The east coast of Greenland in late May. Yes, it’s springtime. The days are endlessly long and the sun barely sets. But not a patch of ‘green’ land in sight. The landscape is still groaning under the snow and ice.
Along the coast and in the fjords, the seawater is frozen. Places like Tasiilaq and Ittoqqortoormiit can only be reached by helicopter or dog sled. It’ll be another month before the first Royal Arctic Line cargo ship arrives, once the sea ice has melted.
But there’s one ship that’s already made it: Le Commandant Charcot, owned by the Ponant cruise ship company. This season, these conditions, are what this powerful ship was designed for.
We’re a small group of nine people, on board to try out something really special: a “polar raid.” The idea is to leave the ship behind somewhere and camp for two nights in the wilderness. Only on the third day will we be picked up again – possibly in a different place – by Le Commandant Charcot.
I’m extremely grateful to Ponant for asking me to be one of their guinea pigs. I also happen to be the oldest of the group, so perhaps they were looking for someone who would be a bit closer to the profile of their typical passenger?
The group is led by polar explorer Nicolas Dubreuil and his Greenlandic friend and guide, Ole Eliassen. The team also includes a few Ponant people, two French Alpine guides, the on-board doctor and two fellow photographers.
Captain Etienne Garcia is amazed at how quickly the ice has changed since the last trip. He scans the horizon with his binoculars. Next to him, Nicolas Dubreuil looks concerned. “This isn’t going to work.”
“Two weeks ago there was a lot more sea ice,” explains the captain. “It’s now much more fragmented. But for our expedition we need a place that is flat and safe. We don’t want to have to swim from one ice floe to the next.”
Instead, the plan is to ski over the pack ice, each of us pulling a sled full of camping equipment and provisions behind us.
Arctic Camping For Dummies
In the large hangar on board Le Commandant Charcot we get acquainted with all the equipment. Nicolas tells us everything we need to know about the pulka (the sled we need to pull), the skis, what to take with us and what to leave behind, the snow shovels, the camping stoves, the freeze-dried food and the all-important sleeping bag and tent.
Cards on the table, I’m starting to have second thoughts. What the hell have I signed myself up for?
The weight of the sled frightens me. What if the rest of the team are much sportier than me? I don’t have that much camping experience either. And what about the polar bears?
Gradually it sinks in that we’re going to be leaving the ship in just a few days. We’ll be trading in our luxury bubble for the rawness of nature and no doubt some extremely cold nights. Mild panic starts to kick in. Thankfully, we can talk it over with each other during mealtimes. Mégane, Benoît and Michaela also share their concern.
Polar Bear Necessities
It’s frustrating. Day after day we can’t seem to find a good spot to ‘alight’. Commander Garcia is doing his best. Together with expedition leader Henri Wolf and Nicolas Dubreuil, he hunts for the most suitable options.
Occasionally, the helicopter does a reconnaissance flight to look for the best spots in an energy-efficient way.
The mealtimes – something we always look forward to – shape our days. Our team sits together at two round tables in the buffet restaurant. The rest of the time we’re on the navigation bridge, in the observation lounge or outside on deck. We plod up and down like polar bears, not quite sure what to make of it all.
Did somebody say ‘polar bear’?
At 5 a.m. we’re woken up by Captain Garcia. In a hushed voice he tells us that a young polar bear is walking around close to the ship. I quickly jump into my warm clothes and run downstairs. The corridor is busier than expected. Pretty much everyone wants to see the polar bear.
With the agility of a triathlete, the young bear moves across the landscape, now swimming, then crawling over an ice floe. Moments later, the animal rolls around playfully in the snow, a technique to dry off.
Laura Jourdan from the expedition team is beaming. “27 polar bears, that’s a record!”
Out Of The Ice & Into The Water
The ice prevents us from testing out the sled. So we get a different training session instead: Nicolas wants to teach us how to set up the tent… on an ice floe. In a Zodiac we set off in the direction of a reliable-looking piece of ice. Why we’re wearing crocs, and not boots, is anyone’s guess.
Ole is the first to jump onto the ice, gauge in hand. Safety first. We’re up next, one by one.
First, setting up the tent: not as easy as it sounds. My camping experience dates back to the last century, when I was trained as an air commando in the air force.
Then Nicolas and Ole teach us how they fight the cold in Greenland. And it literally is a fight: a game of wrestling will warm you up in no time. Tickling each other also seems to do the trick.
Next up we’re asked to jump into the icy water. This is apparently where the crocs come in: with boots it would be a lot harder. But even wearing those plastic shoes covered in holes, I struggle to pull myself back out and onto the ice. The dry suit means we don’t get wet or cold. Except for my hands, which immediately lose their grip. When I pull myself up, the ice cuts into my skin. I’m bleeding.
Back in the Zodiac, back to the warm ship. Nice glass of wine. Wonderful dinner. Fantastic team spirit.
Push & Pull Sled
All the search efforts finally pay off as Etienne Garcia and Henri Wolf find a safe spot to park the ship. For the first time the gangway is lowered onto the frozen sea. It’s already quite late in the afternoon, so today we’re just doing a few hours of training, each pulling our pulka behind us.
Ole Eliassen is armed, “in the unlikely event of a polar bear attack,” says Nicolas Dubreuil. This does little to reassure me… And after all the wining and dining of the last few days, it turns out that my physical fitness isn’t at its best either.
And then we’re off. For a mini hike across a remote landscape. Sometimes it feels like we’re on another planet. The low sun makes it easy to see every bit of unevenness in the snow and ice. But as soon as it clouds over and the shadows disappear, it gets difficult to make out all the dips and bumps.
