An adventure to East Greenland

Kamilla Oliver on the summit of a mountain peak in the vicinity of Kulusk in East Greenland.

We’ve finally had snow on the Hottentots Holland mountains, and of course I had to go out to chase it, but without skis unfortunately. Which brings me to wax lyrical about my trip to East Greenland in April.

Greenland is the world’s largest non-continental island and autonomous Danish territory. It is nearly twice the size of South Africa and 85% of its land is covered in ice and snow.

The ice sheet is up to 3km thick and contains 10% of the world’s fresh water. The population is over 50 000 people. The capital, Nuuk, on the west coast of Greenland has a population of about 17 000, making it one of the smallest capitals in the world.

Aside from Nuuk, there are no roads in Greenland. The country is serviced by airplanes and helicopters and travelled by dogsleds, boats and snowmobiles. The main source of income is the export of fish products.

East Greenland counts as one of the most isolated habitations in the world. The gateway is the small Kulusuk Airport from where by foot, or on ski in winter, in less than an hour one can reach the settlement on Kulusuk Island, which has a population of about 200 people.

It feels like being taken back in time. The tiny colourful houses are placed on what is mostly completely white and there are few rocks visible. The surreality and beauty of the place can’t be overstated, but it is also a very harsh place.

Fishing and hunting is still very much the way of life of the locals, even though tourism can potentially supplement the income.

Local people, the Inuit, are very friendly, although very few can speak English. There is one shop in the village where one can buy food and shotguns and also trade goods.

The village also has a school, church and cemetery and a communal bath, as houses with running water are very rare. Wealth is still much determined by a number of dogs.

The Greenlandic sled dog, apparently the most genetically pure dog breed in the world, evolved hand in hand with the harsh Arctic environment.

It can withstand severe weather conditions and it works hard most of its life. They stay outside all the time and even during a snowstorm they curl themselves in a snow hole. And how they do enjoy pulling a sled.

There is no shortage of snow in Greenland. As far as skiing is concerned, it can best be described as exploratory. We were climbing peaks with skins on our skis – special strips attached to the bottom of the ski allowing to one ascend a mountain, used together with ski-touring bindings which allow a free heel – or crampons or just ski boots, gaining up to 1 300m in elevation, and then skiing down.

This involved finding the way in a backcountry in which the consistency of the snow may suddenly change along the way, from powdery to icy patches, so not only the must the ski equipment be suitable to handle the varying conditions, but also skier’s skills, stamina and mental attitude.

Each of us carried full avalanche and crevasse rescue equipment, flares against polar bears and we had a rifle, for the eventuality of meeting a polar bear. How glad was I that we never had to use it, because we were only guests in this place. Nature in Greenland makes one feel humble: it is truly awe-inspiring and overwhelming.

What makes skiing in Greenland so different from anywhere else in the world, is the remoteness of the place, so any medical attention is not easily to be had.

For the locals living in Kulusuk, there is only a nurse in another settlement of 500 and to get there one needs to take a helicopter or go by boat, and only if weather conditions permit.

This being said, before taking part in this expedition, everybody had to sign an indemnity form. Fortunately everybody survived safe and sound, even though our flight from Kulusuk Airport back to Reykjavik in Iceland was delayed by four days due to a snowstorm, it was clear that it was an incredible experience and as for me, I would certainly do it again.

I was very fortunate and happy to be able to make this trip and it really feels like only just scratching “the tip of the iceberg” of what Greenland is all about. Without Pirhuk, our Inuit guide, it wouldn’t have been possible.

Kamilla Oliver, a physics PhD student, is a resident of Somerset West. After working for many years at the University of Cape Town, Stellenbosch University and later at Koeberg nuclear power plant near Cape Town, she decided to combine travelling, exploring and skiing with work.