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Scoring fresh tracks is one thing, skiing where no-one has ever skied before is quite another— as Abigail Butcher found out when she boarded a schooner heading way up north. 

Photo: iStock_Guenter Guni

“Just so we’ve all agreed—no one is to give away our exact location, right?” Fred’s request was greeted with vigorous nodding all round. Clearly, it was a moot point. We had just skied down 1,300m of bluebird powder on an Arctic glacier of extraordinary beauty in southwest Greenland. The last thing we wanted to do was risk damage to this pristine environment by geotagging it on Strava. Leaving our overnight anchorage, we had arrived at our starting point by inching our way up an entirely uncharted fjord. Few, if any, boats had ventured into these clear, dark waters before.

The only information we had was what we could see with our own eyes above the waterline and decreasing numbers on the transducer—the instrument on a boat which gauges depth. After anxiously dodging icebergs, we reached the limit of where our vessel, a 73 foot schooner called SkyDancer, could sail. When we turned off the engine, the silence was complete, broken only by intermittent booms as vast chunks of ice calved off a glacier just 50m away. Each one sparked a mini tidal wave as it fell—as well as a waves of excitement on the boat as we all tried to capture our very own David Attenborough moment.

Photo: Abi Butcher

My journey to Greenland started in early June, a time when you get the perfect combination of 24-hour daylight, and excellent temperatures for ski touring. Along with SkyDancer’s Norwegian owners, Nick and Estella, my companions were all Europeans: two from Finland, two from France, one German, one Belgian, one Romanian and me as the only Brit. We’d been brought together by Fred, the owner and founder of French outfit Upguides.

Fred’s raison d’être is to push the boundaries of adventure skiing, searching for the quietest and most magical pockets of powder around the world. Upguides are not unique in offering ski-sail adventures in Greenland, but most of the others concentrate on the bottom section of the island’s coastline. Fred, by contrast, had found a boat prepared to sail us from Maniitsoq in the south, to Sisimiut, 180km further north. This would mean we’d reach latitudes of between 65 and 67 degrees—further north than most skiers ever venture. 

Photo: iStock_stockstudioX

Redefining remote

Despite the ‘Green’ in the name, 80 percent of Greenland is bound by an ice sheet, and it’s surface is predominantly white. The population of around 58,000 people is dispersed far and wide, in towns and villages connected only by boat or air—the roads all come to sudden dead ends on the outskirts of each community. From the air, the land looks so barren and inhospitable, it’s hard to imagine how the early settlers managed to carve out any kind of existence.

These days, of course, there are exotic fruits in the shops, and the locals have iPhones, but medical facilities are still scant. Skiers must beware there is no regular search and rescue—only a military service that operates when conditions allow. This means insurance can be tricky to find [see the Snow How boxout for details] and makes the search for perfect powder all the more complicated.

“My first criteria—apart from whether we can reach it by boat and how spectacular the slope and area is—is the risk,” explained Fred. “With remote areas I operate with bigger margins, obsessively monitoring the snow conditions.” But, he says, the risk/reward ratio was heavily skewed in favour of the latter. “There is so much to ski here in Greenland—couloirs, moraines, classic lines, cols with mellow glaciers... everything.”

Photo: iStock_stockstudioX

Getting to these riches, however, is another story. I’d flown, via an overnight in Copenhagen, to Kangerlussuaq—Greenland’s main international hub and a former military base—only to find that an enormous storm had grounded my onward flight, and my luggage, including all my ski mountaineering kit, was missing. This is part of life in the Arctic: prepare for the unexpected, as you can’t fight the weather. I tried to follow the example of the returning Greenlanders and Danish medical staff on secondment who were packed into emergency hotel accommodation with me. They simply hunkered down to wait out the storm, and drunk coffee by the gallon.

Eventually, the storm blew over, my luggage arrived, and I flew onward to board SkyDancer in Maniitsoq. The boat was outfitted for the Arctic, with huge radiators, comfy seating with blankets for cosying up, heated bathroom floors, and thick down duvets to keep you snug and dry in even the bleakest weather. That first afternoon, we climbed 700m to get our ski legs in, but my body felt like lead, my backpack too heavy and equipment stiff and unwieldy. In the run-up to this trip, I’d lost my father to cancer, which drove a coach and horses through any plans I had for training. Despite dreaming of Greenland for two whole years before, when I finally got here, I didn’t feel present. My mind was elsewhere.

