A winter week in the Vercors

I’m not the type of hiker who keeps going to the same region time after time – but rather like to explore new areas on every trip. The Vercors, a wild karstic limestone plateau in the French pre-alpine ranges with summits along the eastern rim peaking to 2000-2369m, is kind of an exception to this rule. I crossed the Vercors with a bunch of friends in winter 2007 (my first winter trek!) and returned in 2009 for my first solo winter trip. Last year, Fre joined me for a first first early summer reconnaissance of the Mont Aiguille – Grand Veymont area.

When I started making plans for a snowshoe flap with Björn, Marjolijn, Siegried, the Vercors was on our list again from the start. The huge advantage of the plateau is that one can design beautiful varied routes with only minimal avalanche danger, and there is a whole bunch of small mountain cabins where you can spend the night in adverse weather conditions. So, as our 7-day trip started to draw closer and the weather forecast looked complicated, we decided to drive to Col de Rousset, the most direct access point to the interesting southern part of the area.

It was the most varied trip I have made in the Vercors so far, with a few less classic routes. The weather shifted from spring conditions to a few windy, dull days with snow and rain, and finally to beautiful sunny weather again. We adapted our route to the conditions to get the very best out of the trip – and I have to say we were pretty successful in doing so 🙂 Enjoy!

Hiking from Col de Rousset to Cabane de Pré Peyret on the first day.

Hiking from Col de Rousset to Cabane de Pré Peyret on the first day.

First camp near Cabane de Pré Peyret

First camp near Cabane de Pré Peyret

Climbing towards the summit of Rocher de Plautret

Sunrise over the Southern French Alps from Tête du Petit Jardin

First sunrays on the Vercors Plateau, with Grand Veymont (2369m) in the centre, from the summit of Tête du Petit Jardin

Björn on Tête du Petit Jardin

Descending from Tête du Petit Jardin

Bivy on the slopes of Tête du Petit Jardin

Bivy on the slopes of Tête du Petit Jardin

Summiting Croix du Lautaret (1972m) on a windy afternoon

From Croix du Lautaret towards Tête Chevalière

Siegried on the Tête Chevalière, with the summits of the Obiou range in the back

Foul weather on the way from Cabane de Chamailloux to la Grande Cabane

Foul weather on the way from Cabane de Chamailloux to la Grande Cabane

Foul weather on the way from Cabane de Chamailloux to la Grande Cabane

Foul weather on the way from Cabane de Chamailloux to la Grande Cabane

A new style of camping at la Grande Cabane

Evening at la Grande Cabane

Breakfast at La Grande Cabane

Climbing up through La Combe Verte on the way to la Jasse du Play

Get the stove going at Cabane du Jasse du Play

Climbing towards Pas de Chattons

The western slopes of Grand Veymont (2369m)

Final bivy on the beautiful plateau south of Grand Veymont (2369m)

Mont Aiguille (2087m) as seen from our bivy spot

Final bivy on the beautiful plateau south of Grand Veymont (2369m)

Final bivy on the beautiful plateau south of Grand Veymont (2369m)

Final bivy on the beautiful plateau south of Grand Veymont (2369m)

Final bivy on the beautiful plateau south of Grand Veymont (2369m)

Final bivy on the beautiful plateau south of Grand Veymont (2369m)

On the way to Plaine de la Queyrie

Descending to Plaine de la Queyrie – the weather quicky got worse with wind gust up to 90km/h by the time we reached the car – time to get out!

Overview of the route – we started/finished at Col de Rousset, about 6km off the western edge of the map

Article: Packraft trip planning in wilderness areas

One of the most frequent questions I get in my mailbox or when giving presentations on long solo packrafting trips, during which I may have made a few first descends, is “how do you know there will be no crazy rapids around the next corner? How do you prepare for this?”

Unfortunately, packrafting still scores headlines on outdoor websites and in the outdoor community because of serious accidents or near misses. Clearly, there will always be risks involved in paddling uncharted wilderness. But when digging into those the accident reports, it becomes clear that some could have been avoided with more serious trip planning.

I will try to briefly share my experience on trip planning in this articles. The first part will be the ‘theory’, some basic insights in river characteristics you have to master before starting to plan on wilderness trips. In the second part I will try to share some tools and methods I use to do the trip planning itself.

I am not an adrenaline junkie, and often travel through remote wilderness solo and in full autonomy. The packrafting I include during those trips is both functional (to get access to water-locked areas, and simply cover distance on long traverses) and to view and enjoy backcountry from a different perspective. I mostly paddle with a heavy pack on the bow of my raft. My knowledge and experience should always be viewed from this perspective – these articles are all about safe trip planning & solo wilderness travel on rivers up to class II – it is rather about avoiding real whitewater than about running it.

DISCLAIMER: In this articles I will try to share some personal knowledge and experience about wilderness trip planning for packrafters. Please keep in mind that even with the best preparation, there will always be dangers involved in packrafting. Experience is key for paddlers, both during trip preparation and during the descent itself – start easy and accept your own learning curve. Any packrafter holds his own responsibility for decisions made during both trip planning and on the terrain. I will not accept any liability for any accident occurring after the use of this article.

Stunning paddling on the Lower Dart River, New Zealand.

Stunning paddling on the Lower Dart River, New Zealand.

PART 1. A word about rivers

1.1. Some basic concepts

I will kick off with a few definitions of terms that will often come back while reading this article:

River discharge: the discharge of a river is the amount of water that passes through the riverbed at a certain point during a certain amount of time. It is most often expressed in m³/s or cumecs. The evolution of the discharge through time at a certain point is often displayed in discharge curves (see below). Except in some very rare cases (e.g. desert areas with extreme evaporation, like Australia’s Eyre River) the discharge will always increase as you move further downstream and the river is fed by additional tributaries.

River gradient: the river gradient gives an idea about the ‘steepness’ of a river, of its descent rate. It is expressed in m/km (or ft/mile). The higher the gradient of a river, the faster and wilder it will be. As a rule of thumb, the river gradient is high near its source and gradually decreases further down, though reality is often more complex as I will outline below.

River catchment: The catchment of a river is the area from which it drains the water (figure 1). It is separated from the catchment of another river by a watershed or divide. The characteristics of the catchment area (climate, geology, glaciers and snowfields, presence of peat bogs, lakes, soil characteristics, …) have a huge influence on the river further downstream.

Figure 1: Basic vocabulary relating to river basins

Figure 1: Basic vocabulary relating to river basins

Catchment area: The catchment area is the total surface which is drained by the river. It will always increase as you move further downstream and additional tributaries join the river (figure 2).

Figure 2: Illustration of the catchment area of the Rhine River and its most important tributaries

Figure 2: Illustration of the catchment area of the Rhine River and its most important tributaries

1.2. Types of discharge curves

The evolution of the average discharge of a river throughout the year vastly depends on the characteristics of the catchment area. For clarity relating to seasonality, I will only give examples of rivers in the Northern hemisphere below. The location of the mentioned rivers is indicated on figure 3. The Rahpadno river, which is located in Northwest Sweden, is not shown on the image.

Figure 3: Location of the rivers mentioned in section 1.2

Figure 3: Location of the rivers mentioned in section 1.2

1.2.1. Meltwater-controlled rivers
Rivers which have catchments in which precipitation falls as snow during the winter months and in which glaciers may be present (e.g. most rivers draining from the Alps, Pyrenees, Rocky Mountains or in Scandinavia) show a discharge peak in spring and early summer, when snowmelt is maximal. Once most snow is gone discharge will decrease as summer continues, except when glaciers – which have a relatively stable meltwater production throughout the warmest of summer) are present in the catchment area. When temperatures drop in autumn discharge will continue to decrease, reaching a minimum during winter when most or all precipitation falls as snow – which will only start to contribute to river runoff during the next meltwater pulse in spring. A few examples of meltwater-controlled rivers with a small word are given below in the figures 4 to 6.

Figure 4: Annual discharge curve with explaining text from the Rahpadno river in Sarek National Park, Sweden (adapted from Joery Truyen - www.dendzjow.com).

Figure 4: Annual discharge curve with explaining text from the Rahpadno river in Sarek National Park, Sweden (adapted from Joery Truyen – http://www.dzjow.com).

Figure 5: Annual discharge curve for the Arve river in the town of Sallanches, just downstream of Chamonix in the French Alps. A curve with a distinct peak in late spring and summer is clearly visible. Note that discharge remains high throughout summer because of the continuous supply of meltwater from the vast glaciers in the Mont Blanc Range.

Figure 5: Annual discharge curve for the Arve river in the town of Sallanches, just downstream of Chamonix in the French Alps. A curve with a distinct peak in late spring and summer is clearly visible. Note that discharge remains high throughout summer because of the continuous supply of meltwater from the vast glaciers in the Mont Blanc Range.

Figure 6: Discharge curve for the Gave the Cauterets, which drains some of the highest ranges of the French Pyrenees. As for the Arve river in the Alps, the discharge curve is clearly meltwater-controlled, but after a sharp peak in late spring and early summer, the water levels drop rapidly as summer advances because the continous meltwater supply from glaciers is virtually absent.

Figure 6: Discharge curve for the Gave the Cauterets, which drains some of the highest ranges of the French Pyrenees. As for the Arve river in the Alps, the discharge curve is clearly meltwater-controlled, but after a sharp peak in late spring and early summer, the water levels drop rapidly as summer advances because the continous meltwater supply from glaciers is virtually absent.

1.2.2. Vegetation- and soil-controlled rivers
Rivers which have catchments mostly consisting of boreal forest (or even cultivated land) with thick, well-developed soils and with little snow cover even in winter (like many rivers in Western and Central Europe), will show an almost mirrored profile with low discharge in summer and high discharge in winter (as long as summer precipitation is not considerably higher than winter precipitation – which holds for most temperate regions on earth). The main reason for this profile is the absorption and evapotranspiration of vast quantities of water by vegetation, keeping the thick soils from getting saturated with water during the peak of the growth season – roughly from april/may until September/early November. When the growth season ends and the trees shed their leaves, the soil rapidly gets saturated with water during and after precipitation events, and river discharge will rise towards its high winter levels until the next spring. An example is given in figure 7 for the Chiers River in the Belgian/French border region.

Figure 7: Annual discharge curve for the Chiers River in the Belgian/French border region. Even though precipitation is virtually constant throughout the year, the water levels show a distinct minimum during the growth season.

Figure 7: Annual discharge curve for the Chiers River in the Belgian/French border region. Even though precipitation is virtually constant throughout the year, the water levels show a distinct minimum during the growth season.

1.2.3. Precipitation-controlled rivers
Rivers in areas with poor and thin soils and lacking a stable frost season and snow cover during winter will show a third type of discharge curve, which is mainly precipitation-controlled. This is a typical situation for many rivers in (semi-)arid and karstic regions, like various areas around the Meditterrean (e.g. Southeast France). As the meltwater pulse during spring is absent, and soils and vegetation are too poor to have the vast absorption-, buffering- and evapotranspiration capacity as in the boreal forest, river discharge will be almost directly related to precipitation.

Figure 8: Annual discharge curve for the Ardèche river in Southern France - the discharge largely track the precipitation statistics.

Figure 8: Annual discharge curve for the Ardèche river in Southern France – the discharge largely track the precipitation statistics.

