Greenland, I Love you!
Welcome to Sisimiut, we’re glad to have you here!
I’m shaking hands with Lasseraq Skifte, a tall man who moves about the crowded arrival area of the Sisimiut airport with authority. He’s dressed in snowmobile pants, heavy snow boots, and a large well-worn coaches coat that would not be out of place on the World Cup ski circuit. His dark and weathered skin cannot hide his smiling eyes, and easygoing demeanor. “Collect your gear, and throw it in the back of the truck.” I do as instructed, and step out of the small airport, and get my first blast of Arctic air and snow right in my face. It is cold, too.
The travel to this point was uneventful. I had left Salt Lake four days prior- direct to Paris and connecting to Copenhagen, where I had spent two days exploring this city, originally a Viking fishing village from the 13th century city and rich with history and fascinating architecture. I took in the popular sights, and was able to find a modern brewpub boasting “the most beers on tap in Northern Europe.” I settled in for a few and marveled at the incomprehensible amount of bicycles used for transportation here, all by folks seemingly dressed in black.
Back home in the Wasatch, it was shaping up to be one of the driest winters ever. All around the west, the snow was disappearing, and winter never really go going. The thought of going on an adventure to unexplored regions of Greenland, kept me hopeful for some sort of redemption to this awful winter.
I enjoyed a few tasty local Danish brews in the cozy pub, after a few brews, I contemplated how I had ended up here by myself.
I had met Doug Stoup of Ice Axe Expeditions a few years prior, while presenting an adventure speaker series at Snowbird. My liaison at the resort asked me out of the blue if I had room in the schedule for Doug to present a show. I was vaguely familiar with Doug and his polar travels, and he gave a great presentation on an epic haul across Antarctica to the South Pole. We spoke occasionally after that until he called me last fall asking if he could again do a show this past winter, titled “Skiing the Planet.” As we caught up over a beer before the show, he in his affable form informed me “hey buddy, I’ve got a spot for you on this Greenland trip this spring, so you’re going!” He then gave another great show on skiing remote places around the globe, showing amazing images from Antarctica, Svalbard Morocco, and Greenland- mentioning to the crowd I would be going this year as well. I can’t recall if I said yes or not that night, but eventually I was able to get it scheduled, and bought the ticket.
Back to the pub in Copenhagen, little did I know that Doug was going to ruin my ski touring life…
From Copenhagen, it’s a five-hour flight back to the west on a big Greenland Air Airbus A-330. Flying in over the largest island in the world at 38,000 feet, the views of the east coast are of rugged mountains, draped with massive glaciers, and an endless sea of ice as far as one can see. Eventually the ice cap retreated, and we touched down in Kangerlussuaq, a former US airbase during WWII, population 500. Inside the airport it was easy to connect with the rest of the team, it seems backcountry skiers tend to recognize each other. We made the next flight on a smaller deHavilland Dash 8 for the coastal town of Sisimiut, slightly north of the Arctic Circle. The air outside the plane had that cold sub-zero haze to it, and as we descended into the clouds at the coast, the storm raged. Views of craggy cliffs and the white-capped ocean alternated between the waves of snow. Then it got exciting as the pilot banked steeply and dropped sharply to meet the runway that paralleled the water. Down safely, I would imagine this is a white-knuckle landing for most pilots in even good conditions.
We load up, it’s cold, and it’s coming down. We head for our accommodations for the night at the Nutaraq, a local community center/dance hall where we’ll bunk before heading out to our backcountry hut. It’s still relatively early, so Lasseraq takes us to lunch, and then Keoki and Jillian from Tahoe, Tim from the UK, Archie from Boston, and me head for a recon of town. We manage to find the local bar, and are greeted with warmly from a few local Inuit playing some pool. We grab a cold drink, and note the pint of Smirnoff for sale behind the bar for 490 Danish Krone, about $70 US.
