A day in the life of a Greenland expedition leader

Lake District-born adventurer Helen Spenceley, along with her business partner and husband Matt, runs Pirhuk – an expedition guiding company based on the remote east coast of Greenland. Between them they are opening up a world of untouched terrain to adventurous skiers

Helen’s at home in the wilds of Greenland

What I do in Greenland day-to-day varies wildly. Whether it’s skiing a new line with a bunch of folk on their first visit, enjoying a beer together on the deck, or packing up my dogsled with supplies for two weeks. This is what I love about being here. The variety of every expedition, but also of each day.

The village of Kulusuk is my home for much of the year – we have a ski lodge here with bunkhouse accommodation that sleeps 12, plus guides.

My day always starts early as there’s a lot going on: weather checks, sorting logistics for dogsleds travelling
over the sea ice, boats searching out summit-to-sea lines, or snowmobiles towing skiers in to our local mountains.
And that’s before preparing breakfast for a bunch of hungry and psyched folk!

Skiing this far north means rising daytime temperatures aren’t generally a problem, so we usually set out around 8.30am. If we tow in with snowmobiles, we’ll soon get dropped off at the calving face of the glacier – a huge amphitheatre of ice walls breaking into the ocean. 10km out and you’re in some of the wildest terrain on earth. From there, we’ll search out the best aspects taking into account avalanche conditions. We’ve got a huge list of possible new lines, so it’s about tuning into what’s in condition.

One benefit of spending so much time here is gaining an insight into our snowpack – watching things develop over the course of months and only then choosing our lines, rather than the other way around. Each day we’ll keep an eye on any new events that might affect the avalanche situation. Here, that’s usually snowfall and strong winds. We treat the mountains with a lot of respect, giving the snow time to settle – there’s no competition for fresh tracks here.

Most days fall into a rhythm of skinning, short breaks, climbs up cols and couloirs and stunning descents. We’ll often try to get several climbs and descents in a day – the terrain here is well suited to that, runs often finishing by
the icebergs before climbing back up again. In good weather and stable snow, life can be pretty mellow, but on the other hand the wild days here are really wild. A storm can also be pretty exciting to be out in.

I grew up in the Lake District, on the doorstep of the Coniston Fells. I always knew I’d do something outdoors based, because it’s all I’ve ever done. I’ve always felt comfortable in uncomfortable situations, like my Winter Mountain Leader course in Scotland. I really thrived on it, whereas lots of people found it stressful. I felt totally at home digging a snow hole in a blizzard and night navving on featureless terrain. As soon as Matt and I met things worked out very organically and I soon got involved in Greenland.

“Most days fall into a rhythm of skinning, short breaks, climbs up cols and couloirs and stunning descents”

I remember my first time arriving in Greenland and it being totally wild. That first impression is so powerful because it’s so different to anything you’ve ever seen – the fact the sea’s frozen as you walk into the village, the dogs, the pretty coloured wooden houses on the shoreline.

An arctic ski season is a long one. Rest days are rare, so looking after myself is important. I try to spend at least some time stretching each day and a good night’s sleep makes a big difference. By the time I start skiing in Greenland, I’ve already been on planks for four months. In the coldest, darkest months of winter, I head south, usually to the Alps, Canada or Japan. The contrast in types of skiing and culture is lovely and there’s something special about how a typical day gradually changes through the season. From those bitter cold days in the Alps in November and December building up leg strength, to the outrageous descents through the trees in Hokkaido…  But come early March, it’s back home to east Greenland.

The contrast skiing from our lodge is huge. We can be descending some wild couloir in an area not dissimilar to
the Antarctic peninsula, then within hours be relaxing with a beer back in the village. This tiny Inuit community of 230, many of whom still live by hunting, has become home. We run our outfit together with a local family, so many evenings end sitting together catching up on the events of the day.

Other days, when we’re out on an expedition in the alpine ranges that border the icecap, life’s very different. In many ways it becomes simpler. With the right kit and discipline, it’s possible to battle the cold, and that’s what allows us to ski so much. It’s taken a long time refining all the systems I use, but they add up to being more comfortable.

In other ways though, it’s very demanding, and to get a lot of skiing done there’s a lot of physical work involved. For example, after dog sledding into a basecamp below some remote cirque of mountains, the first thing I do each morning is melt a lot of snow to keep us in water for the day. Camp needs to be taken care of too, from building snow walls to protect the tents to setting up trip wires to guard against polar bears.

Life up here is certainly physical. Skinning thousands of metres a week is only the start of it! I might be pulling a heavy sledge up a glacier one day or lugging large fuel canisters to the snowmobiles the next. Surrounded by burly blokes and gnarled hunters, I just have to get on with it, but I manage.

It took a few trips, with me coming back to the village having dealt with some tricky conditions, or just the fact we’d been out for months on end skiing and climbing, to gain some respect among the hunters!

From every fresh summit the list of potential new lines grows…

But it’s the same for anyone who wants to be involved here. I think it surprised some of the locals a bit to start with, because I’m maybe the only outsider who’s a woman and who keeps doing all these trips. But now it’s just part of who I am in this community and it’s nice to sit around one of the cabins, everyone sharing stories of what they’ve been up to, whether it’s skiing somewhere interesting or one of our friends dog sledding to another village to see family. Spending time out in the fjords and mountains is a big link and bond we all share.

Wherever we are in this region, my big thing is first descents. Even from our lodge, there are many unskied lines visible, let alone further out.

Waiting for these to come into condition and then, when everything is right, skiing them is just magic. From every new summit and fjord we visit, the list of potential new lines grows. We’re building a new mountain hut this summer, which is going to open up even more exciting new terrain, so I’m already looking forward to the return of the snow.

By 7pm we sit down to dinner. At the lodge meals are really varied – perhaps local fish caught through the ice
or a big bowl of pasta. Out on expeditions it’s all freeze-dried, but then I’m always hungry!

After dinner a plan is made for the following day, kit is packed and then I head for bed after another full day. The Aurora Borealis often light up the nighttime sky and falling asleep while the sky’s flickering green outside is something I can never get used to.

Words and photos: Daniel Wildey