Sandy Briggs

(Part 3 of 4 parts)

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. 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. 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. 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. To the north rose the Great White Tower, 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. 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”.