1.2.4. Combinations of discharge curves
The three types I have discussed above are just the end members of a vast spectrum – every river has its own specific discharge curve in relationship to catchment characteristics. The following example will make this clear:
In figure 2 we have discussed the catchment area of the Rhine River. Tributaries high in the catchment, like for example the Vorderrhein in the Swiss Alps, will yield a meltwater-controlled discharge curve. However, other tributaries like the Mosel and the Main have catchments which are mostly consisting of boreal forest and cultivated land – and therefor have vegetation- and soil-controlled discharge curves. The discharge curve of the Rhine itself downstream of such tributaries, in e.g. Köln, will be a mixture of both signatures.

1.2.5. Short-term fluctuations
The direct response of rivers and river discharge to meltwater pulses and precipitation events is also strongly variable.
– The presence of thick soils, vegetation and the lack of topographic relief will have a significant buffering capacity – if the catchment mostly consists of such terrain the response of the river will be moderated, and slower. Example below: the Semois river in the Belgian Ardennes (figure 9)
– If soils are thin, vegetation is sparse and topographic relief katalyses runoff, the river will respond quicker and in a more extreme way. Example below: the Ardèche River in Southern France (figure 10).

Figure 9: The response of Belgian's Semois river (a vegetation- and soil controlled river) during a strong winter precipitation event. The increase in discharge is slow and relatively limited (discharge does not even double over multiple days).

Figure 9: The response of Belgian’s Semois river (a vegetation- and soil controlled river) during a strong winter precipitation event. The increase in discharge is slow and relatively limited (discharge doubles over multiple days).

Figure 10: Discharge curve of the Ardèche River in Southern France after a strong autumn thunderstorm. The reponse of this precipitation-controlled river in a limestone area with thin soils is just scary and life threatening: the water level rises almost 9m over a matter of hours, and the discharge explodes from 10m³/s to almost 2500m³/s! A second, less severe thunderstorm the following night causes a second sharp increase.

Figure 10: Discharge curve of the Ardèche River in Southern France after a strong autumn thunderstorm. The reponse of this precipitation-controlled river in a limestone area with thin soils is just scary and life threatening: the water level rises almost 9m over a matter of hours, and the discharge explodes from 10m³/s to almost 2500m³/s! A second, less severe thunderstorm the following night causes a second sharp increase.

1.3. River channel patterns

An huge variety of river and stream channel types exists – and some understanding in them is crucial in successful planning of packrafting trips on undocumented rivers. Books have been written on this subject, I will try to give just a brief overview of the most common types.

I will classify low-gradient rivers as rivers with an average flow gradient (see above) not exceeding 1,5% (15m/km). This is typically the kind of rivers I would paddle during long solo hiking/packrafting expeditions in remote areas, as they often allow to travel longer distances through scenic areas with no or very few portages and with limited risk of tipping your raft. However, a low gradient does not exclude the possibility of potentially lethal obstacles and rapids!High-gradient rivers are mostly single-channel and contain more technical whitewater. They should only be attempted by skilled paddlers with knowledge of river rescue techniques, and not by solo paddlers. I never include such rivers into my solo packrafting expeditions, and will not discuss them in detail here. Other paddlers are in a better position to do so. The text below will thus focus on the low-gradient rivers.

1.3.1. Braided rivers
Braided rivers have a channel that consists of a network of small channels separated by small and often temporary islands. Conditions associated with braided channel formation include an abundant supply of sediment (they often form in deep valleys or in the hinterland of actively eroding mountain ranges), a sufficiently high gradient, rapid and frequent variations in water discharge (precipitation events and meltwater pulses), and erodible river banks with scarce vegetation. If these conditions are not sufficiently met, a meandering or anastomosing river (see below) will form rather than a braided river.

The Rangitata River on New Zealands South Island is a classic example of a braided river - I paddled it down for a few kilometers towards Bush Creek.

The Rangitata River on New Zealands South Island is a classic example of a braided river – I paddled it down for a few kilometers towards Bush Creek.

The riverbed of braided rivers consists primarily of sand, gravel and small boulders. Their gradient will gradually decrease as you move further downstream. Where two braided rivers merge, the gradient downstream the confluence can roughly be estimated function of the gradient of both tributaries and their average annual discharge (or, if not available, and approximation can be made the surface of their catchment area), for example:
o River 1: Gradient of 20m/km and catchment of 500km²
o River 2: Gradient of 5m/km and catchment of 3000km²
o Resulting gradient: (500×20 + 3000×5) / 3500 = 7,2m/km

This is important to know as the character of a braided river might change when it gets fed by a high-discharge, high-gradient tributary.

I like braided rivers in my trip planning. They will often allow rapid and smooth travel in highly scenic areas. Braided rivers are predictable – because of their smooth riverbed they lack ‘unpleasant surprises’ like sudden high-class rapids. If you scout a few hundred meters before putting in, you have a very good idea of what to expect further downstream. Whirlpools and boilers might form where major channels flow together. Log jams are rare (but not inexistent) in major braided rivers, they get swept away during floods.

The main danger of braided rivers, especially when travelling solo, is that there is a serious risk that you lose you raft, gear and/or paddle when tipping over. Braided rivers are often fast, and because of the absence of eddies, bedrock features, and vegetation your raft might travel a very long distance downstream. You might also find yourself trapped on islands. Therefore, when travelling solo in remote areas, I only paddle braided rivers where the risk of tipping is absolutely minimal.

Braided rivers are very common in many areas in Alaska and Canada, Greenland, Central Asia, Patagonia, New Zealand, as well as in many other actively eroding mountain ranges around the world.

Figure 11: Satellite image of the Isortoq River in Greenland, a classic example of a braided river

Figure 11: Satellite image of the Isortoq River in Greenland, a classic example of a braided river

1.3.2. Anastomosing rivers
Anastomosing rivers or streams are similar to braided rivers in that they consist of multiple interweaving channels. However, anastomosing rivers typically consist of a network of low-gradient, narrow, deep channels with stable banks, in contrast to braided rivers, which form on steeper gradients and display less bank stability. The rules of thumb relating to gradient, discharge, safety and trip planning and roughly equivalent to those I outlined above for braided rivers. However, anastomosing rivers are generally slower than braided rivers, with distinct rapids separating flat sections. Furthermore, and as river banks are far more vegetated, your raft will likely get trapped somewhere during its travel downstream should you fall out and lose it. A classic European example of an anastomosing river is the lower Rahpadno River in Sarek National Park, Sweden (figure 12).

Figure 12: The Rapaselet section of the Rahpadno River in Sarek National Park, Sweden - a classic European example of an anastomosing river.

Figure 12: The Rapaselet section of the Rahpadno River in Sarek National Park, Sweden – a classic European example of an anastomosing river. (picture: Joery Truyen – http://www.dzjow.com)

1.3.3. Meandering rivers
Meandering rivers in U-shaped valleys or plains occur when supply of sediment and river gradient are low, and river banks are stable and often densely vegetated. Such meandering rivers are often slow and easy to paddle, although odd rapids may occur near local bedrock features. A fantastic example of such a high-latitude meandering river is the Alatna River in Alaska’s Brooks Range.

Figure 13: The Alatna River in Gates of the Arctic National Park, a fantastic example of a meandering backcountry river with anastomosing sections. (Picture: www.walldevil.com)

Figure 13: The Alatna River in Gates of the Arctic National Park, a fantastic example of a meandering backcountry river with anastomosing sections. (Picture: http://www.walldevil.com)

1.3.4. Single channel bedrock rivers
A last main category is what I will call ‘single channel bedrock rivers’, still a very generalist term for a wide variety of channel types. As the name says, those rivers have in common that they are single channel, and their flow morphology is far more variable and highly dependent on bedrock morphology along their course. Such bedrock features imply more varied paddling, with the possibility of technical rapids and whitewater, boilers and whirlpools even in rivers which have a low overall gradient. This especially holds for high-discharge rivers which move through gorges and canyons. Log jams are very common in forested areas. Single channel bedrock rivers occur anywhere in the world and require extensive trip planning if you want to paddle uncharted rivers, both in terms of rapids and in terms of potential take out locations for scouting and/or portaging (for example, it might not be able to take out and portage once you have entered into steep gorges and canyons). An example is given below in Joery Truyen’s video from his Peel & Hart river expedition in the Canadian Yukon area – check out what happens at 2:03 in a high volume, but relatively low-gradient bedrock section!

1.3.5. Alternation of channel types

Clearly, a stream will not have one single channel type all the way from its source down to the sea or its confluence with another stream. As a rule of thumb, the gradient of a river will gradually decrease the further you move downstream; high gradient channels will thus mainly occur high in the catchment area.

However, reality is not as simple as that. Many rivers show alternations between different channel types; an example is given below in figure 14 for the Rangitata River in New Zealand, which flows from northwest to southeast through the satellite picture. After a fast but technically easy 60km braided section (gradient approx. 2.5m/km at the lower end) which ends in the northwest corner of the picture, the Rangitata picks up speeds and increases gradient as it starts cutting through a gorge as a single-channel bedrock river with class II-III rapids and two class IV rapids (average gradient approx. 8m/km over the length of the gorge), and finally emerges as an anastomosing/meandering river with distinct class I-II rapids separated by flatwater sections (gradient approx. 3-4m/km).

Figure 14: Satellite picture of the Mid-Rangitata river on New Zealands South Island. The river flows through the picture from Northwest to Southeast, going through (i) a braided section; (ii) a single channel bedrock section; (iii) a anastomosing section.

Figure 14: Satellite picture of the Mid-Rangitata river on New Zealands South Island. The river flows through the picture from Northwest to Southeast, going through (i) a braided section; (ii) a single channel bedrock section; (iii) a anastomosing section.

PART 2. Trip planning for backcountry paddlers

In the first part of this article, we have learned some basic concepts about river characteristics you have to master before starting to plan on wilderness trips. In this second part I will try to share some tools and methods I use to do the trip planning itself.

Planning a packrafting trip, either a paddle down a well-known rivers or a (first) descent in uncharted areas, has never been as easy as it is today. Trip reports are available by the thousands on the web, and topographic maps become ever more detailed. But by far the largest revolution in wilderness trip planning has been the availability of highly detailed satellite pictures (e.g. Google Earth) to end users nipping their Sunday coffee like you and me. Any river on earth is now just a few clicks away – which is just simply incredible to me. It would be dumb not to use such a detailed and accurate information to minimize the chance of accidents, and get the very best out of your trips.

2.1. Step 1: Characterization of the river and estimating river discharge

First things first – let’s first try to make a quick characterization of the river. Can I find any river guide of trip report? Is it braided or meandering? Are there any single channel bedrock stretches? Are there possibilities to skip stretches or even the entire paddling section by hiking roads or trails in case conditions do turn out to be bad on the terrain?

One of the most difficult questions at this point is to estimate whether or not a river will carry enough water to paddle it when you are travelling higher in the catchment. During my first long hikig/packrafting traverse, 2750km through Scandinavia in 2012, I sometimes looked forward to paddling a scenic river for days, only to find out I was just bumping from rock to rock once I got there – and eventually had to walk the sections because of low water levels. Making this discharge estimate is something which really comes with experience.

As outlined above – the discharge of a river will mainly be function of (i) annual and seasonal precipitation in the catchment area; (ii) meltwater supply; (iii) vegetation and soil characteristics. You should first classify your rivers somewhere between the three annual discharge curve end members I talked about in the first part of the article. A river in an arid mountainous region without glaciers will probably be impossible to paddle late in summer, whereas a stream in the same area with a far smaller catchment but including glaciers might still offer fine conditions.

Another thing you might try is to find pictures, trip reports or a river guide for comparable, nearby rivers with similar catchment characteristics (and during the same time of the year) – I will give you a good idea of what you might expect in terms of water levels, even if the gradient is different.

