Friday 14 May 2021

Climbing in South Greenland


The Ronne moored in a cove waiting for the ice to clear

This past summer a party of seven mountaineers from Dublin went to the Tasermuit Fjord area, near Cape Farewell in South Greenland. It was primarily a climbing expedition, but some scientific workwas also done. The party consisted of Joss Lynam (leader, surveyor, geologist), Joe Bent (cine-cameraman), Frank Doherty, Paul Hill (doctor, physiologist, botanist), Noel Lynch, Doug Milnes (the only non-Irishman), and Ken Price (assistant surveyor). We arrived at Narssarssuaq in South Greenland by air on 16th July. At the quay below the airfield we found Carl Hoyer waiting for us on his 30-foot ex-lifeboat, the Ronne, with his crew—in the person of Arnie, his eleven-year-old son! The Ronne seemed too tiny to accommodate our party let alone the one and a half tons of food and equipment waiting for us in the warehouse at Julianehaab! But, somehow, a place was found for everything, and we sailed down the fjord through the long evening, happy that in spite of mixed-up plane bookings we were all in Greenland two days ahead of schedule. Then just as we were congratulating ourselves that we would soon be in Julianehaab, we met pack-ice.

This had pushed up the fjord during the day. Carl had had a clear run up only that morning. For hours we twisted and turned, backed and inched forward, easing our way between the ice floes. It was half dark and Carl stood in the bows fending off floes with a boathook, and signalling to Arnie at the helm. The rest of us took turns standing at the sides of the boat to help push off the ice. The Ronne crept slowly forward, keeping close to the shore, where there was often a narrow lead of open water. Early next morning, Julianehaab was in sight, only a couple of kilometres away, but then the tide turned, the floes pressed back on us, and we had to take refuge behind a promontory and wait until the tidal current slackened. We finally reached Julianehaab after 16 hours out from Narssarssuaq. We had taken 10 hours to cross a stretch that Carl had crossed in half an hour the day before. This was our introduction to sea travel in Greenland. Carl accepted it as a matter of course, but we found it disturbing, especially as the Ronne was a wooden boat, which would have been crushed easily by the ice. Nor was it reassuring when the packet boat which had left Narssarssuaq half an hour after us limped in five hours later with a foot-square hole in her bows. We spent two days in Julianehaab, waiting for the ice to clear, and set off hopefully on the 20th, towing two dinghies in which were stowed our boxes of food and gear. But the ice was still thick and our experiences on the way to Julianehaab were repeated daily for more than a week, as we slowly fought our way to Nanortalik, only sixty miles away.

At Nanortalik we spent four wet, miserable days (camped on the town rubbish dump except for the last night when Paul persuaded his confrere at the local hospital to lend us his absent assistant's flat, before the ice broke up enough to enable us to move on. Then we had a wonderful run up Tasermuit Fjord-clear of ice at last—to Base Camp, which we reached on the evening of 2nd August, 17 days out from Narssarssuaq. Base Camp was beside the snout of the Sermitsiaq glacier, near the head of the fjord. Nearby were the remains of the camp of Roger Wallis's 1961 expedition, which had climbed two peaks in the area, Akerna (2030 metres) and Lapworth (1830 metres). It was Roger's photographs and enthusiastic descriptions which first turned our attention to Tasermuit. We spent the next five days ferrying food and equipment up to an advanced base at 920 metres on a rock-island beside the glacial plateau from which rose our main mountaineering objectives, the "Cathedral" (2130 metres) and the "Minster" (2010 metres). It was cold and cloudy, and though we were able to reconnoitre routes on both peaks the weather was too uncertain for us to make a real assault. Three of us therefore went on across an arm of the ice-cap towards Lindenows Fjord, an inlet running in from the east coast. We were at "Camp Z" at 1300 metres in the middle of a huge snowfield when the weather broke, and we experienced the wildest night that I can remember in 25 years of mountaineering. We had a good tent, a Meade, but as we lay there watching the fabric flapping and straining in the wind it seemed impossible it should not tear.

Snow found its way in and melted, so that by morning we were soaked as well as half-frozen. The wind eased slightly about 11 a.m., so we bundled up our gear, dug out the tent, and fled. Crossing the glacier in "white-out" conditions we found most of the crevasses by falling into them. We found Advanced Base deserted; the others had collapsed the tents and gone down. A ripped and tattered flysheet showed that they had also had a rough night. Dumping our tent, we hurried down to base, where we found the others repairing the storm damage there. The tarpaulin roof was half off our "kitchen" and the flysheet of our big sleeping tent was ripped and askew. Life was thoroughly miserable, but at least they could give us the good news that the day before the storm Frank and Paul had climbed an 1800 metre peak east of Cathedral, and had seen what they thought was a practicable route up the S.E. ridge of Cathedral itself. The weather improved after a couple of days. but since it would take some time for the new snow to melt or consolidate, we turned our attention to scientific work, and to exploring the lower peaks on the west shore of the fjord. One day remains in my memory as a complete contrast with out experiences at Camp Z. We walked up the Itivdlerssuaq valley to collect plants near a moraine lake, The lower part of the valley was. as is usual in South Greenland, a knee-high jungle of dwarf birch and willow, guaranteed to ruin a walker's shins and temper in ten minutes. But around the lake were grasses, and many species of erica, campanula. and alchemilla; from the lake flowed a clear stream; the sun shone, the air was warm, and even the midges seemed less ubiquitous. 


