Peter Wilson

MY GREENLAND ADVENTURE – BRUTAL & BEAUTIFUL by Peter Wilson

Wow! We made it successfully across the icecap in just over 29 days. It was brutal and beautiful in equal measure and not without incident. We were shocked when we lost Mikael Strandberg to an emergency evacuation because of a serious concussion in the crevasse field on day #1! However, Mikael Mattsson stepped up to lead us magnificently and he performed like a trojan as we worked as a team to cross the ice cap.

Pulling the sled was the easy part for me, however living in the -20C environment was an education. There is much I would do differently with the experience I gained and that will be the subject of my next blog. The whole adventure was a fantastic education in the working of Nature on an icecap with incredible experiences, vistas, and emotions unfolding hourly.

Our sponsors were vital: Iridium providing satellite communications for our daily updates and for James Ketchell’s ‘Exploring the World for Kids’ calls into schools; TotalCool for their solar panels and power banks which worked perfectly to juice the whole teams requirements; and, Oddizzy for whom we collected school geography assets. I lost 6.5 kg even though I was eating an average of over 4,500 kcals per day, while James and Mikael lost even more. Now relieved to be back in civilisation I have recovered from the adrenalin slump and am very happy to be eating and training normally again.

The team gathered in Copenhagen on the 28th of April and the next day we bombarded Air Greenland with our luggage for the flight to Kangerlussuaq. There we prepared for taking another PCR test, fuelling our bottles with JET A1, packing our sleds, checking our stoves, organising our transport, and capturing stories for Oddizzy. Itching to get going we relocated on the 2nd of May (Expedition Day 00) to Point 660 and skied 1.4 km to get 1 km closer to our end point which was the Grill Hut near Isortoq on the east coast if the sea ice prevented a boat exit. We established our first camp on the ice at the edge of the crevasse field at 500 m above sea level. This was finally it: just Iridium satellite phones and Garman InReach for all our weather and communications.

I was as prepared for this expedition as one could be. Fitness-wise pulling tyres for over 500 km was perfect preparation for pulling the sled through all sorts of conditions on crampons and skis and the shape of the Nylas sled was faultless. I had used 200 km of tyre pulling to get my body comfortable with the tugging of a Fjellpulken waist harness. Then in the last 30 days before we left, I completed 300 km building up to 16.5km per day – I was rocking!

The 3rd of May represented Expedition Day 01. Strandberg was suddenly harnessed up and announced he would scout our early route alone. The remaining four of us decamped, harnessed up and followed Mattsson to meet up with Strandberg who was now waving to us. We changed from skis to crampons and struggled over the crevasse field with the sleds sliding erratically and easily over the blue ice. It was methodical route scouting and then slow, careful progress.

Strandberg was rambling, repeating himself and had appeared to have suffered memory loss. After three hours (2.2 km, 1.5 closing) we stopped and made camp to assess his condition. The mission doctor diagnosed a severe concussion from a fall we didn’t see and recommended immediate evacuation. Strandberg chose to wait the night and reassess in the morning. That night it snowed about 10cm. Strandberg was in an even worse state in early Day 02 and an evacuation was arranged. The 11-tonne helicopter hovering over our tented camp caused a storm of recirculating snow and it was chaos for over 20 minutes while Strandberg was winched away leaving us to repair our tents and recover our scattered belongings. In parallel we received our permit to continue with Mattsson as our leader. Stunned at what had happened we still made 5 km that afternoon closing 3.8 km with all our careful zigzagging around crevasse obstacles.

Day 03 we covered 5.7 km manhandling our sleds and closed 5 km, pulling first James and then Mikael out of holes in snow bridges that collapsed under them, and meeting up with two Polish guys also crossing. We finally cleared the crevasse field on Day 04 and managed 9 km on our skis with full length skins. In four days, we had covered just 15.5km and closed only 11 km. It had been physical, slow going with sometimes three of us to one sled to get it safely across obstacles.

