Climbing in the Umanak/Upernivik Region





to Igdlorsuit, Upernivik Island, and Akuliaruseq Peninsula

was led by Dr PWF Gribbon, a Physics lecturer from the University of St Andrews, Scotland, who had led many previous university expeditions to Greenland. The expedition team of 7 spent two months supporting the Harald Drever memorial project at the village of Igdlorsuit, and making 12 mountaineering ascents (3 of them first ascents), as well as carrying out scientific studies.



Photo: Sandy Briggs




A University of St. Andrews party revisited the mountains of Akuliaruseq peninsula and of Upernivik Island in the Umanak district of West Greenland. We were on the Drever Memorial Project to the Greenlanders in Igdlorssuit on Ubekendt Island. Our party consisted of Adam Arnott, Sandy Briggs, Colin Matheson, David Meldrum, John Thurman, my son Peter Gribbon, and Phil Gribbon (myself). Both Meldrum and I had known the villagers from our earlier visits.

Since 1937 the late Professor Harald Drever had studied the island's geology; some of its rocks were terrestrial lunar replicas. He had become the villagers' friend and hoped that they would maintain their skill in the construction and use of their kayaks for hunting seals so he started and provided the prizes for a long-distance kayak race. After his death the race was taken over by the Umanak Kommune. I started a memorial fund and got nearly $3000 for the race. We went to live in the village, to hand over Drever's research hut and boats, to see the race, and to conclude our long University link with the village. We were based on the hut for eight weeks.

We did some climbing. In late June we travelled 30 miles by boat through the melting pack ice to the entrance of the Nerderlit valley on Akuliaruseq. We camped five miles up the barren valley where we reclimbed the beautiful Snepyramiden with its tragic past (A.A.J., 1962, p 250), made three first ascents by mixed snow-rubble routes, and failed on a precarious flakey pinnacle below the summit of a "huge tottering scree heap." In late July we were on the popular Upernivik Island. We reached eight summits: our best new route was a 2300-foot difficile rib on the southwest face of "Scorpio" (1850 meters or 6070 feet). Our main objective was to reclimb P 2105 (6907 feet), "Great White Tower" and the highest mountain on the island, and to rename it in Greenlandic as Harald's Peak. We camped in the heart of the island ten miles from the sea. Three tiny tents perched on a moraine overlooking a broad snowfield and surrounded by jagged rock peaks. Our hill was a slender pale rock spire at the apex of two long ridges. We followed the south ridge, traversing difficult pinnacles on good rock, crossing steep slopes of loose glassy ice marbles, mounting rock stairways to the final summit block. I stood alone on the top of Aaraliup qâqâ (Harald's Peak). I had a strong sense of ultimate fulfilment.

Philip Gribbon





(see Sandy Briggs' evocative account, below, for more detail of day to day life on the expedition)


Duration of Expedition: a little over 2 months.

Food for 65 days packed in 8-man-day ration boxes.

12th June: flew from Glasgow to Sondre Stromfjord (now Kangerlussuaq) via Reykjavik.

Boat down the 106-mile fiord to Sukkertoppen (now Maniitsoq), then a 5 day wait for another boat (stayed at a local school) which took the party on a three-day northward voyage to the town of Umanak (now spelled Uummannaq). The next day a ride was obtained on a small boat going north on a 10-hour journey to Igdlorssuit. It was 25th June.

Four days later, the party set off in two heavily loaded motorboats for two weeks of camping and mountaineering, heading for the Akuliaruseq Peninsula about 20 miles away. Four hours later a first campsite of the expedition was pitched at the foot of the Nerderlit valley, at Akuliaruseq overlooking Kangigdleq fiord. There was a white wooden cross, which had been put there in memory of four Belgian climbers who died in an avalanche in 1961, while climbing Snepyramiden.

Ajortoq qaqa - 6000ft - 15 hours - 30th June: Thurman, Matheson, Gribbon, Gribbon, Briggs.

On 1st and 2nd July, loads were carried to an advance camp which was pitched 4 miles and 1500ft up the valley.

The next day, Thurman and Matheson were turned back from a local summit, 100 yards from the top.

Simuit Qaqa - 3rd July: Gribbon, Gribbon, Briggs.

Snepyramiden** - 7330ft - 6th July - Thurman, Briggs. (On the summit a can was found, containing a note left by the 1969 St. Andrews party.)

On the 9th July, the party travelled by motorboat to Karrats Island, and then on 11th July on to Upernivik Island on the south side of a glacier called Sermeq Qiterdleq or Middle Finger Glacier.

On the evening of 14th July (after a return to Igdlorssuit for supplies) a boat journey brought the party to the southernmost glacier on the west side of Upernivik Island, Serminguaq, which was the base for John Thurman to carry out his glacier study.

Biancai - 5750ft - 15th July.

Evening of 16th July, Matheson and Briggs bivouacked on moraine at the head of the Glacier (site of a camp of the 1969 St Andrews Expedition).

Merendi - West ridge - 6760ft - 17th July: Matheson, Briggs.

On 18th July Dave Meldrum arrived.

Great White Tower (renamed Aaraliup qâqâ, Harald's Peak, in honour of Professor Drever) - East ridge (17 hours) - 6907ft / Pt 2105 - Thurman, Matheson, Gribbon, Gribbon, Meldrum, Briggs.

Spume - South-west ridge - Late July: Matheson, Thurman.

Scorpio - Rib on the south-west face, D - 6070ft - (19½ hours) - Late July: Gribbon, Gribbon, Meldrum, Briggs.

Tilman's Peak - Gribbon, Gribbon, Meldrum.

Palup's Right Toe - Gribbon, Gribbon, Meldrum.

Triboda - 5920ft - 30th July: Matheson, Briggs.

2nd August: The Sports Day at Igdlorssuit, and formal opening of the new school, during which ceremony it was named in honour of Harold Drever, long-time friend of the village.

