2015 Mountain Film Festival: Across the Ice rewards armchair explorers

Epic 2,300-kilometre journey across Greenland's massive ice sheet relied on wind power

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      The great thing about watching filmed expeditions undertaken by modern explorers is being able to experience new territories without the physical efforts, inconveniences, or outright dangers that are part of the real deal.

      You can quibble about whether or not traversing Australia’s Outback by pogo stick is a legitimate exploration or just an attempt to grab an unassailable spot in the record books, but there’s no denying the pleasure to be derived from merely viewing an entertaining account of someone else’s gruelling hop into glory.

      That armchair advantage is the central appeal of Across the Ice, a 52-minute 2014 documentary about author, photographer, and experienced polar explorer Sebastian Copeland’s 2010 journey across the length of the Greenland ice sheet. By skis. And kites.

      That 2,300-kilometre expedition across the interior plateau ice sheet—undertaken with young polar veteran Eric McNair Landry to bring awareness to global climate change and planned to take only 40 days—is notable because of its primary mode of transport: wind.

      The idea was to harness the seasonal moving air that slides across the inland surface of the 1,710,000-square-kilometre, two-kilometre-thick frozen slab to pull two men on skis roped to sledges with hundreds of pounds of supplies.

      The tricky bit (other than the ubiquitous and potentially deadly crevasses)? When the wind is too light or nonexistent, you either sit or trudge your way on skis, pulling your weighty gear behind. When the wind is blowing too hard (also known as a blizzard), you have to hunker down in your tent in survival mode as a 100-kilometre-per-hour gale wails and temperatures plunge well below freezing.

      Sometimes it takes days, or even weeks, before the storms lift. And often you have to wait for the ice surface to harden late in the day in order to make any real headway on the skis, meaning lots of night travel (not that this is too onerous in the land of the midnight sun).

      But when conditions hit that lovely Goldilocks balance, you can sail across the frozen surface at surprising speeds, covering a distance in one hour that took you five days while on foot (or skis) unassisted.

      Across the Ice well conveys the solitude, stillness, and quiet to be encountered at the top of the Earth, just as it does the unrelenting, screaming chaos of an Arctic windstorm. In between the two extremes, there is a surreal break as the frozen voyageurs inspect a Cold War relic: a huge abandoned DEW Line radar station.

      And along the way, during an extended but physically punishing Goldilocks interval, the two daredevils manage to break one of those world records, this one for the most distance covered (nonmotorized) in 24 hours: a jaw-dropping 595 kilometres.

      You know, it probably wouldn't be all that hard to strap a La-Z-Boy recliner into one of those kite harnesses.

      Across the Ice screens Saturday (February 14) at 7:30 p.m. at the Cinematheque as part of the 2015 Vancouver International Mountain Film Festival.