Back at the Nutaraq, the storm continues outside. Brennan and Glen, our guides for the trip confer regularly with Lasseraq. To get to our cabin, we need to travel about 50 kilometers by snowmobile, crossing fjords and cols, hauling supplies for 10 for three days. Not an easy logistic with an unset sled track in deep snow. We settle in for a comfortable night’s sleep. The next day we awake to an unabated storm, with no visibility outside. It’s not sensible to approach some of the local shots for skiing, and a haul to the hut is out of the question. It will be a down day in Sisimiut. Time is a factor for us as after our stay at the backcountry hut, we’ll be back in Sisimiut where we’ll board a boat and sail down the coast to explore unskied terrain to the south. As with any endeavor such as this, flexibility is a must.
Sisimiut is an amazing place, we walk down to the harbor to see the ice-bound boats, and wonder which one will be our transport in a few days. Lasseraq takes us to a local boutique where a few Inuit artisans are crafting and selling their wares. I buy a bolo tie from fellow, crafted out of leather and whale baleen. On the walk back to the Nutaraq, Keoki and I see a small store that appears to be an ill-placed skateboard shop, with a sign saying “art gallery.” Keoki, a talented photographer, and owner of a gallery in Tahoe as well, says we must check it out. Inside the place is packed with everything one might need to survive the Arctic winter; clothing, tools, skateboards, underwear, kids toys, motor oil, highway flares… Keoki and I wander upstairs and discover a trove of Inuit crafts and artifacts; carved ivory of narwhal and walrus; figurines and jewelry carved from reindeer antler, sealskin slippers and garments. It all seems so out of place with the retail carnival downstairs. Rasmus, the proprietor, dressed like a skate park regular, comes up and shares his amazing knowledge of every piece. In Greenland there is a subsistence way of life. Whales, seals, Musk Ox, and other wildlife are not only hunted for food, but every part of the animal is utilized for clothing, heating oil, blankets, and traditional jewelry. Killing an animal for it’s ivory alone, or for it’s pelt or a trophy is unheard of. However given strict US customs laws which attempt to diminish the trade of these ill-gotten good from unscrupulous traders, we are forbidden to bring back any sort of ivory or sealskin products. We pick up a few pieces of carved reindeer antler, which is OK, and Rasmus makes me a deal on an Inuit in traditional garb on skis, carved out of antler.
Back at the Nutaraq, the forecast is for clearing in the morning, and Lass and his team will attempt to punch a path through the powder to get us to the hut. We convene that night at the Hotel Sisimiut, a remarkably modern and tasteful place given its northerly latitude. The bar has whatever we want, and a young Inuit lady named Nivi tends to our beverages. She is going to school in Copenhagen, but has returned to Greenland to study her native tongue. She speaks perfect English, and remembers everything we order and what we are drinking. Lasseraq and his wife Ane-Sofie join the team for dinner, and she is resplendent in a seal skin vest and boots, and carved jewelry. The wine and beer flow as we get to know each other, and enjoy an amazing feast of local cod. Lasseraq discusses our itinerary, and talks of the terrain we will be seeing at the hut, as well as via the boat in a few days. A few of us retire to a nearby booth after dinner to enjoy some aquavit, the water of life, guaranteeing a sound sleep that night.
The third day dawns clear, the storm has moved on, and left the cold in its wake. The sky is a deep blue, and we can see some of the local terrain that rises up around town. We load gear onto the sleds that will be towed behind the snowmobiles. There is about 20 inches of new on the ground, and Lasseraq has arranged for a snowcat to break trail for the first portion of the haul, up and over a couple of passes hoping that the ensuing track will provide enough traction on the soft snow for our loaded sleds. We partner up and head out. It’s cold enough out, and riding on a snowmobile with the wind and snow in our face, increases the factor. I’m wearing everything I’ve got, and am wishing for another layer. The anticipation of skiing diverts my mind from my freezing fingers. I’m riding with Akkula, a skilled driver who likes to light up a smoke at every stop, and show us his riding skills when I’m off the sled. As we motor out, he points out a few couloirs that roll off a plateau close to town. They’ve been skied before, and for obvious reasons; straight, aesthetic, and about 1500 vertical feet, close to town. He calls them 1,2,3 couloirs, and I can only nod my head over the whine of the Polaris. We push up and over the first pass, and a magnificent frozen fjord spreads out below, rimmed by mountains and plateaus with potential ski lines wherever we look. The snowcat driver wishes us luck, and turns back. We’ll break our own trail now, which is easier, as the wind has done some work out here, scouring the fresh powder away.
