Non C’é Due Senza Tre
The great line on Nalumasortoq goes free, Greenland.
Sitting in the Camp 4 parking lot, I felt my anxiety building to a crescendo. I was freaking out, which often happens. My partner was injured, our project was over, and I was just informed that some Brits were heading off to Greenland in a few weeks. Surely they were going to free the route that I had been obsessing about for a year. I was fatalistic; my season was totally over. I should change my plans to climb in Greenland, forget about free-climbing Half Dome, sell my rack, and take up scuba diving.
But instead I headed to Copenhagen and eventually the Tasermiut Fjord of southeastern Greenland. This would be my second trip to the island in just under a year. In August of 2002, as I bade farewell to the granite walls of Tasermiut, I had a feeling I would be back. For the next seven months I obsessed over the possibility of free-climbing the 850-meter aid route on the right pillar of Nalumasortoq, the route known as Non C’é Due Senza Tre, first done in 2000. This was an amazing line that I might have sent in 2002 had things been a bit more optimal. It was my version of the fisherman’s tale about the big one that got away. Climbers often lament about heading off to the greater ranges and getting completely shut down—then returning for another attempt at the climb of their lives. My tale would be charting no new ground.
I was not exactly sure how I was going to come up with the money to visit Greenland for the second time. But with a bit of luck, a bit of hard work, and a generous grant from the American Alpine Club, all turned out well. For this expedition my new friend Thad Friday, a mechanical engineering student at the University of Colorado, would be my climbing partner. Thad, with his savings from his job at the campus library, came up with the money for his part of the expedition. We set off toward what we both hoped would be the best free climb either of us had ever experienced. Our style and objective were very specific: the right pillar of Nalumasortoq, ground up, without fixed lines, swinging leads, and in 24 hours.
The relationship between Thad and myself was strictly business and we worked well as a team. Where I was weak he was strong, and vice versa. Early in his climbing career Thad had racked up an impressive tick list of solo aid climbs. He told me that he had “put his aiders on the back burner,” or maybe he said he “burnt his aiders.” I am not sure what he said because he has a tendency to be very soft spoken. So, having burnt his aiders, he had no other choice but to free climb in Greenland. Now a dedicated free-climber, his ethics, dedication, and passion for climbing drive him. When I first met him, I could see he put a tremendous amount of energy into every pitch, especially for an on-sight. Unlike me, he is methodical and calculating. Overconfidence, most likely mine, led us to think that we would have the route in the bag and done within a week—this was an idea that would eventually become the joke of our expedition.
After a five-hour boat ride from the coastal town of Nanortalik, we were dropped off on the shores of Tasermiut Fjord. Quickly, we secured some of our supplies in a nearby cave and began the trek toward Nalumasortoq. Strolling into our base camp after a three-hour hike, we were graced with the presence of several middle-aged, half-naked Russian climbers washing themselves and their clothes in the river. Immediately, we questioned the quality of the water that we had consumed moments before, downstream. In front of us stood a fully naked Russian, as proud and stoic as the statue David. With mug in hand he asked us, from what we could gather, if we wanted some Turkish coffee. Refusal was not an option. The sun was out, the bugs were horrendous, and Thad was getting sick of my constant monologue (I have never been able to keep silent). So we sat for a few awkward moments with our new naked Russian friends and sipped some coffee.
They informed us of their plans to climb the central pillar of Nalumasortoq, then “jump.” Jump, what the heck were they talking about? I assumed that I had lost something in the translation. With a bit more charade-like antics we figured out that they were intending to establish a new route on the central pillar. Then their fearless leader, Valery Rozov, would BASE jump from the summit while wearing a special suit. Great, I thought to myself, jump, fly, sail, all in a fricking clown suit for all I care. As long as they were not climbing the route that I had been agonizing over for the past seven months, they could do whatever they wanted. Thad and I, however, were there to send our route, and of course I did not hesitate in letting them know. My mouth opened—which it often does at inopportune times—and spewed out our plans. We would hike up in the morning, free every pitch, and be back to camp in 24 hours, having bagged the first alpine-style free ascent of Nalum-asortoq. With that we gathered our gear, spit out the coffee grounds, and headed off to find a place to sleep.
