Three Kites on the Ice

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The water in the fjord was flat and clear, the pale, sheer blue of a mountain river. Icebergs were scattered across its surface, their reflections blurring and rippling as the boat glided by. The shore was dark grey, snow-streaked, rocky and bare of any life. On one ragged stretch of coast, an enormous blue-white glacier hurled itself in slow motion into the sea: That was where the boat dropped anchor, and the dinghy, trailing behind, was pulled up alongside.

It took a few trips, loading and unloading the dinghy, but when the boat pulled up anchor again and motored away, the job was done. Three men were left on the beach with nearly 900 pounds of gear between them.

The trio spent the day ferrying their gear from the beach over a rocky glacial moraine and onto the frozen edge of the looming Greenland ice cap. They carried eight loads each, with the tide creeping up as the hours passed. It was dark when they finished – May in southern Greenland still meant a few hours of night – and they pitched their tent that first evening still within sight of the fjord they’d traveled up earlier that day. If all went as planned – if the weather and the ice and their own bodies cooperated – they would be alone on the ice for more than two months, kite-skiing the frozen spine of the world’s largest island from south to north, setting a new world record in the process.

The next morning, their attempt at the longest human-powered, kite-assisted, unsupported, un-resupplied Arctic journey in history would begin.

*

The plan went like this: The team would begin at Greenland’s southernmost tip, near the island’s thin cluster of coastal towns and villages. They would ascend the empty, frozen interior vertically, and “summit” at a fjord on the uninhabited northern coast. Then their “descent” would take them south and westward, to a beach within striking distance of Qaanaq, a remote, ice-bound village. They would cover 3500 kilometres – more than 2000 miles – to reach their ride home.

Adrian Hayes was the organizing force behind the Greenland Quest expedition. He’d landed big-name sponsors for the group – a major bank, Emirates NBD, had signed on as title sponsor, and a host of outfitters, including kite-maker Ozone, had pitched in for gear. And he’d taken the lead on their promotional efforts, too. Adrian is a Dubai-based Brit, ex-Special Forces, a fitness fanatic, motivational speaker, and corporate coach. He’d recently landed in the Guinness Book of World Records for reaching the planet’s “three poles” – the South Pole, the North Pole, and the summit of Mt. Everest – in just over 19 months.

Adrian met the second member of the expedition, Devon McDiarmid, in Antarctica – Devon had been the lead guide on Adrian’s South Pole trip, and as they’d neared their goal they’d talked over where they wanted to go next. Devon was in his fifth season in Antarctica, and in the off months he lives in Canada’s northern Yukon territory, so he’d seen his share of ice. The one frozen expanse he’d never gone near, though, was Greenland.

The third team member was Derek Crowe, a photographer and cyclist from Whitehorse, Yukon, and a friend of Devon’s. He didn’t have the kind of multi-week backcountry experience that Adrian and Dev did, but he brought a key skill set to the group: They were counting on the wind to carry them across the vastness of the ice cap before their food and time ran out, and Derek was the only one of the three who knew much about kiting, their chosen mode of travel.

They wouldn’t need the kites right away, though. When they woke up that first morning on the ice, they were facing at least a couple long days of man-hauling, slogging on skis until they reached higher ground, safer ice and better winds. They loaded up their pulks – each man would pull two sleds, loaded with more than 250 pounds between them – stepped into their skis, put their heads down and went to work.

*

When people think of cross-country skiing, they picture spandex-clad Olympians kicking and gliding along fresh-carved, tracked trails; healthy, flush-cheeked Scandinavians flexing their impossible thighs under bright winter sun, all grace and power. This Greenlandic skiing was another, uglier beast.

The three men wore the wide, stubby skis used for alpine touring – and, like the backcountry skiers hauling themselves up lift-less mountains in search of virgin powder, they covered their skis’ surfaces in “skins,” fitted fabric layers designed to help grip the snow. When you’re harnessed up and hauling hundreds of pounds behind you, there is no glide.

Some days there was wind, and they lofted their kites and left miles behind them. Most days, though, during the first leg of the journey, there was no wind, and on those days they strapped on their skins and walked. They took turns cooking and melting water to drink, and they slept in a large tent with two zippered sleeping compartments; each man had a room of his own every third night.

On day 18, the team reached the Arctic Circle. The boundary is tenuous at the best of times: On the Yukon’s Dempster Highway, the only Canadian road to cross it, the line is marked by a gravel pull-out and a wooden signpost, and the landscape takes no other notice of it. But here in Greenland it was even less tangible – it existed only in the pixels of their GPS screen. Around them, the clean white ice and the empty blue sky went on and on and on.

