Greenland

Greenland: 3693m

Expedition to the Watkins Mountains

Whilst drinking some red wine over a nice meal at a friend’s house in Inchnadamph (near Lochinver, Sutherland), the conversation went onto places in the world that we would like to visit and experience. Greenland was mentioned as a place that three of us were very keen to go to. A bit more wine was drunk. We then decided that instead of talking about wanting to go to these places, we’d just go there! Be warned: alcohol can lead to some expensive, but worthwhile, decisions.

In the following weeks, the three of us began to find out more about the country and tried to define what we wanted to achieve over there. We settled on trying to organise an expedition to the  Watkins Mountains in East Greenland. By going to this region we hoped that we would be able to make an ascent of the highest peak in the arctic and also hopefully get the first ascent of some unclimbed peaks. This article describes some of the preparations made for this trip, a bit about the training carried out and the expedition itself.

The expedition and training trips were all completely self-financed. We had applied for funding to the:

  • Mount Everest Foundation (MEF)
  • British Mountaineering Council (BMC)
  • Mountaineering Council of Scotland (MCoS)

 

The MEF and BMC recognised our Greenland plans as a formal expedition but did not release any funds to us. By recognising the expedition, it meant that we had to submit a formal expedition report to them afterwards but got no financial return for our efforts! We had no response from the MCoS (not even an acknowledgement!).

In our unsuccessful applications for funding, we stated that our key objectives in the Watkins Mountains were to:

  1. Make an ascent of the highest peak inside the arctic circle, Gunnbjørnfjeld (3693m).
  2. Make ascents of previously unclimbed peaks in Greenland.

 

In order to safely achieve these objectives, we would need to:

  • spend a considerable amount of time travelling on skis
  • pull pulks to move base camp
  • be up to speed with crevasse rescue
  • be able to assess avalanche potential and hopefully avoid them
  • be able to quickly and correctly locate buried avalanche victims
  • be happy to climb at about Scottish winter Grade II
  • brush up on arctic survival skills
  • undertake firearms training
  • have sufficient medical skills and equipment available
  • be able to contact external assistance if required
  • take enough appropriate food and fuel with us

 

In our team of four we had little ski mountaineering or cross-country skiing experience (and one guy who had never been on a set of skis before in his life).

So we decided that we would need to get some experience of this before spending 2 and a half weeks skiing in a remote part of the world.

To get some skiing experience we nipped over to Geilo in Norway for Hogmany 2003/2004 on a cheap Ryanair flight. The Norwegian trip helped to demonstrate that the kit that I use for a windy Scottish winter was suitable for low temperatures. The Norwegian trip was successful and I flew home for less than the cost of a pint of beer! Following on from the Norway trip, we had all identified what equipment that we needed to upgrade or get. For all of us, we needed skis that were suitable for ski mountaineering and were also good for covering large distances cross country. In the end two of us opted for Telemark ski equipment and the others went for Alpine Touring ski equipment. We had identified that it would be best to test all of our equipment before going out to Greenland so that we could resolve any issues that might arise. Two of the team were unable to get any more time off work but two of us drove off to the Alps to test our kit.

This trip was very worth while. This quick trip gave me some altitude experience as I hadn’t been mountaineering much above 2000m previously and it also allowed us to vigorously thrash/test/break our new skiing equipment.

Ten months after deciding that I definitely wanted to go to Greenland, it finally happened!

There had been a lot of preparations to make before we went out there.  We needed to:

  • work out the logistics of how to get there
  • get the necessary time off work and try to fund it
  • organise an expedition permit from the Danish government
  • obtain maps and plan our objectives in more detail
  • organise a rifle and ammunition (plus smokes and flares)
  • organise emergency communications equipment (satellite phone, emergency satellite beacons, UHF radio)
  • prepare an expedition first aid kit including having treatments available for reasonably foreseeable conditions (e.g. diarrhea, dehydration, burns, blisters, etc)
  • ship our equipment to Iceland
  • plan/pack the necessary food and fuel required

 

Upon arrival at Isafjørdur airport in north west Iceland we were glad to see that our expedition equipment had arrived safely. After unpacking the shipping boxes we loaded up a baggage trolley with all of our kit, pulks, food, skis, etc. We then acted as our own baggage handlers and loaded our twin otter aircraft for the journey to Greenland. With no passport control, no security checks, pen knives in pockets, no tickets being checked, we then flew out to Greenland.

We gradually descended down between the mountains and the pilot landed the aircraft on the Upper Woolley Glacier in the Watkins Mountains. I was surprised how soft and pleasant the landing was on the snow. The pilot then drove the aircraft around on the glacier to form a runway before switching off the engines to let us off. It was clear that he wanted to fly back out fairly quickly because we could see a frontal system moving in.

