Polar shadows by Vincent Colliard

Published on 2021/10/22

It was the 2nd of February 2021 when my partner, adventure filmmaker and ultra-marathon athlete Caroline Côté, and I set off on an intensely challenging winter crossing over the vast and rugged territory of Svalbard. For more than 2 months, crossing over 1100 km and being 100% self-sufficient, we had to tap into our highest endurance and perseverance levels to achieve the goal we set ourselves.

Our goal: to be the first expedition to cross the main island of Spitsbergen, from North to South during the peak of the polar winter. Leaving from the town of Longyearbyen, which would also be our point of return, we chose to shun the help of any motorized vehicles to reach the extreme north point of the island, setting out on our skis. This was an extraordinary expedition with the risk of endangering our lives, and in turn the love that unites us!

Caroline and me met on a ski expedition in Antarctica. Caroline was the film maker, and I was the guide. Late one evening, while the other participants were sleeping, we found ourselves together, alone outside the tent. Sitting in the middle of the glacial mountains in the Antarctic Peninsula, facing the Pacific, we shared a cigarillo and decided to join forces!

Longyearbyen, the administrative capital of Svalbard, and the most northern town in the world, would be the departure point. After picking up any last-minute parcels, we leave civilization and dove into our big adventure of 63 days, pulling 2 sleds each, weighing in at more than 290kg. We were ready to meet the ‘King of Svalbard’, the polar bear. The possibility was high as Svalbard is home to approximately 3.500 polar bears, a third more than the number of habitants on this archipelago.

We would also encounter the famous and emblematic Svalbard reindeer, along with the arctic fox which is now sadly an endangered species on the island. We would be traveling through the heart of the polar night with only each other’s company, relying heavily on our navigation instruments to progress, the moon and stars on clear nights, and the beams of our headlamps.

We knew that poor visibility during the polar nights could be an ongoing challenge and that eventually, as the month of March drew closer, the light would make its return and guide us to the South, hopefully under rays of a returning sun.

This itinerary, of over a 1000 km, was not without numerous challenges that we had to overcome! 
Multiple and different emotions passed through us. But it was about putting them on the side and stay focus on the goal day after day and trying to use both the fear and the stress the right way in order to benefit from them instead of undergoing.
In the past, the Arctic taught me to be able to adapt all the time. From planning to weather, the most important to be flexible and ready for a change. Having this mindset allows me not to be surprised when a special event comes but prepared for it.
The polar nights left little room for error. The possibility of coming nose to nose with a polar bear was constant. We came across 2 ‘Kings of Svalbard’ during their expedition.

The unpredictable, strong winds across the glacier and along the fjords meant that temperatures dropped dramatically. The topography of the island has changed as a consequence of global warming. We found the southern glaciers to be strewn with dangerous crevasses in this changing environment. Hunger was a major challenge during our traverse, and it haunted us from the beginning to the very end of the expedition. We had to ration for a good part of our journey to make it to the next pick-up point.
It left us hungry and weak towards the end of the expedition and laying eyes on our thin silhouettes upon arrival, we realized to what extent! Our strength came from witnessing the sheer beauty of the ice world we were exploring, from the Northern lights to the glaciers.
Reaching the Southern tip of Spitsbergen half a day before the spring and realizing the first winter traverse unsupported, with the lack of sleep and hunger, was definitely one to remember. I felt proud, happy and incredibly strong despite the state of weakness. We still had to ski 250 km back to civilization to complete the journey though.
The success of this insane expedition was marked by celebrity Norwegian, polar explorer Børge Ousland. From a hero to a mentor, from an expedition partner to a friend, I have learnt it all from him. Upon our return to civilization, Børge was there to greet and congratulate us in person for our feat. Børge, with whom I had experienced several expeditions to date, was interested to hear all the details of our adventure!

What drives me to do unsupported polar expeditions to the most remote places on earth?
Being on the field facing challenges allows me to improve myself as a person. Solving situations and pushing myself make me better understand what is important in life. Owning less becomes key to happiness.

I also like the simplicity about going on expeditions. Ski, eat, sleep and repeat. I only take what I need to be able to move forward and stay free.
But there is also another aspect that pushes me to go to the polar regions, and to return, and it is linked to the environment. Understanding the role of the ice on our planet and seeing the human impact on these fragile eco-systems take me to carefully evaluate my needs.

For the past 15 years, I have been exploring the polar regions, on sea ice, glaciers, icecaps and in the mountains. All these adventures and the fact to witness the acceleration of climate change in the high latitudes have changed my mindset. Back to civilization, it helps me on a daily basis to not over consume by keeping in mind the human footprint.

Grivel is an important inspiration to me. There is no compromise when it comes to the quality of the products and their functionalities. Also, the clean design makes it easy user friendly. This is how I think when I plan an unsupported expedition in the Arctic winter. Quality, efficiency and simplicity. So, it feels really good to collaborate with a brand like Grivel which emphasizes the same values.

Vincent Colliard, born 1986 in France, is in the Grivel team since 2020. He is one of the most accomplished polar explorers of our generation whose numbered expeditions include the current crossing of the 20 largest icecaps on earth.

Grivel favorite products: Mistral Harness, G10 wide crampons, Ghost Evo ice axe.