Reflections on a speed expedition
As many of you may have read about, either here or elsewhere on and off the web, August saw an expedition which was somewhat unusual for me. Along with my team-mate, Andrew Wilkinson, we set off to Greenland (after a false start due to grounded helicopters in April) to make an attempt on the long standing Greenland speed record for the accepted crossing route: Nagtivit Glacier/Isertoq to Point 660, near Kangerlussuaq.
As a brief history of high speed Greenland expeditions for the uninitiated:
Normal crossing speeds for independent expeditions - 20-30 days
Summer 1888 - 49 days (Umivik to Nuuk) - Fridtjof Nansen and team (NOR)
Pre-1991 - >20 days
Summer 1991 - 12 days and 20 hours - Odd Harald Hauge and team (NOR)
Summer 1999 - 11 days and 13 hours - Sjur Mørdre and team (NOR)
Summer 2001 - 10 days and 10 hours - Swedish trio (SWE)
May 2002 - 9 days and 5 hours - Nilsen/Holman (NOR)
Aug/Sept 2002 - 8 days and 9 hours - Odd Harald Hauge and team (NOR)
Summer 2010 - Attempt abandoned soon after start - Sjur Mørdre and Bjørn Arne Evensen (NOR)
August 2011 - 11 days 12 hours (incomplete due to finishing short of Point 660) - Wilki and myself (GBR)
From April 2001 Volkswagen and Skanska filled in the crevasses from Point 660 on the west side of the icecap all the way up to 'Dog Camp', 45 miles inland, to create an iceroad. This vehicle testing road clearly enabled teams to avoid the slow and turbulent ice on the west coast which represents the most challenging part of a crossing. This road was maintained twice-yearly but fell into disrepair by 2004 and the movement of the icefall negated its usefulness almost immediately.
From this information the perceived wisdom is that, historically at least, late summer is the optimum time to undertake an attempt. It's important to note that August is not strictly summer in Greenland. The sun is only 24 hour (or near 24hr) around June and July when icecap crossings are highly unadvisable due to excessive melt. By mid-August the sun is below the horizon for over 7 hours per day and so conditions reflect this with lower temperatures, a chance of snow and reduction of melting. This wisdom certainly holds true for the early speed crossings but as the Greenlandic climate has changed and melting dramatically increased, this may not be the case any longer. More on this later.
A speed crossing of the Greenland icecap can be divided into three phases (dependent on direction of crossing - this is for East to West):
1. Nagtivit Glacier climb
With major gradients and heavy crevassing, this is an early test of viability for an expedition, and especially the pace here can make or break a speed crossings' chances. In spring (March/April) the crevassing is mostly covered and the glacier can be tackled quickly, in a near straight line and mostly without need for a rope. In summer, as the snow cover disappears and the undulating ice and crevassing is revealed, progress becomes torturous with slow going over bumpy and dangerous ground and major deviations in direction are needed.
2. Icecap Plateau
Once clear of the glacier, an expedition will reach the snowline in the summer where the surface becomes flat and consolidated. Pace can increase as the elevation settles at over 7000-8000ft. In spring, excess snow and winds can cause difficult surfaces due to drift, sastrugi and snow dunes.
3. Russell Glacier icefall descent
The most notorious section of the expedition which is in bad condition in the spring (lacking the snow shroud of the Nagtivit) and becomes dramatically worse in the summer due to melt and lack of snow, leaving dry, unstable ice. Melt rivers with powerful currents, ice valleys over 20 ft high and large crevasses, some over 15ft wide, are typical. In spring the bad ice can last for 10 miles, in summer 2011 it lasted for 50 miles.
Decision-making in 2011 between summer and spring crossings:
Summer (10 Aug - 15 Sep):
PROS Flat, consolidated plateau surface with little drift snow, temperatures usually above -15 degrees and often around zero, theoretically comparatively stable weather conditions (fewer storms)
CONS Dry glaciers on both sides with crevassing, melt rivers
Spring (20 Mar - 15 May):
PROS Snow covered crevasse fields on both coasts
CONS Snow drift and often poor quality plateau surface, temperatures often below -25 or -30 degrees, regular storms
Our 2011 late August expedition:
Conditions on the Nagtivit Glacier controlled the viability of skiing the icecap in sub-9 days. This year they were unusually challenging on the coastal areas due to a major lack of snow (contrasting against the excessive snow and low pressure in the spring). This meant that our snowline (which beckons better surfaces and less undulation) was far above 1200m in elevation, meaning that we had to face crevassing all the way to and beyond 30 miles inland. In hindsight, having travelled more or less north up the glacier, we should have pushed on north further instead of curving west towards the finish point on the west coast. Having started to move west, thinking we would be free of crevassing, we instead found ourselves deep into two further crevasse fields which causes a massive delay and on one occasion, a need to double-back.
Our plateau speed and performance was strong and fast with daily mileages regularly over 30/35 miles. Having realised that our Nagtivit problems had cost us the record chances, we did take our foot off the gas slightly in this central section, although only marginally. Far from the hoped-for blue skies, low winds and flat surfaces, we only had two days of 'optimum skiing conditions' and encountered plenty of snow drift, white out and headwinds.
As we approached the west coast, we hoped that the ground would be reasonable at least up to the waypoint of 'Dog Camp', 45 miles from the end. Sadly, we started to see evidence of the snow cover becoming very thin nearly 80 miles from Point 660 with cracks evident that far out. The ground became extremely challenging only ten or fifteen miles beyond that point, long before Dog Camp, with major melt rivers and highly brittle, unstable dry ice underfoot. What followed was desperately tough and dangerous travel across highly turbulent glacial ice, culminating at a crevasse field of unknown length which comprised crevasses set 20ft apart and mostly 4-10ft wide. This point was a few miles short of Point 660 and, having let the record go some days before, Wilki and I decided that in the interests of self-preservation and having been very content with our performance, we would change our pickup point to where we stood. Only 3 hours later and after an excellent bit of flying and chartering efficiency by Air Greenland, we were picked up and stared open mouthed at the remaining ice to Point 660. We had made the right call.
It is my belief that given the conditions experienced on the icecap in August 2011, we could have only improved a small number of things to increase our pace. The glacier conditions, combined with difficult plateau weather, bad surfaces and the high snowline elevation, made an attempt on the 8 day 9 hour record nigh on impossible. Changes would have been: to push further north before heading west having completed the Nagtivit Glacier, to have a redesigned and improved ski bracket for our sledges and to use 10mm narrower skis.
Far more important than the details of the expedition undertaken by Wilki and myself however, is the fact that I think the fast season has changed. I believe that the climate and weather conditions which made 1990s and early 2000s summer expeditions possible at high speed are no longer possible or present. Another major point is that the sub 10 day crossings most likely took advantage of the iceroad, removing arguably the hardest section, the Russell icefall. It is my view that the supposed advantages of the summer; good surfaces and calm weather, are now overpowered by the more navigable glaciers experienced on both coasts in the spring. Significant time is now won and lost in those 30-40 mile regions on each side. I'd love to still see world-class teams make attempts on that spectacular effort by the Norwegian 2002 expedition.
Also, I'd love to hear your thoughts so do use the comments section below!