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Outsider’s mountaineering editor Declan Cunningham travelled to Renland in the Scoresbysund Fjord on Greenland’s east coast in search of climbing first ascents. But, as he found out – planning is no match for Mother Nature and pioneering expeditions are as much about disappointment as success.
Words and photos: Declan Cunningham
The rotors came to a stop and we took our first steps onto the virgin snow. We got busy unloading the rest of the gear from the helicopter. We found ourselves in the most stunning, even daunting, landscape. Huge walls of unexplored Alpine-like peaks rose up on either side of Greenland’s Edward Bailey Glacier or the EBGB as we came to call it. As we shuttled back and forth Rowan turned, smiled at me, and enquired, “Can you feel that silence?”
I think I had been too distracted with the loads and the idea that the little red pod that was the only way out of here was about to leave to really take in our surroundings. The silence wasn’t oppressive but it was complete. Not one sound of greeting met us in our new home. No running water, not a call from a bird or even the hush of the wind. It seemed as though the elements themselves had deserted this place.
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Our team comprised five Irish Mountaineering Club members – Rowan Kavanangh, Sinead Pollack, Darrach O’Murrachu and Padraic Gibbons and me. We were on an exploratory expedition to make some first ascents in this virtually untouched mountainous arena of Renland nestled in the Scoresbysund Fjord on Greenland’s east coast. The area doesn’t get much traffic and, with only four prior visits, it is virtually unmapped, unexplored and unclimbed. Not even the locals or polar bears come to this remote corner. Still it wasn’t company we were after but challenge and Renland has that in spades…or drifts might be a more appropriate way of putting it.
That initial feeling of beautiful isolation left us temporarily when the helicopter took off. Spirals of snow played in the blades as the down draft fought gravity. Finally, the little craft, with its halo of frenzy, left us alone. All too soon our one tenuous link to the outside world was a distant red speck that eventually disappeared like the static light in an old TV.
I’ve never felt more like Swiss Family Robinson in my life, except that our abandonment was not only intentional. I turned to survey our new world. A mass of black rock in every direction and blankets of the purest, most untouched snow you could imagine. We were like Keystone Climbers in our silent world of black and white. On second thoughts make that Harold Lloyd because here, in the Greenlandic wilderness north of the Arctic Circle, we would have to do all the stunts ourselves!
It was a beautiful sunny day and it would have been glorious to simply lie back on a hot rock, catch some rays and melt into this amazing place but we had work to do and were already learning just how fast the weather changes here.
“Once fully loaded using a pulk was akin to strapping yourself to a donkey who desperately wanted to go in the opposite direction.”
We would use pulks (a type of sleigh with a harness) to haul our gear on the glacier. Once fully loaded using a pulk was akin to strapping yourself to a donkey who desperately wanted to go in the opposite direction. Getting it moving was brutal but once mobile there was a constant struggle to have it follow you. Still it would have been a lot worse with your average shopping trolley.
We were a lot further down the EBGB than we had planned but plans change because, “This is the Arctic”, as we were repeatedly told by our logistics guy. Things had gone to plan with our flights to Iceland and on to Constable Point in Greenland. However on arrival here we were informed that the planned snowmobile route to Renland had not been prepared and our gear which we had shipped out a few months earlier hadn’t been dropped into the agreed point. This was due to the unseasonably high snowfalls in March.
This was disappointing, to say the least but the real kick in the head was that we could be stuck at Constable Point for a week! With only four weeks to play with and conditions being bad, we needed as much time as possible for our climbs. There was nothing to do but set up a basic camp and get a feel for the place with ski tours across the Hurri Fjord…when the weather allowed.
Needless to say the weather in Greenland takes some getting used to and there is a kind of baptism of ice when you get off the plane. The first task was digging out our buried gear from where it had been dropped and finding the tents so we would have somewhere to sleep. We never truly settled into Constable Point as we were anxious to get on with the plan. That week did, however, allow us to acclimatise to our new Arctic surroundings and the incredible changeability of the weather. One day glorious sunshine, the next a raging blizzard…
“Distance is something of an optical illusion here with just about everything having a rainbow’s end type quality in that however far you go it never seems to get any closer.”
Thankfully it was a beautifully still and gloriously sunny day when we finally touched down in Renland and we made decent progress up EBGB and found a good site for Camp 1. Distance is something of an optical illusion here with just about everything having a rainbow’s end type quality in that however far you go it never seems to get any closer. The beautiful vastness of the place had the obvious downside of making the area frustratingly big and slow to move around. But the routes weren’t going to find themselves so we made several sorties in the search of potential climbs.
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Even on first glance we could see that routes were complex and were even more challenging than anticipated thanks to the unseasonal build-up of unconsolidated snow. Another major consideration for us from a climbing point of view was that we were unable to pick out any descent routes. This meant that any climb attempted would more than likely have to be reversed. This is a complicated, very time consuming and potentially dangerous process so we were understandably wary.
Our original plan had been to set up a centrally located base from which we would head out on two- to three-person multi-day reccies and climbing sorties. Recce trips from Camp 1 resulted in us selecting our first route to attempt but, as luck would have it, the weather changed and fresh snow meant the climb was off. This resulted in another big haul up the glacier to Camp 2.
Pulks aren’t the most cooperative things and are about as easy to get moving as a teenager on a school morning. On these long hauls we encountered two significant problems. The first was that our skins (ski attachments that give grip in the snow) were not performing as they should so progress was slow. The second was that the hauling and pulk dragging was taking a serious toll on Rowan’s feet.
