GREENLAND, East to West – 1 Huge Trek 🇬🇱
Created by Harvey Peirson
Sitting in the North Atlantic Ocean just south of the North Pole’s ice caps, Greenland is the world’s largest island, covering 836,000 square miles (2,165,230 square kilometres) of land. The majority of this land is covered in ice for most of the year, with the exception of much of the coastline, which blossoms with colourful plant life for a few summer months. 88% of the people who live here are native Innuits, the descendants of North America’s first explorers hundreds of years ago, who mostly inhabit the more lush and resource-abundant coastal regions.
As Greenland is owned by Denmark, the remaining 12% of the island’s inhabitants are Danish, or of Danish descent. Both the Innuits and Danes together make a population of roughly 60,000 people, an ever-increasing number bolstered by explorers, prospectors and researchers keen to know and explore more of this fascinating, cold island.
While Greenland certainly has its fair share of vast barren snow and ice-covered land, there is also much more to Greenland’s culture, history and land. Exploring Greenland, then, is still a highly attractive trek for many, and one of the most sought-after treks in Greenland is simply crossing the island from east to west. We anticipate that the crossing will take 22 to 30 days, travelling a distance of approximately 18-20km each day ranging from 6 to 8 active hours a day. It will take around 10-16 days to climb from the Hahn Glacier up to the highest part of the Greenland ice sheet at 2500 metres.
Greenland was first explored by Vikings, led by Eric the Red, (named so likely for his hair colour) sometime in the late 10th century. While he founded the first settlement here, he remained largely unimpressed with the new land he found, having landed in the northern half of Greenland that sits within the Arctic Circle, and according to myth he named the island “Green” land as a means to encourage people to visit his new-found land. What with Greenland’s low population numbers, it’s safe to say that this possibly-true plan of his may have failed. Nevertheless, not all of Greenland remains this undesirable.
He chose to cross Greenland from east to west instead of from west to east, because the west coast was populated with people, whereas the east coast wasn’t; in other words, there’d be no turning back once he and his team started. In his own words, it was “the west coast, or death”. Many keen trekkers and explorers have since tried to take on this ice-cold challenge, mostly doing so either with skis or with the aid of dogs.
WEATHER AND NATURE
While the northern half of Greenland certainly is cold, with winter temperatures plummeting to -50°C (-58°F), summer can reach temperatures of around -25°C (-13°F), but can peak upwards to around 5°C (41°F). Either way, you’ll be in regular contact with harsh weather and strong winds, much of which can often make medical emergencies in Greenland a hard-to-help scenario, for while the more luscious coast is regularly visited, the large inland icecap – the second largest in the world, in fact – is hardly ever seen by people.
Warmer weather can come suddenly, though, even in winter, so travelling through thick snow can suddenly turn into a massive ordeal once you start pulling all that gear and equipment over rougher terrain.
Greenland is actually home to 310 different species of plants, and 15 of these are actually unique to Greenland. As for animal life: Polar Bears live by the coast in packs, Seals try and keep their distance from them, Reindeer thrive in herds up to 200 kilometres inland, Musk Ox forage on the fringes of the island, Arctic Hares are commonplace, and Whales glide gracefully through the ocean. Another plus of exploring Greenland is that you’ll get some of the best views of the famous Northern Lights, so definitely stay on the lookout for that natural marvel.
KIT AND EQUIPMENT
“There is no bad weather, only bad clothing.”
To put it lightly, while far from impossible, this isn’t the easiest trek in the world; as much as a good level of fitness is definitely a prerequisite for crossing Greenland east to west, so is taking the right kit and equipment. Two items you should definitely take to Greenland’s ice caps are, weirdly, sun block and lip protection; while it can of course hit you from above, sunlight on white snow and ice can also reflect onto you from below, making the sun’s rays twice as penetrating. Lots of spare and warm clothing is, of course, a must, but it’s also key to travel light when visiting Greenland.
Other things to take include good hiking boots and jackets, tents and tent poles, food, fuel for cooking equipment and climbing skins, which are the strips for your boots that give extra grip for climbing up the many slopes you’ll come into contact with. Overall, it’s likely your kit and equipment will ideally come to weigh around 80 kilograms, although while skimming along the surface on skis, or while being pulled by a team of local dogs, it won’t feel quite as heavy as it sounds.
Crossing Greenland east to west requires you to be in good shape. More than anything, you’ll need the right mindset to be able to get up early in the morning every day for 4 weeks straight, with no breaks, and mentally and physically push yourself and your team the whole way through.
While the skiing can be of a high demand, it won’t require a tonne of prior experience. Instead, your cardio is something that will be of far more importance to build on, and a decent level of strength to be able to pull the heavy sled for many hours and with few rests. More vitally though, you will need to be able to regulate your own energy levels and body temperature, so as to make it easier not to become overly cold or hot, or too fatigued.
