American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

The End of the Affair, First-Ascent Potential in Southeastern Greenland

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  • Publication Year: 2009

The End of the Affair

First~ascent potential in southeastern Greenland.

Mike Libecki

I have asked many of my friends and fellow climbers, and I’ve asked myself: Why? When we see grand, unclimbed rock walls, why do we become obsessed with finding ways up their steep, seductive faces? I have never heard, nor can I provide, an adequate answer, but I’ve often wondered what I would be doing if such walls did not exist. Imagine if Yosemite had not been carved by the glacial tools of fate’s hand, or if the walls of Baffin Island, Pakistan, Patagonia, Antarctica, and Africa—all the steep formations that we love on every continent— had never been created? I do not follow any organized religion, but I’m grateful to whatever higher power caused eternity to turn energy into matter, and for the existence of vertical reality.

As the number of oddball, vertically inclined humans continues to grow, some of us scour the planet for the last remaining unclimbed walls. And to this day, on the largest island on Earth, many such virgin masterpieces still exist. East Greenland holds a plethora of beautiful witch-hat mountains and grand walls, and after three expeditions to a particularly bewitching section of Greenland’s southeastern coast, I would like to share what I’ve found.

My love affair with Greenland came about by chance, the way many passionate relationships begin. In 1998, when I returned home from a trip to Baffin Island, there was a message on my answering machine from someone I had never met named Dave Briggs. He had seen granite towers that resembled large canine teeth when embarking on a ski trip across Greenland from the east. The untouched granite towers had seduced him at a glance, as they often do, and since he had never climbed a first ascent he asked if I would join him.

Three weeks after I got his message, after just enough time to regain weight from 32 nights on the Walker Citadel, I boarded a plane with my entire wall rack but almost no information about my destination. Dave and I climbed the Fox Molar in Fox Jaw Cirque, north of Tasiilaq, and in 2001 I returned, solo, to climb a larger tower in the same cirque, the Fox Incisor. During those trips I became friends with Hans Christian Florian, a Danish doctor living in Tasiilaq. Anyone who has done an expedition on Greenland’s east coast has likely met Hans Christian and received his gracious hospitality and support (or at least has heard of him). Before leaving Greenland in 2001, I asked Hans Christian and his friends, local hunters, and fishermen around town if they had seen other big granite walls in neighboring fjords, hoping they would know the land’s vertical secrets.

One of Hans Christian’s friends, Erwin Reinthaler from Austria, was visiting him at the time. A few years earlier, he had sailed near the fjords around the abandoned Skjoldungen settlement, about 370 kilometers south of Tasiilaq. Erwin simply said, “I remember thinking that it reminded me of Yosemite.” That was all it took.

Hans Christian helped me acquire military aerial photographs of the east coast of Greenland, including the Skjoldungen and Thors Land areas. I also ordered every topographic map available from the Danish Polar Center. I bought a large magnifying glass and pored over the images. Just as Erwin had described, the remote fjords revealed evidence of steep, large rock faces. In photos taken from 9,000 meters I could see pointy summits like rows of arrowheads, their long shadows reaching across the sea. I emailed Hans Christian to see if he could help me find a fishing boat to take me to Skjoldungen in 2002.

This was my first of three trips to this area, and just as I had the year before in Greenland, I decided to go solo. I flew to Tasiilaq in July. The fjords on the east coast were unusually packed with sea ice, so the boat I’d planned to hire was stuck at hunting grounds to the north. It took five days to find someone else willing to attempt the ice-laden journey to Skjoldungen. Then I met John Christensen, who owned a sturdy eight-meter-long fishing boat with an extra 20 millimeters of fiberglass wrapped around it for Arctic conditions. He said he would hire one of the most experienced fishermen and hunters in the area, from the nearby village of Kuummiut, to navigate.

