polar bear watch, foraging for seafood and remote mountaineering

A frozen archipelago of jagged summits, groaning glaciers and roaming polar bears, South East Greenland is home to some of the most extreme wilderness on Earth. Bound by the Greenland ice sheet to the north, and the northern shore of the Sermilik Fjord system to the south, the peaks of the Schweizerland Alps are dissected by the Arctic Circle. Imposing and harsh, their serrated ridge lines tower over the surrounding glacial lakes and crevasse fields.

In August of 2018, a Secret Compass expedition team faced rock, snow and ice to traverse this unforgiving landscape. Among them was Elisabeth Markham, who upon her return home to the Untied States, checked in with SCHQ to share some of her experiences from the Schweizerland Alps and beyond.

Arctic Fascination

I love grand landscapes, untouched wilderness, mountain peaks, and glaciers, so I’ve always been fascinated by the Arctic. A quick search on Instagram verified I’d be getting all of this in Greenland. The remoteness made it even more appealing and despite its enormous size, I’d never met anyone who’d been to Greenland.

Touch Down in Kulusuk

When we landed in Kulusuk, the first thing I noticed was the lack of human development. The runway was a narrow, flat stretch of ground on the tundra between an iceberg-filled fjord and some nearby snow-covered peaks. There wasn’t even a paved road, just a couple of spartan buildings nearby. We walked into the airport through a tiny shop selling fox and seal skins, coffee and postcards but not much else. When our team had assembled and retrieved luggage, I saw that our guide John had a rifle. Rifles, we learned, are a must in the area because polar bear encounters, though rare, have severe consequences.

We left our heavy bags in a small vehicle and set off on a 20-minute off-trail walk into Kulusuk, where we spent a night in a small accommodation in town organising gear, making a few final decisions about our expedition, and getting to know each other over food and drinks. The next morning, despite the fact that all communications had been down in East Greenland for a couple days, our boat showed up to take us to Apusiaajik Island. While boarding, we couldn’t help noticing several dead seals tied down under the tiny dock – effective refrigeration for the season’s hunting. The actual boat ride took us through remote fjords dotted with dramatic icebergs, enclosed by the grey-and-white mountains reaching for the sky.

Savage Beauty and Wild Confusion

We got our first glimpse of the Schweizerland Alps while still on Apusiaajik Island, where on an unnamed summit we had a grand view of the whole region. The landscape of the Schweizerland Alps demands more poetic language than I can possibly write myself. I got inspired for this trip by reading The First Crossing of Greenland by Fridtjof Nansen, in which his words rang true with my experience:

“Never have I seen a landscape of more savage beauty, or nature in wilder confusion, than here – a landscape of sharp peaks, ice, and snow. There, the land rose high, abrupt, and wild out of the sea, the calm surface of the ‘inland ice’ hidden behind a glorious range of Titanic peaks, whose sublime beauty captivated and held the eye, and whose summits the all-levelling ice mantle has never been able to envelop, destroy, and carry with it to the sea.”

Another long boat trip and we arrived in the Schweizerland Alps, where we could now experience up close the peaks and valleys and glaciers that looked so spectacular from far away. We hiked and climbed over squishy tundra, wet sand with chunks of ice, crevasse-riddled glaciers of the snowy and dry varieties, and steep rock slopes. The glacier travel was mostly relatively flat, but a couple of  sections demanded the use of front pointing and our ice axes.

Foraging in Frigid Waters

We had one very long day mountaineering in Apusiaajik, so it was enjoyable to have a more relaxing time foraging the next morning. The morning of which we spent foraging. We walked out to a fjord, where in the clear water it was easy to see mussels nestled in among the seaweed and rocks, though they were scarce and often far from shore.

In the biting wind we wore a lot of layers. Our waterproof boots allowed us to go a few inches deep, but the more shellfish-hungry people in the group put on waterproof socks and sandals and rolled up their pants so they could wade knee- or thigh-high in the barely-above-freezing seawater. I am allergic to shellfish, so I lost interest in the hunt pretty quickly. Instead I shot photos of everyone else gathering the mussels. Eventually, we had enough for all the shellfish-eaters, and with everyone feeling the cold, we took shelter from the wind behind a large rock and devoured our lunch of salami and cheese wraps.

In the afternoon, we practiced some crevasse rescue skills while letting the mussels soak in fresh water. We then boiled them in fresh glacier-melt stream water, which some seasoned their with instant soup mix. They smelled and looked delicious – I wish I could have tasted them.

Not a Soul in Sight

We saw very little evidence of human existence other than one abandoned hut and occasional bits of fishing equipment and other debris that had clearly drifted long distances to shore. There were no trails – not even game trails – to follow. One day, while hiking near the coast, we saw a fishing boat with one man on it. He gestured to us asking if we needed help, since hikers are not a common sight in these parts. We didn’t see any other people until our trek culminated in a tiny Inuit hunting village called Sermiligaaq. A group of children thronged our group when we arrived, and though we had no words in common, their excitement made it plain that visitors are not a common occurrence. They enjoyed touching our climbing gear and technical clothing. One boy gave me a paper flag of Greenland.

Polar Bear Watch

To have the best chance of surviving an encounter with a hungry polar bear, we took turns standing watch each night. It could get cold. When I was on bear watch, especially while camping near glaciers and during the couple hours of darkness, I needed to wear all my layers and periodically walk up and down the hills near camp to stay comfortable.

We didn’t see any polar bears, which was both a relief and a disappointment. I would have liked to have seen one from a safe, far-away distance, like from a fast boat while it was on shore. Our group spotted an arctic fox who tried to raid our food supply, a whale, and a lot of birds.

A Dip in Glacial Meltwater

We had surprisingly mild weather. Daytime was usually quite warm, and I mostly hiked in only a t-shirt or with one light jacket, and only put on on heavier layers for breaks. One day was warm enough that some of us decided to bathe in a stream of frigid glacier meltwater. Sometimes, while on ridges or glaciers though, wind moving off the ice cap made us feel like we were in a freezer, but in the wind-sheltered valleys the sunshine kept us warm.

Mountaineering Practice

This wasn’t my first trip mountaineering or using crampons, so most of the skills we practiced felt like a review to me. The most challenging bits were scrambling up steep rocky moraines, especially with the heavy pack. It was great to be able to use mountaineering skills without having to worry about altitude.

My next mountaineering trip will be in Mexico in December with one of my climbing friends. We plan to climb a few volcanoes, culminating with Pico de Orizaba. It will be my first mountaineering trip going unguided and self-supported, so that will be an extra challenge. Next year, I’d like to attempt some first ascents, possibly in Alaska or Kyrgyzstan.