Archive for May, 2010

Day 9–Stormed in…still!

May 21, 2010 1:44pm

The tent shook violently all night. Outside the storm rages on for the second consecutive day, flying wet snow drift and piling it on the side walls of the tent. Twice this morning, we felt that the storm would let out enough to enable us to get on our way. But the prevailing white out delayed our departure. And twice the wind quickly strengthened again to full out blizzard with gusts reaching seventy miles per hour!
Not surprisingly, we are pinned down again in the tent for what now amounts to 48 hours. And what feels like a week since our first and last kiting day.
Upon stepping out of the tent, the forces of nature really makes one feel small. Frost builds out sideways on the lines of the tent, and the drift sticks to the outerwear, caking up in a layer of white. Goggles are also rapidly made obsolete from the wet snow obstructing most visibility. The mean temperature wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for the nasty wind-chill. In all, being outside quickly loses its charm but for a short lived experiment (very short) or clearing the snow drift trapping the sledges before the snow turns to ice…
It is difficult not to admire the design ingenuity of the sum of nylon cloth, four poles and a few lines to anchor them, which together amount to an oasis of relative tranquility amidst such external chaos. With nothing but wind and ice surrounding us in all direction, inside that little red dot which is our Hilldeberg tent, you can still find a mean cup of tea! It does say a lot about Man ability to survive in the most hostile environments.
The southern Greenland storms can be unrelenting and last for days. Let’s pray this isn’t one of them…
Our position is therefore still at N62°20.392′ W46°48.596′ and 7030 feet in elevation.


Day 8–Pinned Down

May 20, 2010 8:58pm

We have been pinned down in the tent all day, as a nasty storm is raging outside. We woke up to the tent flapping pretty severely but thought little of it, other than the prospect of putting miles behind us on the smaller kites. Erring on the side of caution, we decided to wait and see how the system would develop. Within an hour, the winds had intensified gusting to sixty plus miles per hour. The spin drift would soon cover the sledges and the side of the tent, giving a whole new dimension to bathroom duties! Upon stepping out, the force of the gusts makes walking on the hardened ice precariously slippery. Besides, the drifting wet snow will quickly make a walking snowman out of you. That and the hazardous wind-chill makes for a better choice inside! Here however, the tent walls are flapping with such force that air displacement inside generates its own internal wind system! If this were a movie set, I would imagine technicians hitting the walls of the tent all full force with tennis rackets, while blowing ritter fans from all directions! Eric and I play chess, read and rest. This hasn’t let up all day. As the light drops and the temperatures with it, this should make for a rock’n’roll night! These southern Greenland storm can pack a punch and last a few days. My concern is that once the system blows over, it could well be followed by dead calm–and thus no wind. Then we’d back to the baker oven… Wait: whose idea was this?


