Sandy Briggs

(Part 4 of 4 parts)

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. 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)

A glossary of terms
arête – a sharp ridge of snow or rock
belay stance – the place where a climber ties to a firm anchor on a climb in order to safeguard him/herself and others in a roped group
bergshrund – the crevasse that separates a glacier proper from the higher permanent snowfields which feed it.
cagoule – long nylon waterproof windbreaker
chimney – a very narrow gully or a wide crack big enough to get inside to climb
crampons – steel spiked frames strapped to boots for climbing ice and hard snow
exposed – used to describe places below which the drop is steep and long.
gendarme – a rock pinnacle on a ridge.
icefall – where a glacier falls steeply creating crevasses and pinnacles of ice.
moraine – accumulation of rocks carried down by a glacier.
névé – permanent snow at the head of a glacier.
pitch – section of climbing between two belay stances, a rope-length.
piton – a metal peg hammered into a rock crack for a belay.
qaqa – Greenlandic word for mountain.
to “rope up” – to tie onto the climbing safety rope
traverse – to move along on a more or less horizontal line, usually around an obstacle.