Still, it was an important milestone. Devon had always broken his longest expeditions into stages, setting goals along the route, and on this trip, the invisible latitude was the first of those goals. It also meant longer light, and, so the team had heard from other Greenland travelers, better ice and more reliable winds on the north side of the circle. “As soon as you hit the Arctic Circle,” they’d been told, “everything gets better. The wind gets better, the ground gets better. You’ll be flying.”

At first, this acquired wisdom proved true. They enjoyed steady winds for a few days, but soon they were becalmed again. They’d catch a wind and lose it, trek for awhile and then catch another lucky series of gusts. From day 33 to day 39 they trudged every day, knowing they’d passed the halfway mark of their planned time on the ice – they’d estimated they’d need 65 days in total – but were nowhere near half the distance. They still had more than 1000 km to go before they reached the tip of the northern coast, and another long haul west to their pick-up spot after that – 800 km or more.

Devon didn’t mind the man-hauling too much. He’d done his share in Antarctica, ski-slogging all the way to the Pole on three separate occasions, and he’d found he could sink into a comfortable, dreamless rhythm as the days slid by. Time passed; he walked. Kiting, when the wind was up, required more focus – it was less predictable and steady. Still, there was no arguing with the ground kites could help them cover, and they had a very long way yet to go.

Finally, on day 40, the wind arrived and stuck around; the team kept their kites up and flying for most of the next week. They’d agreed in advance not to pull any 24-hour stints, limiting themselves to 18 hours at a shot so they wouldn’t be too wrecked to keep going the day after a long haul. Still, even sticking to their self-imposed limits they ate up the miles. The winds rose to storm levels, and the horizon vanished, and the air was choked with blowing snow. On day 46, they paused and pitched their tent in the haze, planning to make a meal. Inside, they ate and checked their GPS. They knew the coast was close, but they weren’t sure exactly where they were in relation to the fjord they aimed to explore.

After they ate, Dev and the others crawled out of the tent. They expected more snow, but the wind had eased up and the air had cleared. As they looked ahead, the clouds broke and the mountains of the northern coast appeared suddenly out of the murk. Devon realized he was staring straight down J.P. Kocks Fjord, their summit for the expedition. In blind wind and snow, they’d nailed their position perfectly.

They kited to the edge of the glacier that would lead them down to sea level, set up camp, and carried on with skis and daypacks under a hot sun, leaving their kites behind. The glacier was melting, visibly, and they followed the fast-moving streams of runoff down, shedding hundreds of feet in altitude, until they reached the point where land ice met sea ice, on the frozen shore of the Arctic Ocean. There, they paused to savor the moment.

They were hundreds of miles from the nearest Greenlandic settlement, on a harsh, inhospitable, uninhabitable corner of the coast. Adrian, Devon and Derek were among a handful of people in history – maybe less than ten – who were known to have stood on this shore. Devon could feel the emptiness of the place. “Nothing’s been here,” he thought. “Nothing’s lived or grown.”

The team headed back to their camp, splashing their way through glacial streams that seemed to get deeper by the minute. They were soaked by the time they got back – Devon fell into chest-deep water, once – and as they approached their tent they saw that the scene they’d left behind 18 hours earlier had changed. The surface layer of snow had melted away, so that all around their tent they could see long sunken slots, like a layer of fresh snow covering a sewer grate. There were crevasses all around them.

They broke camp, loaded their sleds, and started walking. Nobody wanted to wait for the right wind.

*

They walked and walked and walked. At first the air was calm, and then the wind came up again – but with an unusual high pressure system parked over Greenland, reversing normal trends, it blew directly into their faces instead of lofting them towards their goal. They called a meteorologist on their satellite phone; he could see no break in the system anytime soon. They did the math on how long it would take them to walk the remaining 500 km to their plane home. They started rationing their food, and they walked and walked some more.

As they cut back on their daily calories and stared down the remaining miles, the expedition faced its first real disagreement. Derek thought they should at least consider planning a rescue, in case the contrary winds held up and their food ran down; Adrian and Devon were less concerned. Devon’s polar training ground had been Antarctica, where fuel caches were stashed in advance and the big guiding outfits had Twin Otters and DC-3s standing by to retrieve stranded travelers – barring major weather, he was used to having a rescue flight available on a few hours’ notice.

But northern Greenland is not Antarctica; it might be the only place on earth that can make the southern continent seem infrastructure-rich. While Derek, Devon and Adrian debated the future of their expedition, another group of adventurers was experiencing the Arctic reality firsthand.

Just days earlier, a group of Danes on a skiing expedition to the northern tip of the island had called in a rescue; one of the skiers had appendicitis. A Twin Otter was launched from Nunavut, in Canada’s Eastern Arctic, but with the distances involved, its crew had to fly partway and build a fuel cache, then fly back and fill up again, before returning to Greenland by way of the stashed fuel. With some nasty weather thrown in, the whole operation took a few days. Then, when the plane finally made it to the Danes – who by this time had started burning their remaining fuel and food to lighten their load for a rescue – it veered out of control on landing. Nobody was hurt, but the aircraft was out of commission – and now, two crews were in need of retrieval.