Padraic and Darrach had made a start on one route during a recce and were going back to attempt to get the group’s first summit. Rowan, Sinead and I had selected another on the opposite side of the EBGB. Both parties made early starts and good progress, at least initially. The sound of avalanche is about the only natural sound in the area but it was blissfully quiet as we worked up the gulley through obvious avalanche debris to try to gain the ridge. We were understandably wary but incredibly happy too because however ephemeral our footsteps were they were the first ones this route had ever seen.
Unfortunately, we only got about halfway up the ridge before it became unclimbable and we were forced to retreat. Darrach and Padraic were on the other side and, despite an especially gallant effort, were also unable to reach the summit. Their descent turned out to be an epic of 17 abseils on very dubious rock but we all got back to camp safely.
“This day of climbing and skinning had aggravated Rowan’s feet so that they were dangerously blistered and showing signs of infection.”
This day of climbing and skinning had aggravated Rowan’s feet so that they were dangerously blistered and showing signs of infection. We treated them as best we could but it wasn’t safe for him to remain in Renland in that condition so we had to arrange for evacuation. Insurance protocol demanded an emergency call to arrange this and as we couldn’t call we had to get the call made from home. This even resulted in a few minor mentions in the papers at home. Whatever about not making the news for putting up some new routes we were happy that we didn’t provide any gorey headlines either.
Nothing was really going as we had hoped and it was with heavy pulks and even heavier hearts that the remaining four moved up the glacier to Camp 3 in the hope of finding more favourable conditions. Another reason to keep moving up the glacier was that our logistics people wanted to collect us by Otter plane from the Greenland icecap. However, given the trouble we were having with our skins, the terrible snow conditions and the amount of gear our reduced group had to haul, it was impossible for us to reach it.
“At camp, eating became a major event but there’s only so many Wayfarer ready meals a person can handle. Any ‘special’ food, like Nutella, chocolate, salami etc, was coveted.”
Exploration continued but possible routes were scarce due to the snow conditions and the weather. At camp, eating became a major event but there’s only so many Wayfarer ready meals a person can handle. Any ‘special’ food, like Nutella, chocolate, salami etc, was coveted. We only had what we called ‘proper dinners’, like pasta and cheese, once or twice a week so any dropped morsel was hoovered up. Our basecamp tent was a real godsend for the entire trip and meant that when conditions kept us camp bound we at least could get together.
It never got dark so sleeping was different too. Crawling into my bag with all my clothes on and pulling a cotton liner over my face worked to dim the light until sometimes my breath froze in the cloth and woke me. Personal hygiene was interesting. We didn’t have much in the way of spare clothes and no way of melting water for washing so baby wipes were the order of the day – if they weren’t frozen.
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Still, we kept ourselves busy trying to select routes, having long meals, keeping and reading diaries and playing various games depending on how stir-crazy we got. We selected another route that would likely have meant the group’s first summit but the bloody weather turned against us again and we were forced to stay in the tents.
We insisted that getting to the icecap just wasn’t possible for a pickup and when the chance of an earlier-than-scheduled pickup by helicopter came we felt we had to take it. The last thing we wanted was to miss our international flights. Trouble was our logistics guy said the heli wouldn’t collect us from our current location but only way down the glacier from where we had been dropped weeks before. We had no option but to pack up all our gear and see if we could make the pickup. Even though it never stopped snowing we hauled through the night to finally reach Camp 4 about 5am.
Weather meant the intended flight was an impossibility and continued bad weather meant we were stuck there for six days. Each blurry day consisted of satellite phone calls for weather updates and long periods in the base tent. Nice food had run out and discussions turned to who we would eat first and why. Occasionally we would invent games like ‘Arctic archery’ to while away a few hours. The group dynamic had changed a bit at that stage as we all knew that there wouldn’t be any more climbing, just waiting.
The long-awaited clearance finally arrived and we got a five-minute warning of the arrival of the helicopter. Then the pilot got the coordinates wrong and our smoke flare didn’t work so the heli disappeared up the valley. It was a long wait but eventually the whirr of its blades grew louder and he spotted us. We managed to pack and dismantle camp in a record 25 minutes. All four of us piled ourselves and our gear into the tiny craft. Even in that short time cloud came creeping up the valley, threatening to prevent our escape but Haldor (the great pilot) wasn’t bothered and soon enough we were getting a bird’s eye view of those tantalisingly elusive and beautiful peaks.
“Great fields of ice broken by the odd lead of seawater looked like a blank canvas from some unfinished planet.”
Once over the mountains we were hit by the full force of the brilliant sun. The glare hurt my eyes but it was worth it for the view. Great fields of ice broken by the odd lead of seawater looked like a blank canvas from some unfinished planet. Occasional icebergs betrayed their presence with their tips poking into ‘our’ world and belying the giant below in the watery unseen world.
Our flight had come just in time and we had just two hours to get back to Constable Point to repack all our gear for freighting before catching the next flight back to Iceland. It seems incredible now that we could have felt so isolated one day and be back to civilisation the next.
The group had spent over a month north of the Arctic Circle and persevered despite very challenging conditions. We are especially grateful to our sponsors and families for their support for this amazing trip and the only shadow on this place of endless sun is that we didn’t have something more than our collective but treasured memories to show for it.
I think we were all relieved to get on the helicopter that day but it was also sad to be leaving so pristine and breathtaking a place. We came and we saw but let’s hope that Renland like other pockets of wilderness in our wonderful world will never really be conquered.
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