Here I am, cold and wet, fatigued both mentally and physically and in my tent at 1250mts above sea level on the Langjokull Glacier. Its only day two of 5 on the glacier and all the doubts in the world have entered my mind.
How did I get this far? Will The SWOOSH snowsailer perform up to expectations? With the forecast for the next three days no different to the last two, will we even have the opportunity to find out? Why is my body breaking down? Why am I so mentally and physically fatigued?
The story begins in 2009 when I made a decision to attempt to snow sail in Antarctica. Four years of research and development and I was ready to design the ultimate snowsailer.
Fast forward Four years and Five builds, plus trips to Falls Creek, New Zealand, Norway, Antarctica and Russia and the final design of The SWOOSH Snowsailer is packed and ready to head off to Europe and be introduced to the world.
Arriving in Zurich at the end of January we spent two magical days exploring the City. In fact, I had not been back to Zurich for 41 years and managed to visit all the places I went to with my family as a 16-year-old. What a fantastic experience to relive the memories I shared growing up and finding the hotel we stayed in as well.
Two days later and far too much Swiss cuisine and beer, we were off to pick up the van and snowsailer for the drive to Courchevel, a distance of 461km through the most magnificent scenery and roads that were a pleasure to drive on. This was where the real journey was to begin. The opportunity to set up the snowsailer, test, film and photograph in its natural environment. Staying with friends of ours in their forest home and having a workshop available to me to fine tune was a huge bonus.
Although the weather and terrain in Courchevel was not ideal it gave me a valuable insight into the snowsailer and what its capabilities might be like in optimal conditions. At the same time the opportunity to fine-tune and make the necessary changes whilst in the snow was invaluable.
We also managed to take some time out to discover the region and its history and live like the locals do. But the opportunity to introduce The SWOOSH snowsailer to the media at ISPO in Germany and to ride the snowsailer in Brig was drawing close.
The drive from Courchevel to Munich, a distance of 769km was largely uneventful. Fantastic roads, beautiful scenery and fresh bread, cheese and meats eaten along the way certainly helped the time pass quickly. That was until we arrived in Munich and were about to check into our AirBnB. A phone call to us and we were told that our accommodation had been cancelled……what 15 minutes before arriving after 10 hours in the van. This was ridiculous, however what was even more ridiculous was trying to find a hotel in Munich, close to ISPO which has attendance in excess of 85 000 visitors over the 4 days of the show at a reasonable rate.
Needless to say not easily done but we managed to secure a hotel for the duration. Two days at the show which was totally mind-blowing due to its size and volume of traffic, was followed by a day discovering Munich and the obligatory beer hall.
It was now time to start the real part of the journey, the part I had been hanging for since the final design and build were completed.
Courtesy of Tourism Switzerland we picked up our Journos in the city, loaded the van and our Google maps for the 460km drive to Brig Simplon. This was to be an experience I have never had before. What should have taken 7 hours turned into an epic lasting 14 hours.
Driving in sleet and on icy roads with limited visibility is not for the faint-hearted. What’s more, Google had not updated their maps and after 5 hours we ran out of road just after a village called Andermatt due to an avalanche that had closed the road some 2 months prior. Try turning a van around on a steep narrow mountain pass, something like a 12 point turn and back down the mountain to Andermatt.
Calling into the station we had no idea of how we were supposed to get through to Brig Simplon, but true to classical Swiss ingenuity and organization we had nothing to fear. Just load your van onto the carriage and take a seat in the train the Station Manager said. Then, when you get off at the next train stop, drive the short distance to Realp, where you will once again load onto the train for the journey through the tunnel to Oberwald. Once there you will be able to drive the rest of the way to Brig Simplon.
Little did we know that the second part of the rail journey entails driving onto the carrier, turning of the van, putting it into gear and putting on the hand brake, then sitting tight whilst travelling through the tunnel.
Finally arriving at our accommodation in Brig Simplon, we were able to unpack and set up for the next 4 days.
Brig Simplon is an absolute must for adventure seekers. Whether you visit in Summer or Winter it is a “Must” stop destination. From Mountain Biking, paragliding, Skiing and Snowboarding, Climbing, Snow Shoe Trails and Cross country skiing this region covers the lot. It is also snowkiting backcountry paradise. And to top it all great pubs, restaurants and accommodation abound.
