Towards the finale

By James

Hello from a now almost permanently light Qaanaaq. The end is in sight, regretfully; we will be returning to London and Copenhagen at the tail end of April. Alex, Anders, Anastasia and I only planned to spend four days in Qaanaaq, we have stayed four months. We planned to walk, ski and snowshoe for hundreds of kilometres north, instead we have covered hundreds of kilometres exploring the Thule region as we trained our own sled dogs (estimates currently at 1100km). The culmination of all that hard work and those lessons learnt could have, tentatively, been a longer journey with the dogs south over the icecap. It was not to be, as I will explain. And as Alex tweeted, we have decided to continue with our more local travels; journeys within 100km or so of Qaanaaq.

Ascent onto and descent off the icecap, plus the overall range of our dogs were the main challenges to overcome. Our aim with the latter was to train hard with the dogs everyday and feed them well. We consumed a large amount of information regarding feeding schedules from hunters, papers and friends and are confident we did this well, allowing the dogs to recover fully from the daily runs and put on lean muscle plus a little extra to allow for weight loss on a long trip. The increasing speeds and sled weights the dogs seemed comfortable at as the weeks have passed have been very satisfying to see and seemingly a vindication of our tactics. As our skills and understanding has developed the efficacy of our commands also provided positive feedback.

Three multi-day excursions totalling over two weeks of our time here have been spent carrying out reconnaissance of potential access glaciers to the icecap. Our latest was successful. An unnamed glacier in the Olrik fjord, a 70km journey from Qaanaaq, was deemed doable despite the high moraine wall its retreat had left behind. A day would have had to be set aside for some employment of pulleys and relays but after those early difficulties the angle was relatively friendly and the surface smooth, if a little glassy.

Planning for the culmination of our time up here has proved less encouraging and contributed to our decision to focus on the surrounding area. The descents off the icecap are varied. Our preferred option, with relatively easy logistics once down, would likely be a mess of melt rivers, thin sea ice and bare rock by the time we reached it. The alternative, while simpler to sled down, would probably require a multiple-leg helicopter lift from the finish point which our funds do not allow. Our quietness regarding our plans was intentional, given the large number of unknowns we faced.

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The crux of our discussions over the past few days however, have focused on the maximum range that our teams are capable of. If we are unable to cover the distance to our end point, how we overcome the final technical section is somewhat mute. The daily distance achieved is a product of the sledge weight. Well-trained Greenlandic dogs can run all day and pull hard all day given sufficient food but the speed achieved is of course variable. The dogs have been comfortably running our target distances and more on our training trips, with weights close to expedition levels. The almost complete lack of snow in the region; three good days in the four months we have been here, has created a sledging surface far more favourable than that on which we would have spent the majority of our time on the icecap. The intermittent forays we have taken into softer, deeper snow give us a more representative view of our expected pace. This pace has plateaued over the past couple of weeks to give us what we must assume is the best we can hope for.

Strong dogs were always going to be assisted by hard-working humans! We had accepted the necessity of a skier up ahead on the featureless icecap to navigate and allow the dogs a track to follow. We had accepted the need to use pulleys and relays to ascend our access glacier. We also knew the three not skiing ahead would likely spend little time actually riding the sled for a sizeable proportion of the journey until the weights had reduced enough. What we cannot stretch to is actually hauling weight alongside the dogs to reduce their load. Our skiing speed and daily distances would be compromised, resulting in more dog food – the majority of the weight – having to be added to allow for the additional days. A compromise has to be drawn between the speed of travel and number of days spent travelling and the best one we can envisage, our maximum range, puts us very close to our actual target destination.

We have a massive responsibility for the welfare of our twenty-one dogs. Deciding upon an objective that pushes them to their absolute limit might be acceptable if resupply or non-emergency, self-funded evacuation were viable options in the event of that limit being exceeded before the finish. Either would be financially crippling options for the expedition. The alternative would be to leave our teams on the icecap as we were flown out, having had to put every single one down. If we thought our destination was comfortably within our teams' abilities, things might be different. As it is, we have decided that the possible long-distance icecap expeditions would raise the risk of these unpleasant scenarios unacceptably high.

Despite some inevitable disappointment, we knew that we would have to remain flexible and we are not feeling the loss too keenly. There is a huge amount on offer here and the sights of the cliffs, glaciers and sea ice are more than enough to make further trips in the far north valuable. Sandwiched between these we are enjoying the company of an ever increasing social circle of Polar Eskimo (the word is not considered pejorative here) and Danish friends. It is sometimes difficult to walk from one side of Qaanaaq to another without being invited in. We are taking pleasure from seeing Anastasia rebuild her relationship with our dog team and perfect her whip skills. It is a delight, after months of mostly driving solo, to be able to occasionally sit back on my own sledge and let someone else sort it out!

An eventful aside... The approach to last week's successful glacier recce provided Anastasia and I with one of the more adrenalin-filled moments of our time here so far. Deep into the fast-ice filled fjord we were happily sledding along a hundred metres or so from the 'beach' when most of the dogs dropped straight through the ice. Looking around we realised we had strayed onto a large area of very thin ice lightly covered in wet snow with almost no demarcation. We instantly made the decision to retreat. The only way to do that was with the dogs pulling, we couldn't just drag the sledge backwards and the dogs out of the water with it. Anastasia held the sledge while I went forward to help the dogs. I fell through up to the chest as but managed to wriggle back on to the ice. We were very aware that if the sledge broke through it would sink and drown any dogs attached. We readied ourselves to lose the sledge and release the dogs if needs be. The hole in the ice was growing as the dogs tried to climb out. We beckoned the dogs, in the water and out, over to one side ready to U-turn the sledge back to safety. Anastasia and I both broke through again but again managed to recover quickly. Just as the runners of the sledge broke through and the back of sledge began to sink, enough of the dogs climbed out of the water and able to pull the sledge clear and follow us as we encouraged them back towards safer ice.

Although below minus 25 degrees, as the weather was fine and wind non-existent we spent the rest of the day running and skiing as much as possible to dry out our clothes. Definitely a few brisk moments for us but the dogs shrugged it off in minutes. Oh to have fur! In hindsight, we could have noticed the very subtle tell-tale wet snow and avoided the whole situation but we were not expecting it with thick, fast ice all around and the fjord only a mile across at that point. We later learned that the water is especially shallow at that point and the resultant strong currents leave open water and thin ice all year round. Our closest hunter friend had a similar accident a few weeks previously; part and parcel of travelling on a frozen skim of ice.

More to come on Twitter and here in the next few days as we confirm our plans to make the most of the time we have left.