Friday, May 24, 2013

Travel Tips: Greenland & Iceland

People I met in Greenland thought it was really easy and convenient for me, a Canadian, to get there.  If you look at a map, the west coast of Greenland is indeed much closer to Canada than Europe.  They were appalled to hear I had to go to Reykjavik or Copenhagen first, just to fly back west again. 

If you are determined to fly from Canada, (where it is often much more expensive to explore our own country than to go to Europe...) you will have to make your way to Ottawa (our Capital) during the summer months to catch a flight to Greenland for probably close to $2500+. 

For some reason, I had it in my mind, it was only a short 1 hr 45 min flight to Ilulissat from Reykjavik (much cheaper to go from there by the way) on Air Iceland, when it was actually 4 hrs.  When I realized my error, I felt instantly tired as it was going to be almost as long as the flight we take to go skiing out west.  So I flew 5 hrs, to fly 4 hrs back. 

Should you prefer to go via Copenhagen, you'll have to connect via Kangerlussuaq on Air Greenland.  Connecting times can be less than 1 hour so make sure you have a Plan B.  From what I've read and heard from a Danish Guy I met, it is quite common to be stranded there due to weather.  That was my number one concern.  I had a 4 day window post Greenland trip, just in case.  Was lucky I didn't need it.

I don't think it will come as a complete surprise that the cost of living in remote places is much higher.  One thing Greenlanders take very seriously is warmth -- Staying warm and shielding from wind.  Their homes, as simple as they may appear, are built to withstand significant snow and wind loads.  The gear and clothing you find there are serious, expensive and understandably so. 

It made me so proud to see Canada Goose being one of the most prominent outfitters for the Greenlandic people.  It also didn't surprise me that the big Norwegian brands -- Bergans of Norway (D's current favourite) and Dale of Norway (one of my favourites) were well represented.  Made total sense to me.

Even though I experienced much warmer than usual temperatures during my visit, when you are out on the water, the wind and water temperature can make you very uncomfortable in a hurry.  After all, you are sailing towards giant hunks and massive fields of ice. 

A French Lady I met, after our first day on the water, showed up the second day clad in head to toe Canada Goose.  Her jacket alone would have cost $800, much less the pants, hat and mittens.  She had suffered a lot over the 5 hr out.  Don't ever underestimate the power of wind nor the energy you expend trying to keep warm while standing mostly still on a small boat.

Here's what I wore for the days I was on the water where it was a handful of degrees below 0 C.  Not at all cold by my standards and never would I dress like this at home.  We ski and walk at -24 C before wind chill in altitude with less on than half of what I have listed below.  After 5 hr, my core was comfortable but I was just starting to feel some coolness in the tips of my fingers, ears and elbow seams.  My face felt cold but not enough to pull anything up over my nose.
  • Helly Hansen 50% merino base layer top and bottom. 
  • mid weight thin low pile fleece pants
  • McKinley ski pants with suspenders and bib
  • 320 g/m2 Icebreaker 100% Merino mid layer with hood (think speed skating) and thumb loops
  • Descente soft shell (neoprene like) wind proof outer layer (what I would normally wear under my ski jacket or for après ski), lined with fine fleece
  • Helly Hansen down coat, 550 fill, goes down to almost knees
  • heavy duty water and windproof leather ski mittens over thumb loops
  • 100% wool hat over Icebreaker hood, hood of Helly Hansen coat over, tension toggles pulled tight
  • Turtle Fur neck warmer
  • 100% wool ski socks pulled over my tights
  • Columbia winter boots rated for - 25C
Because all the layers I had on were lightweight, I did not resemble the Michelin Man, like you may have thought.  My coat is size XS and is what I wear to the office.  The newer gear available in stores there would have kept me as warm, if not warmer with even less weight.  I saw a 800 fill jacket that weighed 4 oz!!  Expedition mindset, remember?

Within the first minute of boat movement, you get to feel whether your preparations were sound.  Cold wind will find its way into every open fold and non windproof seam.  That's why I chose to wear a longer coat as well as ski pants that went higher than waist.  There is nothing worse than a cold back.  I'm sure the captain and crew were amused and probably used to seeing people quickly shuffling to adjust things like little marionettes. 

Here's what I would do differently.  I would spend more time playing around with the toggles of my coat hood to make sure they were even.  There was a tiny stream of air that kept getting in between my hood and icebreaker hood (which was skin tight).  Not enough to make me cold but the sound of it was irritating.  I'd also spend more time adjusting the closure of my coat sleeves.  Same idea.  Ideally your gloves or mitts would go over the end of your sleeves.

I brought ski goggles (mainly for the dog sledding to shield from wind and potential flying dog poop...) but didn't use them.  There were people who wore them on the ship but I just wore my sunglasses and they worked just fine.  Wear sun block.  The amount of sun/UV reflecting off of ice, snow and water is significant.  I used a SPF 45 with zinc oxide, titanium dioxide and octinoxate and still managed to get some colour.

It's trickier taking pictures with ski mitts on but I managed.  No way was I going to take them off for photos!  If I had to, you wouldn't have seen any.  Also, the cold will drain your camera battery much faster than you'd expect.  I had more trouble starting up the camera as well.

Otherwise I was quite pleased with my selection of layers.  I spent a lot of time experimenting with different combinations, especially when the weather warmed up prior to my departure.  To the point where D wanted to forbid me from going on the trip because my scurrying around to re-pack was driving him crazy.

Here's what I would have done had the weather been "normal" for that time of year:
  • Substitute Descente layer with Dale of Norway sweater
  • Substitute Helly Hansen leggings with Icebreaker 220 g/m2 100 % Merino ones
  • Wear silk glove liners under ski mitts
  • Wear wool scarf over zipped up coat hood
  • Substitute Helly Hansen down coat with The North Face waterproof and windproof mid length down coat or Marmot 700 fill down waist length jacket -- A toss up, pros and cons for either
  • Wear Icebreaker 150 g/m2 100% Merino camisole under Helly Hansen base layer top
  • Wear silk sock liner under 100% wool ski socks
I've tried the above on and can still move and squat.  Won't know if it would be a winning combination until the opportunity arises to return and test it.  Part of what I had hoped to learn was whether my dog sledding guide would have found my preparation adequate compared to seal skin clothing.  They will ask you to rent them if they didn't feel you can make it with what you have.

There were a few people I saw from warmer climates who had on what I consider to be slightly more padding than a spring jacket.  They were allowed to go inside because they got so cold.  I realize that real winter clothing may not be available to those from warmer countries.  But they persevered and showed up the next day dressed the same, looking more apprehensive.  And there was one guy who went all out and purchased a seal skin coat and pants.  It was beautifully made.  I later found out that the purchase would have cost him close to 12000 Euro!

You can imagine that no one really knew what each another looked like until we got rid of our layers.  So it was like we were meeting one other for the first time when we finally had a chance to sit down for a meal after. 

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