The Red Sofa Series || Ginny Howells || Crossing the Greenland Ice Cap

Guys, I’ve been so excited for this interview for months. Through The Feral Lady Blog and my job I’ve had the incredible opportunity to meet some incredible women all just going about doing their thing. These women inspire me every damn day. So this year, through ‘The Red Sofa Series’, I wanted to bring some of these amazing women in the limelight a little bit more, and hopefully inspire you too.

*Enter Ginny*

I met Ginny through the Facebook Group ‘Outdoor Gear 4 Women’ and as soon as I had a little snoop on her page (as one does nowadays) I knew I had to meet her. She lives out in Iceland as a guide (AMAZING) and in May 2017, over 26 days and 550 km Ginny crossed the Greenland Ice Cap (EVEN MORE AMAZING). I wanted to feel her excitement, talk about her training, her motivations, how she ate, how she passed the time and what inspired her to do this trip of a lifetime in the first place. It’s a long old interview but there was no way I could condense this at all – everything she said was full of sparks. So grab a cup of tea and get comfy – Here’s ‘That one time I got to talk to the coolest woman in the world’.

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Dog Sledding in Norway

Ginny, how did you end up going on this Greenland Trip in the first place?

So I guess I’ve always been obsessed by polar travel. I was trying to convince a girl that studied with me (I studied chemistry, irrelevant to most things) to go to the South Pole with me. Her surname was Shackleton, she was eventually down the line related to the Shackletons – so I spent most of my 4 years trying to convince her to go to the South Pole with me; and she wasn’t keen, like at all. But I was convinced – I was like “Your name is Shackleton, you HAVE to come with me, this is going to be a winner!” So then when I’d just about persuaded her, another guy who’s married to a Shackleton (but not actually a Shackleton) redid the journey using different relatives and I was like “Dammit, that’s my chance gone”; but this idea persisted and I ended up getting more into my climbing, mountaineering and started doing more winter mountaineering stuff in the few years after university.

I then ended up becoming a humanitarian for Save the Children; so I did lots of the recent refugee work around Europe. Through that I ended up going on this bizarre training course in Kenya (I was also working in hot places at this time like Madagascar so cold stuff and polar travel was right in the back of my mind) where I met, now a really good friend of mine called Kieron. So this training course is one where they pretend to shoot at you and don’t feed you for a while and put you under insane stress to simulate what the first phase in an emergency response would be like. So we were both sat up at like 3 am because we were both on night watch, trying to get this generator to work and we just ended up chatting (more to just kinda keep you awake) about stuff we wanted to do and at that point we were both like “North Pole” or some other polar expedition; and I was like “shake on it. You’ve only met me like 2 days ago, but this shake means we’re doing this and that is like, IT” and he agreed to it, but I don’t think he really believed me. Then as soon as we got back I went straight into planning mode. So we started properly researching polar expeditions and looked at The North Pole, South Pole and Greenland – Those are the three big crossings of ice caps.

The North Pole was super expensive – as was The South Pole. Greenland was quite expensive but doable – so that’s when we turned our attention to Greenland. So this is now going back about three years and we looked into winter training courses and the logistics of what we actually had to do to be able to ski across Greenland. The original plan was that we were just going to do it ourselves, west to east; but we ended up joining a group and doing it that way.

We did a winter training course up in the Cairn Gorms and then Kieron was deployed to South Sudan. At the same time I ended up pretty much solely managing the Calais Refugee stuff and so it was just… insane. We managed to book out 11 days (2016) where we both learnt to cross country ski with these guys in Norway called Petter and Geir – and they were amazing. They took us under their wing, taught us how to ski and we just had 11 days of doing a mini expedition. That’s when we realised that 1. We absolutely loved it and 2. There was no way in hell that we’d be ready to do our own expedition by May this year. Not only because we didn’t have enough time to put into it, but also because logistically and insurance-wise you can’t do it yourself any more. The Greenland/Danish Government had put a stop on being able to get a license to ski across unless you’re backed up by various teams. So the only way you can do it now is to be associated with an organisation anyway. So we reassessed our plans and joined a team that was already doing it – and I’m actually really glad we did because we met some amazing people.

 

Was it easy to find a team?

Yeah, so there’s a guy called Borge Ousland who’s this Norwegian Explorer – we haven’t really heard much about him in the UK but in Norway he’s a big ass deal. Petter (the guy who I did the training with) knew him so he put us in touch with him and his company and we ended up booking on to one of their spring crossings.

