Greenland, Climbing boat trip

Posted by George Ullrich
Wednesday 6th October 2010

Greenland Blog


Friends, Matt Burdekin and Miles Hill, invited me on a climbing expedition to the west coast of Greenland. We would meet up with Sam Doyle in Kangerlussaq , who had been working on the Greenlandic icecap.  From there the objective was to rendezvous with boat, ‘Gambo’ in Sisimut and sail up the coast of Greenland to an area called Uumannak, 72 degrees north on the west coast. From here, the plan was to be dropped off and climb unclimbed big walls and summits. Gambo, a 40 foot sailboat, is run by Dr Alan hubbard, a professor at Aberisworth university who is running a major Scientiftc investigation to help understand the nature of the water fluxes underneath deglaciating continental-scale ice sheets. So the main reason Gambo is in Greenland, is to give back up to these investigations. Having come from a climbing background himself, Alan was also keen to collaborate with a climbing expedition.     


      So Matt, Miles and I flew into Kangerlussaq on the 27th of July after enjoying unlimited drinks thanks to Air Greenland. I discovered that the airline had misplaced one of my bags. Not the best start to an expedition. After devouring a delicious Muskoxe burger, it eventually, to my relief, turned up.

      We had learned that Sam was not going to be able to meet up with us in Kangerlussaq because of work commitments on the Ice. His plan was now to fly directly to Uumannak and meet us and Gambo there.


our instructions from sam  

      To meet up with Gambo, we now needed to walk 120miles  along lakes and rolling hills to town Sisimut. Only problem was that we needed to be there in 3 days as we didn’t want to hold Gambo up. To make matters worse, people were telling us that the walk takes most folk 9 days. We had Warnings that it wouldn’t be safe without a gun, and after being reassured by Sam that he had done the walk in 3 days, we set off.

       A friendly American chap, Steve, gave us a lift to the end of the track. (this stretch of road to my amazement is the longest road in the whole of Greenland, just 60km long)


Steve gave us a lift to the end of the road  

      We set off for some reason with only 700g of oats and half a pack of ginger snaps that matt had brought from the UK. Anyone would think this is lunacy setting off on such a long walk, with barely any food! But with this path being a popular trail and it being the end of the walkers season, we where told that we would find plenty of leftover food in the huts along the way.

      We walked for about 5 hours at a fast pace and found the first hut and had a delicious lunch of spaghetti and olive oil. Yum.


 A hut on the walk

      The next section of the walk is about 23k along a lake. Usually there are canoes which anyone can borrow and paddle the length of the lake. Unfortunately all the canoes were at the opposite end of the lake, so to our annoyance, we had to put up with walking. 

      We finally arrived in Sisimut 72 hours after we set off. Walks activities included, making a Gat after finding some 22 rounds in a hut, Fixing up a canoe, hitching a ride on a Fishermans boat and excruciatingly painful blistering feet.


 great success 


      With not much idea of what this boat we where supposed to be meeting actually looked like we had a couple of worried moments when we couldn’t see a Sailing boat anywhere, only fishing boats with huge harpoon guns and little plastic tubs. After a little sleep eventually, Gambo turned up in harbour. Crewing the boat were two French guys Nolwen (captain) Max and a Belgium, Matthew. They had sailed the boat up from Nova Scotia. Everyone excited to get sailing we set off heading up the coast that night. 



Diary: On the boat, can’t work out how many days we have been sailing (motoring as there is hardly any wind in the Baffin Sea) for now, two or three? Because of the 24hour daylight its hard to keep track of time. We have seen some rock but most of it has looked very loose and unclimable! Already we have been passing some huge icebergs, many up to 60m high, that’s a huge volume of ice if you consider that 90% of icebergs sit underwater.


Miles asked me how to use the toilet on the boat. “Oh, you just pump it until its all gone” I said. …”oh ok cool”. Ten minutes later… miles comes out the toilet mopping shit off his forehead (literally everywhere!),. “it just exploded!”  hahaha, oh miles.


