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Book of the month: Exploring Greenland

Friday, 1 December 2017

A windy day for skiing on the Champs-Elysées Glacier. Photo: Jim Gregson.

With over 100 beautiful colour photographs and an evocative narrative that perfectly captures the Arctic wilderness, Jim Gregson’s Exploring Greenland – our December Book of the Month – is all the inspiration you need for a winter adventure. Calling upon twenty years of mountaineering in the North Pole, Jim shows us just what we’d be missing if global warming continues unabated. His message is one of conservation: if places like these are lost, it will not only be native wildlife that suffers but also the world over. In this extract, Jim joins an expedition to the Champs-Elysées Glacier in East Greenland. 

Although we had now reached the mountains, the weather was still somewhat unfavourable so we endured another day of immobility before we could ski and pulk our gear eastwards up the Champs-Elysées Glacier to establish a proper base camp in a better setting. The other groups also devised their own plans and the next day we dispersed, each party self-absorbed in its own move. For us this was not without some problems due to crevasses: even on skis we punched some frightening holes through very fragile snowbridges revealing unwelcome views into glacial innards. At last we won out onto more reassuring safer ground with some metres of snow cover and we pressed on along the glacier. Several hours later we stopped in rather gloomy light and pitched tents to make camp in wind and falling snow. For the ten of us there was a night of blizzard and blow, testing us for a while longer. Our Arctic first-timers were more tried by this than those of us who’d already experienced the wonderland of these northern mountains. When the long overdue sun came out, the surrounding peaks were heavily mantled in new snow but it was obvious that rich pickings lay there for the taking if the weather settled. A day of skiing was a more than welcome return to activity and we gained a number of minor summits allowing us to scope the lie of the land and size up other mountains we might try when the risk of avalanche receded somewhat. 

The time of our good fortune having arrived, we sought to make the most of our chances, even accepting with some equanimity the night-times of bitter coldness when temperatures fell to minus 24 degrees Celsius. Dividing into two parties we climbed a double-topped mountain we dubbed the Sphinx, exchanging positions on the head and tail-end summits. The following day produced a very good ascent up the South Ridge of Tangent Peak, its 2,420 metre top formed by a tenuous rock pinnacle with very limited space at its apex. The splendour of the outlook from here soon banished from our minds all the irritations of our recent days of delay. 

Across from the camp stood a mountain with a series of prominent rocky towers strung along its crest. Drawn by the prospect of interesting climbing we skied over there the next morning, finding access to the ridge by means of a concealed couloir. By traversing the linking arêtes we could get to the pinnacles, enjoying the exposure. Faced with a deep notch we stared at the final tower before some delicate moves took us up to an impressive prow of rock at the highest point. Feeling very pleased with this success we lingered for a while before seeking a way down avoiding loose rock. Other objectives lay at hand and various partnerships formed to suit preferences. Lying east of the camp, a high peak with a very acute West Ridge appealed to me. I had seen this mountain from afar during my 1994 expedition but it had eluded me then. Now, from close to, it enticed but promised not to be a pushover. Rod, a widely experienced mountaineer offered to team up with me for an attempt. Accordingly, taking advantage of some of the colder hours, we left base at 2:00 am, skiing up to a step at the foot of the ridge. 

We worked up through deep snow towards crevasses cutting the crest. The first of these yielded easily to Rod who led on to the second, more of a puzzle in the form of a double fissure. On the left we eventually found a band of hard, solid ice affording safe anchorage on firm ice screws. The upper wall of the bergschrund bulged over a bridge which might allow a traverse towards the corniced edge out on the right. After a fragile start the snowbridge firmed up and I could make exposed progress out to the edge where it was difficult to know how the cornice remained attached to the mountain. Moves up and left led on through very unconsolidated snow where lengthy excavation produced a not totally reassuring belay and stance. Rod followed up and led through and we gained height up the convex ridgeline just left of the cornice with very little in the way of protection until we reached wind-packed snow which offered some degree of security. So it went on, in a finely sculpted position and later we felt comfortable enough to resume moving together, and with huge grins we came along a very acute arête after a satisfying climb. Earlier on we had seen our friends leaving camp for their own chosen peaks and we knew they would have observed us treading our line into the sky. We agreed on naming our mountain the Parrotspitze and our route the Parrot’s Beak Arête, in memory of the hooked overhanging serac it had borne three years before. In deference to the snow conditions we decided to seek out a different line for our descent and after traversing for some distance eastwards along the summit ridge we began to climb down a series of ramps on the South Face of the mountain. These led us down into a big couloir where avalanches had swept snow across a large bergschrund. The sun-softened slopes called for a careful progress, and we kept to the couloir edge to try to make use of surer rock anchors. In time we reached the glacier where in rather enervating heat we began to plod the weary kilometres back towards our skis. This was proving to be quite tiring work when unexpectedly one of our friends hove into view. With great generosity he had retrieved our skis and selflessly now delivered them to us, thus in great gratitude we were able to glide back to base with considerable economy of effort. 

While the weather held we went on another day over a glacier shelf to the south to reach two mountains we’d noticed from the Parrotspitze, lying in a sidebay. In climbing these two, Hidden Peak and Well-hidden Peak, we enjoyed moving above enormous drops from ridge rims falling away into the Pourquoi-pas Glacier, taking time to sit on summits to gaze at the ranks of mountains ringing the horizons and enjoying the privilege of being out there. At moments like this it felt good to savour the profound silence of our surroundings, underlining our own smallness in these wide tracts of wildness. 

Now we were running out of time but still some of the group members found energy to ski away for more climbs. In the last days the other parties converged on our base camp as the rendezvous agreed for pick-up and we enjoyed hearing about their various adventures. Unlike the dispiriting days at the beginning, there were no problems with the ski-plane flights and we were lifted away in batches for a final summit-hopping ride back to the coastal greenery of Kulusuk, feeling that we’d made the most of our period of reprieve and seized our chances when the time came. A few days of transition at Kulusuk and relaxation back in Iceland rounded out our trip and although we were looking forward to reaching home, there in our minds was the hope for another return to these tempting and rewarding Arctic expanses. 

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