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The American East Greenland Expedition

The American East Greenland Expedition

DONALD J. LISKA

THE third day out of Scoresbysund dawned over our camp on an island called Danmarks-oer. Early that morning we* had spotted our Eskimo guide from Kap Hope in his open boat heading east back home, some 100 miles away. He would have to cross the open mouth of the deep fjord, Hall Bredning, all alone and we found ourselves trusting in his luck that he would make it. He was our link with civilization. We were not marooned and could even travel about freely in our own boats but still, if anything happened, he was the only one who knew just where we were. And, as it turned out, it was this very man who would try, day after day, to cut a path through the ice to us when, in five weeks, we were indeed marooned only 15 miles out of Scoresbysund. All about us at 70.5° N. latitude lay the enormous scenery of Scoresby Sound, a body of water 25 miles wide at its mouth and over 200 miles long to the tip of its deepest fjords. To the southeast were the ragged peaks of Knud Rasmussens Land, less than 6000 feet high but rising clean out of salt water. Due south was the gigantic Syd Brae (glacier), almost four miles wide as it plunged into the sea and covering almost 100 square miles. North of us lay Milne Land which we would visit later and beyond that the jagged peaks of Renland.

Our speculative destination was the Watkins mountains on the south side of the King Christian IX peninsula. To get there we would have to penetrate well into Gaase Fjord, a total boating distance of 150 miles from the Danish/Eskimo village of Scoresbysund. Then we would have to haul sledges up from the sea along glacial avenues to the icecap and cross the peninsula, a distance on foot of about 90 miles. Once there we would enter glacial drainages on the south side of the peninsula to reach the mountains. Two previous parties into this region, Alastair Allan’s and Andrew Ross’, had had to be rescued. The Danish authorities were convinced that mountaineering parties to the Watkins mountains were risky beyond reason. The American East Greenland Expedition therefore had a hard time acquiring permission and did so only after posting a large rescue bond and modifying its plans to suit the authorities. We had to get ourselves out safely or it would be our necks.

We had no assurance that we could penetrate Gaase Fjord any better than Allan had, but we set out to give it a try. We left Danmarks-oer and headed for the Gaase Fjord narrows about 25 miles away. We used Avon inflatable boats which simply bounced of the ice chunks we encountered and were very stable. They could not, however, slice their way through slushy, disintegrating “brash” ice which we found as we entered the narrows. Up to that point it had been clear sailing but now the entire 5-mile width of the narrows as well as the 50-mile-deep fjord beyond were jammed shore-to-shore with brash and glacial icebergs. We poled and we pushed, breaking many a shear pin on our propellers and finished the day exhausted after covering less than a mile. We camped in an ice-free bay ready to try again the next day but during the night brash and small floes invaded the bay so that by morning we found ourselves stuck tighter than sardines, still almost 30 miles from our destination. Instead of being able to forge ahead we became worried about being able to back out. Five days after entering the narrows we began trying to force our way back and eventually succeeded in reaching open water.

Our next destination was the nearest glacier connecting the sea and the icecap. We sailed east along the south shore of the sound for 12 miles until we crossed the gigantic sea wall snout of the Syd Brae. Even if the Watkins mountains were beyond reach we could at least explore the Syd glacier system, get onto the unexplored icecap in the center of Knud Rasmussens Land and perhaps do some climbing.

To ascend the Syd Brae, we used a sledge which was constructed of a canvas sheet, braces and supports to mount on skis. The sledge was very light and sturdy and is used by the Norwegian Red Cross for search and rescue work. We loaded it with roughly 200 pounds and were at first able to pull it with ease up the hard glacial ice. The Syd posed no special crevasse field problems, provided we did not deviate from the route we had painstakingly reconnoitered, and pulling the sledge gave us an inkling of the sort of thing Peary, Scott, and Amundsen had gone through decades before. On the third day out of Base Camp we finally reached a big cirque below the icecap proper. We had gained some 5000 feet in altitude and had entered the zone of deep and slushy snow. We soon learned why Andrew Ross had abandoned his sledge after four miles and why the legendary Shackleton himself had covered only 14 miles in several attempts during 2 months in 1915. We had however proved that the Syd Glacier was not only possible but was really a practical and convenient way to reach the interior of Knud Rasmussens Land from the north.

The weather, which had been good to excellent for weeks, now turned bad. We guessed this would happen because we had carried only 5 days’ food up from the boats expecting to radio in an airdrop from Iceland at the head of the Syd. Now, with two days food left we were forced to sit out a four-day storm and, not knowing when it would end, decided to stretch our two-days’ rations into nine. We began to sleep cold at night as a consequence of our starvation diet and when the storm cleared briefly, we radioed immediately for the airdrop. The communications net in Greenland involved our transmitting to the weather station at Kap Tobin, 105 air-miles away and having them send a radio-elegram to the bush pilot in Reykjavik. We sent our exact coordinates and trusted his navigation to find us. The next day the twin Bonanza appeared with the balance of our food supplies from Iceland, having flown 250 miles across the Denmark Strait to reach us. It was feast after famine.

Now we could continue our journey and we stepped into the sledge traces again. The terrain steepened and the deep snow left by the storm doubled the effort required to haul the sledge. In addition the storm struck again making life miserable. Nevertheless, in three more days we were definitely on the flat and windy icecap and we camped when we reached the deep and rugged glaciers of the immense Bartholins glacial system previously seen only from the air, which flowed southward to the sea. Storm after storm struck us and the temperatures dropped to near zero, but we had plenty of food. We explored the head of the Bartholins drainage and climbed a minor prominence before descending onto the glacier itself. The Bartholins had strange glacial formations — longitudinal riffles and pressure ridges, deep river courses, moulins, smooth corridors, and ice that flowed uphill! We worked our way into the center after miles of travel, now over 1500 feet below the icecap itself and felt as if we were onstage in a spectacular natural amphitheater.