      Because of the amount of ice floating around it is essential to have someone on watch at all times. So we would watch in pairs, 2 hours on and 4 hours off and so on an on and on. On the way up to Uumannak we had to pick up some time laps cameras from a mountain, which had been monitoring a Glacier. We also had to do some CTD (Conductivity, Temperature and Depth) measurements at the mouth of a number of different glaciers on the way up the coast.   


      In order to reach the mouth of a glacier to collect cameras, we had to sail through a completely ice chocked fjord. To pass through this, the boat has to just plough through the ice. On occasions if the lumps were so big we would have to rev the engines, and literally push Icebergs out the way to create a passage (with the bow of the boat riding up onto some of the ice). We spent all night just negotiating a couple of kilometres of fjord but finally made it to the end were there was an area of clear water and a spot to anchor. As you can imagine, it felt quite committing as it only takes a slight change in the weather and more ice could be pushed into the fjord and we would be trapped. We downloaded data from one of the time laps cameras and removed the other, then got the hell out of the fjord again. By then the ice had cleared a bit more which sped things up considerably.   


 breaking through ice filled fjords 

Food is very good on the boat, everyone taking their turn at cooking we had a good variety of meals and fresh bread baked every day. The cooker/oven was on a pivot, which made it very easy to cook on when in a swell.


      Another of our objective was to climb an ice burg. Everyone on the boat were keen. The trick was to find one that was stable and good solid ice. Preferably with a ledge on to step onto from the boat and belay from. We found exactly this, although of course you can never tell how stable an iceberg actually is. It must have been touching the bottom of the fjord, as there was a strong current, which was pilling up against the edge, meaning it wasn’t moving with the current. As it was obviously anchored on the bottom we thought it would be more stable and less likely to roll. But unfortunately, because of the current it made it impossible to make a safe drop off and pick up by the boat.


       We spotted another one not far away with a good drop off spot. Miles and I got jumped off onto it and walked about on a level area. I don’t know whether it was the fact that I had just spent the last 5 days on a boat rocking about, but the iceberg definitely felt like it was moving to me. The plan was to walk up the back of a wedge-shaped section of it and set up an anchor on top, abseil down the other side and climb it. But to our horror the section we planned to climb was hideously undercut and very unsafe! Instead we settled for the summit of the iceberg, which gradually got steeper and steeper nearer the top with it almost reaching vertical.  


 miles walking on iceberg

      Miles took the sharp end and lead to the summit and set up a top rope for the rest of us. The Ice felt pretty good all in all, but didn’t make a reassuring sound when you hit it and felt like it could dinner plate in some places. It was great to get everyone climbing, Evan Max, who had never warn crampons or climbed before nailed the summit. Although he did have a wee tumble when walking down the easy slope back to the boat. The thought of sliding into the sea was out of the question, you would not last long!


 climbing an iceberg


 max jumping on the boat for his life

      Everyone in high spirits with the days success, we continued up the coast for the final stretch of the journey to Uumannak.




The Black Velvet Band

 arriving in Uumannak

      After about a week on the boat (who knows how long it was?) we finally arrived in Uumannak. Which we quickly learned means “sharp mountains” in Greenlandic. Uumannak is the biggest town in the area with a couple a thousand inhabitants. This would be Gambo’s Base for the rest of the trip. We sailed around the island on the way into the harbour, Matt and I spotted a line on the mountain which was to be our first climbing objective for the trip.


base camp 


      The line involved about 700m of intense Esoteric climbing. Rock which looked ok from afar turned out to be loose and precarious and other parts which looked to be loose, turned out to be good solid rock. We climbed 5 pitches to a large ledge where we could prepare for the looming overhanging couple of pitches to come. Then we could step round a corner onto an easier angled arête, which lead to the final buttress. This had some of the best quality rock of the route and lead to the summit. Most of the route was E3 with the odd section of E4, with the nature of the rock making it more serious than it needed to be. It was a great first experience of the climbing in the area, definitely and eye opener.   


