• Alex

Hiking and packrafting in Greenland

Updated: Jan 21, 2019






South Greenland and especially Tasermiut fjord, already triggered my interest when I was teenager. The exceptional rock faces present in this fjord was enough to ignite my imagination, especially at that time, my main focus being climbing and alpinism. But what really caught my attention was the conscious choice from the climbers to not share topo map of the routes they opened to preserve the wild aspect of the place.

Time flies, life shifted my interest from climbing to flying which made me progressively forget about it. But this was not Greenland last words, when I started BASE jumping the “Tasermiut” effect kicked back, even stronger this time. Soon or later I have no choice but to go to Greenland and experience this place first hand.


Ulamertorsuaq

Time keep flying and my list of dream projects is in constant expansion, it is decided: 2018 will be the Greenland year. Im making a call within my close BASE jumping friends to find partner for the trip as well as making some research about the jumping possibilities. I want to make this project fit into my teenager dream and the way climbers gave respect to the wilderness of the area, so I have a solid motivation to access the area by paddling and hiking from Nanortalik, the nearest town about 40 km south the jumping area.

Conclusion from my research is the access to exit points are very demanding and the most interesting cliff require technical climbing to reach the exit, at the same time, none of my friends got enough drive to put so much effort into so little jumping, well I guess no one shared my vision about this place.

Future will prove them right as it would have been probably not possible to jump during the period of our trip because weather and snow condition in the mountain.

Never mind, I switch to plan B: I propose to Jenny a 3 weeks adventure with no specific plan in mind except trying to be light and mobile to roam in Tasermiut Fjord, starting from Nanortalik. The core idea would be to bring with us packrafts, lightweight inflatable kayak to open more possibilities of exploration.

To put things in perspective, we have a very poor map of the area and there is not a single path to show you the way. We never packrafted and have no experience of paddling in fjord which can be synonym of strong tidal current, needless to say no experience about paddling near iceberg… oh and apparently, regarding wikipedia, Nanortalik means: “place where the polar bears go”.

Me and Jenny are outdoor enthusiast, we love to camp and engage in outdoor activities, generally short trip, to do something fun such as snow kiting or ski touring, but we never did anything close to such adventure and simply going in the wild for 3 weeks unsupported is, by itself a solid challenge for us…

Indeed, she accept my offer. Packrafts are ordered and tickets are booked, adventure is calling and we must go.


We set foot in Greenland the 28th of August in Narsarsuaq, in order to board for a five hours boat ride to Nanortalik.

The wind is seriously strong, and the waves get bigger and bigger as we move forward. Some passengers are literally screaming as we feel the boat dropping from couple of meters while hitting the biggest wave. Our captain have no choice but to turn around, we’ll spend the night in Qaqortoq and wait for the wind to drop.

Little we know that we were learning our first lesson about Greenland, no boat or helicopter could reach Nanortalik during this weather event and we actually spent 4 days stuck in Qaqortoq: in Greenland, a clock doesn’t mean much, the weather and the terrain dictate the program.



We try to use this time the best we can, doing warm up hikes around the city and studying the map, over and over again … every passing day increasing my frustration of being stuck and having the feeling of missing out my chance to fulfil the perfect adventure.

As usual, future we’ll prove me wrong: the time spent studying the map and the weather condition placed us on a much greater itinerary that we had imagine at first.





Day 1

Finally the wind drop… giving place to rain, at least the boat can safely bring us to the starting point of our trip. Approaching Nanortalik, the landscape become more and more impressive, it is much bigger and rough that I imagined from reading the map, many island got +1000 meters cliffs going more or less straight down to the water on a very steep angle, it is quite intimidating to picture ourselves paddling in such places with our little packraft with long stretch of coastline offering no opportunity to get back on land.

As Im feeling quite humbled by terrain, the old man in front of Jenny turn around and says: “this is only when we travel like this that we can realise how small we are”.

So cliché, I told to myself but those words actually stick to my head the whole trip, and my first impression change from “this is cliché” to “this is solid local wisdom”.

When we step off the boat, a whole family is welcoming one of the passenger, an old man who board the boat with us 4 days ago, everyone without exception is crying and it is is easy to assume they recently lost a family member. As we start walking I feel even more humbled, giving some thought to this guy, isolated the last 4 days waiting to join his family in such situation, increasing the roughness feel deliver by this place is.


As a gift to celebrate the long awaited start of our adventure, the rain stop and we directly head north in direction of Sondre Sermilik, the parallel fjord West to Tasermiut. We decided to reach Tasermiut using an indirect road, and hopefully create an elegant itinerary to avoid going back and forth in the same fjord.



Nanortalik being situated on a island we soon have to inflate the packrafts to reach the mainland. The paddling condition are great so we keep moving north on the water until the rain and wind come back. Maybe the welcome gift was not so much a gift after all: we are soaking wet in less than five minutes and the wind is freezing cold. The ground is so wet that we are walking most of the time with water up to our ankle, slowly getting colder and colder from the ice cold wind. I'm trying to imagine a strategy to set camp under such a rain, with not so much success. Only after a few hours leaving Nanortalik, I already start to question what the hell we are doing here. But this is when our luck came in place and we’ll not leave us all the way til the end of the trip. As we keep walking, two little cabins appear in the distance, getting closer, it become obvious that they are abandoned and in very poor condition, just good enough to offer us a shelter and the promise to keep our sleeping dry for the night, which is beyond everything I could dream of to end this day.



Day 2

I wake up with so much appreciation for our shelter, spending the night under the tent would have been tough. We start to walk under a menacing sky but get only short episode of light rain. After crossing a stretch of land, we embark on the packraft push by a gentle breeze. Jenny is obviously much faster than me, indeed she’s lighter but it seems like Im using lot of my energy in an erratic way, mostly splashing water and making my boat pivot instead moving forward. Never mind, the landscape is amazing, we cruising between small iceberg and seals checking us out from distance. We reach our goal for the day a bit late and set our camp freezing cold and wet near huge icebergs.




