Recon Mission: Mapping Dream Routes in Greenland
Our plane crossed the Arctic Ocean and dipped down towards the Davis Strait. Banking a sweeping right turn towards the short runway, cut between big cliffs and ocean, we got our first glimpse of the minimalist oceanside town of Sisimuit, Greenland. Sisimuit, and most of Greenland, is north of the 60-degree line that traditionally defines the northern polar region. The ruby-red Air Greenland turboprop plane halted at the house-sized airport and, from our seats, we had a window view of five couloirs straight down to the water. The ski terrain and conditions looked promising.
Greenland is an autonomous country within the Kingdom of Denmark, located between the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans, east of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. It’s notable to skiers for its proximity to Baffin Island, a couloir mecca of the Northern hemisphere. We had come to Greenland in April to explore the ski potential of Sisimuit-based expeditions and to establish routes in new areas. As guides and representatives of Tahoe-based Ice Axe Expeditions, our team of ski pros included Sierra guides Glen Poulson and Brennan Lagasse, and Jackson Hole ski patroller Peter Linn.
We were greeted by the team at Igloo Mountain (IMT). IMT is a small group of Greenlandic natives who over the past ten years have been dreaming, proposing, and refining plans for the future growth and development of Sisimuit. Their town, along with other rugged areas in Greenland, remains a blank canvas of great potential. However, it’s in dire need of the mountain sports community’s support to remain culturally authentic and economically viable while moving development forward. Ice Axe Expeditions, and many others, hope to help Igloo Mountain in their goal to offer destination snow adventures for global travelers.
That first evening, the IMT led us on snow-machines to a stacked ridge of steep ski routes about fifteen minutes outside of town. With 19 hours of sun, there was plenty of time to get a couple of great runs off the ridgeline at 6 p.m. Beautiful views of the ocean and small islands off the coast stretched across the horizon as we dropped into our first polar powder runs of the trip. After a couple of 45-degree couloirs and a steep, exposed hanging face, we returned to town to prepare for our journey north the next morning.
Sisimutians are gracious hosts, warm and welcoming to visitors. The IMT’s leaders, Larsaaraeq and Klavs, both have a rich history of personal exploration and grand adventure across Greenland. They were eager to show us remote locations to assess the true potential for backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering. Lasaareq’s wife, whom we nicknamed “Turbo,” was one of the happiest and most energetic, loving individuals that any of us have met in our travels. And, Turbo charges on a snow machine. This cast of characters made our trip smooth and meaningful.
The IMT is resourceful and inventive when providing opportunity and adventure for visitors. Their company runs the local ski hill as well as also creating the internationally attended Arctic Circle Race, a challenging Nordic ski race across the outlying hills that occurs each April. It hopes to expand and create more events in the coming years. Its vision for the future development of Sisimuit is comprehensive and alluring.
Of the planet’s great ski destinations, Greenland has remained relatively low-key until recent years. Some areas have been developed to a minor extent, but there is a remote and beautiful quality to the Inuit and Greenlandic experience that offers both isolation and adventure. It also offers one of the great experiences in skiing — pioneering new routes and new areas. As the world develops and the far reaches are discovered, it becomes increasingly difficult to find untouched, pristine corners in which to experience the thrill that comes with being “the first.” With no guidebooks and just maps, we started marking down our dream routes.
After skiing dry powder on exciting routes the first day, we were eager to move north and explore. The IMT crew assembled snow machines and we headed out west past the ski area and then north towards the next fjord. It was disconcerting at first to take a heavy machine over melting ice in late April, but we soon became accustomed to the frozen-water crossings.
We traveled from our hotel doorstep, across a fjord, and around the nearby peaks to access our base camp for the next nine day–two small huts. After quickly getting settled, we headed out to get up into the nearby peaks to assess our objectives. Once again, it felt great to move the legs and do some skiing after a few hours riding engines. The IMT crew took off, but would return again soon to help us with our reconnaissance around the surrounding fjords and lake.
We had clear weather for all but one day of the trip, with just some snow the second evening before the skies went blue. With the fresh blanket of snow and big views, we were free to access anything we could see in the surrounding ranges. Slowly but surely we tested out the snow conditions–the snowpack proved to be solid and safe. As we began to tick off lines in the immediate zone around our huts, the IMT team returned and pointed out more areas of potential. We used snow machines to extend our range and push further north and west. The more we searched, the more the landscape presented new aspects.
Fog is common off the ocean and fjords. One morning, as we started our tour, the horizon filled with slow moving clouds, creating a mystical effect with its sparkling moisture. As we climbed into the upper basin, the mists closed in around us, so we chose to remain high for the day for visibility. We looped around on the high end of our ski track to ski fresh 1,000ft couloirs off the edge of a long, jagged ridge.
Slowly we shifted focus farther from camp; it was exciting to discover more potential around each corner. In the north, we walked along peak ridges to drop into 5,000ft glacier runs in boot-top powder down long, open, elegant corridors to the frozen lake below. Once we were familiar with the area, we headed across the lake on snow machine and into neighboring fjords to search for more options.
