American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

North America, Greenland, Tasermiut Fjord, Ketil, West Face

  • Climbs And Expeditions
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 2000

Ketil, West Face. Jon Allen, Doug Byerly, Jim Funsten and Mike Wood visited the spectacular granite climbing mecca of Greenland’s southern fjord country in July. European climbers have climbed fairly extensively in the region in the past 20 years but curiously, few American teams have visited the area. Funsten and Wood hoped to establish a new Grade VI wall climb on the enormous 1400-meter west face of the Ketil, while Allen and Byerly hoped to make the first alpine-style ascent of the face via the brilliant 1977 French Route. Ketil, meaning a “pot of mussels,” was named by early Norse settlers who established a monastery in the area in 1200 A.D. The face has four routes to date, all established in fixed-rope, big-wall siege style. Due to typically poor weather and imminent exposure to the frightfully dangerous Fohn wind, a gale every bit as fierce as a full-blown Patagonian tempest, fixed ropes are utilized to provide a quick, efficient escape route. It is not surprising that very few alpine style ascents have been made in the region.

The 1977 French Route (Barrard et al) had been repeated three times, all by large teams fixing the first 22 pitches to the top of the prominent gray pillar. On July 19, Allen and Byerly climbed the majority of the gray pillar in 12 hours, finding sensational granite free climbing up to 5.11 that featured sustained offwidth cracks still clasping on to the 20-year-old wood bongs placed by the Barrard party. The following day brought colder, blustery conditions to the shady wall while the pair climbed the remaining 20 pitches, including the crux pendulums and the notoriously exposed and loose black dike that diagonals for six pitches across the top of the face leading to the fourth-class terrain below the low-angle summit ridge. Cold, exhausted and facing darkness, the pair decided to bivouac and complete the 50 meters of fourth class in the morning. That night the first major Fohn storm of the season descended upon them from the northeast. By morning, the storm was raging with full force as the pair attempted to gain the summit ridge. Realizing they would surely be blown off the mountain if they left the more sheltered west face, they decided to call it good, having climbed all the difficulties of the giant wall. In plummeting temperatures and wind gusts exceeding 100 m.p.h., the two began the long, arduous descent back down the route. Eighteen hours and 40 rappels later, having employed all the Patagonian rope management tricks, the pair hit the ground with two chopped ropes and frazzled minds. No summit, but the face had been climbed in 36 hours, 60 hours round-trip with no fixed rope or trash left on the face. The route was not free climbed but would go free at mid-5.12 with some rehearsal and cleaning.

After two weeks of wind and rain, the weather improved, and Allen and Byerly loaded up 90-pound packs and hiked 15 miles down the rugged fjord to the famous Ulamertorssuaq peak, home to at least six fine 850-meter routes, three of which are entirely free up to 5.13. On August 1, the pair climbed the first 17 pitches of the beautiful Moby Dick route (VI 5.13) via very difficult and circuitous face climbing in 12 hours to the base of the 1,200-foot overhanging headwall crack. Once again the weather deteriorated, and, fearing another epic Fohn wind storm, they reluctantly retreated. Out of supplies, they were forced to hump the big loads back up the fjord. Two days later, Byerly, Funsten and Wood repeated the epic coastline trek with even larger packs. Poor weather prevented another attempt on Moby Dick, but they did manage to climb the 500-meter Swiss Route (IV 5.10 A2) on the south face of Pyramiden peak. One day before being plucked out of the fjord, Byerly and Funsten raced up the elegant West Ridge (III 5.9) of Pyramiden just before another Fohn wind blew in from the inland icecap.

Doug Byerly

This AAJ article has been reformatted into HTML. Please contact us if you spot an error.