Tuesday, 14 March 2006
Adventure Travel: Sub-zero Hero / Northern Exposure
by Jacques Marais
View some photos from this article here >
This ain’t no fashion parade, buddy. Out here, you dress to survive, not to impress, and this is a lesson I learn up on Tinitiqelaaq glacier on the first day of the expedition. Sure I knew it was going to be cold, so I whacked on enough clothing to cope with an onslaught on par with the Drakensberg during a menacing, mid-winter storm. Big mistake; I last barely until the sun sputters and dies behind the hoary horizon before my personal anti-freeze system begins to malfunction.
Up to now we have been active, slogging through thigh-deep snow behind the sleds amidst the mountainous Ammassalik topography, or riding stanchion to control the sled along skittering descents. The 4km climb up the face of the glacier, mostly through three weeks worth of fresh powder, fires up my metabolism and I can feel my base layer clinging to my skin. “Perspiration, not good”, I think as I check out the lights of Tinit, a tiny Inuit settlement hunkering down upon the edge of a frozen fjord about 12km in the distance.
It is around 10pm when we eventually summit the glacier, with at least two hours of sledding ahead of us and the temperature by now free-falling into negative figures. And as it is completely dark by now, I’m confined to the rear of the sled while Imaka guides the dog team in guttural Greenlandic from the front section. In the light of what can only be described as a gibbous moon, we gingerly descend the flank of the glacier, basically trusting the dogs to pick a route amidst rocky drop-offs, deep snow drifts and, for all I know, gaping crevasses.
Initially I crap myself every time the sled teeters atop some rocky ledge, but my anxiety of unseen chasms are soon overshadowed by concerns about the state of my hands and feet. A solid day of shooting with a camera as cold as a block of ice has leeched all feeling out of my fingers, so lesson number one is ‘no mitts when you need to twiddle knobs’. Nothing much I can do about lesson number two either, but next time around I will take off a layer or two before I start sweating, thus avoiding clammy thermal underwear. And I’ll definitely up-size my boots to allow for at least three pairs of thick, woollen socks.
It’s not as if I’m going to die or lose my extremities to frostbite here, but it’s not a pleasant sensation when it feels as if your fingers and toes are slowly being clamped shut in a vice. So when we eventually lurch across the frozen sea ice and into Tinit just before midnight, I’m ready for whatever home comforts there might be on offer. Plan is to spend the night with a local family in order to get a glimpse of Inuit culture, but the lady of the said house had taken ill earlier and preparations have therefore fallen by the wayside.
What the hell ... We decide to crash on the living room floor anyway, and promptly demolish a pot of boiled seal (unceremoniously served sans salt, rice or condiments of any shape or flavour). To be honest, chances are I would have had second helpings of micro-waved Doberman Pincher at this stage of the evening. Twelve hours of sledding through deep snow and a kilogram of dodgy meat in our stomachs do the trick, and we hit the sleeping bags for a five-hour snooze.
After yesterday’s stand-off with the climate, I get up and start preparing for my personal cold war: three pairs of Falke Ski socks and a pair of Salomon boots boasting Thermalite inners; one pair of Norwegian underpants (with anti-freeze drip panel); two pairs of base layers pants, one breathable and one thermal; a pair of North Face Salopets plus Mountain Hardwear shell pants. Now for the upper body: a long-sleeved base layer, followed by a thermal-, fleece- and down layer, and then an impenetrable shell jacket. My snow couture is finished off with knee-length snow gaiters, a full-faced balaclava, a ski mask, sherpa hat and Black Diamond gloves rated down to -26o C.
I’m warm as toast, but there is a more than fleeting resemblance to a rotund hobbit, and I feel like Billy Bunter about to try out for a place in the high school athletics team. I couldn’t give a toss though; there is no way I want to go through last night’s Big Chill torture session again. Breakfast goes down and I’m half-way through helping harnessing the dogs when Mother Nature taps me on the shoulder ... stupid, stupid, stupid! Twenty minutes and six layers of clothing later, the call has been heeded and I’m back on the sled, ready to take on Day Two.
