This year was the 10th anniversary of the Åsnes Expedition Amundsen by Xtremeidfjord, the action sports arm of small but renowned Eidfjord town. For this race, the athletes’ itinerary is on the training ground of the polar explorer Roald Amundsen, and for good reason: with harsh cold, snowy and windy conditions forecast, they knew to expect a grueling challenge. In the media team, Kai-Otto Melau from Norway, Mikkel Beisner from Denmark and myself were looking forward to capturing and sharing their journey.
What is it all about? Nothing short of 100km across the Hardangervidda mountain plateau on skis, with enough gear and food to survive for a week, all packed in a “pulk” (a sled) which must weigh a least 40kg. And you must drag the bastard yourself. It’s in the rules. That’s a proper expedition race, a skills and endurance challenge with no refueling stations or assistance, save for emergencies and you must to have a GPS device with you. Organizers don’t want you lost in the inevitable and intermittent whiteouts.
OK, maybe that sounds too “hardcore”. The fact is that you carry a tracker and the race security crew knows where you are at any time. Also along the way are three huts – the checkpoints – where you must sign in and distribute 8 hours of mandatory resting time: you decide how you want to do it. That being said, don’t think you can sleep in the hut: you’ve got to pitch your tent!
My base was the second checkpoint named Litlos, 45km from the start line and a good hour and a half of freezing snowmobile ride from the nearest road access. In summer, you can only walk there!
Athletes set off at 11:00AM and the leaders arrived at Litlos early evening in relatively calm weather. With snow and wind gradually increasing to reach 15 knots in the early morning, some chose to only boil water, eat and rest a short time before moving again, preferring to recover at the next checkpoint, while most bivvied to take some hours of sleep.
Many kept arriving through the night and in the early morning when visibility had dropped considerably. Some continued on in the whiteout anyway and others preferred to wait…
Eventually, the skies cleared for a good part of Day 2. Most athletes left Litlos before noon. Others still arrived but in smaller numbers – from those, you could hear around the camp: “we rested too much at the last checkpoint”, “I threw up and couldn’t keep food and water down…” or “it was so windy, we had to put up the tent”.
Those were harsh conditions, so the sunshine now gave warmth and allowed to appreciate the desolate but mesmerizing winter landscape. On top of that, you could more clearly see angles of the slopes and choose a more efficient route. Not an easy task in flat light and how beneficial for saving you energy. During the day the athletes faced headwind, uphill and sometimes icy slopes, requiring every effort of edging their skis to pull themselves and the sleds forward…
Preceding Litlos is a lake from which you could see the approaching silhouettes from a long way away in this clement weather. On the frozen and snow-covered body of water, you can enjoy a steady pace on flat terrain, and the feeling of space and isolation is even more poignant.
By 3:00 PM the weather had become very shifting. Fewer athletes were arriving and leaving, invariably quite tired and with the slowly dimming light, it all made for a somewhat dull yet tense atmosphere: a low point in the day, the kind of mood you need to fight through. This might have been the mindset transpiring from the athletes, nearly 30 hours after the start. Despite the mandatory resting time, you must be quite experienced in order to feel calm enough and sleep well.
Time flies when you are busy, and the day went by. In the late afternoon the tracking system showed only a few people left to arrive at Litlos, accompanied by the security team closing the march. Snowmobiles didn’t follow the last athletes as the motor noise would constantly remind them of their position, and even the team on skis kept their distance… A last sight of small silhouettes on the frozen lake, with low light and incoming weather.
A few did not finish, but all learned a great deal from the experience. I’m honored to have been there in the mountains to observe, document and meet a lot of great people, and know what I have to practice before entering the race one day. Small things like boiling water in -15 degrees will make all the difference. More photos through this link and congrats to everyone involved. Feel free to contact me if you would like photos in high resolution.
PS> Meanwhile, people like Jostein Sirevåg below (in the EXA security team) and teammate Johan Løvrød will attempt to break the record of 3000km unassisted, unsupported on skis, going around Greenland in 2022. This journey will take months, all alone in similarly cold and empty whiteness and my imagination can only get a glimpse of the mental strength they will need to summon. Have a look at their website, social media, and show them your support!
Bye for now.