Last year Julia Pickering became the first woman and the first British person to snowboard down three of the highest mountains in the Arctic Circle. We caught up with Julia to find out more about the expedition.
Why did you decide to take part in the trip to Greenland?
I’ve always wanted to go to the Arctic since I was a child and the opportunity was presented to me so I jumped at it!
How long was the trip and how many of you were on it? What were your companions like?
There were 10 of us in total out there for two weeks. The other guys were great all with mixed mountaineering/skiing backgrounds, but a cool bunch of people to be out there with.
How long have you been snowboarding?
I’ve only been snowboarding six years having previously been a skier as a youngster. I still ski a bit but I’m much better on a board!
How much backcountry riding had you done before?
A fair bit, at the beginning of my third week on a board my then boyfriend (who’s now my husband) threw me into the backcountry quite literally. We had excellent waist deep powder conditions and I was riding with other boarders and skiers who were a hell of lot better than me and I was just trying to keep up. Since that trip the search for powder became my passion and I’ve ridden some fantastic backcountry routes in the Alps, Sierra Nevada, Canada, Scotland and even right here where I live on the Lake District, England.
How did you prepare yourself for the trip?
I’m an outdoor instructor and generally very active anyway so I just continued my normal routine of running with my two Siberian Huskies every morning and getting as much mountain biking, climbing and surfing in as possible. I was doing lots of ski and snowboard touring over the winter but as the expedition was in June I couldn’t do that as we got closer to leaving.
What did the expedition do in terms of covering the safety aspect of backcountry snowboarding? Did you do drills etc?
East Greenland has a huge glacial system so falling down a crevasse was a very real risk. We often travelled roped together and practised different crevasse rescue techniques at base camp.
We also saw and heard many avalanches whilst we were out there, I have actually done an avalanche skills training course in Canada and often practice in transceiver parks but we did some transceiver training with the rest of the group at camp and avalanche risk was being assessed constantly. The area we were in is extremely remote and helicopter or ski plane would be the only way out in the event of illness or injury, so if the weather closed in you could be waiting for days or even weeks to be rescued.
One other thing we had to do was learn to shoot a rifle in case we got attacked by a polar bear, I’m not a very good shot!
You became the first woman to snowboard the three highest mountains in the Arctic Circle. What were the mountains and how high are they? How many snowboarders had ridden them before you?
The mountains are Gunnbjorns Fjeld, 3693m, Dome (Qaqqaq Kershaw), 3682m and Cone (Qaqqaq Johnson), 3669m. All three have been snowboarded just once before me.
How long did it take you to climb them and how did you do it?
They were all between 10 and 13 hour days from our respective basecamps for ascent and descent. I was on a splitboard and for the most part they can be skinned up until the last 300m or so. Then it’s on with the crampons and out with the ice axe with the board strapped to my rucksack.
What was the descent like?
Fast compared to the ascent! All three mountains are very steep at the top but quickly mellow out into a fairly easy angled slope back to camp. Snow conditions varied massively throughout the descents and were dependent on time of day. There could be horrible stratugi, powder snow, spring snow and watery slush all in one descent!
Ironically the best descent of the expedition, for me, was not one of the highest three, but Mount Cappuccino, another mountain we climbed earlier in the week as a warm up, only for the reason that it had the best powder conditions.
What kind of equipment/supplies did you take with you that you? Did you wear/carry anything different than from a normal snow trip?
All the usual climbing, skiing , snowboarding and safety gear along with lots of dehydrated meals and high calorie snacks, sat phone and solar charger, personal locator beacon which are compulsory for any expedition travelling in Greenland, tents and camping equipment, pulks for moving basecamp, rifles for protection from polar bears and a blindfold for helping me sleep through the 24 hour daylight!
How did you travel around the area? Lots of heli time?
No heli time at all unfortunately! We landed on the glacier in a Twin Otter ski plane which was immensely cool, but after that all movement was man power. We packed all our gear into pulks, one between two, and took turns in pulling them on skis, or in my case splitboard.
Did the weather interfere with the trip at all?
Only than it got too warm! We were very lucky and had wall to wall sunshine and blue skies for the entire duration of the trip. It could have been very different. Air temperature hovered around 0 degrees but the sunshine is very strong out there. Our coldest night was around -15. We actually climbed Dome (our final ascent of the three) through the night as it had got so warm and the 24 hour daylight allows for that.
Did you ever get scared on the expedition? If so how did you deal with ‘the fear’?
No not really, the actual riding and climbing wasn’t that difficult so it was well within my capabilites and we had all the safety aspects well covered. However we did see some prettly huge crevasses and saw a lot of avalanches but you just have to be confident that you are doing everything possible to avoid those situations.
I did keep expecting to see a polar bear looming on the horizon, though! Especially after seeing tracks on the glacier when we landed, and any bear that far from the coast is gonna be hungry.
What was your biggest achievement?
Reaching the top of Dome with a nasty stomach bug, vomiting whilst walking along its 1km long ridge, knowing at that point that I had completed my mission.
What are you lasting memories of the trip?
Everything! I have never before experienced such remoteness, it’s a weird feeling knowing there’s no other human life for hundreds and hundreds of miles. The beautiful scenerey and fantastic weather, the other guys I shared it with, melting snow every morning for water and making my little snow kitchen. I was very excited by travelling by ski plane too.
Has it inspired you to take on any more challenges?
Oh this is question I keep thinking over. I am hoping to return to Greenland next spring to climb (its second ascent) and make the first snowboard descent of my namesake, Mount Julia, the seventh highest in the Arctic. I would also like to complement my Arctic challenge by snowboarding Antarctica’s Mount Vinson, however the large amount of funds I would need raise to do this is standing in my way at the moment, but I remain hopeful.