There are trails which are, from beginning to the end, created by human and marked, well described and visited by many. There are those that have been obliterated by time. Those, which you have to create by yourself. And there are those that, although they have a name, do not exist and will never exist. Anyone who enters them, must draw them from start to end. On our way there we are fully exposed to the elements, absolutely self-sufficient and confident in our actions. Such a trai.l, that does not exist, is the Greenland crossing. It’s a few hundred kilometers across the world’s largest island, mostly covered by enormous ice sheet. This walk is an adventure on it’s highest, an encounter with the harsh Arctic nature and a supreme test of fitness and preparation.
A bit of history
The first man to even consider that Greenland was possible to cross, was Norwegian traveler and explorer, Fridtjof Nansen. In 1888 he became the leader of a six-man expedition, that became the first to walk the distance from the east to west coast of Greenland. Using wooden sledges, lightweight tents and equipment that is hard to imagine today, they walked the distance from Umivik Bay on the empty east coast to Godthaab (present-day capital Nuuk) on the west in 7 weeks. In doing so, they were the first to pave the way for successors, who over the following decades crossed Greenland in this and other regions, including in the far north.
The first Poles to cross the Greenland ice sheet were Marek Kamiński and Wojciech Moskal in 1993 and their route led from the Tasillaq region on the east, to the edge of the ice sheet in the Kangerlussuaq region, on the west. Over the years, the route has become a benchmark challenge for polar explorers from around the world.
After the winter crossing of Iceland in 2020, I thought I wouldn’t be returning to the far north very soon. Crossing Greenland seemed like an unattainable dream. However, it took the right question asked by the right person to spark the thought, “how about …?”. Thus, in 2021, together with Mateusz Waligóra, we began our preparations to cross Greenland on skis. At the end of April 2022, we found ourselves in the town of , waiting our crossing of the Greenland ice sheet to begin.
What is “Greenland Crossing”?
In order to connect the two coasts of the island, it is necessary to understand what awaits us in between. The interior of Greenland is filled with an ice sheet. It’s a huge mass of ice, which grows thanks to the snow falling there, which, forming layer after layer, turns into ice, slowly flowing towards the shores during thousands of years. Its surface is a white void, where temperatures, during the spring season, drop below -30°C and winds can blow well over 100 km/h. The coasts of the country are inhabited (west coast is a location of the majority of towns and settlements), but inside Greenland you are on your own. The road is marked by a theoretical GPS track, as you are surrounded by white emptiness.
All food, fuel and equipment must be hauled on sleds from the start, while we go on backcountry skis. The weight of the load at the start will be probably about 80 kg. You have to solve possible problems with equipment by yourself and in case of bad weather you have to prepare the camp for bad conditions. It is impossible to get help from the outside. Evacuation from the ice sheet is possible, but requires hellishly expensive insurance, which consumed a large part of our budget.
We showed up at the edge of the ice sheet with a supply of 37 kg of per each of us, enough for 35 days. We also had 15 liters of fuel for our two stoves. We had navigation and satellite communication equipment duplicated, as well as cooking gear – without the option of getting water from the snow, we were lost. I had previously tested my thermal and down clothes on winter Iceland crossing and 7134-meters Lenin Peak in Kyrgyzstan. We tried our tent with Mateusz in Polish Izerskie Mountains. On my sled I carried the 30.06 caliber rifle and 30 pieces od ammo, in case of an encounter with a polar bear. Everything was ready. All we need to do was to shake of our hesitation and start walking.
Greenland crossing – the “ice-fall”
The beginning proved to be the most difficult: the beginning of the ice sheet, often called an “ice-fall.” This is not an ice-fall like cascades of huge blocks in the Himalayas, but rather a vast labyrinth of ice blocks. between which we wrenched for three days. The heavy sledges blocked us, many times I would leave my weight to push Mateusz’s sledges. Moment later he would do the same for me, only to find ourself on the edge of the ice block, beyond which the terrain would immediately drop and the descending sledges would topple over – hundreds and hundreds of times . Our first day distance was mere 5,5 km. Second day – 3,5 km. I could not believe such slow progress is possible – except it was. For every hundred meters we paid with terrible effort.
The rhythm of the day
During the day, the sun melted the snow, so we quickly switched to an early wake up routine, starting our walk around 5 a.m. and ending at 2 – 4 p.m. Putting up the tent, laying out things inside, melting 6 liters of water, eating, making notes, sending short messages to Poland via Iridium Go – and well deserved sleep. After 8 hours we would wake up in the dark to prepare breakfast, roll up our sleeping bags, tent and start a new day of walking. Each day may look similar, although conditions and terrain changed each day, making every day of Greenland crossing different. We got into a rhythm, sharing the duties: I took on the navigation and afternoon cooking, Mateusz took over the morning chores in our kitchen. Such a division spared us unnecessary quibbling and conflicts.
We walked for several hours during the day, covering 10-15 kilometers at the beginning and up to 30 kilometers by the end of the journey. Our pace was slower than expected, but we planned our food amount with significant reserve. We marched in the void. Interestingly, keeping big distance from each other. I was usually 100-300 m at the front, doing our navigation work and each of us was busy with his own thoughts. We met and talked a lot, however, at rest stops and on bivouacs. We spent the beginning of the expedition searching for the optimal schedule. When finally we came to it, we were leaving the coastal zone and distant peaks of nunataks disappeared from our eyes – and the adventure of endless whiteness began.
