Greenland : Arctic Team Challenge 2003

18 July 2003

Three hours sleep. Or maybe four, it doesn’t matter. A quick breakfast at a seaman’s café on the harbour sees me right and I say bye to Jolize and the weirdness of speaking Afrikaans in Iceland. She drops me at the airport where many of the teams have already congregated and from where Flugfelaf Islands will depart for distant Greenland.

All the books, all the photos and all the stories – none of this could ever have prepared me for the searing, brain-blasting intensity of my first sight of this, the world’s largest island. Dark, scything peaks slash through the low cirrus cloud to flitter under a coating of snow far below the buzz of our twin-prop plane. From their foothills, staccato shale-shocked plains succumb towards an icy and hoary Sermilik Gulf, crashing in a tumble of chaos to where ship killer icebergs line up in serried ranks to dash against the shore. Blue, white and bewilderingly beautiful, the broken pack ice shimmer and glint like diamonds adrift upon a liquid sky, leaving me to stare senselessly as one would if you somehow set eyes upon a star-studded sky for the first time.

The landing, upon a gravel strip hemmed in by rugged peaks, is perfectly executed and I am soon crammed into a speedboat with Anders Stenbakken (the ATC race director), a few of the other journalists and some racers. Anders pilots the boat with finesse, carving a precarious swathe amongst drifting slabs of pack ice and towering bergs looming high above the ocean’s icy gloom. Occasionally we mash through some of the smaller blocks and then the boat would buck, sending a tremor all along her keel. It is approximately a 45 minute journey from Kulusuk Island to Tasiilaq, an Inuit moniker meaning the “Fjord which looks like a lake’. Formerly known as Kong Oscars Havn, this protected little bay stretches away in front of a village of approximately 3000? people, East Greenland’s largest settlement.

The local Inuit people have been living here for hundreds of years since the area was first settled in the fourteenth? Century, eking out a hunter-gatherer existence in the face of one of the planet’s most hostile climates (Greenland has a lower population density than the Sahara Desert, which should give you some indication). These days it is different, but not much. Supply ships visit the island 5 to 6 times during the year, usually between June and October. Doctors, teachers, administrators and other professionals from Denmark (who governs Greenland) live full time on the island and are actively involved in helping Western civilization maintain a tenuous toehold upon the hulking ice cape stretching away towards the North Pole. And don’t expect paradise … the huskies are scruffy this time of the year and are chained to colorful clapboard houses slightly worse for wear. Social ills, especially alcoholism, are prevalent and littering seems to be a major problem. Mosquitoes and other biting insects squadron about in great clouds along streambeds and lakes, launching hara-kiri attacks in an effort to gorge on your bodily fluids. A children’s home houses a gaggle of orphans and abandoned waifs who tend to press inquisitive faces against the glass windows to watch us as we eat inside the school hall. Three dead seals float in the freezing water of the bay – dog food on ice, naturally.

So all is not perfect, but this detracts only minimally from the unmatched grandeur of the natural surroundings. This is and always will be a land of legends, a place where polar bears roam, where behemoth blue whales come to calve, where Inuit hunters and their husky packs sled across the ice pack in search of prey. It will remain this way for the foreseeable future too, as wall-to wall blizzards, heavy snowfalls and ferocious winds effectively shuts Greenland off from the rest of the planet from October to May. Tourism may be on the increase, but with a limited number of settlements and a service industry dependent upon a miniscule population of 58 000 people, it is sure to remain relatively unspoilt for many years to come. For those who do reach Kalallit Nuunat however, an unreal experience awaits.

19 July 2003

Somehow last night just did not happen… One minute I was sitting through the welcoming dinner, knackered from a night of revelry in Copenhagen and one of exploration in Iceland, and the next minute I found myself tramping off into the mountains. Initially I convinced myself it was purely an exploratory ramble along Flower Valley, but somehow the rays of the 9pm sun conspired to lure me further and further up the mountainous peaks sky lining along the gently sloping valley. I soon found myself scrambling along loose scree towards the lower ridges, passing fields of snow and looking down onto the motionless shimmer of mountain lakes refracting the rays of a low sun about to dip down behind the Ymers Bjerg peak. Above the valley, I continued upwards within the amber glow of the late night sun, fighting a losing battle to escape from a bloodthirsty swarm of mosquitoes intent on sucking every drop of blood from my veins. In the vain hope of escaping these bloodsuckers, I continued my upward ascent, scrambling along a steep col flanking a small, ice-filled ravine. To my left, the slope dropped away sharply towards the blue gloom of the Davis Strait, an expanse of turquoise water sprinkled with a scattering of icebergs, floes and field ice remnants. At about 600 meters above sea leave, I took a breather, gazing across Tasiilaq fjord to the Küttertivag peaks and the Sofias Fjeld glacier beyond, but the mozzies soon had me slapping away like a berzerker before continuing the upwards trek. At just under 700 meters, there was nothing left to conquer and I stood atop Qaggartivakajik peak with Ammassalik Island behind me, and a glittering icescape stretching as far as the eye can see towards the south. And I felt on top of the world.

