Extreme Skiing Expedition Raises Climate Change Awareness

As glacial ice melts due to global warming, explorers Borge Ousland and Vincent Colliard are in the process of skiing across the world’s 20 largest glaciers to raise awareness about climate change. Deemed the Alpina & Ice Legacy Project, the plan seeks to have the duo cross the world’s most isolated glacial realms over the next 10 years. Ousland hopes that his expeditions will help in develop “new technology, political will, and [understanding about] what’s going on,” according to a November 2016 interview with National Geographic. Given the current state of climate change, the two men may not only be the first to accomplish the feat of traveling the world’s 20 largest glaciers, but also the last. 

The explorers on the edge of an alpine glacial lake. Copyright Icelegacy
The explorers on the edge of an alpine glacial lake (source: Copyright Icelegacy).

Both athletes are decorated skiers, with combined expedition experience across all seven continents in the past decade. Borge Ousland, the team’s leader, is credited with the first and fastest solo expedition to the North Pole, a journey that took more than 50 days and resulted in severe weight loss and frostbite. Still, only three years later, Ousland became the first to ski 1,864 miles across Antarctica completely unsupported. Now, for the Ice Legacy Project, 54-year-old Ousland has teamed up with 30-year-old Frenchman Vincent Colliard for a multi-stage glacier expedition.

Derek Parron, an experienced backcountry skier and owner of  Rocky Mountain Underground ski company, attested to the audacity of Ousland and Colliard’s expedition in an interview with GlacierHub: “In all my years of doing long ski treks in the backcountry, I’ve never heard of a team working towards such an extraordinary goal,” he said. “Despite the wealth of experience between the two of them, their project is extremely dangerous with a lot of factors that could potentially go wrong.” 

A massive crevasse with Colliard for scale. Copyright Icelegacy.
A massive crevasse with Colliard for scale (source: Copyright Icelegacy).

The skiing and mountaineering community has a great deal of respect for the duo’s ongoing project, and Parron pointed out that “not only are they touring across the world’s largest glaciers, but they’re documenting the entire process for the world to see.”  

Maintaining a presence on social media is an important piece of the project, allowing the public to track the team’s progress across the numerous expeditions. “The world needs to find technical and political solutions to the environmental crisis,” Ousland told GlacierHub. “This long-term expedition is meant to be an incubator to that process, a visual example and a window to what is happening.”

Ousland and Colliard take a moment to celebrate finally arriving on land after paddling across the Alaskan water (source: Copyright Icelegacy).

Despite the risks, the duo has already successfully completed two goals of their project with funding support from watchmaker Alpina: crossing the Stikine Glacier in Alaska and the St. Elias-Wrangell Mountains  Ice Field.  

“We’d get up at 5 a.m., eat breakfast, check to see if we got news from the outside world, then start skiing at 8 a.m,”  Colliard commented to National Geographic about a normal expedition day. “We’d ski for nine hours, towing our sleds, which were about 175 pounds per person, taking 15-minute breaks every hour.” The team would cover approximately 12 miles every day, making sure to keep sufficient food available to sustain a 5,000-calorie daily diet. 

Given the dangers of crossing glacier fields in Alaska, the team’s effort to raise awareness about climate change is all the more admirable. Their project outline states that the plan “combines athletic prowess, human adventure and the sharing of knowledge about the polar environment with as many people as possible, so that future generations may enjoy the fascinating and priceless legacy of glaciers and icecaps.” In order to achieve these goals, Ousland described three major dangers that exist when traveling in isolated glacial environments: hidden crevasses, powerful avalanches from the mountains above, and inclement weather in the form of high winds and cold temperatures.

The variety of surfaces provides additional challenges atop the weather. Copyright Icelegacy.
The variety of surfaces provides additional challenges in addition to the weather (source: Copyright Icelegacy).

Derek Parron, who has skied similar terrain, confirmed these risks to GlacierHub. “When you’re skinning through glacial valleys like Colliard and Ousland are, the ridge lines of the mountains can be more than 4,000 feet above,” he said. “This makes high altitude avalanches a major concern.” In addition to avalanche danger, when temperatures are cold, high winds have the capacity to lower body temperatures, quickly increasing the explorer’s risk of hypothermia and frostbite as they travel across the ice and snow. 

With the project far from over, the team is set to travel to ten different countries to visit the remaining 16 glaciers on their list. Given the sizable nature of the duo’s plan, maintaining both physical and mental strength is of utmost importance.

“On most trips, the mental element is the biggest part,” Colliard explained to National Geographic. Yet, despite the grueling effort that goes into the long expeditions, he also mentioned an upside to his followers on Instagram, “The wilderness answers my questions, and being isolated on an expedition is the best time to let my mind think about life and future projects.”

