Greenland

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Up the Ice

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But ice-climbing remains one of my fondest memories in Ilulissat and I chose to submit this particular piece I wrote in remembrance of it for a travel scholarship application. Even if nothing came out of it, I’d like to think someone did read this somewhere…and liked it.


No prerequisites. So said the guy at the tourist office. And it was very cool too, he added.

His earnest talk reassures me, so I whip out my credit card and choose, in a moment of lunacy believing myself to be fit enough, to spend the afternoon ice climbing in an arctic winter in Ilulissat, Greenland.

It’s a day later that I finally meet Sergei, my instructor and a Catalonian native who moonlights in Ilullisat giving ice-climbing lessons to unsuspecting tourists like me who know no better. With an ice-encrusted beard that barely moves under his broad smiles, Sergei resembles a hunky Santa Claus in his puffy red jacket, climbing mountains all over the world when the urge takes him.

I nervously study the equipment he hauls along: deadly-looking crampons, funky snowshoes, harnesses, hiking poles, helmets, miles of rope and ice axes. It’s the standard fare for ice climbing but they look absolutely foreign to me. Sergei babies everyone who only knows how to shove square pegs into round holes. He even helps me struggle into the harness that barely goes past my thighs and by the time I’ve donned all the fancy equipment, put on a balaclava and trekked that short but steep distance from town to the inner harbour, I look and feel like a bank robber who has attempted a heist that failed only because of my inability to run fast enough.

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The ice is a terrifying vertical boulder with a slight overhang, but that’s probably my sudden fear amplifying the insurmountable distance. Sergei disappears briefly to plant the anchor, then returns to secure his belay device while I practise drilling the axes into the ice. All I manage to do is to dislodge a multitude of icy fragments that spray directly into my face.

When Sergei returns, we begin in earnest. I bring the axe down, miraculously finding a secure hold, then dig the crampons hard into the ice wall and haul myself up a miserable foot. I do it again and again, then I fall, swing, and shred my pants with the crampons, barely hearing Sergei yelling his special brand of encouragement that includes phrases like ‘yo good, man!’ and ‘my pants are also full of holes’. Soon enough, my arms are buttery with fatigue and my elbows refuse to cooperate any longer.

It’s obvious I’m absolutely rubbish at this but everyone is too polite to say it aloud. That doesn’t change the fact that I loved every minute of it.

Weeks later, I sign myself up for indoor climbing courses and remain just as incompetent scaling indoor walls.

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Miles ahead

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Miles is the sprightliest 79 year-old Brit I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting. He behaves decades younger than he really is, walks around with a bounce in his step and does everything that everyone under the age of 30 can do without much difficulty, toughing it out when it’s needed. The crisp London accent is still so very evident after living in New York for 36 years and talking to him is a little like talking to Michael Palin with a wicked, sharper edge (or on steroids) which can often serve as a highlight for the day – a hilarious instance being his incredulous reaction to a group of Asian tourists dressed in cold-weather jumpsuits which he termed ‘spacesuits’ and promptly called them ‘astronauts bouncing around town’.

He was predictably the first to arrive at 8.45 am for the dog sledge activity and was extremely happy to find out that there would be an Inuit driver for the sledge he was going to be on.

“Oh, of course there will be a driver,” said the customer service representative with exaggerated patience after his show of relief.

“That’s good then. I thought we’d have to drive the sleds ourselves, thinking I might turn the sled over or something! Now I can just sit behind and look…imperious,” Miles proclaimed with satisfaction.

We decked ourselves in seal skin and looking like Michelin men, went south of town where the dogs were kept. Our driver came roaring in with his pack of Greenlandic hounds and off we went, half-slouching in the sled with legs extended, flying straight onto the frigid, snow-decked plains carried only by the power of furry little paws. Halfway through, a sled with overly-excited dogs got lost halfway when the dogs decided to take a merry ride of their own, stranding the poor tourist who had to share the remaining seat with 2 other persons.

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Miles was effusively excited even though it as obvious he was freezing in the air, having only rented the snow shoes but not the seal skin clothing and got concerned with the welfare of the dogs when he thought they could be treated a lot better than they currently were.

We laughed and said goodbye as he wandered off to buy trinkets for his grandchildren. We took a last turn around town, heaped praise on the pretty sights and worried about the kind of trinkets we needed to bring back.

I bumped into Miles again at dinner and learned that his only entertainment for the rest of the night was “Ex on the beach”, a show on MTV so abysmally awful (‘incredibly bad’ in his words) that it was fascinating.

I think I’m going to miss him a lot when we finally say goodbye.

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Ilulissat’s lure

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The ancient settlement site of Sermermiut, where the Saqqaq, Early Dorset and Thule cultures lived and fished for seal and halibut in the nutrient-rich waters of the glacier is an easy kilometre south of Ilulissat, where a boardwalk cuts through its grassy slopes straight down to the waters of Ilulissat Kangerlua (Jakobshavn Icefjord). The last resident moved to Ilulissat in 1850, abandoning the site entirely. Today, it’s a UNESCO heritage site, complete with a warning not to stand too close to the shore in case a chunk of ice breaks off into the sea resulting in a tidal wave that I’m sure, has killed people before.

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We visited Sermermiut in a morning blizzard that unrepentantly threw snow into our faces, just as the sun was only starting to burn off the mist. Idyllic it wasn’t (in fact, it was brutally painful), but I was nonetheless awed by the idea that I was treading ground where the ancient settlers must have walked. There were icebergs in the distance and also a view of the suicide cliff, where those who tired of their burdens (or those who needed a human sacrifice) hurled themselves off the edge into the icy waters below.

