Greenland Speed Crossing

“The difficult is what takes a little time; the impossible is what takes a little longer”. - Fridtjof Nansen.

The ENDURE expedition was an ultra lightweight, man powered, speed crossing of Greenland by me and Ian Couch.

In 2010 we were successful in crossing Greenland in just 15 days and in the process set the fastest British crossing record, second only to a few Norwegian crossings.

The ENDURE expedition was designed as a training expedition for the Adventure Trilogy Part III – The ENDURE MORE expedition, a full traverse of the Antarctic continent. The sole aim was to try discover, how to travel relatively large distances in a relatively small period of time in a polar environment.

The route that we chose was a 360 mile crossing of Greenland, a route that would normally take somewhere between 24 and 30 days. We set ourselves the challenge of being literally twice as fast as a normal expedition and crossing in 12 to 15 days.

Fridtjof Nansen famously said “The difficult is what takes a little time; the impossible is what takes a little longer”, and although what we were attempting wasn’t quite ‘impossible’ it did take us two attempts, as we had to abandon in 2009 when I suffered from 3rd degree frostbite.

We learnt some valuable lessons and gained some really valuable experience in 2009 and we returned in 2010, 100% convinced we could be successful in what we set out to do.

The first day of the expedition was a relatively slow day as we made our way up the 2000 feet of the Nagtivit glacier.

After the first day, we’d cleared the glacier and we were up onto the ice cap having made around 10 miles which is reasonably good over this type of terrain, but if wanting to cross Greenland in just 12 to 15 days, we were going to have to average somewhere between 24 to 30 miles every single day...

...so we needed to be extremely efficient and come up with an effective strategy.

The strategy that we came up with was extremely complicated and multi-layered which allowed us various degrees of flexibility, but in essence it left us just 6 hours rest each night and required us to ski for 14 hours each and every day...

...so in order for that to be anywhere near sustainable we had to travel as lightweight as possible, so every piece of kit that we took was assessed for weight and where we could take a lightweight option we did.

The crux of this expedition was in the decision that we made to take just 12 days worth of food and fuel for the entire crossing! (A questionably suicidal decision given that it could take up to 30 days to cross!)...it is madness to try cross Greenland and set off with just 12 days worth of food, but at the same time, we knew that if we got our strategy right, if we got our calculations right and ultimately, if we were capable, it could become marvellous, because it would allow us to travel such bigger differences each day, and to a certain extent it would become a self fulfilling strategy.

What it did mean was that that calculation we made prior to leaving, simply had to be correct, and then whilst on the expedition, our margin for error, or incident became zero.

On just the second day of the expedition that margin was challenged. We started the day in very bad conditions and we were navigating off a bearing on the chest mounted compass. I managed to fix on a bright white patch of snow, on our course, that was reflecting back at us through the haze and we moved towards it.

As we moved towards it, all of a sudden that white patch moved, and it moved fast!

It didn’t take long to realise that it wasn’t a patch of snow reflecting back at us and we were actually in the nightmare situation of having run into a polar bear, in a white out!

The first thing to know about Polar Bears is that you should never creep up on them and take them by surprise! They don’t like that! Which inadvertently, is exactly what we had just done!

The second thing to know of course is, they are big, and they fast; Male polar bears can grow up to 160 stones in weight and at the same time they will still outrun a race horse over a short distance.

They are also the only animal that’s known to actively hunt humans! Something which Ian and I can now, unfortunately vouch for!

So this was a pretty terrifying situation to find ourselves in, particularly considering the conditions, but as we were trying desperately trying to keep our sights on the bear as it moved in and out of the haze we soon realised that there wasn’t just one bear, there were actually two!!

Initially when we moved towards them, they moved away, as if we’d scared them off. What they were actually doing was moving down wind of us, from down wind of us they got a good smell of us and they proceeded to follow us!

They actually followed us at a distance of about 90-100m, constantly moving in and out of visibility, and they followed for the rest of the day as we a distance of around 20 miles!

They were still there towards the end of the day so we were forced to make camp early for the night.

In hindsight our choice of weapon wasn’t the best but we were carrying with us a single barrel/single shot shotgun, and although we were travelling lightweight and not carrying an abundance of ammunition we thought that now might be a good time to take some shots at the bears to warn them off.

Unfortunately that didn’t deter the bears so Ian and I had to resort to a watch system throughout the night, where Ian would be out stood on watch for an hour whilst I got an hours sleep, and then we’d rotate that throughout the night.

…But; when its minus 40 outside at night, you can’t really spend too much time outside stood on watch before you have to come inside the tent to keep warm; and as you can imagine, when there are two hungry polar bears outside somewhere, that have already followed you for most of the day, falling asleep isn’t exactly the easiest thing to do in the world either!

