A detour to the Russell Glacier is a common activity on the Arctic Circle Trail, allowing you to reach the inland ice of Greenland after a 25km hike from Kangerlussuaq. Joined by a total stranger, I am ready to go and full of excitement to set foot on the world’s biggest Island and last place to witness huge ice bergs outside of Antarctica.
The preparation for this trip already started five months ago, but it was just last week that I could finally find someone to join me for the hike along the Arctic Circle Trail, 165km of remote trekking without any form of civilization along the way. Tim saw my ad in a poker forum and quickly booked all flights within a few weeks without any sort of trekking experience at all. Now he is sitting next to me in the plane and I wonder if he will be able to manage a hike of that sort, especially doing it with me and my tendency to be a bit extreme during my treks in terms of distance and speed. He seems to be fit and a nice guy though; so I sit back, relax and enjoy the landscape of Iceland underneath our red Airbus 330-200 – luckily without any erupting volcanos 🙂
Day One – Hike to the Russell Glacier
It feels strange to land at 10:40 while setting off more than four hours ago at 10:00 – this will be a long day for us thanks to the time difference! Our backpacks, ramped up with about 32kg of food plus camping equipment, will certainly take their tolls on our shoulders and hips in the following days. Kangerlussuaq was originally set up by the americans as a military base during the second world war and ever since turned into the major airport hub in west greenland with a population of just 500. We quickly check the only local store to buy a gas cartridge for my Trangia cooker and then start the hike. Tim and I have a few mutual hobbies and get along very well instantly, making the time fly by as we walk along the pretty dull and boring landscape close to the airport. It is said that the Musk Ox can be seen only in this area, but all we encounter are some curious reindeers.
We quickly arrive at a strangely positioned and retired public toilet, wondering why they would even built it here. It is certainly a good spot to lay down the unpleasant backpacks and take some first pictures. We continue eastwards while the 353m high Sugar loaf peak comes into sight. Being just next to the path and directly on the way, it is a no brainer for us to summit it and have our lunch break there. I brought some traditional German sausage called “Schwartenmagen”, serving both of us very well with some fresh buns from the shop. All of the sudden, Tim yells out “Look over there!!”, while a small jet descends behind me on his way to the airstrip. The jet is just next to us and, more importantly, below us as well, making the appearance very exciting. Unfortunately, I am not able to react fast enough to capture this moment with my camera.
The water quality of Greenland’s lakes and rivers is as good as it gets, leaving us with the comfort of not having to carry all the water that is needed for both drinking and cooking. However, judging on Tim’s face as he is drinking the water of the first bigger lake on our way, there are always exceptions and I decide to wait for the next lake to refill my bottle. No trees grow in Greenland and the landscape around us is slowly changing from the brown coloured tundra to a mini desert. Walking along the sand slows us down a bit and my feet are letting me know that they are not used to carry that much weight anymore. I little bit of an usual encounter awaits us just moments later: The wreckage of an old T-33 plane that crashed here in 1968. According to Tim’s guide book, two more plans crashed at the same day due to bad weather. Nobody seems to care about the remainings and it is interesting to wander around and explore what is left of it.
The desert turns out to be quite a stretch, it feels like walking forever as our eyes can’t make out how far the other side of it actually is and our feet constantly sack in a little bit, making it hard to move on this terrain. Looking at the map, we should be getting very close to the glacier and a viewpoint, even though I can’t really see how this would be the case as the glacier is still not in sight. We are hiking for over seven hours now and Tim would not mind calling it a day while we rest on the so called viewpoint of what might have been the inland ice in earlier days. I have the strong desire to set up my tent in front of the glacier though and keep motivating him to push through the end.
It takes us another 90 minutes of walking over a field of stones and some grass land until we finally reach the Russell Glacier. Nine hours of walking and four hours time difference are now kicking in very quickly and we waste no time setting up the camp. The lighting conditions are not so good for pictures right now, but being so close to the Glacier is an amazing experience anyway. We decide to skip cooking dinner for tonight and just eat some snacks before sliding in our sleeping bags. I am very tired but also very excited of being in a place like that, which makes falling a sleep a bit hard. I am also out of water and have not brushed my teeth yet, giving me two good reasons to walk down right next to the glacier and its freezing cold, fresh water before eventually falling asleep in my tent.
