A sudden blast of wind hit the three kite-skiers on the southeastern edge of Greenland’s forbidding ice sheet. As their kites rapidly billowed out, Sarah McNair-Landry tried to release the safety latch from the harness around her waist, but it got stuck. The gust yanked her 20 feet into the air, and just as quickly, dropped her headfirst onto the ice, cracking her helmet and knocking her unconscious for a frightening few minutes.
Once she came to and found that she could move more or less normally, she and her expedition partners Erik Boomer and Ben Stookesberry—all three are past National Geographic Adventurers of the Year—had some hard decisions to make. Should they call for a helicopter to evacuate her? What if her injuries were minor and they wasted days and resources for nothing? Could they risk simply moving forward?
“It was difficult to know what to do, because we didn’t know what was wrong at the time,” she says.
McNair-Landry, 30, an expert polar explorer and guide who was born and raised on Baffin Island in Nunavut, Canada, decided they would forge ahead on their epic quest to traverse the Greenland ice sheet by kite-ski and paddle the first descent of a massive river.
“Our main goal was to see if it was possible to use kite-skiing to get from the east coast to the west coast. We wanted to test a new, creative way to reach these unknown areas to discover these super-remote northern rivers,” says McNair-Landry, who completed the first traverse of the Northwest Passage by kite-ski with her brother, Eric, in 2011. “You’ve got these amazing winds and conditions in Greenland. You can travel so much faster and farther, especially while pulling sleds, than you would if you were just skiing—150 kilometers on some days versus 20 or 30 kilometers max.”
To plan their route, Boomer, 31, and Stookesberry, 38, two of the world’s top professional kayakers, studied Google Earth satellite images of Greenland’s rugged coastline and looked for the deep blue streaks on the landscape that indicated large river canyons. They located two connected rivers, which they dubbed the Twin Galaxies, in western Greenland that appeared to flow from the edge of the ice sheet to Baffin Bay.
Once they reached Greenland on August 7, the team planned to hike up and onto the ice, ski almost 600 miles across the sheet with the aid of the sail-like kites (which also made pulling their kayaks and supplies easier), and descend from the ice in kayaks over virgin white water.
On the first day they unfurled the kites, McNair-Landry suffered the knock on her head. While she took it easy for a few days, Stookesberry had more time to perfect his kite-skiing technique.
“I was using muscles that were certainly not used to eight or 16 hours a day of sustained work,” Stookesberry says. “The learning curve was extremely steep by necessity, but owing to the ideal flat terrain, after a week I felt competent beyond my expectations … I owe that to the ‘on-the-job training’ that I had received from Sarah, an extremely accomplished expedition kiter, and her top protégé Boomer.”
The team chose to travel in summer so the meltwater river would be at peak flow, but the warmer months turn the ice sheet’s surface into slush. (Most explorers travel in Greenland in winter, when the ice sheet is thick and solid.) They endured soaking rains and below freezing windchill at more than 4,000 feet above sea level, which sapped their energy. Several times, they encountered fields of deep crevasses that forced them to backtrack and zigzag their route to find a safe passage.
“That was a real leap of faith for us,” Boomer says. “We trusted Sarah that we would be able to find a route through the crevasses and the glaciers. That was the real crux of the whole thing. We just put Sarah in front and tied a rope to her and followed her.”
To keep their spirits up, Stookesberry sang the greatest hits of the 1980s. “Who doesn't like a little Phil Collins, ‘I’m Still Standing,’ or even the Dirty Dancing soundtrack’s ‘Time of My Life,’ especially if the wind is right and the kite just pulled you 600 miles across Greenland?” he laughs.
Other terrain was far from smooth: At the western edge of the ice cap, after they’d kite-skied nearly 600 miles across rough and frozen ground, the team came to a field of tall rounded bumps they called moguls (because they resembled the ski-resort snow formations).
“This ice melts and refreezes every year, forming 10-foot-high moguls in some places, and these cracks get deeper and deeper,” Boomer says. “You’re just going up and then down over really terrible and difficult terrain for pulling a load across. We were really, really ready to get in the river at that point.”
That was a real leap of faith for us. We just put Sarah in front and tied a rope to her and followed her.
To escape the mogul field, the team rappelled into an ice canyon—a natural chasm formed by an icy river—which they hoped would lead them to the headwaters of the Twin Galaxies. In some parts the water was deep enough that they could get into their kayaks and paddle, but in other areas, they had to don their dry suits and walk on thin ice covering the stream.
“Under that was three feet of really cold water and more layers of ice,” Boomer recalls. “It was better than the moguls, though.” When they exited the ice canyon seven miles later, they put their feet on terra firma for the first time in 32 days.
The team had finally reached the penultimate challenge of the expedition: descending the massive, churning river that Boomer says surprised them with its scale. Fed by meltwater from the surrounding glaciers, the river twisted and dropped over ancient bedrock, forming waterfalls and rapids as it coursed through a rocky canyon surrounded by 6,000-foot mountains.
“Real life compared to the satellite image was a little different,” he says. “We were totally surprised that the first waterfall in the river didn’t show up on any of the imagery, probably because it was underwater or maybe covered in ice. The ice had broken away and left this really fun, spectacular cascading waterfall, just right off the bat.”
As Boomer, Stookesberry, and McNair-Landry hauled their gear downstream to their endpoint, the paddlers had plenty of time to assess the river’s route and plan their descent. “There were three or four near-hundred-foot waterfalls that we didn’t want any part of and big canyons in there, but there were three really notable waterfalls that we did get to run, and a good Class IV section,” Boomer says.
While McNair-Landry paddled the easier sections with Boomer and Stookesberry, only the latter two ran the waterfalls and rapids. “It gave us everything we wanted and even a little more,” Boomer says. “I was just kind of pinching myself the whole time, because we’d been on such a long journey wondering if we’d even have water at the end.”
The team completed the 46-day expedition on September 21 and dispersed to their respective base camps: McNair-Landry to Baffin Island, Boomer to Idaho, and Stookesberry to northern California.
In October, McNair-Landry found out that the kite-ski accident was more serious than they knew during the expedition: She had cracked a vertebra in her back. She will need to undergo more x-rays in the coming weeks to make sure the bone is healing properly.
“Knowing what we know now [about the accident], the fact that Sarah not only finished but thrived on a mission of that magnitude is one of the most courageous and impressive acts of overcoming adversity that I have ever seen,” Stookesberry says.
Despite the injury, McNair-Landry savors the lessons the team learned while crossing the ice cap. “On an expedition, it’s so easy to enjoy all of the simple things that you forget to enjoy in your day-to-day life. You appreciate all those little moments,” she says. “A cup of hot chocolate at the end of the hike is the biggest, most exciting part of the entire day.”