The Wild Bunch Slays One Virgin Wall After Another on the Greenland 2010–Tilman International Expedition
The email read, “Bob, do you know where there are any big walls to climb in Greenland? We did some on Mt. Asgard in Baffin last summer and would like to do some in Greenland in 2011.”
To which I responded, “Well, yes I do know where there are some big walls on the west coast of Greenland but I am not going to tell you where they are as I want them for myself and my teams. But… it so happens I left my boat in Greenland for the winter, what about this year?”
“Ah, we’ll have to think about that, and get back to you.”
To parody Julius Caesar, they thought, they came, they conquered.
So my crew in 2010 consisted of the Favresse brothers, Nico and Oli, from Belgium; Sean Villanueva O’Driscoll, of Irish, Spanish and Belgian descent; and Ben Ditto, American. I dubbed them “the Wild Bunch” after all those high fives and yells at the top of climbs on their website— and to keep them in their place, of course. They enjoyed that. So “Greenland 2010—Tilman International” was born. International because of the nature of the team; Tilman, because all my expeditions have followed the example of this British explorer/climber of yore who in his latter years sailed his boat to remote places and climbed from the boat.
The climbers arrived by plane in Aasiaat and that afternoon took over the Greenland National Day celebrations at the boatyard party, entertaining the staff with their musical instruments and song. Are Greenlanders tolerant? Yes, but the team was excellent. Next day we went out for an afternoons sail in my boat, Dodo’s Delight, a 10-meter Westerly Discus, to learn the ropes, as two of them had never sailed before. Soon enough, we put out to sea for the passage to Upernavik.
It proved a rather arduous passage for us all, especially the two novices. After we motored across Disko Bay, a breeze came up at last, so we turned off the engine and sailed. But thereafter the engine would not start and we had to sail whether there was wind or not. There was the occasional iceberg looming suddenly out of the mist. It was particularly frustrating in the dead calms, of which there are many in Greenland owing to the Greenland High. Sean was heard to comment, “This must be the low point of the expedition.” I hoped he was right and there would be nothing worse. It took us five days to sail the normal two and a half day passage. We had to endure the final indignity of sailing very slowly through a lot of icebergs in full view of all in the settlement of Upernavik, and then to negotiate coming alongside the wharf on sail alone. “Well, you wanted to learn how to sail, lads, didn’t you?”
Solving the engine problem proved easy; the alternator, however, was broken. But obviously the team wanted to get climbing, so I bought a portable generator to charge the batteries. It was far too big and heavy for a small boat, but was all I could find, and we set off for the big walls. We started on Red Wall as I had dubbed it, the headland of Agparsssuit, at the southern end of the Sortehul fjord. Apparently the Greenlanders call it “the cliff where the guillemots stand in line,” and they did, like black sentinels on parade. I got the impression that the Wild Bunch were not used to sea cliff climbing, as they seemed disturbed by all the seagulls wheeling and squawking around them. But they stepped from the boat to the dinghy to the rock to start their climbs. They chose two dihedral and crack lines that went straight up the cliff, and in one big 30-hour push completed two routes of 350 meters and 400 meters respectively. So Seagulls’ Garden at E5 6a sustained (5.11) and Red Chilli Cracker at E6 6b sustained (5.12a) were the first routes ever to be done on this wall with all its potential. The only problem was that to save weight they had chosen not to take a hand-held radio with them, so when finished they had to walk all the way round the fjord behind the headland to where I had anchored the boat. The first I knew of it was when Sean swam, in the nude in arctic waters, across to the boat in the early hours next morning.
“Oh, I’m sorry, I was asleep.”
“Not at all, I wanted a swim.”
