Mike Libecki offers his report on a trip to a massive wall in an extremely remote part of Greenland. If you like icebergs, long boat trips, and solo big-wall climbing, read on! Mike was a Lyman Spitzer Award winner in 2002, which allowed this expedition. Check our Grants page for more info!
Fantasizing is one of my favorite pastimes. The beauty of fantasizing is that you can do it, anytime, anyplace, about anything. You can fantasize about battling sinister, fire-breathing dragons, rescuing sweet, voluptuous maidens from dark and damp, dragon-guarded dungeons, or about the possible, quite pleasurable reward given by the beautiful, virgin maiden for performing such a dangerous and heroic rescue. In the last several years, though, I have found new favorite fantasies, usually about seeking out tall, luscious, virgin big walls, then climbing them, completely alone, for weeks at a time. And what could be better than actually making such a fantasy real? Isn’t that one reasons that God put us on this planet, to make our deepest fantasies come true? I like to think so. After all, since were all going to die anyway, why not live this life in the most amazing way we can? Everyday I remind myself that this is not only just life, but the chance to choose the highest quality of life. My Grandmother taught me that. And thanks to Grandma’s advice, another fantasy of mine came true this year.
When I received the package (with smile gleaming) postmarked Greenland, I knew what it contained. My friend Hans Christian, a surgeon in eastern Greenland, had sent me rare Danish military photos of Greenland’s East Coast taken from an airplane flying at 30,000 feet. When I was in Greenland last year, I inquired about the possibility of finding such photos. I wanted to find never-before-seen, world-class big walls to climb. Since Greenland is governed by Denmark and Hans Christian is a doctor for much of the Danish military in eastern Greenland, the photos turned out to be rather easy to acquire. These photos would change my life.
At a nearby hobby shop I found the perfect five-inch-diameter magnifying glass to start the fantasy research. With photos covering my furnitureless living room floor like a lush growth of lily pads in a pond, I hunched over the photos like Sherlock Holmes hot on the trail of an evildoer. I focused intently on every detail searching for clues that would lead me to the secret, virgin big walls. Several eye-straining hours later I had pinpointed four small areas on the map, each about the size of a dime, that appeared to be families of steep, massive, granite walls. These areas were 250 miles apart from one another, spread out along Greenland’s majestic eastern coast. The miniscule, jagged-edged shadows around the saw-toothed snowy peaks suggested that the walls were quite steep, perhaps vertical, but it was not for certain. These shadows could be the clues to the ultimate walls I was looking for. “My dear Watson, I think I’ve got it!” [I was reminded that Holmes last case was in the high Alps of the Bernese Oberland (in The Adventure of the Final Problem).] Further research concluded that these areas were very remote, possibly untrodden except by the local Greenlandic Inuit people and early Viking explorers.
One of the four areas became an objective for my Year of the Horse Expeditions/2002. As usual, the next thing I knew I was dragging seven huge 69.5-lb. haul bags (an overweight fee is added for bags over 70 lbs.) into the airport. As I often have done, I decided to go alone on a grand expedition. Alone on my horse in full armor to battle the fierce and evil dragon. Alone to rescue the sweet maiden from the dragon’s dark dungeons. Alone to seek out ultimate adventure on possibly one of the greatest expeditions of my life.
My horse reared back high and proud into the air, his whinny roaring into the night like a freight trains whistle trumpeting fathomless courage and irresistible victory, dust exploded off the earth from his thundering hooves as we sped into night under the eerie, yellow moon. Uh, well, actually, I tucked my airplane pillow under the back of my head, pulled up my little blue airplane blanket, opened my new Stephen King book, and sipped tomato juice with lemon. The airplane rose off the tarmac at sunset. We headed east toward the dragon’s lair hidden somewhere amongst the huge walls on the eastern coast of Greenland.
After several unexpected, bad-weather days in Iceland, the wind and rain stopped long enough to allow my plane to continue its journey to Kulusuk, Greenland. From there a helicopter shipped me fifty miles to Tasiilaq, a small town populated mostly by Greenlandic Inuit, Greenlandic Huskies (there are almost as many sled dogs as humans), and a handful of Danes. Tasiilaq was the nearest town to my final destination. I hoped to find someone with an arctic-worthy fishing boat to take me over 300 miles through ice-laden seas. After talking with several of the locals, my hopes were short-circuited. I was told that it was simply too dangerous to take boats where I wanted to go. This was, to say the least, a less-than-ideal situation. But I remembered that patience and optimism always rule, and that a situation would present itself, as it always does.