Off to a quick lunch and onto a boat thereafter for the iceberg tour which I’d been waiting for, which didn’t disappoint at all.

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We had a better look at the suicide cliff during the afternoon’s sailing among the icebergs tour; it was bitterly cold but pockets of weak sunshine gave the ‘bergs a strangely beautiful bluish-yellow tint, like a very ill man stricken with an ailment.

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Moody and Bright, so goes the mood

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“Let me tell you a little about myself,” said the guide from World of Greenland (a partner of Greenland Travel) at the very start of the cultural/historical walk around the town. “I first visited Greenland in 2007, fell in love with the country and came back again in 2008. This time, I fell in love with the dog-sled guide and moved here permanently. So you can ask me anything you want about Ilulissat.”

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That was probably the only snippet that was memorable; the rest was simply trivia that floated in a ear and exited the other. We walked mostly to the harbour, heard about when the ships came in, endured the smell of raw seafood and stood outside the Knud Rasmussen Museum in the freezing wind.

“She’s just telling us all the useless things I don’t care to know,” said a Brit to me.

I laughed and commiserated wholeheartedly, having felt the same way. These are after all, the essentials: walking to town takes 20 minutes; the bus runs every forty minutes and the shop close on Sunday.

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IMG_3012 The painfully pointless walking tour simply confirmed that Ilulissat is the darling of West Greenland, despite the facilities that are barely coping with the influx of tourists that pour in during winter. Icebergs float serenely off the shores of the town and views go from spectacular to staggering, especially when the sun finally comes out. The number of tours offered by a variety of travel companies can be overwhelming and expensive, and the tourist dollar is fully (and possibly justifiably) milked to the core here.

I still don’t remember anything more the guide said, except that they do offer tours apart from what’s in the excursion package. Cheered by this news, TC and I wiggled our way next door to Ice Cap tours (a competitor) and promptly signed up for ice-climbing, an activity that promised to be suitable even for beginners. The reality is less rosy, as always. Sergei the Catalonian ice-climbing instructor told us it was quite an involved process and after trudging through the frozen harbour on snow-shoes, taught us to aim high and hit hard with the ultra-modern-looking pick-axe which I failed miserably at. I finished the session having managed only a miserable 5 metres from the ground with all limbs feeling like jello, aching in places I never thought muscles even existed.

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We went back sweaty and discovered that Hotel Arctic’s washing charges are only 50DKK if you fill up their laundry bag. This was by far, the cheapest load of laundry we’ve ever done…in Scandinavia and I celebrated by doing a little dance in the room much to TC’s bemusement.

Then came dinner.

Food is interesting but limited and pizza and burgers seem to be reigning catch of the day. There are only 2 cafes available to those who visit in winter and a huge number of shops (Knut P, Pilu Sports, Butik Sara) selling a surprising number of hardcore winter outdoor wear with brands I’ve never even heard of at prices that were way more reasonable than Stockholm or even Copenhagen.

But then, what do I really know about arctic travel and its paraphernalia?

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The edge of the freeze

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At 180km inland, Kangerlussuaq is the most inland and thus coldest and warmest of the inhabited Greenlandic settlements. If anything, it was at least a welcome (but belated) explanation for the moment of horror that TC and I had when we first found out in Stockholm that the temperature was a whopping -36 deg. Celsius and thought that the weather app was at its most cynical self. It wasn’t the most romanticised introduction of Greenland – and definitely one not of the idyllic kayak-vacationer weaving his way among the floating icebergs, but a realistic cold-cock to the face that made us go on a pants/gloves buying spree in Copenhagen.

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Repeated checks of the weather yielded the same results and grudgingly, we admitted that we were entirely unprepared for the brutal weather, even from that short walk from plane to airport, the latter of which is like a bus stop and a cafeteria stop for world weary and jet-lagged people.

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Surreal and soulless but for the fabulous ice-cap 40 kilometres away, Kangerlussuaq grew out of the remnants of an ex-military base that served several . Most tourist activities are simply little drives (or what’s better known as the ‘Tundra Safari’ and ’Sightseeing in Town’) in modified heavy-vehicles on the roads that snake in and out of the town centre.

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There are empty, old ‘hotel’ buildings for stranded tourists and the Polar Lodge, my accommodation for 2 nights, is a staggering 50 metres walk from the runway. Several tour groups following different itineraries are cramped into this space and with only a harried-looking guide coordinating the activities, mix-ups are common and frequent. We were told to go for a briefing at the wrong time, only to find out that the briefing we were meant to be at was already over. A poor guy got left behind during the first sight-seeing tour and dinner at Rokklubben restaurant felt more like army boot camp mealtime with Christmas lights. The chef had a black eye and since we don’t speak Danish at all, it was fun speculating how he got it. Maybe a customer didn’t like his food enough?

Seeing the Northern lights was a treat and the driver happily got himself drunk on Greenlandic coffee (a mix of whisky, grand marnier, kahlua, a little coffee and cream) as he drove us back. The Danes (un)fortunately reign supreme here – both tourists and inhabitants and English is an afterthought, which is getting to be an annoyance when jokes, stories and presentations are made in Danish and left untranslated.

After-note: I wished that we’d a few more options when it came to choosing accommodation, instead of packing ourselves into Polar Lodge which seemed to be the favourite (or only) choice of World of Greenland. There was Hotel Kangerlussuaq, whose entrance and cafe are weirdly shared with the airport entrance and a spick-and-span youth hostel on the other side of town run by the tourist office. 

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