A slight breeze had by now rid me of all but the most persistent mosquitoes and I slipped into mountain time to ferret around amongst patches of tussock catchfly (a small delicately pink flower), dwarf heather and rosebay. The latter is Greenland’s national flower and is known as niviarsiqq or ‘the young girl’, often growing in rocky surroundings where nothing would be expected to survive.

Around 12h30, the moon slid out from behind the southern range like a giant amber orange. For a while it hung about lazily before shaking off its lethargy to bowl into a low trajectory above the thrusting bedrock spires of Ammassalik. Time to head for bed. After grabbing a succession of shots on both cameras, I tramped back along the gneiss and rock, and lichen and snow, walked the narrow plank across the river and wandered past the white crosses thrusting spookily from the old cemetery.

The following day sort of pales into significance when compared to my night time trek, but I join the other journos to explore the ATC MTB route section and stake out some shots. We also meet with Anders and Hans Christian in order to plan media logistics and later that afternoon I manage to check and send some e-mails. Tomorrow the ATC will start in all earnest and right now I need to catch up on at least 72 hours of sleep.

20 July 2003

Race day and everyone is ready to rock and roll. Firm favourites seem to be Blend and Peak Performance, Denmark’s two top teams and both with substantial experience. Two dark horses are on hand, local team Isostar is made up of another top Danish racer and three strong-looking Tasiilaq youngsters, while Subaru from Canada boats and impressive international record. Very strong on navigation and on foot, their only downfall might be their lack of stage racing experience.

The first day consists of a marked MTB loop of approximately 5 kilometers on which competitors will do five loops. Then the tough stuff kicks in with a fifteen – eighteen kilometer trek including the ascent of three towering peaks thrusting skywards around the village. At 09h00, the reverberating boom of an old brass cannon echoes across Kong Oscars Havn to set off the racers on the 5 MTB loops and the teams spurt away through the Tasiilaq streets. Disaster strikes early on for Blend when the headset on one of their bikes implodes, leaving Isostar and Peak Performance jockeying for top sport. (That is, if you don’t count Erwin Rheinthaler, a solo competitor and previous member of the 2001 ATC winning team). An accomplished mountaineer from Austria, he knows the area like the back of his hand, having trekked often through the East Greenlandic mountains. Further back in the field, 66° North from Iceland looks powerful, while Subaru from Canada seems to be playing a waiting game and keeping some energy in reserve. Greenland Ice Girls is slightly off the pace, with Team No Boundaries, from the US, bringing up the rear. Racing with them is a blind racer, Eric ???, so their position at the back of the field is not surprising. It is incredible to see them coping with the challenges of adventure racing: the MTB legs are done on a tandem off-road cycle, while he is lead, step by treacherous step, during the mountain trekking legs. Very brave, somewhat foolhardy, but certainly inspiring.

I bash my way along the lake to the snowfields below checkpoint A2 on Ymers Bjerg and wait for the leaders to descend into shot. First up is Erwin, flitting effortlessly down the slope, bounding from rock to rock and telemarking or shoe skiing along the steep snow slopes. His gait and pace is superbly economic and it seems as if he is literally cruising his way through the Alpine landscape. Meanwhile Blend and Peak Performance fights it out on the high scree slope just below the summit; as they helter-skelter past, I follow in their footsteps, skidding along the snow couloirs, occasionally disappearing thigh-deep in drifts.

I’m too late to catch them at the river crossing, but manage to grab excellent shots of Subaru, 66° North and Isostar as they make their way across the waist-deep torrent. A fast hike along the river gets me to the footbridge in time to get the teams on the home stretch along the fjord, with the exception of No Boundaries. After a quick supper, I zoom back up to the foot of the A2 summit and hike up to meet them just below the waterfall. Eric is doing great, using his trekking poles to negotiate the scree slope, and it is inspirational to watch him and his team. After a dramatic river crossing with Kammy having to dive to get to the side, they continue towards the summit while I head for bed and a quick few hours of shuteye before Day 2.

