WRITTEN BY BRUCE GOODLAD
As the plane descended through the clouds and we caught our first glimpse of the ice front the mountains of east Greenland beckoned. This was my 4th visit to Greenland and my 2nd visit to our friends in Kulusuk, as we lined up on the airway the question that flashed across my brain was where all the snow and ice was, the scene that greeted us looked like the middle of June not April. Where previously there was thick white sea ice there was grey ice covered in a film of water, where we expected to see piles of snow there grass and heather but the mountains were still stunning and we couldn’t wait to un pack the skis and get in the mountains.
The reason was the spring conditions was a prolonged period of warm wet weather, speaking to locals who were brought up in Kulusuk they had not seen any more than a day of rain in April in the past, but they had just had almost 3 weeks of it. In April you can usually drive out on the sea ice to ski for us tourists and to hunt for the locals who depend on the sea ice to travel and hunt seals to feed their families and maintain their way of life.
With the sea ice in questionable condition travel by boat was suddenly the best option so a quick turn around and we were blasting across the fjord at 30 knots swerving round ice flows to be dropped on the Nertiilat peninsula on Apusiaajik island a beautiful ramp led us through some steep terrain before and open face led to a perfect ski summit with a view over the sea ice and open water back to Kulusuk. The unsettled weather returned with a vengeance the following day with high winds and rain keeping us off the hills. The plan the following day was to head across the fjord onto Iperajivit but the ice edge at the fjord entrance broke up in the wind filling the bay with brash ice and confining us to a small local ski tour in driving rain.
With an improving forecast we decided on a 3-day mini break to a hut that Matt and team have built on the North side of Apusiaajik Island, we were dropped on the NW side of the island linking 3 glaciers and cols together to land us on the sea ice where a short skin led us to the hut. The team have created a low impact hut built of PVC with a heater and sleeping platforms that be broken down and moved or removed completely, this gives access to some incredible terrain with views north to endless ski opportunities. We dialled into base each evening for a weather update and were told that a Polar Bear had been sighted on the other side of the island. Polar bears are always hazard when operating in Greenland and Svalbard so we carried flares and a rifle whenever we were outside of the village, at night we set a trip wire with flares round the hut which would hopefully scare the bear and warn us of its approach. The wire has to be so thin that the bear can’t see it which also makes it difficult for humans to see it so when the flares fired like gunshot going off at 4 in the morning, we knew we either had a bear or a sleepy skier who had gone to the toilet and forgotten that we had set the trip wire.
We had a slightly frustrating day trip from the hut trying to climb the highest peak on Apusiaajik when the mist became so thick I could barely see the end of my skis but at least the bad weather had brought some good skiing. Our 3rd day from the hut was undoubtedly the highlight of the trip with a clear blue sky and cold weather we set off across the sea ice then climbed steadily up the glacier heading for what is known locally as windy col. We crossed the col and carried on climbing swapping skis for crampons ascending an increasingly exposed ridge to a spectacular summit with incredible views in every direction, peaks, glaciers, sea ice, icebergs and open ocean gave us the experience we had been hoping and dreaming for. We stripped skins and enjoyed every turn with irrepressible grins spread across everyone’s faces, having waited so long to enjoy some turns in the sun we put skins back on and skinned to another col before skiing more great snow past the front face of a calving glacier and onto the sea ice.
Thirty minutes across the sea ice led to where our team were waiting for a boat to take us back to the village, however things are not that simple in with such a warm period and the breakup of the sea ice our route of approach by boat was now full of brash ice. We had to cross open water in a small boat (that the team had dragged across the ice) to where some of our Greenlandic friends were waiting with a snow mobile to drag us back to the village. Sitting drinking tea and looking out on the peaks we had just been skiing on bathed in evening sunshine it was hard to imagine that the weather would ever change, we were brought back to reality the next morning with a howling gale and rain keeping us off the peaks for the next few days and delaying our flight home by 2 days.
As a guide I reflect a lot on the changing nature of our mountains, in my home mountains of the Mont Blanc Massif we have seen massive glacial recession, hundreds of meters in the years I have been climbing and skiing there. While this affects the type and style of guiding and climbing it does not fundamentally change our way of life but for the Greenlanders who were experiencing the first prolonged warm wet period in loving memory this change (should it become a regular occurrence) would have some fundamental changes. The people of Kulusuk still live a very traditional hunting lifestyle, they hunt seal on the sea ice to feed their families and their sled dogs. With the warm weather during the time we were there the sea ice became too dangerous to travel on meaning the hunters couldn’t go out until the weather improved and they could hunt by boat which is a very different proposition.