An Epic Backpacking Adventure in the Arctic Wilderness of Southern Greenland
Greenland has gained popularity in recent years, but it remains one of the most remote and least visited places on earth. Officially the world’s largest island, it is an autonomous territory within the Kingdom of Denmark. Although mostly covered by a giant ice sheet (the second largest on earth after Antarctica), Greenland has an incredibly rugged and beautiful coastline perfect for the intrepid outdoor enthusiast. In 2017 I visited Greenland on a photography tour led by Max Rive, and in 2018 I returned to lead the same tour (I’ve included pictures from both years).
Most people visiting Greenland fly to Nuuk and visit the Disko Bay and Ilulissat area. This area is world renowned for the Ilulissat Icefjord, the most productive glacier in the northern hemisphere. With long summer days, incredible icebergs floating in the bay and a quaint village it is a world class destination. I considered traveling to Ilulissat when planning a trip to Greenland, but I was more intrigued by the terrain at the southernmost tip of the island. I first saw photos of southern Greenland from the talented photographer Max Rive of the Netherlands. He traveled to southern Greenland and spent 2 months exploring locations he previously read about in trip reports from hikers. The images he captured were new, fresh and looked like they came from another planet. I decided to join his tour there in 2017 and see these incredible places for myself. My father-in-law, Steve, is an avid traveler and decided to join me on the tour as well.
2017 Trip Outline
Greenland has no roads connecting towns due to the rugged nature of the landscape. Villages have small roads, but they are completely contained inside each village. There is no way to get from one village to the next without flying, sailing or a very long hike! With that in mind, it can take a while to get to your final destination. Coming from Minnesota required a flight to Reykjavik, Iceland with a 12-hour layover. After that I flew to Narsarsuaq, Greenland on a turboprop plane. The timetable for flights and boats within Greenland is much more sporadic, so the next “layover” was 2.5 days long! With that much time on our hands, we decided to explore the area around Narsarsuaq, and met up with Lucas Cometto, another photographer on the tour. The town itself is very small, with only around 150 full time inhabitants. It is basically an airstrip with a handful of buildings set in a beautiful mountainous area. On one end of the town is the fjord, and the other end leads inland to the glacier and beyond.
After getting settled into Hotel Narsarsuaq, Steve and I set out to hike to the glacier. The hike starts from town along the road, and then heads into the glacial valley. After a few miles of hiking, the trail zig zags up the side of the mountain. There are a few spots with ropes to aid in climbing up, but it is not difficult. Once at the top, the view back toward the valley is expansive and beautiful. The river twists and turns on its way out to the fjord, which you can see off in the distance.
After a few photos we continued toward the glacier. This section is not a trail but has a few cairns to keep you headed in the right direction. The terrain here is typical tundra and smooth granite. The mountains are not tall and jagged, but rather rounded and sparsely covered with foliage. A few miles hiking brought us to the Narsarsuaq glacier terminus, and although it was a cloudy day we could see for miles. The glaciers here connect with the ice sheet that extends for 1,600 miles to the north; the vast size is incomprehensible.
We took in the views and headed back toward Narsarsuaq. Once we got to the road we were feeling a bit tired. As we walked along, we flagged down a slow moving pickup truck and hitched a ride in the bed of the truck back into town. Only in Greenland! Dinner that night was a sea buffet at the hotel; the highlight was watching Steve take a bite of cured seal meat. He is the kind of guy that will try anything and likes most everything…but the seal meat quickly came back out after a few chews!
The following day we met up with Lucas and decided to take a charter boat into the adjacent fjord to get a close up view of the Qooroq glacier. This glacier’s terminus is in the waters of the fjord, and calves frequently filling the fjord with icebergs. We watched as the captain swerved around icebergs going 40 mph and trusted that he knew what he was doing. We stopped a good distance from the terminus and the captain prepared some cocktails with the ice from nearby floating bergs…that was a first! After one more dinner, we organized our gear and prepared for the net day’s flight to Nanortalik, the kickoff point for our tour.
The flight to Nanortalik is by helicopter and makes one scheduled stop in Qaqortoq, the fourth largest town in Greenland (population of 3,100). The town is very colorful and from the harbor you can see the majority of houses as they are built on the hillsides. We stretched our legs and boarded once again. After a short time we began to descend, and landed in a place that looked unfamiliar. We were supposed to be in Nanortalik, but the captain informed everyone that it was too foggy to land there so we had to stop in Alluitsup Paa (population 200) instead.
He gave us no more than 5 minutes on the helipad to decide whether to stay there or go back to Narsarsuaq. Since the tour started the next day, we decided to take our chances on Alluitsup Paa and hope to find some alternate means of getting to Nanortalik. A town resident helping unload baggage informed us that we could stay at his extra home just a short distance away, so we gladly took him up on the offer. We watched as he loaded all our baggage in the scoop of a tractor and drove off, leaving us to quickly try to figure out where he was going, and what our next moves would be.