The day after this Ken and Doug attempted a 1400-metre aiguille behind Base Camp. An ice gully led them to within a hundred metres of the top, but the apparently climbable final ridge turned out to be a mass of unstable boulders, and they retreated down another ice gully. The rest of us crossed in the dinghy to the west shore. Paul "botanised," the rest of us climbed. Noel and Joe climbed two snow peaks (the "Ben Bauns") of about 1440 metres, which we had glimpsed the day before. Frank and I climbed "Staircase Peak" opposite Base Camp. It looked easy, and it was, until we met the summit tower, black, lichen-covered rock, plastered with soft snow. However, we had not come up 1300 metres to be stopped by the last 50 metres, so with the aid of three pitons, the tower was climbed. Next day Noel and I collected another peak on the west shore, mainly as a survey station since the weather had been too cloudy for surveying from Staircase Peak. The others went down the fjord in the rubber dinghy, searching unsuccessfully for a Norse monastery, whose ruins were supposed to be visible on the east shore, about ten kilometres down the fjord. A dinghy and outboard motor are essential for communications in case of any emergency—it would take days to walk out along the precipitous shores of the fjord to the nearest settlement, 50 kilometres away. The dinghy was also very useful for fishing. In half and hour we could easily catch enough cod to make a good meal for the seven of us. By 16th August conditions were good enough for us to go back to Advanced Base, to make a determined attack on the Cathedral. The first assault team (Ken and Noel) moved up to a camp perched at 1200 metres on the col between the Cathedral and the Minster. The next day they went for the summit; busy surveying, we watched with half an eye for the green flare that would signal their success, but we saw nothing, and the next team (Doug and Frank) moved up to Col camp. Then at 10 p.m. that night we were awakened by a triumphant Noel and Ken—they had climbed the Cathedral! It had been a long hard day. The first 500 metres was an easy, if laborious, plod up soft snow slopes. The last 500 metres was up the granite slabs of the south-east ridge. The climbing never fell below V. Diff., and the crux was a strenuous V.S. crack just below the summit block. They reached the summit at 4 p.m. after 8 hours' climbing.

A few clinometer sights confirmed our belief that the Cathedral was higher than all its neighbours, and then they descended. Doug and Frank were to have climbed the Cathedral the next day, followed by Joe, Paul, and myself with the cine camera, but in the morning the clouds were down, and the cold S.E. wind was blowing—no weather for the Cathedral. Doug and Frank brought back the Col camp, and with Doug now nursing a damaged ankle, continued down to Base Camp. Paul, Joe, and I climbed an 1800-metre peak to the north, on the edge of the bad weather. It was bitterly cold, but from the summit we could see to the north and west where the sky was clear, across the ice-cap, a limitless rolling plain of snow, with only an occasional nunatak breaking the whiteness. One geological objective was to find the northern limit of the Tasermuit granite, so Joe, Ken, Paul, and myself went north again to Camp Z. At the time of the storm we had called the campsite "the backside of nowhere" and even in sunshine, when our dump came into view as a minute orange dot in the level snowfield, it seemed utterly remote. Above Camp Z was "Tent Peak" (2050 metres), almost as high as the Cathedral. We climbed it the next day by a rib on the south face, without much difficulty, though the last 50 metres to the summit ridge were good Severe (or maybe the fact that my breeches were falling down while I led this pitch made me over-grade it!) We had a wonderful view over Lindenows Fjord to the 2250-metre Apostelen Tommelfinger. This had been one of our original objectives, but the two weeks lost in the pack ice had left us with insufficient time to reach it. The Minster was the biggest remaining challenge, so Ken and I tackled it next. We tried the west ridge (previously reconnoitred by Doug and Ken) and after a lot of trouble in a snow couloir reached the west shoulder. Above this we had good climbing—about Severe—on the rock ridge, until about 250 metres below the summit. Then the climbing became really hard and dangerous, since the granite was friable, and holds crumbled. We could get a little higher by moving onto the S.W. face, but one pitch higher we were blocked by a series of over-hangs. We turned back, without a siege for which we had no time, the Minster could not be climbed. 


A couple of days later Carl picked us up; there was no ice, and instead of 17 days, it only took us two to get back to Narssarssuaq. On the way we experienced again the helpfulness of Danes and Greenlanders. In Nanortalik a Dane with happy memories of a week in Dublin gave us all tea, and was a mine of information about Greenland past and present. The manager for the Royal Greenland Trade Department came out on Sunday afternoon to take over our heavy baggage which we were sending by sea, so did the manager of the local supermarket. And at Syd Proven we were given the canteen of the fish factory for our overnight stay. A heaven with central heating and hot showers. We would strongly recommend Greenland to any small group contemplating a mountaineering expedition. Perhaps the possible delays due to pack-ice (though we were told that this summer was the worst for 40 years) and bad weather might put people off the Cape Farewell area, but elsewhere on the coast there are hundreds and hundreds of unclimbed peaks, and virtually unmapped areas. You can travel to Greenland by ship or plane, quickly, and comparatively cheaply. Food and fuel are in good supply and very cheap (the Danish Government subsidise transport to Greenland) and it is easy to get permission for an expedition from the Danish Ministry for Greenland. 

Joss Lynam : First Published in The Climber-December 1968