On a tangent to the Watkins Mountains, East Greenland, May/June 2002
"That's what an Expedition means. A long line of everybody." (Winnie-the-Pooh, Expotition to the North Pole)
Thirty years after the Vikings got to Iceland, a certain Gunnbjörn sighted Greenland after getting blown off course. This was in in 900 AD. Now, to climb the mountain named for that unwilling pioneer, we are repeating his voyage in a single day.
The Twin Otter makes a curving approach to Isafjördur, to take on extra fuel. It rocks in the stiff breeze while arctic terns and oyster-catchers gambol in the reed flats at the end of the runway. In an hour, we’re airborne again and soon Europe's westernmost cliffs are slipping astern.
Then the engines open up to drag the aircraft another kilometre or so to the planned camp site. You don't stop immediately because the skis heat up on landing and you need to taxi until they've cooled off. Or they freeze to the snow, as happened to Que Sera Sera (below), the first plane to land at the South Pole. Unlike Que Sera Sera, Twin Otter pilots don’t have RATO to fall back on, so they can’t let that happen.
Soon we’re beating the snow flat for our tents and sorting through the pile of cardboard ration boxes and gear. Now we’ll find out if our organiser has once again lived up to his formidable reputation for logistics. (He has.)
An hour later, three tents have mushroomed in the middle of the glacier and three MSR stoves are roaring for the honour of boiling the first brew of the 2002 arctic mountaineering season. We’re well sorted. I even find my temporarily mislaid Swiss Army penknife with can-opener. This is good, as the ration packs seemed to include quite a few tins of tuna, sweetcorn salad, and stuff of that ilk.
Even in the late afternoon, the sun beats down on the glacier so that we can work in shirtsleeves. It’s completely calm and the snow is soft. So as not to waste the good weather, we'll wait till late evening, suggests Paul, and take some sled-loads of gear towards an advanced camp site. By that time, the snow surfaces will be firming up.
28 May: Some time in the wee hours, we decide we've had enough of pulk-hauling and the chilly breeze. (No disrespect for the pulks implied, though. These are incredible pulks.)
So we cache the gear, mainly food, fuel, and climbing kit, mark its position with both bamboo wands and fixes on two GPS sets, and ski back down to camp. Sack out at 3.00am. The sun is still below the ridge from our viewpoint, but nearby peaks stay aglow in the ethereal late-afternoon-like light. No sunset or sunrise tinge, because the air is too clear to redden the rays of the sun even when he sits right on the horizon.
Wake late to grey skies and flat light. Poor conditions for glacier travel, so, gratefully, we catch on sleep. We catch up on quite a lot, because nobody remembers much about that day.
30 May: we sat at our tent doors, pulling on our Big Ski-Touring Boots. Or, in most cases, struggling to force the inners into the outers. Only I favoured the Whole Boot At Once approach. Which way is better? Perhaps this is one of those questions to which no man will ever know the answer.
Paul calls the organiser on the sat-phone, having repaired a faulty charging connection. Weather bright, cold, the snow still firm at noon, but GBF clouds up later.
We get as far as the glacis below the main summit before GBF performs a vanishing trick into a cap cloud of its own making. We call it a day and ski back to camp as the shoal of lenticulars starts to invade the blue hole over the ice-cap to the west. In the evening, the weather clears again.
We convene on a basalt outcrop to exchange the skis for crampons. Then on up the ridge on crisp sastrugi, except for one small steep section of blue but pliable ice. Above that, the ridge broadens again so that, at Paul's suggestion, we can stroll up to the summit in line abreast so we all get there at once.
To the west, a row of blunted summits hems in the ice-sheet. Glaciers pour down through gaps in the range, their motion freeze-framed by our mayfly perspective on time. The higher peaks are sculpted from alternating bands of snow and basalt, white and black, like the striped stonework of Tuscan cathedrals. Beyond the mountains, the the inland ice rolls outwards for ever.
The bitter wind that assailed us on the ridge has dropped away, as if by magic. The sun is warm and we can take our time on the summit, taking photos. Not a cloud in the sky, except for a band of haze on the horizon.
4 June: Good pulking weather for moving the whole ensemble back to base camp. Using snowstakes and slings, Paul rigs brakes for the pulks but these prove unnecessary – we can snowplough and even slalom our skis a bit with these incredible pulks in tow.
A little Consideration, a little Thought for Others, makes all the difference. (Eeyore in Winnie-the-Pooh)
5 June: cloudy, but we plan a rest day anyway. After breakfast, a small bird (snow bunting?) flitters past. Later, Paul and I reconnoitre the route out towards the 'untrodden glacier', our next objective.
