March 2016

Getting there…

Having got back from working in the Antarctic in late January I was surprised how excited I was to be heading to Greenland just 6 weeks later. Through December and January I was working only 300km from the South Pole. However despite the extraordinary landscapes and abundant mountainous areas logistics in the Antarctic are complicated and laborious. The extreme remoteness leads to insanely high prices of fuel, transport and food. Most organisations working on the continent have understandably developed complex safety protocols and this lends itself to somewhat limited freedom to explore the terrain. Greenland is the working mans answer to the Antarctic. I hadn’t visited Greenland for four years but I couldn’t wait to get back. The small Inuit communities around the coast are conveniently served by scheduled flights from Iceland, and this alone facilitates a much greater degree of access and more reasonable logistics costs than anywhere in the Antarctic.

Personal kit laid out and ready to go!

Skis, Crampons, Rope, Nikon DSLR, Dji Osmo, Microphones, Sat Phones, Binoculars, Heated socks, Insulated 40-below gaiters, E reader, First Aid kit, Tripod, Sleeping bag, Solar panels, Power pack, Hard drives, Lenses, Filters, Harness, Repair kit, Down clothing, Delorme Inreach, Goggles, Helmet, Clothing, Shovel, Probe, Spare skins.. you name it.. we had it!

The start of our trip didn’t go to plan. On the 22nd March we got on an 11am flight from Reyjavik to Kulusuk in a small Dash 8 aircraft with just 30 seats. We got away on time and among our co-passengers were a group of jubilant Australians who had had flights cancelled for 5 consecutive days last year whilst trying to go dog sledding. That year they only got out for one day with the dogs before they were scheduled to return home to Australia. It was surprising that after that experience they had chosen to return this year, once again with just a 6 day trip scheduled, to such a distant destination with a proven record of fickle weather.

As we approached Greenland there was dense cloud lying close to the ground and we dipped in and out getting glimpses of the fractured sea ice and coastline below. We were on the approach path to land at Kulusuk with wheels down but then, we heard later, the pilots lost visibility at the last minute in a snow storm. We lurched upwards, banked round the wheels retracted and we flew back across the waters to Iceland. For the next few days the flight was cancelled again due to inclement conditions.

< Iceland Air have a good sense for the absurd.. probably that is why they have chosen to try and run a scheduled flight service to Greenland!

Snow storms and high winds are a feature of East Greenland in springtime and it wasn’t so surprising that a travel schedule that appeared so simple took a little longer than expected. While waiting in Iceland we hired a Land Rover, drove north to a volcano called “OK”. The terrain was so much flatter than we expected so we tried to drive a bit higher up to the top of a pass. We got the vehicle stuck though in the first patch of snow we hit on the rough 4x4 track and had to get towed out by an Icelandic guide in a large Nissan with balloon tyres. By that point it was getting too late in the day to come up with a better plan so we skied up the flattest volcano in the northern hemisphere. At some points on the descent we had to skate our skis to keep moving!

Getting towed out by an Icelandic guide. He didn’t get off his mobile phone for the entire duration he helped us…! Having finally got the Land Rover out of the snow we still had to work out where to go in the flat wilderness to actually go uphill and get out of the volcanic mud! >

Four days later we finally arrived to the tiny community of Kulusuk in East Greenland. The village has just 300 inhabitants for 700 dogs and nestles into a bay on a small island at the southern tip of an archipelago of exposed windswept islands. In the evening we sorted out our pulks, unpacked, checked and repacked our bags. We met up with Matt and Helen Spencley of “Pirhuk” who had shipped in the expedition food, and efficiently sorted all the logistics to enable us to hit the ground running. We tested the rifle, firing out at a can out over the sea. We set up and tested the bear trip wires and counted out the food we needed.

We were travelling as a small team of four friends – myself, Misha, Toto and Stuart trying to carve out some time together to have an adventure. We had skied hundreds of days together before in the Alps and further afield. Though I had worked in Greenland a couple of times previously, the rest of the team had never been to lands with sea ice and polar bears and their eyes were wide open.