21 July 2003

Today, in a very small way, I experienced the exhilaration, awe and terror to which high altitude alpinists become addicted. Not that it was a life threatening or near impossible experience, but in many ways it challenged my mind rather than my body. The route for the day ascended the highest peak on Ammassalik Island with a checkpoint right on the summit and, I decided in a rather windgat manner, that I would be on top when the race arrived. So said and so done…

A speedboat from Tasiilaq picked us up at 09h00 and cruised from the bay into a small fjord where crystal blue and bright white icebergs creaked and groaned like frozen churches adrift upon the polar current. We docked against a tumble of rocks to scramble ashore next to an icy stream and immediately began our slog into the teeth of the mountain, first hopping from tussock to tussock before bashing onto a boulder-strewn field. Not too tricky yet, but the steep snow slope was a very different matter. You literally have to kick steps into the hard crust in order to ensure traction and every now and then one of my feet would slide out and it would feel for all the world as if I’m about to careen onto the rocks snapping away below me in a rictus snarl.

But I did not slip and we continued up and up, past a blue, frozen mountain lake, across another snowfield, across a low ridge and into a marshy basin. High above, the peak loomed forbiddingly, seeming totally unclimbable from our vantage point. Anders and I walked together up to B3 checkpoint and I then went ahead while he set out the CP. Another kilometer or so saw me ascend a good 200 meters along a slope spewed full of shale detritus, razor-sharp shards and teetering boulders. I expected the smallest sound to set off an avalanche, but only one rogue rock broke loose from the field, bounding away into misty oblivion in the valley below.

Beyond this slope filled with ankle-snapping rocks, the gneiss slopes of the peak kicked in with intent and ascending it without rope and mountaineering gear left us with one option: a narrow saddle curving steeply towards the summit section. This was serious scrambling terrain with heavy air; on both sides, immense drops yawned, with a plunge of at least 150 to 200 meters plummeting straight onto a gnash of scree. To make matters even worse, two steep sections necessitated the use of a temporary ladder and the other a hand over hand ascent along a fixed rope. With peaks marching away into the distance and low clouds scudding away beneath my feet, I clamped my jaws, locked my grip and climbed like a maniac without looking left or right.

That was probably the worst of it, but the vertiginous landscape of snow and rock spinning away into a 360° panorama kept my heart thundering like a runaway train. With the saddle flattening out, it became necessary to follow a narrow ledge to its right; then a section of club would kick in or you’d have to step across the hypnotic suck of wide-open space. To get to the final pinnacle, it is necessary to cross along a small couloir and then, a few minutes later, you step onto the summit for an eagle’s eye view of Ammassalik.

To the north, the immense ice pack looms in brilliant white; glaciers unfurl like gray, debris-filled tongues, fjords dotted with icebergs and polar ice remnants glitter gunmetal gray beneath an overcast sky and all round peaks go ballistic, thrusting a thousand rocky fangs at the sullen sky. Occasionally, when the sunlight shafts through a break in the clouds, you expect angels to break into a resounding chorus or pagan gods to charge across the snow on white-maned horses. I forget my camera, I forget my fear of heights, and I forget everything. And for a while, I just stare in total and utter awe at this wonderful and incredibly breathtaking panorama. This, I think is probably how a God must feel when they look down upon a newly created world.

The arrival of Erwin Rheinthaler, the solo racer, breaks my reverie and I head on back down, meeting first Blend who seems to be having an excellent day, and then Peak Performance, Subaru and 66° North. Ice Girls are up next, looking stronger than the previous day, with No Boundaries in the region of 2 hours behind them. Eric continues to amaze me and he handles the narrow saddle masterfully and manages to summit with the rest of the team. Even Buddy, one of the American journalists, makes it to the top despite suffering from several chronic ailments, the most debilitating of which is a severe case of motor mouth.

But what (or who) has been up must get down – including us. This turns into a sort of unofficial officials’ race, with Hans Christian leading the way and the rest of us doing our level best to keep up. The rock hopping is tricky, but what really revs me up is when we hit the snow. I always thought you glissade down a slope by sitting but apparently you can do it standing up as well, basically skiing down on the soles of your shoes. The first slope is not too steep and I do a combined bum slide-cum-stand-up, managing to stop myself before wiping out on the rocks below. But then we hit the couloir, a narrow alley lined by fanglike rocks, approximately 600 meters long, between 2 and 5 meters wide and dropping a good 200 meters.

