Alone Across Greenland
Credit: Sebastian Copeland
It is a mark of most adventurers to activate their competitive streak and set records. While the rest of the world may find those records abstract and esoteric, polar explorers think they represent a notch left behind for the history books and a nod to the commitment it took to get there. Upon stepping onto the ice, I set my sights firmly on challenging the longest distance traveled in a 24-hour period, which stood at 322 miles. Having posted only 161 miles over 16 hours the previous day, the task felt daunting, but when we left at 9:30 pm on June 4, 2010 – day 22 of our expedition – the conditions were promising.

Because the wind had held strong for the past day, I chose to rig big. With the wind about 45 degrees to your back, the pull is more forgiving when overpowered. The upside is greater speed of travel. The downside is: don't crash!

There isn't much room for error when moving at 40 miles an hour on the ice, flying among the drift flurries that run over the ground like a blanket of silk, and 200 pounds of gear bouncing erratically behind you. Things happen very quickly – you catch an edge, and the resulting wipeout can be spectacular and dangerous. The adrenaline rush is intense, as is the workout. When the wind really turns on, I actually prefer shutting the iPod off and staying focused. Within the first hour and a half we had covered almost 60 miles.

"Let's go for it," I said to Eric, urging him to also go bigger. We had talked about the record a bit, but his attitude had been lukewarm. He felt that silly and dangerous mistakes happen when you subject your body and mind to this type of duress in a highly dynamic environment. But he himself had had a go at the record a couple of years back, posting a 256-mile day, and I'd come to find him quite competitive. Tonight the conditions were there.

"OK," he agreed. "Let's give it a try."

The wind grew through the night, and by 4 am, snowdrift covered the ice in all directions as we chased the nighttime sun. In the last few days we had passed the 600-mile mark, crossed the Arctic Circle, and were now solidly in 24 hours of sunlight. As we kept pushing north, however, we felt the temperature drop, particularly at night. Frost had built over our face masks, and the wind chill prohibited any exposed skin. But the snow was soft and the sastrugi easy under our skis, allowing us to hit speeds well over 40 miles an hour.

Eventually, the pull of the big kites was too great, so we downsized but still maintained reasonable speeds. In the dry cold, the ice had softened to a sandlike texture, which was remarkably kinder on the knees: We were gliding on silk. Ten hours in, we had covered 229 miles. At that rate, we would pulverize the record.
But as the new day rose, the winds began to falter. From speeds of 40 mph, we were now struggling to do 10. Back on the large kites, and with fatigue setting in, we felt doubt begin to creep in too. By our next break, it was clear that the rising day would not work in our favor.

"If this keeps up, we won't make it," I said. "Are we up to subjecting ourselves to a 24-hour day if we're not going to break the record?"

"If we do it, it's to push the edge of our own limits," Eric replied. "But if we agree to do it, there's no turning back."

It was the response I had hoped for – and an exact reflection of my own feelings. By then, the record mattered less than the commitment, and commitment doesn't exist outside of sacrifice.

The slow, monotonous speed began to wreak havoc on our minds, while skiing on the same tack for hours on end took its toll on our bodies. Our leg muscles were sore, as were the flats of our feet. Because the kites' handles often sit above the heart, hours of gripping meant that our hands would go cold, and our fingers would go numb. But we kept chipping at it, and by hour 15, we had actually covered 292 miles. If the winds kept up, even as light as they were, we realized we still had a shot at the record.

We switched to one-hour shifts of skiing with 15-minute breaks. The wind teased us, up and down, but overall we managed to increase our pace. We had now traveled more than 300 miles with eight hours still left on the clock, and we had to clear only 22 more. I remained alert to the slightest variation in wind speed – the tension ran high. If the wind died then, it would have been devastating with the record so close. I gripped the handles and felt each yard glide below my skis. An objective is purpose, and this one justified the pains that grew stronger in my limbs.

We passed the record sometime during hour 18 but pushed on to make our mark and set a new one. With five more hours to go, we switched to 45 minutes on and 15 minutes off. The last three hours were agony. My calf had seized up, both my feet were numb, my knees were sore, and I was so exhausted that I could neither walk nor eat the food I so badly needed. I had finished the tea in my thermos, and a half-empty water bottle had frozen: There would be no liquid until the end. Eric and I agreed not to look at the GPS for distance until we were comfortably in the tent.

The final hour was pure mind over matter in virtual delirium, each minute dragging on endlessly as I accidentally listened to the same electronica song on my iPod over and over. Because of the breaks, the final push fell on 9:15 pm, and we agreed that this would be our quitting time – 15 minutes shy of the 24-hour mark. No finish line. No cheering crowd. No fanfare.

When we landed our kites for the last time that day, I crawled on my hands and knees to fold it, and the 75 meters of line took 10 minutes to wrap. I had been up for 31 hours and truly exerting for 24. We wobbled into the tent, made some food, and then checked our distance: 370 miles.

We had beaten the record by 48 miles and were officially the world-title holders for longest distance traveled by kite on skis over a 24-hour period. And in just one day we had covered a full quarter of our entire 42-day distance.

The next day we rewarded ourselves with a day off. Not surprisingly, we slept for most of it. The sun was at the losing end of a power struggle with high and low clouds that lasted all morning. By midday, after alternating light snowfall with bright piercing rays, the sun's parched light bid its final adieu for the day. But not before running one last salutation across the frozen plain, playing catch-up with itself amid the clouds' broken shadows.