I bought a six pack of Carlsberg, a couple pieces of fish jerky, and proceeded to hydrate while pondering my options. Half way through the tasty Pilsners, a Danish friend of mine walked up with one of the local Greenlanders. He translated my needs to the local man, as he spoke no English. This Inuit fisherman decided he would try to take me where I wanted to go, for quite a fair price, of course. He made it very clear, however, that it would be at my own risk. As we talked, I learned that the fisherman, along with the friend who would accompany us, were known as the most experienced seaman in these harsh arctic seas. Rapid communication now took place through my translator friend, details were settled, such as where I would be dropped off, how long it may take to get there, and what hunting we would do on the way. I received more warnings of how dangerous the ocean would be. I caught the message that huge sea swells and sea ice could easily lead to suffering and disaster.
Two days later at 3:00 a.m. we started out to sea. The 24-hour sun circled above the fishing boat. Myself, the two fishermen, and ultimate enthusiasm occupied the boat as I watched Tasiilaq fade away. We disappeared into a maze of bright, white, sea ice. As I gazed out over the ocean I could not even see the ocean water. It looked to be completely frozen over. Neon turquoise glowed from under cracks in the sea ice. The ice was so thick that we had to literally push our way through broken the shattered ice pieces with the boat, moving at the pace of a slow walk. Icebergs as big as apartment houses teeter-tottered up and down in the sea. Every once in a while, with sounds like buildings crashing to the ground, massive icebergs crumbled and exploded, while thundering white waves large enough to excite a surfer crashed in every direction. Most of the time the endless maze of sea ice and giant icebergs turned us around, pushed us miles and miles in the wrong direction, and hinted at the impossibility of reaching our destination. We saw many different kinds of seal, huge whales bursting out of the water to breathe, and absolutely breathtakingly beautiful polar bears dog-paddling through the frigid mazes of ice. It was one fantastic moment of awestricken reality after another. Did I mention something about fantasies coming true?
In this area of Greenland, the local people still rely on hunting as a major source of food. I have great respect for other cultures and their ways of living, especially since I have had the opportunity of being close to so many in my travels around the world. I have to admit, though, that I was a little torn watching them hunt the seal, whale, and polar bear, this is something that I am just not used to. The two fishermen were very respectful acknowledging that their people have survived because of these animals. Most of the meat would be taken home to their families. The skins would be utilized for warmth, the bones made into traditional carvings and jewelry. This has been way of life in Greenland for well over a thousand years.
The men and the fishing boat did not give up in the struggle against the stubborn sea ice, and after 100 hours without stopping, we were only a few hours away from my destination. It was nearing the end of summer, so the 24-hour light started to hint at darkness for about an hour each day. There was still enough light for the fisherman to work rotating shifts, one driving the boat while the other slept. Less than thirty miles away from my destination, my map noted an old Inuit ghost town. As we neared the ruins we could see old wooden homes that seemed to fall apart in front of our eyes. We stopped to take a closer look. I found remnants of old toys, broken down dog sleds, rusty fuel barrels, clothing, pots and pans, rustic wood burning stoves, and even several gravestones. It looked like the people literally up and left without taking anything with them. I later found out that this small village disappeared during the mid-1900s.
Up until this point, we had been traveling along the coast on the open ocean. We now turned west and headed deep into a winding fjord no more than a couple miles wide in most spots. Steep granite walls rose higher as we went deeper into the fjord. Good God, not one climber has ever seen this place! Was this really happening? The walls were, at minimum, four to five thousand feet tall. Ominous ice caps peered over the top of the granite formations. Countless waterfalls crashed to the ground from thousands of feet above. It was like a fantasy-birthday party and all of these monstrous granite walls and towers were giant pieces of birthday cake topped with white, creamy frosting.
At the end of the fjord it was not hard to decide where to make my base camp. Giant granite towers loomed in every direction. Just a quarter mile away, a river flowed out of the lush green valley that I would call home for the next 40 days. When I got my bags ashore, the two fishermen immediately vanished on a walk up the river. They returned an hour later with four huge salmon. We ate two of them raw like Greenlandic sashimi. From the time we left Tasiilaq, during a period of over 100 hours, we had not spoken a word to each other. Instead we laughed, gestured, and looked into each other’s eyes for communication. Just before they left me alone, one of them pointed to the seals that lounged nearby on the broken sea ice and started to mimic a polar bear. He was warning me that where there are seals, there are polar bears. My only defense from polar bears would be to use my 30-ought-6 rifle, my 12-gauge shotgun with slugs, my bear spray, or to get on one of the towering granite walls as quickly as possible. If a bear came while I slept on the ground, I would be a very easy, tasty meal.
