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  • Writer's pictureSiv Harstad

Greenland Expedition - part 2

Updated: Nov 15, 2021

When the helicopter left we started by giving each other a hug. It was real! We were finally on the inland ice of Greenland – at the start of our expedition. We were to kite 1500 km longitudinal distance from Ilulissat to the northernmost city in the world, Qaanaaq. We had worked so hard for this, through all the uncertainty and changes, and finally, here we were.

Before we could start, we had to change the lines on two of Håkon’s kites, because we simply had not had time to do so before we left. Even though we were eager to start, we agreed we might as well do the job so that it was done and ready. It would be much more hassle to do it at a later stage. It took us a couple of hours to fix the lines and pack our sleds. We could have just sat up camp, but we wanted to get moving and kite a little distance the first day.

It was sunshine, mostly blue sky and just a little wind, so we started off with our largest kites. I was happy we could start off a bit easy. It really felt good to get the kites in the air. Now we were on our way!

What was new and different for us was the sastrugi. Sastrugi are wave-like features formed by the erosion of snow by the wind. They are found in polar regions and snowy, windswept areas. It can vary a lot how large they are and how hard/soft they are.

The first day, the sastrugi were pretty hard. Trying to balance while skiing on them with our kites in the air and our sleds behind us was definitively a new experience. To begin with, everything went pretty smoothly. We agreed to have a break every hour. My thighs were happy about that. It felt good to have a short break from the constant vibration of skiing over the sastrugi. The wind picked up a little later in the afternoon. In the beginning, it felt nice as there’d been borderline too little wind when we’d started, however, after a while it did not feel so good anymore. I basically felt like Ragdoll Anna for a while there!

One thing I know is that I have to push myself a bit to keep up with Håkon. He is a seasoned kiter compared to me who’d started kiting only a year before the expedition. But this was just too much, so I said to Håkon that I wanted to change to a smaller kite. He was hesitant at first, but soon agreed that there was too much wind for the ones we were using. I think he was just eager to get going and excited we were on our way. When we stopped, we looked at the watch and realized we might as well set camp for the night. It was getting late.

Setting up camp that evening felt a bit surreal. I think we still had not grasped the magnitude of the area we were in, and how far we were from other people. It was all flat and white with no mountains to see in any direction, as far as the eye could see.

A few important lessons

On day two we had our first morning in the tent. We’ve been on many expeditions before, but I never get used to getting out of my sleeping bag and out into the cold. Especially the “bathroom” visit is something I always have to brace myself for. I mean, pulling down your pants to bare skin in -20˚C and a windchill is just not pleasant. Let’s keep it to that!

After boiling water and eating a decent oatmeal breakfast, we got going with packing down everything and rigging our kites to fly. There was a little more wind than the day before and at times it was challenging with the wind conditions mixed with the sastrugi.

At one point, for a brief moment, I did not manage to lift my right ski enough and it hit straight into the sastrugi. Instant stop and I fell over like a sack of potatoes. Fortunately, I managed to release my kite quickly. So, no real harm done, only minor discomfort/pain and a bit of work to get everything lined up and the kite in the air again. This was a good reminder to pay attention to the ski tips – to make sure they were lifted enough. If this had happened at high speed, things may not have turned out so well… I think we both got that “message” loud and clear.

As the wind conditions changed, we had to change kites. In general, changing kites is something that makes kiting more efficient and even safer. However, at the start of the expedition, we struggled a lot with the sastrugi. The kite lines got stuck in them. Just when we thought we were ready to launch, one of the kite lines had gotten stuck. This took time to fix and when we were back in the start position another line was stuck… The kites each have five lines with lengths up to 60 m so that can be challenging. Check out the video:

National Day with a twist

The 17th of May is our national day. We celebrated that with a delicious breakfast of scrambled eggs and treated ourselves to a little extra. Afterward, we started kiting and it felt as if it went a bit better than the previous days.