I then realised that I only had about 11 days’ worth of cross country skiing in my life up until that point, which is probably not enough to try and ski across Greenland. So I decided to quit my job at Save the Children; I left them at the beginning of January, and Petter hooked me up with this woman called Bodil, who’s this utterly awesome, extreme badass woman who owns Husky kennels in Norway. So for board and lodging, Kieron and I moved there in January which meant that we could learn to dogsled – I love Norway because there are hardly any strict health and safety rules; She was just like “Here’s some dogs, here’s a sled and now you will lead trips” – She probably just thought “Eegh, you guys kinda know what you’re doing… you can cope with the cold, you’ll be fine.” So through that we ended up being dogsledding guides for a winter, but also we could ski straight out the door and up the mountains. So we spend 3 months solidly skiing and training.

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Dog Sledding in Norway

Had you done any of your guiding qualifications by this point?

No. Not at all. No idea. You don’t have to in Norway. Or in Greenland. Or as it turns out, really in Iceland. So we just hopped on some sleds and we were just… off.

So it was here that I mastered downhill skiing on cross country skis (because I just spent the first 11 days just basically falling over). The first time I put on these cross country skis I fell over putting on my first ski and then I fell over putting on my second ski and I could see Geir, who looks like a Norwegian Santa Claus, just thinking “this is going to be a long 11 days” as he yanked me up – but I got there in the end. By the end of it I could go downhill and not fall flat on my face, which is always good (and now whenever I go downhill I hear him in my head just going “Relax, relax, relax” and that’s how you get downhill!).

 

Did you do much physical training before you went?

I left Norway at the end of April, drove to Copenhagen and flew out to Greenland. We’d done a bunch of training as well; my mum (who’s an epic woman), set me up a training plan, and I’d driven out in the January with my car stacked up with weights and Pilates bands and all sorts, so I was fairly hench by the time I got to Greenland which is pretty cool. I think it’s the fittest I’ve ever been apart from now.

 

So paint the scene for me… You land in Greenland and…?

We flew in to Kangerlussuaq on the west coast – It’s basically just an airport and a bunch of weird lodges that are full of people trying to ski across Greenland or people that go and do one day tours on the ice cap. It’s this weird combination of people who have just come to look at a little bit of Greenland and people that are doing the crossing.

So we got there about 3-4 days early, but some people were arriving right before we were due to leave. By this point none of the food had arrived yet, which is not ideal. So we pushed the trip back by a day because of the weather and the lack of food; but that meant that we had these 4 days which were supposed to be spent packing our kit where we were just hanging around instead, because we had nothing to pack. Most of the kit we took was food and fuel. With the fuel as well, we basically just drove around until someone told us they could see us some!

What I loved about this trip the most though was that there were 4 or 5 teams all heading out around about the same time as us – and we looked like Dads Army. We were all varying in ages – The oldest guys was 67 and I was the youngest (28) and we were all in mismatched kit. So I had this jacket from the 80’s (I bought all my kit online) and we had these shitty little black and orange sleds. Whereas the other teams were all so cool; they were all wearing the top brands and all matching with these fancy sleds that cost upwards of $1000. So we looked like we’d just rolled out of bed compared to them. Our guides had duct tape covering the holes in their jackets – but that’s kinda what you want because it shows they’ve actually done something.

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So did you take all of your food for the 26 days or did you have replenishment points?

I think we carried enough food for 28-30 days. It mainly consisted of this special secret porridge recipe for the mornings – which was basically just oats, oil and a bunch of other stuff chucked in to make it more calorific; and then we had the boil in a bag meals for the evening and a noodle cup-of-soup thing for lunch. We didn’t really have much lunch because you’d ski for an hour and then you’d have a 10 minute break where you’d basically just scoff food. This consisted of dried reindeer biltong, chocolate, crisps, sweets, biscuits, nuts and dried fruit – just calories. I ended up mixing all of mine in one bag and just shovelling handfuls of food in (so it would be a mixture of reindeer and chocolate and all sorts) – which I didn’t mind; but the others kept all theirs separate. Then we’d have an hours break in the middle of the day for noodles and what not. If it was good weather then we’d sit out on the sleds and nap (there was a lot of napping), or we’d put the tent up if it was shit weather.

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So what sort of mileage did you cover in a day?

