Six women sailed to ski first descents in Iceland and Greenland—behind the Shifting Ice, Changing Tides expedition.
At the core, outdoorspeople value similar things: escape, adventure, physical exertion, fear and overcoming it. However, beyond a shared love for what some would call hostile landscapes, ski mountaineering and sailing have very little in common. The Shifting Ice, Changing Tides expedition, a three-week long sailing and ski mountaineering trip that embarked one year ago from the coast of Iceland to Greenland, capitalized on a few more similarities. Both endeavors have small carbon footprints, and both allow people to access terrain in ways it has never been accessed before.
Meghan Kelly, a skier and environmental engineer based in Tahoe, always wanted to combine the two sports. Inspired by the Polartec Grant, an annual grant given to adventurers with a heart for the environment, an eye for local culture, and a unique means of travel, Kelly began planning a trip. She reached out to fellow alumni of SheJumps’ Alpine Finishing School, a course to help women hone their ski mountaineering skills, and Nat Segal and McKenna Peterson were quick to join the trip. Segal, an accomplished big-mountain skier from Australia, and Peterson, an Idahoan with 5 years of competing on the Freeride World Tour under her belt, added backcountry experience in a wide variety of terrain to the team. Though Peterson spends her summers on fishing boats in Alaska and Kelly sails Lake Tahoe frequently, the group needed more knowledge of sailing at sea, so they brought Pip and Martha Hunt onto the team. Martha, Pip’s mother, has decades of sailing experience, and both women are accomplished backcountry skiers. After a few weeks of Skype conferences and research, Kelly submitted a proposal to Polartec, a day before the deadline in January 2013.
We were finding out a lot of info about sailing in the region that was constantly changing our ideas right up until the day we turned in the grant. Were there mountains and was there skiing accessible by sailboat? These were questions we had until 6 months before the trip. It was quite an evolution,” says Kelly. They were selected for the grant, and jumped headfirst into preparing for an expedition unlike any other.
In keeping their carbon footprint minimal, the women undertook another difficult task. Skiing is dependent on a healthy environment but does not come without its own negative environmental impact, and their journey provided an example of what it takes to execute a major expedition in a truly environmentally conscious manner.
The coastal mountains they planned to ski are too remote to access by helicopter and an incredible journey by foot, so the area has remained relatively unexplored during the winter. In keeping their carbon footprint minimal, the women undertook another difficult task. Skiing is dependent on a healthy environment but does not come without its own negative environmental impact, and their journey provided an example of what it takes to execute a major expedition in a truly environmentally conscious manner. The all-female team checked off yet another unlikely box for a ski expedition. The ladies-only decision would give each woman the opportunity to explore their own leadership strengths and weaknesses, and sail, climb, and ski in a team atmosphere none of them had experienced.
From funding to route planning to finding a sailboat, each element took dedicated research and time. Peterson obsessed over Google Earth and climbing blogs, visualizing snowy couloirs between climber’s photos of summertime rock spires. Kelly and Segal dedicated themselves to funding; Polartec was the catalyst, but wouldn’t come close to covering all the expenses. Segal won a National Geographic Young Explorers grant, and Kelly worked to create connections with different environmental groups. She even chased Al Gore down in Tahoe to connect with his nonprofit, the Climate Reality Project. The team decided to take on the responsibility of collecting data for environmental research projects as well, focusing on sea ice and plastics pollution. As planning came to a close, they brought KT Miller on to the team to shoot photo and video footage of the journey.
The final element was the sailboat and sea routes. Martha Hunt busied herself with finding a boat that could cross the Denmark Strait from Iceland to Greenland in late winter, which turned out to be an incredibly difficult task.
“The logistics of sailing in that area are a huge endeavor and not something anybody could pull off. It’s super early in the year to be doing that kind of crossing,” says Martha. “It probably took me six months of networking and emailing to even try and find a boat that was able to make that passage.” Hunt eventually found a schooner, La Louise, captained by a Frenchman who built the boat himself and had sailed for eight years in the uncharted waters of Greenland’s east coast. However, he had never done the crossing of the Denmark Straight, from Iceland to Greenland, this early in the year.
When the six women finally landed in Reykjavik, Iceland, in March 2014, they boarded a smaller sailboat and spent three days exploring the fjords of Iceland’s western coast on skis, paddleboards, and by foot. Finally, they boarded La Louise and waited for a weather window to cross the Denmark Strait, a five-day journey.
Though the team had seen a wide variety of dangerous situations in the backcountry, mountains are no comparison to iceberg-ridden open seas, especially for inexperienced sailors. One evening a storm blew in with 60-knot winds and seas as high as 40 feet.
“It was terrifying,” says Miller. “For me, that moment was the moment when I realized ‘Oh my god, this is real.’ We cannot be rescued. We are in the middle of the storm. We are on our own.’”
The waters provided as well. Huge amounts of sea ice had melted out already, leaving fjords typically iced over until late summer clear for sailing. Though it was the most definitive mark of climate change the women saw during their time in the Arctic, the unexpectedly temperate weather on the southern coast also meant skiing corn in steep couloirs and skinning in t-shirts, and skiing terrain typically only available in the summer. As they sailed north the weather cooled, and the women transitioned from spring conditions on technical, steep peaks to mellower mountains covered in deep, light powder.
The team bagged ten first descents, battled seasickness and storms, and balanced each other’s strengths and weaknesses with their own.
One of the most intimidating lines, a 5,800-foot descent off Uiluit qáqâ in the Tasermiut Fjord, came with big consequences and huge rewards. They embarked on a big climb late in the day—getting to shore from the sailboat was a time-consuming process—but they committed and made the climb. The reward? A 1,000-foot no-fall zone of mixed powder and corn, followed by a 4,000-foot apron of GS turns in the same great snow.
“The scenery was incredible—like hiking among El Capitan, glaciers, and Fitz Roy,” says Kelly. “The thing I’ve always loved about skiing is how it feels so familiar in the most unfamiliar of places. There were times I was totally out of my comfort zone with culture, food, or customs, and clicked into skis and thought ‘Yeah, I know this.’”
The team bagged 10 first descents, battled seasickness and storms, and balanced each other’s strengths and weaknesses with their own. They enjoyed the benefits of an all-ladies trip—lots of communication, empathy, and laughter—and began making decisions and taking the lead in situations in which they would usually have deferred to someone else. Perhaps most importantly, they saw firsthand the effects of climate change and began to make changes in their own behaviors. The team is currently working on a short documentary about their journey in which they can share the lessons they learned about climate change with a wider audience.
“As skiers, we’re trying to send a message about climate change but are also contributing to the problem. That’s the biggest thing that I’ve learned,” says Kelly. “I think I’m hopeful. You have to stay hopeful about it.”
By Abbie Barronian