Saturday, October 29, 2011

-throwback- Greenland 2007: Chapter Five- Getting Home

Greenland 2007: Chapter Five- Getting Home.

After our aborted climb on the Trillingerne Peak we were left with some time to relax, but not enough time to tackle another big mountain. Around this time a pair of climbing women from Seattle were packing their way into the area, sharing our base camp for a couple of nights. Somehow, through the climber-grapevine, someone in our group had gotten in touch with their group before the trips began so all of us knew the others would be around. We eagerly awaited their arrival, making lists of what we'd do "when the Seattle girls come." One plan involved enslaving Darcy's Indian alter ego "Assbache" as our personal servant. We'd build him a little leanto and he'd cook for us. There weren't any trees to hang a leanto from, and none of us could keep a straight face telling knock knock jokes, much less perpetuating any kind of more involved joke. Anyway, when the girls arrived, we were excited to hear news from the world and share info on our stay in Greenland. Annie thinks we were all at our funniest, entertaining the girls with our wit, energy and goofiness.

I was still a bit antsy, jonesin' for another summit, a new view, and some solo travel through the mountains. I woke early on our second to last morning in basecamp and jogged downstream with a jacket some water and a Snickers bar. I forded, hiked and scrambled almost 6000 vertical feet to a peak just above our basecamp, immediately opposite the Fox Jaw Cirque. A big rock pile, obviously man-made, marked the top. Maybe whomever climbed the peak first, and/or whomever built the rock pile named the peak, but we know it only as "Peak 1519" (It's 1,519 meters above sea level).

A view of the Fox Jaw and surroundings, with peaks marked.

I raced back to camp to rejoin the group. We spent one last night in basecamp, entertaining the Seattle girls with our comaraderie. We really were, by then, a pretty tight little group. We had our comic routines, our inside jokes, our climbs that bonded us. We packed up the day before our scheduled boat pick-up and schlepped huge packs out to the beach. We had beer stashed there, as well as some extra booze. We partied down, firing off the unused rifle shells and creatively disposing of extra fuel. We burned some trash and crammed our stuff back into travel bags. And here's where it got interesting.
Before we even left the states, we negotiated with a fellow in Tasiilaq named Dines Michaelsson for charter boat travel from the Kulusuk Airport, by way of grocery stores, to the Fox Jaw Cirque and back to the Airport. He would carry all of us on all those legs for 9000 Danish Kroner (abbreviated DKK. 9000 DKK was at the time about
$1800). When we arrived at the airport, we bought some white gas for our camp stoves and rented a rifle, all from Dines, for another 1000 DKK. Because of the thinly stocked store shelves, shopping for our food was complicated at best. Dines did well to take at least one of us to 3 different stores, eventually getting as much food as we could get at the time. The downside was that we did not all get to visit Tasiilaq, the biggest town in the area. Before he even dropped us off at the Fox Jaw, we agreed to pay Dines yet another 1000 Kroner to take us to Tasiilaq for a couple of days visit on our way home. Now, total charges 11000 DKK. We paid him 5000 on the way in. He owed us a trip from the Fox Jaw to Tasiilaq, and a trip from Tasiilaq to the airport at Kulusuk a couple of days later. And we owed him 6000 Kroner. Seemed pretty simple.
He picked us up in the Fox Jaw as scheduled. We boated through green fjords, walked on an ice berg, checked out native ruins along the way, and enjoyed a magical boat ride through misty towering icebergs into Tasiilaq. On the dock in town, as we're unloading our stuff and trying to find a place to stay until we have to leave. Dines tells us he cannot take us to Kulusuk anymore. We'll have to find another boat. And we still owe him 6000 DKK. We balk at paying him more he deserves, try to appeal to his business sense by reminding him that he had promised us one deal, nothing seems to sway him. Finally, kind of suddenly, he walks off, telling us he's going for the police because we are not paying him. He actually went to get our common acquaintance and the hut owner, Hans Christian. Hans and Dines tracked us down in town, and Hans read us the riot act. He was under the impression that we intended to leave town without paying. We couldn't even figure out how to leave town, much less leave on the sly. We told Hans our side of the story, over the next 24 hours and a couple of meetings, he mediated with Dines, Dines wanted to take us, but for even more money. We reached an agreement- Dines would take us to Kulusuk, we'd split the difference on money, and he'd take us earlier than planned.

