Backpacking in Greenland

John Penny – May 2007

In the summer of 2006 I decided to take a slightly different trip from the past few years. Instead of heading for high altitudes I decided to try High Places’ trip “The Iceberg Trail” to Greenland. This was a two-week backpacking trip along part of the coast of East Greenland supplied with food drops every 2-3 days by boat (and in one case helicopter).

The preliminaries were to acquire a new larger rucksack as my old 60 litre one was falling to bits and was unlikely to be big enough anyway. The thought of carrying 15-20 kilos encouraged me to get training seriously, so I could be seen pounding the streets of Woodbridge for a couple of months beforehand and also taking part in some of the “Friday 5” series of road races in May and June.

After a flight to Reykjavik on World Cup Final Day I made the correct call of eating in an Italian restaurant before fortuitously finding an organ recital on at the stunning Hallgrimskirkja Cathedral. I woke after a fractured night’s sleep (it was light all the time!) to find that two of my companions for the trip were Trevor and Dave who I had met in Ladakh in the summer of 2005. Conversations ensued along the lines of who was stalking whom! We were to fly to Kulusuk from the internal airport that morning but we were delayed for a couple of hours by fog at Kulusuk. Eventually the flight was successfully made and we were met by Asty Taylor, our guide. After putting on every available piece of warm clothing (for which I as very grateful) we headed off by motorboat through the sea-ice to our drop off point for the start of the trek; supposedly a two-hour trip.


After four hours it became clear we were not going to reach our destination as the ice was too thick. This was something I learned during the trip – sea-ice moves around a lot depending on currents and winds and there are times when it is simply impossible to get through even in the summer. After a quick meal we travelled to Tasiilaq which was meant to be our final destination. Tasiilaq is a small town of about 700 people and even a supermarket.

We spent the following day climbing a small Munro sized peak behind the town whilst the logistics of our trip were revised. The first impressions of the two initial days were of a wild, pristine beauty and fierce colours. We were blessed with fantastic weather. During the previous days’ trip we also witnessed an abortive attempt to shoot a seal by the local boatmen. A catch would have been a serious reason for high spirits by the locals. I had not realized how enormous Greenland actually is – the size of Australia but with only 56,000 people, all living around the coast. The vast majority of it is ice cap, one of the three largest in the world.

Toward the Sun

The following day it had been decided to run the trip in reverse, minus the first two days. We were loaded into motorboats again and taken to the other side of the fjord, thankfully a trip of only about 45 minutes. During this trip we passed a small island where some of the local huskies were let loose. This was so they could keep exercised but were unable to escape. They were fed every day by the boatmen. Having pitched camp we headed up a small mountain at the back of the campsite for stunning vistas to the north of ranges of snow clad peaks into the distance. Not a sign of man existed anywhere. I believe that there must be many unclimbed peaks left for the adventurous in North Eastern Greenland.

On Top

The following day was the first one we had to carry the full rucksack and walking speeds were certainly sedate I was glad to find. The weather was not quite so brilliant but perfectly good until we reached the next campsite. After pitching the weather quickly deteriorated first with rain and then with wind. I think the ensuing night was the most unpleasant I have ever experienced. I kept expecting my tent to collapse but it did survive until the storm eventually, after twelve hours, blew itself out at 6am the following morning When I did eventually emerge after virtually no sleep, I found I had been one of the lucky ones. Trevor and Dave’s tent along with one of the other’s had been ripped to shreds and all their gear was sodden. They had survived the night in full wet weather gear inside their down sleeping bags. Asty’s tent had turned turtle around 5am and the flysheet was nowhere to be found. After discovering by satellite phone that there was no way that we could be picked up by boat, we had to reverse the previous day’s walk and walk round the fjord back to Tasiilaq. As someone said, it felt like being on a long piece of elastic being pulled back every time. The return journey was long and very tiring, necessitating much up and down and two serious river crossings, the latter thigh deep in places and about 100 metres across. The weather was still very overcast but it was not actually raining.

We were fortunate to be found a house under renovation (with heating!) to stay in for the next two nights whilst we sorted ourselves out (again). The weather immediately improved and remained superb for the rest of the trip. Eventually it was decided to do the central part of the trip in the original direction, so after a long (and cold) boat trip we were dropped off along Sermilik fjord. The next few days were, in many ways, fantastic. We managed to climb another Munro (winter style) height mountain and walk along “the roof of the world” a ridge at about 500 metres with quite breathtaking views, camping on it for one evening.

On Top with pack

We passed through one small settlement (great hot showers) before the final couple of days walk. We were supposed to be being picked up by motorboat from a beach to be returned to Tailed. This was the one time when the arrangements were poor. The boat (when it eventually arrived 2 hours late) was the slowest boat in the world. I have never been so cold by the time we eventually reached Tailed.

I have some fantastic memories of the trip despite the weather created problems. Whilst out on the trekking part we saw only four other people other than our food drop boatmen. The major drawback was the problem of mosquitoes that were pretty awful at times, especially at a couple of the campsites. The use of a head net was really important; I can vouch that they can bite you even through Rohan bags. If you can put up with the hardship, there is certainly nowhere else like it on earth.

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