Weather clears in the evening, although a backbow (circumzenithal arc) hovers in the lingering cirrus. In other countries, backbows are a reliable precursor of bad weather, but we're getting wary of making predictions. The hobbyhorsical clouds are always one step ahead of our speculations.
"I shouldn't be surprised if it hailed a good deal tomorrow," Eeyore was saying. Blizzards and what not. Being fine today doesn't Mean Anything. It has no sig - what's that word? Well, it has none of that. It's just a small piece of weather." (The House at Pooh Corner)
6 June: Yet it was still bright when we start off next morning, except for a fast-rising line of stratus behind us. Paul and Julian go off ahead to find the route, while Scot, Kate, and I take the pulks in tow. Just as the glacier starts to fall away, we meet Paul and Julian coming back. The light was already too flat for travelling, they say.
We settle in our tents to read and fester while a sheet of stratus pours over the bounding cliffs of the 'untrodden glacier' opposite.
7 June: gleams of light across the glacier as we cook breakfast (semolina and hot chocolate), but then snow sets in again. Heavy snow later in the morning, even as shafts of sunlight wander uncertainly about the glacier. In the afternoon, Scot and I make a run back to base camp to fetch more food and fuel. Going up, we ski in and out of cloud banks that are rolling down the glacier. Sometimes, peaks loom forth, once the view is reduced to a sunny gleam of light on snow that divides two featureless swathes of grey.
A curious phenomenon, which we notice on other days as well: whenever snow is falling, the tents heats up markedly - to a sauna-like 30 degrees this afternoon. Then the temperature drops back around ten degrees immediately the snow stops. Can't think of a mechanism for this.
9 June: … wet snow falls all of the 'night' hours and most of the day too, melting as soon as it hit the tents. At 5.00am, a brief gleam of light appears and a raven takes the chance to drop by - heard by me and seen by Paul as it inspects the campsite. Apparently it doesn’t find anything to its liking, for it soon flies off again in the direction of the coast.
Continuous heavy wet snow from noon. We fester variously. I read Anna Karenina. Paul and Scot play draughts on a board drawn on the back of the map with pieces represented by the (unpopular) chewy sweets.
There’s an impressive view over an ice-fall under the rump of the sphinx. The drop is more than a thousand metres. Glacier lassitude and a lack of kit (we are travelling light) cause us to abandon the first ascent of the sphinx to some future party. A pity, but, as it is, both Kate and Scot are suffering from ill-fitting boots by the end of the day. A long, hot slog back over the melting snows of the glacier.
11 June: Julian starts his MSR even earlier than usual, signalling his intention to tackle Big Bad Peak (pt.2868) above the camp. I knock back an extra cup of coffee in case the day should become more exciting than usual.
The wet snow causes somebody's skins to work loose from their skis. This triggers the question which type of skins work better - the ones with end fittings or the ones without? Night-cap debates like this liven up all good expeditions. You can find the prototype in Boswell’s Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson, LLD: 'Sir, I had this custom by chance; and perhaps no man shall ever know whether it is best to sleep with or without a night cap.'
Unfortunately, cloud soon rolls up from the east. As we ski higher, disquieting sussurations ran ahead of us through the snow as the top surface settles. While the peaks of the eastern range vanish one by one into the clag, Paul digs snow-pits to gauge the stability of the slopes.
As the weather seems to be clearing, we then decide to tackle pt2824, a much easier proposition than The Big Bad One with which it shares a col. Less than an hour of determined postholing bring us to the summit. More 'woomfing' from the snow as Scot leads across to a subsidiary peak. Reassuringly, one of the gendarmes on a nearby ridge bears a curious resemblance to a Madonna and child.
Meanwhile, Julian and Kate seem to have treed themselves in a niche between two rock bands. We get back to the col in time to welcome them back from their bold foray. Julian reports that the rock had been "loose but not crumbly". Thank goodness for that then.
A white gull (ivory gull?) circles over the camp once, then makes off hastily. Paul and Scot phone home via Immarsat to get the results of England v. Argentina.
But the sun decides matters, by making the snow too slushy for us to tackle the next steep slope. Instead, we ski down the glacier to a vantage point from which we could ogle the huge and serrated ridge across the valley. One day that ridge will become one of Greenland's last great mountaineering problems. It looks magnificently loose. Crumbly too, I shouldn't wonder.
In their tent, Paul and Scot have graduated to chess, though with an added element of Kim's game. The main challenge is to remember which flavour of sweet stood for which piece. Paul is also moved to interview himself for 'Arctic TV' on the MSR Lean Burn Olympics: "You have to become the fuel," he advises would-be challengers.