Kora development athlete Roland Primus spent hours scouring satellite images on Google Earth to find the location for his next adventure.
Zooming in on the east coast of Greenland, just above the Arctic Circle, he found the tiny town of Ittoqqortoormiit.
This is a place of extremes. It’s Greenland’s remotest town, the gateway to the world’s largest national park and to Scoresby Sund - the world’s largest and longest fjord system.
It’s also home to one of the world’s last remaining hunter societies.
Just the sort of place for an action man like Roland - a champion aerobatics pilot and former World Cup snowboarder who trained the Swiss national team.
“I’m always looking for remote places and visiting Ittoqqortoormiit was an opportunity to see people living in a way that has changed very little in centuries," he said.
Ittoqqortoormiit was established in the 1920s, when the government invited seven Inuit families to colonise four spots along the country’s east coast. There are now 470 residents in the town - and almost as many Greenland Dogs, bred to pull sledges and warn their owners against polar bear attacks.
While most residents of Ittoqqortoormiit still hunt, only the younger ones without families can make a living this way. Others support themselves through tourism or running local amenities such as the village school and general store.
Locals have set up a travel agency, Nanu Travel, though few visitors venture out to this isolated outpost. Most of the company’s custom comes from TV crews who go there to film the pristine wilderness, including polar bears, seals and walrus.
Nanu Travel helped Roland and his wife Claudia organise their trip to the town. Over 19 days they climbed peaks, explored the coastline, accompanied guides on a seal hunting trip and went on a three-day expedition. They travelled about on dog sleds or cross-country skis, camping in a tent or staying in the town’s self-catering guest house.
“There are some big peaks, but you don’t have to take it to the extreme,” said Roland. “We visited some mountains close by which were simple to climb and had a low avalanche risk.
“It’s always important to do a lot of research and make sure you visit in the right season. “Some people go early in the year to see the Northern Lights, but I’d recommend leaving it a bit later.”
Roland’s visit spanned the end of April and into May, when rainfall is below average and it’s light for much of the time. Although temperatures dipped as low as -20C at night, the cold is bearable with the right clothing - although the wind is always ferocious.
The key to enjoying your time in Ittoqqortoormiit is to keep an open mind about your plans.
“If the weather is bad, you might not be able to go out - and even your flight home may be delayed,” said Roland. “You just have to go with the flow.”
On the flipside, a willingness to be spontaneous can also pay dividends, as Roland and Claudia found when locals invited them to go ice fishing on a nearby lake. After setting up camp on the lake’s banks, the locals helped them to drill a hole through the 140cm-thick ice to reach the water. They spent two happy two days - and nights - hauling in Arctic Grayling, sharing their catch with the families camping nearby.
“When the weather is fine and it’s light, they’re out - it doesn’t matter if it’s night,” said Roland. “At 2am in the morning, you’ll see children out playing on the rooftops (one of the few places not covered in deep snow when we visited). The people live more with rhythm of nature there.
“For me Ittoqqortoormiit is like a jewel,’ he added. ‘It’s remarkable to to see how they’ve balanced the traditions of their ancestors, while still embracing modernity.”
The journey from Europe is long and expensive - but all part of the experience. First you need to reach the Icelandic capital Reyjavik for connections to Ittoqqortoormiit’s nearest airports - Mittarfik Nerlerit Inaat or Constable Point Airport. The final leg is by helicopter. Some visitors also use Constable Point as a base for their trips into the wilderness.
Basic food supplies are available from the general store in Ittoqqortoormiit, but they don’t stock dry rations -so if you’re going on an expedition you’ll need to bring your own.
Don’t be alarmed if the food in the general store is months past its expiry date - food deliveries to this remote spot are few and far between, so supplies are kept in a deep freeze and thawed periodically.
You might find yourself sitting next to a crate of eggs on your flight into Greenland, as the airline will often fill up spare seats with produce. As you can imagine, food is expensive - a pear will set you back $7.50 - so be prepared to budget for this.
Roland suggests budgeting $4500-6000 for two people. “You don’t need to buy lots of gear for this trip - instead, spend your money on trips with locals,” he said. You’ll have more fun and will be giving vital financial support to the local economy.
THINGS TO CONSIDER
If you’re venturing out of town without a guide, you will need to carry a gun to protect yourself from a polar bear attack - and be able to use it. You can rent a gun and bullets in Ittoqqortoormiit.
If you are camping, you can also hire a dog to accompany you. It will warn you if a bear approaches during the night. The dog is supplied with its own food, which it carries.
There is a doctor in Ittoqqortoormiit most of the time, but a dentist only visits rarely. Never go with a tooth problem!
ROLAND’S KIT LIST
- You’ll soon get warm when you’re walking, so wear layers you can remove easily. I wore Kora’s ShoLa Zip top as a base layer, which was great as it did not smell even after many days - which made my wife happy! Sometimes I wore a baby alpaca wool sweater over the top for extra warmth. Also a down vest.
- I wore a Burton AK 3L jacket as an outer layer. It’s good for winds of up to 40mph as it has a small hood. For longer outdoor expeditions, when it’s going to be cold and windy but not wet, I’d recommend RAB or Fjällräven jackets without Gore-Tex. Gore-Tex can feel damp when you sweat. For an easy trip like mine the Burton jacket was good because it was lightweight enough that I didn’t get sweaty.
- For the legs, Kora ShoLa leggings with Burton AK Gore-Tex pants over the top.
- We had a set of light fleece underwear to wear in the tent at night. We never put these on outside the tent and when we weren’t wearing them we put them inside a dry bag, so they never got wet. It’s important you don’t sweat in your sleeping bag. If down gets wet, it will freeze. Whenever possible, dry your sleeping bag outside in the sun, even if it’s below freezing.
- Always pack enough socks. We had two pairs for the day and another for night which never left the tent.
- We wore fine fleece finger gloves for walking and kept a spare pair for the night. When we were not moving I wore a fleece or wool inner glove and a mitt overglove.
- I also packed a merino t-shirt and button-down shirt and a pair of jeans.
- I wore a pair of light, high winter boots and some touring ski boots.
- A warm hat.
- Your ski gear will depend on what you want to do and the time of year you’re going. If you like alpine downhill skiing, we always go with Movement skis from the X Series and Scarpa or Scott touring boots. Cross-country skis are better than snow shoes for getting around.
- Take some telescopic ski poles with a cross-country handle. They are pointed so you can use one as an additional tent stake with the skis together.
- For cooking, a Primus OmniFuel stove works well. They do have gas bottles in Ittoqqortoormiit, but if you need a lot make sure you reserve your supply with Nanu Travel.
- Our Helsport Fjellheimen X Trem tent worked well for us. As it’s so windy, snow flaps are a must. This is not the place for your first winter camping trip however - if it is, stay in the guesthouse!
- Nanu Travel can lend you plastic pulks (sleds). They work great and can be pulled along by a rope when you’re travelling along a flat surface - no bars needed.
- You can buy fishing line in Ittoqqortoormiit. No need for a proper rod - a simple stick of wood will do. There’s plenty of fish.