Some months ago now, I returned from the expedition of a lifetime in Arctic Greenland. The period since has been one of the busiest of my life, and it is only now that I’ve had time to finish my account of this journey. It is a cliche to say the expedition is still fresh in my mind, but every moment remains stark ‘in memory half-fierce, half-tender,’ much clearer than what I did yesterday, or a week ago.
It was true exploration. Maps of the area are barely worth the name, and it is riddled with unclimbed mountains. We skied more than 200km, each dragging sledges loaded with 100kg of gear, food and fuel. We encountered polar bears and muskoxen; matched wits with the Arctic fox; survived exhaustion, freezing temperatures, broken skis and blizzard after blizzard. Six weeks went by without seeing a path, a tree or a blade of grass. Six weeks of extraordinary toil, under canvas, exposed always to polar bear, avalanche and crevasse. We twice set foot where no human being has before, and twice more were forced back, tails between our legs.
This is the story of GRNLND 2018.
My favourite of our pre-expedition coverage – particularly the icy twinkle they seem to have added to my eyes
I shall not bore you with the details of organising an expedition to the Arctic; the marathon effort to secure funding and sponsorship; the research nightmare of plotting routes and confirming the unclimbed status of mountains in an area without proper mapping, or the ill-luck which resulted in my teammate’s ski shattering before the expedition had even begun. Even this abridged account of the expedition has had to be broken into three chapters (who doesn’t love a trilogy?) and I regret that I must skate over details such as our first night passing through Iceland: undoubtedly the most frightening of the entire expedition, spent in a one-bed flat belonging to a man who called himself “Daddy”. The reality of what unfolded that night was even more worrying than it sounds, but it is a tale for another time.
Our ride to Constable Point, Greenland
Hurry Fjord from the plane
Suffice it to say that just getting to the start line had proved an expedition in itself. I was exhausted before we’d even set out, and slightly uneasy about starting such a huge undertaking so drained. Some idea of our original plan is to be found here, but in summary: we were to begin with a 120km ski, each dragging 100kg of equipment with us, into the Stauning Alps. Next came the mountain phase, where we aimed to summit 2 unclimbed peaks, and return safely to base. And finally, we would ski further north, via a food depot we had laid on the journey out, to undertake climate change research at a remote glacier.
Our tale therefore begins at the start-line of the expedition proper (2, above), ready to begin skiing for the first time. Location: the snow-blasted wilderness of Greenland’s East Coast. In attendance: me, my teammate Matt, and 200kg of equipment. Our objective: haul our gear 120km to the Stauning Alps (4), where we could make an assault on the local mountains. We had been delivered by snow-mobile the night before, where I recorded the following in my journal:
‘It is a glorious evening, -13’C, gin-clear and splendid. We celebrated our arrival at the start line with a splash of Tokay… Though I must admit I have rarely been so weary, even before setting out. I must retire soon because tomorrow, the challenge begins. There is a long way to go.
‘PS – Discovered my compass has polarized on the flight out and now points exactly in the wrong direction. Don’t forget it you clown, or you’ll end up back at Constable Point.’
Our start-line, and the deep breath before the plunge
At the start of the adventure: my teammate Matthew Hay on the left, me on the right
Because it had been shipped in seperate instalments, this was the first time our pulks (a sledge for carrying gear) had been fully assembled in one place, and we were able to test their weight. They proved formidable, but this was a challenge we’d now have to live with for the next 6 weeks. With clouds overhead and a penetrating wind against us, we strapped on skis, donned harnesses and solemnly shook hands. The journey had begun.
The gorgeous low sun of the Arctic spring
We started on the flat, dragging our twin burdens alongside one another and talking for a time. This soon became impossible, as a series of small inclines required the full capacity of lungs, mind and heart, and we fell into single-file, and silence. 100kg is a dreadful mass to drag through thick snow. Up any kind of incline at all, it becomes all-consuming. Muscles grow leaden and begin to shake. Skin first rubs, then blisters. And progress, particularly in a landscape of such vast mountains and horizons as Greenland, is painfully slow. In the modern world, it seems there are always a thousand tiny tasks awaiting completion. For the next 120km, we had just one big one: to keep on keeping on.
