Blinking quickly, I can feel the tears threatening to surface in the corner of my eyes. The lump in my throat feels like I am swallowing a giant gobstopper. My mind is continually battling its inner demon, yelling at me with every step to stop, to give up.
I know I can do this. I have to do this. So why the heck am I finding it so hard? I can hear the words that Bridget, my fellow team member, said to me a few days earlier: ‘Don’t let your inner bitch win’. I take a deep breath, and with each step, I regain control of the situation. Of course I can do this; I just need to find the courage to keep moving forward.
Six months earlier, as I was getting ready for work one day, an interview on the radio caught my attention. The Antarctic Heritage Trust (AHT) was calling for applications for their third Inspiring Explorers expedition – a 560-kilometre trek across the Greenland ice cap. As the day rolled on, and after doing a bit of research on Google, I realised that this was something I had to be a part of.
The AHT’s mission is to conserve, share and encourage the spirit of exploration in young people – something they believe is critical in the 21st century. Their Greenland expedition was to do just that while honouring the remarkable legacy of Fridtjof Nansen, who made the first crossing of Greenland 130 years ago in 1888. While Nansen’s incredible journey went from east to west, this expedition would be going west to east, leaving at the beginning of May to take advantage of the small window of warmer spring weather before the ice cap started its annual melt.
Of the 195 applicants, I made it into the first round of interviews with 12 others; then into a group of six for a shakedown weekend in Christchurch. After a rigorous selection process, I finally got the exciting phone call to say that I, along with three others, had been selected to be a 2018 Inspiring Explorer. With only three months until our adventure, I felt excited and nervous, and experienced the odd moments of sheer terror.
Pulling tyres filled with rocks down the rural roads of Canterbury for training, I got more than one funny look from passers-by, with one German tourist even stopping to take my photo. A great conversation starter, I explained that this was the best way to train for pulling a 60-kilogram pulka (sledge) behind me 10 hours a day for 25 (+ or -) days. I spent my mornings before work at the gym to build strength in my legs and core; and to get used to being on my feet all day, I bought a Rock-it board for my standing desk at work. In a perfect world, I would’ve had more time to train. As it was, I was lucky to have a solid fitness base developed through my love for multisport activities and the outdoors. As I left Christchurch on May 2, heading for the unknown world of Greenland, I was as ready as I was ever going to be.
I was joined by Nigel Watson from the AHT, and we met fellow Kiwi, Brando Yelavich (aka ‘Wildboy’), and Australian, Keith Parsons, in Singapore, before finally touching down in Kangerlussuaq, our gateway to the ice cap, 35 hours later.
Meeting our Norwegian guide, Bengt Rotmo, and the final Inspiring Explorer, Australian Bridget Kruger, we spent what was left of the afternoon sorting our gear – excitement growing by the minute as our minds imagined the journey ahead. Sponsored by Kathmandu, we took photos while dressed in our brand spanking new kit, wondering how it could possibly get cold enough to wear so many layers and not sweat. I needn’t have worried about that. I was about to experience many, many firsts while on this expedition.
With our pulkas packed to the brim with all the equipment and food needed to survive in one of the most uninhabitable climates on the planet, we loaded the bus and hit the road, but not before one final stop at the supermarket for extra food supplies. This would ultimately prove a very wise decision, although at the time I questioned whether I would ever be in a situation where I would voluntarily eat three blocks of pure butter. As it turned out, I should have bought more.
As the bus vanished into the distance, the driver having dropped us as far as he could without getting stuck – we had already had to have a second go on one incline – a wave of nerves washed over me. Entirely new to Nordic skiing, I spent a good couple of minutes trying to attach my boots to my skis, noting that everyone else appeared to have managed with ease. This was it. Was I ready? The answer in my mind was ‘No...’. But, there’s nothing quite like a challenge, and I could sense that whatever lay ahead would be the exact definition of that.
The first three days while getting onto the ice cap – heck, even the first three hours – were tough. Physically pulling my pulka behind me, while on skis, was taking me mentally to places otherwise unknown. My body was constantly aching as new muscles were recruited to keep up with the rest of the team. Not letting my body sweat was challenging, staying upright was challenging, and more than once I had to leave my skis behind to get enough grip to heave my pulka up and over the never-ending ice mounds.
But the landscape that surrounded us was like nothing else. Having never been in a polar environment before, the sheer scale of white and blue, separated only by a thin 360-degree horizon line, was nothing short of mesmerising. As one who loves the snow-capped mountains and dense bush of the South Island, this couldn’t have been more different; but it was just as beautiful.
While it isn’t uncommon for one or two spring storms to break out over the duration of the trip, we encountered an unheard-of number of storms. We had the luxury of contact with the outside world via satellite phone, so knew approximately when they would be making themselves known.