Photo: Abi Butcher

Comfort in the cold

The following day, however, couldn’t have been more different. A hearty meal cooked by Estella definitely helped. But it was that dream climb up the glacier, and the ride down a line which no-one had ever skied before, which really awakened my senses. Returning to SkyDancer after the descent, we dived head first into the icy waters of the fjord, and then drank gin and tonic under the midnight sun, our glasses cooled by chunks of Arctic ice. I drifted off that night exhausted, lulled to sleep by the floes floating past my cabin porthole, and the water lapping against the bows. I had, blissfully, no energy left to think.

The week continued in much the same vein, but each new day was subtly different from the last. Nick would would ferry the group to the shore in two halves, using SkyDancer’s tender, BreakDancer. Occasionally, when he couldn’t steer BreakDancer close enough he’d use his 6ft 9in Viking frame to give us piggy backs over the shallows, so we didn’t get our boots wet. Sometimes we skinned up straight from the shoreline, at other times we climbed for a few metres over moss and lichen-covered lower slopes with skis strapped to our packs. We covered between 1,000 and 1,300 vertical metres each day, and while none of the runs were particularly technical, skiing them required concentration. There was no room for error in such a remote location. The snow was unfailingly good—a little wet or heavy at sea level but improving the higher we climbed.

“There was no room for error in such a remote location, where medical facilities are scant”

Reaching our final destination in Sisimiut was bittersweet. Nick and Estella skillfully docked SkyDancer beside two enormous fishing boats, and we clambered over to stretch our legs on land. It was a strange feeling, wandering around the small town after so many days at sea. But in all my years of travel I’m not sure I’ve ever experienced such a warm welcome. A shop owner shyly came out of her office to practise the English she’d learnt by watching TV; in a bar—one of only three that serve the 6,000 Sisimiut residents—locals immediately offered us chairs, then slowly plucked up the courage to chat. Many had worked abroad for years, they told us, before deciding to return—homesick for this wild and remote land. I’d only spent a week there, but I was beginning to understand how they felt. 

Photo: iStock_stockstudioX

All at Sea: Alternative Ski & Sail Destinations

The Svalbard Archipelago  

The fascinating Svalbard Archipelago offers some of the closest accessible terrain to the North Pole, at latitudes of 78 degrees. It’s also home to more than a thousand polar bears. Svalbard Expeditions’ annual Ski & Sail trip, led by long-term resident Hilde Falun Strøm, uses the beautiful 1950s coastal cruiser MS Nordstjernen. Prices start from £1,500 for four days.

The Arctic Haute Route, Norway

While it’s named for the classic alpine hut to hut adventure, this four-day sea-to-summit ski touring trip actually involves sleeping on the expedition ship M/S Sjøveien. It takes in the coastline of Lofoten, Andørja, Senja, Kvaløya and Tromsø. The Norwegian Adventure Company offers four-day packages from £2,630. 

Inside Passage, Canada

Ever wanted to combine heliskiing with ski sailing? This adventure with Bella Coola up the Inside Passage uses a 138ft catamaran equipped with a heli-pad, and offers access to 14,370km2 of glacier-capped mountains in North America’s Fjordland. Obviously, something like this doesn’t come cheap though—four-night packages cost £195,995.

Photo: iStock_stockstudioX


Our trip

Abi’s trip was organised by Upguides. Upguides will be running multiple weeks of sail-ski touring in Greenland in May and June 2024, starting from £4,700.

Getting there

Air Greenland operates flights to Kangerlussuaq via Copenhagen or Reykjavik to Nuuk, followed by internal flights on prop planes to Maniitsoq and Sisimiut. Round trips are easily bookable online.

Safety info

You need to be a strong, fit, experienced backcountry skier, familiar with glaciated terrain and the equipment needed to navigate it. Travel insurance that will cover you in remote destinations is also essential. Abi’s was generously provided by Battleface Insurance. 

What to pack

You’ll need touring skis and skins, crampons for ski boots and skis, a climbing helmet, ice axe, harness, safety rope and carabiner as well as a 30L+ backpack (preferably an avalanche pack). Abi used the the Db Snow Roller Light bag and Ski Mountaineering Backpack — an integrated system for easy travelling. 

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