Greenland 1993. Part two
This is the second piece covering an expedition to climb a fairly remote mountain in Eastern Greenland. The first episode can be found here on bebee.com https://www.bebee.com/producer/@neil-smith/greenland-1993-part-one
Ascending and descending part two.
Following our unsuccessful attempts on LaupersBjerg, Doug and I skied onto the Femstjernen glacier to scout out a possible new line up the hill. Ditching the skis and climbing a lateral moraine we checked out a gully which seemed good on the map. Alas, as so often happens this was topped with an icefall and precarious looking seracs. If by some miracle we could get through this there was then a fairly impossible looking rock step with no obvious way around. Discussing all this back at camp we quickly decided that our last roll of the dice would be to repeat the original route from the thirties. With time running out there was only going to be one shot at this and only one pair climbing as they would need most of our gear. Our original attempts had shown that we were short of long ice screws for such exposed climbing so the summit team would get all that could be spared.
Doug and Adam got the nod for the climb. I hadn’t the experience of the other three and Iain was less driven about being the first British climber to summit this, or indeed any mountain. By five in the morning everything was organised and it was time to call it a day and head to sleep. Early the next night Doug and Adam set off with our smallest pulk and made their way around to the start of the climb. We wouldn’t see them again for five days.
Left to our own devices Ian and myself started exploring some of the other hills around us. We skied a quick couple of kilometres to the foot of a snow gully on a hill marked on the map only as point 1800 metres. Dumping our rucksacks at the bottom we headed up the gully which really was as good as it had looked from afar. This was fast, enjoyable climbing without ropes or gear and we made it to the top in great time with only a short rock section to the summit. As with the rock we had previously encountered, this was brittle and unreliable which really took the fun out of climbing it. After this we decided that any other routes we did that ended like this we would stop at the iceline and go no further.
Back at the bottom of the gully we settled down in our bivvy bags to enjoy a brew and our first real night of the trip as the Arctic half-darkness gave way to the real thing. And what a night it was. The beginnings of an aurora strengthened and we were treated to a truly mesmerising display of the Northern Lights along with a few shooting stars. In such a quiet place we could hear the sound it makes and I commented on this to Iain only to discover that he had fallen asleep. On the bright side, I got to drink his tea as well as mine.
For the next couple of days, we skied a bit, climbed a bit and talked a lot. Both of us were thankful, impressed and delighted with our time on this expedition but after the experience of our failed attempt on LaupersBjerg, neither of us were prepared to die for it and this showed in our approach to this batch of climbs. If it stopped being fun then back down we went.
Eventually Doug and Adam returned. Triumphant and knackered. The final section of ice climbing to the summit had been hard and sustained. The effort of getting there along with the stress of the descent afterwards made for a slow, hard ski back to base camp and once back they pretty much collapsed for a couple of days.
We now had a couple of weeks to get back to our rendezvous point at Tasilaq Fjord and await the arrival of Mr. Kuitse and his boat.
The Road Home.
The return journey should have been a doddle. We had the route down pat, the pulks were lighter and we were all much fitter. In reality however, it was one damn thing after another. Initially we made good progress but that all came to a halt with the early return of winter in Greenland. Visibility was often minimal which slowed us down and fresh snow tended to cover over crevasses which meant that we had to either move with caution or not move at all. At times we had to abandon the skis and tread slowly downhill. More than once we were forced to stay put in our tent and just wait for the bad weather to blow over. It got so tight for time that we were forced to pack fast and go whenever there was a break in the weather even if the break was extremely short lived. At times we dashed forward for a couple of hours before calling a halt again. Eventually we made it to the top of the last glacier but even here when we were so close to our destination the weather refused to play nice and we ended up staying in place for another two days. The lower glacier was very crevassed and we had to be able to see well enough to find our way down safely. No visibility meant that we could easily drop into a poorly covered hole. At very best this would mean lots of time spent rigging up a system to evacuate a person and a sledge from the crevasse. At worst of course, the person wouldn’t be coming out at all. Being able to pick out a route more carefully would help to avoid having to cope with this situation in the first place.
At last there came a time when we dared delay departure no more and we head off in the pouring rain and low cloud which thankfully lightened as we dropped lower. The descent was excruciating. Step by careful step. Crampons biting into ice and being jarred by the weight of the pulks pushing from behind. The harshness of the surface caused damage to three of our four pulks, battered our bodies and melted my brain somewhat. Putting a foot down had to be done carefully to see if the snow was solid underneath before moving the next foot forward and repeating. Even the people behind had to be careful as the snow might hold for the first one or two but then give way for no visible reason. Ironically as we reached the bottom of the glacier the sun came out and the weather near instantly turned hot and clear for the first time in ages. It was almost as if a switch had been flicked. All our gear was carried the last kilometre or so to the shore and we set up camp quickly. As much of our wet stuff as possible was draped over the tents and the place looked like some kind of alfresco laundry.
By now most of us have had enough and just want to be back home. Everything feels a bit anti-climactic as we burn our rubbish and gather up the gear and debris of the trip and wait for tomorrow’s boat. My diary entry for the day captured my low mood “Given the choice of coming back here or being castrated with two blunt rocks I would go for the rocks every time. I’m sure this feeling will pass but for the moment I couldn’t care less about Greenland, mountains or isolated, bastard wilderness experiences”.
Well the boat didn’t come. We waited all day, pitched the tents again and told ourselves that we must have been a day out in our arrangements or something. Nor did it come the next day and that really was a concern because our flight out to Iceland was booked for the following day and if we weren’t lucky it would be taking off without us.
