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Brits post new big wall routes in Greenland

Posted: Oct 09, 2013 03:41 pm EDT


By Markian Hawryluk

Big wall climbing above the Arctic Circle has its own unique challenges, not the least of which is getting there. In August, a team of young climbers from the Oxford University Mountaineering Club partnered with two experienced sailors to mount an expedition to West Greenland. The climbers, Tom Codrington, Jacob Cook, Ian Faulkner and Pete Hill. completed five major new routes, including two on the massive Horn of Upernivik, which had repelled at least three previous attempts.


The goal of the expedition was to set new routes on previously unsurmounted rock faces high above the Arctic Circle. After nine weeks and 2,500 nautical miles, and three frist ascents of previously unknown cliffs rising more than 800 meters out of the sea, the team have arrived home safely and far exceeded their objectives.


None of the major routes was climbed in fewer than 20 hours, and one took a full 42 hours of continuous climbing, making use of the 24 hour per day sunlight.


The team's site describes swimming among the icebergs, catching falling rocks on various body parts, standing where no one has stood before, throwing up into balaclavas and washing them clean again, sleeping on tiny ledges hundreds of meters above the sea, hitch-hiking with seal-hunters, and big falls onto terrible gear. ExplorersWeb caught up with climber Tom Condrington after his return.


You sailed to your climbing destination. Did you have to learn to sail or where you mostly just passengers on the journey?


Peter and I sailed all the way from Montreal and learned to sail on the way. We'd both spent a few days in dinghies before, plus a weekend on the South Coast as training, but we were in one-person watches from day one, 3 hours on, 3 hours off - definitely not a passenger! 


By the time we got to Greenland we both had enough miles under our belts to qualify as Offshore Yachtmasters. Our skipper, Clive, and partner, Angela, knew what they were doing from back to front, and were on hand throughout to avoid us crashing into rocks or getting run down by oil tankers or shredding the sails.


You sailed through some very rough weather, and had few sleeping births, limiting sleep time to 4 hours at a time. Did you feel like the sea journey affected your ability to climb once you arrived?


We thought the journey would put a serious crimp on our climbing - we found some cliffs at a couple of ports on the Canadian side to keep our eye in, but by the time we got to our first objective we hadn't been on rock for weeks. 


The tiredness you can more or less sleep off - at least, we weren't at too much of a disadvantage compared to the other two climbers who flew into Greenland, because the 24-hour daylight messes with your sleep patterns anyway. We'd both lost a lot of weight from never having any appetite on the boat, but that was an advantage as well as a disadvantage! 


In the end, on our first objective we left the other two with the big project because we thought we'd be out of shape and went for what we thought would be a gentle wander for a few pitches up a connected face followed by an abseil descent. 42 hours later Peter and I had bagged the second ascent of the peak somehow, beating the other guys to it! (ok, their route was E6 and ours was E2, but still...)


It seems like you climbed a lot of wet rock. Is this usual for Greenland or just a spate of wet weather?


We were actually very lucky with the weather. The polar high, when it sets in, means clear blue skies non-stop for about a week. A couple of our climbs happened right at the end of these periods, so got a bit wet.


What is the climbing like in Greenland? Can you compare the big walls there to other places you've climbed?


The climbing in Uummannaq is a tad on the loose side, though not so bad if you know where to look. The main problem is that you can't really tell what's loose or not from a distance. There are no easy rules of thumb or colours to look out for, so you need to be a bit brazen sometimes. 


The walls are very, very remote and there's practically nothing by way of rescue or fellow climbers around. The faces also tend to be off-vertical and freeable alpine style if you're prepared to go for it. Overall, the complete opposite to Yosemite in everything but the rock type and the size of the faces. A bit like the Karavshin (Kyrgyzstan) in terms of rock, I suppose. 


Usually, climbing big walls or big mountains means great mountain scenery. How is climbing with ocean views all around?


Climbing with ocean views all around, speckled with icebergs and perpetual sunlight, is absolutely glorious. We'd watch pods of dolphins travel through fjords, or whales playing underneath icebergs. Then you'd get a 4 hour sunset before the sun rises back up again. 


What was the highlight of the trip?


Highlight of the trip, for me, was Ivnarssuaq Great Wall and "The Incredible Orange". A vast, ridiculously steep and completely unknown cliff falling straight into the sea, which no one had climbed before, is quite hard to beat. 


Add to that that almost every single pitch on our 3-day ascent was right at our physical limit and it's by far the coolest thing I've ever done. I suppose the best moment from that was the very last hard pitch, a jumble of overhanging blocks leading to a capping roof. We were genuinely considering backing off and abseiling 800m to the sea when the boat turned up, Clive spotted us in his binoculars and told us on the radio that we were almost there. Two hours later we were on the top.


What's next? Any other big walls or ocean journeys on your radar?


Don't know. We've all got the bug now, so there'll have to be something. I hear there's some good stuff in Madagascar, or the very far north of Norway. I might steer clear of ocean voyages for now though, sounds a bit like hard work.


#oxford #bigwall #mountaineering #greenlandbigwall




Ian Faulkner on the first ascent of Cosmic Rave on the Horn of Upernivik in Greenland.
courtesy Oxford Greenland Expedition, SOURCE
Peter Hill descending the ridge of Umanatsiaq Mountain in the midnight sun after the first ascent of Flake or Death
courtesy Oxford Greenland Expedition, SOURCE
Tom Codrington assists the mooring of Cosmic Dancer with a couple of cams.
courtesy Oxford Greenland Expedition, SOURCE