start of the expedition, we’d discussed the need for good weather and visibility to be able to find the safest route through the crevasses. The weather, once again, had other ideas. The wind picked up, visibility disappeared, and we no longer had enough food to afford the luxury of sitting this one out. Originally, we had hoped to complete the expedition in 30 days. We had packed enough food for 34 days, but the full crossing ended up taking us a total of 39 days. We were on reduced rations and facing days of slow progress. We had to accept the risk, don our harnesses, and rope together as a team, carefully moving forwards, feeling for where the ice opened up beneath our skis.
It was toward the end of day 34 that I had my only little wobble. Throughout the expedition, I’d made sure to follow the instruction to eat well and keep energy levels up. I had divided my food in to 5-day bags, so that by the end of the 5 days, I knew that I had to consume all of the calories to help in my recovery and to enable me to continue without a dip in performance. The downside of this, however, was that I was not as prepared as I should have been for such a delay in the completion of the expedition, and I hadn’t started to reduce my intake of food early enough. At this point, I had enough rations to allow myself some small packets of nuts to last the 12 hours of skiing. It was a huge shock to the system. With 2 hours left of the day, my daily allowance had run out and I was preparing to dig deep to get to camp.
Anyone that works with me, knows how much my mood is dictated by food and how a busy day is much more manageable with stable blood sugars! I instantly knew that this was going to become a memorable moment. I stood silently in one of the final breaks of the day, believing that a mixture of willpower and stubbornness would get me through until dinner.
It was, however, impossible to hide from the eyes of Kathinka, who immediately ordered me to eat. And I mean order. Feeling a bit pathetic and not wanting to admit I was hungry, I just shrugged. Then the order came again…and another shrug when she was expecting an answer. It didn’t take long before she, and everyone else, realised that I had no snacks left for the day.
At that moment, I watched in amazement and surprise as team members dug deep in to their pulks and unearthed all sorts of mouth-watering delights. Their kindness and willingness to give up their food made me have a little, pitiful blub. I was thankful that the goggles and mask disguised the snotty mess of this from my teammates, and a couple of mouthfuls of wasabi nuts later, I was like a new person! Another lesson learned.
It was day 35 before we were greeted with the most amazing site…..land! The sun had finally made an appearance, peeking through, and treating us to dramatic mountain views. The snowfall of the previous days meant that we could keep the crampons in the bag and stay on skis for the final day on the ice. For what honestly felt like the first time, our skis pointed downhill, our speed picked up and the natural skiers amongst us were revealed (not me!)
Being close to the coast again, we needed to be more vigilant, keeping an eye out for polar bears. Despite what you might think, polar bears do not look white against the ice, so instead, we were alert to any grey or dark object on the horizon. Eyes were very easily deceived, as we occasionally reached for the binoculars for reassurance. At one point, close to land, we were convinced that there was a polar bear in the distance. One by one we spotted it and to our horror, could see that this dark object was moving, concluding that it couldn’t be anything else. The binoculars came out, but it was so far away, these didn’t initially help in its identification. Gradually it became clear, and our heart rates recovered. This frightening polar bear heading across the ice in our direction was, in fact, an abandoned tent!
We had a waypoint for where we were due to hit land and we happily counted down the kilometres, crossing rivers and particularly undulating terrain until it was within sight……..then our hearts sank. Global warming and the melting of the ice sheet had meant that the waypoint we could now see, was in the middle of one enormous lake! To the left there was an uncrossable river, and we couldn’t see far enough to the right to know what we would find. It was 6:30pm and just when we thought that we would be setting up camp, we had to continue, up and down and up and down the ice until finally, we heard the shrieks from the front that we’d made it!
We’d reached land, but the expedition wasn’t over yet. We still had 3 and a half days of hiking to reach the coast, the final campsite of Fridtjoff Nansen, and were very aware of a rapidly dwindling supply of food. With no hope of a helicopter resupply, we had to put any remaining rations in to a pulk and divide what was left between us. Carrying a fishing rod, we hoped to be able to top this up with a few fresh fish from the river along the way.
The following day, we identified a suitable helicopter site, packed a rucksack each and organised everything else to be picked up in a few days’ time. It was strange to be using our feet instead of skis and it took a little time for our ankles to adjust to the change in movement and the uneven, unstable, rocky ground.
There was no set route or track as we navigated our way across mountains of moraine to reach the start of the river valley that we would follow. We had packed a tent in case we needed shelter, but chose to camp out under the stars, defrosting our sleeping bags as the sun rose in the morning. We were treated to night after night of incredible northern lights, making it difficult to finally close our eyes to sleep. At times I can honestly say that I felt completely content.
The valley sides soon rose steeply as we left the river to follow reindeer tracks over challenging terrain, always aiming toward the coast, but often finding ourselves forging paths through towering vegetation. On reaching the fjord, our celebrations were muted as we discovered that the build-up of silt would make a boat landing impossible. Instead, we had to face another night, and 7 hours of hiking to a suitable landing spot.
Every day was hard and involved digging deep, but the injection of colour and wildlife after weeks of a blank landscape, provided the necessary boost to complete the expedition. With our destination in view, we were greeted by a family of Greenlandic hunters and treated to a warm welcome and fresh coffee. A few steps later and we had the water at our feet and a boat in our sights, filled with cold beer and fresh food. We finally congratulated each other and allowed ourselves to dwell on what we had achieved. A shower and a clean set of clothes was only a few hours away (well, nearly, but that’s another story!). It was now time to reflect on the journey before reluctantly turning the phone back on and crashing back into the real world.