Sandy Briggs

(Part 1 of 4 parts)
(There’s a short mountaineering glossary at the end of Part 4.)

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). 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.

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. 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.


Link to Part 2