A two-week mountaineering expedition to south-east Greenland
14th - 28th August 2019
Wednesday 14th August
We are to fly to Greenland from Reykjavik domestic airport. I am carrying a 20 kg rucksack on front and back, so have some difficulty negotiating steps, curbs and other urban obstacles on the way to the airport, since I can't actually see the ground in front of me.
The departure lounge is already bustling; a large expedition clad in matching branded fleeces have dumped their mountain of matching branded kit-bags in the middle of the floor, and are milling about the Flugterían. Mirva recognises the logo on the back of the fleeces, and informs us that this group is part of a Finnish reality TV show, which involves B-list Finnish celebrities being taken outside their comfort zone and into the glacial landscapes of southern Greenland. We are mildly amused when one of the party - apparently a popular Finnish radio DJ - approaches David to ask for kit advice. Later, when fifty or so people have passed through the security check and been penned into what is little more than a large cupboard, we strike up a conversation with Patrick, one of the leaders of the Finnish group. "How do you manage to look after such a large group?" Mirva asks. "It's a bit like looking after twelve-year-olds," comes the reply.
Our flight takes us to the tiny airstrip on Kulusuk island, south east Greenland. We are met by Matt, one of the partners of the Pirhuk mountaineering logistics company, who will be assisting us in our expedition by providing transport and equipment. Matt issues us with a set of hand-held flares, in case we meet a polar bear as we walk from the airstrip to the village where his company is based. I am grateful that he offers to transport our bags for us, since I don't fancy my chances against a polar bear when carrying 40 kg of equipment, flares or no flares.
Once we reach Kulusuk village, we are introduced to Helen, Matt's partner, as well as Rich and John, who also work for Pirhuk. The afternoon is a crash course in polar bear management; we learn how to erect tripwires and flares around our tents, to deter unwelcome visitors, then spend some time familiarising ourselves with the rifle that we have arranged to hire from Pirhuk. It takes us nine bullets to successfully kill a plastic bottle, but we begin to get a feel for how the gun shoots - consistently high - and reassure ourselves with the thought that a polar bear is significantly larger than a plastic bottle.
Thursday 15th August
We have arranged for Pirhuk to transport us by boat to Apusiaajik island, and then later in the week to ferry us further north - and hopefully to come back for us at the end of our expedition. Accordingly, we convene on the quayside at 9:00 am. The seats on the Aqualuk are ridden astride, and the boat bucks somewhat like a horse, even though the sea is calm. Matt slows as we near the island; I wonder whether the others realise that he is scanning the shoreline for polar bears. Matt and Helen kindly help us to unload: "Don't get your boots wet now, or you'll have wet feet for the whole trip!"
It takes a while for us to locate the area that Matt has recommended as a campsite. We pitch our tents and erect three-quarters of the tripwire which will mark the perimeter of our campsite.
After a quick brew and an inadequate lunch we stomp off to investigate the nearest glacier. The afternoon is designated our training session: we practice putting in ice screws and building anchors, although we do not venture far enough onto the glacier to find crevasses large enough to simulate a crevasse rescue.
At the allotted time of 5:45 pm, we use the satellite phone to call Helen back in Kulusuk, to reassure her that we haven't got lost or eaten by a polar bear just yet - although David has already managed to drop his passport somewhere on the glacier. Maybe - hopefully - we'll find it when we return to the same glacier tomorrow.
Back in camp, we rehydrate some chickpeas for dinner, and waste inordinate amounts of time sorting our gear out.
It feels like more than two days since we left the UK; even Kulusuk seems worlds away, although it lies only a couple of miles distant, across the Ikaasaartik Strait.
Friday 16th August
Adhering to our usual precept that early starts are the key to mountaineering success, we wake at 5:30 am. It takes an hour to walk back to the glacier which we investigated yesterday, and nearly as long again to rig ourselves up with harnesses, ropes, crampons, and all the gear we will need - it has been a long time since our last glacier mountaineering, and we are more than a little out of practice with the relevant knots.
