Fire in the Sky, Tasermiut, GreenlandKetil catches the dying rays of the sun as seen from our wild camp in the col above Klosterdalen
It’s early afternoon, late July, when our rib boat glides out of Nanortalik harbour. Located on an island of the same name, the southernmost town in Greenland (population about 1,300), rather worryingly means in Greenlandic, ‘place where polar bears meet’. Our boatman assures us that the chances of spotting a polar bear anywhere in this region is next to zero. So if you fancy a real wilderness experience, in a remote unspoilt region which resembles the landscape of Ireland or Scotland at the end of the last Ice Age, then Greenland could be the place for you.
Rib boat journey up the Tasermiut FjordSharron posing in an immersion suit as we power up the Tasermiut Fjord past icebergs in a rib boat
We are zipping over the petrol-blue waters of the frigid Arctic Ocean past icebergs the size of houses, on our way up the Tasermiut Fjord extending inland some 70 km to the edge of the permanent ice sheet that covers the hinterland of this island nation of less than 60,000 souls. Snow-streaked mountains, some around 2,000 metres high, lift their granite heads into a speedwell-blue sky, shimmering waterfalls tumble headlong down vertical rocky walls sculpted by glaciers that have laid bare their geology, and turquoise rivers spill out of surprisingly verdant valleys.
Ulamertorsuaq from Tasermiut FjordThe iconic chimney shape of Ulamertorsuaq (The Great Cylinder), a 1,858 metre granite monolith first conquered in 1977 and beyond it, Nalumasortoq, a distinctive mountain which looks like an open book
After about two hours we step ashore onto a seaweed strewn beach near the outflow of the Uiluiit Kuua River at the entrance to Klosterdalen, so named as this remote valley was once the site of an Augustinian monastery founded in the tenth century by Norse monks. Above the beach we make camp amid swathes of cerise-pink fireweed and mauve harebells.
Klosterdalen from Tasermiut FjordThe entrance to Klosterdalen
The scenery is utterly face slapping: a 360 degree panorama of mountains and glaciers, including the 1.5 km high wall of ice at the end of the fjord and the towering granite monolith of Ketil (2,003 metres), one of the finest big wall climbs in the world. Tasermiut has been dubbed the new Patagonia for good reason. Desiccated wood (juniper, birch and willow) is surprisingly abundant in southern Greenland and there are no restrictions on wild camping or lighting fires in the wilderness. As volleys of sparks from our camp fire ascend into a deepening blue sky, we indulge in a packet of freeze-dried expedition food and toast the start of our adventure with a wee dram of Irish whiskey.
Edge of the Greenland IcecapThis 1.5 km high wall of ice at the end of Tasermiut Fjord is twice the height of the world's tallest building: the Burj Khalifa in Dubai
Wild Camp in Tasermuit FjordCamping spot above the beach at the entrance to Klosterdalen
Campfire at our first wild camp in KlosterdalenToasting our forthcoming adventure in the wilderness of Klosterdalen. Little did we know what lay in store for us!
The sun descends lower in the sky, casting a deep rose pink glow over the rugged mountains at the head of Klosterdalen and catches wispy cloud racing up over the face of Ketil marshmallow-pink. Although it is hot and balmy by day, from 15-20 degrees Celsius, as soon as the sun sets, the mercury plummets to near freezing and we beat a hasty retreat to our tent.
Ketil Mountain at the entrance to KlosterdalenKetil, a 2,003 metre granite monolith, has a sheer western rock face which has attracted some of the world's top climbers
Following a chilly night (our 3 season sleeping bags are at their limit) we get our first introduction to the local wildlife as clouds of midges and mosquitoes rise from the ground. Never before have we encountered such dense swarms of these insects, making head nets and repellent an absolute necessity. It is a good idea to treat clothing with an insecticide such as Permethrin beforehand, as the mosquitoes are able to bite right through woollen base layers and lightweight trekking trousers. I have to keep my fleece on to prevent bites which is most uncomfortable in the unexpected heat and humidity.
We break camp around midday, faithfully following the route marked on the 1:100,000 scale Tasermiut Fjorden Nanortalik map by Harvey’s Map Services, Scotland. This map turns out to be worse than useless; the route, clearly marked to the south of the river, leads us almost immediately into virtually impenetrable stands of dwarf birch and willow, most taller than a man. It’s a struggle to remain upright clambering over the gnarled and twisted branches of these trees which spread like malevolent tentacles along the ground. The heat and humidity is stifling in this verdant prison and we are savaged by millions of midges and mosquitoes, attracted by the clouds of carbon dioxide we are panting as we bushwhack our way up through the valley. Amid these trees it’s impossible to see exactly where we’re going and they don’t yield easily as we push our way forward, their spindly upper branches clawing and snatching at us like demonic fingers. Indeed, our struggle through this dwarf forest resembles a scene straight out of The Blair Witch Project!
