It may sound like an oxymoron, but it is not: a beautiful destination in the Northern Hemisphere, relatively inexpensive, with cool temperatures and not overrun with tourists... and in summer! Can such a place exist? Yes, and it is called Greenland, “a gigantic ice cube that maintains itself,” as Ramón Larramendi, the greatest Spanish Arctic explorer of all times and a connoisseur of this frozen island, defined it to me. Greenland is a rarity, a remnant of the last Ice Age. A slab of ice, as Larramendi said, but not one that would into a freezer: 2,670 kilometers (1,660 miles) long, over 1,050 km (650 miles) wide, over three times the size of Texas and with an average thickness of two kilometers, which yes, means 2,000 meters of ice under your feet. There are only 56,000 inhabitants, not one road connecting two of its towns and the only traffic light is on the main street of Nuuk, the capital. Is there anywhere better to give yourself the pleasure of traveling without stress, without fits of rage, without being just one more among the hordes of tourists that invade everything every year?
I can’t say that the first time I traveled to Greenland I did so in search of this summer paradise, because it was the end of May. But the story I want to tell you would work just as well from June 21. Four childhood friends decided that, to celebrate our 50th birthdays, we would do something different: a trip into the Inlandsis, the Greenlandic ice cap, on skis and dragging all the necessary equipment in our pulkas to survive two weeks in that white desert. It was a most foolish decision as none of us had any experience in polar expeditions and one of our party had never even put on skis in his life. And, despite all our good intentions, we had not trained a single day beforehand. But there is nothing more daring than ignorance.
It was a mere 150 kilometers (93 miles) to some mountains rising above the endless white plain that no one had ever climbed before. A joke if we compare it with the first expedition that crossed the island, that of the great Fridtjof Nansen, the Norwegian explorer and scientist who in 1888, aged 26 years and accompanied by four compatriots, walked the 600 kilometers (370 miles) between Umivik, an Inuit settlement on the icy and wild east coast, and Gotthab, the current capital Nuuk, which at that time was no more than a remote Danish mission on the west coast: six weeks of hardship and a daily struggle against a hostile and unexplored territory. Glacier crevasses, soft snow and inclement weather delayed them so much that when they finally arrived exhausted and half dead at Gotthab, the last remaining ship of the season had already sailed and they had to spend an extra winter (which they had not bargained for) camped on the ice.
Ours was a considerably humbler expedition in its objectives and, above all, easier to undertake: Nansen would no doubt have liked to carry our GPS, our coats and our boots made of extraterrestrial material for that era, as well as our satellite phone for contacting a rescue helicopter in case of emergency — yes, at a cost of $4,300 per hour, but at least we had an escape route if required. Like the Nansen expedition, we also achieved our goal (to be the first humans to climb those mountains) and we also had a few scares (not even the most modern equipment and GPS can prevent accidents and injury). But everything went well and for me, particularly, as was the case with Nansen, the adventure led me to surrender to the fascination of the poles, of those white, wild, hostile, and distant territories, whose beauty borders on the impossible. I return to them whenever I can.
Does this mean that you have to be a brave explorer, as tough as a Marvel superhero, to visit Greenland? Not at all. Another great thing about this icy destination, whose mere mention conjures up images of adventure, remoteness and cold, is that it is not that far away and not that extreme. In fact, Greenland is just five hours from Copenhagen by direct flight, or two hours from Reykjavik, if you make a stopover in Iceland. An adventure accessible to the general public without the need to be equipped as Amundsen, particularly with tour agencies offering routes along the south and west coast, where the climate has led to more habitation and humanization.
The gateway to Greenland is provided by two airstrips built by the U.S. Army in World War II for its bombers and which today constitute the only two international airports on the island: Narsarsuaq, to the south, and Kangerlussuaq, to the west. Both are in the middle of nowhere, far from populated areas, and place the traveler in an unfamiliar situation as soon as they step off the plane. At Narsarsuaq airfield, for example, there is nothing more than the black asphalt strip of the runway, some fuel tanks, a hotel, some old barracks, and a supermarket that sells everything from chocolate to rifles. All in the middle of a landscape of infinite horizons, with no trees, and with icebergs floating in the neighboring fjord. It is a stunning statement of intent.
This is where the adventure begins. The pleasure of a trip off the beaten track in one of the most fascinating places in the Northern Hemisphere.
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