Cornel Grobler and 7 other ESSA members embarked on a trip never before done (and with good reason) in the history of research or Polar travel. Cornel continues the story ...
I was later to find out that the reason for us being the pioneers in the field. Our aim was to traverse the Greenland Ice cap form East to West on the Arctic Circle. Unsupported and totally unknown to each other prior to the trip, evaluating all the participants re their physical and mental qualities before during and after the trip. Very interesting. And then, just prior to the actual start of the trip, you randomise the group of 8 people into 2 squads of 4 people.
What?! The idea of the NCE2001 came to me after I attempted the first crossing of the Greenland Ice Cap by a South African in 1999. As it would later transpire all my well-laid plans flew out of the window as my original expedition partner had to pull out of the expedition due to a collapsed disc in his neck. A lifetime of blowing up planes, jumping out of them and storming them left its mark on Jerry and left me without an expedition partner days before I had to start on the NCE1999. This led to my rather opportunist liaison with the Norwegian press where I found myself a very fine expedition partner in the form of Olaf Schjoll. After our first meeting we flew off to Greenland 4 days later. Our plan of an Ice Cap crossing came to naught as we first suffered from fungal contamination of our rations and then increasing amounts of melt water forming during the warm summer of 1999. Still we managed and extraordinary 350 kms skiing pulling our own supplies on to the Greenland Ice Cap and then back again. Later research analysis of reported stress profiles and hormonal stress sampling showed us to form a very cohesive unit. This expedition led me to believe that studying 2 groups of expeditioneers who are unknown to each other and randomly divided would give myself and a group of researchers from Iceland, the USA and the UK a unique opportunity, the adaptation of randomised groups in an extreme environment measuring parameters of physical and mental stress.
To cut a long story short, I selected 7 members for the expedition following big response to an article in the Norwegian news paper the Aftenposten. We all met 3 times before the expedition. We departed to Iceland, Reykjavik where we were tested at the University of Iceland doing running treadmill tests and strength tests. Following our testing a spate of bad weather set in on the East Coast that forced our flights to be aborted twice before we finally landed at Kulusuk on the Greenland East Coast on the 25th of April. The expedition would travel a distance of over 520 km climbing from sea level to an eventual height of 2700 mamsl Late changes to logistics changed our plans from helicopter flights to dog sled and motor boat to arrive after 2 very tiring days at the foot of the Hann Glacier in the Sermilik fjord. The group still functioned as one and would only split up once we had travelled 3 days into the interior of the Ice Cap. Greenland is neither green nor very flat. Within the first 10 km of our trip we man hauled sleds to a 1000m above sea level. I, a strapping athlete at over 6 foot and weighing more than 85 kilograms not only pulled my Achilles tendon in my right heel during this ascent but was also unable to pull my sled out of the glacier without a bit of assistance - 3 Norwegians!
The Ice Cap is flat from far but far from flat. It is also very white and the sky is very blue, the sun is very hot and yellow, these 3 together are very good. However the clouds is the same colour as the Icecap and when clouds cover the sky and the Ice Cap cover the ground then this is bad. Of the 21 day crossing 5 days were spent trudging through soft snow, 5 days of white out and the remainder had either sunlight most or part of the day. The day was spent waking up, providing a saliva sample for measurement of stress profile, eating dressing, packing up your kit and loading your sled. This took on average 2 and a quarter hours a day. Then we would ski from 8 am until 7 pm. 9 hours of actual skiing and 2 hours of divided rest. The day with the least mileage on the icecap was 20,1 km and the best day skiing was 43,9 km. These would vary and the average would be around 34 km depending on the firmness of the ice, the cold and the wind. Muscular-skeletal injuries and gastro-enteritis haunted us leading to 2 complete days being lost to aid rest and recuperation. Equipment-wise we unfortunate with breaking two of our groups bindings and only having one spare. With a bare 70 km remaining to the exit point - 1 and a half-day left of skiing, the second binding broke. By this time we had intersected a flagged route that led to the exit point by Kangerlussuaq. A party of passing snowcats gave us the final ride out. Not quite what we had anticipated. The other group managed to cross to the West coast and had strangely a very dissimilar story from our own. No equipment failure and no ill days. They did however end up in a tight spot to the end where a miscalculation of the exit point by myself left them backtracking before finally finishing one day after our arrival. Following our re-testing in Iceland we all departed to Norway and back to our daily lives. The research data is currently being processed and will be presented with all the fanfare it deserves during 2002 at ESSA. I would yet again like to thank the ESSA Millennium Expedition committee for granting the ESSA Northern Cross Expedition a tremendous sum of R10000 that provided much-needed capital for transporting our food supplies from the UK to Greenland.
Dr Lukas Cornelius Grobler