Greenland Expeditioning. A Balanced Perspective
By Eric Philips
Published on Explorers Web www.exweb.com - 2005
In 1888 the Norwegian Fridtjof Nansen and his team made the first crossing of Greenland (locally known as Kalaallit Nunaat). It was a pioneering and extraordinarily daring exploit that relied not on dogs but their own human-power and rudimentary sledge-rigged sails made from their tent floors. This expedition into the unknown interior of an icecap is widely regarded as heralding a new era of polar endeavor, that of icecap exploration, which ultimately lead to the Heroic Era of Antarctica exploration and the attainment of the South Pole.
The American, Robery Peary, of North Pole fame/infamy, spent many years in Greenland before his Arctic Ocean era. His early expeditions explored the lower icecap east of Qaanaaq (Thule) but in 1891-92 he dog-sledded across the northern and wider sector of the icecap from McCormick Bay, near the current Thule Air Base, to Independence Fiord and back, a distance of over 2000 kilometers. This expedition revealed that Greenland was not part of a continent but indeed an island. Subsequent Peary expeditions to Ellesmere Island established a North Pole credo that is steadfast to this day – that despite it’s more southerly location, the northern tip of Ellesmere is a preferred start point for North Pole expeditions than Greenland’s furthest north, Cape Morris Jesup.
With the world obsessed by Antarctica during the ensuing years little interest was shown in the Greenland icecap until the 1930’s when the young British gun Gino Watkins lead the British Arctic Air Route Expedition, a project backed by Pan-America to establish a trans-polar air link between America and Europe. One of the objectives of this expedition included a crossing of the Greenland icecap. After Watkins’ untimely death during a solo hunting sortie amongst the pack-ice on the east coast, the east-west crossing was carried out by the Australian John Rymill and his British colleague Wilfred Hampton using dogs. Dog-sledding and tracked vehicles became the norm for the sporadic crossings during the following decades.
Military might came to Greenland in the 50’s with the construction of four Distant Early Warning radar stations, Dye 1, 2, 3 and 4. Built to monitor Russian warplanes during the Cold War, the DEW line was decommissioned between 1986 and 1992 and Dye 2, situated on the Arctic Circle, is visited by most expeditions on the standard Greenland traverse.
Not until 1965 did the second human/wind-powered crossing occur, a Scottish expedition including the first woman to traverse Greenland. From memory the Danish explorer/architect John Andersen and his team made the next crossing in the early 70’s, also using sledge-rigged sails a la Nansen, and since then there has been a steady stream of teams across the world’s second largest icecap.
Greenland is a ‘special cultural community’ of the Kingdom of Denmark but is administered by its own Home Rule Government. It is the largest island in the world, approximately 2650km long extending from just below 60N at Cape Farewell to almost 84N at Cape Morris Jesup. Its widest breadth is in the north of the island, about 1000km extending from Cape Alexander near Qanaaq to Lambert Land south of Independence Fiord, and tapers to the south. The icecap (often referred to as the ‘inland ice’) covers 82% of the island and reaches an elevation of 3238m at around 72.30N, 37W. The Northeast Greenland National Park is the largest in the world and its town of Danneborg is home to the famous Sirius Patrol, a crack team of Danish soldiers who maintain military surveillance over the area.
