1975 UNIVERSITY OF ST ANDREWS GREENLAND EXPEDITION
Climbing from Stordalens Havn in Cape Farewell Region
Introduction - Maps - Climbing History - Personal Account - Mountaineering Report - Mountains to South of Basecamp - Mountains to North of Basecamp - Mountains from Desperation Camp - Mountains from Sallies Kitchen Camp - Mountains from Hellhole Hollow - Mountains from Lost Loch Camp - Mountains on Pamiagdluk and the Islands - Mountains in the Nameless Valley of the Land of the Towers - Archaeology - Botany - Equipment Report - Food Report - Financial Report - Travel Report - Medical Report - Photo Gallery - Thanks and Acknowledgements - Later Visitors to Stordalens Havn
A PERSONAL ACCOUNT - 6. Pamiagdluk
by Dr. P.W.F. Gribbon, Expedition Leader
Monday August 4th was the day of the big voyage that never came off. It would have been too much to expect the hospital boat to arrive on time for a definite objective when any time on any day was much the same in this part of the world. The morning passed peacefully, everyone active and chatty, knowing that the last stage of our programme was about to get under way whatever happened.
Our neighbouring Greenlanders came through to fish and shoot in our river and soon returned with a fine catch of trout of which we had dreamed but never had known to lurk under the riverbanks and in backwater pools. At 5 p.m. the four canoeists, Matheson, Brown, MacKenzie and myself went down to the shore. It was the deadline for the arrival of our transport. Aldred and Gaskell came to spectate. Sharples took Cant off to the southern towers as the climbing ferry system kicked into action. We waited in the sun but nothing happened, never the faintest throb or sign of our boat. At 6.30 p.m. all hope was abandoned and the alternative plans went into operation.
Onto the calm fjord went first the Brown-Matheson canoe, then the MacKenzie-Gribbon craft, both well-laden with supplies for a two-week canoeing-climbing sortie. It was one of the most perfect evenings with the reflections of the towers and walls riding in gentle waves on the ripples edging over the still waters of the fjord. The setting sun dipped behind the Madman's Tower and its glow lingered for hours throughout the Big Valley now sandwiched in its frame by the two big hills. We came ashore on a carpeted field of crowberries in the ice barriered lee of two islets off the coast of Pamiagdluk, pitching our tents on the soft ground of berries and cooking our meal on the smooth rocks of the beach. Northward in the gloaming light were the outlines of new unknown hills around Ilua, with the stars coming out clear and bright. As we washed our mess tins streamers of phosphorescent droplets spattered into the sea, while overhead the vast greenish image of the flickering aurora ran across the sky. Seldom had we experienced such a beautiful evening of perfect calm and harmony.
"We came ashore on a carpeted field of crowberries..."
We awoke to a sparkling morning. White ice on a deep blue sea under the pale blue heavens. It was the day of the multiple ferry journeys as we collected five food boxes from our base at Stordalens Havn and then transferred everything five miles further down the east coast of Pamiagdluk. The Brown-Matheson duo met strong headwinds on their return for the boxes, found that Aldred's shoulder blades were again giving trouble and that an air of uncertainty had seeped into the climbing party to put their plans in the balance. In practice this was only a temporary setback: they were to make full use of their time in the hinterland of the Land of the Towers. The MacKenzie-Gribbon boat forged along the shore in calm windless waters and in two hours rounded the 'far near headland' to enter a small bay close to the old abandoned settlement called Anordiuitsoq. They landed on the seaweed close to a sizeable stream tipping in a small waterfall into a sea pool where to their joyful surprise they saw a regular flotilla of arctic char idly balanced in the flow of current and just waiting for a few keen fishermen. Having scouted the land to find the best campsite they went back to Crowberry Fields for the other load for their new camp.
Innocuously they drifted close by the long white brilliant wall on an iceberg's flank. Drips from the melting ice splashed rhythmically into the clear blue water outlined against the submerged bulk of the quiet iceberg. It all seemed so majestically peaceful. The canoe was 200 yards further on when, with the slow methodical power of a huge door creaking open to a subterranean cavern, the monster iceberg began to turn turtle with an irresistible turning movement until within a matter of minutes, heaving and rolling, groaning and grinding, its sparkling pure white cap had been replaced with the gleaming murky dirt-flecked foot of the overturned iceberg. Meanwhile with the canoe bow face on to the waves emanating from the confusion of the sea the two canoeists sat with their adrenalin racing and wondering about their luck, the probabilities of these events, and the merits of giving all docile icebergs as wide a berth as possible.
The last voyage of the day was graced by a mystical radial semi-halo round the sun. We all stopped to search the site of the 1974 Cambridge camp. There were few traces as the flora had begun to reclaim the trampled tundra for itself.
Our camp of the Whispering Walls was sited in a sheltered scenic patch of nardus stricta grass with the kitchen up against a small rocky wall and looking out over the river pool towards the distant and rugged hills on far unknown islands. It was a grand place from which to base our activities on Pamiagdluk. Always the muted noise spectrum of the river's flurry and flow reflected quietly in subdued whisperings from the walls of a big rocky knoll behind the camp.