At the Upper Woolley Glacier International Airport, we met a Royal Navy expedition who were flying out on our aircraft. Before they departed we managed to have a quick discussion with them to find out what they had done in the area during their trip.

I was surprised that the Royal Navy had gone to Greenland with snow shoes instead of skis! This meant that they could not cover as much distance every day as we were going to attempt to do. The Royal Navy expedition had been out in Greenland for about a month and when we talked to them we found out that they had changed their objectives when they were out there. This meant that three of the unclimbed peaks that we had identified as our objectives had already been done. You wouldn’t believe how much of a blow that is as they then take off and our first Greenland blizzard hit as we pitched the tents on the runway.

So we had a brew and redefined our objectives for the trip. The snow storm soon passed and we had settled weather for the next week or so. During this first week or so we explored the mountains of the Upper Woolley Glacier and of a side glacier (that we called Fleece Glacier). To summarise the first week we occupied ourselves with the following:

  • We made a “first ascent” of a 3020m peak at 68°51’N 29°17’30″W by its north ridge (having approached its north western col from the south side). The expedition team referred to this peak as “Afternoon Peak” after this afternoon ascent (the next peak to the east was “Midnight Peak”).
  • The expedition team also made a first ascent of a 2908m peak at 68°53’45″N 29°16’45″W. This peak was referred to by the team as “Wyvis Beag” because it sort of looked like Ben Wyvis in Ross-shire. This peak was ascended via its south west ridge. This was my first experience of climbing on snow in baking hot sunshine (+10°C) and we were all a bit wary of the snow conditions on this narrow ridge. We didn’t relax until we got back to our skis that day!
  • A subsidiary top (2750m) of Wyvis Beag was also ascended by its south west ridge. This summit was referred to by the team as “Point Minaret”.

 

There were two unsuccessful attempts at an attractive mountain, Pt 2725m, at the head of the Fleece glacier. On the first occasion we were defeated by a weak snow bridge streaming with water (+10°C in the sun). On the second occasion, by trying to climb the peak in the midnight sun, we got past the snow bridge but decided against doing a long knife-edge exposed arete of unconsolidated snow.

Another major disappointment was turning back (after midnight, -14°C) close to the summit of Julia (7th highest in Greenland at 3455m) because of cold feet (literal and metaphorical). Julia has only received one ascent to date and the first ascentionists were not sure whether or not they had reached the summit due to poor visibility.

After a week on the Woolley glacier we decided to move our base camp around to the base of Gunnbjørnsfjeld. Gunnbjørnsfjeld (GBF) is the highest peak inside the arctic circle and in Greenland.

Overall we did not climb above Scottish Grade II during the trip. Using telemark ski boots with crampons did cause some problems during the ascents/descents. On the one short ice pitch on GBF my right crampon decided to come off on the ascent and the left crampon on the down climb! As I was only using one ice axe (a light weight ski mountaineering one) this made for an interesting time. Our expedition was thankfully incident free. Our closest encounter with a polar bear was in our imaginations.

At the end of our 18 day stay in Greenland, we were glad to see the twin otter aircraft arrive to collect us. A Glenmore Lodge instructor, Rosie Golden, got off the arriving aircraft and tried to acquire (or was that buy?) camera batteries from us. One of this arriving party did not have appropriate glacier glasses (just clip on sun glasses).

Having had 18 days without disturbance of world events it was strange to hear these new arrivals telling us about the latest news. Our expedition leader Jim Hall, from Newtonmore, was disappointed that Rosie was unable to tell him the latest shinty result of the match between Kingussie and Newtonmore.

We had a pleasant flight back out to Iceland over the pack ice and eventually got to Iceland’s capital for a few well deserved beers. At £6 a pint, they had to be well deserved.

Before flying back to the UK, we had a couple of days of relaxation in Iceland including an afternoon at the “Blue Lagoon”. It was a major shock to the system when we finally did have to go back to work!

To summarise my thoughts of the expedition:

  • Greenland is an amazing place and I would go back again if I could afford it.
  • The worth of applying for expedition grants should be carefully considered. The time and effort required to make the application and write formal expedition reports is quite extensive. In our case, this yielded a very poor return.
  • It was so nice to be really out of contact with the outside world. It was the most relaxing trip that I’ve had to date because the only stress in the day was lighting the stoves and not getting avalanched.
  • The sense of achievement of getting to the top of an unclimbed summit is hard to describe, but very very worthwhile.

 

And the final conclusion is that I need to stop drinking alcohol because it leads to expensive life changing decisions!

Media and online coverage

Mountain Rescue magazine – January 2006

Mount Everest Foundation website

Mount Everest Foundation Expedition Reports

Mount Everest Foundation Report – Greenland 2004

Expedition photos – Facebook

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