Mads Pihl

Greenland’s UNESCO World Heritage Site, Ilulissat Icefjord

Barry Stone describes his first sighting of Greenland’s UNESCO World Heritage Site, Ilulissat Icefjord.

I KNEW I had never seen anything like what I was about to see. But I’d seen pictures of it. I knew what to expect. And I knew I didn’t want to be among a throng of people when I saw it.

I didn’t want my first sighting of Greenland’s Ilulissat Icefjord to be marred by the sound of zodiacs and their outboards, or a helicopter’s rotor, or camera shutters, or the “oohs and ahhs” of fellow expeditioners.

There were 200 passengers on Hurtigruten’s ice-hardened MS Fram that day as it lay at anchor in Disko Bay off the town of Ilulissat on the west coast of Greenland. And every last person on board – well, those who weren’t crewmembers or otherwise incapacitated – had made plans to disembark and cross the last few kilometres to this miracle of nature as fast as they could.

Sunset over the Ilulissat Water Taxi

Sunset over the Ilulissat Water Taxi boat near the ice fjord, credit: Mads Pihl - Visit Greenland

Honestly, you’ve never seen such a frenzy – on-shore taxis and bicycles, a succession of small boats, and the Fram’s own zodiacs all stood at the ready. Those who could afford it took helicopters. One couple, I heard, even paid a fisherman to get them there in his trawler. I swear, if we’d hit an iceberg at midnight there wouldn’t have been more of a rush to get off.

An Air Greenland Bell 212 helicopter approaching a landing site near the Ilulissat ice fjord in Greenland

An Air Greenland Bell 212 helicopter pilot over the Ilulissat ice fjord in Greenland, credit: Mads Pihl - Visit Greenland

I wasn’t as dismissive of the company of others as was the existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre who famously said “Hell is other people”, but the sentiments suddenly were there. I had decided to take a leaf from the philosopher’s handbook that says a destination is better appreciated if approached slowly, and chose to walk.

And it wasn’t far, really – a spare zodiac to the pier then 40 minutes through Ilulissat which, though it only has a population of around 5000, still manages to rank as Greenland’s third largest town. Sartre would have loved it here.

I walked through town, up a small hill and past a supermarket and a few dozen leashed Greenlandic dogs, then along a path and onto a boardwalk that took me over a thawed expanse of tundra with its long grasses and groundcover of dwarf birch and wild rosemary.

Climbing towards the crest of a small hill I caught my first tantalising glimpses, which soon gave way to a mountainous creeping wall of white. I fumbled for my wide-angle lens and attached it to the body of my Canon 6d. But it wasn’t “wide” enough! As I drew closer I felt dwarfed by what I saw. It was a Grand Canyon kind of moment. Only this time, it was moving... The icebergs here calve off the 2km thick Jacobshavn Glacier, the face of which was too far up the channel to see and away from the sight of all except the lucky few in their chartered helicopters. Jacobshavn is Greenland’s great “conveyor belt”, producing about 10 per cent of the country’s icebergs.

An Air Greenland Bell 212 helicopter pilot over the Ilulissat ice fjord in Greenland

An Air Greenland Bell 212 helicopter pilot over the Ilulissat ice fjord in Greenland,credit: Mads Pihl - Visit Greenland

I made my way up some stairs to a vantage point on a rocky promontory to get a better view.

Some icebergs are so large they don’t fully melt until they’ve floated south into the Atlantic and all the way down to the 40th latitude – the same latitude as New York City.

If I pitched a tent and camped here for a year, I’d see 35 billion tons of ice pass right before my eyes. There were only a handful of people here. A man tossed his child into the air over and over, and an elderly couple sat contentedly on a nearby park bench.

Greenland cruises

Two travelers reading on a bench overlooking icebergs in the Ilulissat ice fjord in Greenland, credit: Mads Pihl - Visit Greenland

“At last,” I thought “here was a UNESCO World Heritage Site not plagued by mass tourism as a result of its classification”. Well, that’s Greenland all over. The whole place should be a UNESCO site. Or maybe not – better, perhaps, to spare it all that attention.

It was early June and our expedition along Greenland’s west coast, in and south of Disko Bay, was enjoying its eighth straight day of clear blue skies thanks to a high-pressure system that just refused to move.

We’d seen one cruise ship in 12 days, visited a string of tiny settlements along a mountainous snow-capped coastline, kayaked among icebergs in Illorsuit, been invited to play an impromptu game of soccer, and sailed through seas of ice under bright midnight skies.


Two boys hunting the small fish ammassat with rocks on the beach in Illorsuit in Greenland. credit: Mads Pihl - Visit Greenland

On the last day aboard MS Fram, just like they did every day, nice things happened. We sailed into the 190km-long Kangerlussuaq Fjord; an auction was held in the observation lounge and the captain’s log book of the voyage was sold for 500 Euros (to one of those helicopter charterers I think); and a beautiful lady from Visit Greenland gave me a black longsleeved t-shirt that said “Greenland – Be a Pioneer”.

It’s a great shirt, but the “pioneering” reference needs context. Greenlanders are pioneering all right: there are no coastal roads, every settlement exists in isolation, boats outnumber cars, electricity comes from generators powered by petrol brought in twice a year by tankers, and water is piped into towns from nearby ice lakes.

They are practical, too. They hug the coastline, not the barren interior that is the Greenland Ice Sheet – 1.7 million square kilometres increasingly being seen as fair game for long-distance treks by local tour operators. “Why would anyone want to cross the ice?” a local told me. “Those early polar explorers, they were brave, but crazy! Nansen was crazy!” Yeah, I thought. Crazy lucky.

Barry Stone - guest writer