Our objective was to test and film The SWOOSH Snowsailer and this was all going to happen at the top of the Simplon Pass a little over 2005mts above sea level.
3 days of intense activity followed. Driving the 22km up to the top of the pass each morning at 8am and returning at 6pm that night, along with full days in the snow ensured that when we returned to our apartment each night we were grinning from ear to ear.
The results we achieved were incredibly encouraging and proved that in the right conditions the SWOOSH Snowsailer does perform.
In fact at times just getting the journos out of the cockpit was the biggest challenge of all.
After three days and a night experiencing the variety of beer available at the Co-Op in town, I was more than comfortable that The SWOOSH Snowsailer was ready to take on its most extreme adventure.
What could be more extreme than taking three of The SWOOSH Snowsailer’s to Russia and race in the Trans Onego Enduro?
But first, we all needed to get back to Zurich so we could all work our way home and back into the real world.
Well, didn’t the real world hit me as soon as I arrived home? Within 24 hours I received an email from our major naming rights sponsor, Mountain Designs, that they could no longer meet their obligations with regards to the sponsorship, leaving us in the lurch with 8 weeks to go.
This was an incredibly difficult time, but I believe that one can either wallow in one’s own self-pity or dust oneself off and start all over. Speaking with Adrian and John, my fellow adventurers, we agreed that we would forego Trans Onego and set our sights on something completely unique. It was then decided that I would secure additional sponsors to make the adventure happen and we would head off to Iceland to be the first to snow sail on a glacier. Setting what we believed to be realistic goals we would try and set a record for speed and the greatest distance covered, wind-powered in 24 hours in a terrain that was conducive to the attempt.
With the unbelievable support of the Australian business community, across finance, food, adventure and outdoor, who believed in us and our have a go attitude, we raised the sufficient funding to make this adventure happen.
The snowsailer was packed and lodged with the freight company on the 20th June and on the 22nd June we left Brisbane for Reykjavik, a journey that was to take us 72 hours with overnight stops in Sydney, Manila and London.
Arriving at Reykjavic at 9am on the 25th June we checked into our guesthouse, dropped off our gear and headed straight off to Mountaineers of Iceland to meet with Oli and his crew. Mountaineers were our team on the ground, supplying all of our logistics to get to and from the Langjokull Glacier basecamp and then up to our base as 1250mts.
These guys run an unbelievable operation in Iceland. Doing Super Jeep and Snowmobile tours on both sides of the glacier. In fact, their operation has 102 snowmobiles available for hire as well as a fully equipped base camp on the edge of the glacier. Little did we realise how important this would be to us when we first stopped to get changed there. Please do check them out at https://mountaineers.is/ and they are a must if you are going to visit Iceland.
We were now all set to go and totally focused and excited about getting up on the glacier on Tuesday. However our freight was delayed in Frankfurt, and after 48 hours of stress, frustration and aggravation we finally received the word that we would have our gear on Thursday morning and we could leave immediately.
We arrived at basecamp at around 5pm, changed and started using two snowmobiles to tow the snowsailer and our gear 6km up to the summit. By this time the Katabatic winds were reaching 35 – 40 knots and zero visibility. With Oli as our guide, we were able to use the GPS to navigate to our camp and start setting up “home” for the next 4 days. It required a total of 4 return trips to carry all our gear up. Unfortunately for me, on the last ascent, my snowmobile went through a snow bridge plunging me into the river. Oli jumped in and helped me right it as well as tow it out but this was to be a rather inauspicious start to my adventure.
Arriving back at the top of the glacier, wet and cold, it was all hands on deck to get camp finished and to get some sustenance into us. It was 2am when we finished but as there is 24 hours of sunlight one loses complete perspective of the time. I climbed into my tent, hung up my wet gear and got into my sleeping bag. It was the most uncomfortable and fitful sleep ever. I was unable to warm up sufficiently to sleep properly and after a day of exertion, not sleeping was the worst thing that could happen.
Around 9am I got out of my tent and went round to John and Adrian’s tent to have a chat about the day. To my horror it was a complete whiteout again, raining and wind gusting up to 30 knots. We decided that we needed to prepare breakfast and reassess the day’s activities, but first, we needed to fix the tarp over our common area that had been inundated with rain.
Once completed it was great to get into the dry area and have a coffee and cereal as we had not had sufficient to eat the night before, a big mistake. Unfortunately, I was still incredibly cold and with no down jacket to protect me, just layers and layers of merino and wet boots. How I regret last night’s mishap with the snowmobile as the cold was making me increasingly miserable.