5th August: Kayak racing at Umanak.

Svartenhuk hills (three summits) - Meldrum, Gribbon, Gribbon, Matheson.

Meanwhile Thurman kayaked solo 10 miles to Upernivik Island for a couple of days to finish off his glaciological studies, while Briggs and Arnott remained in Igdlorssuit.

Departure from Umanak, and long and tortuous journey back to Scotland.

Click here for link to Sandy Briggs' more detailed and evocative Expedition Account





by Sandy Briggs

(this evocative account and photos can be viewed on Sandy's website, linked here)


I was fortunate enough to be a member of an expedition from the University of St. Andrews (Scotland) which spent two months during the summer of 1977 in the Umanak area of West Greenland. The following is an account of our adventure. (A slightly different version of this article was published in the local weekly newspaper in my home town during the first year after the expedition.)

Among the songs sung by the members of the St. Andrews University Mountaineering Club in a hut after a hard day in the hills, or in a cold cramped mini-bus on the way home from a weekend meet, is one which resounds these lines:

"Greenland is a dreadful place Where it's never ever green, Where there's ice and snow And the whale-fishes blow, And the daylight's seldom seen…"

They sing it lustily, but in full knowledge of its predominant untruth, for a long history of expeditions from the University to various parts of Greenland has left no doubt in the minds of participants that a Greenland summer can provide one of the most dramatically pleasant experiences of a lifetime. And as for daylight, well…!

For Dr Phil Gribbon, our leader, it would be the seventh trip to Greenland. Dave, who was to join us half way through the summer, had been there several times before. Colin had climbed on Cape Farewell with the 1975 expedition, but Adam, John, Peter and I were still waiting for the pictures we had seen to spring into reality.

If you want to go to Greenland you just buy a ticket and go. However, getting seven people and all their gear to an isolated village 400 miles within the Arctic Circle with enough food to last 65 days is more complicated than that, and we began planning before Christmas 1976. After a lot of letter-writing and budgeting the real action started. Food was obtained and packed in 8-man-day ration boxes, the boxes were packed in chests with equipment and personal gear, and everything was shipped to our destination two months in advance of our departure.

We planned to climb some mountains, but ours was not only a mountaineering expedition. In fact we were probably the smallest, and from a mountaineering point of view the least experienced, group ever sent out from the University. Our second major objective was of quite a different nature. The University owned a hut in the tiny hunting village of Igdlorssuit on Ubekendt Island, and had a long and enthusiastically maintained connection with this village mainly, through the geographical-geological researches and the sociological interests of Professor Harald Drever, whose death two years before had made impracticable, unfortunately, the maintenance of this formal link. Our visit to Igdlorssuit was therefore to be the last official visit from the University, and the disposal of the University's assets, participation in the annual sports day, provision of a prize for the long-distance kayak race, and the placement of a plaque in memory of Professor Drever were to be among our functions while there. In addition, a few of our group were interested in continuing informal studies of Arctic flora, and John was to study glacial ablation (wearing away) processes for his degree dissertation.

We flew from Glasgow to Reykjavik in Iceland on the 12th of June and the next day while flying over the east coast of Greenland we got out first view of "Greenland's icy mountains". After a night at Sondre Stromfjord (now called Kangerlussuaq) we got on a boat going down the 106 mile fiord to Sukkertoppen (now called Maniitsoq). In this booming town on a small rocky island we were to spend five days waiting for the big passenger boat to take us up the coast. We had been in "the land of the midnight sun" since Iceland and were finding continuous daylight a little odd to get accustomed to. After a half-serious search for a vacant shack or an overhanging boulder to call home, a few inquiries obtained us accommodation in some vacant rooms in the local school, and this was much appreciated since it was raining. During our stay on the island we went on several hikes to explore its rugged terrain and had an enjoyable day climbing its highest hill from which was obtained a fine view of the mountains on the mainland. We also played soccer with some children in the school gym. A little surprising to us already was the number of cars, and especially the proliferation of taxis, in a place that couldn't possibly have had 10 miles of road.

Our stay at Maniitsoq came to an end and we boarded the "Kununguak" for the three-day northward voyage to the town of Umanak. The first few hours at sea were a little rough and most of us were feeling green, probably I more than anyone. For the most part, however, the trip was in calm seas and soon we were cruising past the occasional iceberg. This produced a flurry of iceberg photography, especially among those of us who had never seen one before. After three days of cooking on a primus stove on the after-deck and three nights in whatever horizontal space was available (travelling deck-class is much cheaper than getting cabins) we dropped anchor in Umanak (now spelled Uummannaq).


Approaching Umanak (Uummannaq) mountain and the town of Umanak in west Greenland. Photo: Sandy Briggs


This small island town, then apparently the richest community in Greenland, is the hub of activity for the region and lies sprawled at the base of a beautiful double-topped fin of rock which juts 3800 feet upward, straight from the sea on the opposite side. This mountain was on our list of things to do but, like some other of our so-called plans, this one was frustrated by fate and we didn't get a chance to even try.

It was obvious that we were getting into the north since the last few towns we had stopped in were almost as thickly populated with sled dogs as with people. The scruffy looking huskies lead a lazy, not to say boring life in summer, lying in the sun with nothing to do but howl occasionally - a blood-chilling howl even in the light of day. It was here at Umanak that we caught up with our pre-shipped food and equipment boxes. They had gone no further because of sea ice, which had only recently broken up enough to allow passage to the village that was our destination (Igdlorssuit).

Luckily, but much to our surprise, we obtained a ride the next day for ourselves and all our possessions on a small boat going north. The cruise that followed was tremendous! For 10 hours we chugged merrily among the icebergs and through the brilliantly sunlit night, past mountains hurling their jagged spires thousands of feet into the air and past high cliffs alive with swaying masses of birds. Chilled by the night air we retired to the tiny cabin for a cup of coffee and a short nap, and at 3 a.m. we arrived.