“The village has just 300 inhabitants for 700 dogs and nestles into a bay on a small island at the southern tip of an archipelago of exposed windswept islands…”

Kulusuk, East Greenland

Kulusuk Village

The village is on the east side of Ammassalik Fjord, which has strong currents and tends to stay ice free most of the year round. The position of the village allows both good access to the water on boat, but also to a stretch of stable sea ice leading inland to the north for journeys on dog sledge, snow-mobile or on skis during the winter and spring.

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The next morning we got up early, made final preparations and dragged pulks down to the harbour. We met ‘Pele’, a toothless elderly Greenlandic man and his friend Georg who had agreed to take us in their small fiberglass fishing boat northwards 40km to Kuummiit. We were standing on the edge of the sea ice, the boat floating on open water but anchored into the ice. We loaded on our heavy misshapen pulks onto the boat and headed out under steel grey skies up to Kuummit. It was sunny up north in the mountains when we got to Kuummiit. We got off the boat at the other end, whilst Pele kept it into the ice edge with the engine gently nudging the bow onshore, and unloaded our gear.

“We were looking for an adventure that was a bit out of the ordinary, something that redefined our parameters of wilderness experience.”

As a team we were looking for an adventure that was a bit out of the ordinary, something that redefined our parameters of wilderness experience. At the same time Misha and Stuart had family and job pressures that would limit how long they could be away. We were searching for an area that was both convenient to access, due to our short time-frame, and remote and wild enough to feel properly out there – it was like chasing unicorns trying to find an accessible ultra wilderness!

East Greenland – 3D Map with two routes

HOW TO USE THE 3D MAP

Navigate

CMD + Click + Drag = Rotates on point

Click + Drag = Moves map

Mouse Scroll = Zoom in/out

Buttons

 = Map Controls

 = Terrain Intelligence

 = Map Selector

East Greenland – 3D Map with two routes

HOW TO USE THE 3D MAP

Navigate

CMD + Click + Drag = Rotates on point

Click + Drag = Moves map

Mouse Scroll = Zoom in/out

Buttons

 = Map Controls

 = Terrain Intelligence

 = Map Selector

Ammassalik Region

Arriving into the north of the region, gearing up to head into the mountains. Behind Stuart and Misha you can make out a fishing boat that is locked in to the sea ice over winter – the ice was about 50cm thick around it at that time! One of the villagers told us that there are now a lot of unemployed people here as this village had until recently a prospering fish processing operation. However the stream that was supplying water has changed and no longer provides enough for the village and the fish plant so it has had to close.

No sooner had we started heading out across the sea ice but a few Inuits started shouting us from the edge of the village to try and let us know we were heading straight towards a section of open water. A young Inuit came over to us and led us across to the far shore of the bay and showed us a better route from that side. We spent the whole of the day getting used to dragging the pulks and to skiing across the sea ice with all its cracks and suspect sounds.

The landscape of East Greenland is incredibly varied and beautiful. It offers a similar variety of terrain as the Antarctic, but is much more accessible to those of us in Europe or North America.

 Current adventures and Alpine conditions?  >

It was not only adventurous skiing that drew us to this remote spot. Misha has spent several years developing a portable high definition 3D mapping application, “Fatmap”, and Greenland seemed like the perfect location to thoroughly test its potential. Most of the winter I work as a backcountry (IFMGA) ski guide, and having used the App in the Alps I have found the imagery and high definition 3D modelling have become an invaluable part of my tool kit.

“In Greenland we hoped that being able to visualise terrain in 3D might enable us to push the limit of what was possible on an expedition and descend lines ‘on-sight’ that we hadn’t seen before”

As well as helping me assess terrain angles and avalanche risk it helps me visualise whether terrain below me is skiable or not. It reduces some of the uncertainty of pushing through routes I haven’t skied before especially when I have a group of trusting clients! In Greenland we hoped that being able to visualise terrain in 3D might enable us to push the limit of what was possible on an expedition and descend lines ‘on-sight’ that we hadn’t seen before and wouldn’t normally be able to commit to without previously doing a reccy of the exit.

