American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

In the Footsteps of Vikings, Exploratory Climbing in Southeast Greenland

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  • Publication Year: 2001

In the Footsteps of Vikings

Exploratory climbing in southeast Greenland

Mark Richey

Sometimes, the best adventures in climbing begin with the least amount of planning. Such was the case with our trip to Greenland. Our plan was simple: a small group of climbers would enter a relatively unexplored fjord in southern Greenland and climb whatever looked best. Our hopes were to find long technical climbs that could be done quickly and with minimal aid. Collectively, we chose not to bring bolts, fixed rope, portaledges, or haul bags. This approach would obviously rule out certain big-wall projects, but that was all right. It also meant that if we needed to bivouac, we would have to find natural ledges or do without—an aspect of climbing that I’ve personally always enjoyed. Ultimately, we merely wanted to keep things simple and do as much climbing and exploring as our limited time would allow.

Twilight was upon us as our small converted fishing vessel rounded the last bend of the Kangikitsoq Fjord. Our skipper, Christian Osterman, skillfully maneuvered his boat into the shallow harbor. We were eight: Chris Bonington, still climbing and adventuring at 68, along with our leader, Jim Lowther, John Porter, and Rob Ferguson from England, Scott Muir and Graham Little from Scotland, and Mark Wilford and I from the United States.

In 1998, Chris, aboard a yacht with Jerry Gore and Robin Knox-Johnson, had traveled north from Augpilagtoq and spied new ground in the Kangikitsoq Fjord. Despite its proximity to the much-visited Tasermiut Fjord, only 25 miles away as the crow flies, the Kangikitsoq was previously unexplored by climbers. It had looked good enough to warrant further exploration, so now, in early August, Chris was returning with the seven of us. The idea was to climb independently in groups of two or four for maximum flexibility, but still enjoy the larger team atmosphere at Base Camp and during our travels to and from the fjord.

As we motored into the harbor, we marveled at the granite walls that rose steeply to the 6000-foot peaks above. Chaotic glaciers curved around rock buttresses and spilled into the sea. Earlier, we had seen humpback whales breach and spout nearby. A solitary blue iceberg marked the head of the fjord and our base camp for the next two weeks. To approach the mountains from the sea was exciting, and our sense of exploration and adventure felt strong.

Over 1,000 years before, Viking mariners had also entered these fjords in the hopes of finding a new land rich with opportunity. For 500 years, their colony of perhaps 3,000 survived, no doubt struggling, however, in the harsh landscape and worsening climate. Perhaps disease spread, or there was conflict with the native Inuit. Whatever the reasons, the ancient Norse had mysteriously disappeared from Greenland long before the middle of the last century.

Several trips in a small launch were required to ferry the eight of us and all our kit to the shore where a grassy meadow offered what appeared an ideal camp spot. No sooner had we landed than swarms of black flies descended upon us. We struggled desperately to locate our head nets as the ferocious flies forced their way into eyes, ears, and nose. As we watched Christian’s boat pull slowly out of the fjord, I wondered if we had in fact made a huge mistake. Again we thought of the Vikings; perhaps the bugs had finally driven them insane. At least, we reasoned, the insects would serve as additional incentive to stay up on the peaks and climb!

Above our camp, two main valleys forked east and north and provided access to the mountains above. Looking up the eastern valley from the harbor, Mark and I had been impressed by an intriguing, triangular-shaped peak with a sharply hooked summit. We chose this as our first objective.

As experience should have told us, the peak was farther away and considerably more difficult to get to than expected. Our first attempt ended after a ten-hour march through scrub willow, boulder fields, and swamp and then two days of rain and wet snow at the base of the wall. Reluctantly, we returned to camp to resupply.

It was during this retreat that Mark made a most fascinating discovery. While traversing scree high above the valley floor, he noticed something small protruding from the soil. Further inspection produced an ancient battleaxe head. We assumed it must be Viking in origin. Speculation over the demise of the ancient warrior and what had brought him so far from the valley floor fueled many a discussion. Was it a last stand? Perhaps the fellow had fallen into a glacial crevasse long since receded. Inspired by the find, we dubbed our peak “The Battleaxe” and returned to its base the following day.

With heavy packs and a full rack, Mark and I began the easy lower rock pitches unroped. We were aiming for a huge ramp system that diagonaled from right to left across the south face. The ramp gave access to a series of steep corners that split the vertical upper headwall. We hoped the comers would yield some challenging free climbing. Above the headwall, the best route appeared to cross the ridge at a snowfield, then finish up the lower-angled southeast face.

