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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.