tackling frozen lakes and mountain passes on Greenland's Arctic Circle Trail

Photography by HER Planet Earth & Sandra Lim

There is no doubt about it, traversing the full length of Greenland’s Arctic Circle Trail in the depths of winter on a bike was one of the most extraordinary and unique experiences of my life. The journey saw my HER Planet Earth team and me push our limits and reach the brink of exhaustion on multiple occasions as, in extreme conditions, we crossed one of the most awe-inspiring and remote places I’ve ever witnessed.

Indeed, they say that if you have the opportunity to do something amazing in your life, you should invite someone along. As I researched to find the right challenge, what started out as a dream over a year and half ago, soon became a reality as I recruited like-minded adventurous women to join me. The goal of this pioneering expedition was to raise awareness and funds (a team total of 50,000 Singapore Dollars) for underprivileged women affected by climate change in Asia.

I chose Greenland because after trekking in Siberia and Antarctica, I knew I had to seek out this last final frontier, a faraway land located between the Arctic and Atlantic oceans, east of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. Greenland is 80% covered in ice, and its glaciers are contributing to a rise in the global sea level faster than was previously believed. As this accelerates, many coastal cities will be affected and, given their population, economic activity and landmass, Asian cities will be hit much harder than most others. Many of the processes that control sea-level rise are amplified in Asia. As a result, about four out of every five people impacted by sea-level rise by 2050 will live in East or South-East Asia.

The Journey

Stepping off the plane in Kangerlussuaq, a small town in western Greenland with a population of a few hundred people feels like we’ve landed at the very edge of one of humanity’s last settlement. It’s minus 33°C and hits me in the face instantly. The dry air fills my nostrils and lungs, it’s as if I’m inhaling ice particles freezing me from the inside out.

Welcoming us at the tiny airport terminal is no less than a giant of a man, Bo Lings. Standing in front of us with a warm, toothy smile, the full length of his impressive two-metre muscular physique. The Greenlander is quite literally the largest man I have ever shaken hands with. Immediately, he inspires a deep sense of confidence and calm in our team. We understand we are in very good hands and even though we have only just met him, I am fairly certain that we would follow him anywhere if he asked, without question.

After a short drive from the airport, we check into our shelter for the night, which looks more like an army barracks than a hotel and we change excitedly into our biking clothes. This is the moment we’ve all been waiting for these past few months. We pull on layer upon layer: thermals, fleeces, soft shell jackets, windproof jackets, balaclavas, inner gloves, outer gloves, woollen socks, insulated boots, helmets and goggles. The list of items is interminable, yet each piece has a precise function, necessary to safeguard us from the Arctic conditions out there.

We collect our fatbikes – off-road bikes with oversized tires that are designed for low ground pressure to allow riding on soft, unstable terrain. We adjust our saddles and install our pogies – jumbo mittens that fit over the handlebars for added warmth – and by the time we arrive by bus at the foot of the Russell Glacier, the starting point of our 200km journey, it’s already 4pm and a sobering minus 35°C.

The glacier is magnificent, a sharp contrast to the surrounding land and icescapes. With an impressive, jagged ice wall that reaches 60 metres in parts, it stands before us against the deep blue sky like a white giant with turquoise cracks and crevasses.

“These structures can calve and break at any time,” shares Bo. “Therefore it is important we remain at a safe distance from the glacier.”

I take in the view, but my mind is on the biking. We have 26km to ride back to our shelter for the night. This should be a piece of cake, right? Wrong. From the first few pedal strokes, I realise it’s going to be a real struggle. The snow around the glacier is powdery, thick and slippery, so we skid, swerve and fall multiple times like clumsy circus clowns, before finding our footing. It’s not a good start.

The cold is daunting this late in the day, and as the wind picks up, minus 35°C feels more like minus 43ºC. When not pedalling, we really feel it in our bones and in our extremities. Luckily, after some time, we hit harder snow on the dirt road, which is much easier to pedal on, and finally, we pick up speed and settle into a good pace – and with that comes more body heat.

That first day, we cycle up and down over the rolling hills for what seems like an eternity. Soon, the sun sets and the temperature plummets. We notice the team is quite spread out. Everyone is finding their own pace, getting used to the snow, the bikes and taking it all in. Thankfully, despite the growing darkness, there is a beautiful full moon welcoming us to Greenland on our first evening. This means the path is still visible. We take off our goggles. Ice forms on our eyelashes and around our balaclavas because our breath connects with the cold and wind around our faces. Finally, four long hours later, just before 8pm, we reach our shelter for the night.

We are spent. We thought this would be a warm-up day, instead with the jet-lag and no lunch, this first leg was intense and draining. Many of us have been up since 4 or 5 AM Copenhagen time, which is four hours ahead of Greenland, but really, most of us are still on Asia-time, eleven hours ahead.

Tomorrow we have 60km on the itinerary, and there will be no road this time. Just a path in the snow. That evening after a hearty meal, we crash into our beds exhausted, wondering, with some apprehension, what tomorrow will bring.