This looks like trouble, I decide, unclipping my camera monopod to use as an emergency brake if all else fails. Good thing, because the snow is hard and slippery as banana peel, causing me to careen downhill like come kind of crazy madman. Twice I manage to stop myself, averting disaster by the narrowest of margins, but then I seem to slowly get the hang of it. Meanwhile, at the narrowest point of the couloir, which I am now approaching at breakneck speed, Hans Christian has discovered a huge crack in the ice dropping into an underground torrent washing underneath the couloir.

I panic when he bellows out a warning and smack down onto my back, frantically digging my heels in, in a vain effort to bring myself to a stop. Luckily H.C. is carrying a 2 meter long pole which was used to put up banners at the checkpoint, and he plants this over the crevasse, enabling me to grab hold of it at the last second, with my feet literally dangling down into space. I drag myself upwards and hurl myself over the gap, landing safely on the opposite side to cruise to a standstill on the valley floor approximately 50 meters further down, my heart thumping in my gut and my brain completely wired on speed.

The remainder of the return journey is mellow by comparison and we reach the boats by around 9pm after a day of extreme adventure and superb excitement.

22 July 2003

Day Three starts with no slacking of the frenetic pace and the teams head up Flower Valley, over the Yjmers Bjerg saddle and down onto the Southern shoreline of Ammassalik. My only chance to get to the front of the field is to shoot through to C3 by speedboat, but even this is a precarious business along Sermilik Fjord, a tongue of water literally packed with icebergs and floes. Even with careful manueuvring, it is impossible to not hit some of the smaller chunks, wincing as they disintegrate grudgingly against the hull of the boat. All around, the bigger bergs sway and groan in a blue and white behemoth ballet, occasionally imploding to loud booms resounding against the mountainous backdrop.

I get off at C3 and hike along a valley alive with the rush of cataracts plunging towards the ocean, following in the tracks of Peak and Blend. Subaru from Canada catches up with me halfway up the looming C4 peak and I follow them for around half an hour before staking out a good camera spot to wait for the Ice Girls and 66° North. Below me, two shimmering blue ice lakes glimmer within a valley surrounded by tall peaks and all round the arctic flora flourishes in full bloom. It is like a different world and, were it not for the clouds of bloodsucking mosquitoes dive-bombing me, this would be a dead ringer for paradise.

66° North and the Ice Girls eventually make it through and I follow them for a while into the high snowfields before cutting across towards the north-east in search of the glacier. Known as the Mittivakkat (meaning in Greenlandic ??), this huge and hulking ice behemoth grinds away at the Greenlandic landscape like some gargantuan ice age slug. My first view of its grim grey and grimy tongue instills both awe and a sense of lurking, omnipotent evil; it is as if it is a living, omnipotent but alien life force brooding away while inexorably plotting to take over and flatten our world and everything in it.

I venture onto the mass of moving ice once or twice, careful to avoid any possible crevasses hidden below the snow and grab some excellent shots of the teams as they glissade and run past, roped together to ensure swift rescue should one of them be swallowed alive by the ice monster. But the day passes uneventfully with me eventually following the ice boys into base camp around 10pm that evening. Situated on the glacial river running from below the Mittivakkat, base camp boasts one of the most northerly beaches in the world and it is here where the teams will overnight and prepare for the final stage of Arctic Team Challenge. (Nearly forgot – ate seal for first time!).

23 July 2003

Another big day on my feet, the fourth in a row where I hike between 12 to 18 kilometers in the mountains in search of teams. The day starts off leisurely though with race start scheduled for 12am (although I zap my body with a 2° Celsius jolt when I go and wash in the semi-frozen water of a small lake just below the snowfield. After breakfast, I borrow Erwin’s kayak to check out the first leg, a canoe section of approximately 12 kilometers traversing the aqua ice fields of the Sermilik Fjord. The water is an icy powder blue below me as I blade away from the glacier beach into the grinding groan of steepling bergs the size of buildings slowly swaying in the bay.

I skim along amongst these great white frozen cathedrals, leaving just in time to return to the base camp for the race start. It is the final stage and the two Danish teams crank up the pace during the paddling, soon building up a substantial lead over the rest of the field. Peak leads by just more than an hour, after 3 days of racing, but Blend soon enforces their comeback. At D1, they opt for an extreme assault on the moutain below the D2 ice wall, risking rock falls, steep snow and the snap of ice falls to haul back more than 10 minutes on their archrivals. Their descent is a daredevil affair, with helter skelter glissades along impossibly steep couloirs, but somehow they make it through unscathed. Despite peak’s best efforts, Blend draws level along the glacier leg and then makes up further time during the canoe to D6 and D7.