We luckily had a satellite phone with us and were able to touch base with Max Rive to explain our dilemma. The connection wasn’t good, but Max was able to arrange for a Blue Ice boat to pick us up and bring us the final 40 miles to Nanortalik the next day. As we celebrated our good fortune, a local woman invited to the only bar in town just steps from our home for the night. The bar was perhaps the smallest hole in the wall I have ever visited, with just a couple tables and a short bar. Nonetheless, they had cold beer, good music and we had a great night.
We slept soundly in the unheated house that night, and in the morning set out for Nanortalik by boat. On the way we passed gigantic icebergs and soaring peaks in every direction. At last, after 5 days of travel and waiting, we arrived! It was a beautiful sunny day and we were greeted by Max Rive and Niels Jepsen, the owner of the local tourism business. We didn’t have much time to see the village of Nanortalik, but it is a unique little village with a population just over 1,000. After meeting the rest of our group (Brian Love and David Koster) we boarded a Zodiac and sailed into the Tasermiut fjord to begin the tour.
The 45 mile long Tasermiut fjord is best known for its breathtaking big wall mountains, some of which soar 6,500’ above the fjord below. The tallest and most famous is Ketil, with a height of 6,590’. As we sailed into the fjord, we were completely dwarfed by the gigantic peaks around us. Charged with excitement, our anticipation grew as we drew closer to our campsite. We disembarked after an hour sail into the fjord and carried our gear up to a plateau below the immense peak known as Ulmertorsuaq. When we arrived, the mountain was shrouded in cloud cover. We set up camp, had some lunch and decided to hike up the mountainside toward the peak. The clouds swirled around the peak, and it looked like we wouldn’t see the mountain face after all, but after an hour we caught our first glimpse. The peak rises straight up so dramatically it almost doesn’t look real.
Since we arrived a day later than scheduled, we only had one night at this amazing location. Luckily the following year when I led the Greenland tour we were able to spend two nights and explore the area more.
After packing up camp, we boarded the zodiac and sailed to the end of the Tasermiut fjord to see the rapidly retreating glacier. Ten years ago this glacier was calving directly into the waters of the fjord. When we visited in 2017 it was several hundred yards up the mountain. A river of water was pouring out of the glacier, and it was very active. While we were watching from a safe distance, enormous blocks of ice thundered down causing the earth to shudder and huge chunks of ice to wash down the river into the fjord.
We finished walking around the glacier and then sailed to our next campsite a few miles back up the Tasermiut fjord. Another world class camp spot surrounded by mountains in all directions and two distinct glaciers in sight. After setting up camp we spotted Polar Bear tracks, which was a bit distressing considering we did not have a rifle for protection. After discussing our options we decided that the tracks appeared to be several days old and that the bear had probably moved on. (In 2018, I brought with a dedicated polar bear guard armed with a large caliber rifle and an electric bear fence.)
That evening we climbed 1,000’ up the mountain above camp for sunset. The higher you climb in Greenland, the more impressive the views become. It is difficult to describe how vast and seemingly unending the terrain is without witnessing it firsthand.
We started the day with a “polar bear breakfast,” consisting of sweet biscuits and honey along with Muesli and powdered milk. Fortified, we boarded the zodiac once more and sailed south. Near the tiny village of Tasiusaq there is a valley that allows hikers to connect the Tasermiut area with the Torsukattak fjord. There are no trails systems in Greenland, but there are sheep paths that zig zag around. We set out early trying our best to follow these paths, but more often than not we walked through the spongy bog typical of the area. Depending on how much rain has fallen, each step can be arduous and tiring, especially with a heavy pack. The other thing we discovered was that the arctic mosquitoes and biting flies come out in swarms on sunny days. As soon as the sun comes up, you better have a head net handy or you will be eaten alive.
We hiked several miles eastward, crossing glacial streams and snacking along the way. By evening, we pitched our tents near an incredible vista overlooking a small lake and some of the most ruggedly picturesque mountains imaginable.
We hoped for northern lights that night, but a dense fog enveloped our camp and brought a biting cold with it. The next morning we woke in a sea of fog. Unable to see more than a few hundred feet in any direction, we ate breakfast and waited. Before long a gentle breeze began to blow the fog and created openings allowing us to see the peaks above. We all ran in separate directions, hoping to capture the moment.
After an hour of shooting we loaded our gear and headed out. It was about a 4 mile hike out of the valley, with much more of the bogginess we experienced the day before. Nonetheless there was a gradual downward slope that helped us along and kept us somewhat fresh for what lay ahead.
After leaving the valley we boarded a fishing boat captained by a local man from Aappilattoq, a small village of 130 people. We had a short sail across the fjord and we unloaded our gear on the eastern shore. Some of the group was wondering what we were doing, as the terrain sloped steeply upwards with no obvious path. When Max Rive pointed up and said “we go there,” Steve almost collapsed from surprise. He laughed and immediately lay down on the rocky shoreline to take a nap and regain energy.