2.2. Step 2: Estimating river gradient – making an altitude profile

The next step in your planning will be to make an estimate of the river gradient. For backcountry rivers, there are two ways to do so: by topographic maps and by satellite pictures. I will use Sweden’s Rahpadno River in Sarek National Park as an example: it is a remote wilderness river with an alternation of braided, anastomosing and single channel sections (with an odd single channel bedrock section); topographic maps are descent but not very detailed (1/100000 scale) and high resolution satellite pictures are available. The annual discharge curve is meltwater-controlled.

2.2.1 Method 1: Topographic maps
Sweden’s mountain areas have been mapped in reasonable detail in the 1/100000 ‘Fjällkarten’ Series. The main setback of these maps is that the contour lines, which have a 20m interval, have been smoothed, often impeding map reading for hiking in terms of small gorges and canyons of side streams. However, this is of minor importance for river planning.

This is how to calculate river gradient from topographic maps:
– Search for points with known altitude along the river. Mostly this is the intersection of the river with a contour line, but it might for example also be the inflow/outflow of the river in/out of a lake.
– Measure the distance along the main channel of the river between those points with known altitude.
– From the altitude difference and the along-river distance you can calculate the gradient between two or more of such points: for example if the river descends from 1050m to 1025m over a 6.4km interval, the average gradient over this stretch is 3.9m/km.

An example is given in figure 15 for Sarek’s Rahpahndo river – with a short word on it below the figure.
One should always keep in mind that this method only will tell you something about average gradients over a certain distance. If a river descends 20m over a 5km interval (a modest 4m/km gradient) , that does not rule out the possibility of a deadly 18m drop somewhere on the way, all the rest being virtually flatwater. It should therefore be viewed as a tool to get an estimate whether or not most of the river will be possible to paddle and look like. Individual river features should always be mapped in detail and approached with care, as I will discuss in section 2.3.

Figure 15: River profile for Sweden's Rahpadno River based on the 1/100000 Fjällkartan maps. By indicating every point along the river with a known altitude (intersections with contour lines, lakes, ponds connected to the river) and clicking their distance downstream, I produced a profile through a Scatter plot in Microsoft Excel. It can clearly be seen that the braided and anastomosing parts on the river have a low gradient, whilst gradient on the single channel (bedrock) parts (near Laddabakte and Gadokvarasj) is high.

Figure 15: River profile for Sweden’s Rahpadno River based on the 1/100000 Fjällkartan maps. By indicating every point along the river with a known altitude (intersections with contour lines, lakes, ponds connected to the river) and clicking their distance downstream, I produced a profile through a Scatter plot in Microsoft Excel. It can clearly be seen that the braided and anastomosing parts on the river have a low gradient, whilst gradient on the single channel (bedrock) parts (near Laddabakte and Gadokvarasj) is high.

2.2.2. Method 2: Google Earth
A second, quicker method to make an estimate of the river gradient is directly through Google Earth. To do so, click a path on the (main channel of the) river you want to descend, and display the altitude profile of it once you’re done. Zoom in sufficiently, the resolution of the displayed profile will improve while you do so. The example of the Rahpadno river is again given below. Compare it with the curve we generated from the map.

Figure 16: River profile for the Rahpadno River as generated with Google Earth. By selecting a part of the clicked track, you can directly derive gradient information for part of the river.

Figure 16: River profile for the Rahpadno River as generated with Google Earth. By selecting a part of the clicked track, you can directly derive gradient information for part of the river.

Mapping river profiles with Google Earth has a few advantages:
– It is way faster in the first place
– In theory, if the digital terrain/surface model behind the satellite picture has a high resolution (see below), the profile will show more detail than the one generated from a map as altitude/distance information is continuous, and not only derived from just those few points where the river intersects with a contour line.

However, things are not as nice in the real world… as mentioned above, the altitude information in Google Earth is based on a Digital Terrain Model (DTM) or Digital Surface Model (DSM). Every DTM and DSM has a certain horizontal and vertical resolution – the higher the resolution, the better your river profile will look like.
– A bad vertical resolution will match erroneous altitude data to your picked track – for example, when the vertical resolution is 20m, a location with a real altitude of 463m might be plotted at any altitude between 453m and 473m in your profile.
– When horizontal resolution is insufficient, the deepest part of the valley will not match the location of the river. When you map the profile of the river by clicking it, this will lead to weird bumpy profiles – especially in deep, steep valleys and canyons, but for example also in regions where rivers cut through moraine of steep terraces. An clear example is given in figure 16, where the Verdon river in Southeast France cuts through a deep canyon. In plains or wide valleys (like is the case for many wide braided or anastomosing rivers) a low horizontal resolution on itself does not need to be a major problem.

Figure 17: Oblique Google Earth image for the Verdon River in its canyon in Southern France - because of insufficient horizontal resolution the river plots on the canyon walls. Generating a river profile through Google Earth will yield highly unreliable results.

Figure 17: Oblique Google Earth image for the Verdon River in its canyon in Southern France – because of insufficient horizontal resolution the river plots on the canyon walls. Generating a river profile through Google Earth will yield highly unreliable results.

I have not found reliable sources on this, but it looks like Google is using DTM’s and DSM’s with a resolution which is highly variable depending on the location.

By picking a track, you will get pretty reliable profiles for many rivers, especially in wide valleys where horizontal resolution is of less importance (the Rahpadno is a good example). In such areas, the DSM/DTM has a high resolution.

However, the profiles you will generate can also be worthless (for example New Zealands Rangitata River I discussed in the first part, see figure). This is the case in areas with low resolution DSM/DTM.

As a rule of thumb, a profile is reliable if you get a smooth curve which seems to reflect the visual characteristics of the river (alternation of braided, anastomosing and single channel sections for the Rahpadno example). If the profile looks very bumpy (like for the Rangitata) you better not use it.

Figure 18: River profile of the mid-Rangitata on New Zealands South Island as generated through Google Earth. Due to highly insufficient horizontal and vertical resolution of the DSM/DTM used by Google in this area, the generated profile is very bumpy and should not be used for trip planning. A profile based on topographic maps will yield better results.

Figure 18: River profile of the mid-Rangitata on New Zealands South Island as generated through Google Earth. Due to highly insufficient horizontal and vertical resolution of the DSM/DTM used by Google in this area, the generated profile is very bumpy and should not be used for trip planning. A profile based on topographic maps will yield better results.

2.2.3. Which gradient can I paddle down?
We have now learned how to make the best altitude profile we can based on just maps and satellite imagery. Another crucial question remains: when gradient can I safely paddle down? What gradient matches which class of water? Once again, this is something you will largely learn by experience. There are so many factors influencing the technical character of a river, the main ones being the river channel pattern and the discharge. Most rivers will become faster and more technical when discharge increases. A high-discharge river with a gradient of 10m/km will be more technical and require better boat handling skills than a low-discharge river with the same gradient.

As outlined above, a braided river will have a very smooth gradient, and are highly predictable – they lack sudden high-class technical rapids. I will therefore be confident to include low-discharge braided rivers with gradients up to 15m/km in my planning – and a bit less (maybe 4-10m/km) for braided rivers with higher discharges. The most powerful braided river I ever paddled was the mighty Tasman River draining New Zealands’s Mount Cook Range – it had a gradient of roughly 5m/km and I felt perfectly comfortable solo and without drysuit. A single channel bedrock river with the same discharge and gradient would certainly contain powerful rapids and vigorous boilers and whirlpools – paddling such a river will require far more planning and regular scouting and portage on a solo expedition – have a look at Joery’s video from Patagonia Joery’s video from Patagonia. The first 4 minutes contain shots from the Rio Baker, an extremely high-discharge river with an average gradient of less than 1m/km over the distance he paddled it, but which still contains potentially lethal rapids.

Anastomosing rivers and meandering rivers which lack bedrock rapids will – other than braided rivers – often show more distinct rapids separated by flatwater sections, but they mostly lack the technical rapids of single channel bedrock rivers.

2.3. Step 3: Mapping the river

The last step in preparing your river descent is mapping individual river features, potentially dangerous sections, and possibilities for scouting and portage. This part of my preparation is based entirely on Google Earth imagery, which has now a sufficiently high resolution for many remote areas in the world. When resolution is too low, it might be worth looking at aerial photography and satellite imagery offered by National Topographical Institutes, which is also often available for free.

When using Google Earth imagery for trip planning, a few factors might impede easy interpretation:
– The images you are using might not reflect the conditions on the river as you will encounter them – for example, we you want to descend a meltwater-controlled river in autumn and you are using pictures taken in spring, the river will have more water and look wilder on the image than how you will find it. The date a Google Earth picture was taken is displayed at the bottom of your screen (see figure 19). For many areas, multiple pictures are available – you can scroll through them using the timeline symbol at the top of your screen (see figure 19). You might be able to find more relevant imagery like this.
– Even is your Google Earth picture was taken in the right time of the year, recent precipitation events might blur the ‘real’ look of the river. This is hard to estimate – a murky water color compared to other pictures you find through the timeline might give an indication about this.
– In mountainous areas and canyons, part of the river might be located in the shadow, which will make interpretation of the images much more difficult.
– Finally, (low) sun can cause reflections on the water which impede interpretation (figure 20).

Figure 19: Satallite image for the Dart River on New Zealands South island - with indication of the image date and the timeline symbol which allows you to scroll through historic images.

Figure 19: Satallite image for the Dart River on New Zealands South island – with indication of the image date and the timeline symbol which allows you to scroll through historic images.

Figure 20: Satellite image of the Waiau River, connecting the Te Anau and Manapouri lakes on New Zealands South Islands. Low sun causes strong reflections on the river, making interpretation from this image virtually impossible.

Figure 20: Satellite image of the Waiau River, connecting the Te Anau and Manapouri lakes on New Zealands South Islands. Low sun causes strong reflections on the river, making interpretation from this image virtually impossible.

Once you have found the right picture for the stretch you want to paddle, you can start to scan it for individual features.

Rapids appear surprisingly well on satellite imagery as whitewater and waves. When scrolling through the satellite imagery, I indicate all rapids I can find on the map I will take with me while rafting, giving them a ‘color code’ depending on how strong or dangerous they look. In my personal code there are three colors: (i) a yellow rapid is a rapid I notice on the satellite imagery, but where I do not expect any problems during the paddling, and which I will highly likely be able to go down without any scouting or whatsoever; (ii) an orange rapid looks stronger – I will approach it with care and scout/portage if that feels necessary; (iii) a red rapid is a rapid which looks potentially dangerous or just impossible based on my satellite pictures – I will always take out and scout it, and portage if necessary.

For the rapids I mark in orange and red, I also have a look at the potential locations of take-out and put-in upstream and downstream the rapid. Be aware that it might be necessary to take out a longer distance before the rapid – for example in steep valleys. In gorges and canyons, it may be impossible to take out and scout or portage altogether – in such cases you should be prepare to just portage whenever you are in doubt a rapid will be safe to run with your paddling capacities.

A few examples are given below in the figures 21-25.

By mapping all rapids an potential obstacles on the river, you will eventually produce a river map (figure 26) which I attach to my backpack on the bow of my raft while paddling (figure 28) – by attentively following my progress on the map I always know when a potentially dangerous section is coming and when I should be prepared to take out for scouting or portage.

Figure 21: a minor rapid on Belgium's Semois River - typically the kind of rapid I'm sure I will be able to paddle without the least risk of capsizing. I would indicated in yellow on my river map.