We flew to Reykjavik, partied down, and flew on home. Annie and I flew right into San Francisco and back to work. We arrived late on a Thursday and I was guiding on Saturday. Annie met with our boss that Saturday, and he offered her a big-city style high speed job running the guiding business we've worked for. The opportunities and chaos and pace were quite overwhelming but we've adapted. Josh returned to New Hampshire, bought himself a truck and drove across the country to a rock climbing guides' course. Kadin made his way to California where he has now dissapeared into tree trimming or climbing wall construction or something like that. Nate returned to Salt Lake City on that same Thursday night, and drove to Idaho on Friday morning for work. Darcy had a few days to re-enter at home- he bought a house a year ago, and has spent just a few days there. Erin and Jess, the Seattle girls, returned to the States about a month behind us. They climbed a route on the Baby Molar and one on the Right Rabbit Ear. Their trip was marked with blueberries, darkening frosty nights, and visits from foxes that we never really saw.

-throwback- Greenland 2007: Chapter Four- Tent Life

We did one more big climb, and I scrambled up a peak on my own at the very end of the trip, but before we get into that I'd like to detail a little of our camp life. After all, even though we climbed for up to 26 hours at a time, the vast majority of our time in Greenland was spent not climbing. When not climbing, we hiked around a bit, taking pictures and looking at potential routes. We also played about 800 rounds of cards, specifically Hearts.  None of us have real stressful lives at home.  Heck, we're little more than climbing bums, working only enough to get to the next trip.  But, we still look forward to the down time on expeditions.  Conversations, games, reading, even just sitting around is a welcome and much anticipated part of the process.  Annie thinks she read 10 books while we were out there.  I sewed up all the holes in my clothes that had collected over the years.  Nate wrote in his journal, sometimes writing things that happened two years prior.  Kadin and Darcy probably itched to do more than we did.  There were times when I wanted to get out and do more physical activity, but in general the balance of down time to go time seemed appropriate. 

In a simpler lifestyle, one without communications and little technology (though there were 6 digital cameras, 4 ipods- including some videos, and one little solar charger to feed the beasts...) meal time takes on additional meaning and becomes a much more enjoyable process.  Beyond mere sustenance, planning, cooking and eating meals became events.  One day Josh cooked 12 pizzas.  Each of us ate our fill of pizza that day, but really did nothing else.  Kadin perfected backcountry bread that, of course at the time, seemed better than anything else we had tasted.  Even pasta, usually a simple meal, plugged into a home menu when nothing else comes up, can take multiple steps and approach gourmet status.  One of my favorite meals of all time is backcountry fried pasta.  You cook pasta like usual, any shape is fine, and then fry it in lots of oil until it gets partly crispy.  Add garlic, tons of salt, cheese and pepperoni- delicious.  The frying process had the additional benefit of cooking the stank out of the nasty 8 month-old (and not old in a good way...) Greenlandic cheese.  It actually kinda dissappears.  I lost interest in the pasta dishes, however, when we ran out of pepperoni and began to substitute fish canned in tomato sauce.  Not my favorite. 

Kadin on Pizza Day.

For our last big climb Annie and I teamed up with Darcy, whom we hadn't climbed with yet. We never ended up climbing with Josh at all. Annie and Darcy and I set out to do the East Trillingerne Peak. Behind our Fox Jaw Cirque, looming above the summits and walls, were the Trillingerne- Triplet in Danish- Peaks. Storbror, the Big Brother, is the tallest and most difficult. The middle one is remote and pointed. The East Peak is the middle child, and presents the easiest and most accessible route to a Trillingerne summit. To access the Trillingerne Peaks we first hiked to the Tasiilaq Mountain Hut. The hut is owned and maintained by a Danish doctor, Hans Christian Florian. Hans lives in the town of Tasiilaq, skis and climbs all over the area, keeps the climbing records and history of the Ammassalik District and serves as the unofficial liason between visiting climbers and local people. He provided us with info before the trip, invited us to check out the hut, and collected info on our climbs as we left.
We crashed outside of the hut, leaving the beds for a paying group of very attractive Norwegian women and their adventurous fathers. Interaction with this group was our first real touch with the outside world- awkward enough. On top of our fascination with any humans outside of our little group, the novelty of very attractive women was almost too much to handle. Darcy fell in love and couldn't stop talking about them.

