Alone Across Greenland
Credit: Sebastian Copeland
"It's slow going," I groaned as I struggled to keep the kite powered up in the air with the light winds. "If we wanted to go fast, we could have taken the plane," was the wisdom imparted onto me by my young traveling companion. At 26, Eric McNair-Landry is experienced beyond his years. His mother, my friend Matty McNair, led the first all-woman team to the North Pole in 1997, and Eric is an avid kiter who grew up near the Arctic Circle, in the Canadian outpost of Iqaluit. In choosing a teammate for this trip, I knew that his skills would elevate mine and provide a good counterpoint to my 46 years.

We were six days in from our boat drop at the base of the glacier near the small southern town of Narsarsuaq, and the winds were light. Lighter winds, though, mean larger kites and longer lines, and a large kite can be temperamental – the slightest handling error will leave the sail folding in the air like a limp jimmy hat, and getting it back up can be both painstaking and backbreaking as you run backward to generate lift. The wet snow added drag to our heavy sledges behind us, each of which packed 230 pounds of survival necessities for 45 days of unsupported travel on the ice: tent, kites, stoves, fuel, sleeping bags, and safety gear. Dehydrated food, nuts, chocolate, and PowerBars. Communication technology, solar panels, personal locator beacon, film and photo gear. And two pairs of underwear – cargo weight on these expeditions quickly adds up, and the first thing to go is the luxury of clean clothes.

Slow though this was, it still beat pulling. Pulling is what we had done for the past five days: affixing skins to the bottoms of our skis so they would stick as we dragged the sledges up in elevation to reach a favorable wind line. From sea level, we had scaled the glacier, crossed the firn line, and reached 5,900 feet, giving us about another thousand feet or so to go. In deep, wet snow, it's about as much fun as pushing a car uphill.
But today we were finally kiting. And while the wind took a pass on glory, we were still moving up the ice sheet. Every foot felt like a victory. As the uphill miles glided under our skis, the last of the mountains slowly vanished behind us under the curve of the ice sheet, committing us farther into the Great North. We would not see land again for over a month.

The wind soon picked up, and so did our speed. The wide-open space that stretched unlimited in all directions was like a frozen ocean, its hills and valleys like giant swells. And with very little sastrugi, the 68 miles we would post that day were surprisingly – and uncharacteristically – easy on the knees. The cold wind was firming up the ice, now racing below us with speeds reaching 25 miles an hour. The sun was out, and the weather, 23?F, outside of wind chill, was remarkably pleasant. Our spirits were high, and with the wind in our sails, we chipped away at the miles, cautiously upbeat about putting distance between us and the potentially hazardous weather of Greenland's southern tip. Little did we know that conditions would soon dramatically turn: Hurricane-strength winds were headed our way and would be on us in less than 12 hours.