There were several rock prominences in the vicinity of the upper Syd which also deserved climbing. These were primarily rocky cleavers of about the same height that were virtually unnoticeable from the icecap but extremely steep and rugged when seen from the glacier below. They were short but spectacular snowshoe and ski climbs. We ascended three of them in a two-day period on our sledge journey back down the Svd Glacier. On that journey we tried to carry down the whole airdrop and almost succeeded, stopping only when the sledge load reached 350 pounds and our pack loads 50 pounds each. We sweated and cursed the sledge along over the miles. To cross the third icefall we had to ferry the loads down a rocky moraine and finally on the fifth day of our trek back we reassembled the sledge only to smash it irrevocably crossing a crevasse a mile beyond. After 150 miles on foot, we were now within one day’s march of our boats so we ferried the loads the remaining distance in two trips per man.

We had one more area to explore before heading back to Scoresbysund and that was a big island called Milne Land north of Danmarks-oer. We boated across in one day, stopping at Danmarks-oer to pick up our cache of gasoline. Milne Land is an enchanting place and fully worthy of an expedition. It is filled with wild animals, including muskoxen, granitg enclosed lakes, bays full of icebergs, and beautiful mountains. We explored Milne Land for three days touching only one small part of it. The foggy, rainy weather added to the somber beauty of our surroundings. We climbed several granite peaks near a beautiful bay in which gigantic icebergs had come to rest. We caught tantalizing views of the “big” peaks of Milne Land, slightly over 6000 feet high, of stratified and crumbly basalt heaped upon the underlying granite, perhaps quite difficult or dangerous to climb. It was already the first week in September and we could smell winter in the air, especially at night.

When we left Milne Land on the last leg of our journey, we saw only one serious hazard ahead; the crossing of the 30-mile-wide mouth of Hall Bredning. To our relief the journey was smooth as glass with little ice. On the other side we crept wearily ashore on an immense flat plateau of tundra called Jameson Land. At dawn a frightful scene lay about us. Jammed against the shore of Jameson Land was an endless sea of floes, frozen together by a thin shell of new surface ice. Forty-five miles still lay between us and Scoresbysund. Ice, shallow water and tides would force us to such a sinuous route that our marginal gas supply might not hold out with all aboard. Four of us should carry heavy loads and walk to Kap Stewart, 30 miles away. The boat with two men could try to find its way more lightly loaded. We understood Kap Stewart to be a small isolated Eskimo village on the western shore of Hurry Fjord only six miles across the fjord from Kap Hope. From Kap Hope we could walk, if necessary, to Scoresbysund.

It all made sense, but Greenland still had a few surprises in store for us. We headed down the beach. The first night a miserable wet snowstorm struck our camp and the next day we slogged through miles ot slush-covered sand. On the third day we reached the windy heights above Kap Stewart. The sight of two isolated and abandoned shacks and ice-jammed Hurry Fjord was disturbing. Three of our four days’ food were now gone. We descended to the deserted huts. Inside they were a mess but livable. There was coal in burst sacks laying outside and at least we could stay warm. The most important discovery was 10 pounds of flour and some salt and sugar we found in one of the shacks; this saved our day.

Gradually our predicament dawned on us; we had very little food and no radios. We could neither signal Kap Hope nor the others who assumed, as we had, that we would be safe in the populated village at Kap Stewart. They would feel no compulsion to hurry. We felt helpless, worried, and very hungry. The shell of ice on the sea was growing thicker every day.

On the third day our companions hiked to Kap Stewart, having abandoned the boat beyond ice jams 12 miles up the coast. They brought a little food and the rifle but no ammunition. We were relieved to learn they had radioed Kap Tobin and asked that an Eskimo from Kap Hope come for ús at Kap Stewart. Not a rescue, mind you, just a little assistance with a strong prowed boat that could cut through the thickening shell ice; no rescue bond forfeit required for this service. The next day a motor was heard out in the fjord but the boat evidently went back, unable to get through. For two more days we were tantalized by more motor sounds; someone was trying to reach us. On the third day we saw an open boat carrying the same man who had originally guided us to Danmarks-oer. He rode over the shell ice all alone, rocking his boat and cracking through it like a tiny icebreaker. We welcomed him ashore calmly so he would not think a few icebergs and the oncoming winter had ever really alarmed such veteran mountaineers as we.

Back at Scoresbysund the Danish governor greeted us warmly but did not appear to think any of our adventures were out of the ordinary for Greenland. And we had come to agree. We spent the last couple of nights sleeping out along the river bed airstrip waiting for our bushpilot and watching the northern lights for hours. We were in no hurry to leave and had learned to live with our amazement at this wonderful land. This was a harsh and rigorous place to live and not easy to survive in, yet it was rich in beauty and not entirely forbidding if one played the game by nature’s rules. East Greenland is just a bit too big and primitive a place to absorb in one trip. It makes one feel ageless, as though looking through a window in time, thinking that a half million years have not passed, and that ice-age man is smiling over one’s shoulder, wondering sadly where all his hard-won knowledge has gone.

*George Wallerstein, leader; Larry Campbell, Dan Eaton, Eiichi Fukushima, Curt Howard and Don Liska.