Day 3

The morning offer us the first sunlight since the beginning of the trip, perfect to dry our gear and feel a bit of warmth for the first time since a while. He rained most of the night and woke up many times due to the thunderstorm noise of cracking iceberg.


From our position, we can see a tent settlement just a couple of kilometers away, we assume this a temporary camp of workers, since there is a gold mine deeper in this valley. While packing our camp we have the visit of Ulrik, after chatting with him we learn that he is a former Danish special force, he spent most of his life pattroling Greenland in dog sledge and sea kayak with the mission to enforce Danish sovereignty in Greenland and do exploration mission, in another word is a proper badass with years of experience about Greenland wilderness. He gives us a reality check about polar bear, they spotted three polar bears lately in the area, the most recent being less than a week ago. Wikipedia was right, we are in polar bear territory. Ulrik seems to be quite curious about our project, especially about the sea worthiness of our packraft. Another reality check, earlier this summer an iceberg cracked in such a way that it created a 2 meters waves and destroyed the bridge that gives access to their settlement.

He follow us to the shore to wish us good luck, he also offer us a flare as a protection against the bear. We thank him for the advice and start our first serious crossing, about two kilometers separate us from the next shore with three of the biggest iceberg we’ve seen so far. While paddling, I can’t help myself but picture how our packraft would handle a 2 meters wave and how intense would it be to have to scare a bear with the flare.

Well at least it is sunny and paddling near the iceberg is offering us quite of an amazing backdrop.

Actually, it is not that sunny anymore, and we can see the next low pressure system arriving at great speed in our back. The next hours will be dedicated to race against the bad weather along a very steep shore where it is impossible to debark for long stretch of coastline. It start to rain as we reach the beginning of a four kilometers kilometers crossing, follow by wind gusts that encourage us to stop to the shore in order to see how the condition evolves before engaging ourselves in the middle of the fjord. We set a temporary camp in what seems to be the best spot to debark we found since we start paddle, indeed, I reckon this is what a bear would think to.

The rain increase as well as the wind, we have no choice to set camp here to spent the night.




Day 4

And again it rained all night, with solid wind gusting above 50 km/h. We need to rethink our plan, we were initially planning to cross the fjord and keep paddling for about +20 km more along what seems to be a very steep shore. If we want to reach Tasermiut with such condition, we need to forget about packrafting and walk east. After studying the map, we find a mountain pass at 900m that would allow us to cross the mountain range that separate us from Tasermiut. Our map is very mediocre and not detailed enough to assure that it is possible to hike through the pas. Let's put it that way: neither me or Jenny want to sit and wait another 4 days for the wind to drop so we choose the hiking option.

We walk along the shore in various terrain and cross a quite impressive amount of rivers, we start to understand that hiking off track is really not the same deal than following a path: we are slow and carrying about two weeks of food on our back doesn’t help to get any faster.



After quite much effort we reach the end of the secondary fjord and get access to the valley that lead to our chosen itinerary.

It rains all around us but somehow doesn’t hit us, which allow us to make a fire for the first time.

We are warm and almost dry what else can we ask for ?



Day 5

We found ourselves walking toward a very impressive mountain range and it feels quite improbable that it will be possible to cross without alpinism gear. Of course the slope under the pass is hidden by a ridge so we have no choice but walk all the way to the end of the valley to assess if it will be possible to walk through the pass. Our very limited trust in our map make it feels like a gamble. As I picture ourselves to be force to u turn, I actually stop caring about it, the dramatic change of landscape is worth the hike, with or without crossing. And when we finally reach the last ridge it seems like it will be doable, the last 200 meters are covered of snow and as Jenny mention it, it looks like quite of a steep wall. I'm trying to comfort ourselves saying that it is most likely an optical effect.

We start to climb in a surprisingly fast way and reach the snow in a short amount of time … indeed it wasn’t an optical effect and only 2 or 3 cm of snow transformed, it is proper ice under the superficial layer and steeper than we wished for.

Here start a complexe navigation with low visibility thanks to the formation of clouds. We are zig zagging through rock section and steep snow. Jenny is leading the way since she got the best shoes to carve steps in the snow. We almost get stuck less than fifty meters under the pass, in a section a bit steeper and icyer than what we encountered previously.

As we trying to find our way out, Im thinking about all the past days combined events that led us to this itinerary, so much more challenging and interesting that we were planning at first. The no plan approach is definitely the best of all, moving in a flexible way according to the terrain and the condition, offering the perfect amount of surprises and challenges, carrying our little rubber boat through the mountain and, if everything goes right, reaching Tasermiut Fjord in the most epic way that I could have dream for.



When we finally manage the last difficulty, we reach the pass submerged by the best feeling since the beginning of the trip. Everything falls in place, the frustration of being stuck in Qaqortoq, the difficult weather since our departure, the anxiety about cracking icebergs and polar bear, all of this vanish to give space to a feeling that will not leave me until the end of the adventure.

Both me and Jenny relate to this moment as no longer being an external spectator moving through a landscape, we can’t control the weather, neither the terrain or the condition, so why resist it? We can only accept what it and somehow merge with the environment.

Today the word epic is taking a much more meaningful definition in my vocabulary and I couldn’t be more stocked and grateful to share this with Jenny.

We use the last hours of daylight to walk down the other side through a maze of big unstable rocks. We set up camp in the dark and can see our first nordic light of the trip glowing through the clouds … what a day, tomorrow we’ll be in Tasermiut.