PONANT designs a polar trek through the immense icy expanses of the Far North
PONANT aspires to create ever more immersive, exclusive and meaningful experiences. After reaching the North Pole accompanied by scientists, the company is now continuing its exploration with the aim of offering ever more exceptional moments in the worlds of the poles. At the end of last spring, PONANT’s teams set out for the shores of the northeast coast of Greenland, which are still frozen over at that time of year. Their mission: to travel to meet the local Inuit populations and take on the challenge of the unique adventure of a polar trek.
Scouting in cooperation with the local populations
Getting out on the ground to meet local populations, accompanied by local guides, in order to test new itineraries, verify everything is safe, try out the experiences devised by the teams, and evaluate the physical and mental commitment required, is an essential step to carry out before inviting cruise guests to become active participants in their voyage. The objective: to leave the ship for a two-night polar trek in northeast Greenland in the company of Ole, an Inuit guide. This unique expedition was led by Nicolas Dubreuil, Operations Director at SEDNA and Polar expedition expert.
With the Le Commandant Charcot, we are able to reach previously inaccessible regions, to go beyond, to leave the ship and explore the destination in more depth, to immerse ourselves even more deeply in the local culture of the Far North’s most isolated inhabitants.
The adventure begins on board: first introductions and awareness raising
It’s Monday 23 May 2022, and the lucky chosen ones cross the gangway of the Le Commandant Charcot. The group is made up of PONANT employees with a highly diverse range of backgrounds, all in good physical condition and adept at hiking, and is accompanied by experienced guides who are specialists in Inuit communities and high mountains. Amongst them Ole, a Greenlander from Kullorsuaq who is both an expert in the ice cap and a medical doctor. The mood is calm and relaxed. In the faces, plenty of expectations and uncertainty. A little worry and apprehension too, naturally. And excitement, an enormous amount! The excitement of both being together and, of course, being just a few days from living a unique experience. This presents an opportunity for everyone to get to know each other: special moments for creating a team spirit and bringing the group together.
Almost as soon as everyone is on board, the adventure begins. Around the map up on the bridge – the ship’s nerve centre – the captain shares his thoughts about determining the possible disembarkation and exploration sites. “We’re aiming for a site at the foot of a glacier in King Christian IX Land,” explains Captain Étienne Garcia. Things are getting very real! And even more so when, towards the end of the day, the ship encounters its first ice. “We are venturing into the unknown, into exploration,” enthuses Benoît Carassou-Maillan. It’s now a question of coping with the vagaries inherent to the polar regions, of adapting, going around and circumventing to find the right ice floe. And it’s time for Ole to remind the crew of an ancient Inuit proverb: “The only masters are the ice and weather.” Unexpected conditions here force Le Commandant Charcot to take a route a little further to the north than planned, providing an opportunity for an incredible stretch of navigating through the ice.
First glide on the sea ice
Positioned finally a little further to the south, the Le Commandant Charcot stops at a floe large enough to allow a first disembarkation on the sea ice and an opportunity to get to grips with the equipment. On the agenda: mooring in a Zodiac inflatable, pitching a tent and a safety training exercise covering what to do if you fall in the water. Wearing a dry suit to protect them, everyone jumps in the water and practises the techniques required to get back onto the ice using a rope. The strength-based games Ole introduces them to are the perfect way get everyone warmed up again.
The following day, disembarked on an immense ice floe, the team takes things to the next level by learning how to Nordic ski and transport a pulk, a sled weighing around 20 kilos and containing enough to cover each adventurers’ individual needs, such as food, a sleeping bag, a tent, extreme cold weather gloves, a head lamp and a shovel. Once off Le Commandant Charcot and gliding in a line in the soft light of early evening, the group quickly begins to feel intoxicated by a strong sense of freedom. The scenery is spectacular, ranging from vaste white expanses to pressure ridges and snow-capped peaks.
Two days, two trips out, and a growing level of intensity. “Something to enable the explorers to feel more at ease before the big departure,” confides one of the members of the group. Because the following day is D-day: rendezvous on the bridge at 8 a.m. for a briefing over breakfast, then departure for a polar trek of three days and two nights… unassisted, far from everything, out on the sea ice.
Polar trek: the big leap into the unknown
Le Commandant Charcot finally finds the perfect place from which to start the polar trek: opposite the most northerly village of the country’s east coast, Ittoqqortoormiit (Itto to the locals) – 400 souls, which is one third of the population of eastern Greenland. What a fantastic sight this ice-bound village makes! With pulks lined up and skis on feet, it’s time for the brief. Next stop, the village of Unnartoq, followed by a return to Itto for the departure into the mountains. Though here again, it’s “immaqa”, as Ole might say (“perhaps” in Inuktitut). It’s up to nature to decide. From spending time with the Inuit guide, the team learns to live in the present, to make the most of the moment. And on the day in question, everything is in place for a fantastic shared experience together. Each to their own rhythm. It’s not about racing but about being together with other “explorers”, about getting back in touch with oneself. A guide in front, another at the end to close off the line, and the opportunity for everyone to take a turn at leading. Walk/ski for 45 minutes, take a break, drink, eat a little something, and… continue on again. This polar trek is an opportunity for everyone to immerse themselves in a new and unfamiliar natural environment and an ancient culture.