There were, in 1977, no cars in Igdlorssuit, no plumbing and no electricity. The population of about 150 lived in small houses, for the most part made of wood. A major part of living for the people there was their daily harvest from the sea as it has always been, though motorboats had long since replaced the kayaks of yesteryear. There was one store to supply food and other necessities from the outside world.

We had spent 13 days in reaching our destination and we were keen to start using our time to the best advantage.


View from the village of Igdlorssuit on Ubekendt Island,

across Igdlorssuit Sound toward Upernivik Island to the east. Photo: Sandy Briggs


Another view from the village of Igdlorssuit across Igdlorssuit Sound

to Upernivik Island to the east. Photo: Sandy Briggs


We spent four days in the village making plans and obtaining the use of a boat. During the this time we were the objects of much curiosity, and an audience of six or eight children sat watching us eat all our meals, while several more pairs of eyes were usually pressed against the windows of our tiny hut. In pursuit of exercise some of us climbed the nearest hill (3400 feet) and for our efforts were rewarded by emerging from the fog into a beautiful sunny day. This climbing above a layer of cloud gives the sensation of being swept into another world and of being privileged to see that which is denied to those who resign themselves to their tents in cloudy weather. Ten miles eastward the snowy peaks of Upernivik Island floated on a fluffy sea of cotton-wool, and westwards there was only Davis Strait, and Baffin Island invisible beyond the horizon.

During these days we were also provided with our first taste of native food. This came first in the form of seabirds called guillemots which were compared by some (but not me) to liver, and two days later we were given three large catfish, which were also very good when fried.

The language barrier was quite dramatic, sometimes amusing and sometimes frustrating. Only the school teacher knew enough English to converse, and our knowledge of Danish and Greenlandic was negligible. Nevertheless with a lot of hand waving, pointing, picture drawing, and a few words here and there, most messages seemed to get across. We later improved the technique with the help of a stack of Danish-English and Danish-Greenlandic dictionaries and a small Greenlandic-English glossary.

Finally we set off in two heavily loaded motorboats for our first two weeks of camping and mountaineering. Our intended destination was still blocked by drifting sea ice so we decided on a trip to the Akuliaruseq Peninsula about 20 miles away. Cruising over long stretches of Arctic sea in a 14 foot motorboat is as normal for a Greenlander as driving down town is for us, but it was some time before I got used to the idea. None of the people we met carried lifejackets in their boats, but although we did, and wore them, I suspect their value was mainly psychological, since survival time in that water cannot be more than a few minutes. Four hours of easy going in glassy seas brought us to our first campsite of the expedition, on a patch of turf by the side of a glacier-fed stream at the end of a large valley. That the site had been used before was obvious, in part because if the rusting cans scattered among the boulders but more because of the white wooden cross, propped up by a small cairn of stones, which stood just outside our tents. It had been placed by the party that searched for the four Belgian climbers who, in 1961, died in an attempt to climb a nearby mountain, Snepyramiden.

The base camp we established here at Akuliaruseq was probably the finest actual campsite of the summer. It received the full light of the sun until very late at night and overlooked the ice-choked Kangigdleq fiord which leads 30 miles up to the snout of the Rinks Isbrae (Glacier), one of the major glaciers which drain the Greenlandic ice-cap, and allegedly the fastest in the world. Measurements made some years before at six miles in from the snout are reputed to have shown a flow rate of 24 metres per day, an incredible speed. It was as we daily watched these masses of large icebergs drift past our doorstep that my conception of an iceberg underwent a dramatic change. I first thought of them as mere lumps of ice, but soon realized that they are creatures of the sea and seem almost to be living things. They come and go with the tide and the wind, the sun glistens off their shiny flanks, and occasionally large slabs are melted away and plunge into the sea with a noise like thunder and a wave that soon after makes its own rumblings as it rushes onto the beach. The icebergs also melt from underneath in the sea and on losing their balance they roll noisily over and then rock back and forth like a cradle as they regain lost equilibrium. We began to accept their crashing about as friendly street-noise and harmless "things that go bump in the night."

The second day there we decided to climb a mountain. "The snowy one after the first glacier on the right," we said, and five of us set off at 1 p.m. in brilliant sunshine. We knew our objective was just over 6000 feet high and we were attacking it straight from sea level. (We soon learned how unfit we were.) First there was the river to wade, although John and I spent an hour trying to minimize this inconvenience. Upward - moraine rubble, vegetated rock slope, soft snow and more soft snow. It seemed a long, long time. Everyone was tired, Phil and I probably more than the others, and after reaching a good vantage point on a ridge of loose rocks we rested. I had never been so fatigued. After a few minutes Colin and John left for the summit and although they got out the rope for safety at one point it was apparent they were making good progress, and so, inspired by the awesome beauty of our surroundings, renewed by food and an hour's rest, and encouraged by Peter, our thoughts of turning back became thoughts of continuing, which we did. Before long we met the others coming down. It was not very far after all, and at 9:30 we were there. The labour had been hard but the payment was in full. All the surrounding summits and especially those of Upernivik Island to the south were impressive yellow-gold spires of rock and snow. We lingered for photography and food, absorbing the unspoiled grandeur until it came time to descend. Moving quickly, half walking, half sliding down the steep soft snow of our ascent route, we arrived in camp at 2 a.m. to a hot supper of fresh fish which Adam had waiting for us. (It was Canada's 110th birthday.) We collapsed into bed.

In the absence of evidence of a previous ascent of this peak we took the mountaineer's liberty of naming it, Ajortoq Qaqa, which (we think) is Greenlandic for Bad Mountain, so called because of the unstable crumbling rock its summit ridge is made of.

