Injured, Cold, Remote: My Near-Disaster in Greenland

A few weeks ago in a remote part of Greenland, I lived through a serious accident and injury while ski mountaineering. This is my story.

Greenland skiing accident

I’ve gone back and forth on whether or not to share this story. I didn’t want to undermine the seriousness of the incident – and I’m embarrassed and disappointed. But here it is.

In March, I traveled to Greenland with Merrell athlete Jason Antin and a film crew from Stept Studios for some adventure and exploration. Our goals were to quickly traverse the Arctic Circle Trail and then put up some new lines on unclimbed and un-skied peaks north of Sisimiut.

Two Men Traverse Greenland's Arctic Circle Trail in Winter

The trip around Greenland's Arctic Circle Trail in winter was so remote that the athletes called it the "first known time." The Arctic Circle Trail crosses about 103 miles from Kangerlussuaq, Greenland, to the west coast fishing town of Sisimiut. Read more…

After completing the traverse, we were dropped off in a remote region for our second objective. Shortly after, all hell broke loose.

An Accident in Greenland

It was late in the afternoon, but the golden light persuaded us to sneak in a quick ski tour before retiring for the night. We knew that snow conditions were poor, possibly even dangerous. But the prospect of being surrounded by mountains that had rarely, if ever, been explored by man was too intoxicating.

Skiing in Greenland
Antin and Chambers ski during their FKT on the Arctic Circle Trail; photo by Thomas Woodson

A line 2,000 feet above us beckoned. So we started climbing.

We stopped at a rock buttress just below the summit. The light was fading, and conditions were increasingly consequential, so we decided not to go higher. We quickly transitioned to skis and discussed the risks. We were on a 40-degree hard-pack slope, and a small rock band ended with a dangerous drop-off directly below us.

Jumping into my third turn, my skis slid out, and my binding popped. I planted my whippet with my uphill hand to stop my fall, but the downward force instantly ripped my shoulder out of its socket as I careened down the mountain.

I finally came to a stop on the rock band, a few feet shy of the drop-off we’d noted just minutes earlier.

Immediately I sat up to take stock as Jason and our photographer Thomas Woodson carefully made their way toward me. At a minimum, I knew my arm was dislocated and my leg was broken. And with the sun setting at the end of the fjord, it was about to be a long night.

An Excruciating Rescue

When I lifted my arm to touch my face, a fiery nerve pain shot down my neck and into my hand. A small amount of blood soaked through my liner gloves and momentarily warmed my fingers before it began to freeze.

Propped up by my backpack, I stared off into the distance while Jason and Thomas discussed strategy. They were calm and collected, dealing with the situation. I was relieved. Because it was only meant to be a “mellow tour,” we’d made the decision to leave ropes and harnesses behind.

“We have two options: You stay here while we go get gear for a rescue, or you try to get yourself down,” Jason said to me.

I thought about it for a brief moment. My clothes were wet with sweat from the ascent, and I was already cold from the few minutes of inactivity. Also, as stupid as it may sound, I dreaded the thought of them having to go down and back up on my account.

“I’ll do my best to get down now,” I replied.

After a few unsuccessful attempts to reset my shoulder, the two secured my arm with a triangular bandage. We had pain medicine in the med kit, but I decided it was best to hold off, fearing it’d make me too drowsy on the descent.

When they helped me to my feet, I realized my leg was worse than I had initially thought. Walking more than a few feet would not be possible. I sat back down, planted my whippet with my good arm, and slowly lowered myself a few feet, kicking my good foot into the icy slope for purchase.

We continued like this for the next four hours. Jason stayed with me the entire time, talking me through each step, encouraging me in moments of weakness. Occasionally, he’d help me to my feet, spotting me as I took a few agonizing steps across the mountain toward safer terrain.

Meanwhile, Thomas and two of our videographers, Andy Maser and Chris Naum, descended to the hut to call in a rescue, and to gather gear that would help me get down.

Drugs, Drugs, and More Drugs

The nerve pain, the cold, the adrenaline fatigue – it was all starting to break me down. And I was increasingly overwhelmed by feelings of nausea and lightheadedness.

Backcountry ski accident

“I need the drugs!” I burst out to Jason.

He stabilized himself and removed the med kit from his pack. I opened my mouth, and he tossed a few small pills under my tongue. We sat there quietly for a few minutes.

“You see that headlamp over there?” he asked, pointing his ski pole to my right. “That’s the boys. That’s where the terrain flattens out.”

Flatter terrain meant that I could be safely lowered in a sled, drastically reducing the time it’d take for us to get to the small hut at the edge of the fjord.

“Think of this as an ultra,” he joked.

“My wife is going to fucking kill me,” I responded.

Mike Chambers

Into the Sled

The boys strapped me to the sled and covered me with extra jackets. The long hours of butt sliding had me seriously concerned about frostbite.

“Is it even possible to get asscheek frostbite?” I thought to myself.

The drugs were working, and the boys had a plan. Thomas shoved a Snickers in my mouth, gave me a sip of water, and the sled began moving slowly downhill.

Reducing the Shoulder

Fearful the sled would tip over in the direction of my dislocated shoulder, I leaned hard left as we slid down the last steep section before the hut. We’d made it, but we were still 50 miles from the nearest village.

I sat upright on a wooden bench as Jason carefully helped me remove my top layers, one by one, until I sat shirtless. I glanced down at my deformed shoulder, then scanned the room to gauge the others’ reactions.

