It didn’t seem five minutes since I had returned from Sea Kayaking in Greenland, before I was heading north again. This time it was to mountaineer, but the sea would play it’s part also. I joined Simon Yates to head towards Mikis Fjord and tackle a myriad of unclimbed peaks.
I’ve never been good on boats, in fact I can get sea sick just looking at one, so the idea of sailing from Iceland the the Greenlandic coast filled me with fear. I loaded up my kit bag with coats, crampons and kwells in the hope of keeping myself something like sane. It promised to be kill or cure.
I met fellow mountaineers Nigel and John at Manchester airport and we soon enjoyed the sights and sounds of Reykjavik. After an evening involving final plans, drinks and head planting a kerb, we were ready to head north. The six hour drive up the coast to Ísafjörður is an eye opener to say the least. There are few bridges spanning the fjords, so the crows could fly the journey in no time, but the long and winding roads allow you a vista of meandering mountain and moss, with geology renowned the world over. The last time I was in Isafjorder was in 2004 on my way to the Watkins Mountains and the worst place in the world to suffer an appendicitis, but there’s no chance of that again. The town was still small, strewn along the fjord side, but now it’s a haven for cruise ships. I just hope it doesn’t get too drawn into tourism.
Here we met Vincente Castro, the skipper of the Iorana, our ride over the seas. He was full of smiles and handshakes. He’d only just returned from Greenland and was hoping to get back quickly as a low pressure front was threatening to come in. We soon had the Iorana loaded up and left Iceland behind, heading almost due north into a wonderful sunset sky.
We entered the open ocean and my trouble began. I was sick as a bag regardless of what medication I took and was thankful for a few hours fitful sleep. The seas were calm, but my body felt fatigued.
It took until the third day at sea before I felt anything like human again. A thick mist had enveloped much of the journey, but as we approached the Greenlandic coast the sun burst out and the skies cleared. It was cold and calm, but out on the horizon we could see icebergs. We’d been on regular watch and kept an eye out for anything suspicious, as unlike my recent sea kayaking trip, Icebergs were not something to paddle around and photograph. They were now a real danger. We wove through a millpond of bergs until we entered Jacobson Fjord and anchored close to the face of a glacier.
Silence roared through the air and a ghostly mist filled the skies. The evening was one of trepidation and excitement. Maps here are poor and the best way to navigate is look up and pick your way through the rocks and ice. We landed at the side of the Schjelderup Glacier and began ascending a mixed field of solid ice, crevasses and swift meltwater rivers. We hoped to make a cwm, which we did and then pointed at a small pinnacle to our left. It had no name, no place on the map, but within a couple of hours we stood on its summit. The rock was shattered and the last few feet almost stopped us, but the views were worth the effort. Over to the NW stood the Watkins Mountains – a range I had climbed in 2004. Gunnbjørn Fjeld was visible at over 80 miles. All around were mile after mile of glaciers, sun bleached rocks and the open sea. I hope the pictures can somehow describe what a truly stunning place it was.
I don’t know if this was a 1st ascent, but it’s a privilege to look down a mountain and only see one set of tracks.
My heels were already aching, but down we went for the rest of the day, negotiating the twists and turns of the route until just before dark, we made the shore and headed back to the Iorana. Peak one was climbed.
We moved anchor the next day and crossed a large muddy and rock strewn delta to climb what, I thought, looked like the ‘Pike O Blisco’ in Langdale. Situated above the delta, it was a long walk in over undulating tiers of scree and streams. I find scree really hard work and struggled on until we entered a snow field near the col and my feet at last felt happier. Within minutes we were on the rocky summit overlooking Jacobsen Fjord to our south and Watkins Fjord to our west. A huge meltwater lake lay high on the plateau and the mountains extended northwards as far as the eye could see. Two cairns adorned the summit from previous ascents. The distant drone of a helicopter’s rotors became louder and it passed below us ferrying barrels on a cable towards Watkins. We think some mineral prospecting is happening there. Artificial sounds really stand out in the silence of the mountains.
We headed home down the painful screes, eventually making the Iorana by late evening. Shadows cast over her deck, but the twilight stays long here in the summer. We’d noticed a stunning snow pyramid opposite the days climb and hoped to make a two day assault upon it starting the next morning. We walked and made a high camp, but overnight the wind increased dramatically and we were forced to retreat. Time to move fjord…
We lifted the anchor and rounded the coast to Ryberg fjord. Again I suffered at the expense of the sea and was thankful to be anchored by nightfall.
Exploratory mountaineering brings ups and downs, and every step can be a first for mankind. We headed up a large glacier the next morning wondering what we’d see and hoped to plan routes for the coming days. Only a mile or so up, we headed left up a steep slope into a large cwm and were surrounded by jagged ridges of teetering boulders. Much of the rock here is shattered and regular falls litter the ice with greys, blacks and reds. It’s not a place to climb, but we did spot a snow gully heading up and took it on alpine style. We commented that ‘an hour should do it’. Four hours later we were back down..! The route was only Scottish grade 1, but rotten rock threatened its flanks and we decided to abseil back rather than down climb. We use words such as ‘epic’ and ‘adventure’ far too casually for my liking these days, but today truly was an epic adventure. At times the day had tested us and every horizon was a new one, gifting us with views words struggle to describe, so again, I hope the pictures help.
My skin grafts were very sore by now, so I let Simon, John and Nigel head up high, whilst I enjoyed a day with Vincente looking at the snout of the Sorgenfri glacier across the fjord. The coastal map is from the 1950’s and shows one single face, but the change in climate has forced the glacier back over a mile and now a rocky and barren island sits between the floes. It is still enormous and extends far out of sight and onto the main ice cap. Perhaps it would allow a land route through the mountains..?
The weather dictates everything here and a front was heading our way. Time for one more day on the mountain and we’d have to head south. What a day it turned out to be.
We climbed another glacier (there really are so many) and attained a saddle overlooking Nansen Fjord and beyond. Cloud obscured the Watkins and together we celebrated the trip. Above us stood rotten spires of rock which we dare not climb, but the views back towards the boat showed glistening seas, reminiscent of the Mediterranean or the Caribbean, not the Arctic.
We stomped down in the sugary snow, disrobed ourselves of mountaineering gear and enjoyed a barbecue on the beach, always with one eye looking for bears and foxes. The evening light was magical, with the cloudy skies refracting the light into a stunning show. The changing weather was coming.
We left the next morning and within no time at all I was resigned to my bunk again, feeling rotten and wishing it would all end soon. My only solace was watching the Fulmars circle to boat when I went on deck. Within a couple of days (including one hair raising storm), we were back on Icelandic soil and the trip was over. The Northern Lights graced us on our penultimate night as a farewell.
I was exhausted but very happy. My skin grafts had taken a beating and my sea sickness was awful, but I choose to travel and these issues aren’t going away. It’s just part of expedition life…