After a brief visit back to Upernavik, I dropped them off for another climb on a dramatic face halfway between Upernavik and the Sortehul, this time by a short dinghy ride to shore. I returned to Upernavik to deal with the alternator problems whilst they set up camp, and then after a rather intricate approach, they put up another superb route on this face, Brown Balls at 5.12a (sustained 5.11, with two pitches of 5.12a) and 450 meters. It became a whole team effort, as Nico had come up to a huge pillar that looked too unstable for comfort, so he and Sean rappelled down to the high point the other two had reached on their route. They then abseiled off and left Nico and Sean to finish the route. So the final route takes the continuous line just to the right of the obvious central pillar. They described it as “a superb line with Yosemite type cracks,” and noted that this first ascent was harder because they had to clean sand and earth from the cracks. It was then a combined onsight free ascent, though Nico confessed to pulling once on gear on a 10-meter wet section.
But the tour de force of their climbing in this area was the first ascent of Impossible Wall. I have had my eye on that wall for many years now as I passed underneath it, but, as I told them, I have never had a team good enough to climb it before. Hence the name. Their route, Impossible Wall And The Devil’s Brew (there is a story behind the addition) at E7 6c (5.12d) followed the steepest and hardest line on the wall, and probably in this whole area, ascending 850 meters in 19 pitches with each pitch sustained. They started this time by simply stepping off the boat, moored alongside the wall with a couple of cams in cracks. This was the first time a veritable “Garden of Eden” had been planted on my boat from all the grass and earth that fell as they climbed and cleaned the start of the route. There was no let up in standard, and it took them 11 days to complete the climb with three por- taledge encampments along the way. True, three of those days were spent stuck on their portaledges in bad weather, but this was initially no problem as they had included their musical instruments in the haul bags. They fell to “jamming” and composing new songs! But gradually the infamous black hole (coincidentally, Sortehul also means Black Hole) began to drip more and more water on top of them. Three days later Sean, the acknowledged expert on loose rock, wet rock, grass, and lichen who said “it doesn’t matter as long as you can just keep on climbing,” managed to lead the black greasy hanging chimney crack. Nico also had his moments on this climb. The Greenlandic name for this wall is Seagull Cliff or Bad Seagull Cliff, and bad they were. He had to get onto a certain ledge, but a fulmar wasn’t having any of it and kept ejecting foul-smelling slime all over him. It took repeated swings with a number four cam before the fulmar finally relented.
The penultimate pitch also proved interesting, especially since by this time Nico had to empty the contents of his own stomach rapidly and repeatedly. It seems the water supply running down the wall had been polluted by seagulls. He then hooked his foot high up in a crack to lever himself up with an “impossible” move to start the pitch. But after 11 days they topped out, this time to a well deserved dance together on the top, and a toast in champagne when I picked them up round the back of the mountain the next morning. Funnily enough it had only been eight days as far as they were concerned, as their days were 30 hours long!
Nico remarked to me later, “I think that must be the greatest adventure of my life so far,” and a knowledgeable authority has subsequently commented that it was “probably the hardest climb done in Greenland to date.”
It certainly was a landmark climb, and hopefully these ground-breaking ascents will open up the tremendous climbing potential of this area, at almost any standard. This latter point was illustrated for us a few days later. After I picked up my crew from the base they had established round the back before they started the wall, we retired to the only safe anchorage in the Sortehul—at its northern end—where we fortuitously met up with another bigger and smarter yacht, Saxon Blue. Also soon to arrive were a group of three kayakers from Wales—this was positively crowded for Greenland. After we had all been generously entertained one evening aboard the luxury of Saxon Blue, including the inevitable musical ensemble with my crew singing for their supper, they put up some pleasant, shorter, and not quite so extreme routes in the area, reached by kayak.
But the team was keen to press on for the southern tip of Greenland. We started the long trek, some 850 nautical miles, to the Cape Farewell area. Early on we inspected a wall I had reconnoitered whilst they had been on the big wall, but this was finally rejected for various reasons. This became the story of this passage south. At one stage we turned toward the Ummannaq area to have a look—were any big walls lurking there? In times past there had been a lot of mountaineering in that area, including by some famous names, and subsequently I did hear from a group who rock climbed there last summer. Yes, there are rock routes to be done, but beware the considerable loose rock. It was fortuitous therefore that we decided not to inspect it after all. Instead we turned round and continued on to Aasiaat, from where we had started. Here we dispatched some extra gear via the Royal Arctic Shipping line, and then proceeded further south.
