Greenland 2010 Legacy Crossing Expedition
By Sebastian Copeland
2,300 kilometers and one World record on Ozone Kites
This trip began many years ago, from 30,000 feet aboard the many transatlantic flights back and forth from Europe to the US. Plans were formulated, budget raised, and on the strength of our mutual experience on the ice, a team of two (Eric McNair Landry and myself) set off for Greenland in 2010. The plan was to leave early given the increasingly lengthening melt season there. But when the documentary I made of my 2009 North pole expedition was accepted at the Tribeca film festival, work obligations made it impossible to leave before mid May. This turned out to be a blessing given the Iceland volcano’s ash eruption which grounded air travel in the weeks prior to our departure.
Greenland is, for the most part, one giant ice mass, reaching two miles in depth at its thickest, and hugged by mountains along its coasts. Its interior was first explored by Nansen who made a “do or die” traverse from East to West in 1888. The ice sheet slowly rises from just about sea level to an average elevation of around 7500 feet. The interior is an endless succession of rolling hills, stretching as far as the eyes can see. Its katabatic winds make it an ideal playground for kite skiing, so long as you are mindful of its powerful storms. When fully powered on a kite, and surfing these giant waves on skis, the ocean comparison is uncanny. With the exception of the sastrugi–the features created by the winds on the ice surface. At speed, those irregularities can rattle your fillings, and give your knees the taste of old age! Every muscle and bone in you body rattles, and twelve hours of that gives the right and left hemisphere of your brain a chance to meet! Still, the serene feeling of being deeply immersed in this magnificent barren landscape, with wind in your sail, riding for hours relying only the wind’s power, leaves room for much contemplation. In the right context, it doesn’t take much to be fulfilled.
By May 14th, after a couple of days in Narsarsuaq, we were dropped by skiff to the edge of the glacier and begun our ascent of the ice. Pulling heavy sledges up through the crevasse field, crossing the firn line, and gaining elevation until you reach a find favorab
le wind line is about as much fun as pushing a car uphill. But we did for five days in very light winds, traveling through the chilly nights to capitalize on the ice’s firmer surface. On the morning of the sixth day, the tent fluttered enough to get us motivated, and soon we were packing camp. There is 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 is worth the price of admission. But it did not work out that way, exactly. At least not right away.
Eric is on his Ozone 12 meter Yakuza with 50 meter lines; I am on my 14 meter Yak. In the very light winds, flying the kite requires running backwards—through deep snow—to get lift; then walk back and strap the skis on, hook into the heavy sledges and generate enough power to pull them out of their sunken holes. A slight error and the sail falls out of the sky like a limp jimmy hat! After a few frustrated attempts, I lengthened the lines and manage to get moving. The extra line length, especially in light winds makes for a very slow response time, but the feeling of gliding over the ice, even at very slow speeds—after days of pulling–is exhilarating. Every foot of ground covered feels like a victory, and as the uphill miles glide under our skis, the last of the mountains in our backs slowly disappear behind the curve of the ice sheet. In one hour, we have covered more ground than we did in an entire night on foot. Soon, the wind strengthens, and our speed picks up. Had modern kites existed in his day, I have no doubt that Nansen would have chosen them for transportation over dogs. The ice races below our feet at 30 kilometers an hour, 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 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. Those conditions, unbeknownst to us, were about to dramatically change.
There is undeniable poetry in the violent and chaotic expression of nature’s forces. We see it when the sea is angry; when lightning strikes; with torrential tropical rains; or desert sand storms; events that have inspired artists through the ages. In the midst of a powerful wind storm on the ice, it is easy to be awed by this natural theater.
The tent shook violently all night. On our sixth day, we find ourselves pinned down in the tent for what will turn out to be six days and seven nights! Outside the storm rages on flying wet snow drift and piling it on the side walls of the tent. Twice we felt that the storm would let out enough to enable us to get on our way. But the prevailing whiteout delayed our departure. And twice the wind quickly strengthened again to full out blizzard with gusts reaching eighty miles per hour!
