Glacial View

Our final sunrise above the ringing peaks of the Kobbefjord arrived under a pale blue sky. After a weekend hiking and collecting on steep terraced hills amid a tangle of lakes and fens, the tables and floors of the field station heap with lichens and mosses. Despite keeping the station’s furnace roaring to the temperature of a sauna, the lichens and mosses lay damp on soggy brown collection bags. Worried that the humidity will rot our samples, Nicolas and I decide to travel back to Nuuk two days early. 

The station buildings blend into the boulders from high on the surrounding slopes.

After the previous strenuous days, we permit ourselves a relaxed morning and relish the sight of the GINR boat rounding the final bend of the Kobbefjord with Katrine and the next round of scientists. When they disembark, we excitedly ask them about their fieldwork, partly for the novelty of hearing new voices besides our own. 

When we learn the boat will leave for Nuuk mid-afternoon, Nicolas and I plan one more short collection trip to a glacier south of the station to sample ice and snow algae. But Katrine warns that the route up to the glacier is prone to rockslides and suggests another glacier a few miles to the northeast. Earlier, we spied this glacier high up a mountain. Worried we will not have time to get to the glacier and back before the boat departs, we dash for the glacier and race up the winding path along the stream. 

Sure footing

A few miles through city streets might take an hour, but traversing the broken tundra in Greenland, a few miles might take half a day. To save time, at the station I lashed a small outboard motor to a rack Nicolas carries on his back. Arriving at lake Badesø, I unstrap the motor and tighten it to a small inflatable dingy. Nicolas sits in the rear and steers while I shout back directions from the bow, a generous term for the blunt dinghy plowing through the glacial-chilled water. Navigating the rock gauntlet shielding the bay, we emerge into the full fetch of the lake, and Nicolas points us toward the far shore. 

Twenty minutes later, we step onto the beach, haul the dinghy above the water line and setoff up a narrow foot trail that snakes to the base of the mountain. The trail is obscure and hard to follow. In our haste, we stray too far east, losing the trail by a quarter mile. To get back, we cut across a seemingly benign billow of grass but soon find that each mound and tuft threatens to slide at the slightest pressure underfoot. After a mile walking with a forced zig-zag gait, we reach the wind-scoured top of a hill. Even the most arid grass cannot grow here, and the grass suddenly ends in a field of boulders.

Deposited during glacial retreat, the boulders are cemented in mud and rubble. Stepping onto the thin, jagged edges of the boulders, we follow a tortuous course to lake Qassi-Sø on the other side. At first, this is slow-going. We must place each foot deliberately on the knife-sharp rock edge. But after half a mile, we find our stride, and Nicolas sets the pace as I work to keep up. 

On the far side of the boulder field, we pick up the trail again and walk its sweeping arc around the shoreline of Qassi-Sø. Last winter, a violent storm blew away the dinghy GINR stashes on the lake, but, for the moment, the surface is sheltered and still, perfectly mirroring the two mountain peaks to the east, creating a sideways hourglass in the turquoise waters.

Lake Qassi-Sø

Step by step

Two hours after setting off from the station, we reach the foothills of the mountain and pause for a light snack of Clif bars and chocolate squares. The route up to the glacier looks daunting, marked only by sporadic posts. Car-sized boulders litter the first pitch, with nerve-prickling evidence that the precariously perched boulders occasionally tumble down the crumbly mountain face. Slipping a strap of my backpack off my shoulders, I reach around and press the check-in button on my Zoleo satellite messenger to let my family know our exact coordinates. Before starting up, Nicolas assesses the risks and determines we can safely reach the glacier. Using his previous alpine experience, he teaches me to climb diagonally up the mountain, to give plenty of lead time between us, never to be directly down slope of him while he is moving and, most importantly, to go slowly, one step at a time. The grade increases toward the summit, and we switch to climbing with three points of contact. Setting intermediate turnaround times keeps us on pace, and after forty-five minutes, our feet crunch on the first snow of the glacier.

The steep slope up to the glacier.

Pausing, I rummage through my backpack to find our crampons. Once on, we kick out a route along the southern edge of the glacier until we reach the summit. To our surprise, we find a large melt pool draining underneath the ice. Following a darkening in the snow from the flowing water, we trace its course to a small waterfall back down the slope. Unsure of the ice integrity near the meltwater, we set about our work attentive not to cross the undercut snow. Nicolas surveys the glacier looking for pink and green snow, telltale signs of algae, while I collect samples in plastic bags. Later, we will melt the ice and snow slurry and collect the algae on filters to extract DNA. 

After an hour, I fasten our brimming sample bag around my chest, careful to keep all the samples upright to avoid leaking. Sitting on boulders to take off our crampons, Nicolas and I remark on the grandeur of the view. From our elevation, we see icebergs in the next fjord over and cliffs even greater than those in the Kobbefjord. My mind does mental gymnastics imagining all the hidden beauty bound by the mountain peaks in the thousands of fjords that line the coast of Greenland.

An unexpected verdant terrace at the base of the glacier.

Retracing our route down the mountain is equally slow with no way to know if a rock will fully support my weight until I am bearing down on it. Frequently, a grinding sound and a slight jolt tell me the rock underfoot is not stable, and, occasionally, a boulder tumbles a few meters downslope before coming to rest against larger boulders. When we finally reach the bottom, Nicolas and I both collect ourselves, and I again press the check-in button on my Zoleo. 

Once off the mountain, we briskly walk back to Qassi-Sø. Along the way, we spot the missing GINR dinghy and haul it a few hundred meters to the beach. After momentarily leading us down what I think is a shortcut further up the beach, we backtrack to the start of the lake to pick up the foot trail and follow it back to Badesø. We hop in the dinghy and cross back over the lake. Threading through the rock gauntlet, I lose sight of the mountain we climbed and focus on our landing spot. My legs and back buckle under the weight of our packs and the motor, but my mind races ahead to the field station and catching the boat to Nuuk where I can call home. Slowly, I compel my aching legs forward and savor a few more deep breaths of crisp tundra air.

View of the GINR research area and adjacent fjord from the lower slopes of the glacier.

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