“We need to get this back in,” Jason said.

I breathed through another episode of nerve pain and listened to Andy Maser explain a “reduction” technique.

“Have you ever done this before?” Jason asked Andy.

“Nope, but I know it works,” Andy replied.

Lying facedown on the top bunk, with my dislocated arm hanging towards the floor, Jason attached a Dyneema sling to my wrist.

“Ready?” he asked.

One by one, he began to weight the sling using water-filled Nalgenes. He massaged my shoulder as I breathed through the discomfort and tried to envision it sliding back gently into its socket. Nothing.

After several minutes of this, I felt his hands wrap around my wrist and begin to pull downwards. I buried my face into a bundled up jacket, clenching the zipper in my teeth.

Pop!

Carried to the Truck

My shoulder slid back into place, and I let out a dramatic string of obscenities as cheers filled the cabin. It was far from instant relief, but I found comfort in knowing it was back where it belonged.

broken ankle

I rolled my head to look at Jason. Standing beside him was Bo, a Greenlandic statue of a man who makes the entire cast of “Game of Thrones” look adorable. He operates Sirius Greenland, the logistics company that assisted our film crew earlier that month while Jason and I traversed the Arctic Circle Trail.

Despite his imposing size, Bo is an incredibly sweet man, the father of three girls, and the exact person you want to see in situations like mine.

“Am I happy to see you!” I said to Bo as we awkwardly embraced.

To come get me, Bo had driven two hours across two mountain passes in the middle of the night in his lifted 4×4 truck with snow tracks.

“I’ve got real drugs for you,” Bo said.

Up until that point in my adult life, I could honestly say I’d never been carried by another man. Bo pulled me down from the bunk, put me under his arm like a bag of groceries, and carried me out of the cabin and into his monster truck. Jason, with the help of the rest of the guys, quickly assembled our gear before hopping in the back seat.

Bo tossed the med kit to Jason.

“Get me a 22-gauge syringe and a vial of morphine,” he ordered.

Jason hunted through the med kit and handed the items up to Bo.

“I’ve always wanted to do this,” Bo said, drawing the medicine into the syringe.

I looked at Jason for reassurance as Bo stuck the needle into my shoulder. I let my head fall back, Bo turned on AC/DC, and off we went across the frozen expanse.

Overland to Safety

The truck stopped. I opened my eyes.

“Too steep,” Bo said. A blast of cold air filled the cabin as he opened the door and walked to the front of the truck. He released the lever on the hydraulic winch and began dragging the steel cable uphill.

“Where does he plan on attaching that?” I thought to myself, looking around at the featureless terrain.

Bo disappeared beyond the reach of the headlights and reappeared a few minutes later.

“Hope this works,” he said, getting back in the truck.

I craned my neck to see above the dashboard and watched cautiously as Bo engaged the winch. The cable drew tight and groaned under the weight of the truck. We slowly inched our way uphill until the lights illuminated a small boulder, about the size of a dishwasher, stuck into the slope directly above us.

“That’s the anchor?” Jason asked Bo.

Bo smirked. I closed my eyes as I envisioned the boulder breaking loose and crashing down on top of us. I tried to summon the energy to care, but then I drifted back to sleep.

The Next Morning

skiers greenland

Intrigued by the early morning commotion, sled dogs lined the road as we approached the fishing town of Sisimiut. We’d been in the truck more than two hours, sitting quietly as the northern lights filled the sky.

“I called the doctor on the sat phone. They know we’re coming,” Bo said as we pulled up in front of a blue metal building.

Judging by the darkness inside, it appeared that the doctor, along with the other 5,700 residents in Greenland’s second-largest town, was fast asleep.

Bo and Jason helped me out of the truck and up the wooden ramp to the front door. A small woman appeared through the glass and turned on the lights before letting us in. The worst of the journey was over, and it was time to assess the damage. Bo and the nurse helped me onto the hospital bed. I laid down, one hand clenching my temples.

mike chambers

Immediately after my fall, Jason was concerned I might be concussed. He checked in on me periodically, quizzing me on a phrase we’d agreed I’d recite to prove my lucidity. I got it right, so I figured I was OK.

Bo explained the accident to the nurses in Greenlandic. I wasn’t expecting much in the realm of medical care. I was surprised when the nurses immediately handed me a shoulder sling and wrapped my leg in a plaster cast. There was no checking of vitals, no x-rays, no mention of the gash on my chin. Just a short conversation followed by immediate immobilization.

I couldn’t decide if their casual approach was comforting or terrifying, but I didn’t say anything. Jason sat quietly in the corner of the room, watching as the nurse fumbled with the gauze and dropped it on the floor. Then again. Then a third time. Jason turned to Bo.

“Maybe they should take his blood pressure or something.”

Bo smiled, “They want us to come back tomorrow.”

Going Home

Over the next few days, Jason, Bo, and Bo’s wife, Annete, graciously shuttled me around the town of Sisimiut as we navigated the Arctic Circle health system.

mike chambers airport

X-rays ultimately confirmed a tibia fracture and ruled out any fractures in my shoulder and neck. Beyond that, I’d need more sophisticated imaging to determine the extent of the soft tissue damage.

As we drove to the small airport on the edge of town, snow filled the sky. I looked out at the mountains, overwhelmed with gratitude and appreciation for everyone who helped me. It was time to go home.

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