 Matt having a ball


The Horn


      Finally we were joined by Sam in Uumannak, who has been working for Alan on the ice cap for the past summer.  Next day the boat was to go north to Rink Glacier, on its way up we got dropped at the horn, a very impressive bit of rock! 1700m of perfect granite straight out the sea. Sam and Alan had spotted this last year and was probably the main incentive for organising this expedition to the Uumannak area of Greenland.


 first view of the horn


      We were dropped at 3am at the base, this proved to be quite awkward as the base of the cliff cuts straight into the sea with 45 degree slabs. There was a small area of steep scree and grass, which we chose to get dropped on, in the hope that we would find some sort of a ledge or bit of flat ground to sleep on. After a bit of searching we found a pretty good spot to sleep behind a large boulder. Next morning the cliff was knee deep in clouds so we resorted to trundelling. Eventually, it cleared and by 8pm we were setting off, Me and Matt had chose a nice looking crackline which seemed to run allot of the way up the slabs, and after negotiating some rather large overlaps, we would be positioned perfectly for the steepest section of headwall. Sam and Miles decided to climb 100m to the right of us, on some more featured darker rock, hoping for a speedy ascent and aiming for a notch in the skyline, which would avoid the steep headwall.


 scoping a line


     Our nice looking crackline turned out to be not to keen on taking gear. After a scramble to reach a starting ledge Matt lead the first real pitch, this involved allot of balancy smearing. My lead, I looked up to find the crackline we where following seemed to practically disappear to barely a seam. I Set off, hoping to find some hidden placements, most of the holds where little undercut overlaps with the odd edge to stand on. 15m up, I didn’t have any gear that I would trust dropping my cat onto. Above, the climbing was getting harder, there was no way I was going to carry on without some decent gear and I wouldn’t have liked to try down climbing. Only one option, tag the hand drill! Standing on a tiny rail and no positive holds for my hands I managed to pull the hand drill up. A good half hour later I had precariously managed to secure a bolt. Now all guns blazing I could continue up without having to worry about pulling Matt and his belay off. The nature of the climbing was very much like a gritstone slab, a further 15m and no gear, I met a ledge and a belay. Even with the bolt I would give it E5 6a, if not a touch harder.


Matt seconding E5 pitch 


      The crack now re-opened and allowed us to pass considerably faster. By morning we where almost at the headwall, which seemed to be getting bigger and bigger the closer we got to it. We spotted a crack system, which looked like it would continue to the very top. To get to this, we passed a number of large scree filled girdle ledges and some easy climbing. Now the climbing started giving full body pump rather than just in the calves. Dihedral, corner systems and finger to fist cracks galore. Eventually the crack closed up 100m from the top. A tricky looking traverse looked like it lead to another crack. But by now we had been on the go for 20 hours with barely a 5 minute break and had completely run out of water. We could feel ourselves going delirious, with a long decent ahead of us we thought best to go down before it got too serious. We absailed down the route we came up, placing the odd bolt were there was no gear. 26 hours after we set off, we stumbled back to camp.          


immaculate climbing 



As we were motoring through an ice filled fjord, we were sitting round the dinner table, enjoying good food. Suddenly there is an almighty smash as we collide with a rather large lump of ice. Our hearts in our mouths, Max strolls in from outside, puts the kettle on and starts lifting up the floorboards to check for leaks, and announces, “this is a strong boat! It is better to know that you are sinking.”   


The water fall route


      Gambo was to head back to staw with a remote control boat to scan the front of Lill and Staw glacier. So matt and I had the opportunity to be dropped at the base of the cliff for 5 days. Meanwhile, Sam and Miles stayed on Uumannak to tackle the highest summit.