The next day some visitors arrived bringing with them several dozen tern eggs, which Adam scrambled for our afternoon snack. Later that evening with our number swelled to 10 we didn't have enough proper utensils to go around at dinner and some people experienced difficulty eating custard with a knife or a fork, while Colin ate his meal with an old piton. During dinner the dog, Simuit, that they had brought with them, decided to do some mountaineering of its own and we watched him through binoculars until he disappeared among some rocks high on the hill.

During the next two days we carried two loads each to a new campsite four miles up the valley, and 1500 feet higher, near the junction of two glacier-fed rivers. John and Colin carried their second loads up earlier to get a night-time start on an unclimbed summit within reach of this camp. They returned to it early in the morning disappointed, having been forced to retreat a hundred yards from the top by soft sliding snow and unstable overhanging shale. Later that day Phil, Peter and I climbed a smaller mountain, the one the dog had tried to climb, and named it, appropriately, Simuit Qaqa. It was made of the same crumbling stacks of rock and steep scree that comprise most of the mountains of the peninsula. Though it was cloudy we could see the distant Rinks Glacier and, much nearer, the perfectly symmetrical pyramid-like peak of Snepyramiden, reputedly the third highest mountain in West Greenland (7330 feet) with its top shrouded in the grey blanket above.

As I crawled out of my tent in the morning Colin and John were eyeing with interest a peak some distance further up the right-hand branch of the valley. It was with intent to bivouac at its foot for an attempt on its nearer ridge that the three of us set off in the evening. A couple of hours later we hiked through a narrow gorge cleft through the high moraines by the icy melt water stream into what seemed like a completely different valley. A large glacier curved toward us, flanked on the south by steep snowy slopes, including the glacier-hung north face of Snepyramiden, and on the east by a mountain-side capped by the icy snouts of more hanging glaciers which, during our stay there, were to send avalanches roaring in a cloud of white to the screes below. It was an eerie sort of place under an overcast sky, desolate and yet exciting. This valley later became known to us as "the sanctuary", a name which seemed very appropriate, though it was robbed third-hand from a place in the Himalayas. We moved up onto the end of the ridge which was to be our route, but no sooner had we started to bed down than a sprinkle of rain began. An hour or so later the prospects for good climbing weather the following day were poor so we returned to "Camp 2". As luck would have it a decent day greeted our awakening and Phil and Peter set out to climb a glacier-encircled fortress of rock pillars which turned out to be easier than it looked to me, though difficult enough. That evening John and I set off again to bivouac in the sanctuary, this time with a different objective, Snepyramiden!

This beautiful pyramid of rock and snow, significant because of its height and its dramatic history, had perhaps held its attraction for us all along. In 1961 four Belgian climbers were killed in an attempt to reach the summit. The first ascent was made by six Italian climbers under Guido Monzino, now of Everest fame, who had joined in the search for the ill-fated team. In 1969 three climbers from the University of St. Andrews repeated the ascent. Ours would be a third and we wanted to climb the northeast ridge. It looked easy enough from our new bivouac site (a little fancifully known as Camp 3) except for a vertical rock step about half way up. This might have discouraged us completely had we not seen from our abortive bivouac site of the previous night that the left side of the rock band was cleft by a slanting snow gully. On this flaw in the mountain's defences our confidence depended. We rolled out our sleeping bags in a small pleasant meadow and went to bed under an ominous sky. I do not remember sleeping at all that night. Perhaps it was the grim rocky stare of Snepyramiden's north face, the evil smile formed by the jagged bergshrund of its hanging glacier, which kept us awake.

At 7 a.m. the sun was shining brightly and I got up and made the porridge extra salty "for the hill". This proved a mistake as it nearly made John sick, and he spent the first hour of the ascent sucking water from the ends of snow patches to avoid losing his breakfast. In two hours we reached the rock step and found it about two hundred feet high and composed of tottering stacked blocks of shattered rock. No one in his right mind would touch such stuff with intent to climb and had we not known about the snow gully we would have turned back immediately. However, we traversed left and found our gully. It was steep but was climbed with little difficulty and we only roped up for one pitch. Subsequent progress consisted of picking our way upwards among more crumbling rock stacks on steep dangerous scree until we reached the final summit ridge.


John Thurman on approach to the NE ridge of Snepyramiden on the day of our ascent. Photo: Sandy Briggs


Initially this was easy but soon more care had to be taken as all the rocks were loose and there was only a narrow band of them to clamber on. A few rocks inadvertently kicked off left no doubt as to the steepness of the snow slope to our left. They rolled and rolled; we did not see them stop.

The Summit, intermittently hidden by cloud, was soon reached and on it we found a can containing a note left by the 1969 St. Andrews party. We left one of our own and then shuffled back and forth posing for photos, disappointed only by the fact that Upernivik Island to the south was hidden by cloud.


Karrat Island and Karrats Fiord from the summit of Snepyramiden. Photo: Sandy Briggs


We descended with great care, roping up for three pitches in the snow gully, after which we traversed around and away from the glowering band of rock. We had done it and were down. We cheered, shook hands and relaxed mentally for the remainder of the easy angle descent to "Camp 3". Although the mountain had not been technically difficult we were proud of our achievement. Soon loud shouts from below revealed that Colin and Adam had come up to the sanctuary for the afternoon, had happened to notice us coming down and had waited. That night we slept but not continuously as it was very windy. In the morning when I went to get water for the porridge my sleeping bag blew away unseen, even though I had put a coil of rope across one end of it. I ran off in a panic and caught it two hundred yards away and half way down the moraine side as it paused on the way to a pond of glacial melt water. That day we packed and returned to Camp 2, the only other noteworthy event being Adam's "slight" overestimation while preparing dessert, which caused the custard to set like concrete.