The next day is a killer, tougher than we ever imagined, but we survive it – just. We cycle our hearts out to the brink of exhaustion and reach our hut in complete darkness. After ten hours out in the cold with just our thoughts in our heads for company, we advance across this interminable white desert and arrive shattered, cold and wet.

Every bone and muscle in our body hurts. This was the day that never ended as we continually longed for Bo’s support vehicle to appear in the horizon, with some hot tea or soup, to give us hope, a much-needed boost of energy, and words of encouragement. During those precious breaks, it was important never to stop for long, because despite the added down jacket we quickly throw on, we got too cold, too fast.

That night at the hut, we sleep like the dead.

The next morning at dawn, we wake to the howling of dogs outside our cabin. They arrived the night before at the helm of a sled piloted by a local Inuit couple. Inuit are the indigenous people of Greenland who make-up 90% of the population and who originally migrated from Alaska through Northern Canada.

After breakfast, we get on our bikes and start across a vast frozen lake. Our expedition guide Paul from Secret Compass, an ex- British military officer who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, reminds us: Be bold, start cold! Not too many layers, ladies! Advice that is not easy to follow stepping out from the warmth of the hut, into the glacial morning air.

We cycle in silence for a couple hours across the lake. The clouds are low and visibility is poor. We focus on the person’s tracks ahead of us, and in those instances of deep concentration, it’s easy to think of absolutely nothing and just simply be present in the moment. Then, as we reach the other side of the lake, we begin to climb towards a mountain pass, sometimes getting off our bikes to push when it gets very steep in parts.

Getting up mountain passes while pushing a 13kg fatbike, carrying a 6kg pack and breathing through a balaclava is an exhausting job. To encourage myself when I get dog-tired, I count fifty paces in my head, then stop to catch my breath, then start again to break down the task is smaller bits. Once on top, we are always rewarded with breath-taking views. The valleys and frozen lakes below are spectacular, like nothing I have ever seen. Furthermore, from these heights, the downhills are formidable, a much-deserved reward after the long and hard slogs. Descending a snowy trail at full speed on a fatbike, with towering mountains all around in the remote wilderness of Greenland, makes me feel more alive than I have in a long time.

The next four days vary in distances from 22km to 33km each day. Some days are harder than others, but after the 60km leg, we feel we can tackle anything. The journey unfolds and we make good progress. Each day we push our limits even further as we battle extreme and bitter cold conditions, with temperatures ranging from minus 20°C to minus 40°C.

We ride on all types of terrain, from hard packed and powdery snow, to ice, mud and rock. The days on the trail are long and tiring, with no shelter from the cold and wind for up to eight hours each day. Despite the gruelling conditions, the esprit de corps is strong. The team looks after one another with kindness and compassion. We encourage each other, make each other laugh, a lot. The faster ones learn to slow down, to wait for those who are catching up. The team is tight, and gradually becomes a high-functioning unit. The extreme conditions emphasise the importance of looking after each other – there is no room for mistakes or complacency, the risk of frostbite is all too high. We discipline ourselves to stay close together despite the different biking paces.

The last day seems like one of the hardest physically. We are so close to our goal yet still so far, and even though we are looking forward to a warm bed and a hot shower, there is a sadness in our hearts as it feels like the journey has come to an end so soon.

The snow has changed and gotten softer, more slippery as we approach the coast. The sky is grey, visibility is very limited, once again. We see nothing and need to stay concentrated. There is a very steep ascent to start, and the first few hours are difficult and slow. The descent after that is tricky and we experience many falls and wipe-outs, but we are determined to be cautious, so as not to break any bones, so close to our finish line.

By mid-afternoon, we finally ride into the coastal fishing town of Sisimiut. With a population of 5,500 people, it’s the second largest city in Greenland. Suddenly we are back to civilisation. It’s a strange feeling after these days in the vast, white emptiness of the Arctic Trail. There are cars, snowmobiles, dog sleds, people walking in the snowy streets, staring at our convoy of bikes.

We arrive at Bo’s warehouse and suddenly realise… that’s it. We did it!

We get off our bikes and start to celebrate and embrace each other, overwhelmed with emotion, perhaps even relief. It’s been one of our most difficult challenges. We were travelling as a team, yet most of the time, we were alone in our thoughts, behind our goggles and our balaclavas.

The sense of happiness and achievement is palpable, and our eyes fill with tears of joy. We are the first all-female team to connect the Russell Glacier with the western coast of the world’s biggest island, by bike. Yet it is the experience as a team that bonds us, more than the achievement itself.

There is no doubt that Greenland’s savage beauty has changed us forever. This land so wild and remote has a fragility to it that is calling us to wake up to a new world reality. We are all connected to it somehow and our destiny seems interlinked to its survival. Nations, like individuals, come to light in times of crisis. Indeed, what happens in the Arctic, does not stay in the Arctic, but will surely shape humanity’s future and survival. Possibly sooner than we think. The question is whether each of us will do our part to safeguard our planet and its most vulnerable, or simply be a bystander.