American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

North America, Greenland, East Coast, Sortebrae Mountains, Seven Ascents

  • Climbs And Expeditions
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 2008

Sortebrae Mountains, seven ascents. Our eight-member expedition comprising Andy Garman, Alasdair Garnett, Rob Green, Clare O'Sullivan, Jonathan Philips, Tracey Quine, Malcolm Sloan, and I left the U.K. on June 2, bound for an unvisited glacier in the Sortebrae area. This is not the Sortebrae Glacier but an area of mountains to the west of that glacier, our chosen landing site being a little over one day's ski from the Borgetinde Massif to the southeast, and somewhat farther from Ejnar Mikkelsens Fjeld to the south. Our expectations were high, our minds full of unclimbed alpine peaks and what we would achieve. Achieve them we did, but there was an Arctic Odyssey awaiting us.

After a series of delays caused by mechanical failure and a long period of bad weather, an advance party left for our Greenland landing site almost a week late. The flight to Greenland was one that will live long in our memories. Words cannot do justice to the beauty of the ice- flecked sea, eventually meeting the mountains and the glaciers under a curtain of mist. The flight felt too short, too rushed to allow us to feast our eyes on the spectacle and drink in its beauty, its remoteness, its splendor. This was the Arctic, and it was everything we expected.

The reverie was broken when we landed at N 69°1.3', W 27°50.8' (1,552m). The plane stopped violently, as it encountered soft snow and buried itself in the glacier. Two days of digging with the help of a reinforcement of mechanics, sent by a coast guard helicopter, saw the plane back on the level, and it returned to Iceland for the second half of our party, who were landed 40km from our position. Affecting a reunion filled the next few days.

We split into two parties and from the 14th—17th explored separate subsidiary glaciers for a route onto the icecap. The forays were successful, with both teams getting members onto the icecap, from where three new peaks were climbed. On the 16th Alasdair, Tracey and I climbed the 2,706m Pile of Stones (N 69°10.7', W 27 46.9') at PD and the same day made an ascent of Poacher's Peak (2,773m, N 69°9.6', W 27°43.9'), also at PD. During this period Clare, Jonathan, Malcolm, and Rob climbed an unnamed peak at Scottish II. All were first ascents. We returned in murky weather to find a fresh supra-glacial river cutting off our tents, necessitating a long detour. The following day we raced the sun for the snow bridge so we could move base camp to a safer position, the abnormally warm temperatures beginning to be a real concern.

The new position brought access to new peaks, and we attempted some fine mountains, black spires against a background of endless white glaciers. We generally avoided rock in favor of snow faces and ridges in incredible situations. We made ski descents from the base of some routes, on snow of varying condition. From a camp at 1,532m, Andy, Tracey, and I climbed Solstice Peak (2,222m, N 69°7.8', W 28°4.3') at PD on June 20 and the following day got to within 100m of the top of an unnamed peak at N 69°6.7', W 28 4.7'. The grade was PD to our high point at 2,285m; continuing to the summit would have involved rock at ca UIAA IV. At the same time another party retrieved the equipment a previous expedition had been forced to abandon, encountering crevasse falls and worryingly bad snow before returning with loaded pulks.

A realization that the Twin Otter would not return for us at our present position forced another move, this time heavily laden, to higher ground. The plane returned to collect the equipment belonging to the previous expedition, only to bury its nose in the glacier again, and require our (now expert) extraction techniques. The situation was less serious than the first burial, and the plane was on its way in the early hours. The following day teams struck out for Borgetinde and two nearby unnamed peaks, one unclimbed. We skinned through alpine terrain made more serious, more beautiful, by the vastness and the silence of the Arctic, as we passed impressive seracs and the debris of huge avalanches.

Teams reached a high point on the Borgetinde summit tower. On the 26th Alasdair and Andy retreated from a sentinel peak at the mouth of the Borgetinde Glacier in bad snow. The following day Tracey and I reached the summit of a previously unclimbed peak of 2,842m (N 68°51.8', W 28°14.6') adjacent to Borgetinde, following a knife-edge snow arete with empty space on one side and the Borgetinde plateau shimmering below on the other (PD+). From the summit we could see the sea. The ski descent, believed to be the first from the Borgetinde plateau, was one of the best mountain experiences of my life. Floating down powder, gliding on névé, we passed under huge walls and between immense seracs and crevasses, carving the face of the mountain, the only sound the scrape of our skis in the vast silence of the Arctic moun- tainscape. There is something about the Arctic, something we glimpsed that day, which will be with me forever, calling me back.

Repeated plane burials meant Flugfelag would not land in our current position. We needed to move to a position on the edge of the icecap, over 30 km away, fully laden, in two days. This immediately after a 16-hour day on the mountain, in which we had covered 32 km. A routine of one-hour pulking, followed by five minutes rest, saw us there in time, passing through unvisited areas, climbing ever higher. On the 29th Jonathan and Malcolm climbed a snow peak on the ice cap at ca N 69°14.2', W°28 52', while Rob ascended a neighboring summit. There was little time for dwelling on the fact that our trip was coming to an end, and the arrival of the Twin Otter heralded a subdued atmosphere. We could have stayed much longer. Our expedition benefited from the kind support of the Arctic Club, the Alpine Ski Club, Andrew Croft Memorial Fund, Gino Watkins Memorial Fund, and the Mount Everest Foundation.

David Jakulis, U.K.

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