The name for this purest method of polar travel (on skis, pulling everything behind you, powered by mind- and muscle-power alone) is manhauling. The word is perfect. Nothing about it implies the task will be easy. Nothing about it says it will be fast. Like the best words, even saying it, or thinking about it, gives you some insight into what the thing is like. Manhauling sounds like pure effort. It smells of sweat, feels like blisters, but it is also strangely compelling (at least to me).
Manhauling (Photograph Mattew Hay)
Into this physical effort, factor the frustrations of trying to navigate in a land for which no proper maps exist. We had a rough compass bearing to follow, but our course was regularly interrupted by unexpected valleys and hills. Just a few hours into the first day, a process of Pavlovian conditioning had me shuddering involuntarily at the sight of an incline. By that point, our naive energy had dissipated, and we surrendered to the path of a twisting valley, accepting the extended mileage as the price for a more consistent gradient. In fact it turned out not to be a single valley but a network of them, and we were soon crawling through cracks in the landscape like ants between concrete slabs. Over the next few days, we would spend so long enclosed by white walls (which may as well have been vertical for all the ability we had to pull our pulks up them) and hit so many unmapped dead-ends that we came to refer to this place as ‘The Labrynth’.
On that first day, we did not see a single animal. No man, bird or beast. We saw no plants: the ground caped entirely in white. We might’ve been the only living things on earth, doing what life does, and hopelessly carrying on. Around 1800, we set up camp, Matt declaring himself ‘completely cooked’ – an assessment I shared entirely. We had covered 14km as the crow flies (rather more in reality due to the twists and turns of the valley). 106km to go.
Travelling single-file to reduce resistance in the snow, until the time comes to set up camp
There was plenty to do before we could crawl into our sleeping bags, and we began the routine to secure our campsite for the night. Our little tent had to be assembled and sutured into the snow, tightly enough to resist Greenland’s valley-funnelled winds. The stove was fired up; snow melted and boiled for the night meal and to store in vacuum flasks for the next morning. Solar panels were set to charge and sleeping bags left out in the sun to vaporise the accumulated ice, which would otherwise have made each night colder than the last. The bear-perimeter – a thread surrounding our camp, attached to an alarm – was constructed, tested and refined. Rifles, flares and pepper-spray were laid out in readiness. So reflexive did this routine become, and so unsettling were some of the threats we were guarding against, that it began to feel like a ritual incantation.
Our camp, the bear perimeter marked by the (nearly) square outline made as we assembled it
But this country has sweeter weapons, against which our evening ritual was powerless. Assembling camp, I found myself lured outside the bear perimeter by an arresting silence. There was not a breath of wind, nor wings flying overhead, nor so much as the scratching of a leaf.
While Matt prepared the sat-phone to update the team at home on our progress and receive the next day’s weather forecast, I was coaxed up a neighbouring hill (nearly floating without the anchor I’d been dragging all day) and into the wilds. I didn’t even think to take my rifle. Out of sight of camp and high above the valley, I sat down and stared vacantly over the compelling glory of Greenland. I don’t think I’ve ever been so stupefied. The Labrynth stretched as far as I could see: white, riven and sun-blasted. Though I listened for a long time, I heard nothing but my own heartbeat. I didn’t see a single moving object. It was the Arctic distilled, and an experience so powerful that it made me think I’d never encountered genuine silence before.
I stayed for a long time before dragging myself back into camp for a hot meal and to update my journal.
‘This first day really was exactly what I wanted. A true challenge, followed by immense space and bliss. The temperature is dropping and it promises to be a chilly night. Onwards.‘
That was how I finished all my journal entries: Onwards. It seemed to build a reassuring momentum as we grew wearier and our days harder.
