Words & photography by Daniel Wildey
I'm standing on an unnamed peak in East Greenland looking down a 40-plus degree slope which has never been skied, when I realise the worst thing about skiing. So often I stare down an icy piste at the human flotsam and jetsam variously stumbling, careering and floundering, and wonder how I will safely navigate these uncontrollable dangers. Today, I couldn't be further from that proposition.
The dangers in the fjords and mountains surrounding the island of Kulusuk are manifest and grave, the sheer remoteness, the absence of mountain rescue, the presence of polar bears and shifting sea ice, but somehow they seem less malevolent than a 45-year-old, 18-stone city worker on his annual binge of drunken, snowploughing-recklessness.
"In four long days roaming the mountains we haven't seen another soul, save for the odd hunter ghosting past on a dogsled…"
We're a group of eight seeking ski-solitude. And in four long days roaming the mountains we haven't seen another soul, save for the odd hunter ghosting past on a dogsled and offering barely a salutatory nod. The horizon profiles both the featureless expanse of the sea and the endless untouched peaks stretching along the coastline and inland to the ice cap. It's a playground that we couldn't hope to fully know if we lived for 1000 years. Indeed Matt Spenceley, founder and guide at Pirhuk, has spent 16 years trying to scratch the surface of what these mountains can offer.
From my vantage point I can see a spit of land that Matt does know well. He's set up a semi-permanent basecamp there for the season, which will be our reward for opening this new line. I can't actually see the tent, but I'm assured it's there, about 700 vertical metres away, and another 1000 metres horizontally across the sea ice. The huge basecamp tent is invisible to my naked eye, but I can just make out the wall of ice that Matt and his team have built to protect the camp from the vicious winds that plague the east coast.
But first things first, my first, first-descent. Many things drew me to Pirhuk's steep skiing trip, but it was the almost-guaranteed first-descents that clinched it. Granted, it's not a new line on the Aiguille du Midi, in comparison it's more like shooting fish in a barrel since unskied lines are everywhere you look. What drew me was the romanticism; you can hit the backcountry in any of the world's freeride resorts and ski some epic lines. But it's all been done before.
Nobody has ever done what we're about to do, and that is a deeply humbling thought. Not that 'firsts' were out of the ordinary on this trip. Before staying in the village of Kulusuk I'd never dragged a vat of diesel on a rope up a frozen street to fuel the heater in my accommodation. It was like walking a reluctant, flammable dog. Wearing ice skates.
I'd never flown to within 1,500 feet of my destination runway, only to be turned back to Iceland because of low visibility.
I'd never taken my skis to an area with not a single ski lift, nor been dragged for 30 minutes behind a snowmobile to reach the mountain.
"Nobody has ever done what we're about to do, and that is a deeply humbling thought."
And I'd never considered a high-powered anti-polar bear rifle to be essential safety equipment. I swear those must-pack lists get longer all the time, it used to be a shovel, probe and transceiver, then an ABS pack was tagged on the bottom. Now it's heavy-duty firearms...
But standing on the summit, ready to drop, those dangers disappear into the background. Matt has scoped the line before, and he has dropped in to test the snowpack. He will direct us carefully to staging points along the safest line. I know how to ski within my abilities. I know how to link tidy, gentle turns so as to minimise disturbance to the snowpack. And I trust my new friends. So what is there to fear? All that lies ahead is a paradigm of what backcountry skiing should look like; a virgin line, up to 45 degrees and falling 700 metres to the frozen fjord, and then a short push, chased by lengthening afternoon shadows to reach the most remote camp I've ever visited.
This moment is exactly what I'm here for.
I've learned that it's difficult to judge the snow at the top of these entry-couloirs, exposed as they are to outrageous Arctic winds. The first seconds after dropping in are a frantic gathering of information and micro-adjustments, it's not a place to stop and assess. Initial softness in the snow immediately gives way to juddering over ice, and my thighs fight to absorb it and carry on. Careful but physical skiing. A dozen turns and I tuck in at the edge with the group.
"The consequences of the slightest mishap in this environment are self-evident…"
The angle is already beginning to lessen, almost imperceptibly, but we're still in the entry-couloir and just a few metres below the top the snow is much deeper and heavier, and sluffing all over. The consequences of the slightest mishap in this environment are self-evident, so we're all tightly wound with self-control. 100 metres further on we can see the face spread wide and we'll be able to open up and bounce our way through the ever-improving snow. But for now we're a vision of focus.