The glacier is uneven and lightly crevassed in the lower basin, but none of the obstacles present a serious challenge. We climb more slowly once we reach the steep, slushy snow leading to the upper glacier; larger crevasses at the top of the lip make route-finding much more challenging, and require a couple of running jumps. We eventually reach the top of the glacier at 9:00 am, then scramble up the final 200 metres of scree and loose rock to reach the summit. The mountain reaches an altitude of about 730m, although feels much higher, given the amount of effort we have had to put in to reach it.
We descend swiftly - perhaps too swiftly, as Mirva trips on a steep rocky section, and later runs out of energy about 200 metres short of the lower edge of the glacier. "Is every day going to be this hard?" she asks, somewhat querulously; quite a worrying question, since today is supposed to be a gentle, introductory day.
Back at camp by mid-afternoon, we devour a large bowl of pasta, then brave the bitterly cold glacial outflow to wash.
Saturday 17th August
"Bear patrol's on red alert," Laurence gestures to David lying flat out on the moraine. He has probably earned a rest, though: we've had another 5:30 am start, and another long day.
Daybreak sees us embarking upon a two-hour walk around the coastline to reach a possible route of ascent on one of the peaks which overlooks our campsite. We find it a bit tricky to work out which face of the mountain we are aiming for, until we realise that the glacier marked on our map is probably hidden from view above a rock lip. We scramble up extremely steep (almost vertical), extremely loose rock to the lip, where we find a moraine-dammed glacial tarn, with the glacier beyond.
We leave most of the kit beside the tarn, and ascend the steep but crevasse-free glacier using ice-axes and crampons only, then scramble over more loose rock to a fine vantage on the summit. I had not realised that there would be so much loose rock in Greenland - I think I had been expecting more big slabs and rock outcrops - although once I consider how much freeze-thaw weathering the mountains must be exposed to, the state of the rock makes perfect sense.
The loose ground means that our descent is just as slow as our ascent. Mirva is particularly nervous on the steep scree of the lower slopes. Laurence tries to encourage her to walk more confidently on the scree, while I try to provide distractions by discussing food plans for the rest of the trip.
After a welcome rest beside a snow-melt stream, we follow the shoreline back to camp for a mid-afternoon bowl of noodles with re-hydrated avocado, which turns out to be surprisingly palatable, notwithstanding that the dried stuff resembles rubbery lichen.
Late at night - after we have set the tripwires and taken the safety pins out of the flares - we receive a visit. Four Kulusuk residents - two fathers with young children - are overnighting on the island, and walk over to the campsite to see what we are up to. Their English is limited (although our Tunumiisut is non-existent), but the older of the two children grins broadly as Laurence places a climbing helmet on his head and hands him an ice-axe that is nearly as long as he is tall.
Sunday 18th August
Our brief sojourn on Apusiaajik Island comes to an end as the Aqualuk arrives to transport us further north, to the Sermiligaaq Fjord. Geo, a Kulusuk resident, is skippering. John is also already on board, along with two clients who are to be dropped off on the far side of the island that we are just leaving. Within seconds of dragging our rucksacks onto the boat, we are chatting away about our respective plans and common experiences. In some ways, their expedition is more ambitious than ours - they hope to get up some previously unclimbed peaks to the east of Sermiligaaq - but on the other hand, they are employing John as a guide. We don't much care how remote our summits are, but we do want to preserve our independence and self-reliance.
Once the boss is out of the way, Geo diverts to collect a mystery package from a tiny wooden hut on a low-lying, otherwise featureless, island. By way of hand gestures and a few words of broken English, he makes it known that in winter he is able to sled out from Kulusuk to this hut.
By 12:00 noon we're back on shore. We take care to mark the landing site with a small cairn before making camp a few hundred yards away, on a rock shelf that is clearly a popular spot; as well as a few shreds of tissue, Laurence finds a pink cigarette lighter, which later proves to be a more reliable source of ignition than the lighters that we have brought with us. We also come across a topographic survey control point set into a boulder on the shoreline. Mirva translates the text as "Geographic Institute Bee Point," leaving me somewhat skeptical of her Danish. David and Mirva rig an excellent cooking shelter in the lee of a rock outcrop, while Laurence and I get a brew on.
