The Patagonian Icefield and Greenland – Planning Stages

Patagonian Icefield

 

It’s the time of the year when deliveries arrive daily in our office and we’re wearing new Baffin boots to test their fit. The process of planning a polar expedition is as involved as the expedition itself. Meticulous preparation for Patagonia has begun with the arrival of the first maps. Not laminated OS maps but cut-out flimsy papers, laid on top of each other and stuck down with sellotape.

 

The whole feel of the expedition is like this. Less certain, less straightforward, lots of thinking laterally. There is not a lot of information on the internet in general, and none of this complete or trustworthy enough to base any main decisions on. It’s the opposite of typing in ‘climb Mt Blanc’. All of this is also one of the main appeals. We’ve located a multi-national expedition team who completed this crossing last year and were able to speak to one of the leaders who currently lives in Australia. Being able to speak to somebody who was there on the ground is invaluable, gaining specific information on agents, types of equipment needed to safeguard the team on the ground, height of the actual snow level, permit systems, location of the best camps and specific information on the best routes through crevasse fields. A summer crossing brings along its own complications. On the east side you tend to get a lot of snow and on the west a lot of rain. Snow we could deal with but rain and being damp sounds like less desirable proposition.

The whole feel of the expedition is like this: Less certain, less straightforward, lots of thinking laterally.”

The expedition uses multiple modes of travel, which adds enormously to its complexity. A boat crossing is followed by a portage, another boat crossing, a cache-phase and finally the icecap. A whole week will be needed to get up onto the ice cap, walking through moraine fields, woodland and tundra. The main effort will be moving our kit to new camps and new caches to eventually get all 300kg of equipment onto the plateau where we can start dragging it in pulks. We will need to take a lot of contingency food for bad weather. Once on the crevasse field we will then travel across to the western side where the ground get the trickiest. The actual pulk phase is only short but means navigating complex crevasse fields, lowering off cliff faces and crossing glacial lakes.

The main excitement for this expedition is in the fact that it’s just so hard to do and get there anyway. There is no abundance of information as not many people have done it. If you don’t like lugging around equipment, spending a considerable amount of time damp, cold and suffering then I’d suggest this isn’t your kind of challenge as all of the above is guaranteed. On the up side you will be left with experiences that very few people on the planet have experienced. It will be up to decide if that’s’ worth it.

The Patagonian Icecap expedition is one of a kind. We’ll almost feel like you’re on the moon – when you can see earth but you’re really far away. Same here – you will still be relatively close to civilization (different to Greenland for example) but it’s the ground which creates this massive distance between you and the rest of the world. It is a different type of crossing compared to Greenland in terms of covering distance: rather than covering big distances to get to where you want, Patagonia has only one day on whole trip which allows to cover more ground. While Greenland is an endurance game, Patagonia is one of problem solving. Managing yourself in difficult environment, doing complex rope work, dynamically risk assessing avalanches, equipment worries and hypothermia. There’s a broad need package too – there are so many different things you need your equipment to do – pulling pulks, abseiling, mountaineering – you need perfect jack of all trades equipment. Everything you take needs to justify itself. For example, clothes that keep you really warm on the ice cap like a down jacket won’t perform well on the trekking phase in damper climate.

 

Every minute of this expedition has to be planned out and thought through and we’ve got a lot to cover still.

Greenland Crossing

 

Greenland is technically easier but it is much longer in distance and far more remote than Patagonia.

It’s a true challenge that is connected to the historic expeditions. It’s a long way from help, the idea of being out on the icecap for 30 days only seeing snow, covering 500km with a 100kg pulk and knowing that on average only 7 teams attempt it a year is really exciting. It’s one thing getting yourself prepared for an expedition that last 8 days and most people could survive this, but doing one where you start dragging a 100kg pulk up a hill and knwing that the days will get longer rather than shorter km-wise is a whole different game. You have to be getting stronger and fitter and more motivated to be able to get out in time before everything melts lower down and creates impassable rivers.

The biggest challenge on Greenland is to make the decision whether to cross from the east or from the west. All expeditions start and end at the same two spots, mainly for the fact that these are serviced by airports in a country with little infrastructure. Your decision is a balance between start times, hardest terrain with the heaviest pulks and logistics costs. If you’re going from the east side then you’re likely to need a helicopter to be able to get up onto the icecap and might need one at the end too if floodwaters are too high to get through. If you start from the west, you may be able to use a boat at the end as the sea is defrosted. West-side terrain is harder so you want to go down it with an empty pulk rather than up it with a full one.

At the end of the day, Greenland is a major challenge which everybody has heard of but very few people tackle it still.

 

These things are real goals and need working towards – here are some options of how you get the foot on the ladder with them.

Kingstrail

 

The Kingstrail passes close to and round the mountains in Northern Sweden, which makes it less challenging technically, and a great introduction to ski-touring. Huts with log fires and saunas add a bit of comfort for those who aren’t quite ready yet for polar tents and freezing temperatures.

Finnmarksvidda

 

Another step up on the ladder. This is a true self-supported expedition in the northernmost point of Norway. We use pulks, skis or snowshoes to complete a 6-day crossing of the Finnmark plateau, camping out in polar tents.

Svalbard

 

This is a tough expedition, crossing the central island of Svalbard on a 13-day self-supported trip. We aim at teaching you the routines of sled pulling, camping in the snow and setting up polar bear deterrents. In this environment, weather conditions can change rapidly and the temperatures in spring-time vary from -10 to -30C. Preparation and correct equipment is vital, as well as learning how to operate and be self-sufficient in polar conditions.

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