Figure 21: a minor rapid on Belgium’s Semois River – typically the kind of rapid I’m sure I will be able to paddle without the least risk of capsizing. I would indicated in yellow on my river map.

Figure 22: a rapid in Central Norway's Susendalen valley on a river I paddled during my Scandinavia traverse in 2012. The river is flowing from south to north through the sat pic; and you can clearly recognize a bedrock rapid. I indicated this rapid in orange on my river map. On the sat pic, I could also see a very nice place to take out on the left bank just before the rapid and go scouting. On the picture you can see my raft on this spot, while I'm scouting the rapid once I made it there on the terrain.

Figure 22: a rapid in Central Norway’s Susendalen valley on a river I paddled during my Scandinavia traverse in 2012. The river is flowing from south to north through the sat pic; and you can clearly recognize a bedrock rapid. I indicated this rapid in orange on my river map. On the sat pic, I could also see a very nice place to take out on the left bank just before the rapid and go scouting. On the picture you can see my raft on this spot, while I’m scouting the rapid once I made it there on the terrain.

Figure 23: A long rapids on bedrock on boulders on the Western Matukituki River in Mount Aspiring National Park, New Zealand. I indicated this rapid in red in my trip planning. The picture is taken from the suspension bridge which is indicated on the sat pic.

Figure 23: A long rapids on bedrock on boulders on the Western Matukituki River in Mount Aspiring National Park, New Zealand. I indicated this rapid in red in my trip planning. The picture is taken from the suspension bridge which is indicated on the sat pic.

Figure 24: On this satellite image from the Dart River in New Zealand I could see the river flowing through a bunch of trees - a potentially highly dangerous situation. I indicated it in red, knowing that portage would be very easy on the right bank of the river on the scree levee. On the picture you can see what it looked like in reality.

Figure 24: On this satellite image from the Dart River in New Zealand I could see the river flowing through a bunch of trees – a potentially highly dangerous situation. I indicated it in red, knowing that portage would be very easy on the right bank of the river on the scree levee. On the picture you can see what it looked like in reality.

Figure 25: The Pas de Souci, a very dangerous bouldergarden on the Tarn River in Southern France. River is flowing from north to south. Portage is obligatory on this section, where the river disappears entirely between huge boulders on a couple of sections. On both the satellite picture and the image you can see the river entering the boulder garden. I clearly indicated this section in red on my river map.

Figure 25: The Pas de Souci, a very dangerous bouldergarden on the Tarn River in Southern France. River is flowing from north to south. Portage is obligatory on this section, where the river disappears entirely between huge boulders on a couple of sections. On both the satellite picture and the image you can see the river entering the boulder garden. I clearly indicated this section in red on my river map.

Figure 26: River map for the Karasjohka river in Norway's Finnmarksvidda, a river I paddled in september 2012 during the last weeks of my Scandinavia traverse. This is the map I would attach to the pack on the bow of my raft while paddling.

Figure 26: River map for the Karasjohka river in Norway’s Finnmarksvidda, a river I paddled on a cold september day in 2012 during the last weeks of my Scandinavia traverse. This is the map I would attach to the pack on the bow of my raft while paddling.

Figure 27: Paddling down the Tana River in extreme Northern Norway on a frosty late september morning - my river map is attached to my backpack on the bow of my raft.

Figure 27: Paddling down the Tana River in extreme Northern Norway on a frosty late september morning – my river map is attached to my backpack on the bow of my raft.

Log jams, strainers and sweepers are danger which are too often overlooked during river planning in wilderness areas. They can pose potentially lethal obstacles in any river with (part of) its catchment located below the treeline.

When high-resolution satellite imagery is available, it is often possible to locate log jams and fallen trees. However, flood events will event sweep jams and trees away – this kind of obstacles are typically temporary. If you make an interpretation based on satellite imagery, you will find that many log jams have disappeared once you are on the river, and new ones have formed. Mapping log jams will therefor mainly tell you something about the probability of encountering them on the river, rather than about the exact location.

An example is given in figure 28 for a river snaking through the Taïga forest of the northern Altai mountains, near Lake Teletskoye in Siberia.

Figure 28: Satellite image of a river near Lake Teletskoye in Siberia - log jams and sweepers can clearly be noted.

Figure 28: Satellite image of a river near Lake Teletskoye in Siberia – log jams and sweepers can clearly be noted.

2.4. Finally, a word about flatwater paddling

During most of my long solo wilderness expeditions, an important part of my paddling hours where on flatwater: lakes, fjords and even sea straits. While paddling on flatwater might sound boring for many packrafters – your maximum speed is limited to about 4.5km/hour without wind or currents – it is a crucial part of my trips to reach water- and/or glacier-locked areas which would otherwise be impossible. During my Qeqqata expedition in Southwest Greenland last summer I paddled across 9 fjords and numerous lakes to be able to cross from Kangerlussuaq to Maniitsoq and back!

Whilst paddling on flatwater is technically easy, there is equally a few things to know when you consider paddling across a 3km icy fjord or on iceberg-dotted sea straits. The two main things to take into account are wind (and waves) and tidal currents.

Figure 28: Paddling iceberg-dotted fjord in Cape Farewell Country, Greenland - summer 2013

Figure 28: Paddling iceberg-dotted fjord in Cape Farewell Country, Greenland – summer 2013

2.4.1. Wind
When there is no wind and no tidal currents, a descent paddler will paddle at about 4.5km/hour for longer distances in a standard solo packraft like the Alpacka Yukon Yak. Flatwater paddling with headwind soon becomes hell – a 2-3 bft headwind is still feasible (although you will already be way slower), a 4 bft headwind will make you suffer big time for minimal progress and should be considered only for a short, crucial section of passage. Paddling against stronger winds is pretty much sadomasochistic. You will also get very wet from waves breaking against the bow of your raft with the splashwater being blown into your face by the wind. A tailwind is more forgiving and will speed you up – I have paddled with 6 bft tailwinds on Lake Wanaka in New Zealand at a speed of 7-8km/h. As long as you are paddling in the same direction as the (breaking) waves they don’t need to be a big issue. Sidewinds of 4 bft or stronger can be hard both because of the difficulty not to be blown onto the lee shore, and because you are moving parallel to the crest of the waves and stability might become an issue when waves grow higher.

2.4.1. Tidal currents
When paddling down long fjords and in sea straits, you should always check tide tables to know when the water is getting in/out the fjord so you can make sure you have the current in your back. For long fjord and sea strait crossings, it is wise to paddle shortly after the moment of high/low tide, when the tidal currents reach their minimum (although a lot also depends on local coastline morphology). It should be noted that relatively smooth paddling against the current can be possible when coastline morphology is irregular or indented – huge eddy currents will form behind capes, cliffs and islands. You will have to stroke hard though when paddling through the strongest of the tidal current when navigating around capes to make it to the next eddy. An example of such ‘tidal coastline eddies’ is visualized in a nice way be the movement of icebergs in a sea strait in Cape Farewell Country on the timelapse below in shot in summer 2013 – make sure to watch in HD and keep an eye at the icebergs near the shoreline!

Finally, it is important to know that when wind and tidal currents are in opposite direction, it will make waves shorter, higher and break faster – and way harder to paddle. Waiting a few hours until the current has changed direction can mean a huge improvement in conditions.

Well, I hope that helps planning your next trip! Please drop your questions and remarks. Happy and safe paddling in 2017!

Qeqqata expedition part IV – a muskox slalom from Eternity Fjord to Kangerlussuaq

I have ended the previous part of my report with an obligatory rest day because of high winds – at the most stupendous of places along the Eternity Fjord. After the wind drops in the evening, I am able to start the last leg of my long solo expedition the following morning: paddling to the tip of Eternity Fjord, hiking away from it through an extremely remote and spectacular valley, and then climb onto the plateaus which I will cross on the way back to Kangerlussuaq during the last days of the trip.

During those last days, the variety and number of fauna I encounter on the way are impressive: countless arctic hare, reindeer and muskoxen dot the rocky tundra on this forgotten strip of land seperating the ice sheet from the icy waters of the Davis Strait. Slalomming through herds of muskoxen, carefully climbing across moraines and boulderfields not to surprise aggressive bulls, was an extremely powerful sensation – a sensation where I did no longer feel like a spectator in the wilderness, but like an integral part of it, obeying to the same laws of nature as any other animal out there.

As I reach Kangerlussuaq on a cold, wet and windy september morning, my passion for Greenland – its people, its spectacular natural richness and variety, the crisp clear sky bound by the ice sheets on a distant horizon, the cottongrass-bearded ponds and streams, the vast wind-swept plateaus and the intimity of lush green valleys, the roar of meltwater thundering through mineral alpine winderness, the whisper of icebergs sailing through the fjords, the ghostly shadows of the northern lights dancing through the arctic night, the sun clinging ever closer to the safety of the horizon on the approach of a new winter, and the sheer, most ancient human pleasure of travelling through unknown and mysterious landscapes – has crystallized into a love more pure and profound than I could have deemed possible for any place.

Paddling in the upper Eternity fjord

Paddling in the upper Eternity fjord

Beaching my packraft at the tip of Eternity fjord

Beaching my packraft at the tip of Eternity fjord

Climbing away from Eternity Fjord

Climbing away from Eternity Fjord

I travelled through an extremely remote valley for the next 25km - encountering my first muskoxen of the trip on the way

I travelled through an extremely remote valley for the next 25km – encountering my first muskoxen of the trip on the way

The valley I travelled through is squeezed between two ice sheets, with countless outlet glacier diving down into the valley on many places.

The valley I travelled through is squeezed between two ice sheets, with countless outlet glacier diving down into the valley on many places.

One of the outlet glaciers diving into the valley, and calving iceberg into a proglacial lake.

One of the outlet glaciers diving into the valley, and calving iceberg into a proglacial lake.

One of the outlet glaciers diving into the valley, and calving iceberg into a proglacial lake.

One of the outlet glaciers diving into the valley, and calving iceberg into a proglacial lake.

The glaciers in this area are retreating at an alarming pace. This one dives down all the way to a proglacial lake on Google Earth images from 2014. Now it had already retreated over 100m from the lake. Instead of using my packraft to bypass the glacier front on the lake, I could ford the icy meltwater stream

The glaciers in this area are retreating at an alarming pace. This one dives down all the way to a proglacial lake on Google Earth images from 2014. Now it had already retreated over 100m from the lake. Instead of using my packraft to bypass the glacier front on the lake, I could ford the icy meltwater stream

Evening splendour.

Evening splendour.

While camping in the valley, I had my most active aurora display of the trip.

While camping in the valley, I had my most active aurora display of the trip.

While camping in the valley, I had my most active aurora display of the trip.

While camping in the valley, I had my most active aurora display of the trip.

Climbing out of the valley on boulders.

Climbing out of the valley on boulders.

Looking back through the valley, and all the way into Eternity fjord.

Looking back through the valley, and all the way into Eternity fjord.

As soon as I made it up the vast plateaus, I started encountering muskoxen pretty much every single kilometer.

As soon as I made it up the vast plateaus, I started encountering muskoxen pretty much every single kilometer.

Reindeer were also present in big numbers.

Reindeer were also present in big numbers.

The muskoxen typically roamed on the tundra in groups of 4-8 animals.

The muskoxen typically roamed on the tundra in groups of 4-8 animals.

Paddling across a lake on my way north across the plateaus.

Paddling across a lake on my way north across the plateaus.