The campsite is idyllic. We have clear, open views across the fjord to the impressive peak of Rytterknoegten (circa 7,000 feet), and can hear the ice cracking and growling as the glaciers around us calve. Unfortunately, it is also in the wrong place: after much poring over the map, we realise that we are much further from the Karale glacier than we would like to be. We resolve to make the most of our mistake by exploring the immediate vicinity of the campsite tomorrow. As the evening draws in we stomp along the shoreline to recce potential campsite locations further west. There are very few sources of potable water, but we find a trickle of snow-melt which dictates where we will move our tents to.
Monday 19th August
We lie in bed until the comparatively relaxed time of 6:00 am. By 8:00 am we are high on a moraine ridge above our campsite, where David and Laurence discover a glacial quicksand which coats their boots and lower legs with a grey sludge.
We are unsure which mountain to attempt, so scramble up the moraine until we reach a vantage from which we can survey the potential candidates. After much discussion and several reversals of opinion we opt for the nearer, more interesting-looking peak, in preference to a further away but more gently-sloping mountain, even though we are not confident of being able to attain the summit of the former. We don't, in the end, although we ascend more than 900m, stopping eventually at a point where the ridge gives way to loose, steeply-angled scree below a subsidiary summit.
For the final minutes of our ascent, we become more and more hesitant in our route finding, until we hunker down on a safe ledge, realising that there is a real prospect of becoming crag-fast (or scree-fast). Laurence scouts potential lines of continuation, while I search for escape routes. We decide to escape, picking our way gingerly down the ridge until we reach ground which doesn't slide away beneath our feet.
"That was probably a graded climb," Laurence observes to Mirva once we're back on relatively safe ground. "I'm glad you didn't tell me that when we were up there!" she retorts.
We descend just in time to photograph a whale backbone that has been washed up on the shoreline, before the tide submerges it once more. Laurence scavenges a section of vertebra, although we suspect that trying to take a whalebone back to the UK may well contravene Danish or British law (or both).
Another group have set up camp nearby. We survey them through binoculars as they unload their gear from a boat, and surmise that they are probably sightseers rather than mountaineers. They are clearly aware of the polar bear risk, since one of the party carries a gun, but their campsite is spread about the hillside, with no obvious tripwires or evidence of a bear watch.
David reports seeing an arctic fox while Laurence and I are busy washing in a nearby pool. Later, when we've all gone to bed, the proximity alarm on our 'larder' (my haul sack) sounds. We are hardly a rapid response team: I waste a good minute trying to stuff my feet into my boots whilst still wearing my down sleeping-boots, then trip over my laces, then fail to find the safety pins for the tripwire flares before I get down to the cooking shelter to see an arctic fox making off with one of our rubbish bags. It has also demonstrated its superior intelligence by moving the alarm. We bury our rubbish, and spend much time barricading our larder into a cleft in the rock before we return to our sleeping bags.
Tuesday 20th August
Another 6:00 am start: our main aim for the day is to move camp. We make two trips along the shoreline to haul our equipment from Camp Two to our chosen site for Camp Three. Laurence and David, being the relatively stronger members of the party, bear the heaviest loads. By way of recompense, Mirva and I are allocated the job of clearing a platform for the tents and erecting a passable cooking shelter using the tarp.
We designate the largest boulder in the vicinity as our larder and stash our food on top of it, priding ourselves in the thought that we've designed a fox-proof food store.
We spend the afternoon recce-ing potential glaciers for future walks. I climb higher than I had planned in order to get a view down over the glacier which lies nearest to our campsite, and which we aim to ascend tomorrow. I scramble up what seems to be an interminable scree-slope until, quite suddenly, a vast, beautiful hinterland opens up before me. Several small glaciers are rolling out from their high cirques into a larger basin, where they meld into one of the giant glaciers which flow radially outwards from the Greenland ice cap. The day is bright, and the glittering sunlight on the ice lends an air of enchantment to the scene.