At times we skinned in T-shirts and light windbreakers. Though the temps warmed occasionally, the cool arctic breezes protected the quality of the newly-fallen snow and preserved the powder. Some days we could return to the hut for lunch, and on others we’d pack food, leaving the hut by 6 a.m. and returning by 7 p.m. With our eyes opened to the possibilities, it was hard to stop moving.
Towards the end of our stay, we relocated to a summer hut near a major fjord entry, discovering more long routes right above the water. The tight lines down the row of the massif all opened up to a 2,000ft open face above. Conditions were wind-hammered conditions up high, but the lower couloirs were gently warmed by the late arctic sunshine, and we skied loose corn snow all the way down another 2,000 feet to the hut.
Eager to see more, we snow machined around to the north side of the massif and lined up objectives from there. Long glacier tongues poked out of alleys off peaks lining the fjord. Circling each glacial basin, powder-filled north-facing couloirs lured us in to explore their heights. With a team of four, we split up on numerous objectives, switching between couloirs and steep, exposed faces. It was like a dream to have the valleys to ourselves.
It was hard to leave an area that held so much promise, but we were offered an opportunity to explore an exciting zone to the south of Sisimuit by boat. Ice Axe Expeditions often utilizes water travel to reach remote ski opportunities (e.g. Svalbard, Norway and Antarctica) and this was a perfect juncture in our stay up north at which to do some more reconnaissance. We turned our focus to south of Sisimuit, to the small village of Itilleq. From the day of our arrival, Larsarraq had spoken to the beauty of this remote location and its tremendous ski potential with high mountain glaciers and stacked areas of rugged, jagged peaks. We flew over the peaks from our connecting airport at Kangerlussaq and the group had commented in the air on the concentration of big mountains with rough contours.
We returned to town via snow machine, regrouped for the night, and departed the next morning from the quiet Sisimuit harbor, just one mile from the compact airport strip. The water was relatively calm as we weaved through inlets and openings among the islands and fjord crossings to our destination.
Itilleq is known as the ‘Arctic Circle Village,’ since the Arctic-circle line can be drawn approximately through the middle of town. On calm, glassy days, the passage from Sisimuit takes 15 minutes by boat, but ours, with minimal exposure to open water, was 40 minutes. The 50+ locals survive off fishing, especially Lumpfish caviar, a staple that brings good income to the inhabitants in the late spring and summer months. Otherwise, it is an isolated place with hearty people who live simple yet extraordinary lives in a relatively untouched wilderness.
Pack ice used to connect Sisimuit and Itilleq, which allowed for dog sled access. But the arctic ice is melting, so that is no longer an option. The towns–and their inhabitants–are isolated from one another. The necessary boats can be seen in abundance in the front yards of their compact, primary-color homes. On the plus side for backcountry skiers, no pack ice means no polar bears, which meant no guns for us to carry.
After walking around and visiting with some locals, we loaded back on the boat and motored down the adjacent fjord next to the village. Further up in the inlets, we found good landing zones in unfrozen waters from which to approach the big peaks with their glacier-cut couloirs and high amphitheaters that stretched down deep valleys for miles. Lining the shore were giant peaks with glacier-covered flanks stacked with skiable terrain. Our captain found a good spot to approach shore and we jumped out in the protected inlet and started skinning up the first valley. Above loomed a large glacier opening with the appearance of soft, protected snow and we made our way up the hillside. Skiing down later that day, looking up the valley, we knew this was an area that would work well for a future base camp and a much longer stay.
We enjoyed one last day of skiing near town the day before our departure, although the nine days of sun and heat had started to affect the snow pack. At the end of the day, we joined our IMT hosts in celebrating their closing day at the ski hill with a bountiful meal of reindeer, musk ox, and other fish and meats. Greendlandic people hunt only for survival and subsistence and then use every part of the animal to maximize its use–which explains the reindeer and seal skins that are abundant throughout town, adorning everything from snowmobile seats to picnic tables.
Wrapping up on our adventure with dog sledding on our last morning, we glided comfortably through more new terrain in the valleys outside of town. Dressed in sealskin outfits, we could feel the cold air on the tips of our noses, but were otherwise completely protected by the efficient material. The dogs love the exercise–they pant and jump in excitement as they are led to their spot on the ropes. It is fascinating how smooth and strong they make the sled ride. Yet dogsledding may slowly disappear, a dying method of transportation next to the convenience of snow machines.
This journey was part of the vision of our Ice Axe Super Chief, Doug Stoup, who had discovered Sisimuit a few years prior. And, as Doug always does when it comes to adventures in the Poles, he encouraged us to take the exploration to the next level. Thanks to the assistance and the knowledge of the team at Igloo Mountain we were able to capitalize on some of the limitless ski potential and enjoy the Greenlandic culture through the eyes of some of its best caretakers. For the culture and the economy of Greenland to survive, it needs to diversify beyond relying simply on fishing. The locals need to be empowered to guide the outside world through its mountains, to sustainably experience its tremendous resources.
Our experience can be duplicated for others and it would be the great pleasure of both Ice Axe Expeditions and Igloo Mountain to host you. www.iceaxe.tv