Day 7–Flying

May 19, 2010 9:05pm
109 kilometers on our first day
N62:20’236″ W46:48’358″
There a feeling you get when the lines tighten, the nylon sail fills with air and lifts off. The tug on the harness propels you forward and you’re off using nothing but the power of the wind. It’s the same feeling that has captured the imagination through the ages since Icarus. It is called flying! And flying has always had a close relationship with crashing…
We had spent the day resting from that last nightly sojourn. We were reluctantly preparing for another cold night of headwinds and uphill pulling when the winds timidly shifted more to the east. It didn’t take much discussion to agree that a better plan would be to sit and let them build. And take off in the night.
In the end, we dosed in and out of sleep until morning. Nothing. But by mid-morning the tent begun to flutter enough to get us motivated, and soon we were packing camp. With the tent packed, the sled bags zipped up, and their straps tying them side by side; with the kite lines layed out, and the click of the boots in the binding, we hooked the sledges line into the harness’ carabiner, picked up the kites handles, gave it a tug…and nothing! Another gentle tug, followed by a few less diplomatic. Nothing doing. I could not lift off! Eric had more luck–and skill–with his Ozone 12 meter Yakuza handle kite with extend lines than I did with my 14 meter. The kite would fly, but the sledges load would stall it. After a few frustrated attempts, we switched and I managed to get moving. The extra line length, especially in light winds make for a very slow response time, but the feeling of gliding over the ice, even at slow speeds is exhilarating compared to walking. Every foot of ground covered feels like a victory, and as the uphill miles glide under our skis, the last of the mountains behind us slowly disappear behind the curve of the ice sheet. In one hours, we have covered more ground than we did an entire night on foot! Soon, the wind strengthened, and our speed picked up. The ice is like a frozen ocean and we are gliding over it at speeds reaching 30 kilometers an hour. The ice is racing below us, and the sun is out. We took off around 1 PM and while a system of clouds forms to the south, the weather is remarkably pleasant: just below freezing to keep the ice nice and hard, and very little sastrugi which makes it easier on the knees. The open space stretches unlimited in all directions, just like in the open sea. The wind has turned more to the south east, as the sun is beginning to drop. I am obsessed with capturing as much on film as I can, capitalizing on the slightest change in the monotony. With our increasing speed, and Eric slightly downwind from me, I decide to turn on the helmet cam and commit more on film. I remove my mitten, and feel my way on top of the helmet, looking for the “on” switch; distracted, I inadvertently dive the kite just as my skis hit a sastrugi, one going in one direction, the other God only knows and WHACK! I face plant into the ice at 35 kilometers an hour! Now, the thing about most crashes is that they generally stop at impact. Not with kites! It will take another two hundred feet, and a couple of lofts bouncing me about the hard ice before I can grab a hold of the brake line, as the kite is still gingerly powering downwind and dragging me like a ragdoll along with! Luckily, the helmet took the impact, and aside from slight bruising–mainly of the ego variety–I dust off and attempt to regain composure. We agree to downsize on the kites, however, and switch to 10 an 12 meter Mantas. By now the sun has set on the horizon, and the moon’s crescent is slowly ascending in the twighlight. The temperature has dropped considerably, but is mostly noticeable on the brief stops. The Napapijri gear the team made for us turn out perfect for these conditions, with plenty of areas to vent. It is 1 AM. We decide to pack it in for the night, especially as the winds have pulled back slightly. In all we traveled 109 kilometers over 11 hours excluding stops, and we are now at an elevation of 2141 meters!
All in a good day’s work. My legs are slightly wobbly and my body sore. Time for a hearty warm meal to counter the cold of the tent. And then lights out! Perfect.

Day 5–Going Up and up…and up

May 18, 2010 9:14pm

N61:21.447 W46:46.910 Elevation:1289 meters

“Bitch of a hill”, I ventured.
“Yeah. It keeps going up…”, Eric replied.
And like that, we fell back into another hour of the silence that has come to characterize our travel. There isn’t much you’re in the mood to discuss under the strain of the effort, anymore than you would talk while running a marathon. In reality we have been ascending the ice sheet for the last four days and it doesn’t seem to let up. Its crest is forever teasing ahead of us, rolling up further when it feels like we are within reach. Of course we know the deal: we have now climbed almost 1300 meters (4260 feet) in elevation since we started at sea level, and this type of effort will carry on for another 500 meters or so, unless of course the winds turn, and we can switch to kites. If Sisyphus had been dealt his punishment on the ice, he might well have been forced to pull two heavy sledges up the ice sheet forever!
The mental cycle goes something like this: first you pump yourself and fix an objective, in this case six hours of night travel. After filling up on carbs and liquids, and while the cooling temperatures are still manageable, you set off gingerly, convinced that today you will fall into your rhythm. Pretty soon, your breath shortens, and you are chasing the negative thoughts that creep inside your head (Why am I doing this? I’m too old for this @#%*! I’m not in as good a shape as I thought! I will never last through the night…). At the first break, the sweat that invariably builds on your back and stomach instantly chills from the freezing wind, and your core drops to a deep chill. The outer layer you will now put on will come off again ten minutes or so into the next cycle. By then, the blood will leave you extremities to process the food you’ve just ingested and your fingers will go numb from the cold! Time to layer up there too, for ten or fifteen minutes, until the hands get TOO warm: layer down! Meanwhile your mental resources are playing tricks on you again. Upon setting off from the break, the cold dictates the pace in order to warm up quick; and for a brief moment, you feel good! But soon, a temporary shift in the slope’s grade will rob that gait and challenge your thoughts again (I choose to be here! This kid is twenty years younger than me! Dig deep! “There’s no crying in baseball…”) In the end, the mental resources are your own; to find the reasons to push forward has a lot to do with why you’re there in the first place. Modern exploration, or extreme adventure, has mostly to do with pushing your own limits, and stretching the capabilities of the human spirit. To be cold can sometimes be reduced to a state of mind; and made abstraction of. And it doesn’t hurt that I have a little angel sitting on my shoulder!
We pushed through to our 4AM target, covering 14.6 kilometers and set up camp. Outside, the thermometer registers minus 10C degrees without wind-chill. The sun is peaking on the horizon and soon our freezing tent will turn into a sweat lodge! But for now, it’s a quick meal and the eye mask: it has never fully gotten dark and it is about to get really bright!