Anyway, early one morning we took off from the Hut, traveled about 6 miles along a fairly flat glacier and began our climb. The climb, above the glacier, was 1000 meters of ridge-line scrambling. Mixed into easier blocky terrain were steps of more technical climbing requiring the full gamut of rope techniques. As a party of three we moved more slowly than a route like this requires and found ourselves 12 hours out and only half way UP the climb. 6-8 hours of climbing were ahead of us, as well as 10-12 hours of descending and retracing our steps to the hut and our sleeping bags. We took some pictures, enjoyed the fresh views, and turned around. By that time we were more or less content with our trip, and if anything a bit burnt out on the mental demands of first-ascent and remote rock climbing. These alpine environments, even with a comfy basecamp and seemingly endless pizza supply, tax the brain and stress the nerves. In a sense, a big remote mountain face or ridge is like a battle ground. One must stay on constant guard, strategizing, watching out for dangers, changing the plan as conditions change. Not to mention the weather and possibility of trouble in that realm. All this mental stress, compounded by athletic exertion can wear a body down. We were well trained and somewhat ready for the stresses but still were worn out by the end of the trip. It would have been nice to summit Trillingerne but it also feels nice to have left wanting more.

Next Chapter, getting home. More adventurous than we really bargained for.

-throwback- Greenland 2007: Chapter Three- Climbing

Now to the climbing! I'll try and give details about the climbing without too much of the boring lingo and statistics that climbers really geek out on. Jed leading on our first climb.

For the uninitiated, here's a rundown of the mechanics of rock climbing like we did and the most basic lingo. We climbed the rock as much as we could using only our hands and feet. The rope and gear are there on the way up only if we fall. We call this "free" climbing. On one climb, on only one occasion, did we use the equipment for upward progress. This is "aid" climbing. The first person up, the leader, ties into one end of our 60 meter rope and heads off. As soon as he or she can she places an anchor point in the rock, usually a really strong piece of metal stuck in a really strong crack in the rock. The right use of the gear results in an anchor that could hold a truck. The rope is clipped into this piece of "protection" so that it can run freely through and the leader can keep going. The leader, as he or she goes, periodically places more protection. Meanwhile, the climber left below, the "belayer" is paying out the rope through a friction device so that it feeds freely as the leader climbs, but can be locked off tight if the leader falls. If the leader falls, for some reason or another- difficult moves, poor balance, a hand or foothold breaks- he or she won't go very far because the rope is attached through intermediate protection points. When the rope runs out or a ledge is reached or the leader runs out of gear, the leader stops and builds an even stronger anchor, ties into it, and the belayer's job changes. Now, the belayer climbs the "pitch" that the leader has already done, removing the gear, kept safe from above by the leader. The team regroups and the process starts over. We count the length of our routes in pitches- our shortest route was 6 pitches, the longest 16. At the top, we celebrate, and try and get down. The easiest way to get down is to walk off the easier side of the mountain. None of the mountains in Greenland had easier sides. So, we "rappelled". Using the same ropes and equipment, we'd build an anchor run the rope through it, slide down the rope in a controlled fashion, build an anchor when the rope runs out, tie into that, pull the rope through the top anchor, and repeat. Yes, we leave the anchor each time we rappel. An expensive proposition, and really like littering. But a necessary evil.

We went to Greenland specifically to climb on a row of peaks already named the "Fox Jaw Cirque." Named so for it's resemblance to the jagged line of teeth in a fox's mouth and for the actual fox skeleton a group found near the bottom of the peaks. We ended up climbing on other peaks also.

Our first climb was on the smallest peak, one named the "Baby Molar". Nate, Annie and I climbed together on one side, and met up at the top with Josh, Kadin and Darcy. We all rappelled together, on this peak getting down was by far the most eventful and involved part. We scrambled down some, then made a few rappels through loose cliffs, rocks raining down as we passed, and into the top of a snow filled gully. We tied all 4 of our ropes together (over 600 feet of rope) and 5 of us rappelled down that one big rope. Darcy let the ropes go and then down climbed the snow. 18 hours after leaving camp we returned. This would be our easiest climb and the shortest day!

Rappelling from the Baby Molar.

The second climb we did, a few peaks up the ridge from the Baby Molar, was on what we named the Rabbit Ears. Kadin, Annie and I made one try at the Left Rabbit ear, rappelling before we reached the top, but having scouted the way. On that failed attempt we still were 24 hours on the move. A few days later Nate, Kadin and I went up and completed the route in 26 hours.

Climb number 3 was a scrambling affair, meaning Kadin and I went out without the ropes and equipment hoping our route would prove easy enough. As it turned out, it was just easy enough, and with weather approaching, being literally untethered proved to be key. We moved quickly and smoothly up and down Peak 1490 , returning to dinner at camp just as it rained on us. This rain, almost 2 weeks into our trip, was the first foul weather we had.

