..... GREENLAND ..... ..... EXPEDITION ..... .ORG

Climbing from Stordalens Havn in Cape Farewell Region


by Dr. P.W.F. Gribbon, Expedition Leader



We sailed into the big fjord. We glimpsed the shorn sawn-off flanks of our peaks, looking much more impressive than we had anticipated. The hills became an overwhelming fantasy. What on earth can we ever get up in this land of pinnacles, blades and knives? What about access and travel problems? Of course, these eastern walls that plunged 4000 feet into the sea gave the wrong impression. Oh yeah?

We continued our chill passage northwards, watched by the furtive towers peering out of the riven chasms and frowned over by massive spires above unseeing walls. There was ice blocking the way round a headland to the basecamp, so laden with bags of Irish pancake-mix we were ferried ashore to walk the last mile to our companions. The long journey that had begun seven days before was nearly over. We were about to arrive!

What bewilderment! There was nothing to be seen, save a pile of crates, a fleet of canoes and an empty hunter's hut. Where was the advance party, the 7/10th expedition complement, whom we had anticipated would be established peacefully on the shores of Stordalens Havn? They had all been spirited away leaving ne'er a trace, not even a tent. I decided to wander up the hillside thoughtfully to scout out the lie of the land…..

It had not been easy to run this expedition. The world had become a slightly different place since 1971; it had taken a wee jolt and the challenge to get our trip off the ground was greater. The main problem was money : in the past it had been possible to plan and then raise the cash to meet the needs, but now we had had to consider the financial feasibility before commencing the gritty-gritting of ordering supplies, etc. There were fewer flights available and this led to booking difficulties. Costs escalated from month to month, the degree exams got in the way, the membership of our expedition changed. It was hard work, but its worth was more than words can express…..

Our advance party of seven innocent voyagers had been flung westwards to the uncertain fates that awaited them in Iceland, threatened by a general strike of all services, including air travel. Fly now, worry later was their motto for the day of departure from Glasgow. However they made it into Reykjavik. They found that the strike had been postponed, but it was of more significance to them to discover that our Man-in-Iceland, who was hopefully to provide suitable cheap roof shelter by courtesy of the Air Rescue Services, was out of town on some expeditionary glaciological junket. They were learning by necessity the art of existing off the land, and playing the game cool, slow and by ear. It was on Friday, June 13th, 1975 that they had flown on schedule to Greenland. It all fitted into place…..

They had landed at the airfield at Narssarssuaq and set up home in an abandoned underground cavern mouth to await the coastal boat. On the following day they, full of joyful enthusiasm for icebergs and beckoning hills, sailed for the main settlement of Julienhaab. There they were to wait, encamped in the local Tourist Board Office, wandering the streets and the hillocks above the town until after three days they reboarded the 'Taterak' on its first attempt for several weeks to penetrate the ice along the coast to reach our last settlement at Nanortalik.

Dougie Brown looks out from the 'Taterak' as it tries (for the first time that year) to find a way through the pack-ice

There was much pushing and heaving with care and foresight, as the little vessel threaded its way from village to village, cutting through narrow channels, weaving through ice floes, under the shadow of the spires of Sermersoq to arrive after 15 hours at the pier at Nanortalik. There they were more than thankful to be met by their Man-in-Nanortalik, Mike Davis, who as one of the members of the 1972 Leicester Poly expedition had been captivated by the country and had stayed on to work and live in Greenland : he fed them at his home and transferred them to ample accommodation on the dusty floor of a miniature aircraft hanger. There the wheels of progress began to turn : the equipment was retrieved from the care of K.G.H. Warehouse, the paraffin drum was bought, a rifle for polar bear prevention was borrowed, and most important of all a fishing boat was chartered to take the expedition 30 miles to its chosen basecamp. It was the familiar 'Hanne', used by the 1971 expedition, and now well-established on the tourist voyages to the mountains. They sailed on exactly the correct tide and wind and sneaked through an ice-free lead that had opened along the coast for just long enough to enable the 'Hanne' to run in and out again before the relentless ice barrier was pushed back in once more. In one week the first stage of the expedition had been successfully completed…..

