Greenland Speed Expedition Interview
For those of you who want to know a little more about the Greenland icecap trip last month, here's an interview I did for Explorers Web (there's also our video of the expedition below it):
Alex Hibbert & Andrew Wilkinson’s attempted to break the Norwegian speed ski record across Greenland, but the brutal terrain filled with crevasses and meltwater tortured both skiers and their equipment during their 15+ hour ski sessions.
Alex tells ExWeb’s Correne Coetzer in detail about the terrain, how he fell through a snow bridge, about their routine with only 2-3 hours sleep and the respect they got for the current record holders, Trond Hilde, Ivar Tollefsen and Odd Harald Hauge.
ExplorersWeb: When did you realize the speed attempt was over?
Alex: It was evident very early on that the conditions necessary for sub-8d9h were not there. I imagine we had the same realization that Sjur Mørdre and Bjørn Arne Evensen had last year. The snowline was so high (above 1500m) that the ground was very tortured and slow far beyond the usual difficulties you'd expect on the Nagtivit Glacier slope.
We kept on thinking we'd found better ground and then another maze of crevasses would appear, most over 6ft wide and many over 15ft wide. They were both transverse and longitudinal and there were precious few snow-bridges, meaning that on one occasion we reached a dead-end and had to backtrack for over two hours. After we had only managed 16 miles on Day One and 12 miles on Day Two, we realized that the record was mathematically impossible, given that the target was so quick even with perfect conditions.
To be honest, despite being extremely focused on the record and entirely confident in our ability to compete on that level, we were pragmatic about it slipping away. Odd Harald and the guys who hold it set a stunning standard to aim for. We knew everything had to be perfect in order to have a chance to perform at such a world-class level.
ExplorersWeb: How did the Nagtivit Glacier look?
Alex: The glacier was entirely dry ice and from the first steps it was extremely turbulent. Crevasses sat at regular intervals of 10-20ft apart and were separated with deep troughs and furrows which took an age to negotiate with sledges. Our skis and sledge-ski brackets were mounted on our backs and even they took a pounding.
Whenever we got a short respite from the crevassing, we ended up in meltwater channels and 'swamps' which were equally frustrating.
Despite the scores of crevasses crossed, we only had one mishap. I fell through a 12ft wide snow-bridge whilst unroped (roping up was impractical for any sort of fast progress, apart from a couple of crevasses which would have been suicidal without). I fell up to my elbows with my legs dangling into thin air. Every tiny movement made my arms slide down through the thin snow-bridge and so I just stayed still until Wilki could throw a lasso rope.
ExplorersWeb: And the ice on the western side?
Alex: If we thought we had bad luck on the east coast then we had a shock on the west coast! We had a sinking feeling when the thin snow layer began to disappear over 80 miles from our end point. First we started to see very thin cracks in the surface and then it just got worse and worse.
Over 60 miles from the end we came across melt pools (mostly refrozen) and then free-flowing melt rivers over 20ft wide. These were a nightmare to cross without getting wet boots and whilst keeping sledge contents dry. It was at that point our wonderful sledge-skis (which had enabled speeds of 3.5mph) had to come off.
From then it deteriorated into a freeze-thaw ice surface which was impossible to ski on with any pace whatsoever and so we alternated between on-foot and on skis. The ice 'hills' began almost immediately which made route selection hard due to our views of the ground ahead being obscured.
We continued fighting through the very bumpy ground (peak to trough height usually 3-6 feet) until Dog Camp (45 miles from the end at Point 660). There, the ground simply got worse with the addition of crevasses.
Our push to the end involved sessions of 15hrs+ skiing interspersed with 2/3hrs sleep and so our fatigue was starting to build to high levels.
By the time we asked for our pickup by helicopter, the crevasses were so extreme, frequent and snow-bridge-free that we were literally leaping across them and then sprinting up the other side to try to avoid the sledge plummeting downwards.
Eye-watering stuff and this terrible ice began over thirty miles from Point 660, not the five miles or so of difficulty you'd usually expect. Of course, we were a few years too late to take advantage from the ice road which stretched all the way to Dog Camp and would have sped things up amazingly (I think it was last maintained in 2003 or 2004).
ExplorersWeb: The Norwegians started later than you did. Do you think you started too early, when it was still too warm? Why did you decide on this start date? What were the temperatures?
Alex: We could have started a week or so later perhaps, although permits expire anyway on September 15 due to the government rules. Honestly, I think it made little difference.
The melt rivers were so large that a few more days would have made no difference. The lack of snow was so extreme that a few days of heavy snow would have had no real effect on the surface. We would have needed a minimum of 6 feet of snow to start to even out the ground near the glaciers.
We decided on the start date due to the fact that Aug 10 is the first date in the summer you can cross without a search and rescue bond on your house and that due to inevitable delays, we didn't want to get too close to Sept 15.
We experienced the full range of temperatures, from powerful sun during the day and then down to -10 or -20 degrees when the sun set for 7 or 8 hours per day.
ExplorersWeb: How many hours per day did you ski? What was your average mileage?
Alex: We skied for between 13-15 hours per day whilst in our normal icecap routine (the middle eight days) and then basically skied continuously in the glaciated areas on the coasts with a few open-air bivis for rest. On the coasts our mileage was 12-18 miles per day (very hard fought miles!) and on the icecap 28-40 miles per day.
ExplorersWeb: How did a day on the Greenland ice looked like?
Alex: Our routine was brutal in order to allow for maximum time skiing. Our snow melting was done in shifts so that one person could sleep whilst the other tended the stove. We tried to go from stopping skiing to having the stove on within 10-12 minutes.
After a few hours of sleep (3-4 hours and on one occasion 6 hours) we would have our porridge and then crack on with skiing. We used 65 min sessions with 10 min breaks for our 500-calorie food boosts.
ExplorersWeb: Were your sleds too heavy perhaps? Were there things you didn’t use?
Alex: Our equipment was carefully refined and planned over many months and I was content with the 40kg start weights. There's a limit to how little you can take.
In hindsight, perhaps a reduction of calories from 8,600kcal to 7,500kcal could have been sufficient whilst saving a couple of kilos each.
ExplorersWeb: You were longer on the ice than you planned; how did your food worked out?
Alex: We had to occasionally share a meal or have flapjack instead of a hot meal (since we took 9 full sets of daily rations) but to be honest, hunger was not a major issue on this expedition. 8,600kcal is a lot and easy to spread out!
We did both lose a fair amount of weight due to the sheer intensity of the expedition.
ExplorersWeb: Your equipment also took a punch...
Alex: That's an understatement! The sheer craziness of the east coast ice bent Wilki's sledge in half (well done Roger at Snowsled for making a plastic sledge which withstood so much punishment), snapped our shotgun clean in half, bent our tent poles, broke our precious sledge-skis (which were not fitted until the flat icecap) and took a massive toll on our feet.
ExplorersWeb: Anything else?
Alex: As a pair we were very content with our 11.5 day crossing, even given the slightly early pickup. However, we do have supreme respect for Odd Harald and his team. Having had a good crack at the record, we're in a position to appreciate quite how quick they were! It was a very intense expedition and quite fitting since it's my last Greenland expedition for the foreseeable future.