Upon stepping out of the tent, the wind’s strength will take you for a spin, and go for the throw down! But if you gain your balance, in the late afternoon light, the sound and the furry begin to play in rhythmic harmony like a multi dimensional play. The sun’s rays play with the sheet of liquid smoke and, in the backlight, what could be seen as a frigid and threatening environment turns into an ethereal dance: delicate, graceful, and expressive. That is, of course, until the cold begins to nibble at the fingers; and that wind chill can turn a nibble into a vicious bite! After spending 156 hours in a half cylinder, seven feet by four, blasting the decibels of a turbo jet engine inside their tent, We feel like we’re part of some scientific experiment. On day seven, the wind pulled back sufficiently to ski out of this mess.
It took four hours to dig ourselves out of what felt like an archeological excavation. Low and behold, the wind was dropping. We rigged a couple of 7 meter Frenzies and, oh, that long forgotten sensation was back! The tug of the lines; the jolt forward; the taught line to the sledges behind and that virtually effortless propulsion up that damn hill…! We were kiting again.
It was 4PM. And although we switched to the 10 meter Mantas, and then to the Yaks, and then went back to the 10 meters again… all inside one hour, we were moving. By evening, a perfect red sun set behind a hill while 180 degrees from it, a full moon rose above the ice sheet. That was a long day. But in all, we covered had 61.8 kilometers, and broke the spell.
By day 17 and a couple of no wind days, DYE II was in our cross hairs. The night had been quiet without a breath of wind. By 7 AM, the tent began shaking, slowly at first, but settling to a 16-20 kilometer breeze. We rigged up the big Yakuzas, and by 9:30, we were off. With a dark blue sky, and not a cloud out, the sun was pounding the ice, softening the already reduced sastrugi. With music in the helmet, and a consistent wind, we flew over the friendly terrain. Abiding only by natural laws, fully sustained with sledges in tow, the sense of freedom is hard to describe: like a flight into the unknown, riding into the new horizon of a post-apocalyptic movie. A cross between a bird flight…and Mad Max! By late afternoon, the conditions grew to 25 km/h, and with those kites, on that tack, we were jamming! For almost three hours, we flew with speeds in excess of 50 kilometers per hour, without stop. By midnight, amidst the frigid temperatures of the setting sun, we saw the point sticking off the horizon!
Standing erect, like a monolith, it is odd to see a structure after days of nothing but sky and ice. As the winds grew into the night, we downsized to 10 meters, and reached our objective at 1:30 AM, having covered 232 kilometers for the day—our personal best thus far! DYE II is a structure built by the US military as part of the DEW line, a ballistic monitoring system established during the cold war. It was abandoned in 1989, but remains, more or less as was built, in the middle of the ice sheet.
Before leaving on this expedition, privately, I had mentioned that, provided the conditions were right, I might take a shot at the kite skiing world record for greatest distance covered in a 24 hour period. While I had said it half in jest, in my mind, I was determined to give it a go. Under promise, over deliver. But at 518 kilometers, I could see now that that new distance record was daunting. By day 22, our personal best of 260 kilometers in sixteen hours was merely half that…
After that big day, and a 5 AM stop, the following day was spent resting. I struggled with staying in the sleeping bag as I could hear the wind outside which did not let up all day. But our sore bodies needed recovery. By 9:30 PM, on June 5, 2010 the last items were packed in the sledges, the kites were laid out on the ice, the winds were moderate but still up, and we hit the trail. I had rigged the big Yakuza on 75 meter lines, which was definitely big for the conditions. But after yesterday’s adrenaline rush, I was hungry for more. Besides, we were traveling on a broad reach–with the wind about 45 degrees to our back–and the pull in that direction is more forgiving when over powered. Eric started on his 12 meter Manta, but after half an hour, I encouraged him to switch as the difference in speed was too great. He went to the Yak. And the fun was on! “Let’s go for it”, I told Eric. We had talked a bit about the record, and his attitude had been lukewarm. “Silly and dangerous mistakes happen when you subject your body and mind to this type of duress in a highly dynamic environment”, had been his response, even while he had had a go at it a couple of years back and posted a not shabby 412 kilometer day. But I have come to find him quite competitive, and tonight the conditions were there. Within the first hour and a half we had covered almost a hundred kilometers. The wind grew through the first part of the night. By 4 AM, snowdrift covered the ice in all directions, and as we chased the midnight sun, we were motoring! At times we hit speeds of sixty kilometers an hour. Luckily, the snow was quite soft, and the sastrugi virtually non existent. It was cold, though, and we could definitely feel that we were traveling north. We had passed the thousand kilometer mark from our point of departure, crossed the Arctic circle, and were clearly headed into the cold. Frost was building over our face masks, and with the wind-chill, no skin could be exposed. And we were flying! At this time of the year as we approach the summer solstice, and for this latitude, the sun both rises and sets more or less in the North as it circles around the top of the planet. That means that effectively, we rode both into the sunset and the sunrise while on the same bearing!