The weather finally grew cold and dull during this part of the trip, with temperatures hovering just above freezing. It seemed to make the arctic hare, which were impossible to approach earlier during the trip, switch to an energy-saving mode where they did no longer bother about my presence.

The weather finally grew cold and dull during this part of the trip, with temperatures hovering just above freezing. It seemed to make the arctic hare, which were impossible to approach earlier during the trip, switch to an energy-saving mode where they did no longer bother about my presence.

Arctic hare on the way to Kangerlussuaq

Arctic hare on the way to Kangerlussuaq

Bivy along the lake

Bivy along the lake

I had a long, high section on a day with regular showers of rain and sleet. Visibility was often limited, making orientation exciting with just my 1/250000 Saga map.

I had a long, high section on a day with regular showers of rain and sleet. Visibility was often limited, making orientation exciting with just my 1/250000 Saga map.

More actic hare

More actic hare

More actic hare

More actic hare

Bivy along a smaller river on the plateaus.

Bivy along a smaller river on the plateaus.

Still spotting countless muskoxen.

Still spotting countless muskoxen.

Descending into the splendid Paradise Valley. The amount of muskoxen in this valley was impressive - I spotted about 300 on a single day.

Descending into the splendid Paradise Valley. The amount of muskoxen in this valley was impressive – I spotted about 300 on a single day.

The going through the Paradise Valley was incredible - flat, dry terrain without boulders or bush!

The going through the Paradise Valley was incredible – flat, dry terrain without boulders or bush!

Arctic desert in Paradise Valley

Arctic desert in Paradise Valley

Hiking across the plateaus

Hiking across the plateaus

Time.

Time.

Camping along the shores of one of the countless lakes on the plateaus.

Camping along the shores of one of the countless lakes on the plateaus.

I had some aurora displays through the Sc-sheets during the night.

I had some aurora displays through the Sc-sheets during the night.

Morning sun on the last long day of the trip.

Morning sun on the last long day of the trip.

Reaching the outflow of Lake Tasersuaq.

Reaching the outflow of Lake Tasersuaq.

I paddled about 14km on Lake Tasersuaq to reach the northern shore. It was the last day of the 2016 summer in West Greenland.

I paddled about 14km on Lake Tasersuaq to reach the northern shore. It was the last day of the 2016 summer in West Greenland.

Taking a short break along lake Tasersuaq.

Taking a short break along lake Tasersuaq.

Continuing the 14km paddling section on Lake Tasersuaq.

Continuing the 14km paddling section on Lake Tasersuaq.

Climbing away from the vast Tasersuaq Lake.

Climbing away from the vast Tasersuaq Lake.

Reaching Sondre Stromfjord!

Reaching Sondre Stromfjord!

Descending to Sondre Stromfjord on a splendid september afternoon.

Descending to Sondre Stromfjord on a splendid september afternoon.

Beaches along the Sondre Stromfjord

Beaches along the Sondre Stromfjord

Preparing for a long packraft crossing of Sondre Stromfjord in perfect conditions.

Preparing for a long packraft crossing of Sondre Stromfjord in perfect conditions.

Climbing away from Sondre Stromfjord at the end of a 36km-day, making the best of the splendid september weather.

Climbing away from Sondre Stromfjord at the end of a 36km-day, making the best of the splendid september weather.

Almost sunset, almost there.

Almost sunset, almost there.

Northern lights near Kangerlussuaq - I stayed awake that evening waiting for the northern lights. A warm front kicked in from the west around midnight, ending the fun.

Northern lights near Kangerlussuaq – I stayed awake that evening waiting for the northern lights. A warm front kicked in from the west around midnight, ending the fun.

Descending to Kangerlussuaq in the worst weather of the entire trip: cold, wet and windy.

Descending to Kangerlussuaq in the worst weather of the entire trip: cold, wet and windy.

Hasta pronto Greenland!

Hasta pronto Greenland!

DISCLAIMER:

This Greenland trip offered the purest, most pristine wilderness I have ever travelled through. I want it to remain that way. Therefore I have not included geographical references in my report. Whilst this might sound a bit egoistic, I’m sure experienced wilderness travellers will be able to design their own route – the possibilities are virtually endless!

I have received many messages asking for more details about my trip. Without underestimating anyone’s abilities, I want to point out that this was the most difficult trip I have ever made. The terrain was often harsh, with relentless boulderfields, moraine, serious river fordings, peat bogs, and quicksands near glaciers close to the ice sheets. There are no trails, no huts, or any other facilities for hikers along this route, and topographic maps are virtually inexistent for much of it (I used the 1/250000 Saga maps for over half of my trajectory). Backpack weight is heavy because of the lack of resupply options, I started with about 32-33kg despite using ultralight gear – but I tend to eat a lot! To packraft the fjords, one should have a good insight in the dynamics of tidal currents, (fjord)winds, katabatic winds, and how they interact in creating waves. If you are not able to fully assess these risks, or are not mentally prepared for the difficult terrain, you won’t have a lot of fun in the first place, and may end up in dangerous situations which I don’t want to be held responsible for in any way.

Qeqqata expedition part III – Iceberg graveyards and a fjord for Eternity

After resupplying in the Inuit town of Maniitsoq, I head out into the wilderness again for my return journey towards Kangerlussuaq: a challenging 14-day, 230km trip without even the slightest hint of civilisation along the way. It is late august by the time I get dropped at the tip of the Kangerdluarssuk fjord, and I expect the weather to grow colder, whilst it starts to get sufficiently dark at night to enjoy the first aurora displays of the season.

I just talked to people in the harbour of Maniitsoq to arrange my transport to the tip of the Kangerluarssuk fjord. After going for coffee in their cozy house Svend and Katerine took me and dropped me at the desired location.

I just talked to people in the harbour of Maniitsoq to arrange my transport to the tip of the Kangerluarssuk fjord. After going for coffee in their cozy house Svend and Katerine took me and dropped me at the desired location.

Hiking up the lower valley

Hiking up the lower valley

The bedrock near Maniitsoq is the oldest in the world (about 3.4 billion years) which outcrops on such a big scale, and one does not need to be geologist to see that they have a long history.

The bedrock near Maniitsoq is the oldest in the world (about 3.4 billion years) which outcrops on such a big scale, and one does not need to be geologist to see that is has a long history.

Hiking through the barren valley, with meltwater coming down from the ice sheets at both sides.

Hiking through the barren valley, with meltwater coming down from the ice sheets at both sides.

Following a large meltwater river, often on difficult terrain with boulderfields.

Following a large meltwater river, often on difficult terrain with boulderfields.

I camped high in the valley and got my first aurora show that night with some faint displays under a full moon. It was a very warm night and I gazed up in t-shirt for half an hour.

I camped high in the valley and got my first aurora show that night with some faint displays under a full moon. It was a very warm night and I gazed up in t-shirt for half an hour.

Camping under the northern lights.

Camping under the northern lights.

I continued my way down the valley the next morning, with spledid views towards the glaciers and ice sheets draping the slopes and summits.

I continued my way down the valley the next morning, with spledid views towards the glaciers and ice sheets draping the slopes and summits.

Glaciers on the way down through the valley

Glaciers on the way down through the valley

Fording the massive meltwater river thundering down the valley was simply impossible. I used my packraft to get to the left bank by paddling across one of the nameless lakes.

Fording the massive meltwater river thundering down the valley was simply impossible. I used my packraft to get to the left bank by paddling across one of the nameless lakes.

Taking a break along the massive meltwater river roaring through the valley.

Taking a break along the massive meltwater river roaring through the valley.

This descent towards a proglacial lake with a few icebergs was difficult.

This descent towards a proglacial lake with a few icebergs was difficult.

Paddling across the proglacial lake.

Paddling across the proglacial lake.

Massive views onto the glaciers streaming down from one of the ice sheets south of Eternity fjord.

Massive views onto the glaciers streaming down from one of the ice sheets south of Eternity fjord.

Massive views onto the glaciers streaming down from one of the ice sheets south of Eternity fjord.

Massive views onto the glaciers streaming down from one of the ice sheets south of Eternity fjord.

I made a very long day to make it all the way towards the iceberg graveyard of Iluliagdlup tasia in fair weather.

I made a very long day to make it all the way towards the iceberg graveyard of Iluliagdlup tasia in fair weather.

Camping high above the iceberg graveyard of Iluliagdlup tasia

Camping high above the iceberg graveyard of Iluliagdlup tasia

Traversing high above the iceberg graveyard Iluliagdlup tasia on a dull late august day.

Traversing high above the iceberg graveyard Iluliagdlup tasia on a dull late august day.

I encountered many reindeer again during this part of the trip.

I encountered many reindeer again during this part of the trip.

A second bivy high above Iluliagdlup tasia. Slight rain fell for much of the night and the next morning, and I made a very late start to cross the lake towards the northern shore.

A second bivy high above Iluliagdlup tasia. Slight rain fell for much of the night and the next morning, and I made a very late start to cross the lake towards the northern shore.

The iceberg graveyard of Iluliagdlup Tasia, a lake which is dammed by 2 massive glaciers, preventing the water to drain. The water level of the lakes rises at a rate of about 40-50m per year, and eventually lifts the damming glacier enough to allow a spectacular outburst flood, which drains all the water in the entire lake (with a surface of about 50km²) in a single go. This happens about every 7 years, after which a new cycle begins. The lake level was low this year, and I found icebergs on land up to 100m above the current lake level, all suggesting a relatively recent last outburst event.

The iceberg graveyard of Iluliagdlup Tasia, a lake which is dammed by 2 massive glaciers, preventing the water to drain. The water level of the lakes rises at a rate of about 40-50m per year, and eventually lifts the damming glacier enough to allow a spectacular outburst flood, which drains all the water in the entire lake (with a surface of about 50km²) in a single go. This happens about every 7 years, after which a new cycle begins. The lake level was low this year, and I found icebergs on land up to 100m above the current lake level, all suggesting a relatively recent last outburst event.

The last bit of the descent - where I was moving through a maze of stranded icebergs - was a nightmare of deep, meltwater-soaked clay and lake sediment. I sank in up to my knees at many places and was happy to reach the shore in the end and start paddling across along fantastic icebergs.

The last bit of the descent – where I was moving through a maze of stranded icebergs – was a nightmare of deep, meltwater-soaked clay and lake sediment. I sank in up to my knees at many places and was happy to reach the shore in the end and start paddling across along fantastic icebergs.

Looking back at the iceberg graveyard of Iluliagdlup tasia, with a nice view of the stranded icebergs above the present lake level.

Looking back at the iceberg graveyard of Iluliagdlup tasia, with a nice view of the stranded icebergs above the present lake level.

Bivy with views back towards Iluliagdlup tasia.

Bivy with views back towards Iluliagdlup tasia.

Crossing the plateaus towards the next fjord.

Crossing the plateaus towards the next fjord.

I encountered many carcasses of reindeer, arctic foxes and (later during the trip) muskoxen along the way.

I encountered many carcasses of reindeer, arctic foxes and (later during the trip) muskoxen along the way.

First views down towards the tip of Eternity fjord.

First views down towards the tip of Eternity fjord.

The crevassed glaciers diving down towards Eternity fjord.

The crevassed glaciers diving down towards Eternity fjord.

Camping high above the tip of Eternity fjord.

Camping high above the tip of Eternity fjord.

Descending down to Eternity fjord proved to be much harder than I had expected. I spent hours scouting for a way down, and had a very early start the next morning.

Descending down to Eternity fjord proved to be much harder than I had expected. I spent hours scouting for a way down, and had a very early start the next morning.

