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THE CROSSING

Børge Ousland and Vincent Colliard started their expedition on the 20th of April 2016. They first embarked onboard a Cessna 185 with all their gear and flew over the icecap all the way to the start point, Novatak area at approx. 59′ 24”53N 138′ 22” 23W. From there, they started skiing and pulling their sleds for about 430 kilometers all the way to Miles area 60’40”32N 144′ 36”00W.

A the end of the crossing, Børge and Vincent have reached Miles Lake and the Million Dollar Bridge. From there they went down the Copper river, paddling on their rafts for 30 to 40 kilometers before the pick up point. As a self-supported expedition, they carried food and fuel for an estimated journey of approximatively 40 days. But the expedition was completed in 20 days!
Distance crossed on ice: 430 km
Journey duration: 19 days on ice + 1 day rafting

The glacier

Saint-Elias Wrangell Ice Field
Location
Alaska

Shared between Alaska and Canada, St Elias Wrangell Mountains Range ice field is the largest non-polar glacier in the world with a total of 31.700 square kilometers and up to 1 kilometer thickness. Registered as UNESCO World Heritage and International Biosphere Reserve, it nourishes many valley glaciers that drain down both sides of the range. Plate tectonics are responsible for the uplift of the mountain ranges that cross the ice field. Its extreme high point is Mount St. Elias at 5,489 m, the second tallest mountain in both the United States and Canada.

Wildlife
Rich and diverse

The animal life is quite rich in the area including black bears, wolves, brown bears, and caribou. Mountain goats and Dall sheep are found in mountainous areas. Many different species of fish and bird are also present in the region.

Special Equipment
Sailing and rafting

To take advantage of the numerous wide ski corridors the glacier provides, the adventurers will use a sail that will allow them to progress faster. They are also carrying 2 light rafts in order to paddle down the Copper river and reach pick-up point.

Icelegacy Project. Polar explorer Borge Ousland and all rounder adventurer Vincent Colliard skiing across the 20 largest icecaps on the planet over the course of the next 10 to 15 years.

Scientific data

Sampling mission

Mid April 2016, Børge Ousland and Vincent Colliard met Dr. Jeffrey M. Welker, Professor of Biological Sciences from the university of Anchorage, in order to work together. The idea is about sampling snow for the spatial variation in “black carbon”, snow water isotopes, and using radar to examine glacier ice properties during the expedition.

Consequently, the explorers will proceed to daily sampling all along their expedition and bring the samples and data back to professor Welker for future studies.

DAILY REPORT

Unsupported crossing of the largest non-polar glacier
Completed in 20 days instead of the 40 estimated

Our pilot Paul came to pick us up in the bush in the tiny village of Chitina. While we were loading the Cessna 185, Paul advised us not to take our shotgun and mentioned that brown and black bears are less dangerous than polar bears. We were pretty skeptical. On the way flying, we stopped on the way in Mac Carthy to re-fuel before heading over the icecap. 2,5 hours later we were dropped on the ice, precisely on the Novatak glacier. In order to make a proper start, we decided to ski down all the way to the glacier front. The day was warm and and sunny.

Second day on skis but first day sampling the snow. We just began a collaboration with scientists from the University of Anchorage. It makes sense to us to collaborate with the scientific community because we want Icelegacy not to be only a skiing project but also a way to know these places better and give scientists’ data an adventurous story. So we collected snow/ice in a small container and write the day, the altitude and the position. Later on, the scientist will analyze the chemistry of the water.

We were feeling good and skied approximately 22 km, started in the rain and ended the day in blue sky. We saw bear tracks on the glacier today. The location is East Nunatak. A nunatak is a mountain peak or other rock formation that is exposed above a glacier or ice sheet. The word is also used to describe the top portion of a mountain peak or other rock formation that is above an area carved by glacier movements. A nunatak experiences freeze-thaw erosion that breaks off portions of rock, forming a jagged surface above the glacier-carved smooth portion below.

We had some challenges ahead on day 4 as we were in a tricky area where two legs of ice were meeting. This kind of set up means high compression zones with broken ice and crevasses. However, our satellite image allowed us to find a thin line of snow which went almost all the way back to safe ground.