Our first day was sunny, warm and idyllic. Brought out by the heat the flies, the August brood, came to replace July's mosquitoes while the ground shimmered with masses of tiny hoppers, some of which continued to try and jump in a pattering hail against the underside of the tent's groundsheet. I adjourned to the waterfall to write a quick letter home before Matheson, the mail man, set sail for the eight mile trip to Augpilagtoq. I tried to bring out some of those tempting fish but this was easier said than done for they lingered unconcernedly at the current's edge out in the weed. With persistence I got four, enough for a fish fry lunch, and then the novice Brown took up the sport in a serious way after first having landed a 2 lb. orange-bellied sea trout. We explored the ruins of the settlement, unearthing some skeletons in their stone burial cairns, wandering in the lush beds of dandelions and angelica. The postman came back with one letter for someone else: he was tired, cold and battle-wet. Dinner was eaten under a clear sky and then the big fish was roasted in foil in the wood embers of our fire. Tomorrow was to be Pt 1242, our Frenchbird of a mountain.
The party set out pursued by a swarm of flies. The days of the early starts of the Lost Loch camp were a thing of the past. The enervating torpid heat of the Americas must have been filtering into Greenland. The faster we walked the more we attracted the flies: it was impossible to escape their attentive nuisance. We gained height, scrambling garden gullies and hiding in the coolness under boulders. Scarcely a trace of a breeze ruffled the calm fjords. Under a blue sky the northern hills seemed remote in their faint haze while a few lenticular clouds danced over the 2000 metre peaks, big but unloved. At 2500 feet we broke the fly barrier and sitting thankfully on the warm slabs lapped in the sun and planned our subsequent approach to the plum peak of the island.
Our hill was a strange girl. The 1956-57 French had taken her and we had admired her from afar. In three quadrants a snow-white skirt fanned out round her waist like an inverted soup plate and out of which she thrust her torso-ed bodice. We walked on her hem on snow scooped into a wind-sculpted trough under the final cliffs, swinging round to the views of the thumb-printed walls of Angiatarfik and that impregnable frayed fortress of Agdlerussakasit on which the expedition was pinning its hopes through the ability and the luck of our four climbers now in action in its approach hills in the Land of the Towers. We attacked with axes up a line of cleavage, cutting on hard snow to escape by a flakey slab into a scree basin and then with only a sweep of clean broken granite in front of us and the skyline. Everyone made his own way but when the Brown fissure proved intractable he had to be assisted by a makeshift rope, made from two nylon tapes dropped down to him and attached to his bootlace waistline. The first top held a piton hammered home as a memento by our French predecessors.
Far below a boat chugged across a calm and dappled blue Ilua. Close to us we saw our island as a pinnacled and crested array of gloomy chasms faced with huge walls and dotted with the sharp soaring spires that beckoned impressively from all directions. In 1974 the Cambridge party felt their whole expedition was more than justified when they climbed on the second attempt up the steep ribs of one such spire called Majorteqe. We saw our raison d'etre to be in the twin towers of the highest peak on the island. The remaining spires were someone else's future flock of pigeons.
We weaved along the eastern side of the broken crest and reached the main top. There was no sign of our predecessors but not surprisingly because it seemed as if the summit had been removed explosively by some violent erosional lightning stroke and demoted to a lesser place in the hierarchy of her pinnacles. The next and last pinnacle now could claim supremacy. We roped over carefully for an hour's relaxation in the afternoon sun and a refreshing meal of cold sea trout wrapped in its foil-captured juices.
We traced out our route of descent and paused to catch water drips for mugs of orange Rise-and-Shine drink. Cramponing down the gully, we crossed the snow dunes and descended by the glacier to skid the last slope on toboggans of plastic bags. The first man was home at 9 p.m. to put on the plum pudding for a dinner to celebrate the enjoyable ascent of our Frenchbird. There was much drinking done to replenish liquids lost by a day's dehydration. No-one was in any hurry to drift off to the tents while we sat by the fire under the watch of a few faint stars that penetrated through the thin overcast skies.
Our major effort was held in check for an attempt on Point 1373, the island's highest peaks, both difficult of access and problematical in difficulty. I'd long thought of our chances of getting first onto Pamiagdluk Island, then reaching these twin imposing towers and finally of finding a route up their ultimate walls. Two days were to pass after we had left our camp before we returned, flush with success, from our adventures on the Twin Pillars of Pamiagdluk. We were to make it!
