Snowflakes pelt me as I schlep up the icy debris, each stone slicker than the last. The air’s a biting 14 degrees Fahrenheit. The wind? A mix of face slaps and whiplash—but you wouldn’t know it by our group’s grins.
We’re steps up a ridge from seeing our home and hiking playground for the next 24 hours: the Greenland ice sheet, the largest expanse of ice in the world after Antarctica. Many of us crossed oceans and ventured above the Arctic Circle to get here. Once we navigate this moraine, a bulging heap of rocks and rubble forced outward by the ice, we’ll snag our first view. Or, we would if this snowstorm hadn’t spiraled beyond control.
From the top of the ridge, I can hardly see the path in front of me, let alone the 660,000-square-mile field of ice, roughly the size of Alaska, that unfurls to the horizon and well beyond it. We’re ensconced in a hostile white abyss, with no end in sight. Well, tonight should be interesting. I tiptoe down the moraine, balancing a backpack full of camera and trekking gear and a duffel jammed with tents to join the others.
“Let’s load the sleds,” Klaus Larsen, a seasoned trekking guide for outfitter Albatros Arctic Circle, barks over the wind. I join the mad scramble, fastening duffels to the sleighs while attempting to preserve body heat. It’s a scene of absurdity. Just hours ago, we were eight timid strangers: a pair of girlfriends, an older couple, a trio of college students, and solo-traveling me. Now, we’re tethering sleds to each other as we prepare for a harrowing 40-minute slog across an ice field to camp.
To be clear, by “camp” I mean camp—no glamping here on the Greenland ice sheet. We haul our equipment across the ice, the wind building with each step. Once we reach our abode—an open patch of snow—we get to work cranking ice stakes, pitching tents, and sorting supplies. I spend every down second squeezing the life out of my one tepid hand warmer. It’s losing steam. To be fair, so am I.
Yet raw fingers, chattering teeth, and a steady dose of wind whacks are all part of the ice sheet’s first life lesson: To go where few have gone, you must do what few will do. Said differently, here on the ice, you earn your keep.
I knew I wanted to camp on Greenland’s ice sheet the minute I discovered Camp Ice Cap (the official name for the experience) was a thing. The idea struck during my first Greenland trip in 2019. As an outdoor enthusiast and avid aurora hunter, I’d always been drawn to the Arctic. On that visit, I’d arrived and explored the west coast by cruise. Sure, the trip left me dazzled, but I craved freedom and adventure on the tundra, not a set itinerary with cruise-cabin comforts.
On a bulletin board in the Kangerlussuaq airport, our cruise’s final stop, I’d noticed a sign advertising Albatros Arctic Circle’s night on ice. The local outfitter, an independent division of Denmark-based Albatros Travel, makes these wild and often inhospitable stretches of Greenland’s nature open to adventure travelers.
Its Kangerlussuaq outpost—an inland settlement on the island’s western stretch—is an opportune starting point for ice-sheet travelers. It’s also the only Greenland town with a road leading right to the ice sheet—albeit a bumpy one, with reindeer and musk ox dotting the way. Access from elsewhere typically requires a helicopter flight or sailing trip. Most expedition cruises see the ice sheet where it meets the ocean, such as the iceberg-stuffed Ilulissat Icefjord, the sea mouth of the Sermeq Kujalleq glacier. More intrepid trips include sailing then hiking on the ice sheet. A daring few travelers take the full, roughly one-month trek across the ice with an expedition team.
I spent a pandemic dreaming about that intrepid ice adventure. In October 2022, I made it happen. The allure, for me, was the rare taste of expedition life. Nights on the ice sheet are typically reserved for those on permitted, multi-week adventure or science expeditions. Camp Ice Cap is like an expedition sampler. It’s a two-day, one-night camping trip, where you lug all your gear, live and sleep on the ice like intrepid explorers, then return to warm Kangerlussuaq hostels, and the island’s cozy fish stews, the next day.