Two days later saw us huddled in a very full motorboat wending our way among the icebergs toward Karrats Island. We intended to climb its 3000 foot mountain ridge, but on arrival we encountered a fairly intense infestation of mosquitoes, so that this otherwise ideal campsite was soon filled with discontented grumblings coming from behind white veils of mosquito netting. Our tents, incidentally, occupied the site of a long-abandoned settlement, and here and there the stone-sod foundation of a hut was visible. More obvious were the several large cairns of rocks containing the graves of the one-time inhabitants, their skeletons still visible through the cracks.

We needed gas for the boat, however, so when the wind died down the next morning we set out for the nearest village, Nugatsiaq, eight miles away, leaving Phil to sleep and fish. But five foreigners don't just go to an isolated Greenland village, buy gas, and leave. We accomplished our mission and then joined in a full-length soccer game with locals of all ages from 10 to 50. It's not a game I'm good at though, and even John's expertise and the help of several skilful Greenlanders could not overcome the powerful opposition, much less make up for the goal I scored for them and the two or three I let slip past me and the goal posts. Heavy climbing boots were not made for playing soccer in. (That is one of my excuses.)

We were then invited in for coffee by one of our opponents, and sometime later we left, a little reluctantly, for our mosquito-infested tents. Just as we neared our island home the motor quit and the last quarter mile was made "under oar". In spite of much tinkering the engine refused to run and our eagerly sought departure was delayed. The tinkering resumed the next morning and after a while success came, almost to an undesirable degree as we rammed three small icebergs before getting the motor under control.

In the heat of the afternoon our massive boatload of things and people reached the shores of Upernivik Island on the south side of a glacier called Sermeq Qiterdleq or Middle Finger Glacier. While two days of non-mountaineering weather kept most people lazy I helped John do some measurements for his project on the medial moraine of the glacier.

The need for food, fuel and mail then took us back to Igdlorssuit, where in one busy day we accomplished all our errands and then had time to watch a hunter and his wife skinning and cleaning seals on the beach. A few dogs, mostly pups, loitered expectantly around the operation waiting for handouts that never came - there is another time for feeding dogs. Sometime later when I was watching the same skilful and colourful procedure the woman cut out one of the seal's large eyes, put a small slit in it, and handed it to a small boy who sucked it like a piece of candy.

A long evening boat journey led us to the southernmost glacier on the west side of Upernivik Island, Serminguaq, and we pitched our tents on a site used years before by a team of Danish geologists.


A pillar on the slopes of Mt Biancai and a view to the south over Uummannaq Fiord

with Uummannaq Mountain in the distance. Photo: Sandy Briggs


This was to be the location of the main part of John's glacier study, and while he was thus engaged on the next day four of us climbed a relatively easy mountain, Biancai (about 5750 feet), first climbed by an Italian group. It is well named since the top is a large dome of soft snow, which gave some heavy plodding to the summit. Again, however, our efforts were rewarded by a breathtaking view into the upper snow basin at the head of the glacier surrounded by jagged rock peaks draped with glaciers and bathed in the evening sun. We stayed some time on the summit and performed the usual rituals of eating and photography. In contrast to our first mountain this one had been easy for us; we were getting into better shape. A leisurely descent by a different route soon placed us on a rounded ridge 3000 feet above the sea where we stopped to appreciate the Arctic evening.

If the people of the North can be said to be robbed for the summer of the pleasure of a starry night sky then they are adequately compensated by the star-studded night-time sea. The many icebergs, large and small, which dot the dark blue water glisten a soft friendly golden-orange in the subdued light of a sun that never sets. That night our dinner was topped off with hot Christmas pudding, and our falling asleep was accompanied by the sounds of dying icebergs.

Colin and I decided that while the others were pursuing their various interests we would go up to the head of the glacier and bivouac, poised to climb on the following day. We packed a light flysheet and enough food for two days and set off up the glacier in the cool of the evening. After the first icefall we put on the rope in order to safely thread our way among the 'psyching' profusion of yawning crevasses. As we moved upward into the Himalaya-like valley enclosing the névé basin of Serminguaq a thick blanket of fog crept in from the sea and enveloped the base-camp far below. The others could not enjoy the bright sunny evening that was ours. After 4 ½ hours we reached the obvious campsite on the moraine rubble, a site which had been used by the Italians in 1965 and again by a party from St. Andrews in 1969 (who named it the camp of the 523 Biscottinis because of all the biscuits (cookies) they found there).

Merendi was our objective, third highest peak on Upernivik Island (6760 ft), rising cleanly to a tapered point from a very jagged ridge. The sky was clear and the sun bright for our walk up the edge of the glacier basin in the morning. The ascent began on an easy rib of rock, which led eventually to a steep gully of soft snow. Here we roped up. The first part of the route had seemed obvious enough from below, but on reaching the ridge we discovered that we were a fair distance from where we wanted to be. The hours that followed became a mystery tour of the west ridge of Merendi, climbing rock and snow, traversing around, over, and beneath the pillars on the comb-like ridge, never knowing just what lay beyond the next one.



Colin Matheson posing near a pillar on Merendi on Upernavik Island. Photo: Sandy Briggs


It was very enjoyable. The sun warmed the rock, and in high spirits we reached the final summit ridge. Looking back we were able to appreciate the ridiculousness of our route and the incredible steepness of the north side of the ridge. Some easy scrambling brought us to the final blocks of the summit where we again roped up, and five pitches later we stood on the top.


Sandy Briggs on summit of Merendi. Photo: Colin Matheson


Colin Matheson on the summit of Merendi with Uummannaq mountain to the south in the distance.

Photo: Sandy Briggs


It was 9:30 p.m. and the sun was still very bright although no longer providing its daytime warmth. I had never seen a more beautiful view than that which surrounded us then. To the north the high peaks of the island's interior thrust their rocky summits into the sky, while past the névé basin to our south was a glacier-hung wall of rock whose difficult peaks had yielded to the efforts of previous expeditions. In the distance Snepyramiden loomed geometrically perfect above its neighbours, while Umanak mountain, 50 miles to the south, became a sun-fired rock in a sea of fog. We suspected that some humps in the cloud beyond the sunlit slopes of the Nugssuaq Peninsula were the hills of far-off Disko Island.