Bushwhacking through dwarf trees in KlosterdalenBattling through the dense dwarf trees in Klosterdalen is a really demoralising experience!
Finally emerging from this hellish jungle, we encounter a new obstacle. Boot sucking bog. Living in Ireland, we know all about bog, but Klosterdalen bog is in a league of its own! This eventually gives way to squelchy marshland and a couple of lakes, and progress is slow. The map shows the route skirting the southern edge of the first lake, but we encounter numerous small streams too wide to jump, which forces us back into the evil arms of the Blair Witch Forest. I want to cry at this point!
Bog Cotton in KlosterdalenBeguilingly beautiful, but the boggy wet terrain is brutal to traverse
After nearly seven hours of bushwhacking, the map shows we have covered a mere 4 km, but over 7 km due to zigzagging through the trees. Exhausted and demoralised, we decide to camp for the night close to where we will cross the Uiluiit Kuua River tomorrow. After a change of clothing, a hot meal and a slug of whiskey, we begin to enjoy our surroundings. We have this chocolate box pretty valley far from civilisation entirely to ourselves. The solitude is astounding. Hemmed in by jagged snow-streaked mountains which seem to be bearing down on our tiny tent, we watch the mesmerising spectacle of the surrounding mountains turning ruby-red as the sun goes down and the first stars wink in the darkening heavens.
Wild Camp beside the Uiluiit Kuua River, KlosterdalenWe have this chocolate box-pretty valley far from civilisation entirely to ourselves
We awake to what sounds like light rain on the tent. But on unzipping the exterior flaps we see the mountains are draped in veils of grey mist, no rain. The sound is caused by thousands of insects hitting the canvas and we spy the depressing shadows of scores of mosquitoes on the inner tent below the flysheet lined up like jet fighters ready for another day of warfare! Today involves an ascent of 600 metres up a branch valley to a col. But we must first cross the Uiluiit Kuua River. Early in the day the river level is at its lowest and we scan the banks looking for a safe place to cross where the water is not too deep or fast flowing, and where it has not undercut the bank, choosing a 20 metre section with a gravel bank midway across. Unbuckling our rucksacks, removing our boots and socks, rolling up our trousers, donning plastic Crocs and with our boots hanging round our necks, we wade into the chalky-turquoise water. We move as quickly as possible diagonally downstream through the water which is knee deep and swift in places. The intense cold hits us like a sledgehammer and bites into the very marrow of our bones. We’re relieved to splosh safely onto a sandy bank on the other side.
Crossing the Uiluiit Kuua RiverThe river is fed by glaciers and the water in the early morning is lower, but bitterly cold
We then encounter yet more dwarf trees followed by glacial moraine with boulders up to house size interspersed by dense, thigh high vegetation which requires concentration to traverse safely. Reaching the snowline, the vegetation begins to thin and the pestilential swarms of insects subside. Removing our head nets is bliss; we can now eat unfettered and see the immense beauty of the landscape clearly and not through a net, dimly!
View up the col leading to the Tupaassat ValleyThe upper reaches of the boulder strewn col leading from Klosterdalen to the Tupaassat Valley
Ketil rising over KlosterdalenMartin nearing the top of the col between Klosterdalen and the Tupaassat Valley
After more slow progress through another boulder field with rocks that provide a double whammy - angular and sharp to the touch and also covered with a rough desiccated brown lichen which scuffs our hands - we eventually gain the col. Close to a burbling stream of the purest glacial water, we erect our tent in a spot that has grandstand views overlooking Klosterdalen. The rigours of climbing up here are definitely worth it for this vista which could easily grace the pages of National Geographic.
The shadows are lengthening as we descend a few hundred metres from the col to a deep blue lake at the top of the Tupaassat Valley which is nestled in a barren, rocky amphitheatre surrounded by a line of spiny peaks resembling the armoured plates of a stegosaurus. The winter this year was particularly hard and the lake is still partially frozen with snow metres deep on its shoreline. There are no signs that anyone has traversed this pass this summer. We sit for what seems like an eternity, watching soft white cloud boiling about the mountain tops and sailing across a periwinkle-blue sky.
