A few years back, I joined a former colleague from my Army days (see if you know him… photo at the bottom of this post) to attempt a Greenland crossing. We succeeded. Along the way there were many trials and tribulations, stories for another day.
Since coming completing the crossing I’ve had quite a few people asking for tips on how to plan and complete a similar journey. Which is why I wrote this post. It’s a high level guide, one which used to be on my personal blog, and my dearest hope it will be useful to anyone wanting experience a full distance crossing of the biggest island on the planet.
Greenland – The Basics
Greenland is the largest island in the world and sits in the North Atlantic ocean, just below the ice cap of the North Pole. Covering about 836,000 square miles, the bulk of Greenland is covered in ice for most of the year. For a few months of each year the extremities of the ice – on the coast – melts and plant life explodes into a dizzying array of colours and scents.
The bulk of the island’s inhabitants, 88% for the stats buffs, are Innuit – descendants of the first North American explorers who travelled across ice and sea hundreds years ago to colonise Greenland. The majority of the population lives in the coastal regions, their lives a curious mix of hunter and everyday jobs that would not seem out of place in any modern city.
12% of the population consists of people of Danish descent – Greenland’s parliament is located in Nuuk, whilst the head of state is Margrethe of Denmark.
In total, there are about 57,000 thousand islanders although this figure was recorded in 2013 and has probably increased. This number is boosted every year by a few hundred explorers, researchers and prospectors who descend upon the island in search of adventure, knowledge and the promise of mineral riches!
If, like I once thought, you’d fallen for the idea that Greenland is a barren wasteland devoid of pretty much anything of interest, then think again. There is a wealth of history and culture waiting for anyone interested in seeking out new destinations. Even at the frigid heart of the islands (or possibly ‘islands’, as research now seems to suggest) there are remnants of recent Cold History that will have the average military buff salivating with expectation.
When the Vikings first arrive on Greenland their leader, Eric the Red, was pretty unimpressed (which is rather surprising considering part of his homeland sits within the Arctic Circle and temperatures regularly plummet to minus 30 C in the winter). What may, or may not, be a myth still circulates that Eric the Red gave the name Greenland to the island as a means of encouraging his fellow countrymen and women to strike out and expand the colonisation of this supposed paradise. Given the sheer number of Innuit living there it would be fair to say his plan failed.
So what’s it really like?
The image that springs to mind is one of a vast, barren chunk of ice with little in the way of life. And you’d be right… to a degree. Yes, Greenland is cold. Half of the land mass sits well within the Arctic Circle and winter temperatures can drop as low as minus 42 C. Don’t be fooled – summer temperatures on the ice cap can dip into the mid to low minus 20’s (during our crossing the lowest temperature we recorded was about minus 25 C).
Temperature fluctuations can be equally brutal. On some days the ambient temperature reached as high as +5C. A balmy day in the tropics and one you’d think we’d be glad of. No! When the heat rises, the snow melts and hauling a 100+kg pulk through deep, soft snow suddenly becomes a more interesting experience (imagine dragging a rock filled bath behind you. Every now and then the tub will snag on a rock, or some other immovable obstacle, and you’ll be jerked to a halt. Painful and frustrating!).
I’ll give you a detailed breakdown of gear later in this post, but two really essential items you will need are sun block for your skin and some form of lip protection. The sun will hit you from two directions: reflected off the snow and from overhead when the clouds inevitably clear and the temperatures rise.
If you’re really unlucky the snow will start to fall. Great if you enjoy festive scenes, not so much fun when the precipitation starts to melt on your clothes and gear, soaking you and your equipment in the process.
Cold as it may be, in many places the extent of the snow and ice does not reach to the shores. Expeditions and tours starting at Kangerlussuaq normally hitch a lift the 30km to the official start point.
Fauna and Flora
Although covered in a thick layer of ice for most of the year, Greenland supports a large number of plants as well as animal life.
Plants of Greenland
Here’s a fact that many people probably won’t believe (until they check it via Wikipedia): Greenland is home to 310 species of plant life (15 of which are unique to the island). The vast majority of this greenery is seen in the coastal regions, or when the ice recedes far enough for the plants to burst into life.
There’s also a myth there are no native trees; that really is a myth. A small, natural forest exists the Qinngua Valley. The forest consists of mainly of downy birch and grey-leaf willow.
The plant life scattered across Greenland might be pretty uninspiring, unless you’re researching the effects of global warming. What most of you want to hear about are the animals, in particular the creatures that might just eat you.
Polar bears live on the coast of Greenland. They hunt on the pack ice, nibbling on their favourite food – seals. From time to time, where the borders of the human race and polar bear overlap, there have been fatalities on both sides. The good news: plan the dates of your trip to coincide with the period in which the polar bears less active due to give birth to cubs . All expeditions should be armed, as a precaution.
Reindeer thrive in Greenland with some herds being found as far as 200km inland. Although they shy away from encounters with humans, it’s wise not to approach them as some males will attack and you will forever be known as the person who was beaten up by Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer.
Musk Ox are one animal I find both amazing and endearing (if only because they remind me a horned version of Dougal from the Magic Roundabout). Huge and shambling, they manage to sustain a bulky body by foraging on only hardy grasses growing at the fringes of the ice.
