Retirement comes as a bit of shock to most people and many people founder in the doldrums of loss of pupose and direction. I decided at 66 years old that I needed a challenge to reinvigorate my life and restore my self-esteem. I stupidly decide to cross Greenland on skis; a five week journey of 600Km pulling an 85Kg sledge over the world’s second largest ice cap in temperatures down to -40 degC
The crunch of Inuits walking through the snow outside the bright yellow clapper-board community centre masked the yapping of the huskies in the village. Jagged snow-covered mountains surrounded the brightly painted, steep-roofed houses of Tasiilaq situated on an ice-bound inlet in eastern Greenland. Polar bear skins stretched on frames dried in the feeble noon-day sun and pale-yellow huskies chained to posts, barked and frolicked in the deep snow.
Greenland was once a Danish colony and Inuit children were required to complete their education in Denmark. Many did not return, but those who did, failed to make much of an impression on the Inuit way of life. Amauti and mukluks may have given way to colourful North Face jackets and synthetic snow boots, but the Inuit still hunt and fish in the traditional way. Alcohol is a problem and bars are only allowed to open for limited periods at the weekends. Neglected Inuit children were cared for by Danish missionaries in the hall below out dormitory. I read children’s stories to a group of the kids each day and one little girl was fascinated by the hairs on my arms. I could only assume that Inuit have little body hair.
We were scheduled to helicopter across the iceberg strewn Denmark Strait to the Hann glacier to start our crossing of Greenland. Our planned route was across the icecap from Tasiilaq to Kangerlussuaq on the west coast. It was six hundred kilometres and would take about five weeks. We were unsupported and we aimed to drag our provisions, cooking fuel and clothing in orange plastic sledges called pulkas by ropes attached to our belts.
The pulkas weighed about 85 Kg and we would haul them over the 9,000ft high icecap wearing thin Nordic skis with sealskins. We would then descend the very gentle slope towards the west coast, where the icecap terminated in a confusion of tortured ice, melting snow and crevasses known as the ice fall.
We needed to be prepared for a violent catabatic wind called ‘the Piteraq’ which could sweep down without warning from the ice cap at over 300 kilometres per hour. Each night we had to build a two-metre-high wall of ice blocks around our tents to protect our camp.
Polar bears migrate north in the spring and often take a short cut inland to the west of Tasiilaq.
Our track crossed their migration route, so our guide, Max, and I went to a trading post to rent a gun. We walked down a narrow icy path towards a large snow drift with a chimney stack belching black smoke sticking out the top. The dilapidated wooden trading post was almost hidden in the bank of snow and, under a small porch, fur pelts hung from pegs either side of the deeply scratched door. We pushed our way in and walked into a gloomy, smoky room. The walls were lined with stuffed animals and shelves overflowing with hunting equipment. The flames from an old iron stove in a corner cast dancing shadows among the cluttered bric-a-brac. I moved towards the stove and gratefully warmed my hands.
“Costs me a fucking fortune!”
An enormous man with long white hair and a bushy grey beard stood behind the cluttered counter, peering at me with his beady eyes. He looked like an albino ferret poking it’s nose out of a Polar bear’s arse.
He bit off a piece of hardfiskur and chewed noisily.
“You don’t get much wood round here.” he continued in a heavy Danish accent, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.
“Can I help?” he asked, spraying us with flecks of dried fish.
Max explained what we wanted, and the trader lifted down a dusty, antiquated rifle and placed it on the counter. He wiped if off, opened the breech and showed us how to use it. He put the safety catch on and handed me the heavy weapon.
He asked us why we wanted it, and I explained.
“For Fanden!” he muttered “are you mad?”
I pointed the gun towards the door and squinted through the sights. I noticed the barrel was significantly bent towards the left.
“No problem” he laughed, “just aim 5 centimetres to the right”
I felt very encouraged.
The bright red helicopter leaped into the air in a cloud of ice and snow and clattered back to Tasiilaq leaving us alone on the ice. We were a team of five including the French guide. Two of the skiers were almost half my age, built like brick shit houses who had taken part in a race to the magnetic north pole the previous year.
I was Methuselah’s granddad built like custard pudding and had trouble just staggering to the local pub. I felt seriously inadequate. I had trained for 9 months pulling a tractor tyre around a field, but I had serious doubts.
