Climbing in West Greenland






The members of the expedition were:

Dr. Phil Gribbon (leader), Dr. Iain Smart, Bill Ledingham, Chris Doake, Jimmy Gilchrist, Ron Hilditch, Stuart Haworth and Mike Anderson.

They spent two weeks travelling by sea from Leith to Iceland, then by air to Narsarssuaq.Sixteen first ascents and two other mountains were climbed from their basecamp at the head of Ikamiut Fjord, 50 miles north of Sukkertoppen, and to the south of the Evighedsfjord, and two other peaks, which had first been climbed by a Swiss-French party in 1958.

The main peaks involved up to 5000 feet of fine climbing on mixed snow and gneiss, and bivouacs were necessary on the following ascents:

Draco (5320 feet), a massive multi-towered mountain northeast of Lake Tassersuaq climbed in a mean time of 30 hours by Smart, Haworth, Ledingham and Gribbon.

Gorgon (5190 feet), a mile-long ridge bristling with problems, traversed in 21 hours by Smart, Haworth and Gribbon

Three Castles (5500 feet), an impressive mountain whose sheer north face discharged frequent avalanches to Lake Tassersuaq, climbed by the southwest glacier and its headwall to the final snow spires in 27.5 hours by Doake and Gribbon.

The expedition also climbed five peaks close to the Col St. Andre* (2800 feet), the only gap in the mountain chain fringing the inland plateau icefield, while five other summits rising from the icefield were climbed near Big Array Camp, 12 miles inland from Base Camp.

Geophysical work was carried out from this camp, while botanical and ornithological work was done throughout the region. They used canoes to ferry gear along Lake Tassersuaq, to explore the coast and to fetch the boat to take a member, ill with a badly infected throat, to the hospital in Sukkertoppen.

P.W.F. Gribbon



Members of the 1965 University of St Andrews West Greenland Expedition at their basecamp, roughly halfway through their six week stay.

Left to right: Jimmy Gilchrist, Chris Doake, Dr Iain Smart (Queen's College, Dundee, expedition doctor), Mike Anderson, Ron Hilditch,

Dr Phil Gribbon, Stuart Haworth, and Dr Bill Ledingham.



'RETREAT TO IKAMIUT' by Phil Gribbon

An account of a retreat from an icefield in bad weather, after Jimmy Gilchrist had been evacuated with a fever. Help had been summoned by a long canoe journey, and meanwhile unaware of this, the three men on the glacier beyond the Col St Andre were heading back to basecamp after the completion of a scientific project. This article first appeared in the Journal of the Irish Mountaineering Club, written in Phil Gribbon's inimitable rhapsodic lyricism - always a delight to read.

In the summer of 1965 the University of St Andrews West Greenland Expedition spent six weeks in the mountain ranges of the Sukkertoppen region of West Greenland. The expedition sailed from Leith to Reykjavik, flew by an ice-reconnaissance flight to Narsarssuaq in south-west Greenland, and then sailed by coastal vessel north to Sukkertoppen. There a fishing boat was chartered to take the eight members and their gear to a basecamp at the head of Ikamiut fjord. The main purpose of the expedition was pure recreation, but by chance a scientific project of worth was conceived and carried out high on the interior icefield. The extracts of a diary given below refer to the return from our glaciological station on the icefield:

"The day starts peacefully as befitting to the quiet, idyllc Camp of the Big Array. We breakfast and go to work, to wind up the long lengths of telephone wires used in the experiment. It takes time to find the wires as they have melted into the snow overnight, then they join and tangle as Chris winds them in. Tents down and a 5 p.m. lunch of corned beef and cold beans. Sledge packed, and in a clear evening with lowering cloud we leave the place we all enjoyed so much."

