Andy Round pulls on his crampons for the ice adventure of a lifetime in the Arctic circle of sunny Greenland.
By Andy Round
I’m inside the Arctic Circle on Greenland, lying on my stomach peering over an ice edge into the abyss. Hundreds of metres below, ice-cube packed waterfalls ricochet off bright white frozen shelves and crash down through luminous blue nothingness to unknowable lakes, caves and rivers deep beneath the ice. “In that cold, even if you survived the fall, you’d only last minutes,” says our guide cheerfully.
There’s nothing like looking into the abyss of death to work up an appetite. Even for freeze-dried boil bag food. Huddled in a wind-blasted tent screwed to an ice sheet that’s two-million-kilometres square, eating chilli (allegedly) from a foil envelope is beyond surreal. Step outside into the 24-hour sunlight and it gets even stranger. You’re in a moonscape styled by National Geographic but with all the horror film potential of fragile ice bridges, hidden crevasses, broken ankles and getting lost in a sea of blizzard white with no direction home.
Spiked crampons are sweetest of all
So you get involved with kit. Loads of kit. Greenland is a survivalist’s kit dream. Radios that can summon rescue helicopters; thermal socks that prevent your toes going black and sunglasses that stop the bright light blinding you… that’s all a given. But it’s the ice stuff that’s really cool. The ice sleds you tie to your belt to drag the kit; the spiked poles that make you look like a giant preying mantis; the insulated sleeping bags that keep you alive at minus-unbelievable °C; the giant ice screws that stop your tent blowing away and, of course, lashings of hot chocolate.
But the spiked crampons are sweetest of all. Strap these evil-looking suckers to your boots and you can walk up walls. Really. And on the ice cap that’s handy because the landscape undulates like a stormy frozen seascape with waves suspended in mid fall, valleys of ice, walls of white, troughs of melting water and those spooky crevasses that can switch off a life in seconds.
Get to grips with crampons and you feel like Spider Man. You can go anywhere, so you do. You crunch crunch up ice hills to photograph the endless white desert that merges into the horizon and crunch crunch along melting riverbanks to follow gushing water to sinkhole waterfalls. Anchored to ice cliff edges by crampon steel (and a guide clutching your belt) you timidly peer into ravines and catch your frozen breath at the scale of the suicidal drop.
But the real photo opportunities lie beneath the soaring ice bridges, down the slippery pathways and along the ledges below. Here the sun, wind and melting water hollow out giant frozen chambers while air bubbles and refraction force the light to diffuse from phosphorescent blue and blinding white across incalculable layers of compacted ice. As far as Facebook status updates go it’s hard to beat.
Kim Peterson, self-styled ‘Safety Kim’, has never lost a tourist. Good.
Later over a flask of fresh glacier water you absorb the statistics of this staggering place. This is the second largest icescape in the world after Antarctica and more than three kilometres thick at its highest point. It crushes 85 per cent of Greenland, is 14 times the size of England and contains 10 per cent of the world’s fresh water.
And the ice is constantly moving, constantly compressing, moaning and groaning, cracking and roaring. Mountain peaks poke through it like soft low-lying cloud, but this ice sheet is always pushing against the rocky landscape creating ice-quakes of geographical drama.
If it were to melt overnight, the level of the Earth’s water would instantly rise by seven metres. And, of course it’s always melting. At its 100,000-year-old edges, this natural wonder is slipping away, calving giant icebergs into fjords and draining fresh icy water into the sea.
Our guides talk about how favourite lakes can disappear overnight, how mountains of packed ice tumble into nothingness, vast ravines open up unexpectedly and the landscape is transformed completely from year to year. Our guides also like to reminisce about favourite adventures.
There was an researcher who embedded an ice pick in his skull...
Kim Peterson, self-styled ‘Safety Kim’, has “never lost” a tourist. And this is said without even the glimmer of a smile, because his job is to point out the stuff you can easily forget. “If you want to keep all your toes don’t forget you’re wearing crampons and that they can pierce any boot leather,” he says. “When you walk, walk wide like John Wayne.”
Peterson has a penchant for going underground. He’s taken numerous cave explorers (and documentary film teams) deep within the labyrinthine intestines of the ice sheet to marvel at glossy frozen halls of ice, secret underground lakes and hidden waterfalls. He tells us how two people on a rope can save a third if they fall, but one on one, well “that’s a problem”. Still, nothing freezes your mind more than the tale of the Arctic researcher who accidently embedded an ice pick in his skull and then managed to walk back to camp (he survived).
Over steaming hot chocolate sitting on the ice cold, using a sliver of jacket Gore-Tex as a cushion, Greenlandic guide Adam Lyberth shows some of the “7,000 pictures” on his camera. Like the Northern Lights – stuff we’re missing because it’s too early in the year. The images show glowing 100-mile high paranormal movie spectres. Lyberth says they are sun-charged particles colliding at high altitude (or something) but the Greenlandic explanation of the dead playing with a walrus skull sounds more romantic.
Town is populated by 550 people, an airstrip and three wrecked planes
The next day it’s time to pack up camp. Every thing must go: the tents, the sleds, the pots, the pans, the toilet container. A wind blows up and unscrewed tent material slaps against the ice while ropes whip the bruised sky. Then you tie on the sleds that slither disobediently across the ice dunes. It’s not easy.
There are people who pay to do this every day when they trek across the Greenlandic ice cap from the west to east coast. It takes about four weeks, but the training beforehand can take months before you’re up to the sort of physical and psychological toughness that allows you to a) ski for eight hours at night and b) devour boil-in-a-bag meat on a daily basis.
That night our little group of wannabe explorers enjoys a buffet dinner in the closest available approximation of civilisation, the former US military base of Kangerlussuaq. The town is populated by 550 people, 30km of road, an airstrip, bowling alley, police station, museum, store and the wrecks of three US Air Force Lockheed T-33 Silverstars that crashed in a 1968 whiteout.
The buffet dinner is light years away from freeze-dried chilli. Weighing down the table are plates of whale carpaccio, reindeer steak, smoked musk ox and homemade cake. The whale skin or mattak is particularly chewy.
We are a fortnight late for polar bear steak. A starving one-year-old had been discovered desperately eating seaweed near the harbour. Bears rarely visit Kangerlussuaq and the last time one wandered into town in 1998 it found itself skinned and mounted on local museum wall. A similar fate awaited the latest arrival. A police marksman killed the animal before it could reach the edge of town.
At the Polar Bear Inn that Saturday night there was little talk of bear shootings, ice caps or crampons. The focus of probably the most mixed crowd on Earth – Kangerlussuaq locals in fishnet tights, radar station operators in North Face and US military wearing serious frowns – was to squeeze as many stubby bottle Carlsbergs down their throats as possible. It was here we made the most stunning discovery of our visit; Greenlanders are shockingly good at table football.