So that night we just spent most of the night, inside the tent, simply terrified that the bears would just come through the walls of the tent and take us away!

After a long and sleepless night, the bears were nowhere to be seen in the morning so we got packed up and set off as quickly as possible, hoping to leave the bears behind...

...and throughout the day we seemed to put a good distance between us as we made around another 20 miles.

Unfortunately towards the end of the day we got sight of the bears again, just coming over the horizon and we had to resign ourselves to the fact that we were in for another sleepless and terrifying night and we were forced to make camp again.

We were both physically and mentally exhausted at this point, we’d been on the go for nearly 48 hours without any real rest and we’d still covered some reasonably big distances.

We were now about 50 miles away from the coast, which is where the bears would normally be, so we knew they were only the for one reason, and we knew that that reason was us!

We were almost certain that tonight the bears would approach and attack, so we knew that we were going to have to shoot them at short range. Which, might not have been a problem, if there had only been one bear! Or we were carrying a gun that was capable of firing two shots at a time, or if we hadn’t been travelling lightweight and we weren’t already running dangerously low on ammunition!

Then, just as all seemed lost, over the horizon came a helicopter. It turned out to be the Greenland police and as the helicopter flew over head, it scared the bears away over the horizon, and all of a sudden we were left alone, to get on with what we were there to do in the first place, which was the speed crossing.

So, we had a very lucky escape, and that night for the first night on the expedition, we got some decent rest.

We were now already about a day behind schedule, so we needed to get going again or run the risk of running out of food seriously short of the west coast.

So we got into skiing for 14 hours a day and over the course of the next 11 days we skied hard and we averaged 26 miles per day, on two occasions just touching 30 miles.

Just to put that into perspective, I would say, doing that in this type of environment is 3 times as difficult as the marathon des sables, or 3 times as tough as the toughest footrace on earth.

And that’s because, we were trying to cover nearly 2 and a half times that distance, and even on a lightweight polar expedition such as this we were carrying around 5 times the weight as you would on something like the marathon des sables.

The polar environment where the temperature drops to minus 30 to minus 40 on a regular basis. Although we weren’t going to be in Greenland as a whole for very long, each day we were exposed to the elements for so much longer than you would be on a normal expedition.

We had to be out in the elements before the sun came up in the morning and then still out in the elements after the sun had set in the evening when the temperature drops significantly.

Because we were 100% committed to making the distances each day, on a number of occasions we simply had to choose to push into conditions that you would normally, sensibly choose to stop in, which is exactly how I got frostbite back in 2009.

The biggest problem we had of course was with our feet...

Travelling for that many hours each day in highly insulated boots, it’s very difficult to avoid what we’ve got here which is a case of trench foot, and necrosis. Now beside the horrible pungent smell from the necrosis, it made it almost impossible to continue with our strategy, and what we found was that ultimately, what we were trying to do, wasn’t quite sustainable...

..But, in the spirit of the strategy, if we could put up with it, we wouldn’t have to put up with it for very long.

After making nearly 290 miles in the last 11 days we didn’t have to put up with it for much longer though and we were now just 12 miles off getting off the ice...

The last 12 miles is the most dangerous section of the entire crossing and shortly after we were there the Greenland authorities closed this area, because it was deemed too dangerous...

...it’s a place unlike any other on the planet as there is a really complicated combination of hazards..

..In some respects it’s like descending a Himalayan glacier, with huge hidden crevasses, big enough to swallow a double-decker bus..

...and there are also huge ice boulders to negotiate over and around...

In 2010 we found that it was very much like being on a north pole expedition in that there were large areas of open water, not the arctic ocean in this case but large areas of open melt water.

With this amount of melt water around it means that it is tremendously unstable underfoot..

And on a number of occasions both Ian and I punched through into hidden crevasses and fell into the icy waters, and as the majority of that water rushes away and disappears down huge sink holes, we ran the risk of being swept away, underneath the ice and never to be seen again...

There was no natural way through the last 12 miles so we had to force one and we did have to resort to taking the skis and the pulks off and simply taking running leaps across crevasses and torrents of melt water.

In the end, it took us 18 hours on the go without rest to make the last 12 miles...but after 18 hours..

...we finally emerged from the maze of hazards and we could see point 660 in the distance which was our exit point..

So exhausted, but elated we raced down the last mile of the ice....

And we finally made it across Greenland...

Despite the bears that followed us for two days, and despite the added intensity and hardships created by the speed strategy and despite the hazards of the last 12 miles, we finally made it across Greenland in just 15 days, and we were successful in what we set out to do..

More importantly, we’ve now developed a strategy that we can take onto Antarctica to attempt a full traverse of the continent and complete the ‘Adventure Trilogy’