Greenland How-To

This is by far the longest and craziest journey I have ever contrived. We’ve drawn a path on Google Earth from one Greenland airport to another (some 300 kilometers), packed our packrafts, put on rubber boots and set off to conquer and overcome.


Why Greenland?

Of course, the main reason are packrafts. In case you’re still don’t know that — those are small ultraligt and ultra-durable inflatable boats. They allow for doing mixed hiking+rafting routes with the same load you usually have when hiking (well, almost). That enables you to get in a middle of nowhere and raft back via some stream.

Packraft and trail boat are colloquial terms for a small, portable inflatable boat designed for use in all bodies of water, including technical whitewater and ocean bays and fjords. A packraft is designed to be light enough to be carried for extended distances. Along with its propulsion system (collapsable paddles or lightweight oars) and safety equipment (PFD, clothing) the entire package is designed to be light and compact enough for an individual to negotiate rough terrain while carrying the rafting equipment together with supplies, shelter, and other survival or backcountry equipment. Modern packrafts vary from inexpensive vinyl boats lacking durability to sturdy craft costing over US $1,000. Most weigh less than nine pounds (4 kg) and usually carry a single passenger. The most popular propulsion systems involve a kayak paddle that breaks down into two to five pieces.
That’s my packraft.

However, there aren’t too much nowhere left on this planet. Also, I am not a great kayaker. Moreover, even if I knew how to do the Eskimo roll, I would never do that with a heavy backpack on the boat. Thus, the rivers should be more or less calm, unlike they usually do that in mountains. In the same time, I like mountains and glaciers. So, there should be something like that.

That leaves not too many options: Patagonia, Greenland, Alaska, New Zealand, plus some funny places near the Equator. All of them are considered inherently packraftic. Since I am not a huge fan of large predators and insects, the New Zealand is too far away and I already was in Patagonia… Greenland.

(Frankly, I was wrong about the insects. There are a lot of the most terrible insects in summer Greenland. Miriads of them. Ewwww.)

Our route from far above.

The Team

There were three of us: me, my friend Eugene, who already took part in our Patagonia trip, and my friend Sasha, who decided that Greenland is the best place to sit in the packraft for the first time. We made a dream party: Eugene is a physicist and Sasha is a martial arts instructor. No UFOs or seals would stop us.

Eugene (left) and Sasha (right). I am above, in my packraft.

The Route

We had three main options how to organise the trip. One of them is to fly in some airport, then go a circle route, then fly back from the same place. That’s the general approach of the packrafters from Europe, but we Russians find it too small. In Russia, we go straight, otherwise you can’t show your route on the Globe and everyone laughs at you.

Another option is to fly in some airport, then go straight until you run our of food, health or time, then summon a speedboat or a helicopter and return back to the airport. Or do the same in the opposite direction. That turned out to be extremely expensive in Greenland, we got a $3500 quote for 9–10 hour boat ride. That was a bit too much even before the oil price dipped.

Finally, it’s possible to go straight from one airport to another. That’s a proper plan. The only cons is that you won’t find two airports closer than 200km straight to each other. And there’s no ‘straight’ in Greenland.

Not a problem at all. I’ve built a 300-kilometer 4-week long route, considering we’ll put some food stash in the middle. Start — at the Maniitsoq airport (one hop from Kangerlussuaq), finish is in Kangerlussuaq.

Our planned route from Maniitsoq (lower left) to Kangerlussuaq (upper right). The blue line is our main planned route, other lines are options to cut corners or make it longer. Small green people are portages around rapids of waterfalls.

The route has a decent logic:

  1. The first mountain part is goes through rocky fjords and mountain passes,
  2. Then we go alongside the Ice Cap till the Eternity Fjord,
  3. Then there’s a long sea voyage via the fjord to take the stashed food,
  4. We ascend from the sea level to the highland tundra (about 1200m above the sea level),
  5. Long hike across the tundra to the source of Robinson River (one of the few relatively long and relatively calm Greenland rivers),
  6. Rafting via the Robinson River with some portages around rapids and waterfalls,
  7. Hiking to the Kangerlussuaq with rafting and paddling at every river and lake by the way.

After the plan was set, we found a number of issues. First, we found impossible to organise a stash of food in the middle (see above about the boat ride prices). Second, we don’t have four weeks, just three (vacations etc).

Okay, Google, let me just drag campsites on the map so it is 18 days instead of 24, plus a couple of days in reserve, plus plan B to cut some corners.

That resulted in 20km per day, which seems pretty doable when you imagine that sitting with a glass of tea in a city flat. Well, we did more than 80km per day at some adventure races, didn’t we? Oh, but because of that stash problem we have to drag all the food from the beginning. Not a problem at all — we just squeeze our rations to 400gr/day. Plus a couple of spinning rods in case there’re some fish.