4 seasons a day today! We kept on changing clothes all day long… White out in the morning, sunny and terribly hot at mid day, then white out again and finally pitching the tent with snow. All white when we opened the zipper of the tent in the evening. But we were happy. We skied approx 20 km and reached 1300 meters. Will tomorrow be white, white and white? We wondered…

Good news! We have done approx. 20% of the total route. 24 km today for 31226 steps. Alpina, one of our great partner provided a watch called Horological Smartwatch which was connected to our  smartphone. It allowed us to know the number of steps, the distance covered, the calories burnt…

Again, 4 seasons a day on the ice field. We managed to use our ski sail for the past 8km that was good fun :-). However, it is very important to stay focus on the route and the crevasses when sailing, and make sure you have a visual contact on your partner, specially when it’s all white. Record distance so far with 30 km covered.

It was very special to wake up that morning and discover the landscape around us, specially as we set camp the day before in a complete white out. Unfortunately the good light didn’t last for long and we had to navigate in the white again during the rest of the morning. Suddenly it cleared. we were on the « Champ Elysée » of St Elias-Wrangell ice field. Perfect place for ski sailing… and the wind picked up :-). Lucky us ending the with 25km on the GPS.

Because of the snowing conditions during the night, the first couple of hours of the morning were tough. We had to ski to a col at 2000 meters. Wet powder and heavy sleds made the leg hard! However, after reaching the col we happily skied down. We were suspicious about cracks on the descent but it was very smooth. Arrived on the flat and used the sail again. Good fun!

We woke up at 5am this morning in the middle of an area called Seward. Everything is frozen and we had to warm the zippers of the tent to open. The snow was quite hard which means good glide for skiing. And then skiing, skiing…until the wind picked up. Like two teenagers, we raised our sails. Speed up to 25km per hour at the maximum. 52,74km later! we are in the tent drinking cognac and enjoying this memorable day.  So smooth so good! Life is good here on St Elias Wrangell icefield. We are now on Bagley area.  Borge declared « I will remember this day my whole life! » Vince «  Longest distance on skies in my life! »

Could not move from the camp today. We packed our mat this morning, but after a short walk in the thickest white out with snow falling horizontally we went back in the tent. We took advantage of this time to review our itinerary, sew some textiles, listen to audio books and philosophy under the shaking tent! Actually, it felt quite good to have some rest after 10 days of intense crossing…

On the run again! 32km.

Out of the tent this morning, wind blowing but less than the day before when we stayed in the tent the whole day. With 3 reefs in the sail we covered 14km, lots of wet powder on the way which made the skiing pretty hard… Stopped sailing because wind too strong. It became very tricky to stop sailing when the wind kept on rising. We were both lying on the ground. Later in the day, we tried to sail again. Same story. We got ready with the set up but gusts became too strong so we had to pack down and continue skiing. The instability of the wind was nerve racking.

White is white! But still 22,7km. We felt tired. It has been the most demanding day of the expedition so far. We spent the whole day in the white out. We couldn’t see anything. Staying focus for 9 hours in the white took a lot of our energy. We were both glad when the day came to an end. We were roped during the whole day. Our skies were under the powder most of the time. At one moment, the wind was so strong that we almost set the tent. Would have been very frustrating! Finally it calmed down. Weather cleared a bit in the evening. Let’s hope it will be better and more fun. White out is part of the game. But today was a special day we had to celebrate with cognac of course! It’s 30th anniversary of Borge’s first expedition across Greenland. 2nd of May 1986, he and some of his friends had their last day skiing all the way to Umanak. The crossing took them 37 days. Imagine at that time, no Gore Tex no Gps no Satellite phone…. Vince was 3 and half months at that time :-) ahahah!

Great day with 31km covered. We managed to sail few kilometers in the beginning of the day with perfect weather! Good skiing for the rest of the day with nice snow conditions. Had to apply butter – yes cooking butter! – under the skies in order to avoid the snow sticking. By the end of the day, the white out came back again. Is there any day here on St Elias Wrangell ice field without white out :-) Currently snowing… Looking forward tomorrow!

Steps 37953. Even though the day was pretty white, we managed to ski 26,34km. Thanks to our sail because all this deep and heavy snow would have kept us around  the 20 km mark if we would not have been able to use the sail. Also in this white out, a big thanks to Michel Pascal and the team from Airbus Defence and Space, without the satellite images we would not be able to navigate in such conditions. We are now 69 km from Miles lake!!