In five hours, we had done over two hundred and fifty kilometers! We took two-hour runs and fifteen minute breaks for the first eight hours, (except for one period when the visuals were so spectacular, backlit from the sun, that I had to film!) It is difficult to describe the feeling of unity you get with the elements when, fresh and in the zone, you are one amongst a blanket of snow flurries galloping over the ice at mach speed, using just nature’s energy. We felt the wind in our sail, the edges of our skis biting against the tight pull of the kite’s lines and slicing their mark in the ice behind us. Every now and then a gust propels us even faster as we accelerate downwind, the sledges erratically bouncing behind us. What a rush! Eventually, the pull of the big kites was too great, and our legs were getting the workout of their life. We downsized to 10 meters, and settled to very reasonable speeds. The snow got noticeably softer, almost sand like in the dry cold, which was remarkably kinder on the knees. It literally felt like skiing over cotton! Ten hours in and we had covered 368 kilometers! At that rate, we were going to pulverize the record. As the day rose, however, the winds began to falter, which is customary. For 48 hours, they had held strong; but as they pulled back, we were struggling to leave our mark on what felt like a vanishing legacy. From traveling at up to sixty kilometers an hour, we were now dropping to mid teens. As well, fatigue set in, and I started to doubt.
“If this keeps up, we’re not going to make it”, I said. “Are we up to subjecting ourselves to a twenty four hour day if we’re not going to break the record?” I tested. “If we do it, it’s to push the edge of our own limits. But if we agree to do it, there is no turning back,” Eric replied. That was just what I had hope to hear, and an accurate reflection of my feeling, exactly. In for a penny, in for a pound! To hell with the record, we’ll push until twenty-four hours, even if we have to drop by then. “That’s the spirit,” I said. “Let’s go!”
We had shifted our periods to ninety minutes of kiting between breaks, and were back on the big kites. But it was debatable whether we would even be able to keep then in the air for twenty-four hours. The slow speed monotony was reaping havoc on the mind, while our bodies were feeling the toll. Skiing essentially on the same tack for endless days places stress on certain areas of the body, and this long day was definitely going to add to it. Our left calve muscle was especially sore, as was the flat of the feet. Because holding the kite’s handles places the hands above the heart, they tend to go cold a lot, and after hours of gripping, fingers go numb. As to the thighs and knees, the first few hours of our rocket fueled travel had put serious strain on them: they were worked! Think of skiing downhill for so many hours… We kept chipping at it, and by hour fifteen, with nine more to go, we had covered 450 kilometers. The winds were light but if they kept up we still had a real shot at it. By now, the snow cover on the ground had deepened to a coarse and soupy consistency which added drag to both the skis and the sledges—but was a God send for my sore knees! After fifteen hours we were at 470 kilometers, forty-eight from the record…
We switched to one-hour periods with a fifteen-minute breaks. The winds teased us, increasing and decreasing but overall, we managed to increase our pace. By the next period we were just over 500 kilometers, with eight hours to go! At this stage, it would have been devastating if the wind had died, as the record was within reach. I gripped on the handles and felt each foot of distance glide below my skis, getting us closer to that 518 kilometer mark. This was day 23 of a very physical expedition and I could feel the increasing pains in my limbs… But as the hour grew, I knew then that we would make it.
