The First Unsupported Winter Crossing of Norway’s Largest Glacier
Two Polar Explorers’ New Found Respect for Resilience
On March 20th, Caroline Coté & Vincent Colliard made the first-ever unsupported winter crossing of Spitsbergen, the largest glacier in Norway - an 1100 kilometre, 63-day voyage with temperatures as low as -45° celsius. Enjoy their film and an exclusive behind-the-scenes look at their adventure.
How It All Started
When Vincent Colliard was a teenager, he started reading stories about explorers venturing out into the unknown. He became fascinated by the resilience and endurance of these explorers, who would commit to adventures for years on end. Growing up in Biarritz, France, he was surrounded by the vast Pyrenees mountains and Atlantic ocean—but no sea ice. “When you don’t have something, you want it,” Vincent says.
Nearly 15 years later, in Antarctica, he met Caroline Coté, an ultramarathoner and nature enthusiast. “I was guiding a group of unsupported skiers on the Antarctic peninsula, and Caroline was a filmmaker,” Vincent says. At one point, it was a question if Caroline would come or not, since the group decided they wanted an extra guide rather than focusing on the film. So Vincent asked Caroline if she’d be okay stepping in as a guide, and she said yes.
Although Caroline was more into ultra trail running and Vincent was more into polar expeditions on skis, the two became an unstoppable duo.
Behind the Scenes
This expedition took place in Svalbard, the same place that started Vincent’s journey into polar exploration. The couple wanted to do a project that had never been done: a complete traverse from the north to the south of the main island.
“For us, it was very important not to get any motorized support,” Vincent says. “We decided to start from Longyearbyen, ski north to the starting point, ski all the way down, then from the south ski all the way back to Longyearbyen.” It was a journey of over 1,100 kilometres that lasted 63 days. For the entire duration, they didn’t receive any help from the outside world. They packed 70 days of fuel and food and were pulling 300 kilos combined on their sleds at the onset.
Watch The Film
Q&A with Vincent Colliard
Why was it so important to do the journey unsupported?
When I was a teenager and read stories of explorers doing these expeditions, they left home with everything they had. This is the pure essence of exploring, going unsupported and not receiving any help. The satisfaction of going unsupported is very different from getting a resupply on the way. It makes it more interesting and makes us grow as a person.
What was your daily life like in such an extreme environment?
We had a simple routine: ski, eat, drink, sleep, and repeat. For the day skiing, we’d take a break every hour and fifteen minutes to eat and drink a bit and keep doing that throughout the day. In the evening, we’d pitch camp, organize ourselves in the tent, melt snow, and try to get warm.
When the weather was rough, we had to brush off the ice that accumulated on our clothing and boots. Some days we spent over an hour brushing and scraping the inside of our shoes. It’s very important to brush every day; otherwise, ice will accumulate, and it’ll be a total disaster.
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How cold would it get? What were average wind speeds and temperatures?
When there was high pressure, we recorded temperatures that were -38 C, and during the night, we were below -40 C. On these cold mornings, we were both waiting for the alarm to ring, to start the stove as quickly as we could. These are dangerous temperatures for your fingers, face, and every part of the skin exposed.
Weather-wise, we also had quite a lot of wind. It was above 30 metres per second, with wind chill of -25 C, so that was another challenge. 30 m/s is close to 60 knots, or above 120 kilometres an hour.
Mentally, what kind of things were going on in your head? How do you stay motivated?
We stayed motivated because, first of all, doing these expeditions makes us happy. When we live in modern society, we tend to complicate our lives. Going back into a tent, starting a stove, drinking a coffee with someone you like—these are all very simple things. You have everything with you too; you can’t pack much, or it’ll be hard to progress.
So it’s a simple life, which to me is very rich. You have to survive with everything you’re carrying on your sled. There’s an attraction to stepping out of your comfort zone, which are the moments when you learn about yourself and who you are. When you survive a trip like this, you realize what’s important in life. You’re grateful for your good health, and take life as an opportunity to realize your dreams and not spend too much time on little problems.
Doing the first-ever winter crossing of Spitsbergen was also motivation during those tough moments, of course.
What are some of the best memories from the trip?
There are a few moments that really stand out. The first one was a polar bear encounter! We were on the fjord ice in mid-February, and he was going north, and we were going south. In the middle of the fjord, he was stopping, smelling, and checking us out, and we were doing the same. We didn’t run away; we knew we had to stand our ground even if our hearts were beating 150 beats per minute.
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What was one of the toughest times on the trip?
One day we had descended an ice cap, pitched a tent, and were pretty tired inside our sleeping bags. We called our friend in Oslo, who was our weather router. He told us, “There’s a strong gale coming your way, so you need to lower yourself and hide in between the mountains somewhere.” It was around midnight, but we had to pack the tent again, leave and ski all night until 6 am. That was tough, but it was still a magical time. We were just a couple on skis in the high arctic in the winter, skiing in the northern lights with no one else around.
Did you ever think you wouldn’t make it?
We needed to reach the southern end of Spitsbergen before the 21st of March to announce the first winter crossing. We battled in the south to be able to reach it on time. On March 20th, the wind was so strong that Caroline couldn’t stand up, so we were really not sure if we would make it. At one point, we were sitting on our sleds, and the wind just pushed us with no sails. After this, it calmed down, and we managed to reach the southern end one day before Spring!
The eight part documentary series ‘The Last Glacier’ premiers on October 12, 2021. An original VRAI production.
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