Since there are no trees or any other real way to measure the scope of the terrain we are in, what looks like a 5 minute crossing of the fjord takes closer to 20, even with Akkula gunning it, and me hanging on with a death grip. We cross another pass, and then descend down a sheltered canyon where the powder has remained soft and deep. At the bottom we reach another fjord surrounded by even higher terrain, punctuated by a pointed Nunatak at its head, classic Greenland that I always imagined. A 15-minute push up the fjord, and we are at our home for the next few days.
Our hut is a hunters cabin situated about 15 feet above the shoreline of the fjord. It’s quaint, charming, and the views are spectacular. Brennan, Jillian, Glen and Sarah head for another small cabin about a half a mile away where they will be staying, but are soon headed back with their gear. Seems there’s another team of 4 Brits in the area who are searching for some lines. While they were out camping, and the cold storm raged for the past few days, they sought better shelter. Even though our team had this cabin “reserved” there is a courtesy rule in these parts that those needing shelter shall take it. We all pack in to one cabin. It’s cozy!
We gear up for a ski and a backyard tour reveals scoured crusts that occasionally break. It’s as if there was never a storm here at all, but it’s nice to have skins on and be moving in the mountains. We return to the hut where Archie has stoked the fire in the stove making it nice and warm. Soon, skins, hats, gloves, and jackets are hanging from every possible hook, bags are crammed into corners, and boot liners and shells line the floor. Beer, whiskey, and vodka start to appear on the table, and everyone gets comfortable. Glen and Sarah prepare dinner, a dice game breaks out, and the drinks flow…at this high latitude at the end of April, it takes a while for complete darkness to set in, and at around 11 pm, a few of us venture out to enjoy Nature’s presentation of the aurora. It starts slow, and it’s cold, but the lights start swirling and pulsing and its all one can do to endure the chill and enjoy the show. The whiskey helps.
The next day is another bluebird, and after hot coffee and breakfast, it’s off for a tow on the sleds across the fjord for our day’s objective. Brennan and Glen have scoped a west-facing cirque that looks to have held the snow from the storm. Soon we are skinning and stripping layers as we gain elevation. The sun and the silence in these mountains are inescapable, until we enter the choke that will gain us entry into the upper bowl. The sun is shut out in this canyon, and the temps plummet. Blue ice bulges surround us, but a thin skiff of snow provides just enough grip for Glen and I, but then track is then too slippery for the others, and they are forced to put ski crampons on. We move quickly to regain the sun, and reach the massive upper cirque where we break for lunch. Potential lines pour down from 270 degrees of the compass, but the primes lines are obvious. We split up, cross the bottom of the cirque and climb up our respective couloirs. Brennan assesses stability as he ascends, and it’s a go. The snow is soft and settled, ice cold and glistening…
We reach the col and take in the view all the way out to the shimmering Davis Strait. Tom drops first, savoring the tracks of his first descent. Tim follows and links turns to the bottom, despite it being his first day on skis this year! Hoots and high-fives are exchanged- this is what we came all this way for. It’s then a long low-angle wiggle back to the bottom, and back through the icebox.
Back at the hut we soak up the late afternoon rays, and see a snowmobile heading our way across the fjord. Lasseraq is coming to check on us, and has Ane-Sofie on his sled. They’re bundled up, and are soon relaxing with us in the sun. Lass gives an update on the boat; the original boat has had a mechanical problem, but it looks like they’ll be able to hoist another boat from winter storage into the water for us. Another storm is brewing in the next couple of days, as well, and we’ll need to keep an eye on it. We sip our bevvies, and hunker in for the night, satisfied with our first descent.