Day Two – Russell Glacier
The warmth of the sun wakes me up at 6AM and I can’t believe my eyes while I open my tent, looking straight onto the glacier in beautiful sunrise colours. I can hear that Tim is up already as well and we are both happy that we made it that far on the first day. It can only get better from now on as our bodies slowly get used to the conditions and we will have shorter distances to hike. Now it’s time for breakfast and I packed over 30 sachets of Quaker’s Golden Syrup porridge, my absolute favorite on trekking tours! We pack up our tents, leave the packs behind and start exploring the glacier. Taking one panorama shot after the other, we already spend nearly three hours here now, getting as close as we can. The river between us and the ice eventually stops us though as it is very cold and rapid and not worth to cross anyway.
Walking around so much might not have been the best idea actually, my ankle really starts to hurt and I have to use Tim’s walking poles to stabilize it a bit. We walk back to our camp spot and while I am resting my ankle, Tim boulder hops across the wide and gentle river before climbing up a small rocky hill to get on top of the glacier. I just hope that he won’t slip as a recovery missing would pose a challenge in my current state! Turns out he is very well footed though and has no problems on the glacier. He disappears for a second behind the hill and I can hear jet engines again – it is the same time as yesterday and the same jet is making it’s way to the Airstrip again! Moments later, Tim also appears on the glacier again and begins to slide down. Being united again, we make our way back, aiming to sleep near some hidden waterfalls and splitting up the distance rather than having another long day.
Dramatic clouds form above and we study the map to find the waterfall, leading us to a path going south just in front of Sugar loaf. The ground is very boggy here and I come to the realisation that my four-year old hiking boots are slowly getting ready to retire, they are not waterproof anymore! Walking with wet feet is a bummer now, especially since we seem to underestimate the distance again and it takes us longer than we would have thought. Tim is not amused and I push him once more until we reach a huge cliff, overlooking a gorge created by the river. “It might be a bit windy up here…”, I say, but the scenery certainly makes up for it and we decide to set up cam. This night it is also time for dinner (fried potatoes) and, more importantly, for the first cup of the rum that I have bought at the airport for my upcoming birthday next week.
Day Three – Waterfall
Yet again, sunshine wakes us up and we have breakfast before setting off to find the waterfalls. We leave the packs behind and follow some narrow and steep animal paths through the bushes and must be very close already. The thundering sound of a waterfall is getting louder and we can already see it in the distance. “That’s it?”, Tim wonders while we get closer to the pretty small waterfall. Seems like there is not enough melting water around yet and it could have been much more spectacular. It is a nice sight anyway, I especially enjoy the way towards the fall because of the rock formations around here. The water cuts its way though everything, leaving some pretty cool sculptures in the rocks.
We return to our campsite and have a lunch snack. While we enjoy the beautiful warm spring day in Greenland, a raven comes flying in and out the gorge all the time and eventually we are able to find out why – he is feeding his fresh born cups just meters away from us! Sitting on the edge of the cliff with our cameras in hand, we are observing them for half an hour and I am able to capture their cries for food on both pictures and video. On our way back to the airstrip, we decide to hike up Sugar loaf again with our backpacks, this time from the other side away from any official hiking path. It is a bit strenuous and the sun is now at its strongest, making it very hot and sweaty to reach the top.
We summit around 12:30 and hope to witness the jet again this time, as it was always coming around 1PM so far. Waiting for it is no problem as we have to eat a proper lunch now anyway. Minutes pass and no plan is in sight, I eventually get a bit tired and lay back to be protected from the wind that comes through every now and then. More minutes pass and we are slowly doubting that the jet will come again, maybe it has no daily schedule. After two hours on the summit we eventually decide to let it go and hike down on the other side, making our way back to Kangerlussuaq. We already are familiar with the landscape and just want to get out of here now, it is really not that interesting and you should not come to Greenland because of that. Time slowly passes again but we eventually pass the golf course again, meaning that we are now very close to the village.
After three days of hiking, we obviously would like to have a shower now and asking some locals quickly grants us the advice to go to the south part of the airstrip in order to ask at the local swimming pool if we could use their shower. Just walking from one end of the settlement to the other takes forty minutes and we sit down to have a dinner at the local imbiss first. It is pretty cheap here actually for Greenlandic standards and I “only” pay 80DKK (about 11€) for a burger with fries. Before taking a shower, we actually have to find a place to sleep first and decide to set up our tents at the outskirt of Kangerlussuaq, just seconds away from the swimming pool. Arriving there, I ask the guy at the counter how much he wants to charge us for a shower. He says 50DKK and I immediately ask for less. We both hand him 20DKK each (about 3€), which seems alright for a quick shower. It was certainly worth it and we can go to bed refreshed and with the first memories of Greenland in our heads while we fall asleep next to an abandoned building…
I will try to post the next two parts of this trip before I’m off in September!