University of Utah geographer Tim Edgar is a serial adventure-seeker. With climbing buddy Morgan Watson, Edgar has summited four of the Seven Summits — the highest points on each continent. While climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa, Edgar chatted with a Danish climber who mentioned crossing Greenland on skis— a feat that soon landed on Edgar and Morgan’s to-do list.
On May 6, 2016, Edgar and Watson headed to Greenland with skis, sleds and enough food for four weeks as they began their 600 km (375 mile) trek from one side of Greenland to the other. Although the trip did not end as planned, Edgar gained an appreciation for the remote landscapes of Greenland, the people who live there and the climatic forces eating away at the icy wilderness.
Edgar and Watson’s crossing would accomplish more than just adventure and a tick on the bucket list. Edgar carried equipment to collect data and samples for his colleagues in the geography department about the state of the Greenland ice sheet. Their path had been studied several times before, so Edgar’s data, which would include GPS surface elevation measurements and snow surface samples, would depict how the ice sheet has changed in the past few years.
Preparations took a full year. Edgar and Watson planned out every meal, rotating through a four-meal cycle for dinners, including couscous, mashed potatoes, ramen and dehydrated refried beans. Breakfasts were provided by the Park City, Utah, company Kodiak Cakes. Lunches would be more like extended snacks as the two planned to keep a mix of nuts, raisins and carob chips on hand throughout each day. They would keep the snack mix in a water bottle clipped to their waist to avoid needing to take off their gloves very often.
Four weeks of food totaled 75 pounds per person, and provided more than 5,000 calories per day — enough to fuel eight to 10 hours of skiing per day
They built some redundancies into their planning. They packed two stoves, in case one failed, and carried a repair kit with supplies for fixing broken ski bindings. After considering weight, bulk and other trade-offs, they decided not to take any firearms (coastal Greenland is polar bear country) or a spare set of skis.
Edgar and Morgan, who flew from Seattle, met up in New York City to start their flight to Iceland, and then on to Greenland. Edgar was watching out the window at sunrise over Iceland.
“The sun was starting to break over the horizon, so you could see icebergs floating in the water,” he says. “We don’t get to see that in the U.S.” Arriving in Greenland later that day, Edgar was fighting off sleep but managed to catch a glimpse of the polar ocean around Greenland. “There was more ice than water visible,” he says.
Gathering their gear on arrival in Greenland, Edgar and Watson discovered that around half of their supplies from a shipment made in early April was still in West Greenland, due to weight restrictions. The next flight wasn’t due for several more days, so the adventurers settled in to the village of Tasiilaq, on Greenland’s eastern shore, to wait. Their chances of a successful crossing were diminishing by the day. “Every day you’re delayed is another day that the ice bridges across crevasses are getting weaker and more surface snow is melting,” Edgar says.
They spent the time practicing snow sampling techniques, playing chess and experiencing the culture of East Greenland. Conditions in the icy, barren land forced Greenlanders to adapt. Many still hunt for food. Narwhal is a great source of vitamin C, they say. Some eat blueberries during the short growing season, and in rare occasions in the past, had eaten lichen. A lack of sediment forces most Greenlanders to live without indoor plumbing. Transportation is mostly by boat or helicopter, or dogsled in the winter.
When the team’s gear finally arrived, a week late, a helicopter wasn’t an option, so they chartered a boat to take them to their launch point. It wasn’t hard to find someone who could take them, Edgar says. “If they don’t have a boat, they know someone who does.”
The boat dropped Edgar and Watson on a rocky beach about 100 feet from the edge of the glacier on May 15, 2016. “I remember seeing the boat pull away and the engine getting quieter and quieter.” Edgar says. “That really gave a strong impression of how isolated we were at this point. There was no community. No population. It was quiet, and we felt like we were on our own.”
Both men felt the pressure to make up time. They only had a set amount of time to reach Western Greenland to catch their return flight. Also, coastal areas posed the greatest danger of polar bears and crevasses. Fortunately for the skiers, polar bears had been scarce that spring as Greenland experienced record warmth. But that same warmth accelerated surface melting and thinned the bridges the two would need to cross large and deep crevasses.
Because they were so far north, Edgar and Watson enjoyed sunlight late into the evening. Trying to make up time, they continued pressing forward, until around 6:30 p.m. on the first day when Watson’s 6 foot 4 inch, 210 pound frame punched through an ice bridge.
Watson only sank in up to his waist, though, and was able to pull himself out. His fully laden sled did not plunge in after him. As Watson crawled back onto the surface, Edgar could see that one of his skis was broken behind the heel, bent upwards. Edgar’s heart sank.
The two set up camp, rested for the night and then started to discuss options the next day. Watson fashioned a makeshift splint with aluminum tent stakes and cordage, but the improvised fix wouldn’t hold up under his weight. Switching skis with Edgar wasn’t an option, because the two used different bindings. After a few more tries at repairing the ski, it became clear that the trip was over.
“We sat there in silence for almost five minutes, letting acceptance set in,” Edgar says. “We knew we had to get to the nearest settlement.”
Barring any other incidents, they would have been able to proceed had they brought a spare set of skis. “Should we have?” Edgar asks. “We met some groups with one spare for 6 people.” Additional skis are costly, and wouldn’t likely be needed beyond the first few days. “Once in the interior, there are no crevasses. Once you’re on the ice cap, there’s nothing to fall into.”
The nearest settlement, Isertoq, was several days’ travel away along the coast. Slushy, patchy snow, thanks to early ice melt and record warmth, precluded use of skis and sleds so the expedition resorted to carrying their full load of gear on their backs in two trips. Edgar walked in his tennis shoes, which were quickly soaked.
“We were a bit wary because we knew we were in polar bear country,” he says. “We were constantly looking over our shoulders to make sure a polar bear wasn’t sneaking up behind us.”
On the second day of their journey to Isertoq, Edgar and Watson encountered a tidal strait, a stream that rose and fell with the tides. After carrying their first load across, they saw the tide was coming in and crossed the rising stream on floating icebergs to get back to the remainder of their equipment before they were cut off. By the time they returned to and crossed the strait at low tide, they were both exhausted and ready to rest for another night. Then they saw a boat.
“We were ecstatic,” Edgar says. They waved their ski poles wildly, and caught the boat’s attention. In return for passage back to Isertoq, the two offered the occupants, a family of four, a generous amount of their food. They hadn’t planned to need cash until their arrival in West Greenland.
Although boat travel between Isertoq and Tasiilaq is usually blocked by ice in mid-May, warm temperatures had broken up the ice. To navigate among the icebergs still present, the boat captain stood atop a barstool to peer over the windshield, steering the boat with his feet. Edgar noted the captain’s dexterity in even shifting gears with his feet. “This isn’t something he does occasionally,” Edgar says.
After several more flights, by helicopter and plane, Edgar and Watson returned safely to the U.S. “Thanks to everyone for your support over the last three weeks,” Watson wrote in a tweet on June 2, 2016.
Although Greenland still experiences cold winters, spring and summer temperatures are rising, speeding up ice sheet melting and making ice sheet crossings more challenging in the future. In Isertoq, Edgar and Watson had heard from other skiers that the west side of the ice sheet was more melted than the east. “Maybe this saved us more trouble,” Edgar says. He notes that the interrupted and delayed trip allowed him to experience Greenlandic culture in a way he wouldn’t have if things had gone as planned.
But will Edgar ever return to Greenland to finish what he and Watson started? “Definitely,” he says. “But I don’t think it will be next summer!”