Crossing the Greenland Icecap

Hi! I am Hedvig, and I just finished crossing the Greenland icecap on skis. By the sound of that introduction, you probably think that I’m one of those people who was born with skis on my feet. That I grew up in the mountains. That cold temperature is like a close friend of mine. Well, it’s not at all like that.

Words and photos by Hedvig Hjertaker

I grew up in the city center of Bergen, a coastal town between seven mountains, but to the despair of my parents, those mountains were awfully boring to summit. Only a dozen “seigemenn” (gummy bears) and a promise of more time on the Game Boy got me up on the mountains by force every Sunday. After spending a whole summer playing in the southern and warmer Arendal (Norway) my parents asked me if I wanted to take swimming lessons. Imagine that – being in the warm water, having fun and learning a new skill all in one – of course I was on to that! Fast forward 10 years I had won numerous National championships in swimming, trained 25 hours every week and loved running between the seven mountains.

Now, how is this related to a crossing of the Greenland icecap? See, we all meet obstacles in our lives, and I took one early on. I won’t go into detail, but after a bad turn at mononucleosis, also often called the kissing disease (even with the complete absence of kissing?), I crash landed, and slept for a whole year. I lost a bunch of friends, my active identity and even a bit of my personality changed on the way. How do one recover from that?

Well, you go back to the first skill you ever learned: walking. First slowly, and for a short time. Then longer walks, as the body and mind are reminded of the beauty of moving forward, both physically and mentally, at a comfortable pace. So, I walked, and walked, and walked. Until I had crossed Northern Spain, 900km, all by myself. And the beauty of it is, that the summits around Bergen (which are absolutely not boring anymore), and all those hours spent in the swimming pool are the reason why. They are all rooted in mastering a challenge, which still gets me going. To me, it’s not really about how the feeling is obtained, only that it is present. Whether it’s by walking across Spain, summiting Aconcagua or crossing the Greenland icecap. They’re all about putting one foot in front of the other. I was not born with skis on my feet, and my fingers have been constantly cold from the day I was born (yes, it’s true). To me, it’s all about the contrasts, the goal, and the ability to trust that you’ve got what it takes to master any challenge you set your mind to.

So, enough about me! I hope you enjoy reading about my latest adventure: Greenland crossing – let’s go!

What: Greenland crossing west to east
When: May 2022
Duration: 25 days
Temperatures down to -30 degrees
Distance: approximately 600km
Who: six young, adventurous people from Norway

Day 0: Prepping in Kangerlussuaq

There is so much that goes on behind the scenes to even get to the starting point of an expedition, and in that spirit, the challenges were many for our Greenland crossing. Usually, one of the biggest tasks is to prepare the food bags. Calorie-dense breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks are packed into lighter wrapping to ensure that the weight of the sled is not a milligram heavier than absolutely necessary. The equipment list also needs to be checked one last time. Are three pairs of underwear really enough for four weeks?! Another thing that must be ready is the permit from the authorities to actually be allowed to cross the ice. One should think that the number of people wanting to freeze for 25 days would be quite few, but in the aftermath of two seasons affected by the coronavirus, there were so many people wanting to cross the ice this year, that the authorities had trouble getting through the paperwork. Three days too late, and one musk burger too much, we were finally ready to take on the crossing of the world’s largest island.

Day 1 & 2 – the ice fall.

Heaps of humps along the ice, and none of them look the same. The terrain up the ice fall on the west coast of Greenland is a pool of infinite hills of blue ice, snow and sun. We’ve been moving slow these two first days, to give the body a chance to adjust. Because of ice and crevasses, we have been walking by foot, but by the end of day two we finally put the skis on. It’s so beautiful out here! Feels like I’m in a cloud, or inside an ice cream? I’m slowly seeing the mountains in the west disappear behind me.

Day 4 – What a time to be alive!

Sun, minus five degrees and 21 kilometers covered today. By lunchtime, the sun was so warming that I could take off my shoes and really relax on top of my sled. A total of eight hours on skis is a long time with approximately 70 kilograms in the sled, so these lunch breaks are important. During the day we walk for 50 minutes and have a break for 10 minutes in between. I feel like those 10 minutes are passing so quickly that it’s only time for one thing; eat/drink, pee or change clothing. If you need more than one, it simply must wait for another 50 minutes. At least those 50 minutes on the skis is a good time to plan how to spend the breaks most efficiently.