We started off and I quickly discovered that pulling the pulkas in soft snow uphill was seriously difficult. I had rope, a shovel and an ice axe strapped to the top of my pulka which made it top heavy. Max’s sledge rolled over onto its side, slid down the slope and broke the polar bear gun in two.
I hoped we wouldn’t stumble across any migrating Polar bears.
I was bloody cold and knackered.
I lay in my sleeping bag wearing my down jacket and a woolly hat. Each time I exhaled, my warm breath rose to the top of the tent, condensed and fell on me as a personal mini- snow storm. Gareth, the doctor, was beside me in the cramped two-man tent boiling water from chunks of ice on the small Primus stove. We didn’t carry water, we used the stove to melt ice, and we needed eight litres of water each. That’s an awful lot of snow and ice to melt in our piddly little one-litre kettle. It took forever.
The food was high calorie, high protein and highly boring. Dinner commenced with an amuse-bouche of cup-a-soup followed by the plat principal of ‘Turmat’ freeze-dried expedition food and finished off by le dessert of muesli with powdered milk and chocolate. Yum!
After a few days of arduous trekking, the mountains of the fjords of the east coast were no longer visible behind us. We were at the centre of a giant upturned china plate which stretched to the horizon and merged seamlessly with the nebulous, chalky sky.
When Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon, he described it as ‘beautiful, magnificent desolation’. Greenland is a cold featureless plain of white moon-dust, nothing grows, and nothing can survive.
A little bird landed on my pulka in a snow storm and sheltered behind the shovel. How could it be so far off course? We tried to feed it, but in the morning, it was gone.
I felt sad.
We averaged 25–30Km each day and made good progress towards the top of the ice cap.
The wind turned southwest, and a snow storm blew up. We had trekked for twelve hours and we now had to build a second wall. I forced the tip of the ice saw into the snow and sawed the ice into 60cm blocks. The blizzard drove the snow into drifts as we made the walls from the blocks. It was back- breaking work and it took two hours to build our defences.
Eventually, I crawled into my sleeping bag exhausted.
The wind was ferocious during the night and tugged at the thin material of the tent relentlessly. The diaphanous layer of nylon was all that was between us and probable death. Part of the wall collapsed in the middle of the night with a mighty woomph. I prayed that we wouldn’t have to get up and repair it. Luckily no-one stirred.
In the morning the wind had died down and I had my first ever attack of claustrophobia. Snow had piled against the sides of the tent, making the small space smaller. I felt suffocated, overwhelmed, out of control, everything was closing in on me. There was no way I could continue, what on earth was I doing there? It was time to call it a day. But I couldn’t give up, rescue wasn’t possible. I would let the team down and I couldn’t live with that.
I was suffocating.
I had to get out
Hyperventilating, I scrambled out of my sleeping bag, I threw on my clothes and frantically unzipped the door of the tent. I stepped into a magical world; in the curling mist the sun’s pale disk peeked over the horizon and a pavane of ice crystals tumbled and glittered in the early morning light.
I looked up to the sky, opened my arms and took a deep breath. All would be OK.
I had mouth ulcers and my bleeding lips were cracked from frost bite. I slept on my back with my mouth closed and by the morning my lips had fused together with scabs. I gently poked my tongue out through the corner of my mouth and worked it along my lips to open my mouth. God it hurt!
The temperature approached -40C and froze our lungs with every breath. We had rasping coughs and Gareth had frost bite on his face. I ignored severe blisters on my heels, I had no choice.
The routine was always the same. With military precision I had a shit every morning at 6.10am in a snow hole which we dug the night before. The name of the game was to do it as quickly as possible without freeze-drying one’s arse. It was a time-consuming ritual to prepare for the dash outside. First, we scraped the ice from our sleeping bags and then pulled on long johns and sweaters while sitting in the sleeping bag. Finally, we donned our parkas, quilted trousers and snow boots and made the dash outside. The secret was to expose your arse to the elements for as little time as possible. Undo belt pull down trousers, long johns and underwear in one smooth action. Squat — shit — wipe arse — pull up clothing, hope your gonads hadn’t frozen and dropped off or, in your eagerness, you hadn’t commenced the shitting action too soon.
The turds froze before they hit the snow with a thud.
‘We must be there soon.’
