The Land of the Skrælings

by matthay44

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On Tuesday my expedition teammate, Leo, and I fly from Akureyri in northern Iceland, to Greenland for our adventure into the Stauning Alps. This trip has been so long in the planning and has consumed so much of my life during the past half year that it feels surreal to be staring it down with such imminence. People keep asking me how I feel and, strangely, my nervousness and the anticipation seems largely to have evaporated. I was sure that worries about polar bears, extreme cold and falling into a crevasse would only intensify as the departure day loomed larger, but that doesn’t seem to have been the case.

Perhaps it will all hit me once I step into the tiny, 5-man plane and start flying over the Arctic pack ice to the airfield at Constable Point. More likely, I think, is that it will strike hardest at the end of my first day’s pulking (skiing with a sledge in tow), when Leo and I are bedding down in our tent in the middle of snowy nowhere and our senses are crackling with the nascent anxiety of being so remote and so alone.

The first few nights will likely be the toughest. Exhausted by pulling our sledges all day, sleep will be much needed, but the knowledge that we’re camping in the domain of polar bears always makes it hard to switch off. Every crackle of wind on the canvas and unspecified sound on the snow can set the heart pounding as your imagination runs wild with the possibilities of what’s out there. Most likely it’s nothing, maybe an arctic fox or a ptarmigan foraging for some food.

Over time, often surprisingly quickly, your body acclimatises to these risks and the constant nagging fears in the back of your mind gradually subside – you can’t stay on high alert forever, after all. But even so, I expect for both of us the first week or two will be most challenging and the most tiring. Only after this time has elapsed will we start to feel truly at home, and comfortable in our new environment.

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I’ve spent the last three weeks in Iceland, trying to rest and acclimatise before the expedition begins. The only flights to our part of eastern Greenland come from Iceland and it’s a country I’ve wanted to visit for a long time, so I thought I’d kill two birds with one volcanic stone and spend some time here en route to the Arctic. I’m very pleased that I did.

When I first arrived in Iceland it was suitably chilly, with beautiful clear, cold days turning rivers and streams to ice in front of my eyes. I was also fortunate enough to see the northern lights for the first time in my life – not just once but on four separate occasions!

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I won’t be able to do my stay in Iceland justice during this post (…it will likely get one all to itself after my return from the Arctic), but as a stepping-stone to Greenland it has been ideal. The many hot pools that pepper this island have provided wonderfully scenic spots to get some serious R&R done. Icelanders have used these geothermal baths since the Viking age, finding in them solace and warmth even during the coldest spells of winter. We know this because some of the springs feature prominently in the 12th and 13th century Icelandic Sagas.

These Sagas are themselves a wonder. Chronicling the carnage and chaos, which the original Norse Settlers endured and imbued, they provide a level of historical detail that is almost unmatched elsewhere in Europe during the so-called ‘Dark Ages’. For me, they had a particular relevance on this trip as one of the Sagas features a notorious character called Erik the Red.

Now Erik was an angry, angry man, whose tendency to murder his neighbours regularly got him into trouble. He was exiled first from Norway and then from Iceland after taking the law into his own hands a few times too many. Fearing retribution for his crimes, he fled northwest, taking his extended family with him, and became the first European to settle Greenland, a hitherto unknown entity, populated by a strange peoples the Norse called “Skrælingjar” or, in English, ‘Skrælings’.

Skrælings were members of the same ethnic groups we now refer to as the Inuit and they spread to Greenland across the ice from Arctic Canada. Eventually these tribes came into conflict with the Norse settlers further south and are likely to have been one of the reasons why the latter’s civilisation in Greenland eventually collapsed…they were simply better adapted to life in the High Arctic than their European adversaries.

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The almost mythical status that this ‘Land of the Skrælings’ held in the Norse psyche during the Saga era is clear, and in some ways Greenland still seems to have a special hold on Icelanders. Certainly, the reaction I’ve received, almost unanimously, from the locals I’ve met in the last fortnight is one of surprise and, I think, respect. People here are impressed that Leo and I are venturing into Greenland’s icy wastes for five weeks with nothing but a tent and some skis. They know all too well how harsh the elements can be in Iceland, and Greenland, their massive, ice-covered Arctic neighbour, is even colder, even more mountainous and even further north.

All of this build up has given Greenland a sort of legendary status in my mind and I think that Leo feels the same. I cannot wait to set foot there, and to get going with our expedition. But I also want to thank everyone who has helped us get to this stage. We have had an enormous amount of positivity come our way in response to this endeavour and feel extremely fortunate just to have the opportunity to partake in a trip of this nature – we are very lucky chaps!

Various friends in the U.K. will be posting news of our progress on social media as and when we are able to make contact with home. Do keep up-to-date with our goings on and spare us a thought as the weather in Blighty warms up nicely. We’ll be pulling those sledges through waist-deep snow for many weeks to come.

We also want to say a huge thank you to those that have donated towards our charitable fundraising effort. Both the organisations we’re supporting do fantastic work and their causes are close to our hearts. If you can spare any money at all, the link to our PLEDGIT campaign can be found on both our Twitter and Facebook pages (@grnlnd2018)

That’s all for now folks, wish us luck. The time for talking flippantly about the challenges that await us is over…now we have to face up to Greenland and our expedition, in all its magnitude, and justify the respect that the Icelanders have shown us.

See you on the other side.