The trip is about more than adrenaline, though. It’s a surefire way to feel humbled. The colossal ice sheet covers 80 percent of Greenland’s land mass. It’s more than 50 million years old, around two miles deep at its thickest point. At the sheet’s fringes, where our camp lies, the terrain is a field of rolling white mounds with hints of powder-blue ice peeking out from a fresh coat of snow. Teal meltwater lakes weave throughout, looking more like abstract fluid paintings than real-world topography. The sheet’s thousands of cavernous and oft-hidden moulins, some over 3,000 vertical feet deep, act like wells in the ice. Meltwater from the surface spills down these vertical shafts before traveling out to the ocean where it slowly raises sea levels.
This is why the Greenland Ice Sheet is synonymous with climate change. Last year marked the 26th year in a row that the sheet experienced a net loss of ice. Experts now predict its rapid melt, catalyzed by human-triggered climate change, could result in sea levels rising one foot by 2100. This shift would displace up to 200 million people around the globe.
To be clear, camping on the ice won’t fix this. Travel won’t fix this. Even with Camp Ice Cap’s leave-no-trace rules—all that comes in must go out—flying anywhere leaves a dirty carbon footprint.
But travel can play a role in protecting this natural resource. As climate change causes Arctic industries to shift, Greenland increasingly relies on tourism, and it’s investing in it big time. The territory currently has two main international airports, Kangerlussuaq, the dominant flight hub, and capital-city Nuuk, which connects with Iceland. As soon as next year, Greenland could welcome major new international airports in Nuuk and tourist hot spot Ilulissat; both will feature runways long enough to allow for international flights, including potential future links with North America.
As in much of the country, tourism is critical in Kangerlussuaq. The majority of residents here work in the industry. Land-based travel, like guided hikes, have a trickle-down effect on the local economy. Think: outfitters, restaurants, grocery stores, and accommodations. It’s one reason adventure travelers are a priority in Visit Greenland’s 2023 strategic vision, noting this kind of globe-trotter offers “the most value for the local community, minimizes environmental impact, and is considerate of local culture.” These elements are vital in a territory that must now debate the benefits of mining for natural resources like uranium, nickel, and copper versus protecting them.
Climate change, the future of travel—these are among the many topics we discuss while thawing over steamy licorice tea in the camp-stove-warmed mess tent that evening. We pass around the freeze-dried dinner options as our silver-bearded guide Larsen, whose orderly and intimidating camp-setup demeanor now melts into jokes and grins over the warming stove, briefs us on the next 12 hours. Go figure: Weather’s canceled this evening’s hour-long sunset hike, our chance to watch the milky-white ice shift shades with the setting sun. It’s also wiped out any shot of catching the northern lights (you need clear skies, not a blinding snowstorm, to enjoy this signature Greenland experience). We fear tomorrow’s multi-hour ice hike may follow suit.
“The ice is always changing,” Larsen begins, describing the dangers of trekking here in the ivory wilds. Crevasses and moulins can appear out of nowhere. A prolific snowstorm ups the stakes. Larsen, who’s Danish, knows this area better than most. He served in the military, including a deployment to Afghanistan, before pursuing outdoor guiding as a career more than a decade ago. Now, Larsen spends the bulk of the year in Greenland; he’s out here on the ice most weeks during the camping season: March to October. Yet even with his ice-sheet experience, there’s always the risk of what lies beneath fresh snow.
Our marching orders: Fuel up with camp fare, like my piping hot bag of pasta primavera, and cross our still-thawing fingers and toes that the weather clears by morning.
When dawn hits, I contemplate leaving it all behind to start a new life in my body-heated cocoon of a sleeping bag. It’s that toasty. The same can’t be said for the rest of my inhospitable tent. My hiking boots, waterproof-but-apparently-not-actually-waterproof ski gloves, and yesterday’s used wool socks—they’re all stiffened by a layer of ice. A quick peek outside the tent window reminds me there’s more where that came from.