Gusts of wind tugged at my anorak, hurling clouds of ice laden snow in my face. The matted fur ruff around my hood, crusted with frozen snow and ice, flapped noisily against my steamed-up goggles.
‘Just follow the skis.’
The greasy green anorak of Max was dimly visible in front of me. He pulled his dented orange pulka topped with a bulbous faded blue tarpaulin. The drifting snow piled up under the runners and covered my tarp, adding extra weight and making it difficult to pull.
Max purposely strode forward, the ropes attached to his waist slackened and tightened with each step, jerking the heavy sledge fitfully forward.
‘Keep the rhythm.’ ‘One-two-three-four.’
My lime green skis looked ridiculously narrow and the skins made a metallic sound with each stride as they scythed through the snow. My faded black expedition boots were ripped along one seam and beginning to show the signs of excessive wear. Would they last the distance? A scatter-gun of ice shards hurled by the Piteraq penetrated the layers of my leggings, stung my skin and melted, only to refreeze in my boots.
With our heads bowed against the maelstrom, my three companions were strung out in a ragged conga. Their anoraks were a splash of vivid reds and greens in a landscape utterly devoid of any definition or colour, vibrant ice breakers in a crystallised moonless sea.
‘Don’t lose the rhythm.’
‘The-Grand Old-Duke of York — he had- ten thou-sand men.’
The blizzard was ferocious. The relentless wind barrelled down from the icecap whipping up the surface of the snow into a frenzy, the wind chill dropped to well below -50C. Capricious gusts of wind found their way into every crevice, every weak spot, the headwind was an invisible hand pushing me back.
I was so tired.
I had imagined that we would be romantic adventurers like Nansen or Shackleton. It seemed like a good idea at the time
How fucking stupid.
Six hundred sodding kilometres pulling an 85 kg sledge in temperatures down to minus 40? Are you mad? My friends said.
They were right.
We’d been battling for twelve hours, we must be there soon. I could no longer feel my legs. My arms ached from the repetitious pulling and striding. I was sweating profusely under my anorak, my merino wool underwear wicked out the moisture which froze instantaneously into a white fuzz of hoar frost. I resembled a lurching, shambling Yeti.
I’m sure the others weren’t suffering like me, but I mustn’t let them see I was struggling
Each step was a gargantuan effort ‘He-marched them-up to the-top of the-hill.’
The sound of the wind was deafening, it roared, flapped tugged and swirled. A cannonade of ice pellets hit my hood with a thunderously disorientating clatter.
‘And he-marched them-down-a-gain.’
There was a hardly definable, subtle change in the light, a fleeting moment of texture, a slight shadow. I was sure I could see something in the distance through the crinkled clingwrap of my world. It was an amorphous blur, a smudge in the infinite distance.
Was I mistaken?
‘One-green-bottle-hanging on a-wall.’
Doggedly we continued.
Whatever it was, it was large, a brooding intangible ghostly galleon, a murky satanic mill.
The slope increased gently, and the pace slowed. The wind forced the snow between my mask and stung my face, my goggles steamed up inside and there was no way to wipe them. My vision became more and more myopic, there was no horizon no sky, nothing.
‘There’d be-no-green bot-tles, and-no bloody-wall.’
In the maelstrom the shape became darker and more defined, the blurred edges sharpened into purposeful angles. It appeared to be a frozen Taj Mahal. The Mughal dome slowly metamorphosed into a multi-faceted, gigantic golf ball, the minarets into ice encrusted aerials.
It was a cathedralic sanctuary from the elements. Majestic organ music filled my befuddled mind as we wearily unclipped our pulkas and clambered stiffly and unsteadily down a steep snow drift to a broken metal door flapping cantankerously on the side.
The abandoned radar station welcomed us into its eerily silent, frigid maw.
It was dark and cold, very cold. Snow drifts filled the corridors and spilled into the bedrooms. Ice hung from pipes in the ceilings and coated the peeling walls. Marie-Celeste-like, mattresses, newspapers and overflowing ashtrays littered the rooms.
We forged through the snow filled corridors and clambered up the stairs to the canteen. The stainless-steel kitchen equipment glinted in the light from our head lamps and a faded poster of a woman in an Hawaiian skirt hung incongruously on a wall. A green plastic Christmas tree stood on a table by the entrance.
Dye 2 early-warning radar station was an early casualty of the thawing Cold War. It was quickly abandoned in 1986 and left to sink ignominiously into the Greenland icecap.