We passed the record sometime during our seventeen hour. With five more to go, we switched to forty five minutes on, and fifteen minutes off. And agreed not to look at the GPS for distance until we were in the tent. The last three hours were agony. Upon unclipping from my ski bindings on the breaks, I could barely walk. My calve had seized up, both my feet were numb, my knees sore as hell and I was so exhausted that I could barely eat the fuel so needed at this stage. I had finished the tea in my thermos, and my two half empty nalgene bottles had frozen from the cold. There would be no liquid until the end. I was almost delirious in the last hour, each minute dragging on as I listened to the same music selection on the iPod that I had switched on for distraction: somehow I had pressed the repeat option, and the last three hour played the same play list track; but I was too tired to mind! In fact, I used the songs mostly as a rough estimate of time. Strangely, I kept thinking that at the term of this day would be a Russian masseuse and a bath house, only to realized that we would arrive at a point determined only by the clock, and that once that 24 hour bell rang, this would be our place of rest for the night! Because of the break periods, the final forty five minute section fell on 9:15, and we agreed that this would be our quitting time, fifteen minutes shy of the twenty four hours mark.
That last section was pure mind over matter, though I will admit that the final fifteen minutes dragged on forever. For the first time, I felt my 46 years of age, though Eric, at 25, admitted to his pains! I had been up for thirty-one hours, and exerting for twenty four. When we landed our kites for the last time that day, I crawled to fold it up, and the seventy-five meters of line took ten minutes to wrap!
We wobbled into the tent, made some food, and agreed it was time to check our distance. We have beaten the record by a whopping seventy-seven kilometers! We were now, until beaten, the world record holders for the longest distance traveled by kite on skis over a twenty four hour period with 595 kilometers!
That one-day stretch represented almost one fifth the distance of our entire expedition! We were 750 kilometers from our objective and had now covered 1550 kilometers. Our pick-up was 16 days out, but by then, the worst was behind us.
One inescapable fact which I have long since come to terms with, and which is the deft reality of any outdoors enthusiast, is that you cannot get mad at the weather. In fact, while it can often test your resolve–and your patience–the weather is a sort of humbling supporting character in the unfolding play of your travels.
We took our time for the remainder of the trip, given our return plane ticket, we had a generous window which did not require rushing. In fact, life on the ice, in its simplicity felt more valuable than a speedy return into society. And by day 37 we were descending the glacier after an uneventful crossing of the crevasse field, which we navigated on kites and luckily found no surprises. Upon descending in elevation, patches of rock begun to appear until soon it was the ice that became scarce. The absence of life on the ice sheet was made all the more obvious with the new buzzing sound of insects, the plants that sprouted between rocks and the birds that flew over head. We dragged our sledges across the rocks and hailed our cargo down to the waters edge. The bay was frozen which prevented our boat pick up, so we were forced to call in a helicopter. After spending one night at ocean level, sleeping on a mat laid out over the rocks with nothing but clear skies above us, the familiar feeling of spending nights over the ice soon faded with the distant thumping of the helicopter’s rotors.
In no time we were in Qanaaq where we spent five nights waiting for the weekly commuter plane, relishing memories of clear skies and wind filled sails, flying over the ice with nothing but space in front of us; a killer trip on the books, a world record in our wake, and endless hours of footage soon to be assembled into a feature length documentary! Thank you Ozone for your steadfast support, and the best kites money can buy!
(You can find the trip’s blogs on www.sebastiancopeland.com. Additionally, the story was featured in Men’s journal Dec’10/Jan’11 article Alone Across Greenland www.mensjournal.com/alone-across-greenland)