At Mercy of the Wind: Snowkiting the Greenland Ice Cap

In May 2019 a three man team aimed to snow kite 2,300km across the Greenland Ice Cap. They were headed to Qaanaq, a lonely outpost in Northwest Greenland and the home of the hardy indigenous people known as the Polar Eskimo.

The rotor blades made a familiar “whop-whop-whop” sound as the helicopter touched down on the dull grey frozen surface.
Polar Guide Carl Alvey and his two clients bundled out as snow crystals filled the air, blasted into a frenzy by the downdraft. After hauling equipment from the belly of the aircraft, they crouched next to their sledges as it manoeuvred upward, away from their drop point near Narsaq, the most accessible southerly point of the Greenland Ice Cap.
The hulking sheet of ice smothers all but the fractured and mountainous coastline of the world’s largest island.
Most of Greenland’s small population lives along the western coastline, away from the barren interior, which is largely the playground of curious adventurers. Less costly than the poles due to its greater accessibility, Greenland offers, “incredible opportunities to those who wish to test themselves with a long-distance expedition,” says Carl.
From Narsaq, Carl and his two clients Patrick, a surgeon from Luxembourg, and Chris, a banker from Australia, planned to ski 2,300km across the Ice Cap.
They were headed to Qaanaq, a lonely outpost in the Northwest and the home of the hardy indigenous people known as the Polar Eskimo.
They set out for Qaanaaq in May 2019, without any outside support.
Polar travel is a game of patience.
You pack a sledge full of supplies, strap on your skis and drive all your muscles forward to slide the dead weight along.
You repeat that process day after day.
A good skier might cover 40km in a day when the wind is low, and snow conditions are kind. A long road of toil though, if you want to cover thousands of kilometres and haul along two hundred kilos of equipment and supplies. Few people ever travel such distances on skis alone.

The drop-off point in South Greenland

The remedy to this backbreaking work is the wind.
Harness its power using a snow kite, and you can be dragged over the snow-strewn surface at the speed of a car.
Hundreds of kilometres can be skied in just one day. The flip side, though, is that it’s a damn sight harder to master than skiing, and the consequences of messing up could lead to an unwelcome and early trip home with broken bones. However, when it all comes together, “It's one of the purest ways to travel on an ice cap in a polar environment” says Carl.
On the Ice Cap, Carl and his clients kite-skied alongside each other, not straying too far ahead in case they lost sight of one another.
Days were broken down into long kiting sessions of several hours with brief stops to rest and eat. This routine went on for 11 to 12 hours a day until the trio settled into their tent at night.
Evenings were spent preparing dinner from packets of freeze-dried meals, making repairs, checking the next day’s weather and logging diary entries – the rhythm of life on a polar expedition.
It’s a rhythm that Chris, who was much more used to sitting in an air-conditioned office, seemed to enjoy. “Spending a month on the Ice Cap and being forced to submit to its rhythms allows you to reconnect with the fundamentals of your own life. Storms are followed by sunshine, deep cold followed by a balmy evening, rough surfaces resembling a builder’s yard to swishing skis on silky snow,” the 60-year-old Australian recalls.
The first half of the trio’s journey was a slow burn.
The southern half of the Ice Cap is known for being a little light on the wind, and so for four of the first thirteen days, they made slow progress. Skiing in light wind is what Carl calls a “masterful art”. “They did a lot of learning in the first two weeks,” he says.

Waiting for the wind to pick up

When kiting on vast Ice Caps one of the things you need to get right is the length of the kite line – the longer, the better for catching the wind, although too long and kites can become unruly.
Most of the time Carl used a long 50-meter line to help move along in the low wind, but when the winds picked up speed, he switched down to half the length. Sounds like a time-consuming exercise, but the lines are all pre-set, so it only takes a quick pit stop to switch.
Despite being guided, Chris and Patrick weren’t Polar newbies. Between them, they had reached both poles and ticked off numerous journeys in the Canadian Arctic and other icy testing grounds. But to kite ski thousands of kilometres is a step-up, so they enlisted the help of Carl, who was working his thirteenth season on Greenland, and who had completed the same journey once before.
The 36-year-old Briton makes his living leading adventurous folk across icy wastes. Far from his home in the north of England, Carl now lives in West Norway, on the edge of a vast and mountainous sub-arctic plateau, the ideal training ground to school clients in the dark arts of polar travel. Spring is spent on the Greenland Ice Cap, winter on the Great White Queen, or as most know it, Antarctica.
The Greenland Ice Cap is featureless, except for the mesmerising snow patterns crafted by the wind. However, after a third of their journey and thirteen days, the team noticed a speck on the horizon.
The eyes can play tricks on you in the glaring arctic sunlight, but as they skidded along, the speck morphed into a vast structure.
A steel-framed alien on a planet of ice and snow.
They had reached DYE-2, an American early warning radar station from the Cold War years. Abandoned within two hours in 1988, there are still beers on the bar counter, and it remains untouched, except for a few broken windows.
The 60-meter high radar dome protrudes from the building like a giant football. “The station became a highlight, albeit a slightly surreal one,” says Carl.

DYE- 2

As they skied northward from DYE-2 the weather turned, and winds began to reach speeds of 45 knots. Far too strong to travel safely with kites.
They hunkered down in their large red tent, sitting out the howling wind. Thankfully it wasn’t a Piteraq, a menacing wind storm that rages across the Ice Cap, so strong that it can rip a tent from the ground and shred it.
After two days of waiting, Carl poked his head out to see blue skies and blazing sun. It was time to move on and make haste - they were still 1,700km from Qaanaaq. The team weren’t too worried though, as north of DYE-2 the sun stops setting and hangs low in the sky.
With twenty-four-hour sunlight, you can kite “as long as your legs hold out,” says Carl.

Making tracks in good conditions

And that is what they tried, covering 220km in one day.
For the most part, the weather was good - moderate wind in the right direction, clear skies and smooth snow. On some days though, the rhythm of the Ice Cap brought low winds and deep snow, which often slowed their progress to a halt.
The most challenging days were “low wind days turning into a no wind day, with deep wet fresh snow, ending in whiteout conditions,” says Patrick.
It wasn’t all a grind. They revelled in covering huge distances using wind power alone and enjoyed simple pleasures such as a snow bathing or supping the smoky delights of a small measure of whisky – one of the benefits of snowkiting being that you can travel a little more luxuriously than on skis alone.
After 30 days on the Ice Cap and 21 days of kiting, the trio reached their helicopter pick-up point, less than a days travel from Qaanaq.
Plucked from their weeks of isolation, they soon began integrating back into civilisation as they slowly worked their way back to Kangerlussuaq and eventually Copenhagen via multiple flights.

Hanging around in camp

Now after returning home the three men have settled back into the humdrum of daily life, but the memories and lessons learnt from kiting untouched snow day after day may take a while to fade.
“The same rhythms we experienced on the Ice Cap are built into our own lives because they are a part of nature, and that is where we come from,” Chris said.

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