Two dark rock peaks rise behind the near glacier. From this distance, they appear as silhouettes only, lacking that sense of depth which might enable me to assess their potential for climbing. Using my binoculars, I surmise that the left-hand peak may prove climbable, depending upon the quality of the rock. The map shows this mountain as being completely surrounded by glaciers, and I find myself beginning to think of it as Island Peak.
Back at the campsite, we realise that we have, of course, underestimated the acrobatic ability of arctic foxes.
As the sun drops below the mountains, we watch a fox leap nimbly up onto the larder-rock. Thankfully for us, it lacks the dexterity to undo the buckles on my haul sack, so our food supplies are not in danger.
Wednesday 21st August
Our morning alarm-calls are getting earlier. We rise at 5:30 am and stomp - bleary eyed, and with a certain amount of early-morning irritability - up the nearby glacier. The going is easy at first, but after a couple of hours we encounter an icefall with gaping crevasses. Laurence does an excellent job of route-finding, and we wend our way along narrow ice-ridges between crevasses, only needing to back-track a couple of times. Sometimes we get tantalisingly close to the rock ridge that we are aiming for, only to find that we have walked ourselves into a blind alley on a crevasse-bounded peninsula, and we are forced to march back almost to the other side of the glacier.
After three hours on the glacier, we reach the rock of Island Peak. The rock proves loose, but not (particularly) dangerously so, and it takes only a further 45 minutes to scramble to the top.
After some celebratory photographs, David consults his GPS-enabled watch to try to get an altitude reading.
"Remember: GPS signal is strongest outside, away from trees and tall buildings," the watch proclaims.
"I know that," David grumbles. We speculate briefly on which is nearer: the nearest tree or the nearest tall building. (Back in the UK, I calculate that the nearest trees and tall buildings are probably both in Iceland, some 400 miles distant.)
We opt to return to camp around the other side of Island Peak, in order to avoid the icefall, and consequently make the descent back to the glacier tongue in good time. From this point, everything goes to pot. David jumps boldly from the ice onto the moraine and immediately sinks to mid calf: the sun-warmed moraine has turned to quicksand. Chaos ensues, as we try to extricate David without being sucked in ourselves. We unrope, then lagger through the quicksand, me with my crampons still on, and with both ropes looped haphazardly around my torso. David and Mirva somehow manage to overshoot the campsite, and are a good way back towards Camp Two before they realise their error. I head straight for a stream to rinse the quicksand off my boots and trousers before it cements the two together.
Thursday 22nd August
The proximity alarm sounds at 5:15 am. I groan, roll over, and fumble for the zip on my sleeping bag, wishing that whatever is trying to get into our food could have waited for another 45 minutes, when the rest of us will be wanting breakfast as well. I poke my head out of the tent and conclude that, since I can't see a bear, the alarm must have been triggered by a fox, and it is safe to go back to sleep for those vital extra minutes.
My stomach has been feeling unsettled for several days, no doubt due to the high proportion of rehydrated-dehydrated vegetables in our current diet. This morning, I succumb to diarrhoea, which detains us in the campsite longer than planned, and puts me in the somewhat embarrassing position of having to beg toilet roll supplies from my camp-mates.
Delays notwithstanding, we still achieve the glacier by 6:50 am. Overcast skies mean that the temperatures are much lower than they have been on previous days, and it is difficult to keep warm until we have settled into a steady walking rhythm. We follow the medial moraine towards Island Peak, then turn westward, following the moraine to the foot of another ridge. This, we scramble up for several hours. The rock is extremely loose on the lower slopes, but better quality higher up, until it becomes increasingly technical at a point about 50 metres below what appears to be the summit. I think I could continue higher, but the others are less confident on steep rock, and we decide to descend from here. David's altimeter reads 996m (enticingly close to 1,000m) until he calibrates it with GPS and brings the reading down to 968m.
Any sense of disappointment in having failed to summit the mountain is muted and short-lived. There are fine views in all directions, most notably of a mountain with a prominent nose which, in David's opinion, resembles El Capitan, and a saddle which reminds me of Blencathra. "Let's compromise and call it Blen-Cap," David suggests.