Sebastian sending daily blogs using an HP smart phone and iridium technology


Day 4–Nightshift

May 17, 2010 9:18pm

Greenland hints at its extremes as the stillness and thawing daytime temperatures fluidly roll into night and the cutting wind drop the air down to twenty below. During the day, the sun relentlessly beats down on the ice’ surface, turning the night’s hard crust into wet snow. This makes impractical daytime travel: the sledges and our skis sink into the slush, adding prohibitive drag to the loads. Consequently, we have turned the clock and set off when the sun hugs the horizon ending its apex, and the air temperature plummets. This makes for a vertiginous range in conditions: under the midday sun, inside the tent is like a baking oven! But upon setting off for our nightime sojourn, we brace ourselves for the piercing cold of the headwinds.

Yesterday we spent the afternoon resting and reading. Stepping outside the tent, I took in the fading mountain range to the south, and the way the haze diffused the multiple layers of ridges and peaks. With the domineering white ice in the foreground, it looked like a water color of itself. Soon, and for the next forty days, we will see no such features: the only shapes will be those made by clouds, or the way the wind and the melt defines the ice’ surface (the “sastrugi”).

By 9PM, we broke camp, strapped on our skis and begun making miles. Cold at first, the body quickly heats up under the strain of the effort: we are still pulling uphill, and will be doing so for a while. On breaks, the sweat instantly cools down, and the freezing wind sets a deep chill that will stay with me all night. Pulling the sledges in this condition reminds me of the North Pole, and sets the tone for the South Pole. It is hard work! At this latitude and at this time of the year, the night no longer goes totally dark, and long after it has set, the sun’s glow meekly hangs below the horizon. Breaks offer brief interludes to the intense effort, their length dictated by the cold that sets in almost immediately. A few dry fruits and nuts and a swig of protein and we set off again in the silence that characterizes this type of travel.

By 3:30AM we call it a night. I am especially tired, having not adjusted yet to the night schedule, and miscalcullated my fuel intake. A quick dinner and I crawl inside my sleeping bag, bundled up from the deep chill that has been with me all night. In a couple of hours, I will wake up wet with sweat as the sun will reverse this vicious cycle…


Day 3–Crevasses…!

May 16, 2010 9:23pm

When the ice suddenly gives from under you, and your legs dangle above a void the depth of which is unclear, you get about the same jolt as when a car screeches to a halt inches from running you over…

We camped mid afternoon yesterday hoping that by evening the ice’ surface would harden some: pulling the sledges uphill is all the more tedious when your foot sinks to the knee with every other step.