We decided to begin at dawn. Torn between nervous anxiety and sheer excitement, I lay in the tent twisting and turning, trying my best to fall asleep. After a few minutes or hours my internal monologue woke me up. It was time to go. I shook Thad awake believing it was dawn. Staggering out of the tent like prairie dogs emerging from their underground burrows, we stood gazing into the sky, trying to decipher if it was dusk or dawn. Following a few moments of bewilderment, we determined that we had been asleep only for a few hours (we had forgotten to bring a clock). Thad glared at me with a mixture of frustration for being woken up and sympathy for his climbing partner who was too crazy to sleep. I felt bad tainting Thad’s Zen-like demeanor. A few hours later, confident that it was dawn, we headed down to our dank cooking hovel, shoved coffee and food into our faces, and headed to the cliff.
It took us a lot more work, effort, commitment, and persistence than originally calculated to free the route. We faced a multitude of obstacles: wet rock, weather, the internal plumbing of the wall, and every other factor that comes into play when you are trying to climb at your best in an alpine environment. Not only did we both need to be having a good day, on the same day, but objective hazards played a large part inhibiting our success. Water that flowed over lichen left the granite un-free-climbable. Once the top stopped seeping, the bottom would start a few hours or even days later. Instead of concluding early in the expedition that until the snow melted from the summit a free ascent would be unlikely (this would have saved us three attempts), we threw ourselves at the route with wild abandon.
Several attempts come to mind that exemplify our haste. Once we made it to the base of the seventh pitch, where we stared intently across the fjord at a menacing, incoming storm. We went down, and in a few hours the heavens unleashed a fury that lasted nine days. On another attempt only 200 meters from the ground, Thad backed off a wet pitch. Annoyed and anxious, I tried to lead it. After a few desperate feet of what had been easy 5.10, I swallowed my pride and had to agree. We bailed. Thad was trying to tell me to relax, but I could not hear him. Not because he was not speaking loud enough, but because I did not want to.
After every attempt we would rappel to the base, pull our ropes, and walk back to camp. The trail thus created meandered through glacial moraines, talus, and, worst of all, Camp Moscow. Bailing off a route time after time means that frustration is incurred when explaining one’s efforts, struggles, and defeats. With every failure came questions and comments from the multinational community, which now included a wild team of four outstanding Spaniards and the American duo Nathan Martin and Timmy O’Neill.
The latter two had come to Greenland after my endless commentary about how good the climbing was. But for the first nine days after their arrival we sat in a dank cave and had circular conversations about climbing ethics, professional climbers, girls, and our dwindling supply of tobacco. Sometimes I would ask about their epic alpine ascent of Fitz Roy, but I backed off when I realized that maybe they had not forgotten the pain. Thad and I could see that they were questioning their decision to visit Greenland. It took them a while to decide that they wanted to be there. Or, maybe it took them a while to realize that they were totally committed.
Meanwhile, we sat in the rain and snow, hyper-caffeinated and bored. Sometimes we would venture over to the Spaniard’s camp and sit for hours sipping maté and munching on chocolate. Their generosity and kindness was a tremendous bonus to our experience. Nathan and Thad were amazingly quiet; if they spoke at the same time you could still hear a mouse fart. This was in contrast to Timmy and me, who stopped talking only to breathe, eat, or sleep.
Team Russia was now fixed two-thirds of the way up the central pillar. They had stuck to classic siege tactics and seemed closer to success than Thad and me. The Spaniards, having climbed a new line on the left pillar, also in big-wall style, were nearing the top. I began to question our strategy and thought maybe we should either fix lines or have the second jumar. Either of these two plans would be more than legitimate and would speed up the ascent significantly. My frustration was reaching a climax, but Thad wanted nothing to do with jumars, aiders, or fixed lines. We agreed that a true free ascent meant that at the very least one climber would have to lead and follow every pitch cleanly. Every hard pitch needed to be freed on lead. If one of us were to jumar, then no one person would have freed the climb entirely. If we approached it from the very highest of our personal standards, then we would be happy. This was not the standard at which free climbs were established in this area. In technical difficulty and in overall effort required, our route could be most closely compared to stacking Yosemite’s Rostrum on top of Astroman. Timmy dubbed our style—that of alternating leads—the “Huberization” of Greenland. This is not that farfetched since Thomas and Alex Huber strongly inspired our style.
