Wendy Searle’s polar journey across the Greenland ice sheet

As I’m planning to write a book about our crossing of the Greenland ice sheet, I don’t want to give away everything that happened. So much happened in what is really quite a short space of time, 27 days, that it would be impossible to write it all down here. Like so many polar journeys, the weather, the food, the skiing surface and the team dynamics are the only ways one day of endless, 360-degree horizon differed from another. Leaving the arbitrary security of the previous night’s camp to strike out for another day of 70-minute ski legs was sometimes daunting, and I’d know within the first 20 minutes of the day whether I was going to struggle for the remaining hours.

How did I feel? I was elated and immersed in the wilderness of it for a lot of the time. The spindrift and sastrugi were mesmerising. The raw beauty of it was addictive. But some days, all I did was look at the pulk ( alow-slung small toboggan) in front of me and try not to fall behind, critical for the progress of the team and my own morale. We went fast and short, 9 am until 6 pm to start with, then slightly longer, but covering decent mileage in that time. Having a good night’s sleep was important for me!

Each day the alarm would go off (earlier and earlier) and I’d brush the hoar frost from the inside of the tent and then light the cooker ready to melt enough snow for rehydrating breakfasts and to fill flasks for the day ahead. Then I’d start to get dressed. I never took off my thermal layers but added windproof jacket and salopettes, arm warmers, wrist warmers, ski socks, boots and liners, gloves, buff and goggles. On the coldest days, I wore mitts instead of gloves and added a headover. Getting dressed took maybe 20 minutes, being careful not to leave any skin exposed, and to plug myself into my tunes for the day.

Food was an issue. The dehydrated meals supplied by Expedition Foods literally kept me alive. Delicious, high-calorie main meals were the best part of the day. But from early on, I struggled with my grazing bags. Once out and on skis, we didn’t stop to boil water or make food. We used grazing bags,  a mix of nutritious snacks of our own choosing. Mine was all lobbed in together, which made a sticky, sweet-savoury, disgusting mess. I gagged as I ate it most days. The last week, when I was hungry all day long, they tasted marginally better.

It was as hard as I was expecting. The season this year was one of the worst they’ve had, according to others we spoke to who’ve done the crossing many times. Each day was a new challenge; some days (it felt like weeks) it was a complete whiteout, where we could only see our skis and the compass, without any reference point. Being in the line, it looked easy. Being at the front it was as disorientating as having your eyes closed, you couldn’t tell where the ground was and the sky began. Headwinds made progress slow. Even more challenging was the deep, soft snow of days 20-25. Knee-deep and difficult to make progress in, especially breaking trail at the front. A few days of snowed-in crevasse fields where hard sastrugi suddenly gave way to soft snow.  Severe Piteraq storms, unique to Greenland, where we lost a tent and very nearly two of our teammates. We had to build snow walls, dig our tents down and sit tight for 48 hours while the storm raged around us. I went out when the worst had passed and a 10-metre journey to another tent took 20 minutes and took my breath away. I saw how easily people became disorientated and could have had hypothermia within minutes.

Finally, on our last day, the conditions were perfect. It couldn’t have been more poetic; to end the expedition with clear skies, bright sunshine, firm skiing and great visibility. We hadn’t had a day like it the whole trip.

The team didn’t always get on. I spent several ski legs fuelled by silent rage when others declined their turn to lead a leg (this is the most difficult and taxing position to be in – navigating, keeping the group together, timing the leg). Although as soon as I fell into the tent and ate my supper I felt more pragmatic about it. Only for irritation to return the next day! I had hard days myself, some days others carried some of my weight, some days I was slow, and I felt equally frustrated with myself on those days.

I lost weight. I lost body fat. I don’t have the figures but I have pictures where I’m shocked to see myself. I look like I have an eating disorder. It’s surprising how quickly you can put weight on though, three breakfasts and two dinners a day at least have sorted that out.
I prepared for a year or more for the physical and mental privations of the trip. Even so, there were days when I woke up and couldn’t believe I was still in a tent, still having to put on all my layers and ski for the day. I missed my children more than I ever imagined I would (I tried not to think about them, it was a tactic that didn’t work at all). But, what I wasn’t prepared for (how do you prepare) how hard it was coming back to reality. I wanted to see my family, of course. But the very idea of driving, of work and emails, of bills and household tasks, was too difficult to comprehend. It’s amazing how little you really need in life,  how little we had. We lived like savages, three savages in each tent who didn’t wash (except for our feet, snow baths and a little talc, every day), who had virtually no contact with the outside world. Even our fixer, the legendary Lars, didn’t update us with weather unless it was critical. Whoever went out first in the morning for a number two was also responsible for coming back with an update on the conditions; visibility, surface, wind strength and direction. It was living totally immersed in the environment. By the end, I could navigate using shadows, the sun and the sastrugi. I knew what the shape of the shadows of my teammates looked like when it was nearly time to finish for the day. I knew who was struggling by the way they skied. I could pretty accurately guess when the 70-minute leg was finished. These were the things that mattered. Not days of the week, or dates, or hours of the day.

There is only one solution to the post-expedition trauma of re-entering the world. Plan the next one.

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About the Author:
Snugpak® is a true, pioneering British company, starting out as an original cottage industry in the 1970s, and developing into a worldwide brand. Based for over thirty years in the Yorkshire countryside, Snugpak’s success has endured through passing skills down through generations, while taking on the best that technology has to offer.

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