By now it is past three in the morning and it has still not been dark. In fact, magenta’s and pinks are breaking out along the horizon, as I watch the day dawn, a minke whale breaches through the quicksilver ripples of the Ammassalik fjord. For a few precious seconds, its dorsal fin vees through the water before it once again sounds ghostlike to disappear below the dark, deep ocean.

24 July 2003

I am totally knackered after chasing the teams up mountain peaks and along the glaciers, but manage to grab a 25 minute catnap on the HQ floor before heading down to the finish area. Erwin is already well on his way across the fjord, while Blend has just put in at D9. It has been an awesome race for them and all the other teams, a true test of character with the teams dueling it out, not only with each other, but also against a forbidding terrain and gruelling course. During the next few hours, the remainder of the field trickles in, first Peak Performance, then Subaru – Canada, 66° North from Iceland, the local Isostar Team (racing unranked) and finally the Greenland Ice Girls. (Team No Boundaries had pulled out of the race at D3 and are already ensconced in their beds, catching up on some much needed sleep.)

With this obviously a high priority on my own agenda, I do a quick detour to the HQ to help Jesper update the website and then hit the sack with a vengeance.

25 July 2003

I’m not sure for how long I slept, but it must have been a good 12 hours at least. Feeling refreshed and raring to go, I borrow Erwin’s mountain bike and pedal into Flower Valley with my cameras, loosely following the route the racers took on Day One. It is a stiff crank, but I take breaks every now and then to photograph the colourful sub-arctic flowers in muted yellow, pink, purple and crimson bloom. Tussock catchfly, archangelica, arctic bluebells and narsuisag revelled in the summer sun and sadly, so did the mosquitoes. Stop the bike for even 10 seconds and a cloud of 300 to 400 mozzies, biting flies and other irritating micro-flyers will congregate, dive-bombing and eventually penetrating even the most comprehensive defensive system. I eventually gave up on the stopping, opting to rather keep moving up the valley, over into the next and eventually back into Tasiilaq along a slanted single track traversing the fjord.

Back at the village, preparations for the race party were in full swing. Tony and I had put together an inspired slide show on the ATC and we watched this after the prize giving ceremony. As one, the racers stood up to give us a standing ovation; Erwin, Kurt and Wendy came over, enveloping me in bear hugs with tears streaming down their cheeks. So definitely a success, I would say. The rest of the party, including a haunting Inuit drum dance passed in a blur and it was only at around 4am that I decided to call it a day.

26 July 2003

Another Saturday and another bloody hangover! Definitely getting too old for this shit! The most memorable event of the day is the chopper flight between Ammassalik and Kulusuk, with the flight from Kulusuk up the coast a very close second. We whizz along past craggy peaks, across iceberg filled fjords brimming with pack ice, floes and bergs, past the ridge of the internal ice cap looming 3 kilometers deep and swoop away from Greenland across to Knud Rasmussen glacier, a vast and sweeping serpent of ice crevassing into the Arctic ? Straits, off the south-east coast of this gorgeous, enchanting island.

Back in Reykjavik, I manage to shake the Americans and after unpacking my stuff at the guesthouse, take a stroll around the city. Difficult to be fair to it as I am still on Greenland overload, so I decide to hit the sack around midnight, leaving Sunday free for a fresh perspective on a city that is supposed to really rock.

27 July 2003

Day dawns dreary in true Icelandic style, but I wander off nonetheless to take in sights such as the impressive Hällgrimskirkja, the Althingi (Icelandic parliament) set on a huge lake teeming with gulls, ducks and geese, the main shopping area set around the central square and an impressive selection of coffee shops. My brain is still overloaded from the Copenhagen – Iceland – Greenland input that I find it very difficult to become excited by a city high on macho, medium on culture and low on climate.

Whatever. So I wandered around, checked out the music stores (Iceland has awesome bands), got chatting to a girl from Estonia, ate an overpriced chicken pancake, downloaded some emails, shot the breeze, looked bored and went to bed.

28 July 2003

Monster air time; Keflavik to Copenhagen (3 hours), Copenhagen to Frankfurt (2 hours), Frankfurt to Johannesburg (14 hours) and another 2 hours to Cape Town. With stopovers, it will take me a good 30 hours to make it home. So be it …..