A decade-long desire to visit Greenland and the allure of journeying by boat into virgin territory to attempt unclimbed peaks, two or more days away from civilisation, is what inspired us to set our sights on Timmiarmiut, an area of fjords, granite walls, peaks and spires 300km south of
Throughout the planning we were lucky enough to be in correspondence with Hans Christian Florian, a Tasiilaq-based doctor and joint author of The Unknown Mountains Of East Greenland. Hans was instrumental in arranging plans with Salomon Gadeegard, a skipper and skilled hunter based in nearby Iqortoq, to take us to this little-explored stretch of coastline. However, a week before departure came the news that given the predicted sea and weather conditions we would not be able to reach Timmiarmiut safely and therefore Salomon refused to take us any farther south than the Umiivik region, approximately 100km north of Timmiarmiut.
We learnt later that the underwater topography and exposure to the open sea changes significantly at Umiivik meaning there would have been a considerable risk of erratic waves and high seas that could swamp the boat. Given the unforgiving cold seas, our quarter ton of food and equipment and a cabin so small that two of us would have had to stand on open deck, it would have been reckless to venture south.
Hitherto we had considered late-season pack ice as the main inhibiting factor to reaching Timmiarmiut and were unaware that the temperament
of the seas in the area could also drown our plans. Even our alternative destination of Skjoldungen was out of safe reach. (Skjoldungen is approximately 60km north of Timmiarmiut and it was accounts of solo first ascents here by the American Mike Libecki that had helped draw our attention to the potential of east Greenland.)
We spent the next few days frantically re-doing our research; scouring old journals, maps, geo-tagged images and satellite imagery, and extracting
as much information as we could from our most knowledgeable contacts. Eventually we settled on the Kangertittivatsiaq region (also referred to as
Kangerdlugssuatsiaq) and became further convinced of the area when Hans reported that he had recently returned from hunting narwhal there and had seen jagged spires and towering walls erupting from an unnamed cirque.
Kangertittivatsiaq, 120km north-east of Tasiilaq, is an open fjord region peppered with peaks and glaciers that tumble into the frigid Arctic waters. It is best known for the imposing Ingolfsfjeld (2232m) in the South Steenstups area. Ingolfsfjeld has seen a number of attempts, but only a handful of
successful ones including the jagged 50-pitch east ridge completed in a 75-hour push by a Yugoslavian team in 19711 and a 2000m route on the
south face by a British team in 1975. Our particular cirque is on a promontory 12km south of Ingolfsfjeld and overlooks the vast expanse of the Danish Straits to the east. The main fjord of Kangertittivatsiaq to the north serves as a passageway for the countless icebergs and debris issuing from the nearby Glacier de France.
Despite the radical change in location, our desire to attempt new routes in an untouched area was undimmed. Once I had resigned myself to the fact we would not be reaching Timmiarmiut this year, I assumed that would be the end of our logistical surprises. However it was only the beginning: first a 100kg shipment of much needed nutritious food and an expensive Advanced Elements inflatable kayak failed to show up in time for our departure with Salomon, as a result of which we had to re-do most of our food shopping in Tasiilaq and source another kayak to enable us to explore the fjords and access potential climbs. The cost of replacing all the lost goods and incurred damages amounted to the price of a round-the-world air ticket.
Nevertheless we eventually got underway, loaded up Salomon’s boat and headed north into the Arctic Circle, weaving our way through the Ammassalik Fjord and east through a labyrinth of smaller fjords and channels set amongst sweeping walls of rock and jumbled glaciers that slithered erratic paths through untrammelled peaks. Patches of sea mist hung in the still air and occasionally we heard the groaning and fracture of icebergs over the puttering diesel engine. After 10 hours we pulled into the Kangertittivatsiaq fjord and caught our first glimpse of the cirque. Seven prominent peaks formed a 5km-long and 1.5km-high fortress looming over a tiny glacier and a small grassy area amongst moss-covered boulders that would serve as our basecamp. The scale and sheerness of it all was both exciting and intimidating.
We were a team of four: Steve Beckwith and I had completed a new route on the west face of Dragon’s Horns on the Malaysian island of Tioman in 2009, American Mike Royer with whom I had been to Kyrgyzstan, and Matt Bunn, an Australian sociologist studying climbers for his Ph.D. Before leaving for Greenland, amidst the frenzy of last minute research, I had spoken briefly with Derek Fordham who said he had dog-sledded past our basecamp site many years ago. As I sat on a boulder looking out to sea I wondered what it must have been like to travel by here on a frozen sea in winter, mushing your dogs ever onwards into the icy wilderness. My musing was interrupted by the sight of a small boat heading towards us, yawing with each turn around the numerous icebergs.