In the cairn we found the notes left by our predecessors, Italians, a St. Andrews team, and Germans, and then a small tragedy struck! We had brought no pen to leave a note of our own. What to do? Aha! Blood! I pricked my finger and laboriously wrote our names on a small piece of paper and placed it in the cairn. The night was cold and our feet were wet, so after drinking deeply of our surroundings one last time we quickly climbed off the summit blocks and put on crampons to move onto the hard snow of the mountain's south slope. The descent was not difficult but required care, kicking steps and front pointing, moving backwards about 2000 feet to the easier angle snow at the edge of the glacier basin. It was a long pleasant trudge back to the tent, and our not-too-exciting meal was topped off by a large piece of luxury fruitcake and a deep sleep.

On returning to base camp we were greeted by Dave, our seventh member, who had just arrived, and that night a small collection of driftwood provided our first campfire, which cheered us into the wee hours.

On the move…A trip to Igdlorssuit for supplies, a base camp at the next glacier north. Two trips each along the moraine and then on the glacier itself, deep into the heart of the island. The nine-mile walk with a rise of about 3500 feet took seven hours carrying heavy loads of food, tents and other equipment. At first the campsite seemed an unlikely one, perched as it was on the ridge of a moraine, but it is understatement to describe the site as a scenic one, and under the influence of such stark grandeur the hard work of load carrying and the rocks under the sleeping bags seemed to fade into triviality.


The Horns of Upernivik across the glacier from our base camp for climbing the Great White Tower,

Scorpio and Triboda. Photo: Sandy Briggs


To the north rose the Great White Tower (Harald's Peak), highest peak on the island and our major objective (6900 feet). Further to the east the rocky spine of Scorpio gleamed in the sun and beside it the long pinnacled ridge of Mt Spume angled up from the glacier to its snowy summit, shaped like a breaking wave (hence the name). In the distance was the lonely and singularly beautiful form of Whaleback, while further around stood the king of the island, the Horns of Upernivik. This complex fortress of rock is the fourth highest peak on the island and probably the most difficult. Although Phil and Dave had climbed it years before we did not seriously consider an attempt this time. The twin pillars of its summit are truly the horns of the island, raised in defiance to those who look upon them with intent. Southward the beautifully conical massif of Merendi caught the eye. From just below our campsite she presented to us a magnificence we had not known before. The snowy skirt of her hanging glacier, seemingly tied by a crinkled ribbon of bergshrund, was suspended over a tall impressive plinth of vertical rock. This splendid northern perspective made Colin and me even more pleased that we had stood on her crown.

A day of rest, then a 5:30 a.m. start. Six of us set off to climb the Great White Tower. The snow was still crisp and firm as we walked easily across the glacier and onto the ridge. Brilliant sun! Already the view was superb. While John and Colin chose a rib of rock to the left, the rest of us started up the main east ridge. We roped up, Peter with Phil and Dave with me, and took turns leading up the sun-baked granite. It was very pleasant, though occasionally not easy.


Sandy on the Great White Tower (Harald's Peak), Upernivik Island. Photo courtesy of Sandy Briggs


The crux soon appeared as a seemingly hold-less ten foot chimney which barred the way to the top of the second gendarme. It was my turn to lead and I looked for another way, but there was none. After an unsuccessful first attempt I retreated to remove my rucksack and then struggled up successfully to a ledge from which I could haul the rucksacks up on the rope. The end of the pitch left us in an airy sunbathed spot from which John was seen further ahead on a narrow ridge of snow. We paused to snack and contemplate the sheet of grey cloud which was creeping up on us from the south….

A safe snow bowl, a few exposed pitches wearing crampons on steep rice-like ice, a dramatic traverse on a narrow crest of snow, and we were lounging on a ridge of scree, eating again. The cloud had reached us and was gently wafting around the towering boulders when the silence was broken by a cry from above. John and Colin had reached the summit! We scrambled to the final blocks and roped up for three pitches of variable difficulty, then climbed one at a time onto the flat boulder which formed the summit, and on which there was only room for one or two people to stand at once. It had taken nearly 11 hours. Phil gave a short speech renaming the mountain in honour of Professor Drever, to whom we owed the existence of our expedition, and then we huddled over a tangled mass of rope eating while the cloud moved in around us. We moved off the top rocks in pairs and then cramponed down a few pitches of rotten ice to safer rocks below. The original plan to descend by traversing the west ridge was abandoned in the face of deteriorating weather. A thick mist enveloped us and the rock was becoming wet and slippery. We unroped and scrambled down steep scree and ledges to a steep ice slope where crampons were necessary again. Soon we were staggering through the soft snow of the glacier on the way to the tents, where Adam had a supper waiting for us. We had been away 17 hours.

Heavy rain interrupted our sleep several times that night and continuing drizzle kept us in bed most of the following day, but the day after that was perfection itself we set out to do "hard things".

Colin and John went to climb the long southwest ridge of Spume, taking the pillars direct, while Phil, Peter, Dave and I hoped to find a new route up Scorpio by tackling its main southwest rib. The others stripped to the waist in the heat as we strolled leisurely across the glacier to the starting point. We scrambled easily up several hundred feet, roped up for an awkward move, and then walked gently upward on a sloping gravel ramp. Soon we were forced left onto steep slabs where I inadvertently dislodged a loose granite plate which, in complete obedience to the laws of gravity and Murphy, rattled down to land neatly on Phil's and Peter's rope, cutting it badly 50 feet from the end. This misfortune forced them to spend the rest of the day climbing in short pitches or using the rope with a large knot in it. A few more rope-lengths put us back on the crest of the ridge. The crux followed. Dave and I lay basking in the sun while Phil worked his way slowly, carefully up a steep exposed wall under a jutting overhang cleft by a short narrow chimney. He spent quite a while trying to lasso a spike of rock with a sling to provide an extra handhold on this difficult pitch, and then he abandoned his rucksack to be hauled up later. He made it! All the sacks were hauled, and when the last man was up we moved to safe place for rest and food.