In the next three days we covered 58.3 km closing 57 km – the difference now being driven by cross track error while navigating – James and Mikael were very accurate at navigating regularly taking a true bearing from the Garmin and converting it to a magnetic compass bearing to use. On Day 05 James broke a ski binding with his right ankle action – the legacy of a serious motorcycle accident in his youth – and he switched to a spare ski. In addition, I started to swap my hydrated food with Mikael to lessen the unwelcome effect my hydrated food seemed to be having on my bowels! I also started taking one Imodium per day – not ideal. Day 06 Milka Raulin developed muscular leg pains which slowed her progress. We switched to short skins day 06 and passed Waypoint #2 (1483 m above sea level) continuing another 3.5 km in a cold, wet white out. It was chaos putting up the tents and I suffered frost nip across the tips of all my fingers down to the first knuckle. It was -24C and with the wind chill -37C. We were not happy and needed time to dry out, get the snow out of everything and make our water before we set off again in the morning. Fortunately, Day 08 was bright, but it was harder pulling through the fresh snow.

On Day 09 we redistributed the sled loads to unload Milka and positioned her to follow in Mikael’s tracks at #2. While it was cold and windy, we closed 20 km for five consecutive days. James broke a second binding on Day 14, and we instigated a rotation with my skis to reduce the exposure time on his right foot of any one ski – we didn’t have any more spares! Day 14 was also another very cold one at -23C – exposure of skin is not an option at this temperature. Day 16 was also completed in a headwind and a white out. Mikael broke out a flask of Bourbon to celebrate ‘half time’ and subsequently he produced small inducements like reindeer sausage and chocolate for other small milestones – lifting our morale. My stomach was still not happy with what we assessed was the palm oil in my dehydrated food. I was now using up James’ Imodium and spent most afternoons being careful not to poop my pants as the harness tugged against my lower abdomen!

We closed 22 km per day for the next four days passing Waypoint 3 (2399m) on Day 19 which had us down to our underwear it was so warm – we’d now had good weather for three days. On Day 20 we slept at the highest point on our route, 2,500m above sea level. Our ‘top of Greenland’ was essentially flat and covered in two to six inches of snow which made progress demoralizingly slow. We had hoped for some of the hardpacked and sometimes icy conditions of our assent, but the Greenland icecap was throwing everything at us. On Day 19 we reached Waypoint 4 and while Day 20 was a complete another whiteout which ‘topped up’ my frost nipped fingertips and I was forced to adjust my glove strategy borrowing from James. Day 21 we struggled with the 25 cm of new snow that had fallen. Day 22 we still managed to cover 22.2 km closing 22 km in a further complete white out and storm where this time James’ fingers got wet while we were fighting the conditions to get our tent up and he later developed frostbite on five of them.

Day 23 we hid in our tents all day from a howling storm that completely enveloped us in snow in despite our wall building. Fortunately, we had our spades inside the tent, and we were able to dig ourselves out, then we had to dig our sleds out and then our tent and its pegs. As a result, we started Day 24 late at 5am albeit still early! The landscape looked amazing: like a frozen sea with a tidal rush – lots of little waves. Once again it was tough skiing the deep snow, but we closed 30.6km, our best effort yet. James’ right ankle was now causing him extreme discomfort and we once again adjusted loads between us to help keep the team average speed up.

On Day 25 we started at 7am (one hour early than our normal routine) and closed 37 km skiing until 1am before putting the tents up before another forecast storm with high winds. I boiled water enough for the morning. During the day the connectors between Mikael’s harness and sled shackles snapped and required a fix which he managed from Strandberg’s tools and spares in about 5 minutes.

For the whole of Day 26 we hid again from the storm with 80 kph advertised winds. Mikael planned the route for our final three days and since we’d booked our helicopter extraction for the afternoon of Day 29, we wanted to be there. We had 99 km to close in the next three days to get to the Grill Hutt co-ordinates.