There is one thing that the clothing does not offer any protection against, and that is the smell of dog-fart in the morning. Whenever these hounds go on the pull, they do so at pace and with scant consideration for the state of their guts. Right now said guts are sloshing with a volatile mix of raw seal meat and dodgy pellets, and there are no prizes for guessing who is perpetually being hauled into the epicentre of this foul-smelling methane cloud. Fortunately, this only lasts until the dogs start going into waste disposal mode (on the run, nogal), after which the emission levels drop markedly.
Speaking of canines; the Greenlandic dog must be the toughest breed in the world. Much heavier than Canadian Huskies, they generally weigh around 30 - 40kg, although large males have been known to tip the scales at 60kg. They are also way hardier than other Nordic breed, and can survive on pellets plus a hefty chunk of frozen seal whenever it is available. As there is no water about in winter, they hydrate themselves by grabbing the odd mouthful of snow while pulling the sled. And after they get chained up at night, they dig down into the snow or go to sleep right on the ice.
It’s good to know we’ve got a team of fourteen, furry Schwarzeneggers doing the hard work, as it starts snowing heavily en route to the glacier we crossed last night. By the time we hit the descent however, we’re cruising along under a cobalt blue sky with the sun shimmering on fresh powder. Our plan is to head for Sermilik Fjord, a deep-water channel separating Ammassalik Island from mainland Greenland, and then camp along the sea ice for the night. Our two Inuit hunter-guides confer for a while and then agree to follow different routes before meeting up later that afternoon.
Dines & I hang right to follow the valley floor, while Anders and Imaka (by all accounts the top hunter in Ammassalik), stomps into a brutal ascent up a rocky slope. We make excellent time and I enjoy chatting to Dines, one of the few guides here with a good command of the English language. He regales me with tales of hunting polar bears and narwhales, but in the process must have lost track of where we’re heading. This means that, after three hours of snow-poling onto the dividing ridge, we have to doggedly (in the literal sense) retrace our tracks in search of a connecting route …
For some reason we’re unable to reach Imaka on the short-wave radio, but we do manage to make good time via a steep powder chute to catch up with them before they head off on their own. It does however mean that we are way behind schedule and really have to push the dogs to make the camp at Ukilverajik before sunset. The final approach to the fjord is along a steep gorge with spectacular ice falls along the cliffs, and it below one of these where I break through the ice to my hips.
This, as I’m sure you can imagine, is not the type of situation a Karoo boykie is completely comfortable with. As luck would have it the sled is right next to me though, and I manage to haul myself out of the wind-hole without muttering too many four-letter words into the icy breeze. My heart is still thumping in my chest by the time we reach the fjord, but there’s no time to waste as the sun is dying on us with the temperature way below zero. By the time the tents are up and the dogs chained, the western horizon is dripping blood-orange red, but we’re set for a relatively comfortable night in our two expedition tents.
Another lesson; it is stupid to think you can put a mug of water next to your sleeping bag for a night-time drink. Basically, you’re sleeping on top of a metre-thick slab of sea ice, isolated by a Thermarest Inflatable Mattress on top of a polar bear or musk ox skin, and cocooned inside my First Ascent sleeping bag. Anyway, after a pot of polar bear stew (boiled meat is huge on the Greenland menu), I doze off for a while before waking up in need of a drink of water. I crawl from my little technical fibre cave, reach for my mug of water and promptly freeze-burn my lips. Shite.
No other mishaps occur during the night (despite the temperature inside the tent plummeting down to -15o C), and by 8Am we‘re well on our way towards the imposing loom of Mittivakkat Glacier. The ascent up the face of the glacier is as close as you’ll come to the step-machine from hell, but an ice cave makes for a breathtaking stop. Imagine walking into an aquamarine cathedral constructed within a translucent berg of ice 300 000 years old and you might get the picture. Towards the back of the cave, a melt pool glistens in the gloom, and it is eerie to think that you’re actually inside the belly of an inexorable river of ice. When Anders mutters “Let’s get the hell out of here”, I don’t argue.
