Climbing to the west of Torssukatak Fjord
1975 University of St Andrews South Greenland Expedition: first ascent of Agdlerussakasit, first attempt on Maujit Qaqarssuasia - 1996 British team climbing west of Maujit Qaqarssuasia - 1997 Scottish Torssukatak Spires Expedition: second ascent of Agdlerussakasit, first ascent of Maujit Qaqarssuasia - 2000 British team with Ben Bransby, Matt Dickenson, Ian Parnell and Gareth Parry: first ascent of The Thumbnail - 2000 British Eastern Torssukatak Spires Expedition - 2003 Torssukatak Spires Expedition with Jon Roberts, Dewi Durban, James Mehigan and Richard Sonnerdale: The Cruise Line - 2003 Spanish/Brazilian team with Cecilia Buil and Roberta Nunes: Hidrofilia and first ascent of Maujit Qaqarssuasia east peak - 2007 Polish team with David Kaszlikowski and Eliza Kubarska: Golden Lunacy - 2010 US/Belgian Torssukatak team with Bob Shepton and Dodo's Delight - 2012 Polish team with Alek Barszczewski, Marcin Ksiezak and Jaciek Kuczera: second ascent of Golden Lunacy - 2012 Swiss Torssukatak youth expedition - 2013 US team with Kearney, Scully, Dickey and Brett - 2013 Spanish/Basque team with Andres, Castro, and Escribano - 2014 Belgian pair Siebe Vanhee and Tim de Dobbeleer overland and kayak
2014: Belgian pair Vanhee and de Dobbeleer overland and by kayak
The Belgian climbers Siebe Vanhee and Tim de Dobbeleer began an attempt on The Thumbnail, but in an honest and interesting account decided to withdraw, not least because some of their equipment in their kayak fell into the sea after they had started climbing and they could see it floating away. Their visit was part of a longer Greenland climbing trip and you can read Siebe's account on his own website. They put up a new route and first ascent in the valley west of Stordalens and also climbed routes on Nalumasortoq in the Tasermiut area, and 'War and Poetry' on Ulamertorssuaq.
Climbing and Adventure
One of the fascinating things for me in compiling this website on Greenland expeditions - and in this section, the history of climbing in the mountains west of Torssukatak fjord - is to reflect both on my own experience of expedition, and the experiences of others. What is striking is the way different people and trips approach adventure and climbing in remote places.
On these webpages, there's real variety in the personalities and attitudes of the people who have sort of randomly shown up and climbed these mountains. There are people who work for a living in the mountains, hard-climbing, experienced, and really impressive in what they do. There are teams for whom the friendship and group dynamic were what gave their trips the greatest success. There are US women who insist on dancing each time they get to a summit. There are Belgians who take their musical instruments on their climbs. There are Swiss teenagers putting up excellent new lines. There are male and female partnerships, and female-female partnerships. There has even been a 'verification' team, checking out someone else's climb, albeit with good humour and an excellent filmed account. There's been weather-worn sailors, like 75-year-old Captain Bob Shepton. Relatively few people have visited the mountains west of Torssukatak, but those who have are quite varied, though they all been attracted by adventure.
The St Andrews expedition was planned well in advance with logistical detail to sustain 10 climbers for 12 weeks. Even on our own expedition, there was a considerable diversity of personalities and motives. At the other extreme, you have an expedition like the one carried out by Siebe Vanhee and Tim de Dobbeleer, which was not even coming to Greenland until the last minute, when political circumstances in Pakistan made their original plan unviable.
Added to this were their personalities: the very opposite of the old-fashioned concept of the almost military explorer. It's very clear that these two guys could be incredibly relaxed, sociable, and honest with each other. Their trip was characterised by chance encounters and their ability to make connection with people on the off-chance, cadge lifts, improvise and go with the flow. Nevertheless, they are serious climbers, with recognised reputations. It's just that they don't seem to worry about 'posing' as climbers. As Siebe says on his very honest website:
"Right now I’m combining my passion for climbing and higher education. From September 2012 on, I’m studying... to become a social worker... I hope I will be able to find the right balance between my passion for adventure and climbing and my life as a student, hoping to develop my personality both on the level of sport and education. By making big trips and expeditions I try to show young climbers and youth in general the other possibilities to develop yourself as an individual. These exceptionally rich experiences will help you to feel more comfortable in our society right now. Develop your climbing, develop yourself."