"We take the usual time, with the sledge running sluggishly in the soft snow, to the depot store. There, as the helicopter, bound from Sondre Stromfjord to Sukkertoppen, flips downhill under the cloud base, we drag on our cigars. Sledge scrapes its tattered side on the furrows of ice, then runs easily in its salmon-pink trail. It drizzles as we toil uphill bound for the Col St Andre. No chance now of stopping en route for a crack at Harlequin's Mate and the Cat Pinnacle tomorrow. As the slope steepens we must all pull together and hard, because once we stop someone must lift the sledge to let us get going again, and that is not easy when there are only three of us. A crevasse is a jump and a run to get over. An icy patch sees us skidding with the sledge sliding sideways. We tire and must halt frequently, but a rest doesn't give me any more energy. All our goodies to eat are packed at the bottom of the sledge - clever! Wish we could stop but the Col St Andre is the best place. Rain coming down steadily; the evening grows ominous. We halt close to the Col and in the shelter of a northern rock spur."

"The tents are quickly up. Ron goes to see what remains at our old camp at the Col; he returns with tales of a sorry shambles of abandoned medical gear, bloated bags of semi-undrid vegetables, and no sign of Jimmy and Stuart. It looks as if they must have left hurriedly at the height of the last storm. Hope they made it down the other side. If Jimmy's throat and fever had not improved it would have been a tricky business. Go, in the whipping wind, to fill the two meat tins with water, but can't carry them both back together with frozen hands. We cook efficiently in the Guinea, soup and a stew, apples and a drink. It takes time, and at 1.30 a.m. crawl into the pit. Ron goes off to the Jamet, with our fond hope, 'the best of luck!', in his ears. It's going to be a rough night!"

"Rain lashes viciously at the tent, and gusts of wind flap the flysheet. Doze and wonder when...? It worsens. At 2.40 a.m. Ron is outside our door. 'The Jamet is down!' 'Do you want to come in?' 'Yes!' 'Well, guy us down better first, please.' There are now some ferocious gusts and the tent wall on my side is wet and dripping. It can't stay like this! My water-proof trousers are at the bottom of my pack, and I think I may need them. In rummaging about in the dark, I cut my thumb on the jagged lid of the meat tin, dab on cotton wool. The flysheet lifts up on my side, spilling the boulders off the pegs buried in the snow. Ron asks for assistance, and Chris goes out. Sit up and light a cigarette in the guttering candlelight. Watch with disbelief the way the tent wall bows across the floor. At 3 a.m. the front alloy A-pole snaps, but attempt a nonchalant attitude by continuing smoking while trying to keep the wall up. However soon start pulling on my wet clothes. A good job that dawn is near!"

"Outside, to attempt a photo. Fresh snow plastered down the flanks of Harlequin: the Jamet, laden with boulders, is nearly lost under the drifting sleet. Camera jams with the shutter open..."

"All assemble, sitting inside the collapsed tent, and have a fag, but on the first drag the tent fills with a cloud. We need ventilation, so tie a sock on the shortened tent pole and Ron sits at the entrance propping up our sole shelter from the elements. Light primus, brew tea and munch jam and bics. The gusts lessen but the future is uncertain. Conversation doesn't flow, but we talk on Canadian rock climbs to while away the hours. We don't notice the tent is flooding until the foam mattresses are completely saturated and squelch out wetness. Chris forced to go out, but returns shiveringly cold and wet. This is no joke! The lower end of the tent is a pool, littered with flotsam, but reduce the water level by baling meat-tin-after-meat-tin-full. We have only two alternatives - a snow cave under the rock wall or in a crevasse, or down the west face of the Col in the teeth of the gale. So dress up, and go out to see what we should do - not so bad to be out and moving. Find a possible site for the snowcave, and also that the far side of the Col is not too windy and so not impossible, but the descent will be no pleasure cruise. Return to the tent and discuss the alternatives - am in favour of a snow cave and sleep, blessed sleep, but realise that this idea is a mere fancy so am talked out of it. Primus keeps us warm. Chris finds another use for the meat tin. Cook up thin oats with raisins for the lull, and then outside to dig a snowpit in which to store the scientific equipment. We pack only our personal gear, boulder over the tents, and at 7.40 a.m. leave over a field of scattered rice and bilberries."

