This summer three friends and I are planning to sail to Greenland to climb some of the enormous cliffs that rise out of the sea along the island’s west coast. We’re all students who met through the Oxford University Mountaineering Club, and all have some years’ experience rock-climbing around the world. But nothing quite this big. For me at least, and I think for the others, this expedition is something on a new scale.
The plan is simple in essence. We will hitch a lift to Greenland from Canada on a yacht called the ‘Cosmic Dancer’. We will sail north along the west coast of Greenland to Upernavik, an area known for its massive rock walls. We will attempt some lines that other climbers have attempted in the past, and then go prospecting for new climbs along the coast, for about a month in total. It is a very remote part of the world. There will be pack ice. There may be bears (though I’m hoping not). There will almost certainly be storms, loose rock, dehydration, pain and other forms of unpleasantness.
In short, it may all sound pretty crazy. It sounded pretty crazy to me when I first heard about it, in the pub one night, from the expedition leader Tom Codrington. Why – besides the effects of the beer – did I say yes when he asked me to join? Let me try to explain…
Two summers ago I climbed an 800m face in the Swiss Alps with a friend. We climbed fast all day in the blazing sun, with hardly time to stop for a drink or a cereal bar. When we got near the top of the face I looked down. Beneath my feet was almost a kilometer of rock, a single slab of red granite dropping away onto a mass of buckled and tortured ice, the Cengalo Glacier losing its battle with global warming. There is something special about big faces like that. Standing on a tiny foothold, a nubbin of rock above that much air, you seem to be suspended between three dimensions: the sky around you, the ground away down below, and the rock, the wonderful sheet of rock itself to which you cling.
Rock comes in many kinds. There is slippery limestone, worn to a polished sheen by the boots of generations of climbers. There is rough gritstone in the Peak district, with its wonderful grippiness and crystals that bite into your fingers and chew up your hands in the cracks. There is slate in the North Wales quarries, precise and delicate climbing with tiny edges for fingers and toes. There is wet rock and rock covered in moss and vegetation and bird shit – which is unpleasant to say the least. I’m no geologist but I know what I like, and solid sun-warmed granite is pretty high on the list.
And that’s what these Greenland cliffs are made of – well, it may not be solid or especially warm but it’s granite, six hundred, eight hundred metres of granite rising straight out of the sea. I have always loved sea cliffs, though I’ve also been terrified by them. It adds a certain amount of atmosphere, as well as fear, to be climbing close to the sea – comparable but different from the feeling you get in the big mountains.
Those are my reasons: the joy of the situation, of being up there on the wall; the pleasure of movement, precise or brutally energetic, over the rock. There’s also the sense of pushing out and finding a limit. I don’t mean the limits of human possibility, there are thousands of climbers better than me, but a personal limit, to know the extent of what you can actually yourself achieve. It can be dangerous, sure – but that’s partly the point. Suddenly there is a lot at stake for you in what happens in the next ten minutes of your ife. Poised there, in that instant of uncertainty when you don’t know which way things will go – it could all go wrong, granted, but it could also go right, so very right, righter than ever before – you’re briefly, momentarily, in an unknown world.
And on a real expedition like this, climbing a newly discovered route in the middle of a genuine wilderness, all these factors are multiplied, as it were. There are more chances for things to go wrong, more potential suffering – but also that much more potential for satisfaction, for things to go righter than ever before. We may find and climb some impressive routes, but more than that, it will be an extraordinary kind of experience. I suppose that’s why I’m sailing to Greenland, going on this big and daunting expedition into what is genuinely, for me, the unknown.
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