Day 5 – first meet with the cold

I woke up with frost on the sleeping bag and an even more frosty tent roof. I’ve been awake many times during the night because I was cold. I probably didn’t close the sleeping bag properly. Our guide, Christian, told us that it had been temperatures down to minus 20 degrees last night, and that with today’s windchill, we would have efficient temperatures down towards minus 30 degrees. I have never been out in such cold conditions and was also navigating the first 50 minutes today. The wind was directed straight towards us and resulted in us having to wear masks and goggles to protect our skin from frostbites.

As the first hour went by, I felt as though my sled was even heavier than it had ever been. I was moving so slow and had to check numerous times if there was anything wrong with the sled. During our first break, Christian could tell me that the cold temperatures change the friction on the snow, so that the sled actually was heavier to drag today. It was sort of a relief to know that I hadn’t gotten weaker during the night, but it also made me reflect on the days to come. After another eight hours on skis with a strong headwind, my whole body was aching.

Day 7 – a week in the wilderness

Because of the delay with the permit in Kangerlussuaq, we have some serious catching up to do. To cover more kilometers each day, we must walk faster and for a longer period of time. This has resulted in a new distance record of 24 kilometers. The goal is to reach the old military station “DYE II” (built by the USA during the cold war) on day 10, and to make this happen, we now walk for 60 minutes and have 10 minutes breaks.

“If you sweat, you die” I heard a person once say. I always thought it was an exaggeration, but after having to push the pace in such cold conditions, I can confirm that there is definitely something to it. A moist back quickly turns into a frozen back during the breaks. I don’t know about you, but it’s a solid ‘no thank you’ from me. If that was not enough, I have not had feelings in my fingers for eight out of nine hours today. My greatest weakness of the cold expedition life is officially revealed. Our guide says that we have to remember to enjoy because it’ll all be over before we know it, but I have not managed today. Its mentally challenging to always feel uncomfortable and cold, as well as it is still a long way left to go.

Lucky for me, I have gained some experience with how to deal with these feelings during the past years and know it’s crucial in these conditions to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. When it’s like this, I try hard to reflect on the duration of this feeling. Because, no matter what feeling you have, good or bad, it’s not going to last forever. Instead, I focus on the smaller stuff. Moving one foot in front of the other, watching the ski poles break the surface and listening to my favorite guilty pleasure playlist on Spotify. It doesn’t change the cold or the pain, but the shift in focus puts me in a position to keep going until my smile is back again.

Things to be grateful for after a week on the icecap:

– It is approximately one week until we reach the summit on 2500 meters above sea level. Yep, you thought it was flat here, right? Well, it’s not. I’ve been warned that the dream of heading “downhill” after the summit will be a disappointment, but some flat ground is a lot more appealing than the constant uphill slog that we’ve been facing.

– By now we should have 7 kg less in the sled (but no one is really feeling it).

– I’m injury-free!

Day 9 – earth, wind (cold), and fire

I woke up hungry at 2 am but did not dare to eat tomorrow’s ration. To deviate from the meal-plan is just to postpone a problem, and I know I’ll be needing those calories more and more every day. I was cold as well, and with today’s windchill we are down to minus 27 degrees. I had to wear all my clothes for the first hour: down from head to toe. Another tough day ahead, I thought to myself as my legs were aching just as much in the morning as they did when I went to bed. By lunch, the wind had picked up so bad that we had to put the tent up just to be able to eat. Even though my legs were screaming at me, my mind was surprisingly positive today. I’ve been thinking a lot about sending a thank you note to Earth, Wind & Fire for creating the banger song “September”. I don’t really know if they’re still alive, but they truly deserve a high five for making a song that hits you just as much at a party with your best friends, then a casual Tuesday when you’re getting ready for work. And now, it’s even had the ability to drag me along the Greenland icecap – MAGIC!

“Oh my god, it’s DYE II!” we screamed to each other a while after lunch. This building is the only thing we will see for a whole month and marks the end of a short-term goal. Even though it was still a solid day of walking to get there, the sight was a true motivation.

Day 10 – DYE II

We celebrated DYE-II by walking for only a half day. A shorter day meant that I could enjoy today’s lunch in my sleeping bag, being warm and comfortable. Stew and noodles – a favorite of mine. I put the chocolate bar inside my sleeping bag, so that too could be enjoyed frost-free. I watched a movie and slept for a while before the whole group went to check out DYE-II.

 It was a cool place, with a huge geodesic dome on its roof. We spent some time exploring the place with our torches. The inside reminded me of a real horror house. Apparently, the US military abandoned the site in 1988 with short notice, so everything is still there, like if they left yesterday. There were drifts of snow inside and there was frozen leftover food everywhere. People have later used parts of the building as a toilet, left trash and written on the walls. That last thing there I did too – evidence of my appearance in DYE-II can be found in the billiards room.