Head of Tupaassat Valley, Greenland
Back at camp, we marvel at the long shafts of sunlight radiating into Klosterdalen, causing its streams, river, wetland and lakes to shine like liquid mercury.
Klosterdalen, Tasermiut, Greenland
By degrees the cloud above Ketil turns smoky-grey and apricot and the western sky where the sun has set screams vermillion, chrome-red and saffron-yellow. Ketil responds by blushing deep-orange and blood-red, before fading through chalky-mauve to steel-grey.
Klosterdalen and Tasermiut Fjord, Greenland
From the col it is possible to continue (down the Tupaassat Valley) to sea level, where you could feasibly get a boat to Nanortalik, or to continue up a second col to reach the Qinnquadalen Valley, a route taking several days terminating back in the Tasermiut Fjord. Lacking the time to do a full traverse via Qinnquadalen and obtaining the weather forecast on our DeLorme Inreach two way satellite device alerting us to a föhn wind within the next 48 hours, we retreat to Klosterdalen. It isn’t a good idea to be caught out on the high mountain passes where we would be forced to sit out this strong wind that blows off the ice cap sometimes for around two days. We contact our boatman to collect us at the beach at low tide within 48 hours.
The descent is as tedious as the ascent, particularly so as the temperature has risen to the mid-20s making it extremely humid and the insects are legion! Great care has to be taken traversing the boulder fields to avoid a fall or lower leg injury. The river crossing is even more of a challenge than before, as the water levels are much higher in the afternoon than early morning and my rolled up trousers get soaked. We make camp on a sandy river bank.
The Uiluiit Kuua River in KlosterdalenSharron having just crossed the Uiluiit Kuua River in the afternoon on our journey down from the col seen centre right
Fireweed (Chamerion latifolium) growing in KlosterdalenThis pretty plant is Greenland's national flower and provides valuable nutrition for the Inuit
The penetrating musty odour of the bog wafts in through the tent flaps along with scores of mosquitoes as we rise the next morning to veils of white mist hovering above the valley floor. It merges with acres of white bog cotton making it almost impossible to see where the two meet. We decide to ditch the Harvey map, finding an easier route along the gravel bank of the Uiluiit Kuua River until our progress is abruptly impeded by a channel leading into it which is too deep and wide to cross. Taking the plunge into the chalky-turquoise water still booted, we meander our way round huge boulders, scramble over rocks and wade through narrow channels. We greatly enjoy this challenge, but it might not be advisable when the river is in spate in early summer.
Trekking by the Uiluiit Kuua River, KlosterdalenA much easier route along the bank of the Uiluiit Kuua River
Wading through the Uiluiit Kuua River, KlosterdalenWading downstream through the Uiluiit Kuua River was far faster, and much more enjoyable, than bushwhacking through dwarf trees!
Around a kilometre later, the terrain begins to drop, the speed of the water increases and the river channel narrows. We are forced to scale a granite outcrop, then descend into dwarf trees and bushwhack around 200 metres to emerge into the scrubland above the beach. Before long, the tell-tale hum of a rib boat breaks the silence and we make our way down to the shore to meet our boatman for the two hour-long ride back to civilisation.
We trekked around 24 km, a distance which could easily be covered in one day in Ireland, but in Greenland, often moving little more than 1 km per hour through brutal trackless terrain with heavy packs, it’s wise to plan for extra days. Are we glad we did this trek? Definitely. For long after the insect bites subside and the bruises sustained by bushwhacking through the vilest vegetation imaginable have faded, the views of endless expanses of shimmering white bog cotton, ice-encrusted lakes, frigid glaciers, rushing turquoise rivers and spiky snow-streaked mountains turning ruby-red in the settling sun, will remain indelibly etched in our memories.
We flew from Belfast to Keflavik in Iceland with Easy Jet, and from Reykjavik Airport to Narsarsuaq in Greenland with Air Iceland. To reach Nanortalik in Southern Greenland you must take a helicopter with Air Greenland. Nanortalik to the starting point of the trek up Klosterdalen is around 70 km and is undertaken by rib boat, a journey which can be arranged through the tourist company, Tasermiut South Greenland. Be aware that travelling within Greenland is not cheap. At 2015 prices, a return ticket from Narsarsuaq to Nanortalik by helicopter cost in the region of 400 euro return per person, and the rib boat transfers approximately 750 euro.