Climb number 4 was our hardest, proudest and most involved. Annie, Nate and I worked for about 5 days on a new route on a feature already named "the Incisor." We actually set out to do the existing route, playing it conservatively on the biggest mountain face in the Fox Jaw. However, we couldn't find exactly where the guy before us had gone, so we wandered up the first half, leaving our ropes hanging anchored to the rock once while we rested up in the valley. Annie and Nate basically led the first part as I helped out, carrying the gear up. We came back to our fixed ropes two days later but didn't make any new ground as it rained on us. More rest, more strategizing, and we went back up psyched. We climbed up our ropes and immediately found anchors left in place on the original route. We followed this route for just a few pitches and then forged our own path to the very top. Actually, we got lost and luckily found a way up. On the top, in approaching clouds, it started to rain. We rappelled 6 hours, soaking ropes, shoes, clothes, everything. But we made it back to the valley floor and our basecamp 24 hours after we had left.

-throwback- Greenland 2007: Chapter Two- Getting Oriented

Once we settled in to Base camp, our mission was to get oriented to the mountains around us and keep gathering info about the rock climbing.

We went to Greenland basically to climb mountains that no one had ever climbed before. If the mountains that looked cool had already been climbed, we'd "settle" for climbing them by a route that had not been done before. Rock climbing in the States usually starts with consulting a guide book. Guide books have information about where the climb starts, how hard it is, how to navigate tricky sections and how to get back down to level ground. In Greenland (and other remote mountain ranges) this information is much harder to find. If it exists at all. Maybe no one has been where you want to climb. Or maybe they just didn't record or relate any thing they learned while climbing. Times are kinda changing in the rock climbing world. In the "imperialistic age" of rock climbing, you did something new and exciting so you could write about it. With a dwindling supply of new mountains and routes, some choose to record less. Some of us really appreciate the adventure of heading off into the unknown. We could just ignore the guidebooks. But some of us like researching as much as we can. For those of us who like the adventure AND the researching, we must go where we at least think no one has gone before. Places like this are kind of a "non-renewable" resource. As soon as someone writes down what they've done, or draws and publishes a picture of their climbing route, it has officially been done.

So, in Greenland we found a whole range of information available and route records. Before we left we read journal articles about climbs completed. Josh swapped e-mails with people who'd been there before. Nate sat down and talked with a climber who'd been there before. We visited a hut, 3 hours walk from our basecamp, and read the log book to learn more. Finally we could sit in our meadow and look through Dad's spotting scope at the mountains. Finally doing our own on-the-ground research, filling in the gaps of knowledge. We wouldn't know the whole story until we actually climbed the peaks, but we kept looking and dreaming.

After the researching and scouting, the boating and the flying, the hiking and the grocery shopping, actual rock climbing was much welcome. This is what we'd trained for. This is what we came for. We climbed in groups of three, usually two groups out on different peaks and different routes, sometimes talking to each other with small radios.A rock climbing day in Greenland starts with a bit of a walk. We'd walk up a grassy and mossy slope and onto the glacial moraine. Moraine is basically huge piles of unsorted sand, rocks and boulders, somehow perched well above the angle of repose. Walking on moraine is a "two steps forward and one step back" kind of exercise.

There's Annie hiking to the base of a climb, on the moraine and in the fog.

Above the grass and moraine, but before getting on the rocks, is the glacier itself. Glaciers are picturesque, novel to us 'Mericans, and present a unique logistical challenge. Glaciers are moving masses of ice, cracking as they move and covering and uncovering with snow as the seasons change. New snow in the winter accumulates, filling in the cracks. In the spring, at least some of the surface snow melts, exposing the cracks. The cracks, or crevasses to be more correct, are slippery, cold, and taper evenly from the surface width to nothing at about 100 feet down. Translation, you don't want to fall into one. If you do fall into one, you really don't want to fall too far. To prevent this, first we like to travel either when we can see all the cracks, and can just walk around them. We'd call this a "dry" glacier and just walk to where we want to go. The next best scenario is to walk on a completely snow-covered glacier. That mid-winter scenario, where the crevasses are covered and usually filled in, leaves us a smooth unblemished surface to walk on, but still some uncertainty as to whether the cracks are really completely filled in. Against that uncertainty, we tie ourselves together, 2-3-4 people depending, along a single rope about 30 feet apart. If someone unexpectedly falls in a crack, the others on the rope can hold their weight while the fallen climber climbs back out or is hauled back out. The 'tweener season, where some cracks are exposed and others are barely covered, is even harder for glacier navigation. Simply, we're even more likely to fall in the hidden holes. And we have to walk around or jump over the cracks we can see. Pretty much all of our climbing in Greenland was on glaciers in the transitional period. And, all of us fell in at least once. Annie was the first to go in and I actually fell in the same crack twice, once going to a climb, and again on the way back home. After the glaciers, at long last, is the climbing. We'll get into that in the next chapter.