"We look down the Col into the mist-shrouded valley, and start down digging our heels into the hard snow. It's too cold to be careful - folly! I slip. My axe is buried one foot into the snow. I watch it bend. Will it break? It comes out, and I start braking immediately but heading fast for a rock wall and a fifteen foot drop into a snow cavern. The ice-pick sticks at last one foot from the lip, but I am dangling over it. Scared to move. Will I shout 'Help!' in a small voice? No purchase inside the icy lip, but get a foot outside and kick a hold in the snow, and I'm out. Rope up and edge down to a belay in a rock cave. Ron takes the lead, heading downhill, while I bring up the rear moving nice and quickly, and facing inwards where I can watch the blood drips staining the snow. There are six 150 ft rope lengths to descend across the stone-spattered slope under a gully. We move extra quickly across the avalanche runnel, where we were caught in the swirling snow dust and spinning wind-slabs three weeks before. We reach the scree, and then traverse back onto the hard snow and kick and slide down to the Rosetta Stone. How I hate those 1,700 ft of Col!"

"Under the stone close to the rushing water of a melt steam is one rope, one flysheet and tent poles. Where is the tent? Gone? ...As we descend towards the supply dump in the moraine, everyone falls heavily on the rain-polished ice ...the white-flecked river at the outlet from the lochan is probably uncrossable, so we will avoid that route. At the dump we find two and a half gallons of paraffin so use the half gallon to try and burn some rocks for warmth ...feet sore, so cut wet toenails with blunt clippers. Skirt the lochan shore, fording streams. On arrival at Troll Camp at the lake shore, we find another mystery - the canoe is gone, but it looks as if Jimmy and Stuart left hurriedly for we find their cave littered with half-eaten food, spare clothes and sodden books. The lost tent has been used to cover over an open side of the overhanging rock. We find ourselves another semi-cave, gather wet willow and crowberry twigs, pour on the paraffin and make smoke. It's 1.30 p.m., Ron puts on the tea."

"We sit inside, getting more and more comfortable and warm. The rain falls continuously and the roof drips. We burn the first gallon in small flaring bursts of fire, and by the time we start the second gallon we get things lookng drier. We turn and move our steaming sleeping bags until we smell the familiar tang of scorching fabric. It's attractive to stay the night, but every nook and cranny is swept by continuous drips of water ...soup, and stew again, and we are on our way at 7 p.m. ...wade the estuary of streams descending from the high climbing Camp of the Mythological Beasts, where we had basked in the sun and climbed round the clock - Draco, Talon, Gorgon... pick a slow path through the boulder patches on the north shore of the lake."

"In the dusk, we are opposite our heaven, Basecamp, but between us and home there are the swift, unfordable but swimmable streams draining out of Lake Tasserssuaq. We all blow our ludicrous whistles in unison. We yell, and yell again. Silence! There is nothing for it but to wade as far as possible across the nearest island, and try again. It is a tricky, foot-slipping crossing... Whistle! Nothing happens! Perhaps there is no-one there; could it be that Jimmy has been removed to the hospital at Sukkertoppen by the others? Try our last trump card, and fire a flare. No answer! It is most depressing, standing in the rain, with the great stream netween us and the tents 40 yards away. We fire our second and last flare, and watch its green trail snaking down into the tent area. We wait and wait, and then at last the old reliable Colonel appears clad in his underpants and dashes off uphill to the canoes ...Soon we are inside the warmth of the big tent, drinking hot toddy and getting the news and letters from home. A postal collection had been made at Sukkertoppen, 50 miles away, when Bill and Stuart canoed overnight to get a hospital boat to take Jimmy away. We eat, and listen to the tapes. At 2 a.m. the longest day is over..."






Scientific literature: Journal of Glaciology, Vol 6, No. 47, 1967.

'Glaciological Notes from Sukkertoppen, West Greenland' by P.W.F. (Department of Physics, University of St. Andrews, Scotland)

ABSTRACT. The retreat of a glacier front at Sukkertoppen, West Greenland, has been related by lichen size measurements to the lowering of the snow level in the accumulation region of the glacier. The altitudes of two Quaternary marine shell beds near Sukkertoppen have been measured and the shell fauna contained in them has been identified. The behaviour of two adjacent ice-dammed lakes is also discussed.





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