Day 1 – Meeting the Inuits in the land of the bears
En route to Unnartoq, a still-inhabited former fishing village, the group is progressing tranquilly across the ice pack – a gentle warm up followed by the sensation of the terrain gradually beginning to rise up a hill. This is where the first difficulties are encountered: controlling one’s pulk on the ascent… followed by the descent! Before long, the expedition arrives in Unnartoq, with its colourful houses looking out over a frozen sea. Some of the villagers congregate in front of the “visitors”, providing the opportunity to exchange the first “Aluu, qanorippit?” (“Hi, how are you?”) greetings. Bear skins are drying in the sun on the balconies. Hunters are returning with their snowmobiles loaded with seals. Smells, colours… The group enters the village with a sense of wonder and amazement, leaving the ship to fade gently away into the pack ice.
A plateau on the way out of Unnartog, dominated by the entrance to Scoresby Sound, is where they decide to set up their first camp and spend their first polar night. People work busily in pairs together. The atmosphere is warm and friendly. The group bonds even further as they pitch the tents and build ice benches so they can sit down in a communal tent for the meal. The fellow adventures share special moments with Ole in the evening, who hums some traditional Inuit tunes. There’s also the song dedicated to him by his mother, an ode to life intended to ease the pain of a brother’s passing. These are moving moments of communion before a return to the tents. It’s now time to organise the watch rota. “Don’t forget that we’re in bear territory,” one of the guides emphasises. Everyone therefore takes a turn at keeping watch, carefully scanning the horizon, binoculars in hand. It’s a task to be taken seriously as well as an experience strong in emotions, unreal almost, and sublimely enhanced by intense interludes of contemplation in the middle of the polar night, in the light of the midnight sun.
Day 2 – rise up, move off, surpass oneself
On rising at daybreak, faces are lit up with smiles. Everyone seems to feel safe, in their rightful place and happy to be together. The water for breakfast is prepared using snow. Ole again humming some of his gentle chants, shared moments of rare intimacy and togetherness… Then the time comes to set off again. After tasting the excitement of a first immersive polar experience, the team heads for the mountains, following in the tracks of Inuit hunters. All around lies an Alpine landscape and deafening silence, broken only by the occasional barks of sled dogs in the valley. The group passes along the edge of a snow-covered frozen lake dotted with a handful of fisherman’s huts. It’s hot. The sun is burning. Who would have believed it? The going is hard. The pulks are getting heavier. The line is breaking up and the gaps getting wider. Heads are dropping. People are supporting one another, encouraging each other. It’s time for effort, solidarity and pushing beyond one’s limits. A real and genuine mental battle! The group soon loses sight of the ship. They are now finally facing the immense wild white expanse alone. Facing themselves. To lose sight of the ship, therefore, is to return to one’s rightful place amidst the wildness of nature, amidst a landscape of pack ice stretching as far as the eye can see, with the ridged mountains of Scoresby Sound far away in the distance.
But there’s no time to lose: the group has to set up camp, sleep and keep watch for bears. A certain routine establishes itself. The movements and gestures become more assured, more instinctive. And there’s fatigue on the faces too, though not enough to dampen the group’s good spirits. Dinner is again a convivial moment, with everyone smiling, laughing and chatting. People open up a little bit more than on the previous evening. Five o’clock in the morning… The more motivated members of the group are equipping themselves ready for one final ascent before returning to the ship – a climb in skis, though without pulks. At the summit, more mountains, more snow-covered slopes, more summits. It’s spectacular! It’s time to prepare for the final push back to Le Commandant Charcot. The group first enjoys the opportunity for a wonderful moment spent sledging down a 250-metre descent seated on the pulks. An experience of pure delight!
A human adventure above all else
Gradually, they return to civilisation. The barking of the dogs first, then the sound of the snowmobiles and the sight of the houses of the village of Ittoqqortoormiit. Disoriented by what they’ve just shared, our adventurers are left with a feeling of nostalgia when they get back. In the comfort of the ship, everyone’s minds are still elsewhere… a little. They’ll need time to gently return from this voyage within a voyage. There are some certainties however: the certainty of having together felt the thrill of facing this pure, powerful natural environment, through which we are only passing visitors; and the certainty, too, of each having grown in contact with the other, nourished by Inuit wisdom: of having shared in a unique and surreal human experience. The adventure of a lifetime!
Seated in a chair in the observatory in the evening, eyes fixed on the exterior, absorbed by the evening light falling on a fiery, blazing ice, I imagine myself on the other side of the window.” In the space of an instant, privileged even amongst the privileged, I have the impression of understanding what is happening here.
Discover our report on the backstage of this exceptional human adventure:
Credits : Julien Fabro / Morgane Monneret
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