Camping beneath a rare skein of cloud
The night (or the grey hours that pass for night at those latitudes) was indeed cold, and we woke to -20’C. The immense stillness from the day before had persisted: so powerful that when we encountered our first animal – a raven which flew over our tent – its wingbeats had the presence of a helicopter.
So began a familiar pattern. We would rise to -20’C or colder, and still huddled into our sleeping bags, boil water for hot chocolate, breakfast and the march ahead. We struck camp, packed our pulks and moved on. Ahead of us, katabatic winds would pour down the valley: visible as a cold, liquid shimmer above the snow. Through it, the world was warped and distorted, as though it were not real at all, and merely one of Greenland’s icy dreams.
Photograph Matthew Hay
Without a cloud in the sky, the radiation from the snow soon overwhelmed the freezing temperatures. We would first sweat, then burn.
‘Sorry Mum, there isn’t enough sunblock in the world to counter this exposure. White on all sides and sun overhead: we may as well be skiing through a parabolic mirror. I have bad sunburn inside my mouth: feels like I’ve been swallowing scalding water.‘
Poor Matt soon had additional problems to contend with. His ski boots were plastic, and despite repeated efforts to mould them to his feet before departure, began giving him grief almost at once. He was very soon past blisters and onto bunyons, his right foot developing a large bony growth which pressed agonisingly against the side of his boot with each step. My poor friend: it looked excruciating. By day 3, he described them as being ‘in tatters’. For my part, I was so stiff in legs, back and shoulders that it felt as though I’d aged 40 years.
Matt taking a precious break from the pressure on his feet
Onwards, through this desert landscape, with dunes of ice and barely a living creature beyond us and the occasional raven.
A distant first glimpse of our destination: the Stauning Alps
In the evenings, we would phone in to update the team at home on our progress, and receive the weather-report. One night, we had word (in coded weather-speak, translated for me by Matt) that there was to be a storm nearby, at 92′ North. As this is 2′ more lattitude than Earth had been thought to hold, we congratulated ourselves on the expedition of the century. And after a while, the idea that we might’ve strayed into an otherworld, 2′ further north than the pole, did not seem so unlikely. The katabatic shimmer with which each day started made it feel as though each acre was only solidified by the act of skiing into it. Whole days could pass without seeing or hearing a single living thing. Often the only evidence that we were not alone at this edge of the Earth was a few Arctic fox prints, picking their way over the snow. One morning, the evidence became more robust: the colossal footsteps of a polar bear, which had walked by our tent during the night.
Matt comparing paws with a bear
The footprints of the ‘lonely wanderer’ came in handy for breaking trail and easing our progress
So as not to worry the party back home, that news was kept out of our evening sitrep. We kept our rifles close. I gave the pepper-spray a little test, which I misjudged terribly, resulting in much sneezing and cursing. I even managed to get some on the valve for my inflatable sleeping mat, so that for weeks afterward my mouth burned every time I prepared for sleep.
‘You utter buffoon – call yourself an explorer?‘
Our terrible maps forced us to cross one ravine after another, each time praying we wouldn’t find another on the far side, and each time disappointed. It became harder and harder to summon the violent surge of willpower required for a weighted climb, especially when set against the generalised exhaustion and fatigue with which we now awoke each morning.
‘Days are getting harder. 12km progress as the crow flies today, in extremely testing circumstances. Every time I thought we’d finally done it and escaped The Labrynth, another ravine lay before us. And then another, and another. Started very weary with unmistakable signs of a huge calorie deficit. Absolutely cooked this evening, cannot wait for sleep.‘
Our tiny campsite, swallowed by Greenland, and the gentle valleys which had become so daunting with our heavy pulks
One day, climbing out of a valley to overlook the distant sea-ice, we detected enormous shapes on the horizon. It looked like a city, though we weren’t expecting any inhabited areas between us and our destination. All became clear the next morning, when we at last escaped The Labrynth and arrived on the gloriously flat frozen sea.
