Green Ice Traverse
By Eric Philips
Published in Australian Geographic magazine - 1996
'MUSH, MUSH!' whooped Ben, his gloved fingers coiled around the steering handles, anticipating the sudden jolt that would jerk him across the ice. Almost without warning, the traces pulled taut and his 80kg sled broke through the shroud of ice laid down during the -8oC night and slithered across the snow. I waited a few seconds then echoed his cry, lurking forward across the featureless expanse of Greenland's icecap. Our yells were not directed at huskies, but Quadrifoils. Harnessed to these steerable kites, and towing our kayak-cum-sleds behind us, we sailed on skis towards the horizon - a grey merging of ice and sky brightened by the 4-square-metre panels of brilliantly coloured nylon that preceded us.
It was day 16 of the first all-Australian traverse of Greenland - one of the very few expeditions in the past 20 years to complete a sea-to-sea crossing. With me on the 680-kilometre journey from the Denmark Strait to Kangerlussuaq were expeditioner Ben Galbraith and adventure cameraman Wade Fairley. Our course, roughly along the Arctic Circle, followed in the footsteps of Australian polar explorer John Rymill, who crossed Greenland in 1931 as part of the British Arctic Air Route Expedition. We often reflected on his epic tale of survival during our expedition.
Using wm plastic kayaks and Quadrifoils instead of Rymills sealskin kayaks, wooden sledges and dog teams, our adventure began in July 1995 in the town of Angmagssalik on Greenland's iceberg-peppered east coast. Joining us to film the first paddling leg were sea kayaker and cameraman Larry Gray, production manager Mary O'Malley and director Michael Balson.
From Angmagssalik Bay, Ben Larry and I paddled our kayaks south through icebergs ranging in size from dinghies to ocean liners, While Mary, Wade and Michael filmed from the support boat. Summer was waning and the sun had begun its annual dip towards the Southern Hemisphere. In the eerie twilight, our red shadows danced and weaved on the glowing ice.
Six days and 110 km later we reached the frontier town of Isortoq, collected final provisions and paddled the last 6 km to the edge of the icecap, which plunged into the fiord as a 50 m vertical face of blue ice, calving house-size icebergs before our eyes. Leaving the others to continue filming on the east coast, Wade, Ben and I pulled on our harnesses, eager to begin our land leg.
Our first week on the ice proved to be slow going. Climbing steeply, our path was strewn with icy hummocks, melt streams and crevasses, and by the end of the fifth day we'd zigzagged a measly 32 km - well short of our 20 km per day target. Plodding on, we finally cleared the coastal zone and dragged our sleds up onto the icecap plateau.
For a week we saw neither sun, moon nor stars as we battled heavy snowfall, mist, and winds too strong for our Quadrifoils. Supercharged on pasta, chocolate, bread and margarine, we soon fell into a routine of eating, skiing and sleeping. At one point, a leaking fuel bottle put petrol-flavoured food on the menu. Too hungry to care, Wade and I wolfed down the contaminated meal - and then burped all night long. A more discriminating eater, Ben feasted on spoonfuls of margarine and was spared this indignity.
Day 11 dawned with the sleepy sun peeking over the horizon, bathing the clouds in brilliant red hues. A few days later a south-easterly finally sprang up, its 28km/h speed perfect for our 'nylon huskies', and we were soon coasting behind them. At day's end smiles beamed through cracked and blistered faces when I'd calculated our position - we'd passed the halfway point and were right on schedule.
The intrusion of DYE II - an abandoned American radar station scarring the pristine icecap - on day 21 destroyed my sense of freedom and isolation. But Ben and Wade were intrigued, finding in its generators, billiard tables and other long-disused equipment thought-provoking reminders of the Cold War.
The last five days of our journey were laborious. Bruised and battered from our kayaks ramming into the backs of our legs as we slid down steep-sided gullies, we negotiated frozen lakes, crevasses and 30 m high ice walls. After 28 days on the ice, we abseiled onto the sandy banks of a wild, glacier-fed river. Our unorthodox sleds again became kayaks and we'd soon paddled the final 30 km to our destination - the town of Kangerlussuaq with its foaming beer and Danish pastries.
In using a combination of ski, kayak and Quadrifoil, our Green Ice Traverse expedition has paved the way for new forms of polar travel. With our modern equipment, we'll never really know what it was like for Rymill, but in following in his footsteps, we shared the spirit of his epic adventure.
|© 2011 Icetrek Expeditions|