Absolute utter aloneness. Solo. Silence. I started sobbing like a small child who had lost his parents in an amusement park. Frightened, but excited and curiously free and completely alone, I was happy. I felt an overwhelming joy, ultimate enthusiasm, and magical emotion. The fantasy I dreamed about was really happening! I continued to cry like hadn’t cried in years. I soaked myself with tears. I was feeling an awesome presence of being alive. I thought about how several months ago I hunched over the aerial photographs taken of this exact area. I now stood in front of the walls I had fantasized
about. I cried and screamed and yelled and jumped and threw my arms in the air howling like a mad werewolf. I was enjoying myself! I continued to cry. I don’t know if I have ever cried so hard in my life. I could not stop. I had forgotten how good it felt to cry. Then I started to laugh, so hard that it hurt. Absolute utter aloneness. Solo. Silence. I slept like a baby for the next 18 hours.
I spent several days reconnoitering the area. Serpentine glaciers, neon-blue glacial pools, flowers and plants every color of the rainbow, and of course huge granite walls and towers surrounded me. My base camp was about forty feet from the ice-laden ocean. Seals sunbathed on the sea ice a stones-throw away. I decided to attempt a route on a prominent tower less than a couple miles from my basecamp. With a nod towards the rumors of early Viking exploration in the area, I called this tower the Viking’s Shield. It took me six days to shuttle my loads to the base. The wall was much bigger than I thought and ended up being just over 4,200 feet tall. For perspective, this is about 1,200 feet taller than El Capitan. The first 1,800 feet consisted of splitter cracks and dihedrals, no harder than 5.10. From this point a 1,500-foot steep headwall demanded delicate aid climbing, pushing what I usually call A3+, or in other words, very spicy. For example, some of the pitches called for expanding beaks, hooks of uncertainty, and of course, rotten madness. The headwall led me to an 800-foot snow and ice ridge, with consistent 5.6 climbing to the ice-capped summit. I climbed capsule style, fixing no less than 1,000 feet at a time. Of course, my Year of the Horse costume was present for the summit photos. I spent 22+ days climbing the first ascent of this beautiful virgin tower.
In the arctic, storms can attack at anytime. A sweet bluebird day with sun warming your face and a breeze that would make you think of Yosemite on a summer afternoon can literally turn into a raging-maniac-storm-from-hell in a matter of minutes. I have seen it happen. Fortunately, I love this kind of spice. There is no doubt it is high on the list of the important variables on a fantasy expedition. What sweeter ultimate reality is there than being above the arctic circle, alone, on the middle of a 4,200-foot wall, shivering in your fragile, hanging-nylon-condo-tether, while a sinister storm threatens to leave you dangling by nothing more than your back-up rope freezing to death? Did I mention that during this you are praying/begging to God out loud, that you will never do anything wrong again if He will just get you out of this alive? Well, it happened once again, the threat of doom, that is. It was the second most frightening time in my life. When the storm hit, it was after I had reached the summit and was on the way down. I waited out that storm for three days with only enough sleep to have nightmares. Over four feet of snow fell in 72 hours. All of my anchors below were frozen over when I reached them on rappel, some I could not even find. All of my equipment was soaked through, including my clothes and my skin.
Suffering is an important part of any wonderful journey. That weather made me appreciate appreciation once again. I only experienced minor storms on the ascent; it seemed too easy, it just did not feel right not to get worked by the weather. Of course, at the time I wish it was not happening. If the huge storm that slapped me in the face on my way down didn’t stop when it did, it is hard to say what would have happened. It could have turned into one of those stories of the human will to survive. As it worked out, I only lost seven pounds on the whole climb and ran out of food for only one day. My last bit of fuel ran out while heating water for breakfast the same day I got back on the ground.
The boat picked me up right on time. My two Inuit friends arrived six hours after I had shuttled my last load back into basecamp. We all smiled, shook hands, and loaded my gear into the boat. They disappeared again to catch more salmon from the nearby river. Greenlandic sashimi once again. On the way back to Tasiilaq we camped on the shore each night because the 24-hour light had decreased to about 20 hours. Fall had arrived. We hunted wild duck and seal for our meals. We laughed, gestured and looked into each other’s eyes for perfect communication without words.
Before this expedition, when I was back at home studying the Danish military photos, I had found four areas of fantasy big-wall lands waiting to be explored. Three are left to fantasize about. The experience I had with the local Greenlanders filled me with a joyous emotion I cannot yet describe. As I have said before, 51% of the obsession/addiction to go on grand expeditions is to climb beautiful walls and mountains, frolic in alien flora and fauna, and live a life in utter sanctuary and solitude for as long as the adventure lasts. The other 49% is to experience other cultures and make new friends from new lands. The percentages may stay the same, but the reasons are changing. I cannot imagine any fantasy more real, emotional, or intense than meeting and making friends with such magical people who have nothing more in common with me than breathing the same air. Good God, life itself is a fantasy in the making.