Climbing the highest mountain in the Arctic
Recently we've been in talks with clients about some very exciting projects they would like to work on over the next year or so. This got us thinking about personal projects we have taken on in the past, and challenges we would like to do in the future.
Here's Part 1 of the story of our Greenland Expedition - May 2014
After several months of planning and training, the time had come to start our adventure to Greenland. The plan was ambitious; to climb the highest peaks in the Arctic, and make an ascent of a previously unclimbed mountain.
It was hard to imagine the polar climate of the Arctic as we packed our kit bags in our home in Dubai. The temptation to be dismissive of just how cold it might get was something we were very mindful of as we shuffled down jackets and heavy duty mittens into various piles on the floor of our spare room. Finally though, it was time to start our long journey, and it was with some relief that the day had finally come to leave Dubai and start heading North. We flew via the UK where we saw friends and family, who seemed a little concerned for us! We repacked, shaving more weight off our kit and leaving behind all of our luxuries. With just one ski bag and one kitbag between us, we flew to Iceland, and then onwards to the Northern tip of the country, from where we'd fly in a small ski equipped plane to Greenland.
We sat at a round table in the tiny domestic airport, killing time before our pilots and private aircraft was ready. Our first sector was from Akureyri (Iceland) to a small gravel landing strip on the coast on Greenland, called Constable Point. We heard there was freezing fog at Constable Point, which delayed our departure by six long hours. We eventually flew to Greenland, high above the icebergs and frozen ocean. By the time we landed, our pilots didn't have enough duty hours remaining to take us on to the glacier, a further two hours flight inland. So we spent the night in a bunkhouse, getting twitchy and ever more eager to finally touch the snow and get started!
The next morning we took off, just Laura and I in the back of our plane, and flew over hundreds of miles of pristine Arctic wilderness. It was shades of white, blue and black, with peaks jutting out of the icecap. It was visually stunning but the sense of commitment became ever greater as we realised we were getting further and further away from civilisation and medical help. If anything went wrong , we knew we had no margin for error. Our guide, Simon, was waiting at Base Camp, a cluster of 3 tents on an otherwise blank canvas of glacier. He'd been escorting a small team the week before and was staying on to lead our trip. The plane then took off, leaving just the three of us, feeling very insignificant against such a vast backdrop.
We had lunch and a full briefing on all of our emergency kit: satellite phones, beacons, flares. We also discussed polar bear safety and procedures. We slept with a rifle in each tent and prayed we wouldn't see a bear. We hoped we were far enough inland that none would be passing, and we certainly never wanted to be in the situation where we'd have to shoot one of the beautiful animals. Fortunately, we didn't see so much as a trace of any wildlife for the whole trip! That afternoon, we fitted skins to our skis; thin mohair sheets which grip the snow. We'd be walking everywhere on skis, as it spreads the weight and enables easier passage over very deep snow. We also adjusted our pulks, the large plastic sleds which we dragged behind us containing all of our food and kit.
The next day we started a long ski tour to a high camp on Gunnbjornsfjeld, the highest mountain in the Arctic. We thought we'd climb this mountain first, and as it was Rhys's birthday we felt particularly excited about it. We loaded our pulks and walked towards the horizon, aiming to turn at the base of a ridge line, and then ski up steeper slopes to a small flat area where we'd pitch our tent. We planned to travel light, taking just two nights of food, as we'd summit the mountain the next day, sleep, and then return to Base Camp the following day. Our pulks felt like they were full of lead. Rhys said that hauling it up to high camp was one of the hardest days of his life (even compared to climbing Mt Everest). It was sheer physical effort, for hours on end and mile after mile. We finally reached camp after 9 hours, exhausted. We melted snow to make boiling water for our freeze dried meals, and collapsed into our sleeping bags.
We woke up after a long and cold night of perpetual daylight. The tent was shaking in the wind as we got dressed for the climb. We set off from camp and each had to stop to put on our spare layers of clothing. Extra jackets, thicker gloves, balaclavas. We just couldn't stay warm. It was around -30c and the wind was increasing. We decided that the only sensible decision was to retreat to our tent and wait for the wind to die down. We would certainly have got frostbite in those conditions, so we hunkered down in the tent for the afternoon. We were secretly glad of the extra rest, still feeling drained from the previous day. That evening the wind picked up even more, shaking the tent violently. It continued to do so for the next 2 days, with no respite. The 3 of us were sharing one small tent so there was no privacy. We also ran out of freeze dried meals, not planning to stay so long at the camp. Instead we ate soup and the rations we'd singled out as being our lest favourite; tinned sardines, mushroom paste, and it was becoming tiresome.
On the fourth morning the wind was dying down, so we decided to make an attempt on the summit, else we'd have to return all the way to Base Camp, and then ski all the way back up again to have a second attempt. It had been a long few days cooped up in the tent, and we were pleased to be outside and moving again. That said, we were tired and hand't been eating well, so the thought of a long summit day was hard to take on with the usual amount of enthusiasm! We were just pleased that the weather was improving and we had a shot at the summit...