Encounters with humpbacks, fishing for Arctic char, negotiating iceberg-strewn fjords and new routing on Greenland's Lemon range. In this blog Gerry Galligan, author of Climbing Ramabang, shares the story of an unforgettable journey that he made to East Greenland in the summer of 2015.
As a youth I hitch-hiked around a lot, but the best lift I ever got was the one going to Greenland last summer. Sailor Paddy Barry and his regular crew were planning a sailing-climbing trip to Iceland, East Greenland, then back to Iceland again on his boat Ar Seachrán. There was one free space aboard. Several years ago I tried to organise a climbing trip to Greenland but the high cost and difficulty of getting aircraft and insurance were prohibitive. Now here was another chance – this was a boat I wasn’t going to miss.
Paddy’s trip was part of a wider journey of island-hopping from Ireland to Greenland and back by way of the Hebrides, Faroes and Iceland; re-tracing the likely voyages Irish monks such as St. Brendan made, centuries ago. This overall project was given a name, The North Atlantic Crescent Adventure 2015; our scope, one leg of it, was to sail to Greenland, attempt some climbs, ideally first ascents, of the coastal peaks of the Lemon mountain range, before sailing 240 miles down the coast to the village of Tasiilaq. The seven of us were skipper Paddy, blacksmith and rifle-man Ronán Ó Caoimh, myself, and four old IMC hands: Frank Nugent, Harry Connolly, Peter Gargan and Paddy O’Brien.
On 26 July we assembled at Isafjordur on the northwest tip of Iceland. We learned the weather forecast was good but sea ice conditions all along the East Greenland coast weren’t. Nonetheless with a boat full of equipment and provisions we motored out of Isafjordur at midday, under blue skies and calm winds. We passed fishing boats long-lining for cod, flocks of seabirds – guillemots, fulmars and puffins, escorting dolphins – and a minke whale on patrol. The sailing watch system kicked in – two men on deck for three-hour stints, one at the wheel, the other on look-out. Then six or nine hours off, depending on roster. A rota for cooking and cleaning duties followed. Slowly Iceland receded, as day drew toward evening and then night, but never at any time did it get dark. The Land of the Midnight Sun.
The Denmark Strait separates Greenland and Iceland by 200 nautical miles. The currents alternate, with warm water flowing northeast past Iceland off-set midway by a cold polar current tracking south along Greenland. The switch is sudden. We noticed the water temperature falling sharply from 8.5°C to 4.5°C within an hour.
Enduring the cold on deck, particularly through the night before dawn can be difficult. And for mountaineers used to hours of steady movement and activity in order to keep warm, having to accept cold and monotonous boredom is especially hard. Peter Gargan and I were feeling this way on watch, 7 a.m. the second morning. The grey mist, poor visibility, light rain and swell merely dampened the mood further. But all that changed in an instant. Sixty metres off the port stern we spotted a water spout – a vertical spray of water and air. Moments later another spout. Then the black, arched back of a large humpback, surfacing. Just one breach and then he was gone.
‘He’s a big-fella!’ exclaimed Peter. He was big alright. Fifty-feet long we reckoned, bigger than our boat.
As the day wore on the sea grew calm. We were to find this calmness to be common, with the warm tropical air masses further south having little effect in these higher, cooler latitudes. Through the mist later in the evening we came to the first of the ice. Small pieces initially – flotsam. And we overtook two terns resting on a log; probably driftwood originating in Siberia, and over seasons having floated past the Pole and now drifting south. A reminder of the interconnected nature of our entire planet.
The ‘bergs became bigger and more plentiful. Blue ice, green ice, dirty ice, brash ice and surreal-shaped growlers. Some pieces the size of office blocks, and all of it the leavings of Greenland’s glaciers. None appeared to be the product of salt water. Although we couldn’t yet see it because of the mist, we sensed the coast very close up ahead. Then another surreal sight – the optical effect of a white, arched cloud, similar to a rainbow, a perfect semi-circle rising from the water and retreating on our starboard side. ‘Ah, The North Atlantic Crescent, lads.’
We continued, weaving through the channels of brash, and soon the mist lifted to reveal an assortment of impressive peaks right in front of us; steep faces, bare ridges, talus slopes and technical buttresses stretching for miles up and down the coast – a mountaineer’s paradise. There was only one problem … getting at them. Slowly we motored into a wide fjord named after the Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen. The brash grew in abundance and the channels got tighter. It didn’t take long to get accustomed to the sound of brash scraping off the aluminium hull. The small stuff Ar Seachráncould handle, thuds from the big stuff were another matter. Everyone was on edge. There was no room for complacency; one wrong turn, a delayed or mistimed decision could spell disaster. ‘I hope the tub’s insured, Paddy.’ Up the fjord we went, one man at the bow, another at the wheel and seven sets of eyes on look-out. A tense atmosphere in an eerie, magnificent place.
Families of taciturn seals dived for cover as we approached them. And then another surprise – a polar bear sunbathing on his back, on a floe less than 100 metres away from us. The sound of our voices and the engine must have woken him. He rolled over, got up, shook himself and looked at us with all the alacrity of an overweight labrador lying on a doormat. ‘Look at that lot. A smelly bunch too and not one seal among them. No thanks.’