We awoke to a metre of snow and on the morning of Day 27 and had a real job digging ourselves out of the tent, locating our completely buried sleds and all the tent peg once again. With that much snow Mattsson was finally defeated after taking the lead for 3.5 km and we rejuggled the loads in the sleds and started taking one kilometre turns in the lead, stopping for our drink and snacks every five kilometres. Milka was on fire and because she was light, she could skim the snow more easily than us and she volunteered for most of the extra legs until she too was knackered. We closed 23.2 km and prayed that the conditions would improve. Day 28 we closed 31.5 km and reached Waypoint 6 (1502 m) maintaining the rotation every one kilometre with me taking up most of the extra legs. It was sunny with great visibility and a strong tailwind. The heavy snow of yesterday had been transformed: in the morning it was harder, and we weren’t breaking through. The wind pushed us, and sometime gusts knocked us clean over. Into the evening the snow began to ice up and by the end of the day, we were flying along and falling over more often. Again, we stopped late, and James and I build our best wall before we could put the tent up. We were both wearing latex gloves between our thin under gloves and our working camp gloves. This worked well to protect our finger.

It was remarkable how the snow conditions had change from the day before. Day 29 was an epic last day and started with the same icy, hard conditions which made it easy to pull the sleds. Mikael was now comfortably back in the lead, Milka bobbed along in #2 position, and I sometime switched positions with James who was in pain with his right ankle. He struggled on all day. With a good sunny day, we had all the conditions of snow after the ice as it softened and then into the evening crisped up again. We pushed on and saw mountains with 35 km to close, the ocean with 23 km to close. James and I were able to toboggan down the steeper hills at speed which was fun and a bit of variety. With about 16 km to go we made water for dinner and agree to continue all the way to the Grill Hut. We passed through some freezing fog before it dropped to zero visibility and then with 12 km to close, we happened upon the tracks of a group of 10 skiers and followed then all the way down to 98 m above sea level at the Grill Hut arriving at 4am in the morning of day 30. Coming off the icecap we were back into crevasses with streams of water and heads of blue ice. This was not as difficult as the start from Point 660 but nonetheless we had to pick our way. We were all tiring and we skied 45.2 km and close 44.3 km this long day. We were motivated by the variety of scenery and conditions, the end goal insight and the increased gradient which was making it easy to progress rapidly and talk of what we would do first hen we got back to civilisations. Our Nylas sleds on ropes now had a nasty habit of trying to overtake us and making us fall. This was the one day when Mikael’s Jemtlander fixed poles arrangement was superior.

We climbed up to the Grill Hut itself and took our celebratory team pictures looking a bit worse for wear. We were happy and mightily relieved. We had done it! Due to a mixture of priorities and weather we had to wait another 56 hours before we finally heard the unmistakable blade slap of the old Bell 212. It was a fabulous surprise to be picked up by my friend Jens P Larson who delighted us with coffee, biscuits, and cokes. In Tasiilaq we immediately sorted our equipment for shipping with Royal Artic Lines, grabbed a makeshift dinner from the local store and finally took a long shower at the Red Hotel able to sleep in a proper bed. Bliss! We enjoyed Jens’ company for the flight from Tasiilaq to Kulusuk, a cooked breakfast at the hotel there and for me a meet up with both Jens and his wife when she flew the Air Greenland Dash 8 into Kulusuk. We had last met on my Three Journeys Round project in 2017 and 2019. Magic.

On Day 33 we all said our goodbyes in Reykjavik and went our separate ways. We had skied 565 km to close 552 km between Point 660 on the west coast near Kangerlussuaq and the Grill Hut on the east coast near Isortoq following Lars Wallgren’s route in reverse. The Greenland icecap was a cruel, stunning life-changing experience. What next?

Peter Wilson

Adventurer, Pilot, author

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