Again we diverted to inspect possible big walls we had been told about. This is one of the great advantages of climbing from a boat: you can explore while living on a mobile but firm base that goes where you want. We put into a fjord to the north of Sisimiut and another to the south of Paamiut on our way, but both walls were rejected as being not long or steep enough for my expert team. Instead they got their kicks by jumping into the arctic waters for a swim and sitting on ice floes in still life pose, with no protective clothing, shall we say. It was a long haul, especially as what little wind there was came “in our faces.” We had to motor practically the whole way. But eventually we arrived in Nanortalik in the far south, where we restocked and read reports from past expeditions kindly lent from the Tourist Office, before making our way round to the Cape Farewell area.
We immediately noticed the difference. Upernavik involved big sea cliffs; here the terrain was alpine in character. As this area has received quite a lot of attention in the past, it is more difficult to find new routes. We managed five in the end. The first two were on a wall beneath an unnamed peak northwest of Tikaguta on the Saga map, which they only found because they got lost in the morning mist and suddenly there it was in front of them! It had required a five-kilo- meter walk in, carrying all their gear, leaving the skipper and boat anchored in the Torssukatak fjord. This cliff provided “two classic, clean, direct lines on excellent rock” at E4 or 5.11, both of 450 meters. They then completed the ridge traverse at D/TD and were kind enough to name the summit Shepton Spire.
Next came two routes on the obvious wall at the northern end of Quvnerit Island. Both were offwidth cracks: Chinese Gybe, E5 6b or 5.11+ at 550 meters, and Chloé, also E5 6b or 5.11+, 550 meters. The names? A Chinese Gybe is a sailing maneuver you try at all costs to avoid. Nico, eight meters above a stance with no intermediate protection, pulled on a huge block of some 200 pounds that came away in his hands. He struggled to hold onto it and find purchase on the cliff somehow somewhere, but in the end he had to push it away and take the 16+ meter fall, finishing upside down with a 400-meter void below. He felt himself all round and was ecstatic to be alive and unharmed. The rock had hit the wall and burst, but mostly missed Ben on the stance, who only took a badly grazed ankle, though he later discovered the blade of his pocket knife in his pack had been snapped in half, presumably by a projected missile. Both were considerably shaken, and stirred. Chloé was named after the Belgian bouldering champion, who was a close friend of the group; she was killed by a fall in the Alps on the very day of these Quvnerit ascents.
Nico and Ben were puzzled to find a bolt and some tat on their route and wondered whether it had already been climbed. We discovered later that a strong Swiss team had been here in 2004 and climbed some routes, but not these two. They had used the bolt to escape, as they had found the crack above to be wet and greasy. Honor was satisfied. My team, after shivering away the rest of the darkness (it was late August by now) in a bivy at the top, went on to traverse the whole of the ridge, but did not claim it as a first as they found more tat on the way.
The final ascent was a mistake, at least as far as the skipper was concerned, who foolishly allowed himself to be persuaded to go out with Nico and Sean. The route on the southeast corner of Angnikitsoq, at E2 (5.10) and 500 meters, was far too long and far too hard for an old man, however expertly he may have been guided. The old skipper survived, quite exhausted, and immediately named the route Never Again! Seventy-five seems a good age to retire from that sort of thing (again). However, he was able to join the Wild Bunch in their victory dance at the top and thus become a full member.
