Greenland 1993. Part one.
I wasn't always an outdoor store salesperson. Once upon a time I was an unemployed ski instructor who would have loved an outdoor store job. This is the story of how I spent the time after being educated and before I settled down to the joy of work, rent and bills.
The second part of this is also on bebee.com and can be found here https://www.bebee.com/producer/@neil-smith/greenland-1993-part-two
Iceland and Onwards.
On the 17th of July Iain MacDonald and I stepped off a plane in Reykjavik. We spent a couple of days looking around and found that a couple of days just wasn’t anything like enough. Reykjavik was a great town to explore and we wandered around the streets for hours as well as taking the opportunity to visit the swimming pool next to the campsite. Following this, all too brief stint we headed out to Keflavik airport to rendezvous with Doug and Adam who constituted the other fifty per cent of the Jordanhill College East Greenland Expedition. This was the start of a trip that had been over two years in the planning and which had involved months of packing, preparing and begging. Looking for gear, for funding, for help of any kind. We had gathered together a crew, equipment, food and money and this was where we started the process of finding out if we were worth the investment or not.
The plane to Kulusuk got lower and lower, the wheels extended and yet there was still no sign of anything beneath us other than water and ice. As we descended the ice got closer and closer yet but there was still no sign of land. In true British fashion I was almost scared enough to risk embarrassment and ask one of the crew if this was normal before we plunged to our doom but suddenly and without warning, we hit the dirt runway which extended virtually to the arctic shoreline.
We made the short trip from Kulusuk island to the small town of Ammassalik by helicopter. This was a first for me and was an utterly enchanting experience. Take off was so gentle compared to a plane and to skim above the pack ice on a sunny day was a real gift from the gods.
There was a note for us pinned to the door of the tourist office In Ammassalik which gave directions to a place next to the local graveyard where we could camp and pointed us in the direction of a café where we could eat. My diary of the trip states “. . . dinner of hotdogs and chips ordered by Iain”. My diary has nothing to say however about why it was relevant that Iain did the ordering.
The next day we claimed the gear we had sent off four months earlier, from the KNI freight shed and carried four laden sledges along the harbour and waited for a Mr. Thomas Kuitse who had been hired to drop us off in the middle of nowhere. We paused at the village of Kungmiut to buy kerosene, post a few cards and provide entertainment for local children. As we sailed through some serious ice and substantial bergs, we sat in this flimsy little fibreglass boat and tried not to think about the Titanic. Eventually though the ice thinned out, the water cleared and the trip progressed fairly serenely. At one point Mr. Kuitse pulled out a rifle that looked like it had been dug up from a bog and took a couple of wayward shots at a distant seal but apart from this moment of low drama nothing much happened until we were dropped off near the head of Tasilaq fjord where we made camp and set about carrying all our gear up to the glacier from where we could ski toward our goal which was the mountain called LaupersBjerg.
First climbed by a Swiss team in the nineteen thirties and only repeated once since this hill had seen off several expeditions through the years including two previous British attempts. Avalanches had caused some problems as had the weather, remoteness and the generally difficult climbing conditions. In fact, it seemed like a bit of a sod but the pictures looked impressive and from the comfort of a Glasgow apartment it seemed eminently straightforward. It was probably no harm that we were all young and stupid and prepared to rush in where angels and wise men feared to tread.
In our conceit we also had plans to climb several surrounding peaks and explore more of the Schweizerland region once we had finished with LaupersBjerg. Possibly it was also on our agenda to sort out world peace and feed the poor. Who knows? Inevitably our hopes and dreams were thoroughly hammered on the anvil of reality and that came as a surprise to no-one bar our young selves.
The Long and Winding Road.
We spent four days in sweltering heat carrying all of our gear seven kilometres and thousands of feet up to a point on the glacier where we could camp and ski off. Up and down repeatedly. Three or four times a day in a place with no darkness and where time quickly became an abstract concept. Stumbling on loose rock and treading warily on thin snow and ice we eventually moved all our tents, food, fuel, sledges and every damn thing and set up camp on the snow. The coolness of the high camp came as a welcome relief after the thirty-degree heat and mosquitoes of the shoreline.
Finally; ten days after leaving Glasgow and five after arriving in Greenland we set off on ski and began to haul our sledges toward LaupersBjerg around 120 kilometres away. It took another ten days to ski in to the base of the mountain and the journey was an exercise in patience and frustration. The most recent maps of the area were drawn in the 1950s and were well out of date when it came to snow levels. On more than one occasion we found the intended way forward impassable and had to re-think. At one point this meant that we spent an entire day dragging the sledges up a 1200-foot slope with the climbing ropes using a jury-rigged pulley system. Twenty hours to cover less than a hundred horizontal metres. My role in this was that of counterbalance. Repeatedly running downhill connected to a rope running around a karabiner and pulling a sledge up so that once all four sledges were up, they could be anchored and we were able to repeat the process again. And again. And again . . .