Greenland is the perfect training ground for those with Antarctic ambitions and many teams complete expeditions across the icecap before heading south, myself included. It is also, together with the North and South Poles, part of the classic polar trifecta. Few have followed Nansen’s shorter route in the south from Umivik to Nuuk but most choose to cross from east to west, typically from the Tasiilaq (Ammassalik) region to Kangerlussuaq (Sondre Stromfjord) roughly following the Arctic Circle, a distance of around 550km. A number of lateral crossings are possible between the various towns that pepper the west and east coasts, including a diagonal traverse from Qaanaaq to Tasiilaq of approximately 1700km, completed by Reinhold Messner and his brother Gunter in 1990. Incidentally theirs was one of the first polar expeditions to use traction kites. Longitudinal traverses are longer and more difficult as they remain longer at elevation and experience colder temperatures in the north. They are more noteworthy because, in comparison to lateral traverses, they are rare. Longitudinal non-mechanised traverses to date include:
Of the 30-40 lateral expeditions, many of them guided, that cross the Greenland icecap every season, almost all cross from the Tasiilaq region to Kangerlussuaq (roughly following the Arctic Circle), and few of these stand out. This is not to belittle their achievements - all expeditions require skill and dedication - but, like the standard route to the South Pole from Hercules Inlet, they show little individuality (though individuality can be demonstrated in the use of innovative techniques). It is also difficult to compare the achievements as most expeditions are airlifted to their start-point on the edge of the plateau, above the difficult flanks that are often devoid of snow cover. Yet about 100km south of Tasiilaq, only 5 or 6 kilometres from the small town of Isortoq, the icecap extends down to sea level, as it does for much of the coastline that extends 200km southward. And on the west coast most expeditions descend the western flank towards Kangerlussuaq via a graded ice road that runs a significant distance into Greenland’s interior (no longer maintained as of this year).
The recent Greenspeed Expedition, a double crossing, was choppered to the plateau edge approximately 10km inland from the east coast and, more significantly, around 1000m above sea level. On the western side they turned around for the return crossing approx. 35km east of Kangerlussuaq at the head of the fiord and around 700m altitude. This expedition rightly claims a record crossing of the Greenland icecap at 6 days, 23 hours, beating the previous 8-day record (which was done without kites). So, their record is very specific and cannot be compared with expeditions that cross from sea level to sea level or those not using kites. For example a recent expedition by Australians Rob Rymill and Ben Deacon dog sledded from Tasiilaq across Ammassalik Island, boated across Sermilik Fiord and trekked over the coastal mountains to the plateau, adding two days to their ski/kite journey. Of course Greenspeed also cannot be compared with the much longer and more challenging south-north crossings but it remains a notable expedition because it was fast, it made the return journey and it used the internet effectively to broadcast its progress.
Personally, I’m not big into record-breaking attempts on polar expeditions, and even less energised by non-guided adventurers who feel the need to abide by some arbitrary adventuring template. I’m more inspired by expeditions that push the exploration angle of adventure, like Chris Bray and Clark Carter’s current trek across Victoria Island in the Canadian Arctic or the little-know traverse of Canada’s Axel Heiberg Island this year. Such expeditions show innovation and individuality and don’t shy away from the fact that untracked terrain and novel techniques increase the possibility of failure.
Every Greenland expedition must be approved by the Danish Polar Center in Copenhagen and must be completed in their stipulated season of April 1 to October 15. No winter crossings are permitted and dog-sled journeys can only use dogs living in Greenland. Despite these restrictions Greenland is a magnificent and accessible destination for anyone with polar dreams. An expedition on this great icecap can be anything you want it to be – an extended, ground-breaking journey, a short personal discovery over the standard route or a blitzing dash using the savvy (and in my opinion unsupported) method of wind-assisted travel. And Greenland has the added benefit over Antarctica of exposure to an Arctic culture, albeit peripheral and fleeting. Because of the comparatively low costs and good internal transport infrastructure, the options are almost infinite. Yet this capacity for virtually unlimited scope - where a lateral traverse can range in distance from 250km to 1000km, with or without kites, from sea level or icecap edge - has created an unrealistic and misconstrued desire for record-breaking and record-keeping. There are just too many variables and in the words of my good friend and travelling companion, Jon Muir, it’s not just a can of worms, but a ‘bucket of snakes’. I believe that, irrespective of the plan, the doing and the outcome, if we have done the best we can we should remember but one thing – that adventure is its own reward.
Websites to visit
1 – Cape Morris Jesup
2 – Independence Fiord
3 – Danneborg
4 – Tasiilaq (Ammassalik)
5 – Isortoq
6 – Umivik
7 – Cape Farewell
8 – Narsarsuaq
9 – Narsaq
10 – Nuuk (Godthab)
11 – Kangerlussuaq (Sondre Stromfjord)
12 – Thule Air Base (Pituffik)
13 – Qaanaaq (Thule)
14 – Humboldt Glacier
15 – Summit of plateau
16 – Ellesmere Island
17 – Axel Heiberg Island
18 – Victoria Island
19 – North Pole
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