Soon, at the foot of the couloir I realise the jump turns are over. The snow below us looks like a freshly ironed blanket, and is still around 35 to 40 degrees. Matt carves out a long pitch for us to follow, and in the process makes clear there is deep, soft, bouncy fun right down to the sea.
"We've moved regimented, one by one, with the discipline of mountaineers, explorers on unchartered ground. Now we're freeriders."
For the remainder of the descent Matt gives us three simple words: "50 metre spacing." And in those words I see mastery of his craft: understanding of what his clients want, are capable of, reading of the terrain and conditions, and absolute but unobtrusive control of the group. The instruction changes the character of the descent. We've moved regimented, one by one, with the discipline of mountaineers, explorers on unchartered ground. Now we're freeriders.
We're spat out on to the sea ice whooping and hollering, bouncing over the huge cracks where the ocean meets the land, and I don't think anyone is in any doubt that we're skinning straight back up there for another run.
Two hours later we're drinking beer and eating cheese and crackers as the setting sun projects a glow across the ice-plain below our camp and on to the mountains beyond. Campsite chores are undertaken without a hint of complaint, digging latrines, rigging the perimeter with bear deterrent trip wire, and hanging 16 boot liners to dry from the apex of the tent like a dirtbag chandelier.
The following morning, the mood changes again. As we're waiting for the water to infuse something like edibility into our boil-in-the-bag porridge, Matt is on the sat-phone to Belgium. Maybe everyone's groggy, but I don't feel this strange scenario is eliciting the wonder it deserves. Or maybe it's the serious face that Matt has adopted.
Matt employs the services of an expert Belgian meteorologist to give him up-to-the-minute and highly localised forecasts. We knew a storm was on the way later this afternoon, but as Matt disconnects his unlikely link to civilisation, it becomes obvious things have changed.
"The threat of being caught out acts as a hurricane at our backs."
The storm is coming in a bit earlier, but of more concern is its severity. "It looks like being the biggest storm of the season, gusting at 40 metres per second," Matt tells us, and we all eye our stewing porridge a little more impatiently.
There's no panic, but there's no hanging about either. We may not have the indulgent ski-day we hoped for, but we still have to skin several hundred metres over a col and then descend to our snowmobile rendezvous. I burn my tongue on the premature breakfast.
A kilometre across the sea ice and everyone has settled into the familiar rhythm of skinning. There's remarkably little wind to indicate the coming of Armageddon, and anyway we're doing everything we can to get out of its way. Still, we gain the col without pause, other than to swap skis for crampons, which is more a symptom of necessity than a feat of stamina. The threat of being caught out acts as a hurricane at our backs.
A breeze had picked up during the ascent, and was blowing hard as we reached the point where skinning gave way to climbing. But now on the final few metres, as I kick into deeply trodden steps and plunge my axe as far as it will go, there is a distinct threat that these sharp tools will not bite hard enough if the wind decides to pluck me off this face. Standing upright on the summit ridge is an ordeal, and every step feels like surrender to the wind that wants to throw me down the southern aspect.
A slight hollow a few metres away allows relative calm while we transition back to skis, and despite awful visibility and difficult snow we descend quickly, if not stylishly, to our rendezvous at the lake.
We're meeting Iippa, a member of Matt's extended, adopted Kulusuk family. But he's nowhere to be seen, and Matt can't raise him on the sat phone. Figuring that Iippa is still picking up our gear from basecamp, and will pass us on his return to the village, we have no choice but to begin the 6 kilometre skate to Kulusuk.
"If you're part of the storm, there is no storm."
It's not the morale boost and stepping-stone to safety that I'd hoped the snowmobile would provide, but wearily striking out across the glassy ice of the lake puts me immediately into a moment of magic. Whereas the sea ice is covered in frozen detritus, the surface of the lake offers minimal resistance against the passage of my skis. This allows the rising wind to carry me, and as we're travelling at the same speed, there's an ethereal calm. I guess that's relativity. If you're part of the storm, there is no storm.
It also makes skating much less of a slog and we cover an incredible distance quite quickly. Iippa, following the law of Sod to the letter, catches up to us about 500 metres out of Kulusuk and I have no intention of hitching a ride after getting myself this far. Everyone else seems similarly stubborn but we soon arrive, gratefully, to await the full force of the weather.
Later, I'm lying in bed trying to block out the outrageous noise of the storm. I say a quick prayer for the building, which is taking a ferocious battering so I don't have to. My roommate mutters: "My eyes can't actually focus on this book because it's shaking too much..." Yet another first.
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