The past year had been a strain on both of us with all that had been going on: lockdowns, loss of income – especially for Håkon when there’d been no concerts at all for more than a year – no traveling and loads of restrictions, where some of it made absolutely no sense. Just to top it off, I’ve had a major conflict and issues going on in my family, so to be totally offline and able to be in an “expedition- bubble” was good for both of us. Extreme expeditions may be hard at times, however they also bring you back to the basics of life - eating, sleeping, going to the bathroom and staying alive.

There’s nothing like being in a location where there are no emails, phone calls, and messages coming in. It was really good to be out in the elements, focusing on kiting and not much else – it gave us time to process whatever thoughts came up in our minds. We could be at one with nature and have time to process or simply just be in the here and now. For those of you who have tried this, you’ll know what I mean. It’s the best.

In the middle of the day of our national day, we came to an area where the snow was a bit icy. It was hard to get the skis to sit on the icy surface and there were some strange formations that I fantasized a bit about – what they could be and the history behind them. We took it a bit slow here, to feel like we were in control. Håkon quickly got me out of fantasy land… he was pretty close to me at that moment and told me to stop, get my kite down, and come over to him, but do not take off my skis. I immediately knew something was up. When I got over to him, I realized what the problem was. His sled #2 had fallen into a crevasse!

No doubt my pulse went up a bit. Now was the time to think fast and act safely and correctly. In moments like that, I’m happy I become clear-headed, calm, and ready to take action on whatever is needed. Because of his kite, Håkon could manage to hold the sled, but he was unable to secure it himself. It was up to me. I had a look and went back to get the equipment we needed from my sled. I secured the sled first, so he could get the kite down and free himself from the sleds. Then we tested the area and found it was safe to take off our skis. We did not want either of us to fall into the crevasse too.

What had happened was that Håkon had kited over a snow bridge. That had gone fine, and his big sled had passed it safely. However, the two had broken the snow bridge and when the #2 small sled came, it fell into the crevasse…

The crevasse wasn’t very wide and not too deep – we could see the bottom of it. It was most likely a small arm of a big crevasse. Thinking back, I realized that I had seen the big one just before Håkon had called on me. It was massive, about 4m wide, covered with a snow bridge, so it was not so obvious. Being at this altitude, it was also a bit unreal that such a big crevasse was there so that is why it did not cross my mind at first.

After securing the sled, we set up the gear to pull it up. It was a heavy job that took us some time, but absolutely worth it. Half of our food and most of our fuel was on that sled! There was no doubt we had to get it out.

I have to say: it felt good to have it all safe and secure back up on the ice again. However, it was also a reminder that we were on top of a massive glacier so we had to have our guard up and pay attention, even if we were above 2000m altitude. It was an experience that made our hearts beat a bit faster and made us more grateful afterwards than before it happened. On some level it also was a validation to ourselves for having the right equipment with us and that we’d managed to get it out using the techniques we know.

Frustration about our progress and a “scary” weather forecast

During the first 4-5 days the wind died on us in the afternoon, so we had no other choice but to set camp. When we woke up the wind was good but in the early afternoon the wind died and we did not manage to get as much kiting done as we’d wanted. What can you do? It started to get a bit frustrating that our progress was slow, a bit like we did not manage to deliver what we wanted because of the wind dying in the early afternoon. I knew it is normal to have slow progress the first week, despite knowing this we could both feel the frustration and partially also disappointment. Because we wanted to do more and better.

It was daylight 24h so we agreed to get up in the middle of the night to get a head start, that way we could utilize the wind before it died. Normally there’s been great wind conditions in the mornings. We set our alarm clocks to 1 a.m. and started melting snow so we could get breakfast ready. We were out and ready to kite long before we normally would have even had our alarm on for. The wind was good and we finally had a good day of kiting. We managed to get in 70 km before the wind died on us in the afternoon.

The following day the forecast was more wind and that it would last through the afternoon. So we decided to get up at the “normal” time again, however, to try to be efficient in the morning and not to waste time by taking our time with things. That day we managed to clock in 90 km. Yay! Now we were finally at it. It felt really good.

Then the next morning, Wednesday, the weather forecast came in: “There is a storm coming in on Friday, get as far north as possible.”

To be continued…

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