A Panther helicopter was launched from Norway; again, lacking a cache, its pilots loaded its interior with fuel barrels and gassed up in mid-air. The Panther retrieved the Danes, and by this time the Canadian pilots had dug their Twin Otter out of the snow and gotten it running. Ten days had passed since the SOS went out by satellite phone.

Devon, Derek and Adrian learned about the Danes via their own sat phone calls, and it slowly sank in that rescue – should it become necessary – was a complicated proposition. Still, they’d gotten a few lucky breaks with the wind, and they didn’t want to give up while they had food in their sleds. They kept slogging. Some days, they kited into the wind, tacking back and forth and back and forth, racking up side-to-side kilometers but moving forward no faster than they could have walked. They’d done the math: Walking burned more calories than even the most futile-seeming kiting effort, and at this point, even when the winds were cooperating, they had no calories to spare.

*

A few days later they were headed southwest in a whiteout, bombing towards the coast. Dev was in the lead, squinting into the snow, when he spotted a small black sliver on the horizon. “I should not be seeing black,” he thought. “Grey, white, blue, but definitely not black.” He slowed his pace and kept his eye on the spot, and soon he was able to see snow swirling around it and then spindrifting down and out of sight: The spot was a hole in the ice.

Dev dropped his kite and signaled to the others to do the same. The three of them anchored their pulks and then skied carefully closer. Derek and Devon got close enough to tell that the hole was plenty big enough to swallow them all, and then backed away again. Adrian, though, skied right to the edge. “You could throw cathedrals into that thing all day long,” he told them when they regrouped.

They put away their kites and skied back along the tracks they’d already made, putting some distance between themselves and the chasm. Then they used their ski poles to probe a section of snow and ice, set up their tent, and collapsed for the night.

Dev was up first in the morning. He got a fire going for breakfast, then grabbed a small shovel and headed out to take care of business. He’d just walked past the edge of the section they’d probed when the ground went out from under him. He caught himself with the shovel, bracing it across the mouth of the hole that had opened up below him, and found himself hanging with his head at ice level. He swung his legs forward, and met empty air; he swung his legs back, and there was nothing behind him either. He didn’t look down, didn’t even want to know how deep the thing was. “This is not it, this cannot be it,” he told himself. “This is not my time.”

He kicked his legs sideways, felt the edge of the crevasse beside him, and didn’t pause to consider: He just pushed off and popped himself out onto the snow.

Back inside the tent, he was white-faced, unable to speak. Finally, after a few minutes, he explained what had happened.

“What do you want to do?” Derek asked.

“Put on our skis and walk until we feel like the ground is good again,” Devon said.

So they did, clustered close together under a clear sky for most of the morning, until the scare had worn off some and Devon felt ready to chance kiting again. The wind picked up, and they put up their kites and aimed themselves towards the coast. They had just a few days left until they were supposed to meet their boat at McCormack Fjord. The boat would take them to a helicopter that would take them to a plane; if they missed their ride, they’d be stuck in a remote corner of Greenland for days, maybe weeks.

*

With three days of kiting left, Adrian’s low-wind kite – the largest one he was carrying – broke. He couldn’t keep up with the other two with his next-largest kite, so Dev added Adrian’s gear to his own, towing a train of four loaded pulks, while Derek towed Adrian, on skis but without a kite raised, and his own gear. As they neared the coast, all three shifted to their smaller storm kites, dropping their speed as they picked their way through the increasingly crevasse-splintered ice pack. Finally, they had to give up on kiting entirely, and slog the final stretch.

The last ten kilometers were hell. They’d reached the edge of the ice, and now they had to drag their kit down a glacier, across a talus slope scattered with car-sized boulders, and finally through a grassy, wet tundra that gripped the rock-shredded plastic of the pulks like quick sand. They wound up unpacking the sleds and ferrying all their gear to the beach on their backs. It took them fourteen hours.

They made the beach with a few hours to spare, but there was no victory dance, no group hugs. They were too tired to celebrate. Instead, on their 67th day in Greenland, Devon, Adrian and Derek lay down on the rocky beach and slept.

 

The expedition earned a Guinness World Record for the longest unsupported Arctic kiting expedition ever completed. For more information, go to GreenlandQuest.com.

 

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About Eva Holland

Eva Holland is a freelance writer and editor based in Canada's Yukon Territory. She is the co-editor of World Hum, a contributing editor to Vela, and a former associate editor at Up Here and Up Here Business magazines. Her work was recently included in Byliner's "102 Spectacular Nonfiction Stories from 2012." Follow her on Twitter @EvaHolland.

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