We have been out longer than on previous days, and the glacier surface is flowing with water as we descend, almost as if someone is giving it a hose-down at the end of the day. It is late by the time we get back to camp, but we remain alert enough to remember not to jump straight off the glacier and into the quicksand - though I still succeed in getting my trousers plastered in mud.
Friday 23rd August
Rain has been forecast, so we designate Friday as a rest day, and lie in until the decadent hour of 9:00 am, by which time we are ravenous. Slightly contrary to the forecast, we receive only a little drizzle, rather than heavy rain, and spend most of the day fervently hoping that the wet weather hasn't insinuated itself into Saturday instead.
Saturday 24th August
We are still feeling lazy, and use the forecast of low cloud as a pretext for another lie-in. I stick my head out of the tent at 9:00 am, wondering whether I can be bothered to walk as far as the cooking shelter to put a brew on, and find that the cloud base is much higher than predicted: in fact, the day looks good for mountaineering.
"Everyone up, we're going back on the glacier!"
There is a disconsolate cry of "What? Without any breakfast?" from Mirva, followed by a scramble to get our gear together for 'The Spin'. 'The Spin' is one of those mouthwatering dreams which none of us quite dares to express their desire for, for fear of disappointment: we aim to ascend one glacier, and descend another, thereby walking a complete circuit of the mountain which overlooks our campsite. Greenland is one of the few places on earth where the glaciers and large enough, and sufficiently well-connected, for this to be possible.
The far glacier is further away than it looks, and we need to cross the near glacier (unroped, for speed) in order to avoid the turbulent glacial outflow and an impressive but worryingly unstable-looking ice-cave. I have mentally talked myself round to the idea of a long day on the ice, provided that we can be on far the glacier by noon; we are a few minutes behind this schedule, but not so much that I am concerned, especially as the weather seems to be holding up well.
Our circuit for 'The Spin' is about 11 miles, ascending to at least 800m at its highest point. Mindful that the end of our expedition is drawing ever closer, Laurence is still surveying the ridges for possible routes of ascent. "El Cap's off," he calls, when a promising snowfield turns out to lead to a series of nasty-looking rock pinnacles. I'm relieved: a quick nip up El Cap would probably kill Mirva. Indeed, Mirva really struggles when we reach a snow-covered ('wet') area of the glacier, and our walk slows to a trudge, but she rallies when we begin to descend once more.
As we crest a snow-bank behind El Cap, we spy lines of footprints leading into and out of a nearby hollow. Up to this point, the route has been breathtaking: it would really spoil things if we were to get eaten by a polar bear now. We get our pocket-flares ready, and David loosens the straps on the gun in case he needs to access it swiftly. We creep cautiously towards the footprints, Laurence leading the first rope and Mirva the second, each of us trying to look in all directions at once. Ahead of me, the tension flows visibly away as Laurence turns back towards the group, smiling: the prints appear to be human, and not as fresh as they had looked from a distance.
We eventually reach the end of the glacier by 6:15 pm. I think I have identified a safe descent onto the moraine, but end up sinking into the quicksand for the third time; the eyelets on my boots and gaiters are becoming clogged. There is no time to wash boots or trousers tonight, though, as we're sufficiently late back to camp to want to do nothing more than eat and sleep. I'm so grubby that I think it worthwhile to remove my trousers before getting into my sleeping bag (the first time I've done this in more than a week), which means hopping around on a rock with bare legs and bare feet, much to the amusement of the others.
The forecast for tomorrow is rain again, so we can treat ourselves to another day of rest at camp, and will have the opportunity to clean ourselves up a bit.
Sunday 25th August
It rains all night. When the hammering of raindrops on the flysheet seems to be abating a little, we stumble up the hill to the cooking shelter (which is definitely leaking) for a prolonged breakfast and two brews, before retiring back to bed by noon.