Siebe and Tim used the widely recognised Greenland combination of travel by kayak and travel on foot. What made them almost crazily romantic was that they carried their kayaks and equipment over high mountain passes and rough terrain. Using this modus operandi they carried out successful climbing, in a Greenland summer that in my opinion epitomised many of the best values of adventure, exploration, subsistence, and a touch of romance.
Climbing from Tasermiut
I will add a separate page about the first stage of Siebe and Tim's expedition, climbing from bases along Tasermiut Fjord. When I get time! You can read Siebe's account of Tasermiut here, and there are some pictures of the 'War and Poetry' climb on Ulamerssuaq below.
From Tasermiut to Stordalens Havn
After climbing in the Tasermiut area, they got their equipment and two kayaks to the Klosterdalen entrance to Tasermiut fjord. They had got it into their heads to try to cross the mountains eastwards down to Kangikitsoq fjord and then head for Torssukatak after a stop over in Augpilagtoq. It was a huge physical undertaking with 240kg of equipment to carry over a high pass.
As random chance would have it, a sailing boat showed up that evening and moored across the fjord from where they were. Tim's social instincts kicked in, and they inflated their flat, rubber-based kayaks and paddled across the fjord on the outside chance they might be going round the long peninsula that separates Tasermiut and Nanortalik from Prins Christian Sund, and the outlet eastward into the Atlantic. It was a ridiculous improbability.
Chance favoured them. The British crew on the sailing boat were on a 10-week sailing trip, and were indeed planning to head that way. Over tea, fresh blueberry crumble, and sociable conversation, they agreed to take a load of food and gear on the boat and bring it to Augpilaqtoq in about a week's time. Siebe and Tim would still need to haul their kayaks and other gear, because they would need to paddle to Augpilaqtoq once they got over the mountain pass.
Little did they know at the time, that they would build friendship with the British crew, and end up jettisoning their flight plans, to sail back to Europe on board the boat. Such was the improvisation that typified this trip.
Tim and Siebe set off. They had 6 packs of equipment, so they had to repeat the same ground 5 times (including there and back). When they'd crossed the pass, they came to a lake, which was a luxury because it meant they could ferry all the gear by kayak. Then it was back to portage on foot until they reached the shores of Kangikitsoq. In total, over 7 days, they'd hiked from the foot of the Klosterdalen valley five times, over the 1800 ft pass. It was a relief to get to the sea. They set up camp in an idyllic spot, only to find the tide coming in and flooding them out. So they rapidly inflated their kayaks and pitched camp on a tiny island in the fjord, for an even more idyllic campsite.
It was now four weeks since they had left Belgium and they could finally rest their legs, and let their arms do the work. They paddled down Kangikitsoq with three big bags on top of each kayak. In 6 or 7 hours they had kayaked 17 km to the entrance to the Kangerdluk fjord, blessed by calm weather.
The next day they reached Augpilagtoq, kids watching them as they arrived, and helping them get their gear ashore. They bought some cake at the village (population 120) store, but no sailing boat had visited recently, so their gear had not arrived. They got asked into a house for coffee by one of the respected older members of the community, and as chance would have it, that night they were holding a 65th birthday and retirement party in his honour.
There they were given food, and then after a ceremony the singing and party got going. It was "the most random party I had ever been to." Tim ended up dancing with the "mega-drunk" grand-daughter of the birthday grandpa, while Siebe got hurled around the room by a woman three times his size. Then what sounded like soccer-chants began, and everyone went outside chanting and encircling the house.
The next day the village seemed to be hung over, and Siebe and Tim set off by kayak for Stordalens Havn (basecamp of the 1975 St Andrews expedition), hoping by some chance they might see the British sailing boat. By sheer fluke, as they pulled in to Stordalens Havn, so did the boat.
By now, the thought had crossed the Belgians' minds that perhaps they could persuade the British crew to take them back across the Atlantic in their boat. Tim used his best skills to hint about how much he wanted to experience sailing, and then bluntly asked them. The friendship had kicked in, and the sailors agreed, saying they would pick the climbers up in a week's time, which would give them time to explore the area and maybe have a go at climbing the Thumbnail cliffs on the west side of Torssukatak fjord.