After reorganizing gear and leaving as much weight as possible at the shore, we proceeded upward. It was an extremely steep route, crossing several areas with exposure. Our pace was slow, burdened with our packs and our efforts to keep solid footing. After a couple hours we reached a small level plateau and high-fived as we set our packs down and admired what was possibly one of the most impressive campsite views in the world. 2,000’ above the deep blue waters of the fjord, we had a bird’s eye view of the impossibly steep mountain faces rising above Torsukattak.
We didn’t have time to enjoy the view, however, as the sun was setting and we still had a 700’ climb to the view we had come for. We grabbed our camera gear and quickly set off once again. Just when we thought the views couldn’t get any better, we reached the view that I first saw from Max Rive’s image years earlier. “Jaw dropping” is the only way to describe the vista that lay before us. Looking west we could see the entire valley we had just hiked through the day before. To the south was Torsukattak and the incredible peaks. Below, icebergs floated in the fjord. It was a perfect reward for the effort we put in that day, and we celebrated by carefully capturing it with our cameras and trying to do the scene justice.
I woke an hour before sunrise to look outside and gauge conditions. The sky was perfectly clear, but when I looked to the fjord below I was amazed to see that it was entirely filled with clouds. It was a cloud inversion, and I quickly gathered my camera and set off to the viewpoint. The others stayed below, so after reaching the view I sat in silence and watched the scene unfold as it has for time unimaginable.
The afternoon was spent resting around camp and admiring the wilderness views. A few hours before sunset, we set off for the summit of the nearest peak, 1,400’ above us. Upon reaching the summit and nearing the western edge, we were blown away by the amazing scale of the place. We captured the scene and started our descent, trying not to go off course in the darkness. The two nights we spent in this area were some of the most amazing wilderness experiences of my life.
After packing up camp and descending the mountainside, we joined our captain and set off for more provisions. On the way the captain slowed near a flat iceberg floating in the fjord. Apparently, it is a rite of passage in Greenland to walk on an iceberg. We obliged and scrambled onto the low, flat berg, laughing the entire time.
Aappilattoq is nestled between mountains and the fjord, with million-dollar views in every direction. They also have a nicely stocked grocery store, courtesy of Denmark. Ravenous, we pillaged the store (maybe not pillaged, but you get the idea) and cooked our meal in our captain’s guest house. It was a great chance to refuel and take a shower in the community bathhouse. As we were preparing our gear to depart, we watched as the local children played. It was a sunny day, and the temperature was around 60F. That must be quite balmy to the locals, and one kid decided to strip down buck naked and jump into the fjord…as a giant iceberg floated nearby. I felt a little soft in my winter hat, fleece and down layers!
We boarded our boat once again and sailed for the Kangikitsoq fjord and Tupaussat valley. Our campsite was at the head of the valley, right next to the fjord. We had no wind, and the waters were glassy and calm. We pitched camp and scouted for compelling compositions nearby. The peak that dominates the scene is shaped like the quintessential mountain; it is perfectly triangular. With a rushing glacial river nearby and Greenlandic Bluebell wildflowers, it is a magical spot. I found a nice spot and waited for sunset. The sunset was uneventful, but blue hour was incredible. As I watched, a low cloud wrapped itself around the triangle peak and created an awesome scene for just a few moments before disappearing. We capped the night with the briefest of bonfires and hit our sleeping bags.
Sunrise was calm and serene, and we gazed out toward the placid waters of the fjord. Our captain reappeared but had to slowly push his boat toward shore due to the low tide. We boarded and sailed to Kangerluk fjord, and once again we had a beautiful sunny day. Camp was pitched on a gently sloping hill covered by wild blueberries. After having our fill of biscuits, honey and Nutella, we debated on what to do for sunset. Max proposed summiting the nearby peak and bivouacking for the night, but we neglected to bring our jumpsuits from the boat. It would be frigid near the top, so we decided that was not a great option. Steve and David were feeling fatigued, so they decided to stay at Kangikitsoq camp, while Lucas, Brian, Max and I chose to hike into the valley heading westward. We were running low on provisions, so we left Steve and David with a small portion of Ramen and we took the Spaghetti with us. After a few hours hiking up the valley, we set up camp near a river and set to exploring. We enjoyed a peaceful evening and then toward midnight we were awed by an incredible show of northern lights above camp. Green lights danced overhead in every direction, an experience none of us will forget. We rose early for sunrise and then set out back to the fjord.
We broke our final camp of the trip and boarded the boat early in the morning. We had a long sail back to Nanortalik, but as we crossed into the Torsukattak fjord we encountered an incredible iceberg floating in the still waters. The berg was the size of a 5 story building with a hole in the center of it, and was framed perfectly against the backdrop of jagged peaks. We circled silently in the boat, snapping pictures as we went. It was a fitting end to our wilderness adventure.
Back in Nanortalik we all enjoyed warm showers, hearty meals and comfortable beds. The adventure was over, but we still had several days of transit making our way back home. All that travel was absolutely worth it, and Greenland never failed to impress!