Tales of trials and unhelpful glaciers

In the latest of our extended training journeys, this one had a more pressing mission – the establishment of a route from our coastal area of sea ice, up a glaciated section and onto the vast, permanent ice sheet of Greenland's interior.

Previous recces had shown that the very limited sea ice in this area around our base in Qaanaaq, roughly 100 square kilometres, was not going to make life any easier for us than it was for the hunters who call Qaanaaq (pop. 600), Qeqertat (pop. 22) and Siorapaluk (pop. 80) home. It's really a separate issue to the one that caused the shelving of Dark Ice, but one that is making us work hard to find solutions. In order to start a journey with our twenty-one dogs, we need access to the main ice.

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This trip had our depot of fuel and supplies at Etah as its target. Around a hundred miles north-west of Qaanaaq, Etah is a long-abandoned hunting settlement but in the summer of 2013, we had our depot laid in the one remaining wooden hut there. After the change of plans, recovering this valuable stash has been important to achive prior to leaving Qaanaaq at the end of the month. It also meant using a route onto the ice in order to reach Etah and then later, our main journey path.

The trip could have taken five or even ten days, depending on our progress and we hoped to drive the dogs for no more than fifty kilometres per day and we intended to make use of both our Tentipi tent and the handful of tiny wooden hunting shelters used by the Inughuit.

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The immaculate weather we've had here since mid-December continued as we began to the west, with clear skies, light winds and temperatures around minus thirty degrees. The dogs ran well, if slightly slower than ideal (6-8 kph instead of the optimal 10-12kph) but their loads were above 400kg per team including the three of us. Pinky, who had an infected leg following a bite from, we assume, The Brain, stayed behind and so we were one engine down.

Evening number one went to plan and as we had staked our dogs out on their chains for the night, two sleds pulled up by the little hut we were moving into for cooking and sleeping. Our companions in the now snug eight by ten foot shed were a nephew and uncle from Siorapaluk, a waypoint along our route another forty kilometres away. They were travelling to the fishing grounds in the Murchison Sound and were excellent company. We did somewhat envy their polar bear trousers and ability to untangle dog ropes in five seconds flat. Equally, they enjoyed our Biltong beef strips and seemed very keen on our small, efficient cooking stove.

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Day Two meant a push to Siorapaluk and then beyond, to our primary glacier earmarked for climbing. The hunters had warned us of thin sea ice ahead and to use the narrow ice foot hugging the land as we rounded the two headlands. Sure enough, we saw brand new and pancake ice soon after our start – the 'beach' was the safest route forward. A sled and dogs going through thin ice didn't bear thinking about.

We stopped into Siorapaluk around six hours later, the first time we'd seen it after the sun rose in February. A legendary Japanese hunter named Oshima, offered us tea and helped suggest routes on our intended Meehan Glestcher route. A couple of hours later, we were camped in the twilight at the foot of the icefall. It looked steep and not at all what I would call ideal for dogs hauling heavy sleds. The morning would tell. Oshima had also said that the only ascent attempt so far this year had been a man on skis in February, a hunter from Siorapaluk, and he had not been seen since.

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Bright and early on Day Three I skied off up a snow ramp to try and find a way up smooth, snowy and flat enough for the teams driven by James and Anders half an hour behind. Very soon I realised that we were onto a loser. I was having to work hard to stay safe and make progress just on skis with no sled. The ramps were steep, large areas were glassy ice with no grip and the snow slopes were an avalanche risk – I set off a couple of mini ones just moving across. Even if we got the dogs up ten kilometres of this, using ice screws and pulleys to anchor and haul the sleds on the steepest parts, we would have to come down again a few days later. I could not see how we could control the descent even with rope and chain brakes on the sleds. One slip or loss of control and the dogs could catapult down the glacier in a tangled mess, stopped only by a crevasse or giant boulder of ice. With that and prospect of being stuck on the icecap, unable to descend, we had a team chat at the foot with maps out and decided to move on.

By that evening we had moved one fjord west again and way past sunset found our way to an impossibly small hut on a snowy hill near a river delta (from the glacial melt in the summer). The wind had got up, flowing down the Sun and Tugto Gletschers from the ice sheet we had to work hard and fast to stake the dogs out and feed them before diving inside for a well-earned meal and rest. The wind chill was down in the low minus forties with no warm sun to help us.

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The next day and our new target, the western slow-flowing section of the Tugto was around ten kilometres away across two frozen lakes and totally untouched snow and ice. With few obvious points for the dogs to aim for, I broke trail on skis once again and laid a track for our lead dogs to follow. Our plan was to, if we found a good, shallow and snowy glacier, shoot up as fast as possible and try for Etah. If it seemed do-able but slow, we would stake the dogs and then set a route on skis, using GPS and flags to mark them for future weeks. To my horror, we found neither. Even once across the rocky morraine which made us wince at the thought of the scratches they'd cause on our sled runners, the glacier was a no-go. There were no feasible snow ramps for access and most was crevassed or bare of snow. The usual Inughuit tactic is to use the hardened snow ramps at the sides – we found none there at all. We have had only a day, perhaps two, of snowfall this winter and spring, so the glacier looked like it should do in the summer, bare and gleaming ice. Dogs need snow to grip onto – no snow, unhappy dogs....

All we could do was retreat to our last camp and make a plan for a long 55km journey back to Qaanaaq the next day, our fifth. The dogs had worked well and were unrecognisable compared to what we began to train in January. They listened to us (occasionally), pulled hard and always gave us their total affection when we were in range... That said, long days still saw a drop off in performance and concentration and so we aren't quite there yet – we also need to increase the loads per team from 400 to 500kg each. Given the kilogram or more of premium food they devour a day, I hope that will be possible!

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Our return to base was mixed then. We had travelled some of the world's most spectacular Arctic routes, worked excellently as a team – efficient and good humoured even when tired and the conditions were cold and breezy – and were optimistic about our dogs. We had failed though to find a vital route onto the icecap. Our hunter friends can offer no easy solutions. None of them have gone up either yet – crazy given it is now mid-March, and some are reticent even to hunt nearer to home on the unpredictable sea ice. Time is not too short, but is now slightly pressing. One thing we differ on with the locals is that we have schedules to meet – they do not. If the conditions aren't any good, they wait. We can't afford to. Lots of work to do and food for thought, plus we are complete again as a team as Anastasia returns on Wednesday.