Several more rope lengths of less difficulty, occasionally punctuated by the pungent smell of granite striking granite as loose rock shifted under the feet, led again to the ridge crest and onto its other side, a welcome change as it kept us in the sun. Route finding was becoming difficult. We stopped for a drink caught from the end of a dripping snow-patch. Two pitches later an interesting traverse brought us to some steep exposed slabs, and Dave commented that it was as delicate a piece of rock as he had been on for a long time. The rocks above looked blank and we spent some time discussing what to do. It was getting late. We decided to reverse a short pitch and rappel into a steep snow gully. A short scramble up the left side of this gully led to a very narrow snow arête, and two rope-lengths later we were standing on a small snow plateau at the top of the main rib we had climbed. Suddenly a loud cry echoed up to us from the valley below. John and Colin returning across the glacier from their ascent of Spume had seen us emerge onto the skyline and shouted to greet us. We yelled back, and before the echoes had died away Adam, back at camp, took up the call. It was midnight, and in the sunlit chill of the Arctic vastness the shouting made things seem very warm and friendly. Our island…there was no-one else.

The next pinnacle was avoided by traversing right and then rappelling into a scree gully. A short scramble led to crisp snow where we donned crampons and walked easily over a few steep waves of hard snow, leaping a few small bergshrunds, to the summit boulder. Here it was necessary again to rope up for the short climb to the true summit, and this time there was room for everyone! The climb had taken 15 ½ hours (Scorpio, 6070 ft., second ascent). It was 1:30 a.m. The view was tremendous. Eastward over the breathtaking steepness of the east face we could see the glittering crest of Spume caught like a frozen wave against the sky. Southward the golden Horns stood defiant and impressive, while the conical form of Merendi glowed a warm amber in the low-angled sunlight. The Great White Tower, (now Aaraluip Qaqa, Harald's Mountain), rose to the north and we stood in its shadow.

Chilled by inactivity and a slight breeze we left a note in the cairn and climbed off the boulder. Retracing our steps to the snow arête we then roped for a number of steep and tedious pitches down a long broad snow gully. Further down the angle relented a little and we cramponed unroped to the glacier below. We stumbled into the campsite at 5:30 a.m. after 19 ½ hours of climbing and spent the next 24 hours in bed, emerging only to eat. We had earned a rest.

Late in the day after our return from Scorpio everyone but Colin and me set out heavily laden to return to base camp. Never missing an opportunity however, Phil, Dave and Peter stopped on the way down the glacier for a night-time ascent of an easier mountain, Tilman's peak, which lay to the south. During the next few days John and Adam conducted studies on the next glacier to the north where we had spent two days earlier, while the other three boated further up the coast and climbed another rocky peak called Palup's Right Toe.

Meanwhile, back at high camp, Colin was complaining about having worn off his fingerprints on the rocks. We set out on a cloudy morning to climb a nearby mountain called Triboda (5920 ft.) whose top consisted of three rock "pillars" in a line. In the absence of blatant signs of deteriorating conditions we walked easily along the glacier and scrambled up a series of scree gullies to a ridge. This two hour session of morning exercise placed us within 1000 vertical ft. of the summit. We soon roped up and climbed uneventfully about five pitches on good rock, eyeing sceptically a low cloudy mass which seemed to be creeping toward us from the north. The next pitch led up a short chimney in a widely cleft block to an exposed belay stance over the steep north side of the mountain. The creeping cloud was no longer a mystery - it was snowing!

Colin moved past me and led a classic pitch of mixed climbing which began in a steep icy chimney where step-cutting was necessary. He said it was one of the finest he had ever led. We were then on top of the first pillar, too close to turn back now. My next stance was an airy perch to say the least, but the sense of steepness was limited by poor visibility. There was no view to appreciate. The middle pillar is highest, I had learned some days before, but Colin didn't know. He moved past me and soon sighted the third pillar which he mistook for the highest, and set out for it. I could not see what he was doing so I calmly stood paying out the rope and watching the snowflakes wafting past in the relatively calm air. Trying to find a route to this third pillar was tedious, and a lot of time was consumed in the operation. The rope jammed between some rocks. He returned to free it. Finally the call came for me to start climbing, which I gladly did, and about half a rope length later I looked up to my left and there, 10 ft. away, was a plastic bag peeking out of a tiny cairn, the summit! Not knowing which point was highest he had climbed along past it on wet lichen-covered rock. On hearing of this he climbed up to join me with a few disgruntled mutterings at having wasted so much time.

Speed and care were required now - mostly care. The melting snow was making the rock slippery. He climbed onto the summit block and we placed a note of our ascent in the cairn with the note left by the St. Andrews party who had climbed Triboda first in 1967. This was no time for smug satisfaction. The purity of toe and fingertip climbing gave way to the better friction offered by knees, abdomen and buttocks as we grovelled away from the summit, and in the shelter of a roof-like overhang between the first two "pillars" we paused for a snack, our first since breakfast 6 ½ hours earlier. One more pitch led to the top of the first pillar. We rappelled off and then rappelled again. Our minds were totally absorbed with going down. Colin reversed the chimney in the cleft block and as he set up a belay below he yelled "I feel very Christmassy!" "You look it," I replied, and he did too, with his red, white and blue rucksack and his blue cagoule with a yellow-flecked red rope draped around him. He gave me half a chocolate bar as I moved past him on to the ridge. The rock which had been so dry and pleasant on the way up was now slippery and soon we were keeping to the edge of the steep snow where progress was easier. Then we were forced to put on crampons and climb almost entirely on the snow. With ice axes and Colin's ice hammer we inched our way slowly down the north side of the ridge. It was merely a matter of time. A glimpse of the end of our climb appeared, very close, but separated from us by an awkwardly placed boulder. With some step cutting, some ingenious thinking, and some rope tension he made his way down over it. I followed, grateful for the steps and a well-placed aid sling. Two subsequent pitches put us where we had roped up in the morning, 12 hours before. Two or three inches of fresh snow had covered our morning footsteps. We ate and stowed the gear in our rucksacks, relieved.