We gave it another go. After 18 hours we had passed our previous high point. The wall was dry and the surroundings breathtaking. Four more pitches of steep jamming, liebacking, and run-out stemming brought us to a large ledge that looked to be only 50 feet below the summit. With the sun low in the sky and our hands sore and dry from climbing in the cold arctic air we decided to take a break. We pushed a few rocks around to make a temporary bivy spot. Then came the biggest mistake of our trip. Having left behind all but a light rack and some Snickers bars, we stopped moving. Within a few minutes we were frozen stiff as the arctic wind blew straight through our climbing pants. But after about three hours the sun had come back around the wall and we thought about heading for the summit. Unfortunately, the chilling wind and the cold rock had stripped us of our motivation. By climbing light and fast, or “light and lucky,” we had left behind the minimum requirements for a successful ascent. We were simply too cold to continue and had to be content with our efforts in reaching the top of the original line. Reluctant to descend but too cold to climb, we threw the ropes over the edge and rappelled.
After 17 rappels my feet hit the glacier and simultaneously I screamed, “We fucked up!” Easy to yell this while safe and warm, but truly we had made a major mistake. Five attempts had brought us to within spitting distance of the summit. I had come to Greenland for the second time to bag this amazing route only to rappel without standing on the summit. I wondered how many times in our climbing lives we would get the opportunity to get the first free ascent of such an amazing line. Stumbling exhausted into camp, we evaded our friends and went to sleep.
Rationalizations of an almost-successful ascent began the next day. I believe that in alpine climbing you should stop only after standing on the summit—and we had not. The last 50 feet, or whatever it may be, counts. Thoughts and contradictions swirled around in our minds. The pit of my stomach felt empty. I wondered how Thad felt, but he remained reticent, contented with his own personal effort, at least for the time being. Deep within, I believed that we had lost our chance of completing the line that had tormented and inspired me at the same time.
Timmy and Nathan were up on the wall. This was their third attempt and I knew that they had it in the bag. Their style was different from ours; they had opted to use ascenders for the second and led in blocks. If we had used the same methods maybe we would have sent our route. We talked it over but came to the same conclusion: we had decided on a style and would do our best with it. The next morning Timmy and Nathan strode into camp. The gleam in their eyes was unmistakable—they had succeeded. The four of us gathered our gear and headed down to the lower camp to celebrate and to drink the rest of the alcohol. The fire grew larger with every swallow of gin and tonic. Laughter turned into screaming which metamorphosed into howling; soon our bodies were strewn around the fire as a drunken sleep consumed us.
More days passed and more bad weather rolled into the fjord. With this weather came the same boring, repetitive conversations covering all of the same topics that we had expounded upon over and over. Thad started making crazy meals, generally consisting of fat and grease. His fried cheese sandwiches were making me sick. But Tim and Nathan loved them.
Thirty days had gone by and Thad and I had yet to stand on a summit. It was time to shift our focus. After a little recon we had decided on a new objective, the north face of the “Dome.” Once again the style was to swing leads, free climb, and not drill. The route unfolded before our eyes. Every new pitch seemed to be the last. We would set up a belay, grab the rack, and ever so timidly continue up. Again, we chose to leave behind everything but the most minimal amount of gear. But what would happen if Thad or I were to commit into the unknown and find no protection at all? Or, more importantly, how the hell were we going to get down, having brought only a few hexes to leave behind? Finally gaining the summit, Thad gazed across the vast expanse of land and directly toward our previous objective, the right pillar. He had been feeling its presence all day. The summit that we now stood on seemed minuscule in comparison. I felt that someone was kicking me in the gut, beating me for coming so close to something that I wanted so badly. Of course nobody was kicking me but myself. Maybe Thad was feeling the same thing. I hoped he was. Gathering our gear, we snapped a few photos and began an epic descent once again into the unknown.