We quickly assembled on the shoreline as John Christensen, a friendly skipper we had briefly met in Tasiilaq harbour, motored towards us with four Americans: climbers Mike Libecki, Ethan Pringle and Angie Payne and adventure photographer Keith Ladzinski. They were here on a Mountain Hardwear-sponsored trip and their original plans for Skjoldungen had been scuppered for the same reason as ours. It was a welcome surprise and a somewhat unlikely occurrence that two unrelated teams should end up sharing a virgin cirque together.
Everything up to this point, the change of location, losing our food and a kayak, and now sharing camp space with new friends at the edge of the world, helped teach me that I’d be best to drop any expectations I might have for the rest of the trip. More unpredictability appeared to be in store.
During the first few days of waiting out rain, Steve and I were drawn towards an 800m monolith. Enchanted by its prominence and an aesthetic line
up thin cracks and a chimney, we dubbed it the Siren Tower. Over the next week we scouted out the tower and between carrying light loads assessed the frequency and extent of stonefall in the large gully we would have to climb to access the main face. Eventually we determined the rockfall was confined to the right side and we could stay safe by trending leftwards beneath an overhanging rock band. Meanwhile, over the backside of the cirque overlooking the Habets and Knud Rasmussen glaciers, Libecki had already completed a one-day solo first ascent up the south ridge of Father Tower. Two days later Mike Royer and Matt Bunn completed the second ascent of this tower via the south-east face and east ridge in 12 hours with one unplanned bivvi on the descent.
Steve and I were soon to learn that the success of the others was no indicator of what we could expect over the remaining two weeks. Early into our second day probing a route through the gully on Siren Tower we narrowly escaped a rockslide that sprayed over the lip of a buttress overhead. During the brief roar we watched as debris plastered small craters in the bergschrund we had crossed just 30 minutes earlier. It was all we needed to prompt a retreat. Despite watching the area for a number of days and only seeing minor and infrequent movement on the far right of the gully, the risk was no longer manageable or justified. It was evident that nowhere in the gully was safe from rockfall. We returned to basecamp feeling very dismayed; the others had made successful first ascents and we had nothing to show for ourselves. Nonetheless we were confident it had been a wise decision to retreat.
The next few days were spent re-sorting equipment, resting and preparing for further sorties. In the meantime Libecki and Pringle had already begun
preparation for an attempt on the north face of Father Tower via a logical and natural line that they would later climb in a 30-hour plus push to complete the first ascent of Built Fjord Tough (5.12, A2 V 1100m).
During the remaining two weeks Matt Bunn and Mike Royer climbed a 450m route on Hidden Tower, in a valley adjacent to their first route, and a few days later completed the Torturer’s Traverse, summiting four peaks over three days, much of it on loose rock. They returned to basecamp bleary-eyed declaring it was a route not worthy of a repeat any time soon. For Steve and I there was more surprise and disappointment as we ended up retreating after a kilometre of climbing a chossy ridge line in a glacial valley north of the main cirque and later floundering on another attempt at a line connected to Father Tower.
Watching as the cirque slowly faded into the distance on our return to Tasiilaq, I felt my dreams slipping through my fingers and a creeping sense of doubt attempting to erode my confidence. I was relieved that one half of our team had succeeded on new routes but was disappointed that Steve and I were returning empty handed. Sometimes it’s hard not to feel like you have failed when others around you seem to have done so well. However my memory of this coastal wilderness and the unique experiences I shared amongst new friends and old has overcome any negative feeling, teaching me that it’s not necessarily what you’ve achieved but what you have learned, experienced and the stories you can share with others.
Summary: An account of a five-week expedition to the Mythics Cirque of Kangertittivatsiaq, east Greenland, in August 2012. Mike Royer and Matt Bunn made first ascents of Coronis on Father Tower (5.9, 800m+), The Torturer’s Traverse of peaks Prometheus, Tantalus, Sisyphus and Damocles peaks (5.4) and Assembling the Tupilak on Hidden Tower (5.10, 450m). Matt Traver and Steve Beckwith made three attempts on the following peaks: Siren Tower, north ridge of Prometheus (retreating after 1km at D) and The Squid.
Acknowledgements: We would like to thank the following individuals, companies and organisations for their help and generosity: Alpine Club Climbing Fund, Mount Everest Foundation, American Alpine Club, Arctic Club, Gino-Watkins Memorial Fund, British Mountaineering Council, Yak, Drift Innovation, Advanced Elements, Air Iceland, Iceland Air, Mountain Fuel, Hans Christian Florian, Mike Libecki and his Mountain Hardwear team.