Mountaineering in Greenland - Summer 2001

Because of the attraction of the wild frozen North, we decide to return to Greenland. Terrible desert of ice (the Inlandsis), the Greenland center is basin shaped. The ground, which is weighed down by 3,000 m of ice, has an altitude of nearly zero. Edges rise in gigantic massifs 1,000 to 3,700 m high, cut by unrivalled beauty fjords stretching over 300 Km, with a mild microclimate (in summer). A difficult access, enormous crevasses, and unstable snow protect summits, often unclimbed. The involvement is complete, far from any outside help.

We opt for Wegener peninsula, West coast, 71°N. Hard massif westward, easier in the center. Alfred Wegener, father of continental drifts, whose work was not taken seriously, died in 1930 on the Inlandsis while returning from an expedition to his Eismitte resort. Documents : map 1/250,000 ; expedition report Airoldi 1966 (Mario Fantin, Mountain Di Groenlandia);
That's all !

Boarding in Paris on the 20th of July at 5 p.m., we leave Ilulissat airport at 11 p.m. the same day. We camp at halfway town. The sun illuminates the icebergs. The country has evolved a lot since Paul Emile Victor. Ilulissat has now 4,000 residents, mainly fishermen (fish, shrimps).
The 22nd of July, we hike on the desert massif in the north, dominating the Isfjord glacier: width: 5 Km, progress: 30m/day, flow: 70 millions tons/day. Monstrous icebergs in Disko's Bay.

Boarding on a liner the 25th of July at 8 am. The boat tack paths between icebergs during 1 hour. After the Vaigat straits, we skirt the Nugssuaq mountains. Slowed down by an iceberg which blocks the port, the ship lands us at 11 p.m. Uummannaq town sits on a rocky island of 12 square Km, dominated by a peak of rose gneiss (1,175 m). 2,500 inhabitants, 5,000 dogs. Living here, Jean-Michel Huctin has found for us three undecked motor boats to reach Wegener 65 Km far from Uummannaq. Strange sensation to fly on the waves at 50 Km/hr, among ice. Illuminated domes by the midnight sun, cliffs 1,000 m high. Arrived frozen, we pitched tents at 3 am. Beautiful desert site, private beach, fresh water, fishing places ... and whales!
We have 20 days of autonomy.

On July 26th, survey; The glacier has lost 300 m of altitude, exposing an ugly rocky wall.
On July 27th, climb with equipment to the camp 2, which will be installed the next day.
On July 29th, ascent of the 1,560 m. Dangerous blocks in South face. Exceptional view.
On the 31st, snowy North Face of the 1,833 m. We stop at 1,600 m, the snow is too dangerous on terminal slopes. However, very nice climb.
On August 1st, hard transfer of 12 km to the West massif. Exhausting ground, strewn with blocks. In compensation, camp 3, placed within 200 m of the North fjord, facing the Qioqe peninsula.

The next day, long survey of the glacial cirque; surprising site, cliffs 1,000 m high, surmounted by sharp gneiss broken by the freeze. Shaky columns, ruined towers, castles, inhabited by Greenlander demons, the Tupideks.
During the days of storm, they hunt the lost climbers by their howls of damned souls. We are relieved: the weather is nice.

With two roped parties of four, we attempt on the 3rd of August the West glacier: an impressive wall of ice blocks is the only access. Alain, headline, finds a crossing in Z : steady slope, tacking on crevasses. The second tacking, vertiginous, justifies an ice-spit installation. The superior glacier, frosted, easy, leads to the pass at 1,300 m. Suddenly, my line stops brutally; I have lost sight of François but can only see his cap. He has fallen into an invisible crevasse! We apply the rescue plan; my line traps him; the other roped party returns and maneuvres to draw him out.
At the pass, a very moving discovery: two scaling corners in poplar and three bottles of gas, probably left by Airodi in 1966. We reach the peak of the 1,727. The summit tower is too dangerous. The sun turns northerly. It illuminates a fantastic landscape, in the dazzling light of the far North. South, the 1,922 m (still virgin?). West, the ocean, its icebergs, the Upernivik polar mountains. East, the Inlandsis. Return to the camp at 3.30 am (18 hours of climbing !)

Back to the camp 2, we install camp 4 on ice under the 1,740, at 1,000 m high.
The next day, interminable climb of 1,610. Alain traces. The meek slope conceals fat crevasses. We will creep across the last and worse one.
Lunch on a rocky islet dominating the fantastic North face and the Kangerdluarssup glacier, terribly cracked. It's my turn to lead the trace; snow is mushy. My 60 Kg and I go by, but the followers fall through too often. Finally we arrived at 1,610 (in fact more than 1,700), the panorama defies all description. High mountains on West, and immense ocean of ice on East (the Inlandsis is not farther than 10 Km). The sun, low, does not lie down. Impression to be on an unknown and hostile planet.

Return on the 13th. We wait in vain all day long at camp 1. Will we have to set-off our Sarsat beacon? Our boats finally come. The Inuit have shifted a motor and shot a seal! It is cut up on the beach. A piece is cooked on drift wood fire, and is devoured at once. We embark, losing all notion of the time. The fjord is foggy and frosty. Halfway, brutal change of direction: we run full gas hunting a group of whales. Photographs (difficult! ). At last to Uummannaq, we will have on the 14th a feast of halibut and of whale too at Jean-Michel's. Back to Ilulissat in the " night " on the 15th of August.

We have our plane on the 20th. Taking advantage of the stop at Kangerlussuaq (ex nuclear base of Sondre Sromfjord), we explore the tundra. The winter comes back. Snow at 600 m, temperature +6°C, but abundant blueberries. Musk oxen on the other bank of the river. Then Marc and Christine come face to face with a mother and her child at rest. The animals, impressive so near, are kind enough not to charge. Prudent retreat. Meeting those prehistoric animals is a memorable highlight of the expedition. Reminiscence of our hunting forbears?

On the plane for Copenhagen, this is our first true night for a month. And a strange shimmer very far north, the Midnight sun.

Pierre Chanel, CAF de Villefranche /S, Pommiers, October 2001.

Translated by Alain Dutrevis, October 2002.

Note: in order to answer to a usual question, climatic conditions in these concerned massifs are similar to those in the Alps, 2,000 m higher. The smallest 1,500 m peak looks like a 3,500 m, or even a 4,000 m in France. Brutal weather variations are possible. Climate milder in the south, but frequent storms and rain. In autumn, things go bad; in winter, the temperature goes down well under - 25°C on the coast, and -40°C, inland.