MIDNIGHT SUN STATE OF MIND | GREENLAND
Exploring a ‘blank on the map’ in 2003
Naming mountains wasn’t something I had given much thought too. Until I find myself on the summit of a mountain that had no name, overlooking a pristine white valley in East Greenland. This is the 8th mountain we have climbed this week and we are getting creative. With our supply of spouses, offspring and pets names exhausted, we resort to Scrabble words. “Mt. Zo!” shouts Tim - our expedition Leader - in a flash of inspiration. We clip into our ski’s and descend the wide slopes back to our camp in the valley.
There are a dozen more unclimbed mountains in this area of Greenland. Each delineated by a circle drawn on our satellite map. This area has been named ‘Camp Icefield’ by Paul Walker of Tangent expeditions; a specialist in Greenland exploration. As far as we knew we are the first people to set foot here.
This is my first climbing expedition. I had considered joining a team climbing Mt. Shivling in India but the prospect of genuine exploration in Greenland drew me in. Greenland is the second largest ice sheet in the world and one of the last remaining wildernesses - a rare chance to explore a ‘blank on the map’.
“Welcome to the food chain’ jokes Alan - a seasoned polar explorer - as we watch the Twin Otter ski plane that brought us here head back to the comforts of Iceland. There isn’t a high Polar Bear danger here - we are too far inland - but we appreciate the drama it adds to our arrival.
The first few hours on the Greenland icecap have a raw exhilaration. The landscape shimmers around us as we stand surrounded by boxes containing out tents, equipment and food for 3 weeks. It’s late afternoon, but there is no hurry to set up camp for the night; the night will not come.
In central Greenland, the sun does not set from June until the end of July. The low-lying sun bathes the landscape in a dreamlike palette of pinks, yellows and purples. Days seem to have no beginning and no end. The traditional concept of time starts to blur at the edges.
I’m breaking trail to the next camp - dragging a Pulk (a Nordic sledge) that holds my tent, equipment and food. I scan the terrain ahead of me - trying to work out areas that may be crevassed. I can hear the rest of the team chatting some way behind me. The reasoning being that if I fell in a crevasse, the Pulk would arrest my fall and they would enact a rescue. It’s a calm day, the sun is casting delicate shadows over the mountains - I try not to let this lull me into a false sense of security - things can change in an instant here.
There is a vastness here unlike anything I have seen before - a sky so wide and deep that it cannot be taken in at a glance but must be studied section by section. A landscape made monotonous by its size and frightening in its simplicity. The sea of ice shifts and creaks around me. A stray bird flies overhead - the only sign of life we have seen all day.
Climbing in Greenland is a different experience to climbing in Europe. There is no trace of humanity, no maps or guidebooks, no 2am ‘alpine starts’ and all our travelling is on skis. The ‘midnight sun’ creates strange 24hr days where we have complete freedom to set our own agenda, but with this freedom also comes confusion. Our days (or nights) are filled with a surreal flow of activities - cooking, climbing, digging toilets, reading Jack Reacher novels, route planning, melting snow, playing scrabble and scanning the horizon for polar bears.
As we progress up the valley we notice a cluster of black storm clouds following us - cartoon-like against the sparse white landscape. As we hurry to put up the tents there is an ominous ‘Craack’ as a tent pole snaps. I exchange glances with Alastair - my tent-mate - as we use a metal tube to repair it. We both know if another one snaps we’ll be sleeping in a snow hole. We climb into our tents and wait for the storm to hit.
Storms - or ‘Piteraqs’ as they are known locally - can be very violent and last for days. Cold air sits on the top of the ice cap and then sometimes without warning will release and flow down the ice cap towards the sea. These winds can go from very weak to very strong in a matter of minutes. I have read accounts of expeditions being pinned down for a week. Thankfully our ‘Piteraq’ only lasts the night and we emerge into bright sunshine the following morning.
Our amenable group is led by Everest guide (and team Scrabble champion) Tim Mosedale. It includes round-the-world yachtsman Pete Goss and polar explorer Alan Chambers - using the expedition as training for their upcoming South Pole expedition.
We endured little polar hardship on this trip though; a perfect introduction to polar style travel. Our expedition made 14 first ascents during 3 weeks of perpetual daylight. It still makes me chuckle that somewhere in the records of the Royal Geographic Society in London, there is an entry for ‘Mt. Zo’. Surely testament to the mind-bending qualities of the ‘midnight sun’.
The main prize for most of us though was simply the opportunity to set foot on the Greenland Icecap. Ice could now be considered an endangered species, and here in the wilderness of East Greenland, one can fully experience it.
I travelled with Tangent Expeditions in 2003
Photography: Ricoh GR1 film camera