When I close my eyes, I can still see the parched sunlight race across the ice, cutting through the moving clouds above, defining the hills and valleys of a white universe. I breathe the cold air that bites my left side, whisking by with the spindrift and snow flurries that gallop alongside me. I feel the razor-sharp edges of my skis slicing silently through the top layer of deep, fresh powder and the tug of the sledges bouncing obediently behind me. I can still hear the high-pitched whistle of my kite's taut lines pulling hard on my harness, taking me farther, faster into the great Arctic North. I relive the 42 days I spent crossing 1,400 miles of the Greenland ice sheet, using nothing but skis, kites, and the natural energy of the wind.
Too large to be an island and too small to be a continent, Greenland stretches almost 1,700 miles in its length – two-thirds of it within the Arctic Circle – and 600 miles at its widest point. Framed by mountain ranges along its coasts, Greenland primarily consists of a desolate ice sheet reaching nearly two miles in depth, with a high point of 10,623 feet, crushing the land below it. Greenland is administered by Denmark and populated by a small mix of Inuit fishing and mining communities along its coast; it has a timid if steady tourism industry. But the rest of the country is a virtual desert, void of life or features – except for sastrugi, the surface morphology left on the ice by Greenland's powerful winds. The interior can see wildly changing weather, especially at the southern tip, notorious for its violent storms. The ice sheet is scoured by the cold katabatic winds that pour from the land mass at its highest point in the middle and gain speed on their way down to the coast. The even terrain, combined with the prevalence of winds, makes the Greenland ice sheet ideal for kite-skiing expeditions. First crossed in 1888 by the Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen in a famous do-or-die east-west mission, that 280-mile crossing has been favored by ski, dogsled, and kite-supported expeditions for years. Less traveled is the longer south-north route, which has seen only a handful of successful attempts since Niklas Norman and his team opened it in 2005.
That was the one I wanted – and the mission I would lead.
This adventure took seed over many years of gazing out through the porthole of the transatlantic flights that brought me back and forth from the U.S. to Europe. From 30,000 feet, I have found it hard not to be seduced by this white desert dividing the North Atlantic with its mass of ice. For most people, there is scant appeal in being immersed in frigid environments, where men have little business spending any amount of time. But it's a fascination for me, a thirst for exploration, a quest for the road less traveled.
In an age when Google Maps offers detailed, by-the-foot satellite imagery of our world, modern exploration has mostly to do with stretching the capabilities of the human spirit and challenging one's own limits. To me, the ice offers just that. The complete communion with nature in utter self-reliance has been with me since childhood, when I dreamed of following in the steps of the supermen who charted the maps of our world with their courage, determination, and natural connection with the land.
Though I was raised a city boy, I got the exploring bug from my grandfather, a surgeon who often conducted safaris in West Bengal, India, and then Botswana and Tanzania in the 1940s and '50s. By midlife he'd traded his gun for a camera. I spent many childhood summer afternoons gazing at his slide shows of lions and elephants; I took my own first shots of wildlife in Africa when I was 12. Over the years my interest in reaching hard-to-get-to places has grown in concert with a commitment to bringing back photographs that celebrate the exotic and otherworldly aspects of our planet. With images, I would help people fall in love with their world. A growing interest in climate change had me shift my focus from the mountains, oceans, and deserts to the poles, and since 2005, Antarctica and the Arctic have been my backyard: Nothing communicates global warming better than melting ice. After reaching the North Pole last year, covering 400 miles on foot to commemorate the 1909 Peary/Henson centennial, and in preparation for my South Pole Amundsen/Scott centennial mission next winter, I set my sights on Greenland, often considered the third pole by explorers. But unlike its siblings to the north and south, it is bereft of a marquee nodal point that declares: You have conquered!
As the Earth's second-largest ice mass, Greenland holds many world-class challenges. But it also stands at the geopolitical center of the climate crisis. Were its ice mass to melt entirely, ocean levels would rise by more than 20 feet. As it is, water discharge, which pours into the ocean at rates of 72 cubic miles per year, could have a direct slowdown effect on the Gulf Stream. The violent display of the ice's raw power, commensurate with its size, can unnerve the most committed adventurer, as my expedition partner, Eric, and I were soon to find out.