A sea of black holes

SOS Artic

We arrived in Narsarsuaq on April 26, after a layover in Copenhagen from Barcelona. It seems so distant now... As if it had been in another life. 

In Narsarsuaq we were welcomed by Ramón, and the whole team was finally together for the first time: Ramón Larramendi, Marcus Tobia, Carlos Pitarch, Begoña Hernández, Juanma Sotillos, and myself, Lucía Hortal. During those days, we also had the help of Anne Connover, who would have been the seventh member of our expedition had she not had to withdraw for health reasons. 

Ramón gave us a brief tour of the 20 buildings that make up the “village,” one of which was to be our resting place during preparation: an office where we slept (either inside, on the floor, or outside, in tents). The second important building was the village discotheque (open only to us), where we would have our workshop; there we assembled the sled and got it ready for the journey.

And so the expedition began, with the whole team working together to set up the zero-emission wind sled in a discotheque. It was charming to say the least.

Like I said, the beginning of this expedition was never-ending, or so it seemed, since this first part did eventually come to an end.

Our ascent to the glacier, to the Greenland ice sheet, was originally scheduled for May 5. After storm warnings grounded the helicopter, our flight was postponed to the 7th and finally to the 9th. 

Mondays are no good, as we all know, and this was no exception.

We had two helicopters and two pilots. On the first flight out, half of our team (Ramón, Carlos, and Juanma) ventured to the island’s interior to scout the area near the point where we had decided to start the sled journey. This reconnaissance had two purposes: first, to double-check that there were no crevasses in the ice near the area, as they can be deadly, and second, to locate, if only from an eagle’s eye view, what we had decided would be the end point of our journey, what we suspected to be a new nunatak that had never been mapped before.

Once our colleagues had been dropped off at the location, after the reconnaissance sweep, the first pilot gave the signal to start hauling the sled and the rest of the cargo in the second chopper.

Fantastic! We attached the disassembled sled to the sling of the second helicopter, which lifted off and began its trek to the teammates who were already out on the ice. Time was growing short; the first helicopter had already returned but the second one was nowhere to be seen. From early in the morning, we were all feeling quite nervous because the weather was not as calm as you’d like it to be for flying, and those nerves were growing worse now. 

Finally we spotted the second helicopter heading back... Still loaded with the sled. Something had gone wrong and it had failed to drop the cargo at the location. As the pilot climbed down, he explained that the cloud cover and wind had changed radically in the 30 minutes between the first helicopter’s call and the second helicopter’s flight out, blocking access completely.

So our teammates were stuck out on the ice and we were stuck at base. We were screwed, as Ramón would say.

Luckily for the other group, Ramón had packed some supplies and an auxiliary tent. When we talked to him, he assured us that they would be fine and that there was no reason to come out and get them. Instead, they would wait there until we had the right conditions to make our way to them. And so they started rationing supplies on the glacier.

Back at base, the days that followed were long and empty. All the work was done, so we just had to be ready to try again. However, favorable conditions did not come until seven days later, after several failed rehearsals. It was important at this point to exercise patience and not lose the spirit we started out with. We were aware of this and made deliberate efforts to maintain perspective and keep our spirits up. 

Our teammates on the glacier seemed to think that we had it the worst because we were frustrated, we had not yet set foot on the ice, and every time we thought we might be able to head out, something stood in our way. We were more worried about them, though. We watched the days go by and knew that their supplies were dwindling little by little. Meanwhile, we were still living comfortably.

Finally, on May 15, ten days after our scheduled departure and just a few days before we would’ve had to try to send more supplies to our teammates, a window of opportunity to ascend the glacier opened up. Our pilot, Mads, who won all our hearts, woke up determined and inspired that day. It was largely thanks to his tenacity that we managed to get the sled, the remaining equipment and supplies, and the rest of the team to the starting point of the journey. This was despite the fact that the flying conditions were worse than they had been on the 9th. 

Thank you, Mads, we love you.

The reunion was like a shouting match, given our excitement and the deafening noise of the helicopter engine. There were also lots of hugs and slaps on the back (with so many layers on, you can hardly feel them anyway). 

We were all very happy, almost happier than the day we were all supposed to leave. It seemed like our journey might finally begin.

We had no idea what was in store for us. In the week that followed, we would make it a total of 20 km. 