Another issue we had is my high-altitude mountaineering background. When I see something below 3000m above the sea level, I am keen to think I shouldn’t measure elevation gains as it’s mostly plains. Please, don’t ever do the same :-)

Actual route we’ve done.

Visas

To get to Greenland from Russia, you need a special Schengen visa with “Valid for Greenland” stamp. It’s not a problem when you go to a generic tourist trip. However, if you plan an expedition, forget about that. You need something like: 1000000 group insurance, rescue radio beacon, Danish radio license to operate the beacon and a paid permit. Also, your equipment will be examined by a local police officer upon the arrival with an option to not let you in. Whoa.

Here, we were creative. An expedition is a route that crosses the “gray zone” on the special map. This “gray zone” covers the Ice Cape, everything to the North-East from the Ice Cape, and the Thule Air Military Base. Our route crossed the “gray zone” via small, barely noticeable non-gray strip of the Eternity Gorge. Apparently, that was enough to apply for the common visa procedure.

Transport and expenses

Usually you get to the western coast of Greenland from Copenhagen via Kangerlussuaq (formally, the only international airport in Greenland). In case of the east coast, one may ride a helicopter from Iceland. Also there are some flights from Iceland via Nuuk.

The only airline that flies to Kangerlussuaq is airGreenland. Connect ticket from Moscow was too expensive (some $3500), as this route is operated by SAS only. We split the trip in two: Moscow-Copenhagen by Aeroflot ($350) plus Copenhagen-Kangerlussuaq-Maniitsoq and back by airGreenland (some $800). The flights (seemingly) had enough time to connect.

The hard choice was to buy the food in Moscow and pay for the overweight or buy the food in Maniitsoq and pay Greenland prices and some hours of time. Finally we decided that time is the most expensive and took another 32-kg piece of luggage (50eu to Aeroflot, then 425DKK to airGreenland).

The route starts from 15-km voyage across the ocean (Maniitsoq is on the island). My teammates were extremely against paddling the ocean via packrafts, so we had to organise a ferry. That was the most difficult part.

The default place to book a boat is Maniitsoq Tour Boats, but they have only 18-seater for the insane price (around 570euro). Ofcourse, they told us that they are the only one in Maniitsoq and noone else would help us.

I used three channels: Maniitsoq group at Facebook, some danish expats in Moscow and direct mailing to every company in Maniitsoq I could reach. That resulted in three options, and only one finally worked: Arcticwaves company has a subsidiary that organises hunting trips along with a speedboat and a transport license. We agreed on 210eu for the trip.

The Food

As I already said, we couldn’t take more than 400 gramms per person per day. That results in 8kg per person for 20-day route, plus some camping gas on a top of that.

In addition, we took one plastic container per person and a couple of spinning rods. Catch-salt-eat. However, it turned out that by some reason fish hadn’t started to go from ocean to rivers in a middle of August yet. The ocean was the only place with fish.

Our food plan (in Russian).

The Gear

In fact, we had to take two full sets of gear and apparel: one for hiking and one for rafting.

Private gear.

The second pair of boots seemd a bit too much, so we decided to take one pair per person. That was a boots, which are more or less convenient for jumping into the boat, walk in a shallow water, and hike across swamps, rocks, boulders, snow, ice et cetera. I mean, rubber boots. Perhaps, we were the first people who made almost 400km in rubber boots. I haven’t called Guiness Records committee yet.

The rest of the hiking equipment is pretty much usual: thermal and shell layers, dawn vest, cap&gloves, trekking poles. We opted out from taking any special equipment, such as ropes and crampons. We thought that would prevent us from getting into some serious places where we probably don’t want to find ourselves in 200km from the nearest city. However, that haven’t worked :-)

Rafting equipment was: thick termal layer, drysuits (ocean, icebergs, that sort of issues), neoprene gloves, packrafts-paddles-lifevests-helmets.

Group gear.

We used two Jetboils: 1L for tea and 3L for the rest of cooking.

Electronics

That’s a different topic. Here’s my set:

The starting weight of a backpack was about 33kg per person. Even less that we had at some mountaineering trips at Pamirs.

Safety

Safety should be taken very seriously at such a trip. Maximal distance from the nearest civilization — around 150km of extremely rugged terrain with harsh climate. If you call a police, you may get a helicopter in virtually any point, but you should have something to call from. One of the intrinsic features of the rafting trips are backpacks that disappear in rapids with all its contents, including satellite phones.

We made the following. We put a satellite phone in one of the backpacks. The phone has a GPS module, so it’s enough to get rescued. Another backack has a COSPAS/SARSAT satellite beacon. If the red button is pressed, EMERCOM at Greenland and Russia get a signal with coordinates, my id and a phone number. They call this number and reach a person in Moscow, who explains who we are and what we’re up to. The thirs backpack has a SPOT TRACE device that update our location on the Google Maps each 25 minutes. That reliable person in Moscow monitors our position daily. Even if we lost all three backpacks, that person will notice something strange is happening and call the emergency.

To be continued in other publications…