Outside the sun has made a comeback, and the vast extent of the Mittivakkat glacier glitters in shades of platinum and white as far as the eye can see. Around 4km away, the twin peaks after which the glacier is named (translated from Inuit, the name means Two Breasts) spear into the sapphire sky. And below these rugged fangs, crawling along like an infinitesimally small insect, you can just make out Imaka’s sled, literally a dot upon the vast expanse of this gargantuan glacier.
Once we crest past these peaks, we’re on the home run into Tasiilaq, with 1600 people by far the largest settlement on Greenland’s East Coast. And once we bomb into town, we’ll fly approximately 800km north to the village of Ittoqqortoormiit, a scattering of 400 people perched upon the edge of the earth in a remote place known as Liverpool Land. Situated nearly 72o North and home to polar bears, musk oxen and tusked narwhales, this region is judged (even by Greenlandic standards) as a frontier society where only the toughest hunters and settlers can face off against the elements.
Bring it on. I’ve got my cameras on my back, a brand new dogsled drivers’ license in my pocket and enough cold-weather gear to take on just about anything the Arctic climate can throw at me. A good two weeks of Greenland’s great outdoors awaits and, in whichever direction I glance, I sense a thousand new adventures.
FACT PANEL 1: Sub-zero Survival Skills
Let’s face it, we’re lucky if we ever get to see more than 10cm of snow in SA, so treat the info below as a ‘Dummy’s Guide to Coping with Greenland’s Big Chill’.
1. Licensed to sled
Sledding holidays are offered in Alaska, Norway, Finland, Russia and a few other Nordic countries, but Greenland is the only destination giving you the opportunity of acquiring a Dogsled Drivers’ License. Upon arrival in Tasiilaq, you will be instructed for two days in the theory and practise of operating a team of dogs. Once you have mastered the voice commands and a few runs as co-driver, you’ll get the chance to prove your prowess upon the magical slopes and fjords around the village. Despite a rather inauspicious tangle with a rock along a steep down-run, I managed to acquire my license (solo: team of 8 dogs, or co-driver: for up to 14), and can’t wait to wave it around the next time the traffic cops pull me over.
2. Get the picture
This is a once in a lifetime experience, so don’t forget your camera. If you’re shooting digital, be aware that these electronic babies are extremely susceptible to cold and will most probably fail in temperatures below -10o C. Counter the effects of the climate by keeping your camera stashed in the inside pocket of your down jacket and only take it out when you’re ready to shoot. Exposure may be a problem even on Auto settings, as the vast expanses of snow might cause under-exposure on your actual subject; counter this by over-exposing by one stop, or by using flash when you’re close in and the ambient light allows it.
3. Cold Cuts
Our staple snack on the expeditions was mah-té, basically squares of raw narwhal blubber and skin. Although this might not sound appetising, your body needs as much fuel as it can get to keep your metabolism firing, and you’ll actually feel your digestive system incinerating the fat as it hits your stomach. Vegans beware: salad and fruit are impossible to come by, so get ready to go carnivorous. Polar bear stew and musk-ox steaks are great, but I can’t see boiled seal, walrus or fermented (read: rotten) seal flipper featuring on local menus in the near future. Most memorable cuisine moment: I had just shot a ptarmigan (a sort of snow grouse) and the guide came over to me, sliced open the bird’s chest and handed me the bloodied heart. “Hunter’s privilege”, he said, and watched enviously while I choked on the still-twitching organ.
4. Shelf Life
The sea ice shelf and glaciers rate as the most challenging terrain we crossed during our dogsledding expedition. If you’re not familiar with glaciers, stick to the tracks of other sleds to avoid crevasses, or make sure you have a local guide with you to point the way. The dogs generally sense their way across ice and snow, so trust them at night. Stay away from the ice edge when the wind is blowing off-shore, as you never know when sheets of ice will separate or crevasses might open up. And finally, when you’re lying in your tent at night and you hear a sound like a hundred Mac trucks air-braking, it is just the tide moving the ice shelf up or down ... now go change your underwear.