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You can click on these thumbnails to see bigger photos

(Left: Where the Hanne deposited our tea-chests at Stordalens Havn, with a view down the fjord towards Augpilagtoq)

(Centre: Next we had to carry the gear inland to our basecamp. Ray seen here carrying about a year's supply of loo rolls)

(Right: More members of the party preparing to carry equipment to where the advance party was setting up basecamp)

John Cant, Peter Hunt and myself were the rump of the expedition. On 23rd June, we met in the humid confines of Glasgow Airport. Our clothes were clean and intact; we must have looked spruce but pallid, so unprepared for the hard physical life ahead. We flew uneventfully on the 17.05 FI 231 Icelandair Boeing 727 over a cloud sea to the barren lava fields at Keflavik. We bussed to the Loftledeir Hotel in Reykjavik, made our crucial phone call, and within minutes we were thankfully ensconced in comfortable suburban living quarters, so civilised, with gentle rain falling on a prize dwarfed sycamore in the garden and music into the late undarkening night, all by the kind courtesy of Magnus Magnussen, none other, accept no imitations. We were to spend a day waiting : it was chill, overcast and damp in the streets of Reykjavik and with no real wish to sample the geothermally heated swimming pools we soon returned to our comfortable pad. To our chagrin we were overwhelmed, bought up and declared bankrupt in a protracted Icelandic edition of the game of Monopoly that dragged far into the late evening.

On the grey morning of 25th June, we returned to get the bus back to Keflavik. Who were these duveted mountainy men who also lingered with intent? They were an unheard-of bunch of bipartisan Irish fellow-travellers bound for two months in South Greenland. They had selected some mountain objectives that delighted under the Greenlandic tags of Angiatarfik and Agdlerussakasit, the two major summits, one on either side of the valley that ran westward from Stordalens Havn. Where had I heard those names before? Hey, that's where we're going and not only that but our advance party is already certainly encamped under their shadows.

Oh, no, two expeditions with the same objectives : it had happened before but it looked as if the Irish expedition had to make the new plans. To say the least they didn't seem perturbed - there were plenty of unclimbed mountains for everyone close at hand. The fact that they had produced their publicity brochure with these two unpronounceable hills as their named and illustrated objectives also really didn't matter too much : in the absence of some genuine photos, they had taken the sheer smooth spires of the Towers of Paine in Patagonia as the suitable models for their Greenland mountains. Artistic licence, but after all one hill is much the same as another, as far as the uninitiated observer is concerned, isn't it?

Once again our flight to Greenland was dull and uneventful with not a glimpse of sea or ice. Nothing to show where we were going, until we came dipping out of the clouds to see an indecipherable patchwork of ice floes set in a black sea somewhere off the Greenland coast. Our Boeing 727 flew up a fjord dropping lower and lower below the hilltops, and running straight down onto the tarmac strip of Narssarssuaq. We had arrived but the world seemed to stand still with nowhere to go and nothing to do. The two parties took up residence in the waiting lounge of the terminal building : reading, card-playing, with quick sorties outside, and long slumps in armchairs.

The St Andrews trio found a miniature café stall stuck in the willows, which they took over as their kitchen to do experiments with a flaring primus and a smoking twig fire on which to cook wallpaper instant potato paste and brew teabags. Light drizzle seeped through the roof. Another day passed with no planes, no helicopters, only overcast gloom and rain that prevented all flights into the airfield. We heard a rumour that the 'Taterak' had just reached Nanortalik after several weeks waiting at Julienhaab before it made its first attempt of the season to get through, and we concluded incorrectly that our advance party had just succeeded in reaching Nanortalik one week late. Now, if we took a helicopter at vast extra expense, we could catch them up and then with the Irish party we could share a charter boat and reduce our costs to the basecamp. Anyway it was better than waiting five days before reaching Nanortalik. That was the plan, as we saw it!