“Although many of these glaciers are not commonly traveled by the masses, our generation may be the last to have the chance to witness them in all their beauty,” Derek Parron added to GlacierHub. Parron’s comments emphasize the importance of Ousland and Colliard’s present project, covering thousands of miles of terrain to promote positive environmental stewardship. 

Despite age and cultural differences, the duo is tight-knit. Copyright Icelegacy.
Despite age and cultural differences, the duo is tight-knit (source: Copyright Icelegacy).

In reflecting upon the beginning of the project, Colliard explained, “For me, adventure is a moment, an experience, a journey that takes you to a place of uncertainty, a place where success and failure are one in the same, a place where life is authentic.” It is in these thoughts that the team seems to find the drive to explore, pushing to expose the impending threat of climate change on our planet’s few untouched natural environments. In doing so, the men hope that future generations may have access to the same “authentic,” natural experiences we are privileged to enjoy today. 

Oxonians Retrace Paths Through Spitsbergen 93 Years Later

The team and their guide on the summit of Poincarétoppen (Source: Liam Garrison/Spitsbergen Retraced
The team and their guide on the summit of Poincarétoppen (Source: Liam Garrison/Spitsbergen Retraced).

During summer, a team of four students from Oxford University, led by undergraduate James Lam, completed a 184-mile expedition across the Ny-Friesland ice cap in Spitsbergen, Norway. Accompanied by a guide, Endre Før Gjermundsen, they skied across the ice cap from July 31 to August 29, retracing the route of a similar expedition conducted by four Oxford University undergraduates in 1923, and collecting scientific data about glaciers along the way.

Spitsbergen is the largest island in the Svalbard archipelago, a territory located within the Arctic circle. Svalbard has more than 2,100 glaciers, constituting 60 percent of its land area, many of which are found on Spitsbergen. The island is also home to many mountains and fjords, giving rise to its name, which means ‘pointed mountains’ in Dutch.

Chydeniusbreen as seen in a photograph taken in 1923 (Source: R. Frazer/The Geographical Journal)
Chydeniusbreen as seen in a photograph taken in 1923 (Source: R. Frazer/The Geographical Journal).

Ny-Friesland in east Spitsbergen has received limited attention from scientists, with little data having been recorded since the 1923 expedition. As such, the team of undergraduates worked with researchers from Oxford University and the University Centre in Svalbard (UNIS) to collect different forms of data on the island’s environment, glaciers and climate.

The expedition was inspired by the discovery of original maps and photos from the 1923 expedition in the archives of the Oxford University Exploration Club. All of the team members, James Lam, Jamie Gardiner, Will Hartz and Liam Garrison, have personal skiing and mountaineering experience spanning three different continents. Nevertheless, they undertook nine months of rigorous training and extensive preparations to ensure the success of both the scientific and physically strenuous aspects of the expedition.

Apart from skiing trips, the training regime included tyre-dragging in Port Meadow, Oxford. (Source: Liam Garrison/Spitsbergen Retraced)
Apart from skiing trips, the training regime included tyre-dragging in Port Meadow, Oxford (Source: Liam Garrison/Spitsbergen Retraced).

During the trip, the students photographed, recorded and collected DNA samples from vascular plants encountered at ten different locations between Duym point in the east and the terminus of Nordernskiold glacier in the west. These samples are currently being analyzed at UNIS and will be added to the Svalbard Flora database. They will provide valuable contributions to understandings of dispersal patterns on glaciers, particularly as there is only one other set of biological data for East Spitsbergen.

The camps of the teams on the 1923 and 2016 expeditions (Sources: R. Frazer/The Geographical Journal and Liam Garrison/Spitsbergen Retraced)
The camps of the teams on the 1923 and 2016 expeditions (Sources: R. Frazer/The Geographical Journal and Liam Garrison/Spitsbergen Retraced).

Using a drone, the students successfully mapped three sections of the Chydeniusbreen glacier. This will be used to create 3D maps of these areas, which will be compared to satellite data and the Norwegian Polar Institute’s models of the glacier to measure glacial change. The team was also able to successfully repeat 25 of the landscape photographs taken on the 1923 expedition. These will be used to practice photogrammetry, the science of measurements done using photographs, to be used in conjunction with the 3-D maps and satellite data to track glacial change in Ny-Friesland.

Two team members ascending the unclimbed west ridge of Newtontoppen (Source: Endre Før Gjermundsen/Spitsbergen Retraced)
Two team members ascending the unclimbed west ridge of Newtontoppen (Source: Endre Før Gjermundsen/Spitsbergen Retraced)

One of the aims of the 1923 expedition was to summit hitherto unclimbed peaks. In the same vein, the 2016 team summitted 8 different peaks, including a number of mountains climbed by the original expedition, such as Poincarétoppen, Mount Chernishev and Mount Irvine. The students also made the first ever ascent of the West Ridge of Newtontoppen, Svalbard’s highest mountain (5,666 ft). These efforts were carried out alongside the scientific aims of the expedition, with the team remaining camped in the base camp of Loven Plateau for a week in order to pursue repeat photography and data collection.