By 7 PM we broke camp and set off. The sun was hanging low casting a golden glow on the ice ridge ahead of us. The ice sheet was within sight, though distances in this environment can be deceiving. But the warm colors of the sky belied the biting grip of the wind that picked up. And the placid setting hid the drama that was unfolding below us: we were now square in the middle of the crevasse field! Each variation in color had to be carefully considered, for what might pass for hard ice could in fact be but a flimsy bridge. The cooling temperatures would no doubt solidify this treacherous terrain, but

There is a point of diminishing returns when the dropping light makes challenging the deciphering of color or textural changes. Often, we might make out the curving droop of gravity doing its work on a weak bridge. But for the most part, we probe each step ahead of us with a ski poll, extracting information that can mean the difference between going through; or not. On occasion, however, adrenaline shoots up when a leg–or two–goes clean through the ice! Outside of Newton’s law, there is nothing familiar about dangling in void, your legs sucked in a hole while your upper body struggles on the surface! Both Eric and I trade some of this excitement. To worsen matters, the ice’s surface in the end has not harden enough to support our weight, and we sink to our ankle with each step. In all, we mostly labor through making two kilometers. Temperatures have dropped to ten below. The wind’s chill and the heavy effort takes me back to the North pole, and upon sitting on the sledge sucking on air for a fuel stop, I re-visit some of last year’s moments on the way to the pole.

On the morning of our third day, we stretch our time in the tent as we begin to roll the clock. The winds die down to a deadly stillness, and the sun beats down on the tent. With the vents closed, it’s like an oven in here! What a contrast to last night when I went to sleep with a mask over my face! We ditched our goat milk powder this morning which tasted like, well, ahem, ass–pardon my French! I’m just missing the bright side of mixing goat cheese into your morning cereal! This was a nutritional trick shared with me by my friend Lonnie Dupre, but I’m not seeing it! It shaves a few pounds off the load and will is sure to distract polar bears. At this stage, we are unlikely to encounter any unless perhaps at the end of the trip: they would find no business up on this barren ice desert. Except for us…and now the goat milk!


Day 2–Scaling the glacier

May 15, 2010 9:27pm

Scaling a glacier with 240 pounds in tow, on soft snow feels like a hard labor sentence! But I doubt even prisoners work this hard. The crusty snow periodically breaks underfoot sinking one or two feet. Occasionally, this reveals a river below the ice which is perfect if you like wet feet! We slowly and fastidiously make our way up to the ice sheet, maneuvering carefully inside the crevasse field. Crevasses occur when an ice mass (typically a glacier or ice sheet) collapses as it pours downward. The gravitational pull literally creates cracks in the ice. Mostly, these run from a few feet to thirty or fifty feet. A large crevasse can reach depths of a few hundred feet. Additionally, snow fall or drift can create bridges which will hide the open space below. A good bridge will freeze over and give solid footing. A bad bridge will collapse when crossed. More often, your leg might sink to the hip and give a fright. Needless to say, falling in a crevasse and dragging heavy cargo after you is no one’s idea of a good time! It will kill you.

Luckily, bridges are generally visible for the different features or coloration they display. This provides early warning.
Today, the sky is clear and the sun’s powerful reflection on the glacier is blinding. In spite of the 40F degrees, it takes no time to get toasty while walking up a twenty degree slope in this type of soft snow. It’s a grind!

After six hours, we decide to set up camp. We will soon revert to a night schedule, as the winds then are generally good for kiting. Inside the tent, the sun is baking. It’s feels much like a greenhouse… But a hot soup with a piece of cheese is an easy lay-up for a nap. We will hit the trail again in four hours and travel until AM, beginning the shift in our rhythm. The coastal features are slowly fading in the distance. Soon there will be nothing but sky and ice–and this for about forty days!

But for now, our elevation yields a the commanding view of the surroundings and the vistas are majestic. The iceberg we were maneuvering around yesterday are but white specs on the horizon. This was a grind. But with any luck, we might feel the pull of the kites by tomorrow. And the race will be on!


Day 1- On The Ice!