Views towards the ice-capped mountains lining Eternity fjord while hiking towards my descent route.

Views towards the ice-capped mountains lining Eternity fjord while hiking towards my descent route.

Descending into a steep, boulder-infested gully which was the only possible way down to Eternity fjord. I had to take extreme care on some sections of the descent, which was probably the most difficult part of the trip.

Descending into a steep, boulder-infested gully which was the only possible way down to Eternity fjord. I had to take extreme care on some sections of the descent, which was probably the most difficult part of the trip.

Finally down at Eternity fjord.

Finally down at Eternity fjord.

Preparing for 22km of paddling on Eternity fjord, with a nice 3-4bft tailwind.

Preparing for 22km of paddling on Eternity fjord, with a nice 3-4bft tailwind.

Paddling the Eternity fjord, propelled by a nice tailwind.

Paddling the Eternity fjord, propelled by a nice tailwind.

The wind gradually became stronger, and I took out at this peninsula to wait it out and camp for the night.

The wind gradually became stronger, and I took out at this peninsula to wait it out and camp for the night.

A bivy for Eternity along the Eternity fjord.

A bivy for Eternity along the Eternity fjord.

I had my first active aurora displays that night, but like a real rooking I forgot to remove the polarisation filter from my camera, pretty much ruining all my pictures.

I had my first active aurora displays that night, but like a real rookie I forgot to remove the polarisation filter from my camera, pretty much ruining all my pictures.

Incredible bivy spot along Eternity fjord. The wind was blowing at 5-6 bft the next day, so continuing my paddle was not an option. But I didn't care too much having a rest day here, really...

Incredible bivy spot along Eternity fjord. The wind was blowing at 5-6 bft the next day, so continuing my paddle was not an option. But I didn’t care too much having a rest day here, really…

A second evening at my 5-star hotel along Eternity fjord.

A second evening at my 5-star hotel along Eternity fjord.

Could have stayed for weeks...

Could have stayed for weeks…

In the evening, the wind started dropping, and I knew the next morning I would be able to continue my paddle on the fjord, and start the home straigth towards Kangerlussuaq.

In the evening, the wind started dropping, and I knew the next morning I would be able to continue my paddle on the fjord, and start the home straigth towards Kangerlussuaq.

DISCLAIMER:

This Greenland trip offered the purest, most pristine wilderness I have ever travelled through. I want it to remain that way. Therefore I have not included geographical references in my report. Whilst this might sound a bit egoistic, I’m sure experienced wilderness travellers will be able to design their own route – the possibilities are virtually endless!

I have received many messages asking for more details about my trip. Without underestimating anyone’s abilities, I want to point out that this was the most difficult trip I have ever made. The terrain was often harsh, with relentless boulderfields, moraine, serious river fordings, peat bogs, and quicksands near glaciers close to the ice sheets. There are no trails, no huts, or any other facilities for hikers along this route, and topographic maps are virtually inexistent for much of it (I used the 1/250000 Saga maps for over half of my trajectory). Backpack weight is heavy because of the lack of resupply options, I started with about 32-33kg despite using ultralight gear – but I tend to eat a lot! To packraft the fjords, one should have a good insight in the dynamics of tidal currents, (fjord)winds, katabatic winds, and how they interact in creating waves. If you are not able to fully assess these risks, or are not mentally prepared for the difficult terrain, you won’t have a lot of fun in the first place, and may end up in dangerous situations which I don’t want to be held responsible for in any way.

Qeqqata expedition part II: the lower Eternity fjord, and towards Maniitsoq

In the first part of this series I have hiked and paddled roughly parallel to the Sondre Stromfjord through remote valleys for 10 days. By the 15th of august I have made a crucial crossing of the fjord, which allows me to penetrate deeper into the astounding labyrith of fjords and mountains near the lower Eternity fjord. The weather conditions remain outstanding throughout this part of the trip, which allows me to climb a few nameless mountains along the way. This was without any doubt one of the most beautiful weeks I have spent in the wilderness in my entire life.

Another splendid morning while hiking down the valley

Another splendid morning while hiking down the valley

Crossing a low pass towards an elongated lake in the next valley.

Crossing a low pass towards an elongated lake in the next valley.

Views from a nameless summit

Views from a nameless summit

I camped high in a small side valley in order to climb a few summits in a nameless range during the evening hours.

I camped high in a small side valley in order to climb a few summits in a nameless range during the evening hours.

Views north while climbing up a nameless peak in the evening hours

Views north while climbing up a nameless peak in the evening hours

Views towards the mountains lining a valley draining directly into the Davis Strait.

Views towards the mountains lining a valley draining directly into the Davis Strait.

Evening high in a nameless range

Evening high in a nameless range

Sunset in a nameless range on another splendid summer evening

Sunset in a nameless range on another splendid summer evening

Descending back down the side valley the next morning

Descending back down the side valley the next morning

I crossed the next pass as fast as I could to reach the next fjord before the fjord wind picked up.

I crossed the next pass as fast as I could to reach the next fjord before the fjord wind picked up.

Crossing the next fjord - a 2.5km crossing - on a beautiful august morning

Crossing the next fjord – a 2.5km crossing – on a beautiful august morning

The terrain to climb away from the fjord and up the next pass was harsh

The terrain to climb away from the fjord and up the next pass was harsh

Easy rolling terrain on the descent towards the next bay and paddling section.

Easy rolling terrain on the descent towards the next bay and paddling section.

Reaching the stunning lower Eternity Fjord.

Reaching the stunning lower Eternity Fjord.

Paddling on the lower Eternity Fjord in the evening - I paddled a 23km section up the fjord

Paddling on the lower Eternity Fjord in the evening – I paddled a 23km section up the fjord

A magnificent evening paddle on Eternity fjord

A magnificent evening paddle on Eternity fjord

Another splendid morning along Eternity Fjord.

Another splendid morning along Eternity Fjord.

Continuing the long paddling section on the fjord the next morning, with a 3km crossing towards the Southern shore.

Continuing the long paddling section on the fjord the next morning, with a 3km crossing towards the Southern shore.

Taking out of the fjord after a 23km paddling section just before the fjordwind picks up again.

Taking out of the fjord after a 23km paddling section just before the fjordwind picks up again.

I camped in a small side valley, ready to give it a blast up one of the many nameless mountains lining the fjord.

I camped in a small side valley, ready to give it a blast up one of the many nameless mountains lining the fjord.

Climbing up a nameless mountain on rock slabs in the evening hours.

Climbing up a nameless mountain on rock slabs in the evening hours.

Views from the nameless mountain on the southern edge of Eternity Fjord. I called it the Garden of Eden

Views from the nameless mountain on the southern edge of Eternity Fjord. I called it the Garden of Eden

Views from the nameless mountain on the southern edge of Eternity Fjord. I called it the Garden of Eden

Views from the nameless mountain on the southern edge of Eternity Fjord. I called it the Garden of Eden

Views from the nameless mountain on the southern edge of Eternity Fjord. I called it the Garden of Eden

Views from the nameless mountain on the southern edge of Eternity Fjord. I called it the Garden of Eden

Views from the nameless mountain on the southern edge of Eternity Fjord. I called it the Garden of Eden

Views from the nameless mountain on the southern edge of Eternity Fjord. I called it the Garden of Eden

Sunset from the Garden of Eden

Sunset from the Garden of Eden

Sunset from the Garden of Eden

Sunset from the Garden of Eden

The sea fog had penetrated deep into the fjord by the next morning. It dissolved again by noon.

The sea fog had penetrated deep into the fjord by the next morning. It dissolved again by noon.

Hiking up a valley the next day.

Hiking up a valley the next day.

Snow grouse could be spotted pretty much anywhere during my trip.

Snow grouse could be spotted pretty much anywhere during my trip.

I climbed another nameless mountain the next day. Access towards the vast summit plateau was difficult, and I searched for a way up for over 2 hours. Eventually I gained access through this naste 45° couloir full of scree, boulders and with a short scrambling section. As I wanted to sleep high on the mountain I carried up my backpack - hard work!

I climbed another nameless mountain the next day. Access towards the vast summit plateau was difficult, and I searched for a way up for over 2 hours. Eventually I gained access through this nasty 40° couloir full of scree, boulders and with a short scrambling section. As I wanted to sleep high on the mountain I carried up my backpack – hard work!

Climbing up the nameless mountain I called 'The Stegosaurus' because of it spectacular broken summit ridge.

Climbing up the nameless mountain I called ‘The Stegosaurus’ because of it spectacular broken summit ridge.

Views from the Stegosaur

Views from the Stegosaur

Sunset from The Stegosaurus

Sunset from The Stegosaurus

Sunset from the Stegosaurus, with sea fog invading the fjords from Davis Strait.

Sunset from the Stegosaurus, with sea fog invading the fjords from Davis Strait.

Bivy high up the slopes of The Stegosaurus.

Bivy high up the slopes of The Stegosaurus.

By the next morning sea fog had filled the fjords again; it dissolved once again around noon. I had an easy morning to make the difficult descent in fair weather.

By the next morning sea fog had filled the fjords again; it dissolved once again around noon. I had an easy morning to make the difficult descent in fair weather.

Descending towards the fjord.

Descending towards the fjord.

This walk along the fjord was of an extraordinary beauty.

This walk along the fjord was of an extraordinary beauty.

Greenland beauty at the outflow of a nameless lake.

Greenland beauty at the outflow of a nameless lake.

Greenland beauty at the outflow of a nameless lake.

Greenland beauty at the outflow of a nameless lake.

I paddled 12km down the fjord in dense sea fog the next morning. The weather cleared as I started my difficult alpine crossing towards the next fjord.

I paddled 12km down the fjord in dense sea fog the next morning. The weather cleared as I started my difficult alpine crossing towards the next fjord.

Looking back towards the fjord during the first part of the climb on moraines and boulders.

Looking back towards the fjord during the first part of the climb on moraines and boulders.

At an altitude of about 550m I had to turn back as glaciers and steep rock slabs blocked the way further up towards the pass.

At an altitude of about 550m I had to turn back as glaciers and steep rock slabs blocked the way further up towards the pass.

Bivy behind a moraine down by the fjord on another splendid evening.

Bivy behind a moraine down by the fjord on another splendid evening.

Bivy behind a moraine down by the fjord on another splendid evening.

Bivy behind a moraine down by the fjord on another splendid evening.

I climbed a nameless summit along the fjord in the evening, with fantastic views towards the mountains I had not been able to cross earlier that day.

I climbed a nameless summit along the fjord in the evening, with fantastic views towards the mountains I had not been able to cross earlier that day.

The next morning I paddled another 10km down the fjord in sea fog and chilly conditions with a slight headwind.

The next morning I paddled another 10km down the fjord in sea fog and chilly conditions with a slight headwind.

Reaching the sea strait seperating the mainland from the Hamborgerlandet Island

Reaching the sea strait seperating the mainland from the Hamborgerlandet Island

I did not want to cross all the way towards Maniitsoq in my tiny packraft as the sea straits have vicious tidal currents. I waited for boat transport to town near Ikamiut, a building designated for school outings. During the evening and night the place was deserted, but the next morning a group of 16 kids arrived - the first humans I had seen in 16 days. We played handball and soccer until my boat transport arrived.

I did not want to cross all the way towards Maniitsoq in my tiny packraft as the sea straits have vicious tidal currents. I waited for boat transport to town near Ikamiut, a building designated for school outings. During the evening and night the place was deserted, but the next morning a group of 16 kids arrived – the first humans I had seen in 16 days. We played handball and soccer until my boat transport arrived.