After a few days of rest, we noticed that the weather was still looking good. The walls surrounding us begged to be climbed, and the opportunity for new objectives were endless. But I wanted nothing of it. I felt unfulfilled and wanted to give our pillar another shot. Prior to our ascent of the Dome, the notion of attempting the pillar for the sixth time seemed unfathomable. How easily we forget the pain!
When we arrived in Greenland, spring was just showing its early stages. Winter snowdrifts had yet to melt and the glaciers appeared harmless. Now, 33 days later, the land had changed. The glaciers showed deep, foreboding crevasses, and water ran like torrents over the ice, creating marvelous rivers that flowed into one another and then down to the fjord’s edge. It was time to try again.
Reaching the ledge atop pitch 17 just before midnight, we squeezed our bodies into the same bivy spot as before. This time we decided that less is not always more and hauled along a single sleeping bag that we both squeezed into. After a few puffs on a freshly rolled cigarette we drifted into a sleep-like state for several hours only to awake to see the northern lights circling above. A new day was emerging. It was time to climb.
I was eager to get started as soon as possible. Thad wanted nothing of it; he was committed to staying in the sleeping bag until it was warm enough to climb. He reminded me that if we had stayed put until it warmed up on our last attempt, maybe we would not be at this spot again. I rolled another cigarette. Like a small child I kept harassing him, asking if it was time to go. Finally he succumbed to my persistence, or maybe he simply thought it was warm enough to get up.
Several hundred feet of traversing led us to a small ledge perched beneath two pitches of wet, overhanging cracks. A feeling of impending doom crept into my soul. Certainly this would be our last attempt; soon we would be leaving for home. Climbing up here a seventh time seemed about as ridiculous as jumping off while wearing a flying clown suit. It was Thad’s lead and after some strenuous handjamming he reached a small ledge one pitch from the summit and set a belay. My nervous anxieties, combined with my inability to control the uncontrollable, overcame me. Following the pitch I kept asking him what the next section looked like and felt even more nervous with every reply or lack thereof. I pressed my face against the cold wall as the world around me became increasingly dim. Nausea swept over me like a wave.
I reached the belay thankful that Thad had led the crack. One pitch to go! All of the previous 22 pitches had gone absolutely free—and neither of us had taken any falls. Thad was glad to hand me the rack. After a few feet I quickly realized that my constant fear of being committed high on a wall without sufficient gear was about to become real.
This was my moment of truth. Had we come all the way to Greenland to get shut down by my anxiety, or was this to be a story of success? Above us lurked a lichen-covered, slightly overhanging, off width. “Great. At least I can get in it,” I thought to myself. Then came the quandary: how was I going to protect it? Aid climbing was not an option; I might have considered jumping off rather than pulling on gear after all of our efforts. Shaky as usual, I climbed farther and farther above Thad with only one piece of good protection between us. Looking down I could see my partner getting increasingly jittery with every foot I gained. I kept muscling my way up, one move from either total success or total disaster.
Out of breath, I reached the top and set up a belay. A few moments later, red faced and relieved, Thad worked his way up. It was all over and the relief was great. The weight I had felt since the summer of 2002 was lifted. We were not going to have our fisherman’s tale of the big one that got away. Thad would not have to kill me and leave my body to rot in the cave. He was not going to go home with the same lack of fulfillment that I had experienced in 2002. We sat for a few moments on the summit, snapped the usual photos, and pondered our efforts. All of my internal frustrations, anxieties, and monologues vanished as we sat there in the most beautiful place we had ever been, totally happy and content, and finding for a few moments the kind of internal calm and silence that can be felt only while climbing.
Summary of Statistics:
Ascents: Greenland, Tasermiut Fjord, Nalumasortoq. First free ascent of the Third Pillar, Non C’é Due Senza Tre (850m, 21 pitches, V 5.11+R). Micah Dash and Thad Friday.
The Dome, first ascent of The Pillar (15 pitches, IV 5.10X). Micah Dash and Thad Friday. (For details on The Pillar, see Climbs & Expeditions in this Journal.)
A Note on the Author:
Micah Dash is a native of Lancaster, California. He started climbing in 1998 at Squamish, British Columbia. Soon climbing took over his life. In 1999 he moved to Yosemite Valley and didn’t leave for almost three and a half years. Currently he is finishing his undergraduate studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder.