Four Things Learned at Sixty-Six Degrees North

Words & Photos: Chris Ball

Greenland: At this point in history, climate change is a global discussion. Previously ancient landscapes are disappearing as glaciers and ice caps melt and ocean temperatures rise. Animals are forced into new habitats and must adopt new survival techniques. Greenland, with its polar bears, icebergs and Inuit people is on the frontline of this assault of change.

That is merely the most recent interruption. Bizarre remnants of military bases litter this pristine environment, scabs that tell the story of other intrusions. Yet despite all this, Greenland remains savage wilderness, mysterious, fascinating. To this day I appreciate the four things I learned at 66°N…

Northern Lights Can Come From the South

Living in the Scottish Borders, the aurora borealis is not a new phenomenon for me, but to witness the wild dancing lights of Instagram posts has proved elusive. Strange greens and purples staged in the northern sky —yes; bouncing, swirling reds and oranges—no. As we left our small galley tent, situated a reasonable polar bear distance from our sleeping tents, we looked up and south of us, between two peaks, something strange was brewing. When I asked if we were in for a light show, the answer was a resounding: “Don’t be dumb, that’s due south.”

As soon as those words were spoken, huge green pillars appeared. At first they wavered side to side. Then more and more colour joined in, until giant piano keys played across the sky.

So long did it last that we eventually had to leave the ions to their fun, climb into our glowing tents and try to get some sleep. All this, from due south.

Fiberglass Icebreakers

We flew into Kulusuk, an airport originally built to serve the US military that now serves as a lifeline to eastern Greenlandic tourism. On this trip we had to embrace new modes of travel. From here, landing on a gravel road, we put our skis and skins on and accompanied our gear as it was dragged by snowmobile to our next staging area where we would travel by boat.

As the sun rose, so did the tension. Winds had blown in pack ice from the open ocean. Our guides, three local hunters, were unsure if we could get out but they wanted to try. To us, the fiberglass cruiser-like boats were more suited to a Floridian coastline than the Arctic. But these men knew the ocean and the ice like no other. So, assuming their confidence, push on we did, through tonnes and tonnes of ice.

The little 60bhp Honda motor struggled as the hunters leaned expertly on the bergs, pushing the huge lumps aside like great gates of ice. Our little boats lifted clear and we moved forward through another few metres of dark Arctic Ocean.

The Big Thaw

Katabatic winds are some of the most powerful winds in the world. We had been told to prepare for these famous polar gusts that could drop overnight temperatures to below -40°C. Diligently, we prepared as lightweight a kit list as possible, that could withstand some of the harshest weather in the world and still keep us functioning. What we didn’t plan for was wall-to-wall sunshine.

Fast melting sea ice disrupted our travel. One of the team, Ben, almost sank with his heavy pulk. Our feet were devastated by the lack of dry socks and ski boots that filled with moisture from sweat. Then the avalanches started. Peak to valley floor, running at full depth. Early one morning we watched an 1100m peak be stripped bare. Slowly, aggressively and bullishly, the debris ground to a halt a few hundred meters from camp. Nothing was safe. Slopes that should have been well within limits where slumping and sliding. Our plans receded in scale. We opted for views over skiing steeps.

The distant sound of water running, deep below the ice, was never far away but staying hydrated became an issue. How ironic; travel to Greenland and be hammered by the heat. A short-term problem for us, but for the Inuit the impacts of a warming climate were a daily preoccupation.

The Most Resourceful People

No wildlife, bird calls or moving objects on the horizon. After a while, things that could typically slip under the radar grab your attention. We saw two small birds dart overhead and one tiny long-legged insect as it crawled across our skin track. In a frozen empty space, the smallest sign of life becomes a visual and aural pleasure.

Then a two week stretch of absolutely nothing passed. How stark life must be for the local people. I wondered how they became accustomed to such stillness and what they felt when it was interrupted.

At the end of our journey, we visited the museum in Kulusuk. There we learned just how incredible human existence has been at these latitudes. Seal fat-soaked moss was a source of heat and light, shared by two families, all winter long. A crow’s wing and flat stone served for a dust pan and brush. Ear bones from fish were incorporated into jewellery, a display of imagination and skill. It taught me how little we need to live, and how resourceful we can be given fewer options. As the plane lifted us up and away, bound for the cosmopolitan heights of Reykjavik, these emotions and understanding stayed with me. In barren, open, frozen landscapes, people can settle and survive.

From Chris Ball: “My day job as director of the Enduro World Series took me to South America to ride bikes in March. By April I need to escape two wheels, phones and endless connection to the world and so I alway try to find two weeks to unplug completely. Forcing yourself into environments that pull focus onto even the smallest of detail is a great thing to do, and so straight from the dust of Argentina I headed off on a self-sufficent trip to Greenland. Immersing myself in this sort of landscape allows me to concentrate on only the immediacies of the environment. I got what I went for. And some nice skiing too.” Follow more of Chris’s adventures on Instagram.