GlacierHub caught up with two of the team members for a short interview about the expedition and what the team intends to do now that they have returned.

GlacierHub: What happens now that the expedition is over?

James Lam, team leader: Now that the expedition is over, I am working to process the data that we collected. I’m collaborating with the Earth Sciences Department in Oxford as well as UNIS and the Norwegian Polar Institute. We hope to be able to publish our findings in due course. We are currently also working with Talesmith (a London-based production company specializing in natural history) to create a film or television series about the expedition.

GH: What was one of the most memorable things about this expedition?

James attempting to recover equipment in a storm (Source: Liam Garrison/Spitsbergen Retraced)
James attempting to recover equipment in a storm (Source: Liam Garrison/Spitsbergen Retraced)

JL: One of the most memorable parts of the expedition was a storm that we were caught in for about three weeks. Despite spending five hours digging into the glacier for shelter and building six foot walls with 100 km/h gusts, it was still too windy to put up the tents, so we were forced to spend the night in a survival shelter. After nine hours huddled together in the shelter, the wind finally died down enough to be able to put up the tents. Luckily, no critical equipment was broken, and we were able to continue after a rest day.

GH: How did it feel embarking on an expedition like this, given the somewhat controversial history of exploration by the British Empire?

A note that the 1923 expedition team left in a thermometer case on the summit of Mt Chernishev (Liam Garrison/Spitsbergen Retraced)
A note that the 1923 expedition team left in a thermometer case on the summit of Mt Chernishev (Liam Garrison/Spitsbergen Retraced).

Jamie Gardiner, team historian: There is quite an anti-intellectual tendency in some quarters to indiscriminately equate the history of exploration with that of imperialism. In 1923, Svalbard was not only terra incognita but terra nulla. Accordingly, it’s rather hard to construct any kind of narrative of exploitation of native peoples. As it happens, in 1925, Britain acted as a signatory of the Svalbard Treaty, which placed Svalbard under Norwegian sovereignty. The treaty expressly forbade militarization and granted unilateral rights to mineral exploitation provided the environmental priorities enshrined were upheld. [The treaty was crafted] without first understanding what it is that is conserved. Therein the mapping of Svalbard had such a key importance.


The team will be releasing a publicly available report about their expedition, along with a documentary to share their journey with a wider audience and compare their polar narrative with that found in excerpts of three diaries from the original expedition. The trailer can be viewed here. Updates about their progress and more spectacular photographs can also be viewed on their Facebook and Twitter pages.


Photo Friday: Images from an Andean Expedition

Gustavo Valdivia, an anthropology PhD student at Johns Hopkins University, as well as a former contributor to GlacierHub, went on an expedition to Quelccaya Glacier in the Peruvian Andes this summer, led by the prominent glaciologist Lonnie Thompson. In a recent email to GlacierHub, he wrote, “In these photos, I try to document the way that a major scientific team interacts with a very specific place–the melting ice of Quelccaya, which is a component of the complex Andean mountain environment–in order to produce knowledge about a global phenomenon–climate. The fact that Quelccaya is retreating so rapidly gives urgency to their research and to my photos.”

Gustavo joined the expedition as part of his dissertation research, in which he plans to investigate how the Andes mountains are represented in the field of climate science and the degree of understanding about climate and climate change in local Andean communities. You can read more about his work here.

Many thanks to Gustavo for sharing some of his expedition photos with us:  [slideshow_deploy id=’6016′]

Salvage Science: Climate Change and Paleo-glaciology in an Andean Glacier

Explaining the expedition more fully, Gustavo writes:

In the summer of 2015 I joined Lonnie Thompson and his team from the Byrd Polar Research Center of The Ohio State University, in their expedition to the Quelccaya, the largest tropical glacier in the world, located in the Peruvian Andes. My interest to join this expedition as an anthropologist was quite simple: to produce an ethnographically grounded account of the process through which ice obtained from this glacier is processed, documented and made available for the ends of scientific climate research. To this end, I wanted to explore the methods of observation and reflection, sensing technologies, epistemological assumptions, and field practices of this very influential climate research team. Once in Quelccaya, however, I started to understand better that this team’s practices of investigation and experimentation, required much more than just their passive submission to the rigorous dictates of the so-called “scientific method”. On the contrary, the forms of scientific knowledge production that were shaped in the interaction with the melting ice of this glacier, and the complexities of the Andean environment; had to do with both scientific cultivated dispositions but also with sensory intuitions, passion and imagination.

Gustavo wrote a previous article for GlacierHub in 2014 in which he documented a summer trip to Quelccaya. During this expedition, he and an experimental musician recorded the sounds of the glacier’s ice as it melted, which you can listen to here.