Shifting Ice, Changing Tides

Six women set off on a once-in-a-lifetime expedition to ski untouched lines in Greenland, but they discovered something far more terrifying than storms and couloirs...

Kt Miller

Words by: Amy Marwick

What happens when you send six stomp-crazy ladies on a ski and sail eco mission to Greenland?

We caught up with formidable freeski forces Nat Segal and Pip Hunt, master yachtswoman Martha Hunt and photographer Kt Miller, who joined fellow freeriders McKenna Peterson and Meghan Kelly on an adventure of a lifetime.

When Meghan was looking for a “last adventure” before she settled down to have a family, it was a carbon-neutral, first descent filled ski trip that she found herself recruiting team members for.

It was one of the most exposed lines I have ever been on… I was scared out of my mind

In March 2014, with a solid team of experienced mountain ladies in tow, she set out to raise awareness about climate change, document glacier recession and highlight the ecological footprint of skiing. But what prompted the decision to keep the trip all-female?

“It’s other women who challenge me and push my skiing,” explains Nat Segal. “As female skiers, we have all very quickly learned that if you want to do something, you have to make it happen yourself. So we did.”

All of the women take part in the SheJumps Alpine Finishing School, an all-female’s ski mountaineering course, which helped inspire the trip.

“Skiing with women definitely changes the dynamics in the backcountry. There is much more communication – sometimes way too much communication – but also more dance parties and soundtrack sing-alongs!” says Pip.

The group sailed from Ísafjörður, Iceland across the Denmark Straight to Cape Farewell (the southern tip of Greenland) before working their way north along the coastline to complete three weeks of exploration and ski mountaineering.

Typically, the crossing of the Denmark Strait is rarely attempted in March, however the team were blessed with good weather and calm seas.

The task of leading the group on the ocean fell to Martha Hunt who, with her offshore skipper sailing certification, had spent time on boats crossing the Atlantic and sailing in coastal waters.

It was not until the group sailed through a storm on their way from Nanortalik to Paaimut around the south west coast of Greenland however, that things really stepped up a gear.

With 60 knot winds battering the sails and colossal 35 foot waves tossing their 63 foot boat, the remoteness of their trip really hit home.

“I literally cried in my bunk and braced myself for the boat to be filled with water at least two times in the night,” says Nat.

Whilst some suffered relentless sea sickness, (“I was on the verge of vomiting pretty much the entire time, and therefore was essentially useless as a member of the sailing team…!” said KT) the rest of the crew rallied on deck scouring a frothing horizon line for icebergs and other boats.

“At one point I had to take the helm during the storm, while the captain was on deck fighting with the broken lazy jacks on the mainsail boom,” describes Martha.

“I was standing on the pilot house roof with no lifeline, thinking ‘Great, any minute he’s going to be thrown overboard and I’ll be left on this schooner with nobody but me and five terrified novices.’”

Thankfully, they survived the storm – and a good thing too because there was some extremely exciting ski descents to claim…

“The first line we skied in South Greenland was especially spectacular. Maybe it was just the fact that we had been at sea for five days and were thrilled to step foot on solid ground,” says Kt.

The group spied an arc-shaped couloir from the boat, perched among granite rock spires shooting 5,000 feet out of the ocean.

They had to scramble from the zodiak onto slippery, seaweed covered rocks. Then they made their way to the snow before skinning down a valley, transitioning to crampons and finally hiking up a narrow rock gully.

I literally cried in my bunk and braced myself for the boat to be filled with water at least two times in the night

“We named the line the Banana Couloir… or the endless Banana, for the seemingly endless bootpack that ascended 3,000 feet!”

The team also skied the Uiluit Qaqa in Tasermuit Fjord of South Greenland. It was one of the more challenging lines of the trip as it required a much longer access skin to reach the bottom of the line, followed by a solid few hours of boot packing in mushy snow and a final ascent and descent over a 1,000m vertical no fall zone.

“It was one of the most exposed lines I have ever been on… In truth I was scared out of my mind on it,” admits Nat.

It is unlikely this line has ever been skied before due to the lack of snow in the region once the pack ice opens up.

However, the women arrived to find that much of the sea ice had already melted. “It was a huge marker of a shift in the subarctic climate,” explains Pip.

There were several other definitive indicators of climate change – not least that they found themselves skinning in t-shirts and skiing spring snow in “California-like temperatures”.

“From the beginning we were told that it would be literally impossible to enter those fjords due to the ice. But when we arrived the currents and wind were such that the passages into the fjords were free for almost a week,” explains Nat.

“The locals said they could physically see the changing conditions – less snowfall and a warmer climate in spring and summer has recently allowed them to grow a greater variety of fruit and vegetables than ever before.”

In recent years the sea ice around Cape Farewell has extended up to 100 miles offshore, last year the expedition rounded the coast just thirty miles offshore.

“I went back and looked at the satellite imagery of sea ice during March and April over the last four years” says Kt. “In that time frame, there were only four days when it was possible to access the fjords near Cape Farewell.”

The team hoped that this trip would raise awareness of climate change and encourage other adventure seekers to become more educated on the subject.

“Skiing and travelling can be environmentally friendly, [a solution to climate change] would just take innovation, and the innovators will be born from those passion seekers,” says Meghan.

The team collected a range of information, including ice, water and snow samples for programs associated with Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation (you can read more here).

“The solution to climate change is going to be a combination of a cultural paradigm shift [a combination of awareness and action], governmental regulation, and technology that will pull carbon out of the atmosphere and turn it into something that is not harmful to the environment,” says Kt.

It’s really great to see a courageous group of young women doing just that – but did they experience any resistance along the way?

“The captain we chartered the sailboat was doubtful the entire time. Each time we stepped up and proved him wrong. I don’t think he had much to say at the end,” says Meghan.

The team also agreed that they would rely on their combined abilities in the mountain and decided not to take a mountain guide along.

“I am so glad that we were strong enough to make this choice, I learnt so much as a result,” says Nat.

They finally reached Nuuk on the 19th of April where they disembarked the boat and headed for home in search of rest and fresh vegetables.

In total, they bagged ten first descents during their trip, which was perhaps due in part to the unwavering female camaraderie and support.

“I can’t think of a nicer group of women to have spent three weeks on a boat with!” says Martha.

The team have managed to gather a great deal of vital information and we will look forward to their short documentary film about the trip that will be released later this year.

Find out more by visiting their website

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