We stopped at Saft Wall on the way out, but the weather turned gnarly and only bouldering was done. Again, it looked as if most worthwhile routes had already been climbed here. We made our way down Prins Christian Sund, enjoyed the hospitality and Danish pastries at the Weather Station at the far end, before making our way out for the Atlantic crossing. The lads were keen to do this “for the experience.” They were not disappointed; it proved a tough crossing with a lot of headwinds before eventually we could work south and pick up favorable westerlies to bowl us along to Scotland. We hove-to to sit out Post Tropical Storm Danielle, and later another vigorous double depression. And yet again to repair the steering at sea, which had worked loose. We finally came up to Mingulay and Pabbay in the Western Isles of Scotland and inspected the cliffs with a view to climbing (“it would be cool to climb this side too”), before anchoring off a remote beach with a huge colony of seals lining the waterline. But the next day the skipper overruled the climbers for fear of weather, and we eventually arrived in Oban in a full gale. Welcome home!
All of this weather had nothing to do with the fact this was my thirteenth crossing of the Atlantic, we arrived on the thirteenth day of the month, and a large 13 was the number on my storm trysail. As I told them, “Its lucky you are not superstitious, lads!”
It had been a successful and happy summer. And I couldn’t have had a more pleasant bunch aboard.
Area: West Coast of Greenland (Upernavik region) and Cape Farewell region.
Ascents: Nine new routes by climbers Nicole Favresse, Olivier Favresse, Ben Ditto, and Sean Villanueva, with Bob Shepton skipper and climber on one route.
In the Upernavik area, on the “Red Wall” on the headland of Agparsssuit, at the southern end of the Sortehul fjord: Red Chili Crackers (350m, 5.12- R or E6 6b), by Olivier Favresse and Villanueva, in 30 hours beginning July 2, 2010. Seagull’s Garden (400m, 5.11 or E5 6a), by Ditto and Nico Favresse in 30 hours beginning July 2 (one bolt was placed on lead to protect a slab—the only bolt placed on the expedition). On a dramatic face halfway between Upernavik and Sortehul: Brown Balls Wall (400m, 5.12-; all free except for one pull on a 10-meter wet and dirty section), by Olivier Favresse and Ditto on first 3 pitches; Nico Favresse and Villanueva on the rest, July 6. Back at Sortehul fjord: Impossible Wall And The Devil’s Brew (850m, 19 pitches, 5.12+ or E7 6c), by Olivier and Nico Favresse, Ditto, and Villanueva, in 11 days with three portaledge camps (no bolts), July 11–22.
In the Cape Farewell Area, on a wall beneath a previously unnamed peak northwest of Tikaguta on the Saga map, 5km walk from Torssukatak fjord: Corned Beef (450m, 5.11 or E4), by Ditto and Villanueva. Also Condensed Milk (450m, 5.11 or E4), by Nico and Olivier Favresse. Both routes were climbed on August 16 and followed by a long scenic ridge (D/TD) to another summit on the east side of what they named “Shepton Spire.” On Quvnerit Island: Chloé (550m, 5.11+ offwidth or E5 6b) on Angegoq Tower followed by the ridge to the summit of Morel Tower and then the summit of Asiaq Tower, by Olivier Favresse and Villanueva on August 20. Also on Angegoq Tower on August 20: The Chinese Gybe (550m, 5.11+ offwidth or E5 6b), by Ditto and Nicolas Favresse. They found one bolt and rap anchors on the lower part of the wall, but no sign of previous climbers above that point. On Angnikitsoq: Never Again! (500m, 5.10 or E2), by Shepton, Nico Favresse, and Villanueva on August 21.
About the author:
Considered an institution in northern waters, the Reverend Bob Shepton (76) many years ago left the pulpit for the cockpit of his yacht. He has become a leading expert on the waters around West Greenland and is the only person to have won the Royal Cruising Club’s Tilman Medal twice. His boat Dodo’s Delight is a Westerly 33-foot Discus built in 1980. Shepton spearheaded the development of rock climbing in the Portland area (UK) during the 60s and 70s, and climbed new routes on the Little and Great Ormes. He is now a proud holder of a Piolet d’Or 2011 with the Wild Bunch for this expedition. He can be reached via bobshepton.co.uk.