Climbing, skiing and sailing Greenland

Ask the Expert : Abi Butcher climbs, skis and sails Greenland
Approx read: 7 mins

As I stepped out of the plane, a blast of Arctic air knocked me sideways.

It was early June and I had departed the UK in a heatwave, so despite expecting wintery conditions in Greenland, this was a shock.

The gusts shaved at least 10 degrees from the already freezing temperatures: welcome to 67° north.

Freelance journalist and expert skier Abi Butcher recounts a transformative ski-and-sail tour of the Arctic island.

There is 24-hour daylight in Greenland during the summer months. Photo: Abi Butcher

We’d flown over thousands of miles of barren rock, snow and frozen glaciers to land in Kangerlussuaq (pronounced kan-ger-loo-sew-ack), Greenland’s main international flight hub.  Around 80 per cent of this island — the largest on earth at 2.16million square kilometres — is ice cap, which looks as desolate from the air as it does close up. But that desolation holds an exquisite beauty and allure, which is why I’d planned to go ski touring from a sailing boat here for the best part of two years.

SkyDancer anchored in remote bays while we skied. Photo: Abi Butcher

Until that point, 2023 had been a struggle. I had suffered a significant bereavement in February and my life was mired in paperwork and processing complex emotions. Friends thought I was mad not taking a beach holiday to relax but there’s something about adventure that warms my soul — and as we flew over that remote ice cap, those familiar feelings of excited anticipation began to return.

Upguides owner Fred Buttard sets of onto the summit. Photo: Abi Butcher

Hurry up and wait

High winds thwarted my onwards travel to Mantisoq, where I was meeting the boat, SkyDancer, and mountain guide Fred Buttard of Upguides who had organised this trip to sail around the south-western fringe of Greenland. On our way to to Sisimiut, some 180km further north, we were to dip in to fjords to ski glaciers Fred had pinpointed — anchoring overnight in remote bays along the way.

The scenery on every ski was the same – stunning mountains and fjords. Photo: Jean Tafforeau

But, as often happens in Greenland, I spent the first 48 hours waiting in Kangerlussuaq for the storm to blow through, drinking endless coffee and packed like sardines with other stranded passengers into a dingy building more akin to an army barracks than an airport hotel. But that’s all part of the experience when travelling off the beaten track — delays, incidents, unpredictable weather — keep a smile on your face and go with it. The journey is as much a part of the trip as the destination.

After being dropped ashore by the tender, we began our climb. Photo: Abi Butcher

When I finally got that beer and a muskox burger in Manitsoq two days later, all was forgotten: just the excitement of the fresh snow and uncharted territory ahead. Along our way we’d encounter just two little settlements with no other infrastructure — this is not skiing with lifts. While there is some heliskiing in Greenland, accessing mountains by boat is easily the most flexible, rewarding and interesting way of exploring previously unaccessed terrain.

Mountain guide Fred Buttard ready for the climb. Photo: Abi Buttard

Insurance, maritime and ski experts

Getting insurance was tricky. With such remoteness comes risk — the largest part of Fred’s job is to mitigate risk as well as find good snow — but such an adventure also calls for specialist travel insurance from a provider like battleface. It took a little longer than five clicks on a website to sort out, but from previous experience I knew that, should anything go awry, I would be in good hands.

The sheer beauty of Greenland; glaciers calving into the sea. Photo: Jean Tafforeau

Key to a safe adventure is calling on experts. As well as Fred’s extensive experience in the mountains, SkyDancer’s owners, husband-and-wife team Nick and Estella, are old hands at Arctic sea exploration. The pair met in Svalbard and have been sailing around Norway, Greenland, Newfoundland for the past ten years, equipping their home for the weather with an efficient heating system, thick duvets and cosy seating with blankets — even the shower has a heated floor — there is no hardship here.

I’d skied with Fred several times before; both in his native Maurienne Valley on the French/Italian border and on a recce trip to Siberia just before the Covid pandemic. He has an uncanny knack of finding the goods each and every time; and Greenland was no different. Skiable terrain abounds — the fjords are surrounded by steep mountains with a mix of colours at the top and more mellow run-outs. Day after day we ski toured our way up slopes Fred chose for having of the perfect pitch (too steep and it might avalanche, too mellow and it wouldn’t inject enough fun).

Occasionally our ski began with a hike over vegetation. Photo: Jean Tafforeau

First impressions

Day one provided the perfect practise climb — 600m of steady uphill for my rusty kick-turns, skinning technique and backpack organisation skills — it was damp and drizzly, but rain at sea level meant snow at altitude and after a dry spring, Greenland needed it. The sound of snow falling from the surrounding peaks, echoing around the valley was the backdrop to our week: it was so quiet you can hear a pin drop. There’s very little bird song and no traffic — only occasional airplanes by day as towns here are unconnected by road, so Greenlanders travel by boat or air.

Picking our way over mellow glaciers. Photo: Jean Tafforeau

At this latitude it doesn’t get dark in June, but we soon settled into a daily routine of a hearty breakfast of cereal, yoghurt, eggs, fruit, cold meats and Danish bread, making sandwiches to take on the mountain along with dried fruit, nuts and litres of water.

Attaching skins at the shoreline. Photo: Abi Butcher

Earn your turns

After a sail to the next allocated spot, we would climb into harnesses and pack ice axes, crampons, skins and layers while Nick and Estella anchored, before setting off for shore in SkyDancer’s tender. Five or six hours of climbing later under clear blue skies, we would triumphantly summit another peak, around 1300m of altitude under our belts, to enjoy the ski down.

Earning your turns never felt so good. Photo: Abi Butcher

The phrase ‘earn your turns’ packs such a punch here; far away from civilisation, with only a military search and rescue (conditions permitting) and no nearby hospitals, this is ski touring in its wildest form. By sheer luck we had a doctor and a physio among our group, but in this terrain you can’t make a mistake, so must ski within your limits and follow Fred’s instructions to the letter. The reward? 1300m of incredible powder downhill, a jump in the sea followed by après-ski gin-and-tonics cooled using ice from the glacier and a hearty meal cooked by Estella.

In downtime, we fished for cod from the crystal-clear fjords. Photo: Jean Tafforeau

Fish and friends

One afternoon, after a lengthy sail, the crew caught cod from SkyDancer’s decks; half a dozen huge, grey, glistening fish, gutting them on deck before Estella whipped them below to create combine them with Thai spices and create a fish stew for that night’s supper.

Collecting ice that had calved from a glacier for a G&T. Photo: Abi Butcher

The thing about adventures is that you never want them to end. Day after day of climbing made me feel stronger, more assured, more at home and quieted the busiest of minds. Concentrating my every moment on snow offered no time and space for worry or negative reflection; the shared comradeship of the experience bonding our group together for what I hope will be a lifetime. I never dreamt I’d see glaciers crash and break into the sea, creating a tidal wave of vivid blue, or watch icebergs float past the porthole of my cabin while lying in my cosy bed.

The view from my bed – through my porthole. Photo: Abi Butcher

But end it must, and I’m thankful to have employed the technique of planning the next adventure before this one ended — a trick I’ve learnt over the years to stave off the post-trip blues. Try it, I can heartily recommend.  Just ensure you get yourself adequately insured, with a specialist insurer who will look after you if the worst happens.

Skier Erik at the end of a stunning day. Photo: Abi Butcher

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