"We spent one night in Stordalens Havn basecamp and prepared for the Big Wall goal. Finally we reached the point we had aimed for this long. The Thumbnail was waiting for us… there to be climbed. But things turned out differently… things turned out not liked expected… A complex story of disappointments… in ourselves, in the team…"
Attempt on Thumbnail route abandoned
Climbing narratives are often about great achievements, and Siebe and Tim had already enjoyed some great Greenland climbing, and would go on to climb big routes elsewhere. However, their encounter with The Thumbnail was a disappointment to them. What I appreciated about Siebe's account (which you can read here) is its honesty and openness. Basically the mindset for a serious big wall route evaporated, and added to that, some of their equipment fell out of the kayaks after they had set out on the climb. On a different day, with a different mindset, an amazing route might have been put up. Any climber knows that you need to have a shared resolve as a team or you're half beaten already, and this team thing and shared resolve simply wasn't there that day. Siebe is transparent and honest about that, and to me that makes his narrative more real, less fake.
The Thumbnail itself was first climbed in 2000 by Ben Bransby, Matt Dickinson, Ian Parnell and Gareth Parry in what remains the hardest route on those cliffs to date. Other routes on the Thumbnail cliffs of Maujit Qaqarssuasia were climbed in 2003 (twice), 2007 and 2012.
The pair kayaked the 6 km from Stordalens Havn basecamp to the foot of the cliffs on the west side of Torssukatak fjord. They surveyed the possible routes from out in the fjord, worked out the logistics (one kayak would have to be left down the coast at the foot of the line of descent) and they planned to get gear up to the halfway ledges for the final summit push, as other parties had done.
The kayaks had to be safely secured to the wall well above the sea-line. Then they geared up and they set off upwards. The granite was good and the climbing was inviting, but the pair soon confronted the fact that the mindset of one of them just didn't feel good. There was tension and the appetite for such a big climb was not there. Anyone who's climbed a bit knows that this sort of thing can happen. In this situation, honest communication is important.
And then the surreal happened, to compound the problem. Looking down as they proceeded on the third pitch, they suddenly saw that one of the haulage bags had come loose and was floating away on the current. It had somehow flipped out of the kayak.
Tim descended, and paddled to retrieve the bag. It was full of water and really heavy to lift back into the kayak. It was the bag with all the camping and sleeping gear, along with food and first aid. They had little option but to return to Stordalens, dry out, and see how they felt the next day. But this did not resolve the mindset issue. It became clear that they were not going to get shared resolve as a team about this route, and though it hurt and disappointed, they decided to abandon the biggest goal of the expedition. These sort of things are learning experiences. As Siebe himself says elsewhere, developing your climbing is part of developing yourself.
In context, though the loss of 'the big objective' must have been really disappointing, in many ways this was a fantastic expedition, blessed by really good weather, and involving a sense of romance, adventure and improvisation that made for an unforgettable experience. They'd done two big wall climbs at Tasermiut. They'd lived wild, and met people, and the adventure was not yet over.
Climbing from Stordalens Havn and the journey home
Stordalens Havn is a great base for rock and alpine climbing. The 1975 University of St Andrews Expedition used it as their base, and made 42 first ascents that summer. It also has the benefit of being a good drop off point for boats and supplies, and in our experience the flies and mosquitos though not absent were less bad than in some other locations (personally I found Amitsuarssuk / Narssap Sarqa to be the worst area in the universe for black flies!)
Siebe and Tim dried out their kit and caught abundant arctic char (see pictures below) then decided to climb one of the walls a couple of hours' hike up the south side of the Itivdlerssuaq valley. The first afternoon of the route, they climbed four really good pitches around 6c. They fixed a static rope to the ground and went down that evening (in a picture below, I've inserted a red arrow to Siebe's photo, to give an idea of scale).
After a night sleeping under a portaledge flysheet in the moonlight down in the valley, they were up at 5.40 am the next morning. Continuing the route, the grades got easier (6a/6b) and made for quick progress. In total there were eight pitches to the summit, which they reached at midday. Although a little disappointed that the climb had turned out easier than expected, they chilled out on the top, surrounded by great mountain scenery, and reflected positively on their whole trip.
Though not the big challenge they had hoped for, this top was a first ascent, and Siebe cut off hid dreadlocks with a sporting knife, as a kind of symbolic break with the past, and they named the peak Dreadlock Peak.
Dreadlock Peak, first ascent, 370m 6c+/7a, 8 pitches. August 2014: Vanhee and de Dobbeleer. You can read more about this ascent here.
Opposite this peak they spotted a wall on the west side of Inevitable (which was climbed by the 1975 expedition) and two days later they put up a new route.
Inevitable, to the ridge, by new unnamed route on west wall, 8 pitches. August 2014: Vanhee and de Dobbeleer. "The first five pitches were funky with a lot of short technical bits divided by several ledges. In the sixth pitch we traversed 60 meters towards a big horizontal ledge from which we started off straight into a perfect corner crack. These next two pitches might have been of the best we had done in Greenland." Descent to basecamp from the ridge was a one-hour scramble.
