River crossings, mosquitoes, bog, hard scrambling and impenetrable trees - Klosterdalen was the hike from hell but the landscape was magical.
By the time we set off up Klosterdalen the morning was well underway. The temperature had risen, the dew was gone and the mosquitoes were out in force.
I’d never had to deal with mosquitoes before I reached Greenland. My hopes that they would merely be annoying were gone as soon as we landed, but it was in Klosterdalen that I really suffered.
Skin tight merino base layers were a bad choice (channels Ron Burgundy) – they bit straight through. The synthetic trousers I was wearing offered some resistance but not enough. My hat, specifically designed to stop mosquitos left me with a ring of bites around my forehead. But what really surprised me was their ability to bite me through my fleece. The only thing that gave any real protection were waterproofs and Deet (which incidentally melted my watch). As Harsharn put it: “You feel like a prisoner in your own head net”.
So, boasting to Harsharn about how much more ‘delicious’ I was, we cached our extra food and packrafts and started walking. The first few hundred meters were across easy tundra before we tried to cross the river. Neither of us selected particularly good crossing points, but Harsharn certainly learnt that ‘deep and fast’ was never the choice to make!
The route continued through the bog and cotton grass we had seen from above the night before. It made things a little tougher and we started to hope for dry ground. We should have enjoyed it whilst it lasted.
As we approached a lake we were forced into the trees – there was nowhere else to go – and so began the hardest hiking of my life. The birch trees grew impossibly close together and as we ploughed on we regularly tripped over unseen low branches. The ground was uneven and the long grass hid small streams which we inevitably plunged into. From time to time we would find our way out of the thicket only to be forced right back in again by a stream or pool. It was a demoralisingly slow full body workout.
All the while the mosquitos remained, later joined by swarms of small flies. Resting was as bad as continuing – when we stopped for lunch we had to pass food up through the mosquito netting to avoid mouths full of flies. Leaving uncovered skin was suicide. It was a beautiful sunny day surrounded by spectacular scenery. I hated every second.
Eventually we met open ground and revelled in being able to stride out. We crossed the river and went straight back into the trees.
By the time it was over we had covered 5km in 5hrs but we were on our way up and free of the trees for good. A cooling breeze came up from the fjord chasing away the last of the mosquitos. We started to enjoy ourselves. The final 300m or so of the climb took us across steep granite slabs and though a boulder field of bus sized scree.
We made camp near the top of the pass surrounded by tiny streams of the purest water you could hope to find. Opposite was the Ketil massive, it’s granite spires giving a prehistoric feel to the landscape. This was wild mountain scenery, true wilderness and a just reward for our efforts.
A short walk onwards over patches of snow took us to a view down the other side of the pass over a high mountain lake. Above more unbroken granite walls soared into view. We had moments of nice light that evening, but not the kind of drama we had hoped for. Nevertheless the scenery was inspiring and we retreated to our tent happy to be at such a magical and remote location.
Sunrise was cloudless. I set up a time-lapse to capture the light pouring down Ketil. Feeling that this place was particularly special I convinced Harsharn to stay longer, optimistic that the light would improve. We relaxed that whole day and washed our clothes. Sometimes the mosquitos would reappear, but otherwise we just chatted and played cards.
By late afternoon it was evident that it would remain cloudless. We headed back down through the hell of the previous day finding the trees higher and more impenetrable than before. We made camp on a sandy area, leaving 5km to cover the following morning.
We packed up and set off before sunrise eager to avoid the mosquitoes which would inevitably emerge as the day warmed. By complete luck we found ourselves following a feint old trail through the bog. Heavy dew coated the grass saturating our legs as we walked.
The moment the sun first hit the peaks above the clouds formed and the mountains did a disappearing trick. We walked fast, not sure of how far we had come. As time passed we wondered if we had reached the lake and how we had managed to avoid the trees. We walked further on, hopping through the bog and still there were no trees.
Just over two hours later we were back at our cache, over the moon to have found an alternative, easy route, far different from the one marked on the map! (We now realised that the map routes were very much ‘where you could walk’ rather than where you SHOULD walk!)
We ate a late breakfast, inflated the boats and headed onto the water. There was a sail boat in the fjord and I paddled out to say hello. A French man and woman invited us onboard and offered us a cup of coffee – welcome after an early start. Their boat was ‘Maewan – Adventure Base’. They told an exciting tale of their journey past the Faroes, onwards to Iceland and then the coast of Greenland adventuring as they went. The two of them were currently looking after the boat whilst a team climbed Ulamertorsuaq.
We said our goodbyes and paddled across to the opposite side of the fjord to capture the views we had missed at the start of the trip. As we paddled the clouds broke up revealing the peaks above. We camped in exactly the same spot as our first night.
That evening we hiked up the river, finding an ideal route up smooth granite that the stream must have flowed over when it was in spate. Part way up we found a deep pool beneath a waterfall and with plenty of time to spare I jumped in for a dip. The water was icy but refreshing. I had to be a little careful though – the current was strong enough to pull me over the edge!
From a few hundred meters up the views were outstanding. For the first time in my photographic career I had started to come to the realisation that the trip was more about the experience than the photography.
The sun came down through cloudless skies and we watched the light disappear from the highest peaks before heading back down to the tent. We lit a large fire and cooked restaurant sized mussels we had collected that afternoon.