Arctic hares are a common sight. In fact, they so common that my first morning in Greenland, I walked out of the accommodation and saw this little chap nibbling away on the grass…
Organising a crossing of this vast island requires more than simply pitching up with your gear and then skiing the huge expanse. Rather than list every option, I’ve based recommendations my recent experience of following the 600km Nansen route across Greenland. If you choose to ski a different route the basics are near-identical, only you will likely finish your journey at a different point.
Getting to Greenland
As this is a post about crossing Greenland, we first have to get there. The island (ignore research for now, let’s assume it’s one, big happy lump of frozen love in the Atlantic) is served by a large number of airports. In the west are main airfields of Kangerlussuaq and Nuuk, to the east is Kulusuk. There are more, but the three I’ve highlighted are the likely entry and exit points expeditions will take in the first steps of their journey.
Freighting Your Gear
Getting all your gear to Greenland can be a major headache if you’re not travelling with a guided tour – all bar your personal gear should be waiting when you arrive.
In the event that you plan your own expedition you’ll need to find a reliable company to freight your pulks, food and the rest of your equipment. The key here is to travel light when you fly to Greenland, take only the essentials and ship your heavy gear via one of the many freighting companies out there.
The are many providers to pick from and I’ll let you select the one that fits with your budget and expectations. I have run into some issues with a couple of suppliers and if you want my thoughts then feel free to email me.
Treat your crossing of Greenland as any other extreme expedition by training for a skiing trip to the North Pole. Here’s a link to the list of gear I took to the North Pole (which is pretty much identical to what I used on my journeys to the North Pole and across Norway).
A couple of additions you will need to consider:
Spare Tent Poles
The weather in Greenland can turn on a sixpence and brutal storms frequently lash the ice cap. Violent storms can easily destroy a tent (as I discovered when our protective snow wall collapsed and started a chain reaction that resulted the destruction of our Keron 4 GT, the big brother of this tent).
Worse, the weather can be so extreme that visibility drops to mere metres which makes it all the harder to find your team mates tent when you have to crash out of your own.
Short Climbing Skins
Skins are clip on strips of material that provide extra grip when climbing slopes and hauling pulks that weigh more than your own bodyweight! During my 2017 ski to the North Pole we used only full length skins, which was fine for an environment where there is very little snow.
A few seasoned veterans of Greenland told me that, once you’re up on the icecap, you’ll glide along the 600km route. This year we ran into deep, wet snow that clung to the pulk runners and the skins. Another factor that made the journey more arduous was the friction created by the full length skins – more drag equals more calories burned and higher levels of fatigue.
Back in my days in the British Army, my instructors were always ready to remind us that we should, “Train hard, fight easy!”
And to prepare for a Greenland crossing you’re going to need to train HARD if only to make the trip as pleasurable as possible. And you will be fighting – mainly against the elements on those days when temperature dips and rises are erratic and frequent; when your pulk accumulates soft snow on the runners and jars your body with every step; when you’re tired and sleep whispers for you to forget putting up the tent and lay down and close your eyes. These are the kind of battles you’ll face.
As you’d expect, there are a number of routes you can take to cross Greenland. The classic that many teams follow is the one that runs from about 30km outside of Kangerlussuaq in the west to Isortoq in the east. The total distance for this crossing is about 600km and ends when you quite literally step off the ice cap onto rock spewed out by now extinct volcanoes. This is the route my team took.
An alternative is to ski from East to West Isortoq to Kangerlussuaq. The only real difference with this second option is that you’ll be skiing with the wind to you back… most of the time. Getting up onto the ice cap is hard work, no matter which direction you travel in.
Other Routes Across Greenland
A number of other routes exist, but the one you take will depend on how you intend to cross (self-guided, or guided) and getting the necessary permissions from the Greenlandic government.
Our journey took us from Kangerlussuaq in the West to Isortoq in the East.
As blockers come this is a big one for most people. The average cost is about 24,000 euros and that doesn’t cover flights from your home country, accommodation, etc. If you run into any kind of delay (e.g. violent storms) you may miss your return flights which will result in a greater outlay for hotel costs (I’m guessing you’ll be tired of sleeping in a tent by the time you’ve finished skiing 600km!)
But there is a cheaper alternative: an official expedition which is a different classification to a tour as the latter is organised by established companies with a permanent presence on the island (even if it is only a store room full of gear).
Running a self-guided ski across Greenland is far less expensive that using a tour company. The cost of our expedition was about 6,000 Euros per person – over 18,000 Euros less than using a guide.
If you want to organise your own expedition, you’ll need to consider the following points:
· Every member of the team should have some experience in polar regions and be able to navigate.
· Ideally, one or more of the team should have led an expedition prior to your journey.
· The Greenlandic authorities will require you to deliver a monetary bond that can be used in the event that a helicopter has to lift your team off the ice.
· Seek route advice from a number of people who have skied Greenland at least once.
· Be under no misgivings that you may be required to use a rifle in the unfortunate event that a polar bear attacks.
· Don’t scrimp on gear or food! Yes, it’s heavy and you’ll probably grumble for the whole journey, but the difference between good and crap equipment is your life.
Crossing Greenland is a major undertaking and no part of the journey should be underestimated. Like any major trip the key to success is to plan, plan and plan some more! When your journey is done Omar Sharif will fly you to Tassilaq in his helicopter…