On Day 37 of the expedition, Siebe and Tim got ready for departure, and as promised the British boat 'Questar' arrived in Stordalens Havn. The crew consisted of the captain, Simon, his son Tom, another Tim - 'British Tim' - and Maddy. The three young members are mad on sailing. With Siebe and Tim on board, they sailed to Augpilagtoq for supplies, and spent an afternoon with a guy called Themo they had previously befriended, who took them out in his boat seal hunting. They didn't shoot seals, but they had fun shooting at ice floes.
As they continued on their journey, Siebe and Tim took the British Tim and Tom on a climb just east of Igdlorssuit Havn. Maddy and Simon welcomed them back with very British tea and scones. And so this improvised, friendly and adventurous expedition continued, now heading down Prins Christian Sund and out into the open Atlantic. Both Siebe and Tim suffered from sea-sickness once they hit the swell of the open ocean, but medication patches helped a little. For nine days they didn't see land. With no autopilot, they each did two hours at the helm in a rota, holding course twenty-four hours a day. The final days were rough with the boat rolling a lot. They finally reached Ireland and from there they continued to Salcombe, Questar's harbour.
The expedition was more or less over, a combination of climbing, kayaking, sailing, living and eating wild, meeting people, and the self-development that happens when you throw yourself into an adventure. My thanks to Siebe for letting me reproduce material from his own site and use of photos. I encourage you to read his whole account which begins here.
Pictures from the Expedition
Siebe and Tim cadged a ride with a Norwegian skipper called Marius (photo courtesy of Siebe Vanhee)
Tasermiut (photo courtesy of Siebe Vanhee)
Tasermiut climbing heaven (photo courtesy of Siebe Vanhee)
Bowstring Crack on 'War and Poetry' on Ulamertorssuaq (photo courtesy of Siebe Vanhee)
200 metre-long wide crack on 'War and Poetry' on Ulamerssuaq (photo courtesy of Siebe Vanhee)
Carrying gear (and inflatable kayaks) over to Kangikitsoq - the trip had to be made five times (Photo courtesy of Siebe Vanhee)
Little island camp on Kangikitsoq (Photo courtesy of Siebe Vanhee)
Five hours on from Kangikitsoq, with Angnikitsoq island on the right (Photo courtesy of Siebe Vanhee)
Approaching Augpilagtoq (Photo courtesy of Siebe Vanhee)
View of Maujit Qaqarssuasia and Agdlerussakasit with Stordalens Havn just out of sight to the right of the central ice floe (Photo courtesy of Siebe Vanhee)
The Thumbnail cliffs in Torssukatak fjord (Photo courtesy of Siebe Vanhee)
Climbing direct from the fjord on the Thumbnail cliffs (Photo courtesy of Siebe Vanhee)
The kayaks moored at the foot of the Thumbnail cliffs - unfortunately as they ascended the climbers saw some of their gear fall out of the boats (Photo courtesy of Siebe Vanhee)
Drying out gear at Stordalens after it had fallen out of the kayak (Photo courtesy of Siebe Vanhee)
Catching arctic char at Stordalens Havn (Photo courtesy of Siebe Vanhee)
Ten fish in an hour at Stordalens Havn (Photo courtesy of Siebe Vanhee)
Wild mushrooms, blueberry jam and arctic char (Photo courtesy of Siebe Vanhee)
On Dreadlock Peak, in Itivdlerssuaq near Stordalens Havn (Photo courtesy of Siebe Vanhee)
The dreadlocks get cut off on the summit of Dreadlock Peak (Photo courtesy of Siebe Vanhee)
Looking west along the Itivdlerssuag valley system towards Tasiussaq, from the summit of Dreadlock Peak (Photo courtesy of Siebe Vanhee)
Abseiling off Dreadlock Peak (Photo courtesy of Siebe Vanhee)
Siebe, close by Augpilagtoq, after he and Tim had rejoined the British crew of 'Questar' (Photo courtesy of Siebe Vanhee)
'Questar' in Prins Christian Sund (Photo courtesy of Siebe Vanhee)
Atlantic crossing (Photo courtesy of Siebe Vanhee)
Atlantic crossing - Tom at the helm (Photo courtesy of Siebe Vanhee)
Atlantic crossing - Maddy at the helm (Photo courtesy of Siebe Vanhee)
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