Mother Nature should never be taken lightly, and the storm on Day 12 was particularly severe, strong enough to warrant the term ‘hurricane’. Stopping at midday, we had six hours until it was due to hit, giving us enough time to dig our tents in and build a wall high enough to protect us from the prevailing winds. Dividing our time and efforts evenly (we only had three shovels), between digging and setting up camp, we managed to secure the tents just as the landscape around us turned into a complete whiteout. For the next 24 hours we slept, ate, read books and slept some more, waiting patiently for the storm to pass.
As quickly as the storm hit, it disappeared, leaving behind a bright blue sky. Our wall now looked like a gentle ramp, with both sides built high from the snowdrift. And buried somewhere beneath it were our pulkas! Moving camp was crucial – not only to escape the pungent smell of bodies that hadn’t been washed for days, but because the still air meant the snow would freeze overnight, making it near impossible to dig out our camp the following day.
Day after day we followed in each other’s footsteps, taking turns navigating from the front using either the sun, wind or a compass as our guide. While the terrain was undulating due to snow gusts, it had flattened out considerably compared to the first few days getting onto the ice cap.
The storms made our progress slow, and many times we fell short of the 25-or-so kilometres needed to cover each day in order to reach the boat booked for Day 27. We knew that only time on our feet would beat the conditions, not speed, but we also had to factor in enough rest to ensure we could keep going, day after day.
The defining moment of the trip came on Day 25. The weather was supposed to clear, but still hung around like a never-ending blanket of white; our moods were as dense as the landscape surrounding us. Huddled in the tent on our hour-long lunch break, we discussed our options. Would we make it? Or, more importantly, did we want to make it? Unanimously we agreed that, while we knew it would be challenging, our goal was to finish what we had started. Frustrations aside, we decided not to call the helicopter, instead opting to rely on our human power to get us to the finish, or at least as far as possible. Onwards it was.
There’s much to say about the strength of the human mind, and, as the following day dawned a brilliant blue, the mood amongst the team had swung 180 degrees. A few hours into the day, Brando spotted tracks running parallel to ours, no more than 100 metres to our left. Powering up alongside Bengt, we stopped to take a better look. Were we seeing things? Had we been out here for too long?
Then, suddenly, with whoops and cheers and an outburst of ‘Hallelujah’, we realised we had stumbled across the tracks from the British team, who we knew were doing the crossing at the same time. This discovery was huge, as it meant we could walk much faster without having to make our own tracks and navigate. Our chances of making it to the end without running out of food were now considerably higher.
Catching up to the British team a day and a half later, we joined forces for the remainder of the crossing, dividing the navigational duties evenly between the groups. While the Brits had been much stronger than us physically and had started two days behind us, we soon discovered that we were in a much better space mentally.
Despite being almost strangers when we set out, our team dynamics had never faltered. When times were tough – and for Bridget and me this was more often than it was for the boys – there was always someone to take some gear to lighten the load or offer a kind word of encouragement. The Brits even commented that our positive and friendly vibe helped lift their moods.
With our boat having sailed, quite literally, a charter helicopter was organised to pick us up on Day 29 – our last day on the ice regardless of our location. We knew we had a big day ahead of us, but, with the end almost in sight, we were more than ready. Day 28 dawned and presented us with what would be the best day of the entire crossing – in terms of both weather and snow conditions. After battling snowstorms, whiteouts, powder up to our knees, relentless winds and temperatures as low as -39.6 degrees, the warm, still air was extremely welcome.
Down to only one merino layer on our top, we set off for the final time with the finish on our minds. Smiling, I breathed in the clean, crisp air, felt the sun warm my back, and watched as the ice sparkled around me; I was walking on diamonds.
With an extra spring in our step, the horizon line slowly revealed a dramatic row of snow-capped peaks. From seeing nothing else but white, blue and each other for the previous 27 days, these mountains were a symbol of our incredible achievement.
We could sense that the end was near, but it wasn’t over just yet; we still needed to get off the ice cap. As the sun slowly set around 11pm, and the landscape took on various shades of pink and purple, we slid and tumbled our way down the steep slopes. Through trial and error, we slowly figured out the best way to pull our pulkas down the solid ice beneath us.
After 22 non-stop hours, minus one ski – Brando’s, which had shot off, never to be seen again – we had reached the end of our trip. While coastal fog had changed our initial finishing point, meaning we couldn’t touch the sea, we had made it onto solid ground. After 29 days later (five days longer than expected), we had ‘knocked the bastard off!’
This time I let the tears escape. They slowly rolled down my sunburnt cheek as I registered so many emotions: elation, relief, pride and an immense sense of achievement. I was completely overwhelmed; never before had I been pushed so hard, and for so long. At times I thought I would crack, my body giving everything to win over my mind; but each time there was just enough of something stronger to fight back. And, boy, I’m so glad I did.
For more information about the AHT Inspiring Explorers expedition, head to inspiringexplorers.com