Monday 26th August
The next window of fair weather arrives as predicted, so Laurence ordains a 4:00 am start. We're on the nearby glacier for 6:00 am, then slog upwards for three hours to get behind the ridge that we failed to climb on Thursday. The going is easy while we are following the moraine, but the higher reaches of the glacier are very crevassed higher up. By mid-morning it seems that we are making no headway at all, as with each step forward the col for which we are aiming appears to recede at least twice as far. Eventually, the surface levels and we can increase our aching pace. At the col, we collapse onto the safety of solid rock, unrope, and begin scanning the nearby peaks through binoculars, hoping to identify possible routes of ascent.
Our initial assessment is that none of the summits appear attainable. The one possible exception is that we might try to reprise Thursday's mountain, climbing now from the opposite side. However, we find it difficult to judge the angle of a higher glacier which we would need to cross: will the ice be too steep to ascend (and descend) safely?
Mirva is exhausted after nearly two weeks of hard mountaineering. Common sense and safety dictate that if Mirva is too tired to continue, none of us should; selfishness and the single-minded obsession of mountaineering lead us towards the summit.
The upper glacier is severe, but a few degrees short of vertical. As we near the headwall, we cross some impressive crevasses, then skirt the bergschrund to reach the rock ridge. From here, a short easy scramble leads to the summit - which, we realise, is not the same high point that we had been aiming for on Thursday.
"Can we call this Birthday Peak?" I ask. Today is my 33rd birthday; to be here on the summit of this mountain, surrounded by stunning glacial landscapes, is by far the greatest birthday present I could wish for.
"I don't think we have the right to name this mountain," Laurence replies. "Something about that cairn over there suggests that we aren't the first people up here."
He's right. Later, we will find an article in Trek & Mountain magazine (Issue 69, March 2016, pp. 28-45) suggesting that this peak was first ascended in 2015.
Tuesday 27th August
After yesterday's ten-hour trek, we enjoy being able to linger in our sleeping bags until 7:00 am. All we need to achieve this morning is to strike camp, and move our bags down to the coast, to await the boat back to Kulusuk.
The Aqualuk zooms round the corner of the fjord just before 11:00 am. When he's nearly level with us, Geo heaves the boat sharp left, spinning it round to face the shore, then cuts the engines and coasts in to land. Once on board we head over to the Knud Rasmussen glacier, where another group are due to be collected today. This group of four have been trekking with Rich - and an inordinately large Greenland dog named Badger. The group wish to fish on the way back to Kulusuk, so we spend an hour or two trying to absorb as much of the landscape as we can, and trying not to look when the North American members of the trekking group reel in cod from their drop lines and enthusiastically set about slitting their gills.
Back in Kulusuk, we over-indulge on fresh bread and jam from the village shop, where the man serving on the checkout is one of the pair who visited us on Apusiaajik island. "Long time no see," he greets us. It certainly feels longer than a week and a half since we last met.
After lunch we are fortunate enough to be able to visit Kulusuk's tiny museum. We are given a guided tour by the charismatic village school-teacher, Frederic, who uses fantastically expressive hand gestures to add life to his explanations. One of the aspects of life in Greenland that Frederic draws our attention to is the impact of global warming upon the population. I am particularly struck when he tells us that only a generation ago, Greenlanders were able to rely upon the sea freezing between October and March, and could make plans for sled-travel during this time; today, the sea does not freeze until January, and even then the ice may not be thick enough to support the weight of a sledge.
Then - finally - showers! Matt and Helen kindly let us use the shower in their own home. Although I have gone without a shower for a fortnight on previous occasions, this is probably the first expedition where it has not been warm enough to wash in a lake or stream, and I relish the thought of being able to scrub my skin clean and finally get rid of the last of the quicksand.
Wednesday 28th August
The expedition is over. We all leave Greenland - even David, without a passport, as the staff of Kulusuk airport have decided to pass the problem on to Iceland. All too soon we are back in the tumultuously loud, frenetically busy world, where time is scheduled and life is parametrized by smart-phones, the internet, money, bus timetables, and all manner of things which only a day ago were utterly irrelevant.
Has Greenland changed us? Certainly, and for the better.
Will we remember that we have changed, once we return to so-called normality? I fervently hope so, but already Greenland feels like a dream.