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UND alum served as lead physician on Greenland expedition

Posted on 8/24/2018

Originally published at UND Today:

Editor's note: This story was written from interviews with Dr. Jon Solberg, an alum of UND's medical school, and from Solberg's expedition Facebook posts under the name "Dakdoc."

At 80.16 degrees north, there was no escaping the cold or wind. The glacier had been in a complete whiteout for days, and the temperature hovered between 30 and 40 degrees below zero.

There was real risk of falling into a crevasse, a chasm caused by fractured ice.

Dr. Jon Solberg described the experience as "white darkness."

He and six fellow explorers were on an expedition to drive across Greenland's icecap, but they weren't there yet.

"We had to decide whether to continue or go back," Solberg said. "How long could we wait out the storm? There are no forecasts for that area because there is no reason to go there, and we had no way to know if the storm would last a day, a week or a month."

This far north, there was no realistic hope of rescue, and they were concerned about food and fuel.

"We were on our own," Solberg said. "It was a dark night, even though the sun didn't go down."

Adventurous spirit

Solberg has always loved challenge and adventure.

He grew up on a farm in Stanley, N.D., and after earning his M.D. from the UND School of Medicine & Health Sciences in 2006, he joined the U.S. Army, trained as an emergency room physician, and deployed to Afghanistan to care for injured U.S. soldiers at a remote combat support hospital. He's climbed Mount Rainier, practiced medicine in the jungles of Cameroon, is a certified rescue diver and instrument-rated pilot, and is a fellow in the Academy of Wilderness Medicine.

Now the medical director for the Emergency & Trauma Center at CHI St. Alexius in Bismarck, Solberg also writes articles on medical topics and travel in the Overland Journal (www.overlandjournal.com) in his spare time.

That led to something big last year when Greg Miller, former CEO of the Utah Jazz and owner of the Land Cruiser Heritage Museum read his articles and recruited him as the expedition's medical officer.

"Greg is an exceptional leader, visionary and explorer," Solberg said. "This was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to cross Greenland. Most places have been thoroughly explored, but Greenland's long axis has never been crossed by motor vehicle. There are no roads, no gas stations, no hospitals, no spare parts."

White darkness

Traversing glaciers in Greenland is not for the faint-hearted. The few maps of the island still have large unexplored areas.

"This had never been done before, and likely will never be done again," Solberg said. "It was a logistical challenge and an endurance test. It was white darkness. We were in complete whiteouts. We drove off-road following GPS coordinates, and worried we would run into each other when visibility was poor."

Progress was at times slow on the 3,500-mile, month-long round trip. The specially modified trucks were equipped with winches, 44-inch-tall tires, and glacier bars to catch them if they tumbled into a crevasse. The trucks were modified to burn jet fuel, which doesn't freeze at extremely low temperatures.

Solberg's job was to keep the team healthy and to collect and analyze snow and ice samples. Along with Jasdeep Gill, UND Center for Family Medicine resident, he plans to publish in a scientific paper later this year.

"Any accident can be catastrophic," he said. "If there was any mishap, mechanical or medical, we were on our own." Even the basics of keeping clean were a challenge. He tested for carbon monoxide exposure, monitored for frostbite, and kept the team healthy. Aside from one person who ended up with moderately frostbitten fingers, they had more mechanical than medical problems. Each truck carried a medical kit, and Solberg was prepared to treat fractures, allergic reactions, heart attacks, blood clots, and other emergencies.

As a farm boy from Stanley, he could help with mechanical problems too.

"We had a lot of them," he said. "We broke five wheel studs, a truck axle and coil spring and U-joint, cracked a truck's frame, broke hitches on trailers, had a flat tire, and completely wore through two military-grade pintle hitches which pulled the fuel sleds. On the farm you can pull over and fix it. But it was a huge ordeal here."

"The mechanics were very busy, and suffered in the cold and wind through each repair. We never shut off the trucks," Solberg recalled.

Frozen hot food

Though they had planned to camp along the way, the conditions were too extreme.

"By the time we got outside, set up camp and cooked food, it took several hours to warm up sleeping bags, and we realized that camping wasn't feasible," he said. "We tried to cook meals in the tent, but with seven men breathing inside, it got so foggy we couldn't see each other, and the hot food froze to the plates. We ate a lot of Snicker bars and HoHos, and we still lost weight. We resorted to sleeping in the vehicles and driving around the clock in shifts."

They spent a few memorable hours exploring DYE-2, and abandoned radar station on the ice cap and a relic of the Cold War, which was abandoned in 1988.

"There was a frozen ham on the table, bread being mixed in the kitchen, prescriptions written in the infirmary," Solberg said. "It's unbelievable. The furniture is still in place."

After weeks of battling the elements and seeing nothing but snow, they had reached 81.29 degrees north, the most northern portion of the Greenland Ice Sheet, where they camped on exposed tundra which tapered off to the frozen Arctic Ocean. It is the most northern dirt ever reached by vehicle on the planet.

"It is a fact that no one has ever driven here before," Solberg said. "Every time we stepped out of the vehicle, there was a high degree of probability that no human ever stepped here before."

On the return journey, they stopped at the National Science Foundation's Summit Camp (10,551 ft), where the expedition proved quite a spectacle to the isolated environmental scientists. The exit off the western edge of the glacier proved quite challenging, as one of rear tires broke through into a crevasse. Everyone roped up with climbing harnesses and wore crampons, and after winching the vehicle free, they discovered the truck's frame had snapped during the accident. Luckily, they'd brought two generators and a welder.

"The ice there on the western edge was the bluest you've ever seen," Solberg said, adding that the mechanic installed hundreds of screws into the tires for grip so they could continue the trek.

As they inched off the glacier and made their way into Kangerlussuaq, they received a hero's welcome. Among the locals waiting for them was an old man wearing "the largest down coat and pants I've ever seen," Solberg said. "He had a toothless grin and was smoking a pipe. He told us our expedition gives his people hope that they too will be able to someday visit relatives and shop in neighboring villages by driving specialized vehicles across the glacier, instead of relying on expensive helicopters and boats. He told us we had the keys to the entire village, but really we just wanted hot pizza and cold beer."

-Jan Orvik


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