Under the sleety rain and the fresh snow dusting the mountainsides above 1000 feet, we flew in helicopter-style over the floes, little valleys, isolated farms and down the familiar inlet by Sermersoq island to the helipad at Nanortalik - a mere 40 minutes flying time. Where was our advance party? Gone, unbeknownst….. Think again. Another uncertain delay? The ice was jammed into all the channels around the island and there was little sign of any chance of leaving for all points east.

We were installed in a small three-room shack with warm stoves and hot water, all at the kindness of Mike Davis, the one-man tourist guide to the intricacies of life at Nanortalik. We lingered peacefully, with rain drumming against the window and stranded ice chunks on the beach across the road. No boat today but the alternative was a pacifying walk for the restless and impatient Cant soul up the well-known Hill One of 1971 fame. Still no boat on the following day but another option; a stroll in rolling mist to the frost-feathered cairns of Hill Two where on descent we saw the forgotten vistas towards the peaks that waited for us. There were diversions : noisy late activities in the shack, billiard championships in the hotel, fishing trips in the deflatable Irish rubber boat to provide cod dinners. Meanwhile our plans for departure slowly gelled.

The moment of our embarkation was a compressed rush of people and baggage on a fast lorry ride to a hurried loading. We sailed at 11 o'clock, chugging out into the cold mist to the running wind-whipped waves, the approaching hills and the voyage into the unknown shores on the inner fjords that led to the basecamp…..

Where had that basecamp gone? Ah, there it was, nestling down by the river, snug and hidden from careless viewers.

Sketch of Basecamp crouched beneath Agdlerussakasit, with Itivdlerssuaq (the Big Valley) leading off to right

The big green Stormhaven and the three smaller orange Arctic Guinea tents were pitched neatly on a terrace. There was a cooking bench along one wall, a wind barrier of crates at the west gable, a paraffin dump downstream and unbelievable to imagine a spade-dug latrine on the sandbanks. Some organisational genius had controlled the naturally indolent expeditional tendency of spreading the camp haphazardly over the tundra.


(Left): Basecamp is in the valley behind the small ridge in foreground (Right): Basecamp looking East up the Big Valley

No sign of human life in the valley. We explored our environs, with the uncontrollable enthusiastic Cant pushing farthest up the valley. I returned first to find Susannah Clark had just walked in from the eastern Desperation Camp. It was news time : the climbing score was two towers close to the basecamp and one shabby scoop route attempted on another tower - the party was feeling its way at the periphery of the Land of the Towers. After dinner an Irish delegation came in from the hunters hut - Fangshuse No. 148, according to the number on the door.

They had been unable to continue through the ice barrier barring further progress towards their valley at Kangerdluk, so having been deposited on the Stordalens Havn shore they were in the throes of indecision trying to decide whether to attempt an overland route over the glaciers under Frenchtop and Splendisk for their unfit walkers while their fragile craft with its mechanically unsound engine attempted to haul supplies with a heavy dinghy under tow. We pitied their plight. It was a perfect evening, with the wind gone and the southern rampart that guarded access to the Land of Towers glistening under its fresh snow blanket like some creamy white veil set against a deep curtained sky.

It was perhaps not surprising that little progress had been made to work out a route into the Land of the Towers. The mountainous rampart spread itself all along the southern edge of the Big Valley, a prickly fence of sharp spires and jagged ridges, seldom dropping below 3500 feet, propped up by huge buttresses interlaced with rotting glaciers and polished ice slopes. Our recce parties had walked along its base, but were unprepared to embark on a decision to pack supplies up The Big Valley in a gamble that one of the glacier access routes would prove to be feasible. They had also canoed back down the Torssukatuk to probe the side valleys winding into the Land of the Towers. These were possible approach routes but there was neither an overland route to make a suitable packing trail, nor were the sheer walls that dropped into the sea likely to give any access along the shore. The advance parties knew what to do : forget these problems, wait for the whole expedition to assemble, but meanwhile dash off into the nearby hills to build up their fitness and experience by tackling some of the attractive mountains waiting at their doorstep.



Next Section: Personal Account - The Advance Camp at Sallie's Kitchen