We took it super chilled; so the first few days we barely covered any miles and fewer legs (maybe 6?) and by the end of it we were doing maybe three kilometres an hour and many more legs (about 9 – 10 legs). We got much fitter towards the end.

 

What were you carrying in your sleds?

All of your food, your personal equipment and minimal spare clothes (I had a massive down jacket and a smaller down jacket that I wore quite a lot, some baselayers and like 3 pairs of pants… and that was basically it. Your fuel, your stove, spare skins for your skis and tent stuff would be spilt between the pair of you. Oh, and a snow shovel. Our tents had these little skirts at the end, so you pile the snow up – they were double poled so you can build snow walls around them if you need to withstand a blizzard.

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Did you have a chance to wash inbetween?

No not really… we just rolled around in the snow. I’m also feral so I don’t really care at all.

 

Did you hear any horror stories before you went?

There was this guy a few years ago, who was a friend of a friend, who was on a charity expedition across Greenland (I didn’t let my mother read this story before I went) and a guy on his expedition died because they got caught in a pieter storm and the tent got crushed. But you never know what happened on someone else’s trip or what they could have done or not done – you just don’t know because it’s their trip. So I was thinking about that quite a lot whenever  I was digging my tent down into the snow and building snow walls – but I was completely confident that our kit was good enough and that we all knew what we were doing.

 

So talk me through a little bit about the day to day routine.

So you get into a routine. We each took it in turns navigating so it didn’t feel like we were being guided across, because essentially we all did everything for ourselves. On the trip we were on you can’t slack off; there’s no one else to carry your stuff or set up your tent – you do all of that for yourself. So if you accidentally close your tent up and gas yourself well then that’s all on you; no one’s going to come and check on you, it’s not that kind of trip. There are some trips you can go on where the guides will ski ahead and set up camp, but we were in an ‘everyone pulls their own weight’ team. I mean, there are some days where you’d carry someone else’s tent for them because they were struggling, but essentially you just sort your shit out.img_3190

Were you the only woman?

I was!

 

Were the guys pretty good about toilet situations?

Yeah, they just didn’t really care – and to be fair, neither did I. You just go quickly because it’s really cold. Though, that being said I actually spent the majority of my time being too hot – I ended up skiing in just baselayers most days. I did end up with frost-nip on my hips one day though, but most of the time I was too hot because you’re skiing in the direct sunlight – my face was constantly burnt.

 

So was it completely barren?

Yep – I loved it because it’s just completely white. The first day you have to go up through the ice fall, so for the first couple of kilometres you have to carry your sled on your back; and then the last couple of days you’re coming down off the ice, back towards the sea and skiing on to the sea ice – and then we were picked up by a boat that could get in close enough – but other than that there’s not much else.

Some days you’re skiing and it’s just a white out – it’s like being inside a golf ball. I got really disorientated and almost fell over because I couldn’t tell what was upright or not; but that was really common. Sometimes you’d get it where you’d be skiing along and you wouldn’t know if you were standing up or lying down. Other days you’d have a white horizon and blue skies, but you could see little bits of shapes in the snow – because you’d be trying to navigate but you have nothing to pin your bearing on.

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How did you navigate in white out conditions and being so disorientated you couldn’t tell which way was up?

When it was completely white out conditions we had this kinda contraption that stuck out from your chest and had your compass on and you just had to keep on a bearing. You could use things like the sun if it was out, use your shadow, use the line of people behind you (assuming they were being good and staying behind you) – so if they’re still straight, you’re still straight. If it was a nice, bright day you could try and use little lumps in the snow ahead of you – just pick one and ski at it kinda thing. Then coming off the ice on the last couple of days there were more patterns in the snow and the ice and it was like going from black and white to technicolour vision – your brain just starts noticing patterns in the snow. Whereas if I saw them now I wouldn’t even really look at them; but at the time they were incredible because we’d seen nothing for 26 days.

 

How do you keep the morale up? You must just have days where you’re like “I’m sick of this, I’m sick of you, I’m out.”

