Greenland part I: Narsarsuaq & Jespersens dal

Last summer I made a 25-day solo hiking and packrafting trip in Southern Greenland. In terms of sheer natural phenomenality, it was by far the best trip I ever made. But it was also one of the hardest in terms of terrain and because of a few setbacks on the way in a wilderness where I didn’t encounter a human soul for weeks.

In the coming weeks I will publish five posts with my trip report. This is the first of the series.

My plan was pretty ambitious. I wanted to start near the airport of Narsarsuaq, and cross over all the way towards the tiny Inuit village Tasiusaq in Tasermiut fjord in just over two weeks, a stretch including multiple fjord crossings, powerful glacial rivers rushing down from the South Greenland ice sheet, and a long section through alpine terrain to reach the Sondre Sermilik fjord. As a packraft is necessary to make it all the way through, it was a crossing which had probably never been made before, and I had little clue about terrain other than from satellite pictures and a 1/250000 map based on old Soviet sources when setting off.

After 16 days I would run out of supplies. I had sent a package with food from the next 10 days to Tasiusaq. After picking it up, I wanted to make a loop east of the village and deep into Cape Farewell Country, a hike based on Joery Truyen’s journey in 2009. Although having descent information on the terrain, there was still some uncertainty whether I would be able to cross the one high pass on the way as I did not take crampons, nor an ice axe. Then finally if I still had time left and if ice conditions on the fjord allowed, I wanted to hike and raft on to the coastal town of Nanortalik.

tasermiutDONE

Because of foul weather near Narsarsuaq my flight from Copenhagen gets diverted to Kangerlussuaq in Western Greenland. We spend the night in the airport hotel of the tiny town, and after an additional stopover in Nuuk get flewn into Southern Greenland late in the afternoon the next day – a delay of over 30 hours. It is still overcast with regular drizzle. I buy alcohol for my stove in Blue Ice shop near the airport, but it is already too late to arrange my transfer across the Qôroq ice fjord. I walk away from the town and camp at the shore of a small pond a few kilometers into the Blomsterdalen valley.

The weather has finally cleared by the next morning and I finally get my first good views of the landscape. Large, brilliantly blue icebergs sail across the fjord, propelled by the tidal currents, and the water-soaked, glacier-polished mountain faces glister in the intense morning sun. I walk back to the town while the last clouds burn away, and after some negotiations about the price for my boat crossing, I jump in the back of a pickup and we drive towards the tiny harbor. After a few minutes a small boat with a young Inuit at the steering wheel picks us up.

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There is one older man on board and we first sail west to drop him at the farms of Qagssiarssuk, once one of the larger Viking settlements of the former South Greenland colony. Then we turn back towards the steep cliffs of Mellemlandet at navigate along an increasingly high amount of ice as we approach the Qôroq ice fjord, in which the massive Qôrqup Sermia glacier, serpenting down into the fjord all the way from the ice sheet, calves its icebergs. I have decided not to packraft across this fjord because it is surrounded by steep cliff faces, with virtually no spots to beach in case of deteriorating conditions.

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My initial plan was to get dropped a bit north of Igaliko, then hike northeast through the remote Qôrorssuaq valley and into Qôrqup kûa. But as I have lost 2 full days because of the problems with my flight I decide to skip this first loop and ask to get me to the debouchment of the Qôrqup kûa river in the fjord in order not having to hurry because of shortage of food later in the trip.

As we approach the delta of the river the water depth gradually decreases and eventually we decide to drop me on the steep rocky coast a few hundred meters short of its mouth not to ground the outboard engine. After a few tries we manage to navigate through a maze of submerged rocks and I jump ashore while the captain throws my 28kg bag across, then waves me goodbye, fires the engine and soars away at high speed. I watch him disappearing around the corner, then hear the last sound of the engine die away a few seconds later. It dawns on me I am now alone in the wild. Like, really alone, and knowing I may not see any humans for over two weeks. I scramble a few meters up the cliff until I reach a more gentle grass slope, and take a break to enjoy the moment and the wild scenery of turquoise fjord water, grounded icebergs, and massive peaks lining the valley I will now walk.

