American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

North America, East Greenland, Thor's Land, Queen Lilliana, First Ascent

  • Climbs And Expeditions
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 2004

Thors Land, Queen Lilliana, first ascent. John Burcham, myself and brother Andy, together with Shinichi Sakamoto again visited the fjords near Thor’s Land north of Tassilaq in East Greenland. The 200-mile boat journey from Tassilaq needed two boats, the second carrying only gear. By the second day we were seeing large plates of sea ice, which displayed dozens of black and white spotted seals basking in the afternoon sun. As is the Inuit way, we hunted seal for that night’s dinner.

To give the two captains some rest, we stopped at the ruins of an abandoned hunting village, where boiled seal meat made a tasty supper. Our Inuit hosts offered us a delicacy, raw seal liver. I tried not to be rude, but the moment I got the raw, slimy, black flesh into my mouth, I almost gagged. It reminded me of the braised ox penis I tried a few years ago on an expedition to China. I now know at least two kinds of food in this world I do not like.

The next morning we explored five mysterious fjords with granite towers and walls on both sides jutting straight up 4,000-5,000'. We were overwhelmed by their sheer majesty. According to my maps, some were more than a mile high. Miraculously, golden, sandy beaches called to us for an Arctic sunbathe. I never thought beaches, so beautiful that they reminded me of California, would be found near the Arctic. As we rounded a sharp corner at the end of the last fjord that we planned to explore, a set of perfect twin towers appeared in the distance. We unloaded, set up base camp, and made arrangements to be picked up three weeks later. In a nearby river, we caught fresh Arctic char and salmon for dinner. I enjoyed some of the best meals in my life at this base camp. Next morning John, Sakamoto, and I started to organize gear, while my brother caught more salmon and made us breakfast, then accompanied our packing on the banjo.

One thing that was very different about our granite monster from the rest of the walls we scoped in the fjords, was the approach. Our chosen wall was at least six miles inland, while the others were only a few hundred yards from the ocean. Moving our gear from base camp to the wall proved to be a major crux (but not the crux by any means). Armies of hideous gnats suicide-attacked with full force and provided easily my worst memory of any expedition. For the next week, taking only one rest day, we established an advanced camp ca 3,000' above the fjord, a total distance covered by each person of around 40 miles. Andy took one last trip down to base camp, returning with his banjo and more salmon, then we spent two days closely assessing the tower before deciding on an obvious ridge into a steep ar_te. Splitter cracks waited for our hands and fingers to take advantage of the entire way.

With less than two weeks until our planned departure, we focused intently on the climb. A 300', fourth-class approach from our advanced camp led to 600' of casual and quite fun 5.6/5.7 climbing. From there we gained 1,500' on a casual ridge that offered a convenient second high camp in a small wind-protected alcove. After a storm forced three days rest, we climbed on and the crux of the route became evident: loose rock, and lots of it. We fixed three pitches that afternoon.

It was the second loosest route I had ever been on, and I was quite worried. The next day we gained another three pitches, barely avoiding chopping our ropes or limbs with the loose rock. Another storm lasted 30 hours and despite dampened spirits, we committed to a non-stop push as soon as the storm finished. Climbing the insanely loose rock, we moved slowly to be as safe as possible, gaining another 2,000'. We all agreed that if anyone on lead stated it was too dangerous to continue, we would retreat without question. Once above most of the loose stuff, we cruised through some wonderful free climbing to reach the summit ridge. An easy 800' walk took us to the top. Since I always try to honor the year’s theme, I pulled out my Chinese Year of the Ram mask and danced on the summit. Not for the first time, my partners questioned my mental state.

Just a few minutes shy of exactly 24 hours from the time we started that morning, we had made it up to the summit and back down to our high camp. We slept and relaxed the entire next day before descending to our camp, where fresh salmon and fine-tuned banjo rhythms brought our journey to a close. Our expedition lasted from August 2–September 2, and we named our new route Way of the Banjo (4,500' IV 5.10b). I’d like to call the tower Mt. Queen Lilliana after my new daughter.

Mike Libecki, AAC

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