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Kelly Halpin - Running Greenland

Kelly Halpin maps a 24-mile loop around Greenland's World Heritage Site

Arctic scenes and Mountain Running® defined Kelly Halpin's summer adventure running trip to Greenland...

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Remote. Desolate. Strange. I’ve been lucky enough to have traveled to many countries around this globe, but Greenland is by far the loneliest. The few towns that dot the island can only be reached by boat, plane, or dog sled. There are no roads between them. And while Greenland is the largest island on the planet, it’s the least densely populated. It’s windy, it’s cold, and the weather is unpredictable. A bizarre destination for running, but that’s exactly why I wanted to go. 

I’ve always been drawn to odd places to adventure for the sake of learning about the land, the people, and the biology. I like to touch the ground with my hands and feet, learn about the plants and animals, and how people would live off of the land a thousand years ago. Running, to me, is a vehicle for exploration. It’s a way to travel light and fast that will carry you further into terrain you wouldn’t normally visit. Running is also a way to expose yourself to the elements where you only have your two legs to get yourself out. It’s raw and it’s real.

I first laid eyes on Greenland in 2003 when I flew back from Iceland- another trip based on discovering a strange, far away land. The icecap was beautiful but also terrifying. Greenland seemed so empty. What a weird place to go. Maybe I’ll get to see it some day. I finally started planning a trip last winter with friend and photographer Savannah Cummins. Greenland was one of those far away places we wanted to experience in our lifetimes. One of the last places on Earth still pristine and mostly untouched by humans. On the West coast lays the Ilulissat Icefjord, a World Heritage Site, where the icecap runs down into the sea. The coast is covered with small mountain ranges and low laying tundra. I couldn’t wait to run there.

The best time of year to visit is summer, with warmer temps and 24 hours of daylight: the perfect ingredients for an adventure. Using Google Earth, I created a loose 50-60 mile route that would take me from the town of Ilulissat into the mountains and towards the glacier, and then along the ice fjord back towards town. The final crew consisted of Savannah and Matt Parent (another photographer), and myself. When we flew into our destination on June 23rd, I finally caught a glimpse of how rugged the terrain actually was- something I couldn’t see on Google Earth. This was going to be far more challenging than I had imagined.

The first few days were spent close to town, meeting local residents and visiting the icefjord located just two miles from town. I met with local guides and learned what I could about the geology, plants, and animals. When I finally got to do a longer recon mission, it became apparent how difficult this bigger run would be. The moss was treacherous and sopping wet and mountains were, honestly, a lot taller than what I had expected. I was planning to navigate this land alone, self-supported, and with only a topo map for reference. Pure adventure. My favorite style of running, but also a little frightening. The weather wasn’t playing along and by the third day the mountains I wanted to traverse were caked in wet snow.

Related: Kelly Halpin's Greenland Gear Kit

As our days became numbered, I picked the one with the best weather and went for it. I realized a few days before I would have to cut down the distance of my big run due to the snow. I packed food, water, extra socks, an emergency bivy blanket, and an InReach just in case. The route began right outside the hotel’s front door and took off across a tundra straight to the mountains. The day started out crisp but sunny and absolutely beautiful. It was so cold I had to run in a beanie, puffy, and wind layer. The ocean was dotted with icebergs and ships traveling to and from the harbor. Soon I was above it all and running through the range alongside gorgeous alpine lakes- at least they seemed like alpine lakes even though I wasn’t far from sea level. The mountains were hard to navigate but fun nonetheless. I had to do some easy fifth class climbing a few times but always felt pretty safe. It wasn't until I passed my final bail out point that I got scared.

Rocky coastal terrain and ice fjords provided the backdrop for Kelly Halpin's Greenland Running Expedition

A couple of hours into the route I made it to a narrow canyon that led south to the ocean and would toss me out a few miles from the town. The weather was still pleasant and I was feeling good so I decided to continue on. In front of me rose the next set of peaks and the next part of my route. Ascending the slope looked hard. There were steep snow fields to the left and wet slabs to the right that looked too sketchy to attempt but there was a gully straight ahead that looked doable. About halfway up the gully a rock broke loose and tumbled down 40 feet onto the snow field below. That's when I realized every rock I was touching was loose. The rocks above and below were loose too. It was a very bad situation to be in. I spread out my weight as much as possible and lunged for a shelf above. A few of the rocks under my feet broke loose seconds later. I pulled onto the shelf and ledge hopped onto a rocky platform, finally taking in a breath of air. It was just a stupid situation that could have easily killed me. I had to take a moment to sit and pull myself back together. Mountains. Never underestimate them.

Related: Nick Elson - Safety Tips for Mountain Running

Greenland's craggy moss-covered terrain framed by icecaps on the sea.

I spent the next couple of hours scampering through the mountains alongside the fjord. I could see the glacier in the far distance- incredible. As expected, the afternoon weather turned and soon a storm was rolling down from the icecap. I managed to summit one last peak before the snow blew in. The final miles were spent running right along the icebergs towards the ocean. I could hear the sled dogs yammering in the distance as I turned out of the World Heritage Site and back into town. Savannah and Matt greeted me back at the hotel with hot tea and a bowl of pasta mixed with kipper snacks- our dirtbag diet of the week.

It’s interesting to look back on that trip now that a few months have passed. There were so many highlights, like getting to see icebergs lit up by a 2am sunrise or filtering water in a field of arctic wildflowers. I feel accomplished that I was able to pull off an adventure run in such a distant and different place but also a little disappointed that the weather didn’t work out. I would like to go back some day and run to the icecap and spend more time with the locals. There is still so much to learn about Ilulissat. I would like to see other parts of Greenland as well. Climb the tall peaks in the South East or see a Polar Bear in the wild. And there are so many other places to see all over this tiny planet. Whatever comes next, I’ll be able to carry the lessons and memories from this trip with me. 

Photos: © Matthew Parent

Video Credit: © Matthew Parent & Savannah Cummins

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

La Sportiva Mountain Running Athlete Kelly Halpin KELLY HALPIN is a member of the La Sportiva Mountain Running® Team.

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1/4/2018 6:59 AM
Posted in Running By Kelly Halpin

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