The bottoms of the touring skis are covered with ‘climbing skin’. This is traditional seal skin with all the hairs raised in one direction. It allows you to walk uphill on snow without sliding backwards. Well that’s the theory anyway. In practice I still feel pretty unsteady on my feet. I must have left my core stability back on the ship. And then there’s the damn pulka. Gliding down a small hill with a pair of skis on my feet? Piece of cake! I’m an experienced skier… until that sled goes zooming past me. There I am, sprawled out on the white surface. I get up once. Twice. Every single time. And take pictures.
Taking photos is a challenge. I have my Nikon with one wide-angle zoom lens hanging around my neck. Everything else is on board. As a professional photographer, I wondered what I might need, even though I knew that the training alone would be enough of a challenge for me physically.
Typically you want to take some group shots. But to get those photos you have to ski away from the group. Then you have to do it all over again to rejoin them. Not easy at all! I’m sweating like crazy.
As we ski back to the ship, I ponder over what to expect from the actual expedition. This was a flat surface. What if we have to go into the mountains?
The pulkas are hoisted back on board.
Ittoqqortoormiit (try pronouncing that one …)
D-Day has arrived. The sun is shining, the sky is steel blue. Le Commandant Charcot has set off for Ittoqqortoormiit, an extremely remote settlement at the mouth of the giant Kangertittivaq fjord complex and at the edge of the world’s largest national park.
The conditions are favourable on all fronts. Today we start our polar raid. And we’re ready for it (even though a little voice in my head says otherwise).
We start off slowly, our first stop an old settlement of a few houses and a couple of Greenland dogs on chains. Two polar bear skins have been hung out to freeze dry, as a deterrent to potential intruders. ‘This is what happens if you enter our village.’
In the distance we see the Charcot and its passengers taking a snowshoe hike. Behind us are the mountains, which I find out we’ll be climbing tomorrow. With skis and pulkas. If all goes well.
We settle down on a higher plateau for the first night. I’m sharing a tent with Ludo, the French mountain guide. He’s a pro, which makes me feel much more relaxed. Our tent is ready in no time.
Together with the rest of the team we also set up the larger mess tent. We use our shovels to carve benches and a table in the snow.
The long shadows are a sign that it’s time to go to sleep. But there’s not going to be a lot of that: we’ll be taking it in turns to stand guard for a good hour. Polar bear watch!
The alarm goes off just before 2am. It’s our turn. Getting out of that nice warm sleeping bag isn’t fun. But the spectacle outside makes up for it all. The midnight sun plays hide and seek behind the mountains. On the other side of Kangertittivaqfjord the mountains are bathed in red sunlight.
I enjoy the intense silence. All I can hear is the ice cracking under my feet.
It’s a little after 2am when the sun comes out again. A magical moment.
I ask Ludo to pose for a minute, with the sun behind him.
This is a difficult moment. A moment of doubt. When I see the mountains in front of me, and think of all the slipping up, falling down and lack of sleep, a little devil on my shoulder whispers: ‘Give up, go back to the comfort of the ship.’ At the same time I feel the strength of the team. Giving up would immediately tear me away from these friendships, which I’d regret. I dig deep and find the courage to carry on.
Something is weighing heavily on my mind: my sister Sylvie is dying. Her husband had called me just before I left to tell me to prepare myself to say goodbye.
Sylvie had been fighting her cancer hard, had made the best of it together with her husband and daughter. With an immense dose of courage. As a kind of tribute to her, I decide not to give up, and to continue to the top.
I share my sadness and my decision with the team. Their support and friendship are something I’ll never forget.
The climb is tough. For me, at least. I’ve reached my physical limits. I’m so thirsty I start to eat the snow, but it doesn’t help. I think of Sylvie.
My camera doesn’t leave the pulka for the entire trek to the second camp. No energy for photos. I have to make it to the top.
We decide to climb all the way up, on our skis but without the pulkas. We set off at 5 a.m., leaving the tents standing. The light is fantastic. The snow has frozen in the shadows. It makes the ascent even more difficult. Nicolas, Blaise, Ludo, Mégane, Julien, Stéphane … they all spur me on.
I think about my sister.
From the top, the panorama is indescribably beautiful. The wispy white clouds create an almost mythical sensation. I feel connected to the universe.
Even Ole Eliassen seems to be lost for words. Nicholas explains that “in Greenland mountains are thought to be the resting places of the souls of the dead.”
We made it! I made it!
Time to jump for joy.
Time to pack up the camp.
Time to go back to the ship. A descent that takes blood, sweat and tears.
Once we’re back down (phew!) we get overtaken by snowmobiles and dog sleds.
Ole asks me to walk beside them. To arrive as one team with him and the rest of our friends.
The helideck glows like an orange beacon as dozens of passengers in orange parkas point in our direction. ‘They’re back!’
It feels like we’ve achieved the impossible. For me, personally, it was the sweet taste of victory.
The Video Farewell
The video farewell
Not long after, I say my final goodbye to Sylvie. Via a last video call.
The contrast couldn’t be greater. The rush of victory. The immense sadness.
At midnight, Ole plays a piece of music and dedicates it to my sister. The team stands around the piano.
Heartbreaking, yet so beautiful.
A crack in the ice makes an ‘S’ shape. That can’t be a coincidence.
Le Commandant Charcot continues its voyage in perhaps the most spectacular landscape I have ever seen. As stunning as Antarctica? Without a doubt!
Fantastic report, Mike. Your storytelling conveys so many strong emotions. Ralph, I can imagine you undertaking this same experience. Thanks for the account of this truly amazing adventure.