After an easy traverse thing start to get serious as soon as I reach the mouth of the river. I have to navigate through a maze of deeply carved glacial outwash plains and terminal moraines at the base of the old glaciers filling the cirques high on the north face of Igdlerfigssalik (1752m), and I climb higher on the slopes to search for an easier way through, often plunging in and climbing out deep gullies on unstable scree on the way. As a compensation for my labor, the views get ever more impressive as I gain altitude and penetrate deeper into the valley.

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Things become easier as I reach the northern exit of the Qôgrorssuaq valley. I wade its river, pregnant with meltwater after the recent snow which has blanketed the mountains from about 1000m. After that it’s an easy traverse on moraine and scree along the northwest face Agdlerulik.

Then I encounter the enemy for the first time. A seemingly impervious wall of thick Greenlandic willow and birch shrub growing up to 3 meters tall blocks the way. I knew it was going to come and I knew the fight would be really bad. I start to battle through, but my speed drops to 500m/hour. I aim for a huge boulder somewhat higher on the slopes. By the time I get there I am bleeding on my hands and have bruises all over my legs. Looking back staying close to the river seems to be a better idea.

To make matters worse, I am horrified to find my map has been bumped out of the pocket of my trousers during the struggle. I have walked thousands of kilometers this way, and never lost one map. Now I find myself at the start of my most serious wilderness trip without any topographic documentation for the next 40km. Like on all my summer hikes, I do not carry a GPS. But I do not even bother going back and trying to find it. Being a needle in a massive haystack, it would only cause more frustration. I rely on what I remember, and the fact that there is only one way to the Kujatdleq fjord, all the other being blocked by natural barriers like alpine mountains, powerful rivers or immense glaciers.

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Fortunately, this section is the hardest of the first few days. As I now reach the most dramatic part of the valley, with 1500+m mountains dropping steeply all the way down to the river, walking through the river bed or on scree slopes, occasionally interrupted by steep gullies, makes for somewhat faster progress. Eventually I reach a nice panoramic bivouac spot when I am a few kilometers short of the snout of the northern branch of the immense Jespersen Bre. I have covered about 14km, good progress with the terrain and my heavy pack in mind.

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An approaching curtain of cirrus clouds predicts an incoming warmth front. And indeed, during the night it starts raining, and the morning hours bring more precipitation with a very low cloud base. I wait things out until noon. The rain eases, the clouds start to break, and I get going. On easy terrain through the riverbed I make good progress east until I round the northeast ridge of peak 1330m and veer south. I am now near the snout of Jespersen Bre. Multiple braided meltwater rivers snake through a fascinating, lifeless labyrinth of glacial outwash and moraines.

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Remembering the terrain directly along the glacier would become too difficult further south, I start climbing up the gentle, green slopes when I approach the stream coming down from the small valley on the southeast slopes of peak 1330m. The stream itself cascades down through a narrow ravine. I climb up higher to get across, but with deteriorating weather I have to call it a day at an altitude of about 300m when the cloud base starts to drop again and limits my view to a handful of meters.

Slight rain falls for most of the evening and during the first part of the night, but after that it starts to clear, and the next morning brings good visibility with even a few patches of blue sky. I continue my climb along the ravine, which remains way too steep to cross further up. Luckily, the views back become jaw-dropping. The entire Jesperens Bre is now visible, its southern branch spreading and splitting in two as it reaches the base of the valley. These glaciers are far larger than anything alike I have ever seen. While retreating, they calve bergs in shallow proglacial lakes which rest on the valley floor like sugared pancakes. Further north, the Motzfeldt Sø is a real iceberg graveyard with chunks of ice up to 200m broken from the glacier front and now helplessly melting away while drifting from pillar to post.

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I climb higher and higher up the steep, green slopes until I finally find a place to safely cross the stream, which has now split into several tributaries, at an altitude of well over 800m. I take a break and then traverse south on easy tundra terrain. On the way I see several sheep, which are all very shy. Later, on the way back home, I am being told that these are wild sheep. The Iterdlaq sheep farm, located about 20km further southwest along the Igalikup Kangerdlua fjord, closed about a decade ago. Many sheep remained in the mountain, and their offspring nowadays still graze the slopes west of the Jespersens valley in an non-controlled way, even getting more numerous in recent years.