May 14, 2010 9:31pm

As I write this, we are in the tent for our first night on the ice!
Woke up early in the ghostly hamlet of Narsarsuaq to finish packing. Yesterday we arranged for a local fisherman to take us to the mouth of the glacier. But word came that there is a lot of ice drifting between the islands which could make this challenging. After a short sleep in the kiddy bunk bed, I finish individual packing of daytime snacks. In all, we each have six kilos of chocolate! And enough candy to give any dentist a coronary! On the trail, that sugar translates to instant fuel. At home, you could just as well rub it on your thighs, ’cause that’s where it would be going!
The boat is waiting for us at noon. We arrange to have our bags shipped to Qaanaaq, some 2300 kilometers away where 45 days from now, with luck on our side, we will make our exit from the ice.

Last minute check, and we load our four sledges–two each, packed with close to 450 pounds of food, clothes and survival gear–into the small open skiff. The powerful engine rips through the glassy waters, speeding past the ice chunks littering the fjord. We stop in Naarsaaq, twenty minutes away, to get the sign off from the local police by presenting our approved application, our insurance and emergency equipment–a personal locator beacon and two iridium satellite phones.
Thirty minutes later, we pull out of the small picturesque harbor into the choppy sea of the bay. The wind picked up and we are getting a taste of its cold bite. The water gets thicker with ice and our driver shows no signs of slowing down, even as his boat gets pummeled by the progressively bigger chunks. We finally slow down, as the outboard is getting seriously manhandled. So much so that we twice end up perched on top of a slab! Pretty soon it is becoming clear that we’ll not get through. The glacier is visible three miles ahead, but there is simply too much ice to make it through. We pull out of this mess and we are told that he will approach it from a different route. This adds two hours to the approach. The wind pierces right to the bone but the water is open and we soon pull into a quiet cove at the mouth of the giant glacier. We unload the sledges, and bid our farewell. As the engine sound fades into the distance, it is now clear that the real adventure begins now! The next stop is on the other side of the continent! Without wasting time we haul our heavy sledges, one at a time, up onto the ice. When the slope softens, we tie both sledges together and begin the laborious task of getting up on the ice sheet. The sun is low on the horizon and we slowly gain ground and elevation.
We walk over the bridge of our first sizeable crevasse, some forty feet deep. After four hours, 2.8 km and 208 meters in elevation, we call it a day. Its is 9:30
PM. We avoided the volcano’s ashes; the baggage capacity scare; the iced out waterways; and six days after leaving Los Angeles, we are finally pulling our cargo across the ice!
Tomorrow will be tense, as we negotiate the crevasse fields. Easy does it. No kiting for the next two days. But the crevasses will keep us focused and alert.


Greenland 2010 Legacy Crossing

May 11, 2010 9:34pm

May 9, 2010  Los Angeles/Montreal

The last few days have resembled what can be expected from final preparations on any expedition. The last minute shopping; the triple checking off the lists; the pulling in favors from friends with anything from sowing on sponsor patches (thank you T-Mac!) to running errands (thank you Mikhail!) to transferring powders into space saving bags (thank you Jeremy!) to finalizing bill payments and personal matters inherent to long absences , in this case close to ten weeks away from home…

Finally there is the last stretch which invariably factors staying up all night, meticulously packing each carefully selected item, mindful not to forget–there are no convenience stores on the ice–and not to overpack, since everything will be carried, pushed or dragged and the weight can quickly add up to mostly grunts and curses!

In the early morning, when most items have been checked off the list, comes time to shower, spend a moment with my dog, Guerra, who senses that trouble is afoot: all that packing means another absence. She huddles near my feet hoping against hope that I might pack her with me…!

Jeremy has offered to drive me to the airport, along with Mikhail who has stayed up all night out of sympathy. The three of us–and the dog–head for the airport with comfortable margins for the extra weight–almost two hundred pounds of skis, kites, protein powders, clothes and equipment, camera gear and just about anything to survive unassisted for 40 to 45 days on the ice.

After a nice send off, I lean back in my seat as the plane takes off for Montreal where I will meet Eric for two days of finalizing our lists.This is the first leg of what will take five days just to get to the ice! Greenland is off the beaten path and requires flying to Copenhagen for an overnight connection, followed by a flight, a boat ride and a hike… You get the picture!