Up the Ice

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.


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.

Ilulissat’s lure

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 […]

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