Sandy Briggs

(Part 2 of 4 parts)

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. 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 go 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. 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.