After a few hundred feet, we were on belay. The climbing was interesting on mostly solid granite up to 5.10. After five pitches we reached the huge ramp, which was low-angled and easy, so we climbed together until we found ourselves perched on a small ledge directly below the first comer. The right wall of the corner overhung and was very smooth; the left side was vertical and ran with water. It had begun to snow. With some disappointment, we bundled up and I pulled out the aiders. The comers would most certainly go free if dry, as the rock is clean with a nice crack.

Three pitches later, we emerged onto a wide, sloping ledge system, still 100 feet below the ridge. With the snow and rain building more heavily, we opted to bivouac. An hour of shoring up the ledge with stones and dirt produced a perfect camp, and we settled comfortably into our tiny tent. The snow and rain held us captive yet another day, but without worries. The weather seemed more of a nuisance than a real threat.

Clear skies returned the following morning, and Mark carefully made his way up a loose corner and then onto the ridge.

“We can make it from here in a day,” Mark shouted down. “But bring the gear, just in case.”

From the ridge, the view opened, and the sun warmed us. We brewed up at the snow- field and began the upper southeast face with a daypack and a light rack.

The climbing on the sun-drenched granite that followed was never difficult but thoroughly enjoyable. As we neared the summit, the valleys and fjords became a sea of clouds below, with islands of unclimbed peaks all around. We could see a lifetime of climbing and exploring right before us.

Unbeknown to us, our English companions just across the valley were standing atop Junction Peak, having ascended its long east ridge. The Scots, meanwhile, were exploring a glaciated area to the north, where they managed to summit three virgin peaks in the same day.

The very top of The Battleaxe is a point with enough room for one to stand at a time. Just below the summit, we discovered a small group of stones set in a shallow scoop that had an uncanny appearance. Could it be a cairn, we wondered? We couldn’t say for sure, but we found no trace of climbers or signs of descent. Nonetheless, it would not surprise us that such a striking peak had been climbed, perhaps approached from the Tasermiut side.

After a long, relaxing stay on top, we began the 20 rappels to the valley floor. As we started the descent, we were treated to that rare, ethereal phenomenon when a shadow of the summit is reflected in the clouds below and in turn is surrounded by a glowing halo.

“That’s the devil, is what that is,” Mark informed me with a wide grin.

As we hiked back to camp, we met up with Jim, Rob, Chris, and John, who were on their way up to attempt The Colossus by its long and complicated southeast ridge. Jim and Rob were just back from their exploration of the Kangersuneq Qingordleq, the next fjord to the north, where they had found a spectacular valley and climbed a massive peak called Sulugssugut and another rock tower to the southwest of Igdlorssuit Qaqat. It was a pleasure to cross paths with our companions and exchange stories of our latest adventures. It reminded me how much fun a larger group can be as long as it remains flexible.

Back in Base Camp, we spent a few days fishing for the superb Arctic char and exploring caves and ancient stonewalls surely built by Vikings. Some of the caves had clearly been inhabited, some recently (by local fisherman, no doubt). One particular cave was a burial vault of sorts, filled with human skeletons. How interesting it was to explore these ancient ruins and wonder what it might have been like to live here so many years ago.

Soon, the tenacious insect community forced us up the hill again, this time to a spectacular cirque of peaks on the western side of the fjord. Amazingly, a cloud of the irritating bugs actually followed us right onto the glacier and only disappeared after we had climbed a considerable distance.

The cirque is dominated by an impressive peak with a broad face we called “The Warrior.” On the right side of the Warrior’s west face is a freestanding pinnacle we referred to as “The Little Peckerhead.” (Later, out of shame, or perhaps embarrassment, we renamed it “The Spear”)

The climbing on The Spear’s west face was unquestionably the most serious of our trip. The first seven of its 11 pitches featured considerable loose rock that offered interesting and frightening climbing at the same time. We found ourselves slithering up a series of stacked blocks and huge exfoliating flakes that appeared to defy gravity. At one point, we couldn’t decide which would be more dangerous: to rappel off and risk pulling our ropes or continue the climb.

With great care, we avoided any mishaps and were rewarded with the final four pitches of superb cracks, a 50-foot overhanging squeeze chimney and a highly improbable face pitch that led to the summit block. A true spire, we were obliged to girth hitch the very point of the mountain for our belay and then do a bit of a balancing act to stand on the top. Fortunately, we were able to descend the south face to a saddle and a safe descent.

With a few days left, we prepared for our final climb. Two prominent pillars on The Warrior looked equally good, but the right-hand pillar appeared to be somewhat longer and steeper. In the interest of keeping it light and to avoid a bivouac, we chose the faster objective on the left. Lacking binoculars, we couldn’t scope the route properly from our high camp, but it at least looked like solid rock.

With an early start, we headed up to a pair of snowfields and the first of the difficulties. A scary boulder move and a pitch of wet rock gained the first of the snowfields. The snow was hard-packed névé and proved challenging in trekking shoes without crampons. Fortunately, we each had an ice hammer for security.