      We got dropped across from Uumannak on an island called Storin (which we later found out stands for “bird Island” – that’ll explain all the bird shit then). We scoped the line from the boat and found a small ledge, barely a meter deep and 20mm long at the base of the waterfall. So this is where we would spend the next week if we couldn’t find a way up this, which now looked like a “tottering” pile of steapness, before Gambo returns and picks us up.



     We chose to climb a line just left of the waterfall which didn’t appear to be loose. Our main incentive for picking this line tho, was to minimise the amount of water we where to carry. As we estimated about 3 days of climbing, two to ascend and another day to get back down again. But as I found on the first pitch, the climbing was less than ideal, all the holds turned out to be huge hanging flakes which creaked out as you pulled on them. A combination of this and having no footholds made it a very time consuming 100m.




      Concentration levels were high, Matt climbed the second pitch and seemed to think it only took him ten minutes, but infact it took almost two hours! Time is a funny thing when you are shitting it. My pitch would take us onto a ledge, were the waterfall steps back a bit. This consisted of more hanging death flakes and untrustworthy gear. By now the sun was so strong it was expanding my feet and making them excruciatingly painful. As I came over onto the ledge, whimpering in pain I dived into the stream to relieve my feet, and set up a belay slap bang in the middle of it, sitting in the stream.




      Matt was showing signs of being increasingly unimpressed with the nature of the rock. We continued up the waterfall now able to move together as the angle eased. We soon entered into a huge arena of rock with the waterfall at the back and a rainbow half way up. We stopped here to eat our pan full of pasta and sausage we had pre cooked. Soaking up the atmosphere. From here we filled up water bottles up from the waterfall and traversed out left to the top of a large pedestal. With the rock quality deteriorating, I think Matt’s desire to continue was fading pretty fast. But I was determined not to bail so soon as it would mean sitting on that tiny ledge for 4 days, waiting for Gambo! We decided to leave our bags on the pedestal and fix our lines as high as we could that night and retreat back to the pedestal to bivi for the night. 

     Next morning Matt had not changed his mind about wanting to retreat, so I figured it only fair to decend, destined to spend the next 4 days on that tiny cramped ledge watching icebergs float past. I tested the waters and considered swimming back to Uumannak, but only lasted 5 seconds. We wished we had brought kayaks to make an easy get away and even considered paddling an iceberg back.  

      To our surprise we saw a fishingboat traversing round the edge of the cliff in our direction. This was the first time we had seen a boat anywhere near the island. The fisherman must have found it strange to see two lads just chilling on a tiny ledge at the base of a 1000m cliff face, with no way of escape. Unsurprisingly it was heading straight towards us now. – Turns out he had called the police and was wondering what the hell was going on and if we where ok. We assured him that everything was ok and we were simply waiting for a lift from Gambo. He was going to Uumannak anyways, so offered us a lift, which we lapped up! Fantastico!


      Back on Uumannak Sam and Miles were tackling the highest summit in great style, running on a couple of tins of fish for a solid 18hour ascent.




The Broken Toblerone – North West Summit of Uumannak


      Matt and I were both very psyched to get to the top of something now. We decided on attempting the far north west summit of Uumannak. We had spotted from the boat that this pinnacle probably had the best rock on the whole of the island, with only a couple of black bands which cut around the circumference of the pinnacle.

      To enable us to ascend it within 10 hours we ascended a scree gully, which divides our pinnacle with the rest of the mountain. At a point where we met a girdle scree filled ledge, we traversed round onto the west which looked to have the finest quality granite and some impressive looking cracklines. The first pitch of climbing looked deceptively solid, but as I found out we had to pass some pretty treacherous ground. An unprotected slab lead to what appeared to be huge unsupported blocks (one the size of a mini) with no way of passing without completely relying on them. From here the rock quality improved, as did our pase.



