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Good Holiday Ideas | October 19, 2017

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Not a ski in sight in Iceland and Greenland

Not a ski in sight in Iceland and Greenland
James Hill

GSG explorer Pietro Simonetti searches for snow in the far North

The sun lingered high in the Colorado evening sky, as bags were prepared for another epic trip to the northern lands. The Summer Solstice – the longest day of the year – was about to end, but we knew that we would see the blazing sun soon again and this time it would not disappear below the horizon. Our final destination was Northern Greenland, well above the Arctic Circle. The land of eternal light in the summer months.

But first – a couple of days in Iceland celebrating with the natives their amazing run in Euro 2016. We learned we were too late for Iceland’s ski season, so decided to go for the land of eternal snow and ice – Greenland and found ourselves staring at a Bombardier turbo-prop airplane in the Reykjavik’s domestic airport. It was a typical windy, rainy, grey day in Iceland and it wasn’t the plane size that puzzled me, but the fact that they were loading a ton of cargo in its back. Check-in desk informed me that I was the lucky one with the aisle seat. I didn’t quite understand what she meant until I saw the plane configuration: I had the seat in the aisle! A cardboard partition divided the front passenger side from the cargo area. They only added enough seats as checked in passengers. Few brave souls took the 3 hour flight to Ilulissat – Greenland. During most of the flight the cockpit door was open and the lonely flight attendant enjoyed chatting and having coffee with the pilots. It was like stepping back 40 years, how flying used to be.

Everyone on board was staring out of the windows, looking at the endless glaciers and mountain ranges. It was like viewing a different planet. The daydreaming finally came to an end when we spotted few colourful houses on the coast line; Ilulissat, our destination in sight. The pilot banked sharply and then dropped the fuselage so hard that we all thought we had crashed. Few seconds later we came to a full stop. I didn’t understand why we had landed that way until I stepped out of the plane and looked at the runway. It was the same length of an aircraft carrier – no room for error.

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Ilulissat is a village of about 5,000 people perched on the North West side of Greenland. Back in the days, it used to be a whaling station with a dog population of over 8,000 working dogs. Today it sees few sporadic tourists looking for a final piece of wilderness. Incidentally, while there, John Kerry, the US Secretary of State, made an appearance on an official tour to witness the effects of climate change. He remained on his military boat and I’m not sure what he brought back to the U.S.

We spent a couple of days in the village, touring the few colourful cafes’, pubs and restaurants. The food – mostly fish, and the beer were actually delicious. The natives are descendants of old Inuit tribes that crossed over from Canada during a cold spell, when the Arctic Ocean froze solid. They basically got stuck on this land and adapted as best as they could. They used everything from whales and other marine life and survived by digging living quarters underneath the hard rocks. It was a miserable existence, marred by long spell of darkness, a barren landscape and other incredible difficulties, but they also found a balance that allowed them to live and thrive. Some of the terrain outside of the village is now a recognised UNESCO site, highlighting the struggle and culture of these first pioneers.

The following day we got into a small icebreaker and started a 12-hour journey North, following Greenland’s coast line to a very active glacier. We passed icebergs the size of skyscrapers, carved by wind and water into surrealistic art pieces. The captain explained that over 90% of an iceberg’s mass is actually underwater. Some of them were probably well over 1000 feet tall. The bottom gets stuck on the ocean floor, until the current melts away the ice. At that point the entire mass might flip over, either hitting a boat if it’s too close or creating a series of waves that can be deadly for anyone standing on the coast line. The locals were very serious about not taking any chances around these ice giants. I can only imagine how many tragedies they had to witness in order to have such respect towards them.

The trip to the glacier became a spiritual journey, with whales and seals chasing our boat in the cold metallic water. The sound of distant waterfalls and birds in the sky mixed with the boat engine. Ice chunks spilled all around us like confetti. The wind-blown mountains lacking a single tree on their flanks. The concept of time will be forever changed in our minds after this trip. To think of small snowflakes that fell 10 million years ago on this land, grouping together in ice, forming the immense glaciers that were surrounding us, was enough to make our minds spin. But then to actually see them crashing as huge pillars into the water, also brought a sense of finality, an ending to their incredible eternal journey. We became the witnesses of this immense cycle of life, a timeless snapshot. Powerful and also so fragile to the radiating sun still up high in the sky, even at midnight.

There was time for other boats, other people, other villages. Walks on land and glaciers, planes and hikes. But what will always remain inside us is the cracking noise of another ice giant crashing into the ocean. The continuous sound and movement of blocks, some close, some far. Then the calm and the silence surrounding their final fall. Now bobbing in the water, slowly drifting into the open ocean, melting away, 10 million years later.

I will take the family again to both of these great lands – but during ski time – so watch this space.

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