Life around the hut

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We had planned to camp every night, but stumbled across this small hunting cabin. With polar bears in the region a wooden shed offered a much more relaxing night’s sleep than a nylon tent. With that as a base for the first few days of the trip we set out to explore the local area. Our aim was both to ski new lines and to see if we could use the mapping software to descent routes ‘on sight’. 70km from the Arctic Circle, and with no rescue facilities in the region this was a pretty ambitious plan. It would also highlight any of the limitations of the software in this kind of steep and intricate terrain, and help us develop it for future applications.

Checking out the line (down to the left of stuart at the col) that we chose not to descend in the end as we didn’t have enough info on the exit. These often look so tempting, but the consequences of a bad decision in a remote environment usually bite you a bit harder than they do in the Alps!

Stuart descending the long west face that we headed down just as the sun was setting

^ Moving camp… over the next few hours a fierce storm blew up !

Relaxing in camp in better weather >

Some people have asked me “does having all that digital information take away from the adventure?”. It’s a valid question but we suffer what’s called ‘risk homeostasis’ – the introduction of avalanche airbags hasn’t had much effect in reducing casualties, and it might even be that people change their decision making when they are carrying more safety equipment. I wonder if the same applies to new technologies in the wilderness – do we have ‘adventure homeostasis’?

Misha and Toto bootpacking the last section to the summit

During the trip we certainly skied down a couple of lines for which we had no other information that the 3D mapping. I doubt in such a serious environment whether I would have considered those lines at all with conventional tools. Likewise the experience we had on this trip highlighted the necessity for extremely high resolution data, but when that is available it certainly gives me ideas of what we might be able to try on future expeditions.

Trying to do anything when it is cold and windy is pretty tricky. putting ski skins back on after skating across the ice becomes a wrestling match with a python!   >

Gear and Tech

Over the last 15 years I have focussed the majority of my energy on creating still images. In that time I have shot tons of video, but never managed to put anything together into a coherent form. These days it is getting easier and easier to capture great material, but it is still a laborious and slow process to edit it and create an interesting narrative! When I lived in Antarctica from 2009 – 2011 I took down what was my first proper digital camera, the recently released Canon 5Dii. I worked hard with it and recorded hundreds of hours of footage. I had seen Herzog’s ‘Encounters at the end of the World’ and was inspired to try and make my own film down there about the culture on the British research stations. Despite filming obsessively I had no particular narrative direction and so those hours of footage I took remained in the can ever since.

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The solar panels out in the morning sun.. this was before I realised that they battery packs weren’t taking much charge as they were too cold!

“The starkness of the landscape up there appeals to me a lot so I was really keen to try and capture that in the images.”

When we first talked about going to Greenland I thought it might be a nice opportunity to make a really short piece of video, just a few minutes. Nevertheless my primary focus remained taking still images. When I had previously worked further north on the east coast of Greenland, in both winter and summer of 2012, I only managed to bring back a few images that interested me due to both extremes of cold and then equipment failure. The starkness of the landscape up there appeals to me a lot so I was really keen to try and capture that in the images. This year I took a Nikon D810 and several lenses from ultra wide to telephoto to try and capture what I was after. For the bits of video I was trying to collect I realised that getting any worthwhile skiing imagery would be difficult unless I spent most of the expedition setting up shots specifically for the camera. The level of production of many ski movies require the camera man to sit out some ski days and shoot from the ground, or be on an adjacent hill shooting different vantage points with a telephoto, or even better with a helicopter or drone.

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Recharging batteries and devices after a day out.