Our journey was estimated at between 1,000 and 1,500 km. In four weeks. A bit of a stretch, perhaps.

But we didn’t know that and we were already several days behind schedule, so as soon as the hugging and backslapping subsided, we got down to work setting up the living quarters module, where four of the six members, myself included, would sleep that night. We managed to finish just in time, as a storm hit the area by nightfall. 

The temperatures dipped below -25°C and the winds raged at over 70 km/h, but the living quarters module held up perfectly. The next day we woke up practically buried in the ice. With the storm roaring over our camp, we continued to assemble the rest of the wind sled, module by module, until we had completed all four parts: a first piloting module, then a main cargo module, then the living quarters module and finally another smaller cargo module. The two team members who did not sleep in the living quarters would sleep in an antechamber in the larger but colder piloting module. With frozen snot and eyelashes like icicles, we gradually finished assembling the wind sled, all while making sure our fingers didn’t become frostbitten.

The storm, of course, abated shortly after we had completed the assembly, not a minute sooner. 


Aeolus is capricious, as we would see on numerous subsequent occasions. We were just happy to have finished the leviathan and that the living quarters module cord, which had been making a trumpeting sound all night long, had finally quieted down. It sounded like a helicopter and had us all scratching our heads...

After the collective trauma of the helicopters, the calm days following the storm were just another spoke in our wheel – after all, we were riding on a wind sled. There was still work to be done before we could move on, so we didn’t worry too much at first. We had to test at least half of the kites we had brought with us, some of which had never been tested before, and learn the sled protocols: the different roles that each member of the expedition could take on during the journey, the parallel (yet essential) tasks, the science set-up and take-down, the piloting, the dangers, the turn dynamics...

However, as we learned all of this, we realized that the wind was not blowing our way, that we were probably under the influence of the nunataks, at the foot of which we had decided to start this adventure. The wind was doing its own thing every day. It would die completely at midday and pick up again slightly at nightfall (alas, when we still had night), but blow in an unwanted direction. We would release the kite to put the protocols into practice, but then had to stop immediately to avoid moving in the wrong direction or towards lower areas where there were crevasses in the ice.

One of the purposes of this expedition was to test the possible existence, due to Greenland’s orography, of a wind “highway” on the west face of the south dome. We were merging onto that highway, so to speak, and it was worse than Madrid’s M-40 on a Friday at 4 pm. Good grief!

After a week of being together on the ice, we had only managed to move 20 km, and not even entirely in the direction we wanted to go. 

Luis Moya had already expressed our dismay all those years ago with the mythical phrase, “try to start it, Carlos, for God’s sake!” 

At last, on May 22 we tentatively managed to cover some distance: 50 km at an average speed of 30 km/h with peaks at 41 km/h. I had the pleasure of co-piloting the mystical experience that was riding a wooden sled weighing over 2,000 kg without a windshield and lurching through fields of sastrugis, of which there were many. And they weren’t little. 

A mystical experience, I say, and a painful one.

Nevertheless, we had made some progress and this was good for morale. However, it was mainly to endure what turned out to be another week and a half of blizzards interspersed by dead calms, which forced us to scrape kilometers from wherever and however we could. This made everything twice as complicated. To appreciate the physical toll this entails, storms mean preparing the modules beforehand by staking them to the ground; protecting the exposed face of the living quarters module with the small cargo sled in moderate storms and building an ice wall (yes, like an igloo) in more extreme cases (winds of 110 km/h); and, of course, digging the whole sled out of the mountain of snow and ice in which it’s sure to be stuck when the whole ordeal is over. The entire 12-meter-long, 3-meter wide sled. With only four shovels. When this is done, you’d think you could rest, but the reality is that you literally have to unstick the sled from the ice in order to launch the kite. Otherwise, the pilot may not be strong enough to hold the kite’s pull, potentially losing the controls completely and even getting thrown forward. So everybody had to roll up their sleeves (figuratively speaking, because it was freezing out there), attach ropes to the sled sections, and pull up and forward like wild beasts. This would continue until the sled was unstuck and, many times, turned in the right direction.

All in all, a real party.

A week and a half into this grueling routine, we finally caught a southwesterly wind that, with luck, would take us to our first stop at the northernmost point of the journey: the U.S. base DYE3.

Author: Lucía Hortal

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