I decide to make a small detour to climb mountain 840m, only making the views I just described better, but also allowing me to extensively examine the next stretch of the walk in the absence of my map. The terrain looks easy for the remainder of the day and pleased I retrace my steps down, then turn southwest again and traverse into the next side valley while trying to lose as little altitude as possible. Now knowing exactly where to go, I climb up again towards a barren plateau west of the next small summit towering above the valley, by coincidence also nameless and exactly 840m high.

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A number of small lakes are scattered on the purely mineral plateau, connected by small meltwater streams fed by the snowfields on the west face of the hill. I pick a bivouac spot near one of the streams, and as close as possible to what looks like the easiest way up the scree towards the summit. After dinner I give it a go. The climb is easier than I expected, and on the way a snow hare suddenly pops up from behind a boulder and sprints up at an incredible pace, showing me the easiest way to the top.

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The views are once again sensational. I am now near the snout of the southernmost terminus of Jespersens Bre, and deeper down the valley an immense braided river searches its way down towards the fjord on an immense alluvial plain of nearly 2km wide. I can look all the way up the heavily crevassed 25km glacier towards the ice sheet. In the west the lifeless plateaus, on which my tarp is now a tiny yellow dot, reach all the way to the base of the slopes of Sulugssugutaussâ (1660m). It is a scenery with a sobering grandeur.

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Just like on the previous summit, I carefully study the next bit of my hike. I now have to descend towards the river coming from the glacier. From what I see here the last bit could include a lot of bushwhacking. After that it looks safe to get onto the river and paddle a few kilometers downstream before getting out again at the other side – and try to hike onto my next map. I stay on the summit for almost two hours, but then I am taken by surprise by clouds which rapidly start to form at an altitude of only 700m deeper in the valley. I run down the hill again towards my tarp, and a few minutes later the foul weather reaches me, with a rapidly plummeting cloud base. It starts to rain heavily soon after and I go to sleep.

The next morning the visibility remains minimal. I wait for improvement for a while, but then decide to get going based on the compass course I have shot yesterday just before the fog kicked in, and hoping to descend through the cloud base quickly. After about 15 minutes I am relieved when my hope becomes truth. I traverse towards the river coming down straight from Sulugssugutaussâ (1660m), and dropping down steeply towards the valley floor through a ravine. A few hundred meters before reaching this stream I turn left and start to search for what looks the easiest way down.

The easy tundra terrain starts to make way for Greenlandic shrub, getting thicker and thicker with every meter I descend until I find myself fighting down again. The slope is pretty steep, though, so I don’t have to make too many meters and after only half an hour of infamous bushwhacking, with birches reaching nearly 4m height, I have made it down.

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I take a good break before inflating my raft on a small beach. It is overcast with a chilly headwind, but still the rafting, on a massive, icy proglacial river over 50m wide and with the snout of the glacier in my back, is some of the most special I have ever done. The paddling is easy throughout, without any noticeable rapids, but with a good current of about 3km/h. I get out after about 7km on the water on the left bank, and search for a safe way to walk towards the bedrock through the alluvial plain. Quicksands, which have already surprised too many hikers in this kind of places close to Greenland’s large glaciers, are present on many spots. It takes me a while to find a safe passage through.

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After a long break to pack my raft and have lunch, I tackle the easiest bit of the first week in terms of terrain, but the most difficult in terms of orientation. A wonderful labyrinth of alluvial plains and small ponds, separated by bands of bedrock or moraine, are the scenery while I gradually progress southwest. Finally I stumble upon what I was hoping for: the dirt track running south from the sheep farm of Søndre Igaliku. I follow it for a few minutes… and then I’m finally onto my next map! I make camp at the shore of a small lake fed by the river coming down from Zucherip Tasia.

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The next day looks like the easiest of all on the map, but I fear it will become one of the hardest. I have to cross the lush, green plateaus of Vatnaverfi towards the Amitsuarssuk fjord, which could, mostly at an altitude of 100-300m, potentially become a horrendous 10km bushwhack.