A few days later, at the pace of a casual walk, we began parting a path through geometric sea-ice shapes, holding long poles and using the bow to delicately push aside the floes. The landscape was stunning. Some icebergs were the size of pirate ships. They slowly bobbed up and down in the rolling swells, puncturing the aqua-blue-bleeding-into-copper horizon. At one point, we followed a young polar bear swimming through the maze of ice, looking for seal. The bear was over 30 miles from shore.

After 48 hours of the arctic sea-gallery tour, we headed west into the mouth of Sønder Skjoldungesund (South Skjoldungen Sound). Skjoldungen is a 48-kilometer-long island surrounded by a rectangular sea passage; the north and south sounds connect by Mørkesund at the northwest end of the island. Serpentine glaciers snake between the tops of 1,200- to 1,800- meter mountain thrones, like huge white tongues reaching to touch and taste the ocean. As we entered the fjord, the massive walls looked like gateposts to an ancient kingdom of Viking gods. Skjoldungen, I was told by a Greenlander, translates to “Shield for the Children.”

While researching the area, I was not surprised to learn that many people throughout history have loved this wild and mysterious landscape. Artifacts have been recovered in the Skjoldungen area from Paleo-Eskimo people in the Saqqaq period, as long ago as 2,500 BC. Over 40 ruins have been discovered here, and the area long served as a meeting and trading place for Inuit cultures from the north and south of Greenland. In 1938, about 150 people from the Ammassalik District (the area containing Tasiilaq and five other settlements) moved here for the abundant fishing and hunting. By the early 1960s, however, the hunting conditions had become so poor that they left the settlement for good.

Back in 1828, Danish Royal Navy Lt. Wilhelm A. Graah stated, “This is a paradise,” as he looked into Dronning Marie Dal (Queen Marie Valley) at the west end of Mørkesund. The ice- free fjord at the mouth of the valley was filled with salmon and seal, and from the high mountains in the distance he could hear calving glaciers. The only thing missing were the drum dancers who, according to the lieutenant’s diary notes, had gathered in the summers in this valley in the early 1800s for music making, trading, and feasting.

On August 5, 1882, Fridtjof Nansen was captured by the area’s grand beauty when he camped on the shores of Skjoldungen the year before embarking on the first crossing of Greenland. He not only wrote extensively about the mountains and lush valleys, but also of the horrendous mosquitoes and their endless torment. H.W. Tilman sailed his famous Mischief to Skjoldungen in 1965, and he and Brian Holloway attempted a 1,500-meter summit and succeeded on other climbs, though exactly which summits remains a mystery.

I was blown away by the amount of steep granite I saw in every direction. On this trip, in 2002, I placed base camp at Dronning Marie Dal, Graah’s paradisiacal valley. I reconnoitered several valleys on foot, and then climbed a beautiful route on what I called the Viking’s Shield. (AAJ 2003, pp. 20–29.)

In 2003 I returned and explored several nearby fjords in Thors Land and the Skjoldungen sea passages with my brother Andy Libecki, Shinichi Sakamoto, and John Burcham. After looking at many fjords, shooting roll after roll of film, we decided to return to the west end of Mørkesund; I wanted to show them a sharp-edged tower that I couldn’t stop thinking about. We ended up climbing a classic route on what I called Mt. Queen Lilliana, after my daughter. (AAJ 2004, pp. 255–257.)

I returned to this area last year with Josh Helling, my closest and most trustworthy climbing partner. As we motored south from Tasiilaq once again, I gazed over the dark blue sea, polka-dotted with sea-ice chunks that looked like sparkling diamonds the size of boulders. My nostrils numbed from the Arctic air. With a large smile that quickly turned to a giddy giggle, I thrilled to be back in Greenland’s arms for the fifth time.

