Best Job Ever: Conquering the World’s Largest Glaciers

IceLeagcy project: crossing the 20 largest glaciers on the planet

“For me, it’s definitely worthwhile to live shorter, but intense.” This life view is that of Vincent Colliard, a young explorer joining renowned polar explorer Børge Ousland in an endeavor to cross the world’s 20 largest glaciers. The ambitious 10-year journey is part of an effort to document climate change, an important mission for sure but one that regularly places the explorers in the path of danger.

The explorers spend an average of 12 hours a day traversing glaciers, and the harsh and vast landscapes are a constant reminder of the explorers’ vulnerability. “We were like, ‘We’re little humans.’ We felt very small,” says Colliard, recalling how he and Ousland felt in May of 2015 when they crossed the world’s 17th largest glacier, Stikine Icefield in Alaska. “While it’s at the bottom of the list in size, it’s probably one of the toughest glaciers to cross,” Colliard says.

The duo trekked Stikine unsupported, meaning no one was waiting for them at checkpoints to resupply them with food, water, or equipment. Colliard and Ousland each carried more than 130 pounds of gear on their sleds while not only skiing but also climbing up and down mountains and around 160-foot-deep crevices. On multiple occasions the threatening terrain forced the team to abandon their planned route and take longer detours, while their supplies dwindled.

“One time there was a steep mountain with a rocky face on one side of us, and on the other side were ice formations as big as cathedrals,” Colliard recalls. He and Ousland decided that the next morning they’d go right through the middle—only to wake to an avalanche. “We knew that another avalanche was very likely. We could hear the water running in between the layer of snow and the rock face, and when the water got too warm it would take out another patch of snow right where we were planning to go. We wanted to go as fast as possible, but we couldn’t because of our heavy sleds,” says Colliard. “We wanted to get the hell out of that place.”

On another day the team left the ice, thinking that trekking across the mountain might be easier, only to get caught up in the bush for hours. “Børge and I were screaming because we were so stressed. We knew we had to turn back to the ice. I got nervous and started to go too fast, and then I slipped on the rock and my sled pulled me down maybe four to five meters. I was so angry at myself; I shouldn’t have rushed. That’s when mistakes happen.”

But a sense of urgency couldn’t be denied. On day 15 of what was supposed to be a 10-day expedition, the duo had still not exited the glacier—and had only brought 16 days worth of food with them. The team seriously considered bailing out early and giving up on their mission to complete a full north-to-south crossing of Stikine. “We could have taken another exit that would have been easier, but it would have been farther north, and we would have been so upset to not do a complete crossing. So we decided to go forward and take the risk,” Colliard says.

The risk paid off, and on day 16 Colliard and Ousland finally reached the southern tip of the glacier, bringing back with them evidence and stories of glaciers that were retreating, covered in soot, and otherwise effected by climate change. While the physical challenges were extreme and witnessing the landscape’s deterioration was disappointing, Colliard is already biting at the bit to get back out in the field and cross the remaining glaciers. “Without risk, there is no adventure. And there’s nowhere I’d rather be.”

To follow along on the rest of Colliard and Ousland’s expeditions, check out their website Watch more exciting moments from their glacier crossings in “How to Not Get Eaten by a Polar Bear” and “Meet the Explorers Crossing the World’s 20 Largest Glaciers for Climate Change

Click here to read more with Vincent Colliard.

Click here to watch more from the Best Job Ever series.


SERIES PRODUCERS: Chris Mattle and Jennifer Shoemaker

GRAPHICS: Chris Mattle