Day 5 dawns clear and windy, and our objective has been set- the prominent Nunatak at the head of the fjord; it’s an obvious choice, jutting into the sky with one side a sheer cliff, the other harboring sweet looking snow at a mellow angle. It’s a longer haul on the sleds, and we approach across the flats until a large rubble field of massive boulders prevents further passage. We thread through the field, and begin the ascent, passing by a deserted tent flapping in the wind that was left here by the Brits during the opening storm. After a cold and windy climb, we attain the summit and the views are amazing! A vista stuffed with summits, fjords, snow and ice, and the glimmering Davis Strait in the distance, pictures seem unable to capture the arctic beauty The descent is low-angle, the snow is soft, the scenery is distracting, and the cold air heightens our senses. The soft snow soon yields to the flats, and Glen hustles off to gather a sled for a tow.
It’s our last night in the tiny cabin, and we’ve been in close quarters for several days now. There’s not much booze left, and we down what’s left of it, and most of the food. There is time for a tour in the morning, and after a late night of shivering outside under the aurora, 5 of us answer the a.m. call. Brennan and Glen have been eyeing a couloir since they first checked out this area the previous year. At the bottom, we get our first glimpse of big wildlife, when a couple of reindeer move nervously at the bottom of the chute as we approach. They move about their business, as do we, skinning to the point where booting becomes necessary. We reach the col, and the views are again magnificent, and from a different perspective. It’s a delightful 2000-foot descent, tight and steep up top, and room to move on the apron. At the bottom of our christened “Reindeer Couloir” we laugh and slap high fives, excited of our time spent in this magnificent valley, hopeful we’ll return someday. Back at the hut, Lasseraq, Akkula, and crew are waiting, and we load sleds and roll out.
Back in town, we check into the Hotel Sisimiut where everyone is glad for a hot shower. Dinner that night is at Lasseraq’s house, where Ane-Sofie has prepared a feast of fresh salad, and reindeer casserole. Lass tell us that his friend shot the reindeer that day, and my mind wanders back to our couloir from that morning…
Ane-Sofie gives a toast, while she does speak some English, she talks in her native Greenlandic while Lasseraq translates. It’s touching, giving us heartfelt thanks for us being there, not only in her house or Sisimiut, but also in Greenland. She is certainly well acquainted with the beauty of her country, and hopes that we will pass the word on to other skiers to come and visit. Perhaps skiing and adventure travel from folks like us may help ensure the future of Greenland; it’s people and traditions she wishes to share with the world.
Lasseraq Skifte is one of the gatekeepers of Greenland. The more I learn from him, the more I am impressed. Not only that he hosts the Queen of Denmark when she visits, but he also has a long history of skiing, and a love of the sport, which he hopes will flourish in his country. When he was named to coach the Denmark National Team for the 2002 Olympics, when the country wouldn’t allow him to add some skiers from Greenland, he resigned. He has toured extensively as a coach on the World Cup, and skied all over the world. When helicopter skiing operations first started to look at Greenland as an exotic destination, they had to essentially go through Lasseraq, and he dictated the areas that they could establish. The areas we have and will be skiing he says, will remain heli-free, for ski touring only. Lasseraq knows that a diversified economy is key towards survival of Greenland’s communities and traditions. While fishing supports most towns, recreation and tourism can be a needed component for the future. Lasseraq is part of the Igloo Mountain team, which maintains a small ski hill outside of town, and promotes the endless terrain that we have been exploring out in fjord land for exploration and skiing. One of Lasseraq’s biggest successes has been the staging of the Arctic Circle race, a 160 km cross-country race he founded in 1998, and now known as the toughest XC race in the world. Held in early April, the race fills fast now, and the amount of volunteers from Sisimiut who make it happen makes it one of the biggest events of the year.
After dinner, the talk turns to the boat. The hoist that is to lift our boat into the water has broken, and a replacement part is days away. We’ll look for some local skiing option tomorrow. Back at the Hotel Sisimiut, Nivi gives us a friendly greeting after being gone for 4 days, remembering our names and drink preferences as we enjoy a nightcap.