At Skjoldungen, Josh and I inspected various walls through binoculars and rifle scopes, scanning for systems of cracks that led to summits, like art connoisseurs studying masterful sculptures. Waterfalls slithered and hissed hundreds of meters from icecaps to the ocean. When the captain let us know he was nearing the halfway mark on his fuel tanks, we were forced to make a decision. Unfortunately, on closer inspection, the route we fancied showed sections of questionable rock. Then, simultaneously, Josh and I spotted a system of super-thin cracks on good granite on an hourglass-shaped section of wall above Mørkesund.

After enduring a horrendous piteraq (a cold katabatic wind that originates on the icecap and sweeps down to the east coast) that destroyed our base camp tent, we made our way through the rain and began climbing. We climbed 11 pitches over five days, feasting on some of the most succulent unclimbed leads we’ve tasted anywhere on the planet. We christened the cliff the Discovery Wall (after the name of the boat that had carried us to Skjoldungen) and called our route Nougatocity (610m, VI 5.11 A3+), after the advertising text on our Snickers candy-bar wrappers: “Nougatocity (noun) A heightened yet fleeting state of accomplishment that makes you realize how unbelievably unmotivated you normally are.” On top we explored flat, glacier-polished slabs of granite and shallow ponds so clear the water was invisible. Looking west toward the massive icecap, we could see many arrowhead-tipped towers, all unclimbed. As I celebrated my fifth first ascent in Greenland, I knew I would always love this place, but I felt ready to focus my energy on other remote lands rumored to contain virgin summits.

I have been blessed with many months of Greenland’s refreshing air; my eyes have been gifted with the sight of ice bears, seals, and fox; I have feasted on the arctic char’s sweet pink flesh, and picked fresh berries and wild celery; I’ve jumped from white sea-ice to light-blue glaciers like a child filled with the freedom of youth; and I have been honored to befriend many people in East Greenland. I hope my words and photographs will encourage others to visit Skjoldungen, a fantasyland right out of my daughter’s princess and dragon books, and fall in love just as I have.

A Note About the Author:

Mountain Hardwear, Black Diamond, and Clif Bar athlete Mike Libecki has explored all seven continents on his never- ending quest for unclimbed summits and wonderful encounters with the Earth’s people. When he’s not traveling, he is a full-time, stay-at-home dad for his daughter, Lilliana; they live outside Salt Lake City with dogs, cats, and a potbelly pig.

Logistics

Fly commercially to Kulusuk, Greenland, via Iceland, and then take a helicopter (ca $100 each way, www.airgreenland.com) or a boat to Tasi- ilaq, located in the Ammassalik District. Arrange a boat for the two-day trip to Skjoldungen. No outfitter offers this journey, but arrangements with local boat owners may be made in advance or in Tasiilaq; the round-trip cost likely will be between $5,000 and $10,000.

The Ammassalik tourism website, www. eastgreenland.com, provides much useful information on transportation, lodging, and other resources for Tasiilaq and the surrounding settlements. You can buy plenty of food in Tasiilaq, but expect to pay much more than at home.

In three trips to Skjoldungen, ranging from July to early September, I have seen perfect weather, 10-plus continuous days of rain, heavy snow, and a severe windstorm known in Greenland as a pitaraq, a form of katabatic wind with gusts up to 160 km/h or more. It has never been very cold; during one snowstorm with north winds, the temperature briefly reached about -15°C, but it climbed back to 2°C to 8°C the next day. I have had multiple days of clear weather in the 20°C range. The rock quality ranges from excellent to horrible—standard issue for most of the unclimbed walls I’ve seen around the world.

I take bear spray and at least one (last resort) rifle for base camp in the rare case of a polar bear visit. Bugs can be sinister and relentless—the worst I have ever experienced. I have identified two kinds of mosquito and one biting gnat—all vicious. Bring head nets. There is 24-hour daylight early in the summer, but the number of dark hours grows very quickly in August and September. Bring headlamps.

Topographic maps (1:250,000) may be obtained from the National Survey and Cadastre of Denmark (Kort & Matrikelstyrelsen, www.kms.dk). —Mike Libecki

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