Palace-sized sculptures, crumbled from some immense glacier and lodged in the frozen fjord. An alien city of triumphant architecture, eerie statues and broad streets, for which our exhaustion and objective were forgotten. We unharnessed and wandered in silence, taking pictures which completely failed to capture the scale of this cold metropolis.
The fjord may have been flat, but it was also polar bear country. That night, camped on ice which sighed and cracked on the tide beneath our feet, and occasionally glancing up to check for bears, I confided the following to my journal:
‘I watched [the Alex Garland film] Annihalation just before I came out here. At one point, the hard-bitten psychologist declares: “We are disintegrating; physically as fast as mentally.” It feels appropriate now. Morale is still good, but we are both extremely weary and seem to get slower each day. I am burnt to the extent that my nose feels like it’s about to fall off. I have cracks and blisters everywhere on hands and feet. The backs of my fingers are rotten with chillblains which burn and keep me awake. My lips are cracked, my eyes sore, and my flesh melting before my eyes. Most of all though, I am just so very weary.‘
Only to my journal could such things be admitted. Morale was vital and we kept these thoughts out of our conversation. Privately, I was beginning to wonder at what stage it would become unsustainable. Even with 6,000 calories per day of purpose-built expedition rations and extra chunks of butter melted into my evening meals, I was turning into a stick figure. And for some reason (probably the calorie deficit) whenever I lay down exhausted at the end of the day, wanting nothing so much as a few hours of darkness, I found I could not sleep. I would lie awake for hour after hour, so bothered by small noises – such as the soft knocking of a thermometer against a ski-pole – that I would have to crawl out of my warm bag and into the -20’C twilight to put a stop to it.
As painful as the miles had become, I felt in rude health compared with Matt. His feet were now excruciating, despite daily strapping, painkillers and anti-inflammatories. There was nothing to do but carry on, but I have had my fair share of trips in uncomfortable footwear and have felt that demoralising agony myself. If you have not, allow me to describe: it takes over everything. The mere suggestion of movement precipitates dread. It saps your energy, multiplying the doubts and exertions that you must already contend with. Those are my experiences, and I have never had anything as bad as what Matt was enduring.
1000 calories of hot, exceptionally welcome rations courtesy of Extreme Adventure Foods
At least on the flat sea-ice, we could be sure of consistent progress, and we made a final beeline for Gurreholm: an old cabin which our logistics partner had advised us we would find by the frozen sea. We were both looking forward to a night with solid walls: warm, dark, and secure from the polar-bear threat. But we arrived to find a ruin, half-engulfed by snow. It had clearly been in this state for decades, and not realising what a beacon this would come to represent for our morale, we had failed to clarify what condition the cabin would be in. I think it was a blow for us both (it certainly was for me) but again we did not mention it: putting on a brave face and wearily assembling our tent once more, next to the ruin.
In the evenings, we had begun listening to a ghost story set in the High Arctic: the sinister Dark Matter, by Michelle Paver. I would later learn that the author has travelled extensively in the north, which came as no surprise. She captured the tone of this remote corner of the earth perfectly, and adrift in this silent, eerie void, the story was at times a little too atmospheric. The ruined Gurreholm (built in 1937 – the very year Dark Matter is set) bore an uncanny resemblance to Gruhuken, the cabin in the book which is haunted by a long-dead trapper who had been skinned alive.
Setting up camp with the buried, ruined station of Gurreholm behind (Photograph Mattew Hay)
To raise spirits, we marked this milestone by breaking out some of our rare treat-foods: a sticky-toffee pudding and a hip-flask of Tokay: the wine beloved of Lord Asriel, a character in the book Northern Lights (The Golden Compass in the US) by Philip Pullman. It is only recently that I have absorbed the impact this novel had on me. Apart from quoting it endlessly to one another on the expedition, I rather suspect that it is the entire reason I was there at all. Ever since I was a child, I have had an untraceable suspicion that I should live in the Arctic; a feeling I now attribute to reading Northern Lights, and Pullman’s description of the frozen north.
