The two Brits made two attempts to break the speed record along the horizontal crossing of the Greenland Ice Cap. During the expeditions they encountered serious frostbite (on their first attempt), polar bears, melt water rivers, crevasses and canyons. Ian and Ben talked to ExplorersWeb about their experiences and shared what they have learned on the Ice Cap, and tell about their future plans.
ExWebs Correne Coetzer caught up with them in England.
ExplorersWeb: This Spring many teams reported warm weather and melt water at the coastal areas, did you also experienced those conditions?
Ian and Ben: Very much so. We had reports from friends out before us and the temperature throughout the day on a number of occasions was very hot whilst we were up on the ice cap so we were expecting it to a certain extent.
We had left ourselves 10 hours to cover the last 9 miles, to finish in less than 15 days but the glacier on the west coast was a mess. There were some huge crevasses, and I [Ben] went through one up to my waste just after we roped up about 12 miles away from 660. Then from there on it was just rivers, crevasses and canyons. There's a melt water lake about three miles from Point 660 the size of at least two football pitches.
ExplorersWeb: Tell us about the polar bears that you saw. How far were they away? Were you in danger? How far inland were they?
Ian and Ben: The incident with the bears happened on our second day just off the east coast. I was navigating off a bearing on my chest mounted compass, in a white out. When the white out started to clear slightly I fixed on a bright white patch of 'snow' on our bearing and moved towards it. Then all of a sudden it moved, and moved fast, first downhill then back uphill across our path.
It's difficult to say how close it was, but as the white continued to clear Ian spotted that there were two of them, two adults. We obviously made a lot of noise and let off warning shots but they were too far away at that point to be scared. They then seemed to move off away from us, but we realised they had just moved down wind of us and then they continued to move around the back of us and slightly uphill from us.
From then onwards they basically just followed for the 'best' part of two days. Through the night we did an hour on, hour off watch, and checked outside the tent every ten minutes but the visibility dropped to around 20-30 meters. The last time we saw them on the third day they must have been around 50 miles inland.
ExplorersWeb: What advice could you give to future teams regarding the terrain on Greenland; specifically what can they expect at the east and west coasts?
Ian and Ben: The east coast terrain is relatively straight forward. There are two main crevassed sections on the Nagtivit Glacier but you can move through the middle of them. Rope up anyway, it doesn't slow you down any and there's no harm in being safe, particularly if conditions are warm again.
From our experience this year on the west coast, I'd say you have to rope up. Like I say we did from 12 miles out, and we did it just at the right time. Then just be prepared for a long day making your way through the last 9-10 miles. Be prepared to have to back track and for times where you may have to take the pulks and skis off and take a running jump across some melt water rivers, but don't take any unnecessary risks. Do 'Get stuck in, but don't forget to enjoy it'!
ExplorersWeb: What advice can you give about clothes?
Ian and Ben: Nothing ground breaking here, just a really comprehensive layering system. Mini down jackets come highly recommended are one of the best pieces of kit we had.
ExplorersWeb: You aimed to do a fast crossing - what was your daily routine and what contributed to your speed (what was your daily average distance?)
Ian and Ben: Well we went pretty light weight, the pulks at the start were 45 kg each and we were pretty organized so could set up camp, cook, eat and be asleep in 45 minutes, but really we just put some long hours in at reasonably good speeds.
We started with a 24 hour strategy that would see us do 7x2 hour ski shifts interspersed with 6x10 minutes breaks (15 hours total) then 1.5 hours either side for setting camp, cooking, personal admin, comms etc. then 6 hours sleep.
With weather conditions and the incident with the bears where we didn't really sleep, it was really tough to keep to that but we managed it for the most part for the first 8 days. Then we made the decision to switch to a more sustainable routine of 6x2 hour shifts interspersed with 4x10 minute breaks and 1x20 minutes break in the middle of the day, then 4 hours either side for camp, cooking and most importantly by then, personal admin, and 7 hours rest.
Overall, we weren't quite as fast as we planned for but we think we think we could have been at least 1.5 days quicker if it wasn't for the incident with the bears and if the west coast was less of a mess this year, but we are still pretty happy with 15 days.
ExplorersWeb: Ben, why do you and Ian make a good team?
Ben: Firstly I just wanted to take the opportunity to pay respect to my mate Ian, he's had an unbelievable year. After being picked off the ice cap last year, he was rowing across the Indian Ocean 7 days later, where he was part of the team that set the fastest ever crossing, then this winter he skippered a 12 man rowing boat across the mid Atlantic, which crossed in 38 days (Ian's 3rd Ocean row), and then a few months later he was as strong as an ox on a 15 day crossing of Greenland.
I think we make a good team because we both have a lot of ultra distance, and expedition experience, so we know how to look after ourselves and do the things that need to be done to keep going. We also have the same views on the ethics of, and how to conduct yourselves on expeditions. We also have the same ideas about how we could maybe approach something differently to improve on something that has maybe been done before.
On top of that I would say that we complement each other really well too, we are particularly good at different things. Ian has 17 years of military experience, and is very disciplined and well organized, I have a natural tendency not to mother myself but I've learnt from Ian the importance of personal admin and have become a lot more organized and disciplined myself. And me, I have a love of maths (I'm a geek!), so I tend to obsess about numbers and strategy, so I bring those ideas to the table.
Ultimately I think it comes down to a deep level of respect, and trust. We trust that the other one will make the right decisions at the right time.
ExplorersWeb: Your future plans? The South Pole?
Ben: Both Ian and I are planning on doing some climbing this year and I will definitely be on Everest next summer, as might Ian. After that yes, we are planning for the South Pole. We are teaming up with Niall McCann, a friend and fellow, climber, ocean rower and polar traveler. Even before Ryan and Cecilie, we've been looking at a full traverse, through to McMurdo, so we plan to be attempting that 2011/12. (It's called ENDURE MORE project).
Ed note: Click here to read what Ian Couch says about his three row boat crossings on the Indian and Atlantic Oceans, about the importance of the personalities of the crews, how they are chosen, the differences and similarities between ocean rowing and polar skiing, about keeping fit and his planned mountain climbing.
The two Brits, Ian Couch and Ben Thackwray, are all-rounders. They run ultra marathons, row across oceans, exchanged their oars for ski poles and plan to climb the worlds highest mountain.
During December 2007 to January 2008 the two men were rowing together in a crew of 5 on Oyster Shack across the mid-Atlantic from the Canaries to Antigua in 37 days, 5 hours and 50 minutes.
In April 2009 they attempted a speed crossing of the Greenland Ice Cap but were evacuated because Ben got 3rd degree frostbite. A week later Ian was in Australia, joining the crew of eight on a row boat to Mauritius. Again on the sea, January-February 2010 Ian was skipper on a 12-man boat across the Atlantic from La Gorma to Barbados.
In the 2010 Greenland season Ben and Ian again attempted a horizontal speed crossing. They started on the east coast at the Nagtivit Glacier and headed towards Point 660 via DYE II. They reported on their website that they made the crossing in 15 days and 9 hours. Though not the record they are pleased with their time.
When Ben and Ian got off the Ice Cap, they continued walking and stopped in Kangerlussuaq to complete a full coast to coast crossing.
To read more about the two guys click here.
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