Teething problems with kite skis and gale-force winds have reminded a bruised but relentlessly positive Adrian Hayes and his battered teammates that on their latest expedition they are always only a harness-break away from serious injury.
The Dubai-based polar explorer and his two teammates, Devon McDiarmid and Derek Crowe, are attempting to make history by traversing an uncharted 3,500 km route across the world's second largest ice sheet, unsupported. If successful, the journey, which takes them across Greenland from the Atlantic Ocean in the south to the Arctic Ocean in the north, will become the longest unassisted Arctic expedition.
On day four of their estimated 65-day journey, last Saturday, the team's strength was severely tested when they used their kites for the first time. Speaking to The National by satellite phone yesterday, Hayes said they had since re-named the "parawings" - a cross between a kite sail and a windsurfer, designed to be used in strong winds - "scary wings" because of the lack of control users have over the direction they are taken in. "We tried the kites out on day two or three but it was howling and we were just collapsing," he said. "We couldn't move the sleds. It was chaos. So on day four we got them out proper and had high-speed crashes, airborne visits - I think Devon went up 10 feet in the air and realised he was basically flying."
In one particularly harrowing episode Hayes was caught in a gust that sent the kite spinning eastward toward Iceland, causing his harness to snap and the kite to break free. "It went flying off into the ice," he said, "so Devon took off his packing and sled and went launching after it for what seemed about five kilometres, but was probably only about 400 metres. After that we decided to call it a day. These are the strongest things we've got, and if we are out of control in these then it's time to call it a day."
In the first eight days the team has covered just 134 km of the journey. Volatile weather conditions - namely varying wind speed and direction - make any sort of schedule impossible to maintain. From their tent yesterday morning, under blue skies and in temperatures of -12° C, Hayes surveyed the icy mountain ahead of them. "The wind was blowing in the night, but it's dying down and the forecast is pretty flat today and tomorrow," he explained. "This is the whole dilemma - do you walk for a day and cover 15 or 20 km or do you just rest and wait until the good winds come and keep going?"
Over the weeks ahead the team plans to make up the hours whenever the winds allow - kiting for nine or 10 hours when possible - and when they reach 24 hours of sun, the light becomes 24-hour sun, they just keep going, stopping only for dinner. Despite progress being slow, and waking up stiff and sore with frost-bite already appearing on his nose, Mr Hayes and his Canadian teammates are upbeat. "For the first week you are getting used to expedition mode, sleeping on hard ground and getting into the routine, and then after that you get everything sorted out," he said.
"We always knew this first quarter would be the hardest of the trip, and it's important we keep that in mind and keep plodding on until we reach the high point, get the downhills and the good winds and make up ground." So far, he notes, the main difference between this expedition and his previous trips to the north and south poles is the constant drone of planes passing overhead. Greenland is under the path of many flights between Europe and the United States. "When you see them you can't help but think of people slipping into a nice movie, with nice food and a glass of wine and all the rest of it," he laughed. "And here we are with our freeze-dried rations battling the elements."