Hoping for the best I start climbing up the northeast ridge of hill 490m, of which I subsequently traverse the southeast facing slopes at an altitude of about 350m towards the Stenfjeld Sjø. The terrain is rather easy and straightforward, with a lot of sheep tracks to help me. Apart from sheep, I also see two brilliant white-tailed eagles on this stretch, which circle around for a few minutes before losing interest in me. The scenery is greener than most people could Greenland – despite its name – ever imagine to be. Low shrub carpets the hillside for miles and miles, until a steep mountain face eventually breaks the landscape.

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I descend towards the Stenfjeld Sjø and contour its west side through knee-high brush, then skirt along another small lake before descending towards the larger Vig Sø. Now at an altitude of less than 250m, the bushwhacking gets increasingly annoying (though by far not as hard as yesterday and on day one). I decide to inflate my raft and have an easy 2km paddling intermezzo towards the southeastern tip of the lake. The weather has improved considerably, with clearing skies, little wind and warmer temperatures. For the first time, the infamous Greenlandic small flies are out in mass and I now hike and paddle with my head net. The flies luckily don’t sting, and as the mosquitos are so far only noteworthy because of their absence, I can continue in short sleeves. By the time I have finished the paddling section I even decide I could as well have a full wash in the relatively ‘warm’ lake, something which will be less appealing during the next days and weeks as I will only encounter icy meltwater streams and lakes.

After a very long break I descend through boulders and brush towards the last lake in the chain: Qordlortorssûptasia. This lake is a special one, as it is the only in Greenland which was dammed by man, and is being exploited for hydro-electric power serving the village of Qaqortoq. An ugly power line runs southwest through the Sârap qôrua valley from the lake, an uncommon sight in Greenland.

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As it would be a long and though walk to round the lake, I inflate my raft again and paddle across nearly 2km right towards the dam with a slight headwind. After packing my raft again I walk up the dam and look down. What is see is the only bit of civilization I will encounter all the way towards Tasiusaq. Apart from the control station of the hydroelectric power plant, two farm buildings with adjacent stables and well-maintained meadows are located on the valley floor on the patch of flat land between the lake and the Amitsuarssuk fjord. A huge iceberg drifts on the fjord, with the massive, compact Akuliaruserssuaq range located behind.

A gravel road guides me down from the dam towards the farm buildings, and with a strange feeling of expectation I walk by. But I do not encounter a living soul and continue along the pastures knowing that I will not see any humans for another 10 days.

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When I reach the fjord I immediately start preparing to raft 2,5km towards the Itivdleq valley, and thus avoid some hardcore bushwhacking. While I am unpacking my raft, I suddenly note a small motorboat cruising through the fjord right towards me, dwarfed by the huge iceberg which must measure over 150m across and towers 20-30m above the water surface. The boat soon reaches me and an Inuit man and his wife jump out, clearly surprised to find me. I help them putting the boat on a trailer and pulling it out with a tractor. After that we have a chat. His English is surprisingly good.

The Inuit is one of the sheep farmers living in the valley. They have just gone shopping in the tiny village of Ammassivik, the first outpost of civilization, about 20km south through the fjord. One of the first things he asks me is “are you not afraid of polar bears?”. When I tell him I have had contact with numerous people telling me the risk in the inner fjords of extreme Southern Greenland is about zero in summer, he more or less confirms this. Then he tells me he has shot a polar bear at his front door, which I have passed half an hour ago, just a few months ago in spring. From what I know, there is indeed an increased bear risk, also in the inner fjords, in spring. They drift in along with the sea ice from eastern Greenland. In summer the temperatures in the inner fjords get too high, and an occasional lost bear will usually spend the warmest months on the cooler islands off the coast. Anyway, the farmer tells me he always carries a gun ever since the incident.

Trying not to worry more than needed about the bears, I ask him if he knows something about the high route towards Søndre Sermilik which is on my schedule for the coming days. He tells me he has penetrated deep into the Isortup qôrua valley with his snowmobile in winter a few years ago, but never in summer. He assumes there are some sheep tracks relatively deep into the valley. Then he looks at me and tells me in a dead flat way “My father and me have lived here for over 40 years, and I don’t think anybody ever attempted that route in summer”.

7 thoughts on “Greenland part I: Narsarsuaq & Jespersens dal

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