Our progress toward the mountain was interrupted and slowed by all manner of obstacles. Crevasses, dangerous weather, dry glaciers, an icefall and skier error. The lessons learned were, in no particular order; be prepared to deal with anything, read the damn map more carefully, don’t get too cocky about how good your skiing is and, above all, develop patience. Swearing may offer a short-term release of frustration but the only sure cure is to slow down and either outwait or fix the problem properly and carefully. It took a long time for these lessons to be learned but eventually learn we did.
Ascending and descending. The first attempts.
By the time we reached our base camp at the foot of LaupersBjerg conditions were cold, settled and clear. Pretty much ideal for our purposes. After a very easy day and a half of mooching around doing very little bar setting up camp and sorting out two sets of climbing gear our separate attempts on the summit began in earnest. Two pairs skied off to different points on the base of the mountain. Iain and myself aiming to put up a new route on the North ridge while Doug and Adam head for a more direct but technically challenging central line. All going to plan we would all be back at base camp in four or five days’ time.
Our start was timed so that we arrived at the foot of the first cliff as the sun was low and the ice was frozen hard. It was important to be off this face before the sun warmed it up again and the snow became unstable and avalanche prone and with this incentive to goad us, we set off at a serious pace. At the end of the second pitch I broke two inches off the pick on my ice axe through using it as an anchor. For the next ten pitches everything was just that bit more like work than it should have been and much less secure but we still made good progress and hit the top of the ridge with time to spare and we had a short break as we packed the crampons and ice tools away and headed on across the ridge. Here the rock was loose, frost shattered and highly unreliable. At several times I found myself stepping on a ledge that tumbled away or pulling up on a hold that just came off in my hand and left me flailing in thin air. Iain had been less happy on the ice section but as soon as we hit the rock he was in his element and I was happy to be guided and encouraged by him. His superior rock-climbing proficiency was all the more useful because I was in the process of “Bottling it” completely. The uncertain holds, fractured rock and constant danger started getting on my nerves. Iain set up a belay for me across a particularly exposed traverse. The climbing wasn’t particularly difficult but there was a five-hundred-foot drop and the holds were, as previously stated, fragile and unreliable.
Progress came to a grinding halt when we reached a place where our only way forward was up a narrow chimney which was an absolute rockfall trap. As we started to climb, we quickly realised that the rope was dislodging stones and figured that it would be safer to climb without it. After a further twenty minutes we realised that “Safer” isn’t the same as “Safe”. Whoever went first was in danger from falling rock and snapping holds. The second climber had all that plus the very real chance of also being hit by the body of the first climber. Carefully, oh so very carefully, we made our way back down to the ridge where we brew tea and mellow out before heading back along the rock to the top of the snow slope we had climbed up in the first place.
From this high vantage point the Tolkienesque nature of the landscape is more pronounced and obvious than ever. Endless mountains and glaciers fill the view and in front of us the bulk of the Greenland icecap rises up like some primordial albino whale. A sub-zero Moby Dick. The view is glorious but in our current state the harshness and inhospitability of the place cancel out a certain amount of the beauty. We are of no more relevance than the small fleas on the big fleas that sit on the back of an elephant.
We bivvied here and ate dinner, waiting until the sun had been down long enough for the snow to freeze solidly and then we abseiled back to our skis. Amazingly once I was back on snow my confidence rose and I was much happier than I had ever been on the rock sections. In two and a half hours we were down and the, incredibly fast, dreamlike ski back to the tents took about ten minutes more.
Tired, dazed and barely coherent we stumbled around the tents before getting into sleeping bags. We made tea but neither of us had more than a couple of sips before we passed into unconsciousness, too far gone even to hear Doug and Adam returning a few hours later with a similar tale of nearly but not quite. They had made it to within a thousand feet of the summit but their way was barred by a very scary snow face of great technical difficulty and prone to much avalanche activity. The debris of previous falls was all around the base and there were no handy alternative routes in sight. They had also decided that discretion was the better part of valour and that it would be better to back off, re-think and go again another day.
Although we were all pretty disappointed at failing in our initial attempts, we knew that we had time to go again and without a doubt we had learned a lot in the experience of trying and failing.
This cloud came with plenty of silver lining.