Come the end of the day, you’ll still need sufficient energy levels to be able to set up your camp and be of use with basic camp needs, like making water, cooking food and setting up the sleeping bags.
Extreme weather conditions like strong winds, heavy snow, limited sight, low temperatures and perhaps rain will be a common encounter when crossing Greenland east to west. Living in these harsh conditions for 24 hours per day can and will take its toll on your mind and body.
To ease the hardships, stay well hydrated and well fed – be active towards making sure that you’re fit, healthy and ready enough to start and finish this expedition, free of injuries – evacuations in and out of Greenland don’t come cheap, after all. All that said, you don’t need Olympic-levels of fitness to do this expedition and enjoy it, but every little bit helps.
PLANNING, LOGISTICS AND COSTS
Planning on crossing Greenland east to west is not as simple as turning up and skiing. Firstly, you have to get to Greenland itself; the island is supplemented by a number of airports, like Kangerlussuaq and Nuuk in the west and Kulusuk in the east. Then there’s getting your kit and equipment to Greenland; if you’re not going to Greenland with a guide, this can be quite the annoyance.
Like any other airport travel, personal gear can be carried by yourself from airport to airport, but everything else should be at Greenland when you arrive. This kit and equipment should only include what you need and nothing else – there’ll be a lot of it and it will be relatively heavy, so travel light.
Like most big, dangerous expeditions, the one big hold-up for most people is money; crossing Greenland east to west isn’t a trip you can get started with with the change in your pockets; on average, the costs of getting to Greenland stand at around €24,000 (£20,000 GBP, or $27,000 USD). Additional costs can easily come in the form of hotel expenses, since regular bad weather can delay flights back home and force you to stay in Greenland for a little while longer.
Using tour companies is overall more expensive than running your own self-guided ski trip across Greenland, but running and organising your own expedition will require you to take into consideration a few points:
Is the rest of your team experienced enough and in good enough shape? Has at least one member of your team led an expedition before? Do you have the monetary bonds that may be necessary should a helicopter team have to life you and your team out of the ice? Have you acquired good route advice from people that have crossed Greenland before? Do you have enough food? And a more extreme scenario to consider: would you be prepared to use lethal force against a Polar Bear?
Many routes are available when crossing Greenland east to west. The most common route undertaken starts roughly 30 kilometres outside of Kangerlussuaq in the west of the island, and finishes at Isortoq in the east, a total distance of 600 kilometres, reaching altitudes of up to 2,500 metres (8,200 ft) which finishes when you take a step from the icy caps onto the solid volcanic rock nearer the coast.
Strong winds from different directions will hit you when atop this peak, caused by the interaction of low autumnal pressure coming from Canada and tiger pressured winds from Iceland. These winds, as annoying as they could be, will also heighten your senses and make you learn to go with the flow, and appreciate the better conditions at lower altitudes.
Crossing east to west will, of course, require this route to be done the opposite way round than from west to east. The key difference in travelling east to west rather than west to east is that you’ll mostly be travelling with the wind to your back, no doubt an added bonus when you’re skiing across the snow. Either way, getting onto the ice caps is no easy feat. Several other routes do, of course, exist, but which one you take will be determined by how you intend to cross Greenland, and acquiring the permissions necessary from Greenland’s government.
For crossing Greenland east to west, you’ll be skiing. A lot. It’s a strenuous activity out in the Earth’s extreme north, and you’ll be doing it for a good 8 to 10 hours a day, for around 4 weeks. It will definitely be required of you to have a decent amount of skiing experience prior to crossing Greenland, as well as sled hauling experience. This should all go hand-in-hand with a good level of motivation, endurance, and team-working – you certainly shouldn’t be doing this expedition alone.
Aside from the obvious and reoccurring things like blizzards, ice cold temperatures and wild polar bears, there are specific parts of the route crossing east to west that provide trekkers with certain hazards. As mentioned before, the summit, peaking at around 2,600 metres, will blow strong winds from all directions at you. Past an abandoned plane runway, called DYE II, is a frozen-over lake. The terrain here begins to drop off as the surface becomes more jagged and uneven, so careful moves will definitely be needed here.
Dropping down to the Icefall, vast gullies left open by river melts make progress harder to work for. Lower down still, vertical-sided water found in 10 to 15 meter-deep riverbeds will give you big leaps to make, or massive detours. In rough terrain like these, even travelling a mile can take a couple of hours, but solid ground being in sight in places such as these will forever lift a trekker’s spirits.
And that’s crossing Greenland east to west. It’s no simple feat, but with the right preparation, mindset and equipment, it is absolutely doable. Don’t treat it like a walk in the park, but don’t imagine you’ll be doing anything alike hauling yourself up Everest, and be prepared for anything that Mother Nature can throw at you. And most importantly: stay safe, and have fun!
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