We moved on, deeper into the fjord until the ice was so thick any further progress was impossible. Moreover any shift in wind or current could trap us. The boss turned the boat around and we meandered tentatively back out to sea.
Free from the anxiety of ice, we slept like logs that night. The next morning was a clear blue, perfect day. The sea was calm and the air still. Scores of jagged peaks, none much higher than 1200 metres, braided with glaciers, filled the coast. The Lemon range. We felt like the first explorers of this place. But we wouldn’t be exploring anything if we didn’t make landfall. This time we aimed for the Mikis and Kangerdlugssuaq fjords, forty miles west of Nansen. But again the ice repelled us. Small chunks giving way to large, denser stuff the closer we made for the coast, with the gaps between narrowing exponentially. Speed was reduced to a crawl. Five miles out we stopped and the boss strapped into the bosun’s chair and was winched up to the stays on the mast. Spying through binoculars he declared access to the fjords impossible. This wasn’t in the plan.
What next? What next indeed. But then another stroke of luck. The only other vessel within 100 miles, a French schooner, La V’limeuse, just happened to be passing by. She was heading south, saw our mast and out of curiosity, drew up a mile away. Radio contact was made. The French had managed to access nearby Jacobsen Fjord, where they found anchorage, got ashore and spent a few days. Hence they recommended it. Months earlier while planning, Paddy and I looked at this fjord on the map but we never gave it serious consideration, assuming deposits from the glacier at its head would be too problematic. But fortunately we were wrong, as the French proved, and as we were about to find out. Merci, La V’limeuse.
The fjord was a gem. We spent five days there, anchoring Ar Seachrán at its head, and using it as a base camp for daily excursions. It was remarkably free of ice. The dingy was used to get us ashore each day; different parties setting out on the hills, while others remained on-board doing maintenance activities – sewing the fore-sail, fixing the steering mechanism – plus the usual cooking, baking, cleaning and fishing, or simply resting. Fishing wasn’t all that successful. Several lines were over the side at any time but we only managed to catch one fish, a three-pound Arctic char.
The hill days we spent trekking up nearby peaks of granite and poor basalt-type rock. We scrambled up and down ridges and took in the fine alpine scenery. From the summits we looked across neighbouring fjords and glaciers. And then a superb mountaineering day out. From the boat we had studied a chain of peaks running southeast to northwest on the northwest side of the fjord. A sizeable glacier covered their northern side, appearing to stretch to the crest at a couple of points offering possibilities for ascent. But there was only one way to verify this.
Early on Sunday 2 August, four of us set out – Frank, Harry, Paddy O’Brien and myself. We hopped into the dinghy and were ferried to the shore. The weather was settled and clear. We started centrally up the snout of the glacier, stepping through debris and runnels, to get to the ice proper. Progress was straightforward. We roped up and traversed rightwards on the glacial system, avoiding the crevasses where possible, and below a rocky headwall. The snow quality was moderate. At the end of the headwall we found a long, snow-filled gully, with an icecap to its left above it. The gully was enticing and after a short debate about the risk of serac fall from above, we decided to give it a go. Up we went, zig-zagging as normal. As it turned out, this gully was sweet; about 250-metres long, dead straight and fifty-three degrees at most. Scottish Grade II, we reckoned. Overcoming a steep section at the top, we found ourselves on the chain’s crest, where we continued, southeastward up snow slopes to reach a short rocky section where we stopped for lunch. The wind-chill made us cold but the short rest and sustenance fortified the body and spirit.
With Harry in the lead we moved steadily up, zig-zagging as needed and changing direction in a gradual arc northwards to gain a snow and rock plateau at the base of a snow dome – one of the peaks of the chain. Two rocky peaks stood a distance away, either side of the dome. We wondered which way to go next? Cloud came down at this point obscuring our view. Given the rocky peaks were a sizeable time and distance away, we agreed to aim for the dome.
Onward we went, ascending the dome’s narrowing spine, which formed a cone, with steep run-outs down either side. Soon we were at the top. As the cloud lifted we enjoyed views of summits and valleys for miles in all directions. Although chuffed, we weren’t hanging around … there’s only so long a man can stand on a knife-edge ridge. Delicately we turned around and carefully re-traced our steps to the plateau. Our spirits were high. We had explored a fine route (later researched and established as a first ascent) in good weather and company, in an Arctic wonderland. And the view all the way down, across the fjord, to the boat and beyond to the countless peaks, was sublime.
Through binoculars, the boys on the boat had been watching our movements. Ronán was waiting in the dinghy as we got to the shore, and in no time we were back in the comfort of the boat. What a day – from sea to summit and back, this was exploration at its very best.
Route & Peak summary
Location: Jacobsen Fjord, East GreenlanD
Peak coordinates: N 68° 10' 8'' W 31° 9' 32''
Peak height: 1092m
Route: North East glacier and gully
Date of First Ascent: 2 August 2015
First Ascensionists: Harry Connolly, Frank Nugent, Paddy O’Brien, Gerry Galligan
Distance covered (boat to boat): 12.8 km
Duration: 7.5 hours
Gerry is the author of Climbing Ramabang, an account of his climbing explorations in the Himalaya and his overland journey home. Enter code SEACHRAN at checkout for 20% off Climbing Ramabang. Offer ends 29 February.