We made a late start in mid-afternoon, laden with a luxurious batch of bivouac gear and food and hoping to escape the ravages of the swarms of flies. We toiled up to a southern col with hordes of insects banging around our ears, but as soon as we had breasted the rise to an upland lake they magically vanished in the gentle yet cooling breeze wafting off the slab-bared rocky slopes tumbling into the lake. Crossing the watercourses spilling down the slabs we reached a descending col with the iceberg-dotted sea ahead. There was now not only the problem of reaching our mountain, but at our low level position amongst the brooding buttresses there was also a problem in identifying which was our mountain. We slithered across a herb field and up a streamlet before contouring to a bivouac site. Further exploration showed that above a hidden loch a long snow slope, cut between huge cliffs, led to a high col close to our planned route to the final towers. We were able to search out and furnish our hide-outs under the boulders knowing that our approach at least was to be straightforward.
We gave ourselves a good sleep and meal before setting off at 7.30 a.m. to wander slowly through the boulder field by the lochan and then with crampons on to plod mindlessly up the 1500 foot slope to the col. There we dumped our sleeping bags, knowing that if we couldn't climb it in one day then it was certainly beyond our competence, or rather that we were prepared to admit defeat when the time began to run out. We were able to see the challenge that our twin rosewood-doored Notre Dame, a pair of upraised webbed fingers, brought to our unbelieving eyes. Under a clouding sky we saw its vibrant black prongs cutting into the mists creeping in from the northeast. As we went up scree the east face of the mountain was disappearing in blowing mist. Seeking out lines of weakness we gained height on the face, turning to the security of our ropes, until we gathered in the cold wind, uncertain where to go and not confident of any of the prospects in front of us. When in doubt and with time to spare, I botanised on the ledges at hand.
Our man for the moment was Douglas J. P. Brown. He'd seen the way to deal with such a hiatus during his long hard-man days in Hellhole Hollow, when the only way to win through was to realise that your party stood a strong chance of being a bit better than the mountain and that indecision never led anywhere except down the way you had come. The big groove running up the high-angled slabs above him was the sole way to crack the route, so with slow deliberation and struggle he led to the wide terrace high above our ledge. It was quite a pitch. It needed a lot of faith in crystallised friction on thin airy holes, bridging up or jamming in, floating off or padding on the slab. We were committed to dedication, aggression and technique.
It was my turn on the sharp end of a rope. Three lines came off the terrace and, of course, I chose the easiest: a mind-blowing pitch, so demanding, so time-consuming, so sustained. It was a groove that steepened perceptibly to allow only bridging or one-legged chimneying, where my hands were clamped on vertical plates to give a semblance of balance for the footholds on dimples or earth-soaked scoops. It was a question of… no hesitation. When you make a move you make it so as just to make the next move. This in turn is no easier and if anything it's slightly worse. The last moves are forgotten, the present moves will depart in the same manner as the next moves make everything that has passed fade into insignificance. I would ask for nothing more in complete abstraction. The others followed and then it was someone else's turn out in front.
The non-option to take was a hard crack. It was Matheson's forceful attack that made it possible to achieve the pitch, whose strenuous nature induced one to shrink from the effort involved in holding one's jammed body into the rock. His stylish pitch ran leftward into his next elegant lead where on a single tug and perched on toetip on a minute crystal he surmounted the last difficult bulge. We were through… on to the scree under the crested pinnacles of the summit ridge. We had little chance of getting back to the tents in the same day now.
While the leading pair started up towards the right towers I was delegated to scout up the easier left towers in order to determine the highest tip towards which we should aim. I scrambled onto the brow of the south pillar, piled my cairn at the edge and admired the mist dispersing from the depths of the chasms and corries of the mountains. I decided on the highest objective and returned to join my companions. Brown had led a crack and Matheson was moving up a right branch to the skyline and away from the highest tip. Our impetus took us up a pocked bulge to our top. It had taken ten hours since we had left our bivouac site. We had straddled the pillars but we were separated from the tip by 100 feet of impossible rock. We would have to retreat and try again if we wished to touch the true top but by standing at the upper edge of our top and by raising an arm aloft it was possible to concede that at least our finger tips were higher than the true top. We felt that we had gained a moral and metaphorical victory. We'd made the Twin Pillars of Pamiagdluk. There was little difficulty in abseiling down the steep walls up which we had toiled so assiduously. A firey sunset flared behind the Land of the Towers while we crossed onto the snowfields, collected our bags and glissaded with weary limbs down to our hide-outs. Our dinner was the lunch we had never touched in the zest of the long hours on the wall. It had been a hard day.
Light rain fell during darkness, spattering off the stones and dripping round the edge of our private lairs. There was no rush to rise until the morning warmth made our skimpy breakfast a more pleasurable event. By midday we were home, some plunging into the refreshing pools to revive their flagging bodies. It began to cloud chillily over with a southeast wind bringing the icefloes drifting in from the more open channels of sea between us and our next islands to the south. Soon it was coming in at about 3 miles an hour, dragged inward by the flowing tide. Our supper under the sunset clouds dispersing on the high winds was grilled trout heated on the fire.
On viewing the sea from the wee hill behind the camp it was plain that once beyond a thick ice necklace close to us the water was open towards the south. There wasn't any question that we were free to sail onward.