American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

North America, Greenland, East Greenland, Schweizerland, Tupilak North Face, Lessons in Humility

  • Climbs And Expeditions
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 2005

Schweizerland, Tupilak north face, Lessons in Humility. Before we left, Al Powell, the ultimate expert on East Greenland, told us: “If you’re going to need fixed ropes, then leave the face up to someone who can climb it properly.” Al had made an attempt on a direct line with Jon Bracey in the winter of 2001. They retreated and subsequently climbed the central depression in the face to the left, reaching the lowest point on the ridge that connects East and West Summits. Prior to this there had been at least one summer attempt on the face by an unknown party. Considering that Madagascar was an alternative choice for our expedition in 2004, our final decision to go to Greenland is difficult to understand.

At base camp on the 16th September Glacier, my father Walter Odermatt, Günter Wojta, Klaus Fengler, and I hadn’t a clue about what we are getting into. Seven days before we had been chugging through the drift ice with an indigenous hunter in his small motorboat. There was so much ice we could hardly see the water. We placed base camp approximately five kilometers away from the face after five days of portering our gear.

The face of Tupilak looked higher, steeper, colder, wetter, and more brittle than I had imagined in my worst dreams. Do a bigwall free climb here? Forget it. But Klaus thought we could do it in 30 to 40 hours of non-stop climbing from the base camp to the summit and then back.

At 5 a.m. Fengler, Wojta and I crossed the bergschrund. On the rock we found very old nuts and a piton from a previous attempt. I led up brittle cracks while Klaus and Günter followed with jumars on a fixed rope. Time is the decisive factor on a 1,000m-high face when we have no bivouac gear.

After a while Klaus took over the lead for some demanding ropelengths of F6b difficulty, then we changed again. Günter would lead the upper part. The face was more difficult than we expected, and much longer. The rock became hell: extremely brittle—everything moved. A falling rock damaged the rope, which had to be repaired with a knot.

About half way up, a gigantic crack system led to below the summit icefield. Climbing was no longer so difficult, but the rock was still brittle and almost always wet because of the icefield. We thought we would reach the ice field much earlier, but it was nowhere in sight. Because we could only see the face from below, we had failed to consider the foreshortening. In reality, the upper part of a face is always much longer than the lower part appears. We used 70m and 80m ropes, but still there seemed to be no end to the cracks. The only way we knew we were gaining altitude was because the snow and ice on the face was constantly increasing.

Eventually we saw an edge above us. The ridge? Had we unknowingly climbed past the ice field by using a parallel crack system? After a 70-meter pitch, the big disappointment: This was just the beginning of the ice field. Would this ever end? We continued with crampons. It was becoming clear that we would have to bivouac—exactly what we had wanted to avoid. My optimism gave way to fear. How would we ever get down from here? The icefield was nearly 100 meters long, and 50°-60° hard ice. We only had three ice screws, and I needed two for the belay anchor, which meant a single screw to secure a 70m stretch of climbing. What does a body look like when it drops 60m into rock? I think of my family and move carefully. At the end of the icefield yet another disappointment: Instead of a ridge, the rock face towered up yet another 70 vertical meters to the ridge. The rock was even sandier, even more brittle. But giving up so close to our goal was out of the question.

I attempted to place protection every five to ten meters. I swore at myself, resolved never ever again to climb a north face. The rock was incredibly brittle. My nerves were so tense I could almost tear them to shreds. At the end of a rope-stretched 70m I reached a 20m “top” on the [previously climbed] West Ridge, which we christened “Tobias’ Shoulder” in honor of our boat guide. It was 9 p.m. We had been underway for 20 hours. While waiting for the others I fell asleep. It was only a 40m difference in altitude to the Main (West) Summit (2,264m), but covered in difficult and dangerous ice. I was at my wits’ end. I didn’t care about the summit at all anymore. Günter and Klaus didn’t want to go any further, either. We had climbed the face, but we would not reach the main summit. The Tupilak, which depicts evil spirits in Inuit mythology, could gloat, but no mountain in the world is worth risking your life for.

At 10 p.m. we began abseiling. I took the lead, placing two pitons every 70m for anchors. It grew dark. The ropes were patched together with knots in two places. Falling rock was a problem. We were fighting sleep. When the light returned we were still abseiling. The rope got stuck twice and I had to climb up without protection to get it loose. After ten hours of abseiling, we reached the lower ice fields. The rope got stuck here so firmly that we had to cut it with a knife. There was exactly enough rope remaining to abseil over the bergschrund. Through wet snow and between crevasses it took three hours to return to base camp. We had been underway for a total of 37 hours. I had just lived my dream.

We called our route Lessons in Humility: 900m high and 1,100m of climbing, F6b, 60° ice. Apart from our abseil pitons and the stuck rope, we left nothing behind. We used no fixed ropes or bolts and carried out all our trash. I also made a nice little first ascent with my 60 years old father. We called this Pik Walter and it is a summit above the Wall of Waiting at the end of the long South Ridge of Tupilak.

Urs Odermatt, Switzerland

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