The hardest part
If we thought that crossing the jagged blocks on the edge of the ice sheet would be the end of the difficulties, we were naive. Conditions changed daily, forcing us to improvise. Just when it seemed that the undulating start was behind us, a night storm brought huge snowdrifts in which we were stucked for 2 days, using up a lot of our strength to push through. Only when stable weather returned, a straight path to the center of Greenland opened up for us.
Greenland’s landscape seems monotonous, but the slightly convex shape of the ice sheet meant that every day we had to gain 100 – 150 meters. Normally this wouldn’t be impressive, but when you’re pulling a heavy sled and have strong wind in your face, the difference is noticeable. We were helped by the thought that after crossing the ice sheet culmination there was steeper descent to the eastern shore.
The worst part of the day? For me, definitely the mornings, when in the temperature of -25 ° C, it was necessary to get dressed, pack our belongings and tug the sled covered with night snow.
On the top of Greenland ice-sheet
4 days before reaching the 2 500 m culmination, which we called the “top”, a northwest wind forced us to set up the tent, secure it firmly and stop. Confined in a small space, we listened to the the howling wind outside and pulling the tent. When the storm finally abated, it left behind a “white-out” in which thick clouds merged with the snow, taking away our sense of direction. In such moments, we walked close together, with a compass mounted to my chest. I’ve been checking our direction every 20 steps. Everything merged into an indistinct whiteness. So dense, that many times I skied into a snowdrift without noticing it until the last moment. The lack of reference points took away my balance, so I fell over at times, losing my sense of verticality. 15 km in such conditions was the maximum of our possibilities.
When this, too, passed, Greenland left one last obstacle for us: zastrugi. Long and 20-40 cm high ridges, formed by snow shaped by the wind and sun, hard as gypsum. We walked diagonally to them, so for several days our skis were hitting them all the time. Our sleds were jumping on them and I felt like having some disobedient animal behind me.
The moment of greatest satisfaction? When, after three weeks of walking, we reached the symbolic ridge of Greenland. The terrain all around was flat, of course, and there was no indication of the highest point of our journey there. However, we celebrated the moment, and then went back to fighting the frost, zastrugi and wind. It took 4 more days to actually notice that the terrain started go down slowly. This was the beginning of the descend.
The strangest place on our way was also the only trace of man in this boundless whiteness. 150 km from west coast, a strange point appeared on the horizon in front of us. One more day and we found ourself in DYE-2 radar station, built here at the end of the Cold War as a part of early warning system, build to to watch for incoming missile attack from the USSR. Abandoned in October 1988, it still stands today, like a ghost, in the middle of nowhere. Entering it, one gets the impression that it was recently left. Books and personal belongings left behind by the former staff still lie in the rooms. Power plant equipment stands in the depths of the building. Register books are scattered around former radio station. Several rooms are suitable for an overnight stay, as mattresses are still on the beds, although the interior is cold and after deliberation we chose a tent, which on a bright day was instantly warmed by the sun.
DYE-2 made an incredible impression on us. I was fascinated, Mateusz found it somehow creepy. We wandered through the corridors of the structure for several hours, seeing it plunge inexorably into ice over the years. We also poked our heads inside the dome, where the radar antenna is still aiming at the sky, no longer registering any signal and useless. A few rare visitors left some inscriptions on the walls around.
Since we were completely alone and haven’t seen anything man-made, except for DYE-2, what did I feel and think about during the weeks of solitude? I found that my thoughts were primarily occupied with the present moment and planning just a few upcoming steps. My life had simplified to the point where I was thinking not about the next few years, but the next 50 steps. I was counting down the time between rest stops. Estimating supplies. Watching the weather. It was the life here and now. Occasionally, when I allowed my thoughts to wander, I recalled events in my life and thought about plans for the future. Life had shrunk to a simple bubble with little room for dreams. We persisted suspended mostly in the present moment.
Greenland crossing – the final steps
The ice sheet on the eastern side is descending about 2 times faster, so we gained quite good speed and the last few days were marked by covering record distances. A strong wind caught up with us 100 kilometers before the coast. After another 2 days black nunataks, mountains protruding above the surface of the ice, our last signposts, were already slowly emerging on the horizon. Because of gale that was coming towards us, we secured the tent and stopped for the night and the whole morning to rest. Then we set off, for the last time. We were 55 km from our final point.
We walked all afternoon, and seeing that the wind was blowing us toward our destination and the weather was favorable, we looked at each other and pushed on. The surface of the ice sheet was lowering so that we could, at times, slide down on our sleds by the force of gravity. A strange, 3-hours polar night came, and we walked on, eventually descending between the valleys of the coastal zone. There was no terrible ice-fall, the surface of the ice calmly led us over the rocky cliff from which we saw the frozen fjord. On its shore we touched the rocks of Mother Earth for the first time in 35 days and fell exhausted into the snow.
The final moment of the hike was also our last effort. From the bank of glacier we had to carry a heavy sledge to the bottom of the fjord and walk 4 km on unstable, melting sea ice to the boat, that was waiting already for us on the water. On its deck we could shake hands and say: it’s over.
We crossed Greenland, skiing 622 kilometers in 5 weeks. We completed the route, closing the honorable circle of a 14 Poles who have successfully completed it over 30 years. We made it safely, even when the nature of Arctic hit us with the force of the elements. We saw places we could not have imagined before. This impressive road was one of the greatest challenges – physical and mental – that I have endured. At the same time – one of the greatest adventures of my life.