Cruising towards Maniitsoq with Niels in dissolving sea fog.

Cruising towards Maniitsoq with Niels in dissolving sea fog.

Arriving in Maniitsoq

Arriving in Maniitsoq

DISCLAIMER:

This Greenland trip offered the purest, most pristine wilderness I have ever travelled through. I want it to remain that way. Therefore I have not included geographical references in my report. Whilst this might sound a bit egoistic, I’m sure experienced wilderness travellers will be able to design their own route – the possibilities are virtually endless!

I have received many messages asking for more details about my trip. Without underestimating anyone’s abilities, I want to point out that this was the most difficult trip I have ever made. The terrain was often harsh, with relentless boulderfields, moraine, serious river fordings, peat bogs, and quicksands near glaciers close to the ice sheets. There are no trails, no huts, or any other facilities for hikers along this route, and topographic maps are virtually inexistent for much of it (I used the 1/250000 Saga maps for over half of my trajectory). Backpack weight is heavy because of the lack of resupply options, I started with about 32-33kg despite using ultralight gear – but I tend to eat a lot! To packraft the fjords, one should have a good insight in the dynamics of tidal currents, (fjord)winds, katabatic winds, and how they interact in creating waves. If you are not able to fully assess these risks, or are not mentally prepared for the difficult terrain, you won’t have a lot of fun in the first place, and may end up in dangerous situations which I don’t want to be held responsible for in any way.

Qeqqata expedition – Part I: Along the lower Søndre Strømfjord

In the coming weeks I will post a series of 4 post with pictures from my expedition in Southwest Greenland, a 5-week solo hiking and packrafting trip through extremely remote areas, roughly in the fjordlands and plateaus between the settlements of Kangerlussuaq and Maniitsoq. I had only one resupply en route in Maniitsoq. Apart from one hunting Inuit family on the second day, I did not encounter a single soul during the entire trek.

This trip offered the purest, most pristine wilderness I have ever travelled through. I want it to remain that way. Therefore I have not included geographical references in my report. Whilst this might sound a bit egoistic, I’m sure experienced wilderness travellers will be able to design their own route – the possibilities are virtually endless!

The first views of Greenland's wild east coast, with massive glaciers calving icebergs into the North Atlantic, gave me the goose bumps again

The first views of Greenland’s wild east coast, with massive glaciers calving icebergs into the North Atlantic, gave me the goose bumps again

The view of the ice sheet while descending towards Kangerlussuaq is completely different, with crevassed glaciers with meltwater streams sliding down towards the rolling hills at the head of the Søndre Strømfjord

The view of the ice sheet while descending towards Kangerlussuaq is completely different, with crevassed glaciers with meltwater streams sliding down towards the rolling hills at the head of the Søndre Strømfjord

Waiting for boat transport down the Søndre Strømfjord. To avoid a few days in less interesting terrain and an even heavier backpack, I decided to get dropped about 60km down the fjord.

Waiting for boat transport down the Søndre Strømfjord. To avoid a few days in less interesting terrain and an even heavier backpack, I decided to get dropped about 60km down the fjord.

Alone in the wild - the boat which dropped me along the fjord starts it way back towards Kangerlussuaq. I have 18 days and 270km ahead to reach Maniitsoq.

Alone in the wild – the boat which dropped me along the fjord starts it way back towards Kangerlussuaq. I have 18 days and 270km ahead to reach Maniitsoq.

Climbing away from Søndre Strømfjord.

Climbing away from Søndre Strømfjord.

Descending into the valley in glorious sunny weather on the first day of the trip. There were almost no insects in this area after a long and dry summer.

Descending into the valley in glorious sunny weather on the first day of the trip. There were almost no insects in this area after a long and dry summer.

Taking out of the first lake at the end of the first day.

Taking out of the first lake at the end of the first day.

I made an early start during the warm first days of the trip. the fjordwind picked up around noon every day, and to avoid headwind on the lakes and fjords while travelling west I tried to paddle as many kilometers as possible during the morning hours.

I made an early start during the warm first days of the trip. the fjordwind picked up around noon every day, and to avoid headwind on the lakes and fjords while travelling west I tried to paddle as many kilometers as possible during the morning hours.

I reached the tip of the westernmost lake just as the wind picked up.

I reached the tip of the westernmost lake just as the wind picked up.

Cottongrass low in the valley

Cottongrass low in the valley

Reaching the fjord at the end of the second day. The last part of the valley the terrain became slightly harder with some swaps and easy bushwahcking, but overall travel was relatively easy.

Reaching the fjord at the end of the second day. The last part of the valley the terrain became slightly harder with some swaps and easy bushwahcking, but overall travel was relatively easy.

Camping between the cottongrass at the tip of the fjord. A fierce 6bft fjordwind raged until sunset.

Camping between the cottongrass at the tip of the fjord. A fierce 6bft fjordwind raged until sunset.

I paddled a 7km section on the fjord early the next morning through sea fog, with the fjord flat as a mirror. The weather cleared as I took out. To my big surprise, I met an Inuit family camping along the fjord; the men were gone for reindeer hunting, with the wives, the grandparents and children staying behind to pick berries and take care of the camp and to butcher the reindeer they shot the day before.

I paddled a 7km section on the fjord early the next morning through sea fog, with the fjord flat as a mirror. The weather cleared as I took out. To my big surprise, I met an Inuit family camping along the fjord; the men were gone for reindeer hunting, with the wives, the grandparents and children staying behind to pick berries and take care of the camp and to butcher the reindeer they shot the day before.

Although we could not talk because of the language barrier, I stayed with the family for almost  three hours, with a mutual feeling of respect and understanding which is hard to explain.

Although we could not talk because of the language barrier, I stayed with the family for almost three hours, with a mutual feeling of respect and understanding which is hard to explain.

Climbing away from the fjord

Climbing away from the fjord

Climbing into the valley with my 32kg backpack was hard work. I climbed high above the valley floor, where a massive meltwater river thundered through an inaccessible gorge.

Climbing into the valley with my 32kg backpack was hard work. I climbed high above the valley floor, where a massive meltwater river thundered through an inaccessible gorge.

The mountains at the other side of the valley seen from a nameless mountain

The mountains at the other side of the valley seen from a nameless mountain

Following reindeer tracks through the upper valley. Travel through this valley was remarkably easy, with a few river fordings as only noticeable obstacles.

Following reindeer tracks through the upper valley. Travel through this valley was remarkably easy, with a few river fordings as only noticeable obstacles.

Travelling through the beautiful valley on the fourth day of the trip.

Travelling through the beautiful valley on the fourth day of the trip.

Travelling through the beautiful valley on the fourth day of the trip, once again in glorious sunny weather.

Travelling through the beautiful valley on the fourth day of the trip, once again in glorious sunny weather.

As I bended north into the next valley branch, the terrain started to become slightly harder as I approached the bushline.

As I bended north into the next valley branch, the terrain started to become slightly harder as I approached the bushline.

Splendid bivy in the valley

Splendid bivy in the valley

I forded the large meltwater river braiding through the valley near this point, a long thigh-deep wading. I think fording this river is only possible late in the season and in the morning hours when the meltwater flow reaches its minimum.

I forded the large meltwater river braiding through the valley near this point, a long thigh-deep wading. I think fording this river is only possible late in the season and in the morning hours when the meltwater flow reaches its minimum.

Climbing towards the pass and west into the next valley.

Climbing towards the pass and west into the next valley.

This valley was harder to travel through, often with swamps and squishy tundra with deep moss.

This valley was harder to travel through, often with swamps and squishy tundra with deep moss.

Camping along a nameless lake. After 4 days of glorious weather, a warm front came in that afternoon with light rain during the night.

Camping along a nameless lake. After 4 days of glorious weather, a warm front came in that afternoon with light rain during the night.

Views towards the nameless lake.

Views towards the nameless lake.

I hiked 12km down the valley in damp condition the next morning, often on annoying tundra terrain with low shrub and wet sections. When reaching the fjord around noon, I immediately inflated my raft to cover the 7km east in perfect conditions.

I hiked 12km down the valley in damp condition the next morning, often on annoying tundra terrain with low shrub and wet sections. When reaching the fjord around noon, I immediately inflated my raft to cover the 7km east in perfect conditions.

The next day it often rained and the cloudbase remained very low. As I had to cross a difficult pass to access towards the Søndre Strømfjord, I decided to wait it out. After almost 72 hours of grey skies and patchy rain, the weather finally cleared again on the morning of day 8, and I started rushing towards the pass.

The next day it often rained and the cloudbase remained very low. As I had to cross a difficult pass to access towards the Søndre Strømfjord, I decided to wait it out. After almost 72 hours of grey skies and patchy rain, the weather finally cleared again on the morning of day 8, and I started rushing towards the pass.

Another view of the camp low in the valley while the weather starts to clear.

Another view of the camp low in the valley while the weather starts to clear.

Fow bog while hiking up the nameless valley

Fow bog while hiking up the nameless valley

Disolving morning fog while hiking up the nameless valley

Disolving morning fog while hiking up the nameless valley

Crossing the nameless pass (which I called 'patience pass') towards the Søndre Strømfjord valley, often on moraine and boulderfields which required attention.

Crossing the nameless pass (which I called ‘patience pass’) towards the Søndre Strømfjord, often on moraine and boulderfields which required attention.

Descending in the lush, green valley on the way towards Søndre Strømfjord. For the first time in the trip the insects were out in big numbers. It was glorious warm and sunny weather again and I had a full wash in one of the many ponds low in the valley.

Descending in the lush, green valley on the way to Søndre Strømfjord. For the first time in the trip the insects were out in big numbers. It was glorious warm and sunny weather again and I had a full wash in one of the many ponds low in the valley.

The Søndre Strømfjord as seen from a nameless knoll.

The Søndre Strømfjord as seen from a nameless knoll.

Low in the gorgeous valley

Low in the gorgeous valley

Camping low in the gorgeous valley.

Camping low in the gorgeous valley.

Camping low in the gorgeous valley, with the massive north faces of the mountains at the other side of the fjord in the back.

Camping low in the gorgeous valley, with the massive north faces of the mountains at the other side of the fjord in the back

I have to paddle across the Søndre Strømfjord to gain access towards Maniitsoq, but in the evening and the entire following day the winds are too strong to make a safe crossing. The uncertainty linked to such daring fjord crossings always caused some stress. I used my extra day here to climb a mountain lining the fjord.

I have to paddle across the Søndre Strømfjord to gain access towards Maniitsoq, but in the evening and the entire following day the winds are too strong to make a safe crossing. The uncertainty linked to such daring fjord crossings always caused some stress. I used my extra day here to climb a mountain lining the fjord.

I made a long daytrip to climb the mountain (around 1000m) at the right. That day, I received news that my friend Karel had broken the all-time speed record on the Pacific Crest Trail. I decided to name the mountain (Karel Sabbe toppen) after him in honour of this incredible achievement. The beautiful lake now carries the name of his support buddy Joren (Jorensuaq)

I made a long daytrip to climb the mountain (around 1000m) at the right. That day, I received news that my friend Karel had broken the all-time speed record on the Pacific Crest Trail. I decided to name the mountain (Karel Sabbe toppen) after him in honour of this incredible achievement. The beautiful lake now carries the name of his support buddy Joren (Jorensuaq)

Another view of Jorensuaq and Karel Sabbe toppen.

Another view of Jorensuaq and Karel Sabbe toppen.

Looking back at the lake while starting the ascent of Karel Sabbe toppen.

