THE BIG NORTH: seal of approval – episode 2

Episode 2 : acclimatisation
Bruno Compagnet headed to Greenland to eat seals and go skinning. It was a memorable trip, as notable for the cold and beauty of the landscape as for the warmth of its inhabitants. Here he shares some memories of a superb experience, one which put his preconceptions about skiing on the island-continent firmly to the test. A journey to discover in two parts.

Beyond words

DiskoIsland Groenland 2015 photo: jeremy bernard

DiskoIsland Groenland 2015 photo: jeremy bernard

The cooks and snowmobile drivers are kind and enthusiastic locals, honest and down to earth folk, like people who live away from the modern world often are. We bond with them quickly.
One night after skiing, we are invited to a well-oiled meal with the family of one of our new friends. As chance would have it Jeremy and I had met the cousin of the head of the household a year earlier in a refuge in the Dolomites. A well-respected shaman, he travels the world to spread his know-how. As we leave, having thanked them warmly, the father of the family tells us that it’s going to be a good night for the northern lights.
Intrigued and boosted by our alcohol consumption, we jump on the snowmobiles and instead of heading back to the hotel head out along the ice field for one of the most incredible sights I’ve ever enjoyed. I’m happy to keep Jeremy company as he spends a good part of the night shooting a red moonrise behind a pharoah-esque iceberg, under the fiery polar lights. With my small bottle of Scottish whiskey as fuel we stay sprawled out of the ice, laughing under a rain of celestial dust, enjoying a sacred moment, one that cements a friendship. We’re more than two kilometres from the coast, completely wasted, in the middle of the night, perched on an uncertain thickness of ice. Not far either from a menacing iceberg, which if it turned round would have sent us straight into the icy darkness.

DiskoIsland Groenland 2015 photo: jeremy bernard

DiskoIsland Groenland 2015
photo: jeremy bernard

A walk on the frozen sea

We repack our bags to try and keep only the essentials, then load them onto the trailers to head further afield in the direction of a small seal hunting village. The idea of exploring an area which has probably never been skied before has a certain appeal. We speed through monumental glacial valleys. We’re shaken around on the devil-machines for dozens and dozens of kilometres. Then after a stressful descent onto the Disko fjord we head further north, keeping 100 meters between the vehicles as Jens isn’t convinced about the sturdiness of the ice.
The village of Kangerluk has only seventeen inhabitants by the end of the winter, the eighteenth having sadly ended his own life not long before.

A few houses perched on the edge of a fjord, dozens of dogs who shit and bark all day long. The setting is calm. It’s the kind of place which seems to be continuously waiting for one of the two annual visits from the supply boat laden with provisions and mail. The future advances to the rhythm of a sled pulled along by a pack of dogs. As is the norm in these northern parts the sun shines with a dazzling brightness, devoid of any warmth. A light wind makes me instinctively turn up my jacket collar. I stand still, making the most of the fresh air and watching the locals fuss around the teams of dogs unravelling their ropes which the excited quadrupeds swiftly end up tangling again. Here on the west coast of Greenland the dogs are attached in a fan shape to run over wide open spaces on hard packed snow. There are at least seven different ways of attaching them depending on the landscape. Some are more adapted to the mountains or crevasse areas. One of the musher sits down down on his sled and lights a cigarette which he smokes without any gloves on. His beanie is high on his head and doesn’t cover his ears which, unlike my own, seem immune to the cold. I wasn’t convinced about going seal fishing with guys wearing polar-bear leather trousers who seemed to not share my views on the cold or indeed life in general. In the end this would end up being one of the best moments of the trip. Throughout my life as a skier I’ve had the chance to visit a number of countries and regions, Kamchatka, Yukon… But I’ve rarely had the chance to share the locals life. It’s a unique experience which opens my eyes and inspires plenty of new travel ideas.

