How to plan an expedition – Getting off the ground

Posts from this series will appear on both the blogs of nansen2020.org and teamfram.org.

For the past few months, we have been working behind the scenes on our next big thing. Since you’re reading about it on our new website, you know already that we are going to cross Greenland without resupplies and using only human power, following the original Nansen route in 2020. Now where our Hardangervidda trip was basically just Lauren and me flying to Norway to ski for a bit, this one is going to be a proper big expedition. We are putting a team together, working with various research partners, and raising money for charity with the trip. In other words, this is going to be a lot more organising work than our Norway expedition. But how do you get something like this off the ground?

Plan early

Lauren and I made plans to cross Greenland in 2020 in summer last year already, over two years before we actually wanted to set out. There are quite a few different ways to do a Greenland crossing. You can go east to west or west to east. You can have multiple different start or endpoints, and there are several proven routes available for you to follow. One advice we took to heart is to start out by looking what your ideal trip is, and not to care much about the time or money required. A polar expedition of this scale is a once in a lifetime experience for most of us, and you really don’t want to look back in 20 years thinking “if only I had spent those 2 grand extra to get what I really wanted instead of cutting corners”. With Fridtjof Nansen being my personal hero, my dream has been following the historic route of his first crossing of Greenland in 1888 since I got into adventuring. So we decided we would follow that route, from east to west, in autumn of 2020.

Once we knew what we wanted to do, we started working on training requirements and preparing our spouses and workplaces for the roughly two months we would be away. Do not underestimate the time it takes to get all these necessary prerequisites sorted. Half a year goes by very fast if you’re not working on planning full-time, and on something like this, you want things sorted early rather than last minute.

Talk to the experts

As wannabe Polar explorers, the more we were thinking about our plans, the more questions we began to have. How much of a threat are Polar bears really? How long does it take to get an expedition permit in Greenland? Why can’t we go east-west in spring? What of our equipment will we need to overhaul? How technical will the climb up the glacier be? It is perfectly natural to not have an answer right away to all those questions, but it is crucial to write them all down. The good thing about the Polar community is – in our experience – that people are incredibly helpful and welcoming of newcomers like ourselves. We decided to make use of that on the one occasion, where probably the most Polar experience is gathered in one place for a weekend: the Expedition Finse festival. If you take only one thing away from this article, let it be this: when planning a Polar expedition, go to the Expedition Finse festival and talk to as many people as possible about your plans.

Lou Rudd, Wendy Searly and Team Fram in Finse.

We came away from the weekend this February with many of our questions answered and great insights provided by amazing people such as Hannah McKeand, Lou Rudd, Lars Ebbesen, Bengt Romo, Thorleif Thorleifsson, Wendy Searle and countless others. When planning an expedition yourself, it is absolutely paramount that you know the answers to all your questions, as small as they may seem. When you are uncertain about why you decided to plan in a certain way, you will always end up second-guessing your own decision. Knowing those details becomes very important to convince yourself and your team that you have prepared the best possible way.

Get a fixer

Compared to a Hardangervidda crossing, where you can just fly in and go there by train, planning an expedition in Greenland involves quite a lot of paperwork. You need to obtain an expedition permit, which is tied to specific criteria you have to fulfil. You will likely have to charter helicopter flights to get you around in Greenland. You will have to plan ahead for accommodation and what supplies you can purchase locally and what you have to bring. All this can seem overwhelming if you’ve never done it before, like us. Luckily, there is one easy answer: get a fixer. A fixer is someone who professionally plans expeditions. They will have a lot of practice in what you ask them to do and will have useful contacts making your life easier. They can also provide you with weather updates and generally be your lifeline to the outside world once you are on the ice.

How do you get a fixer? Well, in our case, the answer was again the Expedition Finse festival. After chatting to a few people and sending several emails back and forth, we were sitting at a table with Lars Ebbesen, talking about our plans. Lars has 40 years of expedition planning experience and has done eleven Greenland expeditions himself, so he really knows what he’s talking about. Plus, his philosophy of running expeditions really aligns with ours. When putting together a team, and the fixer is part of the team, one of the most important things is to get people who want to do things the same way you do. If you’re going to go on a trip enjoying the outdoors, you won’t have a good time with someone who wants to break a speed record. We will cover team selection in a later blog post in greater detail.

I hope this post helps you to get an idea of how to get a big project like our Nansen2020 expedition off the ground. There will be more posts in this series as we go along with organising our expedition. Stay tuned!