Looking back at the lake while starting the ascent of Karel Sabbe toppen.

Views from the summit (around 1000m).

Views from the summit (around 1000m).

Views from the summit (around 1000m).

Views from the summit (around 1000m).

In the evening hours the wind, which sent high breaking waves across the fjord, finally started to fall. I did not hesitate a second, and decided this window to cross the fjord with my packraft - the most crucial decision of the trip.

In the evening hours the wind, which sent high breaking waves across the fjord, finally started to fall. I did not hesitate a second, and decided this window to cross the fjord with my packraft – the most crucial decision of the trip.

Fighting against the incoming tide, I made my 6km crossing while the sun started to set. The wind dropped almost completely, but a nice swell was still present on the fjord.

Fighting against the incoming tide, I made my 6km crossing while the sun started to set. The wind dropped almost completely, but a nice swell was still present on the fjord.

Reaching the base of the valley at sunset.

Reaching the base of the valley at sunset.

Crossing the fjord in the evening hours proved to be the most crucial decision of the trip. During the night the wind picked up again, blowing at 6bft by sunrise. And it kept blowing for 36 more hours.

Crossing the fjord in the evening hours proved to be the most crucial decision of the trip. During the night the wind picked up again, blowing at 6bft by sunrise. And it kept blowing for 36 more hours.

The valley was not the most easy to travel through, with some nasty moraines and boulderfields.

The valley was not the most easy to travel through, with some nasty moraines and boulderfields.

Reaching the next pass, with the massive north face of mountain 1360m in the back.

Reaching the next pass, with the massive north face of mountain 1360m in the back.

Descending into the beautiful lush valley - first on boulderfields, later on easing terrain.

Descending into the beautiful lush valley – first on boulderfields, later on easing terrain.

Looking back through the upper valley.

Looking back through the upper valley.

I paddled a wonderful 4km section on the river with a fierce 5bft tailwind.

I paddled a wonderful 4km section on the river with a fierce 5bft tailwind.

Taking out at the southwestern tip of the splendid glacial lake. A fierce 5bft tailwind propelled me across the lake in no time.

Taking out at the southwestern tip of the splendid glacial lake. A fierce 5bft tailwind propelled me across the lake in no time.

I tried to climb the nameless peak (around 500m) at the southern side of the lake, but stranded about 50m below the summit. the views into this side valley were remarkable anyway.

I tried to climb the nameless peak (around 500m) at the southern side of the lake, but stranded about 50m below the summit. the views into this side valley were remarkable anyway.

A splendid evening - my tarp can be spotted near the river connecting the two lakes.

A splendid evening – my tarp can be spotted near the river connecting the two lakes.

A splendid evening low in the valley

A splendid evening low in the valley

A splendid evening low in the valley

A splendid evening low in the valley

DISCLAIMER: I have received many messages asking for more details about my trip. Without underestimating anyone’s abilities, I want to point out that this was the most difficult trip I have ever made. The terrain was often harsh, with relentless boulderfields, moraine, serious river fordings, peat bogs, and quicksands near glaciers close to the ice sheets. There are no trails, no huts, or any other facilities for hikers along this route, and topographic maps are virtually inexistent for much of it (I used the 1/250000 Saga maps for over half of my trajectory). Backpack weight is heavy because of the lack of resupply options, I started with about 32-33kg despite using ultralight gear – but I tend to eat a lot! To packraft the fjords, one should have a good insight in the dynamics of tidal currents, (fjord)winds, katabatic winds, and how they interact in creating waves. If you are not able to fully assess these risks, or are not mentally prepared for the difficult terrain, you won’t have a lot of fun in the first place, and may end up in dangerous situations which I don’t want to be held responsible for in any way.

Back from Greenland

Last weekend I returned from Greenland after almost 5 weeks in the wilderness.

Every long trip I have made throughout the last decade has been unique in it’s own way with rich memories which I will take with me for the rest of my life. My Pyrenees trips in 2007 and 2010 were the first long trips, where I discovered myself and started developing this passion. The 2750km Scandinavia thru-hike in 2012 was the one where I felt a very special drive on the way which provided my with seemingly infinite energy in often harsh conditions – it is the trip on which I look back with a lot of pride. Greenland in 2013 was the first real wilderness experience, and the South Island traverse in early 2015 during which everything seemed to go so easily, just because of the relaxed feeling you automatically get in New Zealand – it was the best trip of my life.

And then there was this Greenland expedition… a trip which was without any doubt the most beautiful I have ever made and which has impressed and touched me deeply. The feeling which I had during those weeks in the wilderness is hard to explain. As I stuggled through boulderfields and moraine, watched the sun set from mountain with views unknown to human gaze, and slalommed along countless muskoxen, I no longer felt like a spectator of any kind in this vast wilderness, but was an integral part of it, obeying to the same rules and laws of nature as any animal out there.

My trip was blessed with sensational weather conditions – during the first 4 weeks of the trip I had only a few overcast days with some rain and a few mornings with sea fog – all the rest was just blue skies and warm temperatures. I hiked over 80% of the distance in t-shirt in august. In september summer slipped away and the conditions started detoriorating quickly, with snow down to sea level by the time I reached Kangerlussuaq. Thanks to all this amazing weather, I was able to complete almost my entire planning including summits, although some proved to be a bit too difficult to make it all the way up. But who cares, really.

What West Greenland lacks in terms of big icebergs in comparison to most other places around the island, it makes up with a rich wildlife. I spotted countless arctic fox, muskoxen, reindeer, arctic hare, white-tailed eagles, seals and ptarmigan on the way, often from very close distance.

It will be a pain adapting to the rat race again after such a sensational experience in the wilderness. Apart from a hunting Inuit family on the second day, I did not encounter a single soul during the entire trip. I will take it easy the next few weeks to give myself the time to process all of it, so don’t expect any trip report too soon.

Greenland, I’ll be back!

I met an Inuit family when beaching my packraft on the second day of the trip. The men were gone hunting for reindeer, but I got a warm welcome with coffee and cookies from their wives, children and grandparents. They were the last people I would see throughout the entire trip.

I met an Inuit family when beaching my packraft on the second day of the trip. The men were gone hunting for reindeer, but I got a warm welcome with coffee and cookies from their wives, children and grandparents. They were the last people I would see throughout the entire trip.

Camping in a nameless valley north of Sondre Stromfjord

Camping in a nameless valley north of Sondre Stromfjord

Paddling through the Taseq qutdleq valley

Paddling through the Taseq qutdleq valley

Reindeer could be seen throughout the trip

Reindeer could be seen throughout the trip

Another splendid morning in the Taseq qutdleq valley

Another splendid morning in the Taseq qutdleq valley

Ancient Viking grave on a place I will not tell

Ancient Viking grave on a place I will not tell

During the endless string of sunny days during the first half of the trip I managed to climb a few nameless mountains with views which were probably unknown to human gaze. I called this one towering above the Eternity Fjord the Garden of Eden.

During the endless string of sunny days during the first half of the trip I managed to climb a few nameless mountains with views which were probably unknown to human gaze. I called this one towering above the Eternity Fjord the Garden of Eden.

Views from another nameless summit, which I called "The Stegosaurus" because of its spectacular broken summit ridge.

Views from another nameless summit, which I called “The Stegosaurus” because of its spectacular broken summit ridge.

Views from another nameless summit, which I called "The Stegosaurus" because of its spectacular broken summit ridge.

Views from another nameless summit, which I called “The Stegosaurus” because of its spectacular broken summit ridge.

Mighty summits in the Niaqornata qula range as seen from the outflow of the Tasersuaq lake.

Mighty summits in the Niaqornata qula range as seen from the outflow of the Tasersuaq lake.

Another beauty camp in at the head of the Puiartoq Bay.

Another beauty camp in at the head of the Puiartoq Bay.

After 18 days solo in the wild, these Inuit children were the first humans I saw. We played handball and soccer for hours while I waited for boat transport to my resupply town of Maniitsoq

After 18 days solo in the wild, these Inuit children were the first humans I saw. We played handball and soccer for hours while I waited for boat transport to my resupply town of Maniitsoq

Paddling nameless lakes with travelling through a remote valley north of the Qapiarfiup sermia ice sheet

Paddling nameless lakes with travelling through a remote valley north of the Qapiarfiup sermia ice sheet

During the second half of the trip I travelled remote valleys squeezed in between ice sheets, with massive glaciers all around the place.

During the second half of the trip I travelled remote valleys squeezed in between ice sheets, with massive glaciers all around the place.

The iceberg graveyard of Iluliagdlup Tasia, a lake which is dammed by 2 massive glaciers, preventing the water to drain. The water level of the lakes rises at a rate of about 40-50m per year, and eventually lifts the damming glacier enough to allow a spectacular outburst flood, which drains all the water in the entire lake (with a surface of about 50km²) in a single go. This happens about every 7 years, after which a new cycle begins. The lake level was low this year, and I found icebergs on land up to 100m above the current lake level, all suggesting a relatively recent last outburst event.

The iceberg graveyard of Iluliagdlup Tasia, a lake which is dammed by 2 massive glaciers, preventing the water to drain. The water level of the lakes rises at a rate of about 40-50m per year, and eventually lifts the damming glacier enough to allow a spectacular outburst flood, which drains all the water in the entire lake (with a surface of about 50km²) in a single go. This happens about every 7 years, after which a new cycle begins. The lake level was low this year, and I found icebergs on land up to 100m above the current lake level, all suggesting a relatively recent last outburst event.

Crossing the iceberg graveyard of Iluliagdlup Tasia

Crossing the iceberg graveyard of Iluliagdlup Tasia

Back down to Eternity fjord

Back down to Eternity fjord

I was stuck at this spot along the Eternity Fjord for almost 48 hours because of wind and high waves preventing a safe crossing by packraft. But I didn't mind too much, really ;-)

I was stuck at this spot along the Eternity Fjord for almost 48 hours because of wind and high waves preventing a safe crossing by packraft. But I didn’t mind too much, really 😉

Paddling on Eternity fjord

Paddling on Eternity fjord

Taking out of Eternity Fjord

Taking out of Eternity Fjord

Travelling through the very remote Kangerdlugssuatsiaup qingua valley.

Travelling through the very remote Kangerdlugssuatsiaup qingua valley.

Waterfall in the remote Kangerdlugssuatsiaup qingua valley.

Waterfall in the remote Kangerdlugssuatsiaup qingua valley.

I saw the northern lights on every single clear night as soon as it got sufficiently dark from the end of august onwards. But this night they were extremely active and dancing through the entire sky.

I saw the northern lights on every single clear night as soon as it got sufficiently dark from the end of august onwards. But this night they were extremely active and dancing through the entire sky.

I spotted up to 300 muskoxen per day during the final week of my trip, and my path must have looked like a drunk man's slalom as I tried to keep a safe distance to the aggressive bulls.

I spotted up to 300 muskoxen per day during the final week of my trip, and my path must have looked like a drunk man’s slalom as I tried to keep a safe distance to the aggressive bulls.

Arctic hare were easy to spot on the tundra. It was difficult to approach them during the first weeks, but when the weather grew colder in early september them seemed to freeze into a lower state of consciousness, pretty much like my fingers as I struggled with the controls of my camera.

Arctic hare were easy to spot on the tundra. It was difficult to approach them during the first weeks, but when the weather grew colder in early september them seemed to freeze into a lower state of consciousness, pretty much like my fingers as I struggled with the controls of my camera.

By the end of august the tundra exploded into autumn colours

By the end of august the tundra exploded into autumn colours