This wasn’t really compatible with my aims for the trip, or with getting the kind of still images I was after. On the other hand I am also not much of a fan of shaky POV camera shot angles, and the recent headcam gimbal mounts weren’t quite available on the market then. I had used the DJI Osmo when helping film on a commercial project earlier in the winter. It is a small gimbal mounted action camera and seemed like a good portable solution for stabilised ski follow shots. In practice it was pretty difficult to get it to work most of the time due to the cold, wi-fi connection problems (it is controlled +viewed via your smartphone ). I thought about taking a drone, but in March at high latitudes the low angle of the sun and short daylight hours left us always a bit tight for solar energy.

It’s not quite as romantic as pulling out a paper map, but the information FATMAP gave us can’t really be put down on paper!!

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In practice just keeping the Dslr, Oslo, GPS, head torches and phones charged proved tricky. We took 2 x 20W of Goal Zero Nomad 20 solar panels, and 2 x 100wH Goal Zero Sherpa chargers. At temperate latitudes these work fine for charging this kind of energy consumption, but in March up there the sun isn’t doing a whole lot, and so through no fault of the gear itself we ended up pretty tight on energy. In retrospect at that time of year it would have been more comfortable with twice that amount of panels for all our domestic and camera devices, and much more again if we were to use a drone. In the cold the battery itself struggles to make the chemical reaction needed to charge, so after several days of poor charging despite full (albeit weak) sunlight I took to leaving the battery insulated inside a sleeping bag with a hot water bottle whilst it was charging from the solar panels which helped a lot.

Wellies off and ski boots (and electric socks) on! I like taking a spare pair of boots on a trip like this just incase you slip through the sea ice, but also for lounging around camp in something more comfortable. I found some boots made of lightweight foam and with a spare pair of ski boot liners in they made excellent footwear for around camp!

We had both iPhones and an iPad to run FATMAP. We used the iPad mainly at camp, and the phones on the hill. Using the GPS function of FATMAP certainly used the battery more quickly that normal usage so we did have small auxiliary battery chargers as backup. I had a ‘Lifeproof’ case on my phone though and found that the insulation this provided from the cold nearly doubled its battery life and so have kept it on back in the Alps. The Osmo also required the use of the phone so they were probably the kit we were recharging the most in the end.

The other pieces of kit we bought for the first time for this expedition was a Delorme ‘Inreach’ – a small satellite communication + gps unit,  Peak Design camera attachments and some Sidas electric heated socks! With the InReach the communication functions on the Iridium satellite network (the only network that works in the polar regions) and it allowed us to send and receive text messages for weather updates etc, and to communicate with family and friends. We also had an Iridium phone for backup and emergency communications, but in the end the Delorme was so convenient we hardly used the sat phone. The heated socks we had were excellent, especially as I have had frostbite before and can be susceptible to cold feet. Most of the time however the air was very dry and so despite being moderately cold I found it warmer than many days in the Western Alps.

End

Despite the initial delays we managed to get a lot of skiing crammed into two weeks, including 3 lines that were first descents. The region of Greenland accessed from Kulusuk airport is vast. It is still only broadly explored and leaves unlimited potential for new routes, especially when one heads further north into the higher mountain areas.

After Misha, Stuart and Toto left I stayed in Greenland for a further 4 weeks guide two consecutive groups of ski tourers in the areas I had begun to explore in the first two weeks. I am most grateful for the logistical help that “Pirhuk” gave us through all these, without which organisation would been extremely laborious. After the first two weeks of exploring and filming I was quite content that a 3 days storm kept me housebound in Kulusuk for a bit or recovery. The three guys I was out with for the following weeks – Chris, Seb and Adam (see image above) – were outrageously fit and motivated so we headed even further north and linked day after day of wild touring… but that is all a story for another day…

I will certainly be returning to Greenland in the future for more adventures. I am also available to guide experienced groups both in Greenland, the Alps and other adventurous destinations, so do get in touch if you want to take your adventures further!

… next stop? some remote corner of Alaska…?

If you have any comments or enquiries then don’t hesitate to contact me via the BIO/CONTACT page.

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