When we got back out, there was a helicopter picking up a member from a different group. It looked like the person was in a lot of pain. I must admit I considered tagging along for a brief second there, but at the same time I thought “no way, I will finish this adventure that I started”.

Day 11 – 17th May: Norway’s constitution day!

Hipp, hipp, hurra! Woke up to the sound of the national anthem played in the tent next to mine, and instantly knew this was going to be a nice day. Oatmeal and hot chocolate for constitution day breakfast is not so bad, is it? The sun was shining, the temperatures had decreased to a much more comfortable place, and even the wind was on break today. I could definitely feel that a shorter day yesterday had made its magic with my body, and we set another distance record today with 26km.

All of us have brought a surprise for the group, and my turn started at lunch with a competition. In Norway, we often play the potato-race on our constitution day (don’t ask why), but after a considerate decision a few weeks earlier, I decided to change the game to an onion-race just because the onion brings more pleasure after the game to eat than a potato. The rules are simple; carry the onion on a small spoon from start to finish with skies, but without ski poles. If you lose the onion on the way, you need to go back to start. The fastest competitor wins, and everyone really gave it their best. To preserve the good constitution day mood among a bunch of competitive people, I decided that everyone got a prize after; a liquor shot and a gummy bear.

When we had our tents set up for the night, I also made hot dogs with ketchup and pieces of that same onion to everyone. Doesn’t sound so interesting, does it? Well, the hot dogs brought so much joy to the group that some actually shed a tear. That says a lot about drytech food! I ended the night by opening letters from loved ones at home, which truly made my day (and week, and year).

Day 12 – A pulled muscle.

We started the day like we always do – boiling water and eating breakfast. I went outside to shovel snow off the tent, but because the snow was frozen after the cold night I had to work hard. Suddenly, I felt an enormous pain on the right side of my back. It felt like I was being stabbed with knives, and I had trouble breathing. I laid down inside the tent and quickly realized that I couldn’t get up again. I couldn’t move. After a while, I realized I had felt this pain before and knew that this was a muscle strain. I was given strong painkillers by my teammate and tried to calm down. I was shaking and crying for a long time. Was this going to be the end of my trip? We decided to take a rest day.

Day 13 – we have to keep moving

One strong pain killer, and ready, set, ski. We talked about an evacuation for a brief second, but there was no way this muscle strain was going to ruin my dream of crossing the Greenland icecap. This was the time to bring out my willpower and the ability to push through. My amazing teammates took some weight off my sled so that it was possible for me to keep skiing, even without the ski poles. In fact, we managed 31 km today, who would have thought! The only thing about these pain killers is that they make me so sleepy that it is difficult to stay focused. I actually almost fell asleep skiing, which resulted in me not being able to navigate today. Proud of myself for being able to ski though.

Day 14 – Daydreaming

Sunny, about minus 15 degrees, but only minus 5 degrees when the sun is at its strongest. What a joy to feel the warmth of the sun on my face! We covered 31 km today – still on strong painkillers. I have seen about eight planes in the air above us today and spent some time wondering where they are all going. Shopping in NY, maybe surfing in California, or heading to the warm, white beaches on the Caribbean islands. My mind wanders to a different world. I can almost taste the mango in my mouth. I am still grateful to be here – a place very few others get to set foot in their lifetime, so the mango can wait. And so can the Coca cola, and the ice cream, and the tacos, and the beer, and the …

After lunch, I listened to a podcast that had an advertisement for a Norwegian supermarket in it. They talked about a sale on lettuce and sun-ripened cherry tomatoes. It got my mouth watering so much that I had to rewind to hear it over and over again. Last night I also dreamt that the oatmeal turned into cement on the inside of my body, and made me into a statue out here on the icecap… What a weird dream, hah!

Dag 15 – summit: 2514 meters above sea level

Today has been a beautiful day, and I feel so lucky to experience this unique nature. We covered another 31 km today, and everything was good; food, weather, body, and soul. When I went to bed, the sun was still shining because of the arctic summer.

We have been told that there is a storm coming, and that it will be 25 m/s tomorrow morning. At the end of the day, we spent two hours wind-proofing the tent in every imaginable way. Even the “toilet” made of snow must have a wind wall. There was no wind tonight, so I’m excited to see how it’ll build up during the night. Today we reached the highest point of the trip. Imagine that. It’s only downhill from here, haha. In theory, anyway.

