In the middle of 2016 David Coley headed off with a team to Greenland. The main objective was to climb the British Route on Nalumasortoq, VI 5.12+ 19 pitches, 600m. This takes a jaw-dropping crack line up an incredible face. Polar bears, flies and endless daylight were just a few of the challenges they faced.
My main concern was the bear!
It had last been seen 20km away, which didn’t sound very far for a polar bear. Natalie had taken to sleeping with her ice axes to defend herself, numbing the fear with whisky. Kieran had put a bolt into a monster boulder to hang a portaledge from and was sleeping safely off the ground. Duncan and Wil had got so scared they had run off to climb something hard in the mountains. But I knew I was safe. Eddy had sunstroke and had been vomiting outside his tent, making him an obvious target. Jon had twisted his ankle and couldn’t run, so was as good as dead. Nathan was impossible to wake at any time of day or night, so would be half eaten before he knew it. Richard had swollen, pus ridden, infected bites all over his legs, which no doubt a bear would be able to smell. But my secret weapon was Mark. Mark had the tent next door, and Mark had been doing all the fishing and gutting. Mark smelt of fish, Mark’s tent smelt of fish. The bear would go for Mark. I rolled over and went back to sleep.
Getting to basecamp had been easy, if a little longwinded: drive to Heathrow, fly to Copenhagen, taxi to hostel, night in hostel, taxi back to airport, fly to Narsarsuaq, minibus to the harbour, boat to Nanortalik, night in a hut that looked like something Scott might have used if he had ever passed that way, boat up Tasermiut fjord to “point 72”, then an afternoon hauling the kit and three week’s food off the beach and up the hill.
From the start we felt good about the place and about ourselves. As we motored up the fjord everyone’s jaw dropped, and kept dropping. The place really does make Yosemite look a bit shabby. This was Patagonia-by-the-sea. The sun was out, and stayed out until our last day, the new Gortex many of us had brought sitting unused at the foot of our tents.
The bears are starting to follow me into my sleep, and into the granite.
I’m now dozing, resting my head on the edge of the portaledge. This time the bear is real, ten metres away, 40cm tall and make of solid rock. I wonder if it would make a good runner. I look the other way, down the line of the British Route on Nalumasorto. One big crack running forever up one of the most beautiful walls in the world.
Now lost on a different mountain.
Why do I keep getting lost? I blame Rockfax for not producing a Greenland South. This route is meant to be bolted, but there are no bolts. Why would someone drill a load of bolts half way to the north pole and not put the bolts where I am. Has the endless daylight done something to my head. I am in the right place; I know I am. Why weren’t the first ascensionists? I look to my right, to the face of Ulamertorsuaq. Which really does make El Cap look rather B-team. The rock over there looks solid, and light brown, the colour of a Grizzly I once met in Canada. What I’m standing on is almost rock, black and wet. No runners in the last 40m. I’m going down. Only thing is you need a runner to go down. I untie one of the ropes and drop it down and ask Tom and Eddy to tie the two ropes together. I continue up, pulling rocks off and hurling them into the distance. Sometimes I miss and hit Tom and Eddy.
The flake is hollow, stuck to the rock by magic. I wrap the ab’ tat around it, thump it a few times and thread the ropes. There is a side of me, a very sick side, which likes the thought of what might happen next. Normally I get scared of falling with a bolt at my knees. I think part of that fear is created by the stress of having to pull hard, think fast, and really wanting it, and I never seem to want it enough. But here I have all the time in the world. This is cool, really cool. This flake will either pull and I will die, or it won’t pull, which in my sick, daylight-addled mind seems almost a shame, less of a ride. But what is really, really cool, is, because the ropes now don’t reach Tom and Eddy, if the flake pulls they will be left a long way from the ground, stuck forever on a belay will no ropes. I wonder if they would last the night up here as I smile and weight the Reverso.
Now on Ketil Pyramid.
This is fun. Just about the only easy route in the area. 400m of granite to a very pointy summit. Rope of three. Bivvy just below the route. Long walk up the hill from basecamp (make sure you take the easiest line up the grass, not the shortest line through the thicker vegetation). Mostly HVS, but with a runout crux on one of the lower pitches which needs a steady approach if someone has stolen the hanger from the bolt, and you are not carrying a spare.
Now heading towards an unnamed peak we are lost in veg.
Crawling up the hillside. Pulling on roots for the last mile. The veg is so tall I often can’t see where to head. The bastards have left me behind because I’m old and unfit. It gets steeper, and the roots give way to wet grass. I’m now lost and alone with sweat pouring into my eyes. I take my shirt off and pull out the ice axes to climb the grass.
After an hour I find an easy gully to follow and climb to the col. No one. I can’t see them on the glacier, so they must have turned back, or fallen. I wait an hour lying amongst the flowers until I see four dots below still heading up. Now I don’t feel so old. We spend the evening taking pictures of tomorrow’s climb as the colours on the face endlessly change.
Up early and a quick run across the glacier before the seracs awake. Rope of five. The first four pitches are easy. Then it turns harder. Then too hard, so we run away, rapping down the mountain, cutting up our cordelettes.
For most of us the trip wasn’t really about the climbing. It was about being in Greenland. For three weeks there were no phones, no internet, just a bunch of friends, a mess tent full of food and scenery you just couldn’t stop looking at. Several of the team didn’t even bother going climbing, they just explored. Talking of which, don’t underestimate the cruelty of the vegetation. If there isn’t a path you are in for a very hard time anywhere near sea level.
Which brings me to the flying biting things. They weren’t anything like as bad as we thought they might be. Most days there was some wind, the black flies didn’t bite, just drove you mad if you had forgotten your head net. Don’t wear shorts, or tight tops (go for the David Attenborough flappy-shirt-with-collar look) and use repellent.
Point 72 is the most popular climbing spot in Greenland, so don’t expect to be alone, however you won’t be queuing for the routes.
You can get all the food you need in Nanortalik, just ship out hill food, chocolate bars and dehydrated stuff. All your problems, from hiring a gas stove for base camp to organising the boats can be done via Niels in Nanortalik (email@example.com). Who is simply, The Man. Contact him once you have decided to go and he will make it all fall into place. The ship with the tents and other heavy kit took many months (our stuff got sent to the wrong town and then the ship hit an iceberg), so post it way before you are advised to.
We were later told that no one has been attacked in the area by a bear in summer for many decades.