I ended up living in Svalbard, the setting for much of the book. I became an explorer, the profession of John Parry and Lord Asriel: the fathers of the book’s two protagonists. I have become a writer, and now live in a canal boat, like the Gyptians who feature so heavily in the story. And the one drink I made sure to bring with me for this expedition was Tokay: Lord Asriel’s favourite. None of these choices have been conscious (it would’ve been slightly tragic if they had) but if Northern Lights wasn’t responsible for a large number of them, then there have been some remarkable coincidences.
Another reason for deploying some treat-foods was that the challenges ahead remained daunting. This was just the first stage of our expedition, and there was a long way left to go. The mountains coming into view, which we would have to scale during the next phase, had grown intimidatingly steep and jagged. That evening, after a particularly painful day from his feet, Matt admitted to being ‘at [his] lowest ebb‘. But we had no choice.
Closing in on the Stauning Alps
The sun continued to beat down and we turned for Gurreholmdal, a valley where we would lay a supply depot that we could use during the science phase of the expedition. Once we were done mountaineering, the plan was to come back this way to begin our climate-change research; collecting our buried food, fuel and equipment en route. I had been looking forward to this moment, for it meant we were able to jettison many kilos of gear and lighten our pulks considerably.
Our greatest worry when assembling the depot was Arctic foxes, who we had been advised had foiled the attempts of the last few expeditions here to bury supplies. Each team had returned to find their essential cache shredded by foxes, and now consisting of an oatcake wrapper or two drifting in the wind. We had so far seen fox-prints everywhere, though not so much as a hair of this supremely adapted traveller. The wiser course would probably have been to keep all our food with us: if the depot was raided, it would spell disaster for our expedition at just the half-way stage. But the weight was too much. We could not go on as we were and still have the energy to complete our upcoming objectives. In that moment, I would have taken the risk twice over.
To deter the foxes, we sealed our supplies in air-tight bags and dug them 2m into the snow. We reasoned that should be enough, but for good measure also covered the top of our depot in pepper-spray. After my own encounter with this noxious substance, I was confident it would deter digging, rather than provide seasoning for our rations. We took a careful waypoint of the location, and moved on.
(Photograph Matthew Hay)
Crossing a frozen lake in Gurreholmdal (Photograph Matthew Hay)
Our pulks lightened considerably, we began our ski into the mountains. Gurreholmdal was filled with two feet of granular snow, which meant heavy resistance for our final days. But at last, just within the schedule laid out before we started our expedition, we stumbled into our planned basecamp. We both tried to absorb the achievement of getting to this stage. We had skied our 120km (more – much more, given the navigational challenges and twisting valleys we’d had to follow) to reach this point on schedule. The first phase was done, but we were both shattered already. We had been baked by the relentless sun, badly frayed by the long hours in the harness, and were in no condition to climb the waiting mountains.
It is difficult to adequately describe an experience like this, when you are tested, mentally and physically, without reprieve. The first phase of our expedition was about unrelenting drive. There were no rules or deadlines to this mission, beyond those we’d imposed ourselves. Nothing to hold us to schedule beyond our own diminishing willpower.
Reaching the Staunings was hard, but it was also special. The lands we had passed through were oddly, weirdly vacant. All smell was frozen, so there was nothing to occupy my nose. The sights were uniformly white and glittering. There was no sound whatsoever, beyond that which we made ourselves. The weather did not change from still air and unbroken sunshine; animal signs were rare, and the sun hardly set. Looking back, there was an eerie sense of things being missing, like it was a world only half-finished. Now, those memories haunt me like an unusally vivid dream.
It was just the beginning.