It took off without us because we were still hanging about at the shore of a deserted fjord as the weather worsened. We explored the possibility of walking to the nearest village but the rivers had swollen to a size that made crossing them difficult and hazardous. All in all, it was a bit of a bugger really. We still had the “nuclear option”, of activating the emergency EPIRB beacon available to us if things got too desperate but we didn’t think we were that stuck yet and decided to wait and see if anything changed regards river levels or perhaps someone would show up to look for us. The possibility seemed unlikely but we had fuel and food and were in no immediate danger. I took the time to trim the facial hair which had lodged around my chin with the scissors on a swiss army knife. It was neither comfortable nor heroic looking so probably best not to inflict it on the general public back in civilisation.
Four days after we should have been picked up, we flagged down a fisherman who had come up the fjord to pull in his lines for the last time that year. Iain and Doug got a lift with him back to Kungmiut and in their absence myself and Adam got to work packing up our gear yet again. After three hours pass another, slightly bigger boat appears and we load all our kit and ourselves in and away to Kungmiut we go.
The next ferry to Ammassalik wouldn’t be for four days so we camped on the edge of the village and had a look around. We took turns on the local payphone calling home to stop family and friends from worrying and also making contact with the tourist office in Ammassalik to find out what went wrong with our pickup. This was a timely call as we were less than an hour away from being the focus of a major mountain rescue effort. Thomas Kuitse had reported us as no-shows after waiting three hours for a rendezvous that we didn’t make. This sounded like nonsense to us as we had been in place a day early but it was a problem that we could sort out later. In the meantime, we relaxed and looked around. One of the Danish schoolteachers gave us a couple of cod so we ate fresh food for the first time in two months. I bought Pepsi, TUC crackers and chocolate in the small store and walked around with Iain, saying hi to everyone and being laughed at by the local kids. There were wild looking dogs tied up all over the place. Stranded sledges waiting for snow and antique looking skis against every wall. The village was very quiet and there are almost no adults around. It looked like some kind of social experiment.
We were invited to spend time at the school on the Monday so the pair of us scrubbed up and went along to pass on our English language skills and answer questions translated by the teacher. The classes were pretty laid back and the kids were more interested in Iain’s camera with its high-tech remote control and my very brightly lit Timex watch than in anything we had to say. We found out that the reason for the absence of adults was that they were mostly still hungover or sleeping it off. This is the poorest corner of Greenland and has the worst alcoholism rates. The local economy at the time was entirely dependant on Danish government spending of 122,000,000 Danish Kroner (16.5 million euro) which paid for a small fish processing plant, the harbour and welfare benefits. The most academically able kids go on to further education either in Nuuk on the West coast or in Denmark. As is typical in these situations they rarely come back to live in a remote village afterwards. It was the first time we had any kind of insight into the place as somewhere other than a venue for a mountain adventure and I was very grateful that our trip had gone wrong in such a way as to make this informative four days possible.
On trooping off the ferry, we went straight round to the tourist office where we were told that as we hadn’t turned up for the rendezvous then we could sod off or sort it out with the local police. At the police station it very quickly became clear that Thomas Kuitse had simply gone to the wrong place entirely to fetch us and that the error was his. Back to the tourist office armed with the police report we got our money back, rearranged our flight to Iceland and wandered off to experience the heady delights of downtown Ammassalik. The heady delights consisted of a museum, which was pretty interesting but limited, a shop containing every distilled spirit possible, a lifetime’s supply of sweeties and one very small freezer stocked with frozen veg for the Danes working locally. The only other place was the café we had visited previously and it was to here that Adam and I went for dinner. We ordered fish and chips but they had no fish so we opted for chicken only to find that there was none of that either. Ultimately, we ended up once again with hot dogs and chips. The taste was indifferent but the feeling of sitting there in the warmth, in good company was excellent.
We had three days to spend in Ammassalik before taking the ferry for the short trip to Kulusuk island airport. Arriving hours early for the plane we drank coffee and mooched about aimlessly. On boarding I was beyond excited. More hyper than a six-year-old on a diet of coke and jelly beans whilst waiting for Santa Claus. The flight passed in the blink of an eye and we moved through the gleaming terminal at Keflavik to find that the Icelandair customer service desk was closed until the following morning. After hanging around all night we spoke to a very helpful woman who sorted out our tickets with no hassle and we prepared to go our separate ways. Doug and Adam had a flight to London that afternoon while Iain and I had a day and half before there was a space on the Glasgow service. We left the other two and walked to the campsite in Keflavik town where we showered, slept and went walkabout. We found a place called Strikkid where I finally get the fish and chips I was craving and Iain demolishes a twelve-inch pizza accompanied by industrial quantities of coffee. A further wander takes us to Café Langbest where we have more coffee and pass the time before turning in for the night.
As our plane begins its descent to Glasgow airport, we pass over Iain’s home town, Kyle of Lochalsh on the West coast of Scotland. The day is glorious and the country is painted beautifully below us. We have just finished the final game of our ten-week Gin rummy marathon and I ended up losing 13,930 points to Iain’s 13,975. The deck of cards is looking as battered as I feel and I genuinely don’t know what I’m going to do when I get home. My previous plans feel a bit limited and I want to do something bigger, more expansive, more dreamlike, with no idea what that something may be.
Iain’s girlfriend picks us up at the airport and, as we drive along the motorway to the city centre both Iain and I shrink back in our seats. The pace, the noise, the quantity of vehicles and the speed are on a level that we haven’t seen for almost three months and it was possibly the most terrifying ten miles of road I have ever experienced. They dropped me at Buchanan bus station to catch the bus that would take me back home to the highlands.
At that moment the expedition was over. As I stood on the platform on a dull Scottish afternoon, surrounded by thousands of people, I suddenly felt more alone than I ever had on a glacier in Greenland.
Thank you for reading.
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