Ski mountaineering in East Greenland, Easter 2015
I enjoy taking a break from fell running in the last couple of months of winter to get some ski touring and winter climbing in- I feel like it toughens you up and gives you some hill strength and mental toughness and also makes the return of running in T-shirts in spring feel like a luxury. I acclimatised to the wind and cold and got my ski legs and crampon-steady feet during a long week in the Scottish highlands in February and felt ready for whatever the Arctic could throw at me.
We had started to plan the trip nearly a year ago and had met up with our two guides at a pub in the Lake District to discuss the make-up of the team and find out about their expedition ethos. Three of us and two people we hadn't met yet would join the British mountain guide and his partner who were now locals in the village of Kulusuk, East Greenland and they would choose a base camp location based on where they wanted to explore and dependant on weather and sea ice conditions at the time. With logistics sorted by someone else, all we needed to do was make sure we had warm clothes and persuade the insurance company we had thorough polar bear protection and comms plans.
After a night in Iceland we prepared for the 2 hour flight to Greenland, rather worried it might not take off as stormy weather in the Denmark strait (the sea between Iceland and Greenland) had led to flights being cancelled for the past 10 days but they managed to fly us and the back-log of passengers and provide some stunning views of the sea ice, ice bergs and the miles and miles of rugged white mountainous coastline as we descended to land on the island of Kulusuk, one of only two air strips on the sparsely inhabited east coast.
The village of Kulusuk- built on seal-hunting on the open ocean and the icy fjords
We spent a couple of nights in the village, scouting out some skiing in glacial bowls on a mountain overlooking Cap Dan and the vast open ocean, enjoying our last cups of tea made from an electric kettle, watching out for Northern lights displays, getting used to the wolf-like howls of the packs of Greenlandic husky dogs and mingling with the locals in one of the brightly-coloured basic wooden huts in the village. Then we packed up gear for 10 days of camping and set off on four dog sleds driven by the local hunters and pulled by the 10-12 strong packs of dogs over sea ice and glacial cols in between to reach our base camp 4 hours away..
Dog sledding into our base camp
We knew stormy weather was forecast for the next day so it meant that establishing a safe and sturdy base camp upon arrival was essential and we set to work cutting out igloo-style blocks of hard snow to create a wall around the sleeping tents and in our new roles as snow architects, we created a wind breaker on 3 sides and then backed it up with piles of loose snow to block any cracks. Then the night was split into 1.5 hour slots for polar bear watch and we familiarised ourselves with the flares, the bear trip wires around the tents and the procedure for alerting the guides who could use the rifles to scare off any potential intruders.. That first night the storm grew to the point that sitting in the tent porch on watch, you couldn't keep the zips open to look out without getting a face-full of blowing snow and you really did ask yourself if you would even hear the steps of a tonne of bear. Welcome to the Arctic!! As day broke we got used to the roaring of the storm and realised we would just be maintaining camp and shifting the blowing snow from crushing the tents all day rather than properly venturing out but after 36 hours of tent-boundness, waking to bright sunshine the following day was glorious!!
Base camp for 10 days (sleeping tents at the back with a bear trip wire) and big tent for group meals in the foreground
Most skiing days consisted of skinning up (placing man-made sticky skins on the base of the skis and releasing the heals of the bindings) and amazing powdery descents with sea ice traverses and glacial roping up in between, out for about 6 or 7 hours. We reached the summit of a couple of peaks by replacing our skis with crampons but quite often we could ski all the way to the summit as there was so much near permanent snow on these mountains.. Although we didn't get higher than 900 metres, we often had a few ascents stored up through the day, exploring the next journey from one peak to the next one once we had a view from the top. Compared to ski touring in the Alps where you can really get out of breath at over 3000 m, the sea to summit nature of these mountains meant that you felt fresh and could clearly see your day's journey beneath you and tomorrow's potential summits teasing you. The descents had splendid powder snow, carefully assessed for avalanche potential by our guide and we had massive grins on our faces and were eager to gain height again to get some more.
Helen and Markus skinning up with jaw-dropping vistas of sea ice, fjords and peaks as far as the eye can see
Skiing in such temperatures (-20 C at the coldest without any wind chill lowering it further) meant that you rarely stopped for long and put on a down jacket straight away but the sunshine often felt warm on the good days and the skinning up really kept you warm. Upon returning from our first day's ski we each had a very chilled beer waiting for us and gorged ourselves on soup or crackers every other day as après-ski. As with most mountain or camping trips, food was a popular theme and I have never eaten as much cheese but I am grateful that the days of pemmican have passed in polar travel!!! Freeze-dried food and plenty of hot drinks kept me happy and warm throughout the trip and provided a focus for the early morning and evening's social activities in the big base camp tent downwind of the sleeping tents. We had to bury the food every night and while we were out in the day to stop the Arctic foxes from breaking into our stash and we had to keep digging new toilets in the downwind area as they filled up with snow during the storms.
The requisite digging to prevent the tents from being covered and crushed during stormy days
Well, we had our fair share of Arctic weather with a pattern of one day sunny and one day snowy soon establishing itself, sometimes only managing a short tour if at all on the snowy days but somehow there is always something to do when you are surviving out in that environment and we soon learned the rhythm and nature of the camp chores and worked as a team to make life as comfortable and fun as possible.
Zoë preparing for the final crampon up to a summit, Helge booting the last few metres from the col and Markus showing us how to do steep couloir skiing with style
We were all fit and active people but you do feel a bit more fragile out there in that environment and even though I was never worn out after a day's skiing, it was pretty tiring and I could feel my arms and legs getting heavier and my daily rhythm and generally fidgety- nature slowing down. I think that is what the polar areas do to you, make you realise that there is no hurry, no competition, you slow to a new rhythm and deal with the essential parts of life, companionship and survival and the vistas and beauty of the mountains leaves you in total awe. This coastal area of countless un-named peaks (none we did had names and most had never been skied before) goes on for 100s of miles, with some peaks over 3000 m high and 30 km to the west of them rises the Greenland ice cap to its high point of 3500 m, a vast expanse of 1000s of square miles. We climbed peaks on three islands and the whole area is a jumble of islands, fjords and frozen sea ice dotted with ice bergs and wandering polar bears (4 had been spotted in the area but we didn't come across them luckily) hunting the abundant seals. The inaccessibility of the area for humans (except by dog sled or skidoo) means that we can just scratch the surface of this mountaineering paradise and to be able to do that on a 2 week holiday is such a privilege.
The team (Matt (our guide), Jenny, Zoë, Helge, Markus, Ed (and Helen taking photo))
Our expedition area: Kulusuk is on the southernmost island on this map and our base camp was on the next island up. On the inset, the whole of Greenland shows the coastline in perspective (covers over 2 million km2 of which over 80% is permanent ice and it has over 44 thousand km of coastline).
Our basecamp in the fjords near Kulusuk. The Greenland ice sheet is the vast white area to the west