09 Jul Greenland Remembered
Motivational speaker, James Ketchell, a serial adventurer renowned as the Ultimate Triathlete, has just returned from his latest challenge. This was ski-ing with a small team 400 miles unsupported across Greenland Ice Cap. Greenland is the largest island on earth with temperatures regularly falling below -20c. The expedition was organised to raise vital funds for Kindled Spirit, a Mumbai based charity supporting vulnerable women. We are delighted to share James’ thoughts on his latest adventure – `Greenland Remembered’ …
“As I type these words, I am sitting in the comfort of my home with the back door open and the sunshine blazing through. Just four weeks ago, this would have been an environment I was longing for; instead, I was coming to the end of a mammoth 550-kilometre unsupported journey on skis across Greenland. Thankfully, I was part of a fantastic four-person team which made things a little bit easier, but we were all cold, extremely fatigued and had depleted food supplies.
Turning the clock back even further to 2019, I had just returned home from flying around the world – setting a Guinness World Record – when my friend Peter Wilson asked me if I wanted to ski across Greenland! `It would be fun and useful content for your school work,’ he said. The plan was to leave in March 2021, giving us enough time to get ready as this would be a new type of challenge and something I had not experienced before. Despite never having worn a pair of skis in my life, I decided to commit as I have learnt that you only regret the things you don’t do!
Preparations were going well but due to the global pandemic our trip was postponed: this was frustrating but unavoidable. Fast forward to May 2022 and I found myself on the icecap crossing the world’s largest island from West to East. Although Greenland belongs to Denmark, it is geographically part of the North American continent and is a truly stunning place which I had previously visited on my flight around the world.
The beginning few days were tough; we had to get over the rugged icefield where the icecap descended to sea level, forming large boulder-like ice ridges and deep crevasses that are often covered by snow bridges, which can give way anytime. It took us three days to get over this difficult area until we reached the flatter ice and could start skiing. We had to carry all our supplies, food, tent and kit on our sleds which weighed over 100 kilograms at the beginning of the expedition; it made for very hard work pulling them uphill over the steep, unforgiving terrain, sometimes taking hours to only gain a few hundred metres towards our goal. We also lost our expedition leader, Mikael Strandberg, the Swedish explorer and filmmaker, on day 2, due to a concussion sustained during a fall, resulting in an airlifted emergency evacuation.
I was quickly discovering that the Greenland icecap was a dangerous environment and as I was moving slowly through an area of snow and ice, I suddenly fell through into a crevasse. Feeling the ground giving way below me was heart-stopping and I was unable to get out on my own: the more I moved, the more snow fell through, and I could see the deep cavity below me. It was just narrow enough for a person to fall into and extremely deep, making rescue difficult. I was careful not to move too much until one of my team members was able to pull me out. I knew from that moment on that I needed to be very careful!
Once we reached the flat landscape of the icecap, it became much safer and was now just a very long walk and ski every day. Some days we experienced beautiful, blue skies with no wind which was a real treat; at other times we experienced brutal winds up to 50mph which bought a wind chill of -39… I can tell you, that is cold! On some days it was even harder as we also experienced a complete ‘white out’. This is basically where you can see nothing but white; everything looks the same and the ground and horizon are indistinguishable, making navigation particularly difficult.
The days quickly passed, and we plodded along, hoping for good conditions. It can actually be quite pleasant in the spring months and May is considered a good time to cross with daylight almost 24 hours a day. To pass the hours when skiing, I would think about the things I wanted to do when I finished. I would also think of the snippets I could pass on to the school children I was phoning every day on the satellite phone (as part of a virtual field trip to encourage them in the geography curriculum). The schools were following my journey virtually via the tracking map and every day I would make my timetabled calls and answer questions from children and teachers who I’d already met during the last six months during visits to their schools. It was absolutely brilliant, giving me a daily morale boost; I didn’t realise just how well it was received until I got home and saw the feedback from teachers and schools.
Encouraging young people to believe in themselves and providing real life stories of adventure and useful life lessons is especially important to me. In the 29 days of the crossing, I spoke to over 6,000 children in UK schools, as well as reaching children in lockdown in Shanghai who sent in questions virtually that were relayed to me, which I answered on my daily update.
There was always something I was dealing with or trying to carefully manage. I sustained minor frostbite when putting up the tent in a storm which became more painful as time went on, but thankfully did not result in permanent damage. I also experienced problems with my right ankle which was causing my ski to roll over and breaking the bindings; despite the worry of an injury, you worry more about the kit because broken bindings can lead to you being unable to continue if you can’t connect your boots to skis!
It wasn’t all suffering though; the times of reflection at the end of another long day and thinking about why I was there were valuable to me. It helped to develop the strong mindset and determination that we all needed to get up and get going again every day. We skied most days for an average of 10 hours, and on the last day, we skied 24 hours straight and covered almost 50 kilometres.
Another important goal to me was to raise funds for Kindled Spirit, a charity that supports victims of human trafficking in India. I had visited the charity in the past and I knew that whatever I could raise, small or large, would make a difference. The charity page is still open and any donations would be greatly appreciated.
Having experienced many long and tough journeys throughout my career, I know the importance of trying to enjoy the journey and not focus too much on the end goal. When we finished, there was no fanfares and no one to greet us; we simply arrived at a waypoint on the other side of Greenland and waited for a helicopter pick up. We actually ended up waiting 2.5 days as the aircraft was being used for search and rescue and the weather conditions were poor. This was made slightly harder as our food rations had been carefully calculated and had now run out.
It was a tough trip, but we had made it! Looking back, we didn’t get off to a good start, but time and again I have realised that it is entirely possible to make a comeback from almost anything… you can always ’win the day back’.
Discipline and routine quickly became an important part of crossing Greenland, in the same way it has been for almost all of my adventures. It was never easy, at 5am when it was -20 outside and I was warm and cosy in my sleeping bag, wishing I could have another hour of sleep but knowing full well I had to get up. This was never a welcome feeling. But more often than not, in less than five minutes of getting up, I was feeling great and ready for another day. The truth is, whether you are on an expedition or not, you won’t always feel like doing something, it’s the action of “doing” that is needed to actually start feeling like you want to do something.
I was fortunate to have a great team and fantastic tent buddy, who I lived with in close proximity for the entire duration of the trip: helicopter pilot, Peter Wilson, who I’d met in my preparation to fly around the world. We worked as a slick unit. We both had our job roles that we would carry out at the start and end of each day: I would put up the tent, whilst Peter would use the stove to melt the ice and create our water for drinking and eating.
There were numerous other roles, but no matter what, we would help each other, even down to keeping each side of our tent tidy. If my standards slipped, I wouldn’t just be letting myself down, I would be letting Peter down as well. This was a motivating factor for me and, having another individual whom I like and can rely on, helped me get through some tough days. I cannot stress the importance of being able to work with other people; things are so much easier when working as a team that is functioning efficiently. This is a topic I talk about a lot in my corporate speaking engagements.
As a result of the expedition, there are many young people who are thinking more positively now, allowing themselves to imagine what they may be able to do and believing in themselves in a way that they did not prior to our engagement. I am constantly inspired by spending time with young people, encouraging them to persevere and have resilience, and how it can effect such change and positivity.
Along with further speaking engagements, I will soon begin working on my next project. This promises to be bigger than anything I have ever worked on before and will push me further than ever, whilst continuing to inspire young people around the world.”
If you would like to book motivational speaker, James Ketchell, for a truly inspirational presentation covering a wide range of themes including leadership, teamwork, overcoming adversity, communication & resilience, please get in touch with us at The Right Address Tel +44(0) 1895 827 800