We met the sun at the base of the wall, and the real climbing began. Moderate cracks and a 5.9 offwidth led to a stance below a steep slab. The cracks above appeared to die out. We could move right but would be forced around the comer into a leaning, sickle-shaped comer system that dripped with water. It looked horrendous and would most likely go on aid.

Mark headed out left into the unknown, across a steep slab on perfect quartz knobs.

“Cracks, I’m into cracks, thin ones!” came the shout from above. A hidden gem: perfect finger cracks, too thin to be seen from below, split the smooth walls for 500 feet.

Never much more than 5.10 in difficulty, but always sustained and a pure joy to climb, the hidden crack system delivered us through the steep, improbable wall. At times, the thin seams would close off, but like magic, quartz knobs would appear and allow a traverse right or left into yet another finger crack. Above the crack system, a few moderate pitches led to the crest of the pillar, where easy climbing led to the summit ridge.

The sting in the tail, however, was yet to come. Directly above the pillar, the summit block looked smooth and overhanging on all sides. Mark led up a series of ledges to unprotected 5.11 moves, some Thank God gear and finally the summit. It was a bold lead and the crux of the climb.

Sitting atop the small, flat summit, we marveled at the view. To the north was a huge unclimbed wall with what must be a 4,000-foot, tantalizing ridge on the west side. Beyond, we could clearly see the backs of the impressive Ulamertossuaq and Mt. Ketil. To the east was our Battleaxe and the triple summits of The Colossus, which our British friends had climbed two days prior. To the south was the fjord and our tiny camp, 6,000 feet below. Just beyond was another peak the Brits had climbed, a beautiful blade of rock they named, not surprisingly, The Blade. To the northeast were endless chains of unclimbed peaks, while far in the distance rose the elegant spire of Tomelfinger.

We had found what we were looking for: 2,000- to 4,000-foot free climbs in a remote and unexplored setting that we could commit to without drills, fixed ropes, or portaledges—just the packs on our backs. The flexibility to choose a line when we neared the base of the wall added immensely to our sense of adventure and fun. Best of all, we had enjoyed some of the most beautiful, unspoiled wilderness any of us had been fortunate enough to visit. In the end, perhaps it was the simple, uncomplicated nature of our trip that was our greatest reward.

Summary of Statistics

Area: Kangikitsoq Fjord, Greenland

First Ascents: The South Ridge (Alpine grade D, 1000m) of Sulugssugut (1791m), August 3, Rob Ferguson and Jim Lowther. The Southwest Ridge (D+) of Rock Tower (1600m), August 5, Rob Ferguson and Jim Lowther. The Southeast Face (VI 5.10 A1, 1050m, 21 pitches) of The Battleaxe (ca. 1852m), August 8-9, Mark Richey and Mark Wilford. The West Ridge (PD) of Antler Top (1576m), August 9, Graham Little and Scott Muir. The Northwest Ridge (D-, nine pitches) of Ruadh Stac Mor (1947m), August 9, Graham Little and Scott Muir. The North Ridge (PD) of Sgorr a’ Ceo (2001m), August 9, Graham Little and Scott Muir. The East Ridge (AD) of Junction Peak (1260m), August 9, Chris Bonington, Rob Ferguson, Jim Lowther and John Porter. The Southeast Face (AD) of Carnbeag Mor (1710m), August 10, Graham Little and Scott Muir. The Southeast Ridge (TD+, 20 pitches) of The Colossus (1703m), August 11, Chris Bonington, Rob Ferguson, Jim Lowther, and John Porter. The West Face (V 5.10+ R, 11 pitches, 520m) of The Spear (ca. 1500m), August 13, Mark Richey and Mark Wilford. The South Ridge (TD, 10 pitches) of The Blade (1617m), August 15, Chris Bonington, Rob Ferguson, Jim Lowther, and John Porter. The West Pillar (V 5.11 R, 11 pitches, 575m) of The Warrior (1948m), August 15, Mark Richey and Mark Wilford.

Personnel: Chris Bonington, Rob Ferguson, Graham Little, Jim Lowther, Scott Muir, John Porter (U.K.), Mark Richey, Mark Wilford (U.S.)

Mark Richey began climbing in 1973 in the Quincy Quarries of Massachusetts. Since his first trip to the Alps in 1976, he has climbed and explored throughout the world. Memorable climbs include first ascents of the East Face of Cayesh and the South Face of Oeqshapalka in Peru, the second ascent of Shivling’s East Ridge, and the classic routes on Everest, Cerro Torre, and the Eiger. Mark is a self-employed woodworker who lives and works in Essex, Massachusetts, with his wife, Teresa, and their 13-year-old daughter, Natalia, who often accompany him on his travels. He has served as a board member of the AAC since 1998.

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