5. Body Maintenance
First off; you won’t be washing, so get used to the smell. The closest you’ll get to hygiene will be rubbing down your face with snow, or occasionally swabbing your nether bits with a damp cloth. Apply sun tan lotion to the underside of your nose and chin, otherwise the reflection will get you, and boy, does it hurt! Finally, if nature calls, put it on hold for as long as you can in the hope of reaching a rudimentary WC in one of the hunting settlements. When you absolutely have to go, kick a trench in the snow, unzip the butt flap of your Salopets, clear a two inch gap by pulling your underwear to the front and make sure no dangly bits touch the ice. Gentlemen, you have 15 seconds!
FACT PANEL 2: Big Freeze Fashion
Apparently the term ‘Three Dog Night’ comes from the early days of Polar exploration when, on especially hoary trips, the explorers would take a dog or three into the tent in order to survive the night. Pack the right gear and you might just avoid going to bed with a dog …
On an active excursion a technically advanced, waterproof and insulated boot such as Salomon’s Pro Thermal will do the job beautifully. These boots feature a removable Thinsulate inner boot, allowing you to wear these in your sleeping bag at night in order to dry them out. Two to three pairs of thick socks are a must, and knee-length gaiters will keep snow out of your boots. In less active situations, it will be necessary to upgrade to double-insulated boots such as the Canadian brands Baffin or Sorel.
Form-fitting, thermal garments should be worn close to your body to assist with moisture management by wicking perspiration away from the skin. Open-weave construction will allow speedy evaporation to keep both the garment and your skin dry. Combine your skin layer with a secondary, thermal layer covering both arms and legs to help maintain your core temperature.
A mid layer’s main ambitions should be to (a) shift moisture and (b) regulate body temperature. Fleece jackets and salopets, manufactured from technical fabric such as Polartec, are by and large breathable and, depending on the density of the weave, relatively wind-proof as well as water-resistant. North Face’s high-cut salopets comes with a bib flap for added protection against the elements, while leg- and side zips allow for easy venting.
See this as your primary defence against the onslaught of the elements. Your outer layer or ‘shell’ should be completely wind- and waterproof without restricting the breathability of the two inner layers too much. (A tough ask, so expect there to be a bit of a trade-off). Opt for a hooded shell jacket with adjustable cuffs and sturdy pants with elasticised ankle inners. Mountain Hardwear garments come with more than enough venting flaps and zips to allow temperature control during periods of activity.
Sherpa hats, beanies, scarves and balaclavas are de rigeur as you lose a high percentage of your heat through your head. Also get hold of a ski mask (check out Serius) with a breathing panel in order to survive those early morning excursions. Black Diamond’s Stratos gloves are superb, and they protected my hands without making me too clumsy with the camera. And when you go to bed at night, zip up in a trapezoid-baffled sleeping bag contoured and tapered to maximise thermal efficiency. First Ascent’s Fusion 900 is perfect for the job, although it will probably not withstand temperatures during the worst of the winter, and should always be used in conjunction with an Arctic-rated inflatable mattress. Eyewear is imperative, and it makes sense to go for a brand with a snow pedigree like Cebe. At the very least, you need to have polarising lenses or deal with the possible consequence of snow-blindness.
FACT PANEL 4: Greenland Travel Info
Capital city: Nuuk, situated on the west coast
Visa Requirements: As Greenland is administered by Denmark, SA citizens require a
Languages: Greenlandic, but you’ll get by on Danish (and English in larger centres)
Currency: Danish Kroner
Time Difference: GMT-0400 (depending on the time zone within the country)
Int. Dialling Code: +299
When to go: Trekking - May to August; dog sledding during winter and autumn
Checklist: Waterproof socks & boots, insect repellent, Polar-rated clothing
Getting there: Fly to Denmark and then connect via Iceland to Kulusuk - email
firstname.lastname@example.org for more info
Web resources: Check out the Destination East Greenland site at www.greenland.com
Further reading: Lonely Planet’s Guide to Scandinavian Europe (ISBN 1-74059-318-9)