It was so out of place, a blot on the pristine landscape. It would have been nice if the Americans had taken their rubbish with them when they left.
The icecap descends towards the west, and as it changes direction, crevasses form in the bends. It terminates in a tumble of steep, house-sized chucks of ice called the icefall.
Normally the gaps between the ice blocks were filled with snow which made it easy to ski, but the snow had melted prematurely.
We spent a day roped together as we crossed a crevasse field. The dark blue chasms disappeared into the void below our feet as we trudged along. By the end of the day the snow had become wet and slushy.
We broke camp on our last day. We were almost there, it was a heady feeling. Thirty minutes later we were amazed to find a lake in front of us shimmering in the bright sunlight. It stretched as far as we could see. We made a long detour around the lake, but we were forced to cross fast flowing streams of ice-cold water and slush. Max led the way and we followed in his footsteps.
The sound of rushing water filled my ears as I inched towards the stream. My skis, partially obscured by floating slush, slipped below the surface. The resistance of the moving water slowed each step and soon my calf-high boots filled with water. My feet instantly froze. The water gradually rose above my knees as I pushed forward. What if I was dragged under by the pulka? What if I missed the track and stepped into deeper water? I started to breathe heavily with my heart racing. The water was almost to my waist in mid-stream when my pulka followed me into the river. Thankfully it floated, but it shot downstream and nearly yanked me over. The current had carved a steep bank in the snow on the far side where Max waited to help me out. My pulka tugged at me as I tried to negotiate the steep slope and my skis crossed. I grabbed Max’s outstretched hand but fell chest deep into the torrent. Max and Gareth dragged me out and I lay shivering and panting on the ice.
We were wet and miserable as we continued towards Kangerlussuaq, aiming for a moraine at the base of the icefall. At the beginning of the day the planned distance was 19.7km. We had trekked for hours, but we weren’t far from where we started.
The flat watery icescape slowly gave way to an uneven vista of ice hillocks and crevasses. Streams flowed into the fissures and hollowed out the ice underneath which collapsed into huge holes known as kettles. We crossed the crevasses without a second thought, I became blasé and paused with the tips and tails of my skis either side of the gaping crack to take photographs of the bottomless blue-black crevice below.
Eventually we reached the icefall proper and started to navigate the mountains of ice. It was exhausting dragging the pulkas up the steep sides of the mounds. At the top, I continued over the brow and paused with the pulka just below the apex on the far side. As soon as I pulled the pulka over the top it became an unguided missile. I side-stepped and jinked one way or another but my homicidal pulka took me out every time. On one occasion I was certain that I had outwitted it, but it crashed into the back of my heels and knocked me backwards on top of it. We careered down the slope and fell into a small stream meandering between the hills of ice with a splash.
We stopped for dinner on the ice as the sun dipped towards the horizon at 11pm. We had been trekking for 14 hours and still had 9km to go. We voted to continue through the night.
Wispy bands of cirrus clouds in the azure sky radiated from the horizon and embraced the half-moon above. The ice field was clearly visible in the twilight as Max climbed a large mound to survey our route towards the setting sun. It was still and calm.
Our progress was slow, and when the sun rose at 3am, we took off our skis and continued on crampons. We glimpsed the moraine in the distance, I never thought a slab of brown rock could look so welcoming. It was the first piece of dry land we had seen for four weeks.
Seven hours later we reached the base of the moraine after 26 hours of non-stop effort.
It wasn’t quite the end, we had to drag our equipment 200 metres up the moraine to meet our transport. At 11am I fell asleep in the middle of the road and was nearly run over by our truck.
We were housed in a faded brown wooden Nissan hut on the old US Airforce base of Sondestrom and it felt better than any five-star hotel I had ever been in.
I have been asked what I wanted most when I arrived. Surprisingly it wasn’t a beer, it was a shower. I stood under the hot stream of water and looked down. I was ripped, I could see my feet for the first time in ages. I had lost 17 Kg and even my muscles had muscles.
I felt great.
I had achieved something special, I felt validated.
I had overdosed on endorphins. We walked 1,300,000 steps and burnt 8,000 calories a day. I felt fantastic for a while, but after a few months I was depressed again.
Instead of feeling contented, I felt hollow, something was missing.
I needed another hit.