diskoisland groenland 2015 photo: jeremy bernard

diskoisland groenland 2015 photo: jeremy bernard

The dogs run over the ice. The Eskimo who is driving the team gracefully manoeuvres a metre-long whip which cracks in the cold and crystalline air. Stretched out on the reindeer hides which cover the sleds we speed along the edge of the fjord admiring never-skied chutes and lines. We arrive in the middle of nowhere and with the help of ice-age tools we carve out holes in the ice to free the lines which are pegged down by wooden stakes. Lying on the ice field with my head in the hole and my nose up to the water, I look down into the world of silence to try and make out the dead seals wrapped up in the net. It’s a bit overwhelming but also extremely moving to share this moment with people whose lives depend a great deal on this animal.

diskoisland groenland 2015 photo: jeremy bernard

diskoisland groenland 2015 photo: jeremy bernard

The fisherman pulls on the cord of the net and Yann helps him hoist out a seal which must weigh a good fifty kilos. Five seals are captured in total.

diskoisland groenland 2015 photo: jeremy bernard

diskoisland groenland 2015
photo: jeremy bernard

Scoping new lines

Hoping to offer Arctic excursions to their clients in the future, Marc and Albert give us the opportunity of enjoying a number of hours in their chopper. What better way to explore this virgin and hostile land? Two days spent flying with Karl, a distinguished pilot, and skiing a load of chutes. It’s rare to enjoy so much freedom scoping new lines. We’re well aware that we’re experiencing something special. In spite of the excellent conditions and unlike Ane and Nikolai who are charging hard, I choose my lines carefully and stay somewhat on the defensive, concerned about the patches of ice, the exposed passages and the rapid changes in snow conditions. Before pushing off on my poles I always scope an escape route.

diskoisland groenland 2015 photo: jeremy bernard

diskoisland groenland 2015 photo: jeremy bernard

Greenland is an intimidating destination for skiers. Despite being nearly five times the size of France the inhabitable areas represent just two counties. And in spite of the infinite potential, skiing has never been a big part of the culture. Guaranteed snow doesn’t make up for the cold and the hostile environment. Walking around the village of Qeqertarsuaq we notice several pairs of skis propped up against the houses and learn that a small ski club offers youngsters the chance to learn how to ski.

diskoisland groenland 2015 photo: jeremy bernard

diskoisland groenland 2015 photo: jeremy bernard

Whilst a warm current from the Atlantic blows along the west coast of Greenland, a glacial wind comes in from the Arctic Ocean and chills the East coast. This phenomenon leads to the following facts:
The west coast of Greenland is a lot more populated than the east coast. The former was discovered by the 5th century by the Viking Eric the Red whilst the latter was only reached in 1822 by William Scoresby. And as for the Eskimos in Angmagssalik, they only came into contact with their first pale faces (Gustav Holm and his expedition team-mates) in 1884.
Greenland has something very special about it. We all feel like we’ve landed on a different planet, and I think in some ways that’s true.

bruno compagnet et ses corvus freebird photo: jeremy bernard

bruno compagnet et ses corvus freebird
photo: jeremy bernard

Epilogue

«If a say jump! YOU jump same way of me!»
Jens clutches the throttle and the snowmobile hurtles off, tracing a surreal diagonal path across the slope. The machine launches at full speed and digs into the snow drifts, fighting gravity. A few moments later we find ourselves at the top of a mountain which dominates the Arctic Ocean. It’s Friday the thirteenth but I must be the only person who realises this for miles and miles around. The day before I’d bid farewell to my friends just before they got in the helicopter, leaving me alone on this small island. I feel the bite of the cold and turn instinctively towards a multitude of possible lines. Jens straddles his motor and I push off on my poles. We smile to ourselves before taking our different paths down to the meeting point.

Portfolio_2015_www.jeremy-bernard-6643

« For both photographers and skiers it’s often just one line, one shot, which makes the whole trip ». Bruno and the Ice Caverns. Skis : corvus freebird