Ski the Top of the World

By November 4, 2014 January 24th, 2019 Articles

Skiing Greenland

Diana Kapp/Wall Street Journal

I’M ON AN icebreaker ship traveling slowly up a finger of the Eternity Fjord on Greenland’s west coast. We are a few miles from the edge of the ice sheet, a solid blanket of ice three times the size of Texas that covers about 80% of the country. All around us, peaks coated in virgin, polar snow seem to rise directly out of the vivid blue water.

I’ve got my skis. A helicopter is waiting. Whale sightings are promised. The scenario is so fantastical, I may as well have fallen into a Dr. Seuss story.

The Kisaq GreenlandThe boat we’re on, the Kisaq, is blue and yellow, wooden-hulled, winter-worn (think Ernest Shackleton’s Endurance, not Jacques-Yves Cousteau’s Calypso). The captain cuts the motors and the metal bow stops plowing through the ice. Our group of six, including my husband and our shaggy-haired adolescent son, clambers down a ladder off the boat and begins crossing the frozen water toward the shore. The first mate ventures ahead with a broom, banging the ice here and there to confirm that it is solid, then waving us forward. He carries rescue gear to throw to us in the event that he’s wrong.

Close to the shore, the ice has broken into jagged chunks that float in the water. Our guide, Pete Patterson, is a calm, 56-year-old, two-time U.S. Olympic downhill ski racer. He carries another ladder, which he lays down to bridge the final few feet to the rocky bank. One by one, we crawl awkwardly over the makeshift gangplank. Wearing my ski boots, skis slung over my shoulder, with the dark, ice-filled waters sloshing a few feet below, I am filled with the sense of being Out There. Way. Out. There.

Greenland waterOnce on dry land, we walk 50 steps to a cherry-red Eurocopter AS350 B3, the same type that set the record for the highest landing on Mount Everest in 2005. I feel a jolt of anticipation when the blades start whirring and we get the nod to duck and clamber inside. Mr. Patterson gives the pilot a thumbs up, and we rise in a swirl of snow.

Some in the ski world have started calling Greenland the next Chugach Mountains, the Alaskan range that can get several hundred inches of snowfall in a year and is now a mecca for extreme skiers. The comparison is apt, given Greenland’s coastal snow dumps and the steep powder fields on all flanks of its tallest peaks, but the country is highly unlikely to become skiing’s next trendy destination.

Greenland, which straddles the Arctic Circle, is one of the world’s least populated countries, and can only be reached by commercial air from Denmark, Iceland and (during the summer) Canada. Its ski season is short, running from late February through May. Basics like fruit and vegetables can be incredibly expensive, because they must be imported.

But Mr. Patterson, our guide, became fascinated with the island at the top of the world when he was in his 20s and saw it through his plane window while traveling to World Cup races in Europe. Greenland’s couloirs and snowfields seemed endless, the glacier-carved rock walls as tall as any in Yosemite National Park. “Does anyone ever ski down there?” he wondered.

In 2000, he made an exploratory visit to Greenland with his then-new wife, Kim Jacobs (it doubled as their honeymoon). He ran his first group trip the following year. The tour’s base was Maniitsoq, a tiny fishing village dotted with boxy houses painted in the bright colors that Inuit natives use to liven up the treeless landscape. It would really be cool, Mr. Patterson kept thinking, if he could run ski trips from a boat, allowing easy access to the best snow and weather, and saving costly hours of helicopter-travel time.

Now he runs about eight boat-based ski excursions a year in Greenland. In part because of the cost of helicopter transport, which is still needed to reach the slopes, the tours are very, very expensive—our adventure cost $13,000 per person. And yet, they are almost always fully booked. Our trip came with six hours of flight time, which allowed us five ridiculously fun days of skiing. We didn’t have the leg strength for any more.

Our first helicopter ride provides glorious views of the landscape. Amid the peaks, we do a flyby of an impossibly tiny landing platform, grazing the ground to blow off some powder, then circling back and setting down.

I’m glad I’ve stuck to my one-cup-of-coffee rule: I’m wearing ski bibs, a climbing harness (in case I need to be fished out of a crevasse) and a high-tech avalanche pack that can inflate with one tug, turning me into a human bouncy castle. In 10-degree weather, I don’t want to have to undo everything to pee.

We’re out of the helicopter, staring down the Big One, a 4,500-foot run down a massive glacier—by far the longest ski path I’ve ever seen. Mr. Patterson is looking away, squinting intently at another steep slope called Snow Dance that’s tucked between two rock headwalls. He is assessing crevasses, plotting our afternoon. Then he floats out ahead, calling over his shoulder to stay to the right of his line.

The snow is knee-deep but flyaway light and effortless to move through. Still, after 30 tight turns, my thighs burn, and we’re only a tenth of the way down. The skiing here is almost all wide expanses that are on or next to glaciers; the big challenge is not drop-offs, chutes or rock obstacles, but sheer endurance. I’m sweating when I reach the shore.

After making eight runs without hitting an ice spot or heavy snow section, and two dig-outs from face plants, I am ready to return to our womb-like boat, where sheepskin booties await.

Our double bunkroom below deck is narrow and spartan, but a perfect spot to curl up and read. There are warm showers and two hangout areas with benches and tables, often so well-heated that we strip down to T-shirts. The boat has acquired a lot of character from its four decades at sea, and it always smells of fresh bread. The captain’s wife, a Greenlander and strict enforcer of the boat’s slippers-only policy, bakes dense loaves nightly. She also cooks up vats of creamy seafood, and muskoxen stew, and enough boiled potatoes to let you carbo-load for eternity. The food is so heavy I dream about salad, but we’re always ravenous, and happy to be washing it down with Tuborg Påskebryg beer.

On the two days when whiteout conditions prevent us from flying, we go ski touring—walking up the slopes in our gear and skiing down—a hard-core workout. But even exhaustion doesn’t keep me from getting up at 3 a.m. for yet another astounding view: the swirling Northern Lights, like ocean bioluminescence in the sky.

To read this article by: Diana Kapp, in The Wall Street Journal click HERE