In the morning we head out to ski some of the local couloirs that Akkula pointed out a few days prior. Chute #1 is an instant classic, and although the snow has gotten blown around the past few days, it makes for an enjoyable 1500-foot descent, through a steep and narrow choke, with plenty of space below. Afterwards, we are treated to a uniquely Greenland experience, when we go dogsledding. A fading Greenlandic custom, slowly being replaced by the snowmobile, but still practiced plentifully by the locals. Our musher, Anna, has been going to school in Copenhagen, but returns to Sisimiut to carry on her family’s long tradition of raising sled dogs. They are powerful animals that are visibly excited to pull and run, and we glide along the snow kept warm by piles of reindeer pelts on the sled. There are hundreds of dogs kept on leashes and in kennels, outside in even the harshest conditions. Anna makes it clear that these are work animals, and not pets, although she does show compassion for one of her favorite dogs whose pelt she keeps on her sled since his passing.
Still no boat… Six of us give it a go in the gathering storm, seeking out soft snow close to town, and we find some powder and have a great time. The snow is falling and in a few short hours, has piled up about 8 inches. Back at Lasseraq’s that night for dinner, it’s clear- there isn’t going to be a boat. If there is anyone within 100 miles of Sisimiut who could arrange for a boat, it’s Lasseraq, and if he can’t do it, there simply isn’t a boat available that could accommodate our team. Outside the storm is raging, and the flakes are phat! By the time we’re done with dinner, there is at least 18 inches of fresh on the ground, and we dig out Lasseraq’s driveway so he can get us back to the hotel. It’s a wild and slippery ride!
The next day is sunny with a 2-foot blanket of fresh. None of us has seen storms, or snow like this for a while back in the States, but our options are limited. We can’t make a big push on the sleds to explore new stuff, so instead we’ll head out to Igloo Mountain and make laps. There is some fun terrain, and it’s going to be deep. We explore the terrain, and despite the cold weather, the sun’s radiation ever so slightly changes the snow giving it that heavy feeling that is noticeable after each run. Brennan makes the call; we’ve got to get back up to #1 Couloir, and in the shade. Lasseraq is game to try to set a track to get us close, and with me on a tow, he sends it up the backside of the plateau, where the rest are able to follow. On top, it’s nervous anticipation, as we know what lies beneath us. Glen goes first, and our thoughts are confirmed as he disappears into the white. One by one we ski down through the choke. The powder is dry and light, fills our noses and mouths, and is over our heads and bottomless. On the apron, it continues, and we all link turns to the bottom amazed at the cold smoke. Our polar powder provides a fitting end to an amazing journey.
Back at the hotel that night, we toast with plenty of wine, and a feast of Musk Ox, we’re giddy at the experience we’ve had, trying to make it last. When the bar won’t have us any more, we return to a guest room for more shenanigans. One by one, we say goodnight and return to our rooms. Our time in Greenland is done.
It’s a fast paced morning as we collect on the plane back to Kangerlussuaq, and then the Airbus back to Copenhagen. After a long day of plane travel, it’s now around 10pm local time. We all say our farewells, heading back to different, some home, some to other adventures. I collect my gear and take a taxi to downtown Copenhagen where I’m going to spend another day. It’s late, and I venture out in search of food. It’s surreal to be back here after the remoteness of Sisimiut, and I’m unable to find a restaurant open. There is a brewpub near the hotel that has some seats, and a bunch of fun folks singing hits from the 80’s with the guitarist, mostly inebriated. I make it a dinner of a few stouts and peanuts, and then head back to the hotel. Instantly, a hooker who grabs my arm and won’t let go accosts me. I’m able to shake her and walk away, but not after she slings a bunch of insults at me, mostly questioning my manhood. I spend the next day walking the city, beautiful, but a long way from the white of Greenland.
Back home, the ski season is over, the backcountry is done, and a few morning laps on the Snowbird tram is all that’s left. I give into it with a feeling of melancholy, still coming down from the adventure high. I wait a week to decompress before I give Doug Stoup a call to debrief. He’s already heard that it was a great trip; despite the fact we never got on the boat. “It just means you’ll have to go back next year!” I agree, and before I can think of how to make it happen, Doug slaps me upside the head through the phone, “Hey buddy, I’ve got a spot for you on this Svalbard trip in 3 weeks, what do you say?”