But, also: Did it stop snowing? I scurry from my sleeping bag, perform Olympics-level gymnastics to don my outfit du jour—every layer I’ve packed, including wool base layers, hiking and snow pants, and two coats—then fumble with the frozen zipper. I step outside and await the ice sheet’s wind wallop of a morning greeting, but it never hits. The brutal blizzard has been replaced by dainty sprinkles of powdered-sugar snow.
Excitement radiates from the mess tent as the group gathers. We made it through the grind; now it’s time for fun. We gulp coffee and lace crampons for our long-awaited hike on the ice. Larsen runs through the rules: “Follow my lead, use your trekking poles, and please, please don’t go off course.”
He has little to fear. Last night’s storm left a calf- to knee-high snow dump; his bootprints pave the only viable path. We fall into line, sparking a chorus of heavy breaths, oohs and ahhs, and the crunch crunch crunch of crampons.
With yesterday’s white abyss in the rearview, the ice’s otherworldly landforms take shape. This is what we came for. Look one direction: hills of snow that undulate like dunes in the Sahara Desert. Glance the other way: peacock-blue lakes. Straight ahead, the ice spills over the horizon, and while we can’t see it, we know this frosted top layer hides a minefield of crevasses and moulins below.
Fortunately, Larsen knows the way, and we can tell he’s on a mission: snag us the bird’s-eye view we’d missed from the snowed-in moraine yesterday. “Hang here for a second,” he says as we near a tall ice mound. “I’ll run up to see if it’s safe.” Before we have time to consider the implications—what happens if he’s up there and it’s not safe?—he reaches the top. “Come on up!”
In a forest back stateside, this roughly 500-foot ascent would be a cake walk. Here on the steep and slippery ice, where we high-knee march up through layers of thick snow, it’s a heart-pumping 30-minute slog. It’s well worth the sweat. When I join Larsen, and absorb the paper-white panorama, I can barely catch my breath. This time, it’s not the wind’s fault.
I’ve envisioned this scene countless times since that first all-too-short Greenland trip: me, a tiny speck, overwhelmed by the ice sheet’s ethereal beauty. It’s as awe-striking as I’d imagined; it’s also so much deeper. After the ups, downs, and teeth-clenching shivers of the past 24 hours, the ice has become more than a stunning backdrop. It’s a lead character. And she’s a powerful, moody, and fragile character at that—as is every wild place we humans are lucky enough to visit.
I came here with a prewritten narrative, a dreamy tale of me, the sparkling ice, and a clear night beneath lime and lavender auroras. Instead, I leave with something better: a how did we just do that badge of pride. The ice tested me, froze me, and flung me light-years from my comfort zone. Then came my reward. Not only did I earn my keep, I earned this striking view—and the snow-sparkling sunrays that appear minutes later.
Know before you go
Getting there: Copenhagen International Airport provides the most direct route, with several nonstop and year-round Air Greenland flights to Kangerlussuaq per week. Allow at least one day for potential weather delays in Kangerlussuaq before joining the Camp Ice Cap tour. The trip departs near the airport.
Where to stay: Hotel Kangerlussuaq
Guides in the field: Albatros Arctic Circle
How to pack: Albatros Arctic Circle provides camping essentials: sleeping bags and pads, tents, food, crampons, water, trekking poles, and sleds. You can bring one backpack—no duffels or roller bags; you must carry it on your back. Gear depends on your camping trip’s season. For spring and fall, roughly March to May and September to October, bring base layers, ski gloves and glove liners, a neck gaiter, a wool hat, warm socks, snow pants, a warm ski or down coat, a waterproof shell, waterproof hiking boots, and multiple hand warmers. In the milder summer months, where the temperatures range from 40 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit, you can get by with fewer layers. A headlamp, sunglasses, and dry bags are helpful in every season.