However, it was time to start setting up the snowsailer, branding it with our fantastic sponsors and tuning it to use in the conditions prevailing. The biggest problem was going to be that we had lost the cockpit canopy at the bottom of the glacier. A massive gust of wind caught it and ripped it from the frame, breaking the weld and scattering polycarbonate across the glacier. This was not good but just reminded me of the power of nature and the fact I need to look at a better way of locking the canopy down.
It was so wet up at the top of the glacier that John and Adrian jumped on the snowmobile and headed down to Mountaineers base so they could attach all the logos to the sail. When they returned we decided that it was time to give it go and see how it would perform, notwithstanding the low vision.
Unfortunately, this attempt was a waste of time as the snow was like sugar and we just got bogged. How frustrating………..and to top it all we were getting very wet. We decided that it was time to get into the common area and have dinner. After 10 minutes I started shivering and knew immediately that I needed to get out of my wet gear and into my sleeping bag. Grabbing protein snacks and water I headed off to the solitude of my tent. This is when things started getting really weird.
First thing I did was check the weather online and saw that the next 18 hours was going to bring 20mm of rain and low winds. Not wanting to be the one to make the call, even though mentally right at this moment I realised I needed to go down the glacier, I shouted out across to Adrian and asked if he had checked the weather.
15 minutes later, Adrian and John came across to my tent for a chat. They asked what my thoughts were and I said straight out that I was struggling mentally and physically, and that we should head down to basecamp to dry out and reassess the situation. It was pointless being up here being miserable if the weather was not going to play fair.
So decision made, let’s start taking gear down and spend the next few nights at basecamp. By the time 2 trips were completed we went to sleep at 2am, waking up 8 hours later with dry clothes and a new outlook on the expedition.
We grabbed the snowmobiles and went back up to our camp to bring down more gear and to check on the camp. Total whiteout, but hey if you have tracks and GPS you will definitely be OK, and it’s a must to keep away from the crevice fields.
Taking this opportunity to scout the terrain as well, we spent the day working out what routes we would be able to use once the weather became favorable early Sunday morning. This meant we were going to have a total of 14 hours to ride on the glacier before our scheduled pickup. We needed to prove the snowsailer could work in extreme conditions. I wanted to ensure that the construction, other than the canopy, would stand up to rigorous and extreme use and to see if minor further improvements needed to be made.
Heading up the glacier early in the morning, we were greeted with the most amazing vista, clear skies and a view of the mountain ranges surrounding us. Perfect conditions to play in so we packed down the camp completely and moved everything down to the bottom of the glacier to await pickup in the evening.
Then it was back up to the top to rig and ride all day. Absolutely sensational conditions with winds of 15-20 knots and reasonable snow conditions let us traverse the glacier all day. To view some of the most unbelievable video, including a great capsize please head to www.theswooshsnowsailer.com to view video and images of the day.
Oli arrived at the bottom of the glacier at 7pm, by then the katabatic winds had increased to 35 knots and the wind chill was down to -10c, time to pack up and head back to Reykjavik.
Dropping all our gear off at the Mountaineers of Iceland warehouse, we headed back to our accommodation for the night in the knowledge we had done the best we can. Enough time for a well-deserved shower and 5 hours of sleep before the long haul back to Brisbane, another 48 hour journey via London, Manilla and Sydney.
Sleep did not come and I spent the night on the lounge in the living area struggling with my emotions and thoughts.
My body is no longer what it was, struggling with a bad knee which impacts my lower back, the cold and some minor nerve damage to my toes has made me realise that I am no longer able to do what I used to do. These issues played a massive role in my meltdown on the glacier and the reality is there is no reason in the world to feel this way. There is a definite correlation between the stress of planning, putting together an expedition, and having to deal with the pitfalls and delays and the way one feels.
Its time for me to concentrate on my magazines and to take The SWOOSH Snowsailer to commercialization. I know what I need to do and look forward to the next chapter in my evever-evolvingife.
In the clear light of day I am comfortable with this now and no doubt I will continue to live my dreams vicariously through others. In fact whilst I am done, Adrian is just beginning, the plan is to have Adrian snowsail in Antarctica in the summer of 2019.
Years of planning, training, development and travel had brought me to the decision this was a journey just too far……