The snow-covered scree gully presented much less of a problem than anticipated and soon we were back on the glacier trudging slowly, often in knee-deep snow, back toward the tent. Suddenly Colin disappeared to his chest in a crevasse! I ran up to help him out but he just looked up calmly and pointed out that he was standing on a floor of ice and couldn't go any further anyway….When our day ended it was still snowing. Only the necessity of a hot meal delayed the onset of sleep.

Two days of intermittent snow, rain and drizzle followed, but the third day was flawless and we set out to walk around the Horns of Upernivik, that complex rock monarch that dominated the view from our tent door. The wind was cold as we put on the rope for the hike across the névé toward Whaleback, and the glare from the snow emphasized the necessity of dark glasses. Soon, however, in the shelter of some surrounding peaks, the brilliant sun forced Colin's shirt into his rucksack and the air was polluted with the smell of fresh suntan lotion. We surmounted the only real obstacle of the day by climbing a couple of hundred feet onto a ridge where eating and basking in the warm sun occupied the next two hours. Then, as the sun was slipping behind the summit of Merendi, we cramponed down onto the snowfield separating her from the Horns. It was a very photogenic situation and we did not hurry. Our circumambulation concluded uneventfully except that a number of melt-water puddles encountered later in the day left two pairs of boots extremely wet.

The following day was equally sunny, but wet boots and a strong cold wind appeared good reason not to climb anything. I would hardly have needed an excuse at all. It was the 3rd of August, about the time when the sun first sets for a little while in the middle of the night, and Colin hiked up to the ridge where the climb of Triboda begins in order to see the sunset colours. It must have been worth it since on returning he reported a moving display of changing red, orange and purple. Next morning we watched the sun rise, three times as it crept up along the undulating ridge of Mt Spume. It was our last day on Upernivik.

We arrived at the base camp that afternoon and were soon picked up by Adam and two local men in a high powered speed boat. A change of plan had made this the village sports day and we had just missed it. The others had all been in Igdlorssuit for a day or so and had seen the formal opening of the new school that morning, during which ceremony it was named in honour of Harold Drever, long-time friend of the village. We were still in time for the big dance that night, though, and it was quite an affair. A small tape recorder provided most of the music and things really livened up when the boys tried to introduce the Greenlanders to Scottish Country Dancing.

A couple of days later our plans went awry again when only three could get transportation to Umanak to see the annual long-distance kayak race, originally organized by Professor Drever himself. Phil, Dave and Adam went along and watched as a man from our village carried off first prize, much to everyone's pleasure. They were also impressed by the kayak-rolling demonstration held the next morning before their return to Igdlorssuit.

John kayaked solo 10 miles to Upernivik Island for a couple of days to finish off his glaciological studies. Dave, Phil, Peter and Colin went north to the Svartenhuk Peninsula for a few days of unsuccessful salmon fishing and ascent of three Svartenhuk hills. Adam and I just idled the time away dining on seal steaks, and I developed the habit of staying up to see the sunrise (about 3 a.m.) and then sleeping till noon. They were lazy days. I even took a short swim in the ocean one sunny afternoon; it was bracing.

Our summer was nearly over but the news which reached us of a strike, which was grounding the helicopter service, gave us time for a one night camping trip, by boat, on the other side of Ubekendt Island.

The homeward journey is another long chapter in itself, and the earliest of us to arrive in Britain were five days late. The ship on which we left Umanak was followed for miles by an escort of power boats full of high-spirited Greenlanders whistling, yelling and firing dozens of rifle shots into the sea while all the girls on board were waving madly and casting paper handkerchiefs over the side. I think the boats are sufficiently infrequent that they all get a dramatic send-off, or maybe a lot of young people were going to the south and to Denmark to school. In any case, it seemed as if the Arctic were bidding us goodbye, and our long-to-be-remembered departure was made even moreso by sailing into one of the reddest, most beautiful sunsets I have ever seen…. I counted five stars that night.

Sandy Briggs 1977 (somewhat re-edited in 2006)

Click here for link to Sandy Briggs' website



More Photos of the 1977 Expedition, taken by Adam


On the flight in to Kangerlussuaq. Photo: Adam Arnott


Enjoying the sunshine. Photo: Adam Arnott


Photo: Adam Arnott


John Thurman, Phil Gribbon, Colin Matheson. Photo: Adam Arnott


Sandy Briggs and John Thurman. Photo: Adam Arnott


Photo: Adam Arnott


Photo: Adam Arnott


Photo: Adam Arnott


Photo: Adam Arnott


Photo: Adam Arnott


Photo: Adam Arnott


Photo: Adam Arnott


Colin. Photo: Adam Arnott


John. Photo: Adam Arnott


Sandy and John. Photo: Adam Arnott


Photo: Adam Arnott


Photo: Adam Arnott


Photo: Adam Arnott


Photo: Adam Arnott


Photo: Adam Arnott


Photo: Adam Arnott


Photo: Adam Arnott


Photo: Adam Arnott


Photo: Adam Arnott


Photo: Adam Arnott


Photo: Adam Arnott


Photo: Adam Arnott


Photo: Adam Arnott


Photo: Adam Arnott


Photo: Adam Arnott


Photo: Adam Arnott


Sandy Briggs decides to go for a swim. Photo: Adam Arnott


Sandy emerging from the water. Photo: Adam Arnott


Evening calm. Photo: Adam Arnott



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