-throwback- Greenland 2007: Chapter One- Getting to Greenland

The Greenland story basically begins with our buddy Josh, the common thread and organizer of our group. I've known Josh since 2003, when we met in the Bishop substitute teacher world. Through other connections actually, we ended up living together. Before I met Josh, Annie had met him while hitch hiking one day. Kadin and Josh met in 2nd grade, raced salamanders across New Hampshire mud puddles and now climb together on far flung mountains. Darcy impressed Josh as they worked together for the National Outdoor Leadership school. Darcy is a Canadian teaching rock climbing in an Indian accent for a US company in South America. Nate is a ridiculously strong rock climber, grew up racing mountain bikes in California and is studying to be a doctor of outdoor things. Really. We're still not sure how he's connected to the group.
Josh started bringing us and the details of the trip together in early 2006.
Team Greenland '07 clockwise from top: Kadin, Darcy, Josh, Nate, Annie, Jed

We swapped e-mails, bought tickets, trained, saved money, and talked about polar bears for about a year. Then we all met up in Iceland, THE portal for East Greenland. But you wouldn't know it wandering around Reykjavik. Everyone there seemed more concerned with four wheel drives, hot springs and sweet night clubs. But it served our purpose.

In Greenland, straight off the plane, icebergs and big rocky mountains and people that looked really different greeted us. We landed in Greenland on a dirt airstrip next to a tiny airport terminal. The east coast of Greenland has no year round ports. Everything comes in either on an expensive, small plane to that dirt airstrip, or on a ship on one of about four trips each year. The boat trips come during the ice free four months of summer, separated by a month each. Truly remote, very exotic feeling; way excited 'Mericans. Our group excitement was quickly tempered by reality. We had arrived before the first ship. Plane space for us, and the grocery stores, was way too expensive to fill with food. We had none, the stores in the area had little more. We scoured the stores of the three small towns in the Ammassalik district- Kulusuk, Kummiit, and Tasiilaq. The shopping took us many hours of slow-boating through icebergs, many frantic moments in the aisles and tense minutes as the back woods credit card scanners beamed our numbers to who knows where. It all seemed pretty stressful at the time. We ended up with a serviceable food supply for the first half of the trip. Complete sustenance would require a mid-trip trek out to Kummiit after the supply ship arrived.

Once we were at least semi-satisfied with our food supply, our charter-boat driver Dines dropped us on the greening tundra at the head of the Tasillaq fjord. We schlepped almost a ton of food, camping gear and climbing equipment seven miles to a beautiful meadow in the middle of braided glacial rivers. Purple, rugged fireweed bloomed first, random yellow flowers followed, and blueberries came out just as we were leaving.
Walking to basecamp, along tidal mud flats in Tasiilaq Fjord.


It's a good sign, really.  I'm obsessed right now with fantasizing about international travel.  I mean, travel to exotic locales has been a passion and the source of dreams for a long time.  I have dabbled some with foreign travel, but haven't realized my greater ambitions.  And I'm ready.  I am ready to travel.  The past year or so has been a period of re-organization for me.  More ambitious "extra-curricular" adventures have been pushed to the back burner.  Now I'm ready! 

What prompted the change?  Well, predominantly it was a trip with Billy. Billy came from SoCal for 4 days of custom guiding in the peaks here.  He's young, psyched, well-read, fit, and motivated on the big mountains of the world.  I told him he's a bad influence: "Making" me revisit dreams of Asia and South America and Canada.  As a motivating tool, I'm going to re-publish some blog entries from years ago.  My last big expedition, actually, was in 2007 to Greenland.  The pictures and stories are wonderfully motivating.  It was a great trip!  I wrote it up with some pictures for a blog I used then.  In the interest of consolidation, I'll bring it back here.  We also got some publicity here.  Stay tuned...

Sunday, October 23, 2011

In some circles, particularly this rock climbing community, its a bit of a cliche: "head to the desert in the fall". Good weather, comfy camping, quality rock climbing, company of friends. All is found in our mountain deserts this time of year. Normally I squirm at these conventions, habits, cliches. But, as a wise friend has pointed out, conventions are conventional for a reason. Fall in the American Southwest Desert is awesome!

I just spent about 10 days in Red Rocks near Las Vegas. I drove to and fro through Death Valley. On the way back I seriously laid down in the above pictured sand dune near Owens Lake. Days and days of going hard amid the noise of cars and Vegas and wind and the quiet screaming of stress and critique inside my own head had caught up with me. Flopping out of the car and onto the quiet sand that evening was pure joy!

I'm back in the Sierra for a few days, but will again head east into the desert next week. This time, hopefully northern Arizona.