Matt lead a nice Rightwards slanting ramp which lead to a decent ledge. Any normal person would make a belay here. But, Matt, no… he looked up and saw a fantastic finger crack which lead into a perfect corner crack and then into an off width. So his thought was (quote) “I better carry on up this so George doesn’t get this pitch.” So he did

      Consequently he fell off whilst pulling up rope to clip a cam, and unfortunately for him the rope was wrapped around his fingers causing excruciating pain, when he fell a good 6m. It just shows, it doesn’t pay to be selfish. His finger started to swell up and unsure if it was broken he gave me the pitch and to my delight the rest of the route as well. I continued leading to the top, passing some fantastic climbing, hardest being around E4 6a. We were the first to reach this summit, so built a victorious cairn.



      To Put the Icing on the cake we only had to absail one pitch off the back of the pinnacle then we could literally run down the scree filled gully on the back side.         




The old man of Saatut


     Eventually the time came for Gambo to leave Uumannak for good. It was sailing further north to give support to a helicopter wanting to visit Peterman Glacier at 82 degrees north.  It had to drop off fuel in the pain basin in a weeks time. On its way out of Uumannak we took advantage and got dropped on a small island with a tiny village called Saatut. Our plan was to pay a fisherman to drop us on another island and pick us up in a weeks time.

      As we approached Saatut island which was barely a Kilometre long, I think all of us were wondering how much of a good idea this really was. The island was completely flat with about 50 houses and a small jetty. We were dropped at about 10pm, By now the nights where becoming a bit darker, it seemed deserted, not a soul in sight, silence.

      Then we were approached by a thin wiry figure of a man, who looked like he had had a hard life. Didn’t speak any English, but seemed to be very inquisitive and followed us as we wandered into the village. We found what must be the village square, a few young kids playing football. Matt and I went to explore and see if we could find somewhere to camp, that took all of 2 minutes. We returned to find a school teacher (Rika) talking to Miles and Sam. He promised to arrange a lift for us to a nearby Island, in exchange for us to do a lecture to the kids in the school about our climbing.

      Looking over to Pattak Island from Saatut, there is a perfect silhouette of a sleeping mans face. When we mentioned we where planning on climbing to the top of its spiky hair there was a flurry of excitement in the village. Kids where coming up to us and pointing over at ‘The Sleeping Mans Face’, touching their hair and doing climbing gestures.



      After becoming friendly with the locals and cooking pancakes, to what felt like the whole village, we were taken across to Pattak Island by a young fisherman (who looked like John Lennon).  We made it to the summit of the sleeping-man’s spikey hair. Up to the last point it was steep walking and some precarious feeling scrambling, on the side a steep ice field and on the other, a 700m sheer drop. The reach the summit, which was a leaning detached pinnacle, we had to balance along a rock ramp and ease our way up the severally undercut tottering spire.



The summit of the sleeping mans hair 

      On our return to Saatut we were treated like hero’s. The locals now where opening up to us much more, constantly being invited into peoples houses for coffee, breakfasts, lunches dinners. We couldn’t sleep as we were on a constant caffeine high.


 Saatut kids

      We did a successful lecture to the school about our climbing exploits in Greenland, and another to the adults of the island. Here someone asked if we would run a climbing workshop for anyone on the island that wanted to try it. Which we agreed to, eager to give a little back to Greenland after it had given us so much. We set up top ropes on a small outcrop of rock and practically took the whole island climbing, from a 3 year-old to fishermen in their 60’s.     

Rika and his family kindly introduced us to all the local delicacies, Matak (raw narwhale skin), fried Seal, trout and boiled whale. All far tastier than you would imagine!





Our time was coming to an end in Greenland and Gambo was back from its mission at Peterman  and preparing for its Atlantic crossing back to the UK. Miles and I both had to be back in the UK, but Matt, 5 minutes before we hopped on the helicopter decided to jump off and help sail Gambo back to Scotland.  

Read more blog entries by George Ullrich

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