Day 16 – Trapped inside a tent.

Just like the weather report, the wind picked up and it started snowing during the early hours. We were told to stay in the tent for the rest of the day. I spent the day watching three movies in total, and I also ate about 400g of chocolate – hah, that’s insane!

Otherwise, being stuck inside the tent all day calls for changing clothes and a “shower”. By “shower” I mean rubbing off the worst of the dirt with wet wipes, but as the wet wipes were frozen, they had to stay next to the stove for a solid 15 minutes before I could actually start the “shower” process. Totally worth the wait, though!

I can also report that I have lost feeling in all my fingertips. They are all completely numb. I really hope the feeling comes back…

Day 18 – it’s all about the weather

The wind is still strong, but because of the direction of the wind, we can still ski. We had a challenging whiteout kind of weather and the large amount of fresh snow made big shovels of snow to fight through. Similar weather forecast for the next few days… It’s going to be rough, but we are so close to the finish line now! Also, my back finally feels good again!

Day 20 and 21 – The hunger games

Wow – a double distance record! 40 km is a long day with a sled over lots of strastugi, but we managed two days in a row. I even feel like my body is so used to the physical stress of skiing now that I could go even further. My only struggle now is a 24/7 hunger. I had a big portion of pasta bolognese (my favorite) for dinner, but I was still hungry after. I’m burning approximately 5000 calories every day by now – no wonder I’m hungry!

Day 22 – so little time, so long to go

The weather is insane! Too strong headwinds and too much fresh snow to even go out, but because of the short time before the pick up point at the end of the icefall on the east side, we still had to walk today. It was quite clear that this was a difficult day for everyone. I actually got a little scared during the last hour because the wind pushed me off balance, the snow drift was burning my face and we had to fight through tens of thousands humps of fresh snow. Two hours after lunch we had to call it a day, despite the fact that time is short. It was just too tough.

Finally, inside the tent we used hot water bottles to steam out soaking wet clothes dry again – it worked surprisingly well. Usually, one doesn’t need waterproof gear to cross the Greenland icecap, but I guess global warming is just as present here as anywhere else on this planet. I can also confirm that we are running out of food. This makes me anxious but there is not much to do about it.

Day 23 and 24 – An unexpected hurricane

We woke up the next day at the normal time of 7 am to the wind smashing the tent all around us, and found our sleds buried in snowdrift. It has been snowing 80 cm the last two days, and with degrees around zero the snow is really wet and heavy. It was not possible to ski in these conditions. I’ve been trying to walk in the snow without skis to get to the toilet but keep falling through all the way down to my thighs. We had to go out and shovel snow off the tent at least once every hour, just so that the tent wouldn’t collapse.

During the night the wind suddenly changed direction and picked up to hurricane level. This was not in the weather forecast, so our tents were placed in the wrong direction. The ground beneath us was shaking for hours on end – it was impossible to sleep. At around 4 am, one of the tent poles actually broke due to the hurricane wind and snowdrift. It was pure luck that no one got hurt! We got through the night but quickly asked for support to leave the ice in the morning, even though we were two days away from our actual goal on the east side icefall. With a broken tent and no more food left we had no other choice than to leave the icecap.

Day 25 – End of cold, end of pain, and a super friendly pilot

The fascinating thing about rough weather is its ability to be life threatening in one moment and completely gone the next. When I finally stepped outside the tent the morning after the hurricane, the sun was shining, the skies were blue, and there was no sign of wind. After a solid three hours of digging the sled and the tent out of the snow, our helicopter arrived. The pilot had no idea what challenges we had been facing these last couple of days, but it didn’t really matter at the time, as his infectious good mood made us realize that a hot shower and a home-cooked meal was just a fun helicopter ride away.

Reflections after Greenland:

– It is wise to check the direction of the wind before peeing. Always!

– A handwritten letter from someone you love means the world on a rough day.

– Do NOT skip leg day! I thought I was strong enough, but there is really no such thing as “enough” out there in the wilderness.

– No matter how tough today may seem, the sun will always rise again tomorrow.

 – What I learned from the unexpected end of this Greenland trip is the same thing I have experienced on so many trips before; no human, fancy equipment, or willpower can strike out the power of mother nature. She is the one with the final word.

My favorite products on this trip:

Gore-Tex Pro Light Jacket

Thermal Pro Jacket

Gore-Tex Pro Bib

down850 knickers

Gore-Tex Mittens Ousland edition

expedition Facemask Ousland edition

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