I actually loved it. If someone reloaded me with food and fuel then I would have turned around and done the whole thing again. A lot of the guys listened to music; one of the guys who was with us, his girlfriend had gotten all his friends to pick a song and do a little intro to the song – which was really good for him. I had a little book that my friend Rebecca had given me – she’d written me loads of quotes and epic stuff. So I memorised the poem ‘Invictus’ and I’d just shout that to myself as I was skiing. I also read a few books on my phone; but most of the time I was just in thought (it was a bit like meditation). You’re doing this really physical task, all you have to do is put one foot in front of the other and your brain just goes mad. Well mine does anyway – I ended up writing a bunch of random poetry, which was fun. I’d probably write a poem and hour. All I had with me whilst I was skiing was my phone so I’d write them on there.

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And the battery was okay? Wasn’t it freezing?

Yes! I had a little solar charger on me that I kept on the back of my sled. If it died because of the cold I would just stick it in my bra, let it warm up and it would be fine again.

 

Which piece of kit did you value having the most?

Weirdly, I had this buff thing. Now, it hadn’t occurred to me to pack a sleeping mask (because it’s now 24 hour day light), so I ended up sleeping at night with this buff over my eyes as a sleeping mask. I didn’t actually wear it during the day because it was irritating; but that was the most useful bit of kit because it meant that I actually got some decent sleep each night.

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Did you take anything that you didn’t use?

I think that because I’d done the 11 day training course and then spent so long staring at my kit I didn’t really take anything that I didn’t need. Oh, except these mesh baselayers – I’d bought them before I started training and saved them for my Greenland trip. I didn’t wear them whilst I was in Norway at all, so when I came to try them on again they felt a bit too small. So I ended up taking a synthetic baselayer set instead and not really wearing the other ones because they weren’t that comfortable.

I did have quite a lot of food and fuel left over. We probably would have used more fuel if the weather was worse and we’d had to dry stuff in our tents, but we actually had really good weather. I made notes about what I’d do for my next polar expedition and I think I could survive on less food. I had a very comfortable amount of food with me on this trip – I actually made a cheesecake on day 5. I didn’t realise that I accidently had all the ingredients to make a cheesecake. I’d chosen cream cheese as my luxury item, then I had a load of digestive biscuits too; I’d also brought this weird packet of pudding mix, thinking I could just add water and make a pudding as a surprise one night – but instead I just added cream cheese to that and made a whole cheesecake.

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Making cheesecake!

Was there anything that you didn’t have that you’d take next time?

Some people had these little booties to wear around the camp and I was so jealous because all I had were my mountaineering boots – I’d definitely take those next time.

 

How much time did you have at the end of the day to set up camp?

I felt like we had loads of time, but that also because we were in constant daylight.  We’d finish skiing at about 5/6pm at the latest. By the end of it we were really smooth and we could have to camp up in about 10 minutes, then you had the rest of the evening to just chill.

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How much did it cost you all together?

Well I then lived in Greenland for 3 months. So with that, the kit, the courses and the expedition it all probably came to between £10,000 – £15,000. There are always ways you can find to make it cheaper though – you can buy good kit off eBay and I lived for free in Norway because I worked for Bodil.

 

So what advice would you give to the person who reads this interview and goes “Oh my God, in a year or two that could be me.”

I think the main thing I took away from it was that anyone can do it. We were a complete montley crew on that expedition, and if anyone wants to do it they can do it – you literally just have to walk. Some people hadn’t even skied before they got to Greenland – I would suggest that you ski a bit before you go there. You just have to actually decide to 1, save the money and 2, take the time out, commit and do it. Physically and mentally though I think just about anyone can do it. I just think that people don’t realise what they’re actually capable of. Also, doing a couple of courses (which aren’t actually that expensive) will just give you tonnes of confidence.

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Ginny’s Instagram is packed full of amazing photos of her life, her job and her incredible adventures. Go check her out if you need a bit of inspiration @ginnyamanda

Ginny has since set up her own company called Wild Greenland – It’s still in the early stages but she’ll be looking at running her own tours and crossing from the middle of this year. If you think this could be your kinda thing in the future them hit her up at adventure@wildgreenland.com or www.wildgreenland.com (I know I will be).

If you’re ever in Norway and you want to check out Bodil’s Husky Kennels then have a look at www.huskyadventure.no and whilst you’re there you should probably jump on that course with Petter and Geir at https://arctic-training.com

And of course, the company that Ginny went to Greenland with is www.ousland.no

As usual, if you have any questions then fire me an email or leave me a comment in the section below. Also, if you know a badass feral lady (maybe it’s you – that’s great! Be your own loudest cheerleader!) who has a badass story to tell then let me know and help me get their stories out!

Thanks Guys

H

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