Chasing the Great White
On skis through the Hardangervidda
By Corinna Leenen
Setting the scene
Outside the tent lies the Hardangervidda plateau – miles and miles of desolate snow-covered tundra. We had left the ski trails two days ago to make our own way into the wild. We’ve pitched our tent high to have the best chance for a sighting tonight and, wrapped in huge down jackets, we’re waiting for the Northern Lights to appear. In front of us, a moonlit valley drops down into a long basin, which will make for an easy ride down in the morning. Outside the tent under the stars the world seems full of wonder and life seems more than weekly to-do lists.
The night looks more impressive on the plateau: our tents glow red in the dark under a massive sky, full of shooting stars, Iridium flares and the Northern Lights building up slowly in an arched band. It’s only a faint white light which I mistake for clouds or haze, but a patient wait rewards us with dancing lights and a few good photographs.
Logistics and planning for this expedition were more complicated than we had expected. We trained in Scotland to get a taste of the conditions and get familiar with the tent routines, but nothing prepared us for the complications of getting 300kgs of expedition kit to where you want it to be. Some serious effort, bleeding fingers and the strategic use of a shopping trolley meant that pulks, polar tents and expedition food were now on their way to Finse.
Hardangervidda crossing 2016
Four hours on the Bergen train from Oslo took us to Finse, the highest train station in Norway, from where we would start our crossing of the Hardangervidda plateau. It takes six days and roughly 28kms a day to reach Rjukan at the other end.
After sorting the kit into our pulks and waxing our skis, we were finally off into the wild. Heading from the train station into the fading light, we were en route to Rjuken in the footsteps of Amundsen, the great polar explorer. As the light faded into a dull grey, Finse was only visible behind us as a small array of glowing dots hovering in the dark.
After two hours we topped out on the plateau proper – we were now within the national park boundaries. It was too dark to appreciate the view, and we set up camp. The next morning was grey, with clouds smudging the horizon and casting the day into perpetual twilight. We slowly established our tent routines of digging a trench for melting snow for drinking water, cooking food and getting the tent up and down.
En route to Rjukan
Long shadows cast by the low sun zigzagged across the furrowed snow, and the hiss of the pulk across the fresh snow was the only sound. I changed trails all the time, sometimes skiing in the wide track of the pulk in front, the ski-tracks or untouched snow. I had figured out the rhythm of the glide, and for the long stretches of frozen lake, everything was condensed into movement, thoughts and breath.
Our means of travel with skis, snowshoes and pulks is the same as it used to be for the first polar explorations (without Scott’s unfortunate ponies). Our 80-mile crossing was a great achievement in our eyes, but knowing that Amundsen had skied over 1,000 miles just to send a telegram citing his successful Northwest Passage crossing put things into perspective.
Belligerent winds and white-outs are frequent on the plateau, and for this week the Hardangervidda delivered a mix of sunshine and hardship. Going was by turns on firm ice which allowed for a nice glide and good progress, and slushy snow with lots of traction which made it hard to gain ground. On the last day we saw the snow melting under our feet while the thermometer read +10 degrees C.
An impression of magnificent emptiness was the general feel of the plateau. We skied for miles across undulating terrain, with bits of snowdrift blowing over the ground. The sky looked bigger and bluer against the white, and sometimes the sun appeared as just a blurry hole in the clouds. The landmarks we passed eventually disappeared from sight as we ventured further into the heart of the plateau, only to reappear now and then when we reached the top of another hill as a distant reminder of how far we’d come.
The most beautiful scene presented itself on the coldest morning, when temperatures had dropped to -10 degrees C during the night and ice crystals lined the inside of our tent. Outside, things were brisk and sharp – hazy pink covered the horizon, and frost our pulks and skis. As we stood surrounded by hills, looking out across the glittering valley and miles of frozen lake, I felt as vulnerable to the landscape as I did a part of it.
Exped Adventure is gearing up for its sub-zero expeditions. In search of the great white, we’re headed north – the Hardangervidda first and Svalbard right after. Thorough preparation with an emphasis on training, teamwork and development of equipment and nutrition will get us ready for the extremes: Greenland, the Vatnajökull glacier in Iceland and the Patagonian Ice Sheet are the next candidates for our sub-zero expedition programme.
The responsibility of leading a team through remote and unyielding terrain is not inconsiderable. Special permissions, practising with a Mauser rifle and setting up a tripwire system for polar bear protection, and kitting up with PLBs, flare guns, polar tents and Baffin boots is part and parcel of venturing into the extreme regions of Svalbard. In addition, we would be pulling heavily loaded sledges, so preparation in physical terms is important – balancing endurance training with building up strength.
We’re excited to develop our expedition programme into the Polar Regions. If you want to join our team for 2017, it’s a good time now to start preparations and training.