The worst day of the trip. It snowed quite a lot last night so during the whole day we were struggling in deep snow. We skied only 10 km for 10 hours of hard labor. When we set camp in the evening, the had snow all the way to the hip. We were pretty exhausted.

Skied 17,22km today and we managed to reach an important waypoint right before the last col of the journey. Yesterday night was quite windy in the tent and some gusts were shaking the structure of our small tent. However this wind had compressed the snow and made a harder surface. That’s why we have been able to ski 17,22km. We were at that time 43 km from the arrival. Tomorrow we have to negotiate the col, plan is to get up at 4. The earlier the best for avalanches. Let’s stay on the safe side!! Tomorrow is a special day also as because we might pass the 400 km mark since departure. Vince is carefully studying the sat images of the days ahead. “Vince the Navigator! ” declares Børge

Amazing day ! Finally some good weather, finally. 22km from the end of the glacier! Woke up at 4am. Skied more than 20 km today through the col and then down towards Miles Lake. Saw some fresh bear tracks probably few hours from our passage. After 10 hours of skiing, we are 22 km from the water of the lake!! If everything goes well tomorrow, it will be our last night on the ice. However the adventure continues as we need to paddle down a part of the Copper River. Also we kept on taking samples every night. We collected snow in a small container. In the end we hope to give all this material to Jeffrey Welker from the University of Anchorage for studying water isotopes (analyzing the chemistry of the ice/water).

That’s it !!! 430 km in 19 days. End of the crossing but expedition continues!

We have successfully crossed St Elias-Wrangell ice field ending today after 19 days of intense adventures. But the expedition continues for at least two more days. Tomorrow we hope to ski on the frozen lake of Miles and reach the “Million Dollar Bridge”. From there we will inflate our rafts and paddle approx 20 km on the Copper River… Time of the year when grizzlies come out of their den ;-)! See you tomorrow, cheers! Steps 33469. Today 23 km with beautiful weather. Hard snow in the morning. Scenery incredible, felt very fortunate. Big wild nature Alaska.

Can it get any better ? No.

Today was very special. Rain most of the day but what an incredible day. We managed to ski all the way to the Million Dollar Bridge, first on the frozen lake of Miles and then on some sand banks covered with a thin layer of snow. On the way saw Black bear walking along the shore, mellow guy. Before that we saw some big grizzly tracks but not the bear himself responsible for this big footsteps in the snow. We got to visit the bridge, huge work accomplished 100 years ago by the workers. It served for a train to transport copper from mines in the north. Pitched the tent nearby the river, then it started to clear up. Last night in the tent, party was on !! Chocolate, cognac, cigars and Borge’s birthday! Had to celebrate it in advance since Vince carried presents all the way across the glacier and since they might have been on the ice 31st of May in the beginning. Tomorrow looks very exciting too!! Have to get our rafts the water and paddle down 20km of the Copper River before being picked up in the evening. Weather looks great! Hurrahh ;-)

Can it get any better number 2 ? No.

During the whole expedition, we carried an extra 2,5kg raft. We made a catamaran with them in order to increase the stability on the river. After couple of small white water, we reached the calm part of the Copper River. We didn’t do anything for the next 15km, letting the raft rotate 360 degrees on itself and riding down smoothly on the main channel of the river. Bold eagles, geese and seals were probably wondering what the two smelly adventurers were doing… We then crossed a bridge where we were picked up. Time to get back to civilization and enjoy a good fresh beer well deserved. Cheers!!

Icelegacy Project. Polar explorer Borge Ousland and all rounder adventurer Vincent Colliard skiing across the 20 largest icecaps on the planet over the course of the next 10 to 15 years.
CONCLUSION

We crossed the Wrangell-St Elias mountain range icefield in 19 days and covered a total distance of 270 miles (430km). We collected samples of ice every day for future water analyzation as we just began a collaboration with scientists from the University of Anchorage. It makes sense for us to collaborate with the scientific community because we want Icelegacy not to be only an adventure project but also a way to know these places better and give scientists’ data an adventurous story which could lead to educating the public in a more profound way.

Sharing the adventure

the journey