Sverre Aarseth
Mountain skyline
All-Round N-Body Guy, Mountaineer and Wild-Life Enthusiast

Expedition report: East Greenland 1992

Members: Sverre Aarseth (Norway), Edgar Knobloch, David Smith (UK), Lanny Murdoch, Chris Pritchet, Scott Tremaine, Howard Yee (Canada)

Our charter plane picked us up at Keflavik airport on 24 July. Apart from one paying passenger, there were six Danes from the Sirius Patrol who got a free flight, allowing the Twin Otter to go empty from Akureyri. After about 2.5 hours we landed at Mestersvig (72 deg N), where poor visibility only permitted a glimpse of the surrounding mountains. We were given the use of a small hut for changing and storage. The various documents and security equipment which had taken me such a big effort to obtain were inspected and found acceptable (firearms licences, radio licence, expedition permit, hunting rifle and personal locator beacon). By 6 p.m. we had finished supper and set off on the trail with extremely heavy loads, leaving spare clothes and some duplicated communal equipment behind. The first obstacle soon presented itself in the form of a river crossing. Fortunately everyone had brought training shoes for this purpose but even so one had to be careful, balancing a heavy sack in murky water. The subsequent progress was rather slow and after a few hours more we set up camp in damp conditions.

Next day we followed the road as far as the mine, then contoured round the valley and reached Gefion Pass which was still covered in soft snow. After some debate on the best way we continued downwards, past some wet bogs and reached a prominent shoulder with spectacular views across to the Bersaekerbrae Glacier. Here we put up our three tents and pondered the next move (I finished off a four-portion freeze-dried dinner by mistake).

Day 3 started with a steep descent to a place where the river could be negotiated; followed by a muddy scramble up the other side. This pattern of crossing ravines, which could not be spotted at some distance away, was repeated several times. (In retrospect, we would have made faster progress by going all the way down to the river.) The apparent scarcity of camping sites forced an early halt, with our prospective base camp still a long way off, but the heavy burden did not invite a further long and uncertain trek.

The final day of approach placed new obstacles in our path. Now we had to pass through a veritable boulder field, and it was a great relief to reach the snout of the Skelbrae Glacier. Putting foot on solid ice was very welcome and the easy slope of the glacier made for good progress. Base camp was established on a flat part (c. 600 m), near the bottom of the Kishmul Glacier. An exploratory hike up the Kishmul revealed soft snow with considerable amounts of water further up.

The first night without any rain or mosquitos was very enjoyable. As the initial objective the Edinbrae Glacier was chosen. We decided to attempt the icefall leading up to the apparent col. This involved some interesting and moderate ice scrambling, taking care to avoid huge crevasses. Edgar's skilful route finding was eventually defeated by a sheer drop and we had to retreat all the way down. However, useful climbing experience was gained.

On day 6 we made an earlier start, heading for the col by way of a snow gully which had been inspected the previous day. This time there were no problems in getting up. However, further progress now became extremely problematical. Scott, who was in the lead, fell into several hidden crevasses in spite of constant probing with a ski pole. It soon became clear that our chances of further advance were hopeless and the visibility was also poor; hence another retreat was enforced. The rest of the day was spent sleeping while it rained; then some welcome evening sunshine enabled damp clothes to be dried out.

Another early rise was made with the idea of attempting the rocky ridge starting from the Edinbrae col. However, the weather was poor again, and we therefore decided to break camp and move up the Kishmul Glacier in the hope of improved conditions. A flat area at about 900 m was selected as the new base camp. Although there was no running water near by, we were able to satisfy our needs from a small hole which maintained its level. [In fact, no ice was melted on stoves during the entire trip so we carried too much fuel.] After lunch Edgar, Scott and I explored the route further up the glacier, when I located a dozen snow-covered crevasses which were then marked with wands. From this central position we had a spectacular view, with snow-capped peaks all around.

Finally, on day 8 the weather improved and the whole party went up the glacier. In spite of the embarrassment of my crampon falling off (which was fixed thanks to David's pliers), I was allowed to lead the first rope; the second rope invariably consisted of the Baffin gang (Lanny, Chris, Howard and David). After gaining some height we spotted a promising snow couloir which led up to a ridge with apparent connection to the summit. The gully was very narrow in places but the snow enabled fast progress, punctuated by short stops for placing protection. After quite a scramble I reached a small summit (c. 1500 m) at the junction of the ridge, with just enough space for everyone to squeeze together. We enjoyed the stupendous view in perfect visibility. Much to our surprise, there was an abrupt drop in the ridge at this spot so we decided reluctantly to forgo an attempt on the slightly higher summit towers. Still, we felt we had achieved something at last.

After an early turn-in we got up at midnight in order to benefit from firmer surfaces. Even so, the boots occasionally sank into deep holes which slowed progress but such obstacles are more bearable without loads. We followed the previous day's tracks for a while; then it became a question of finding a route through a basin containing various obstacles. Edgar wisely avoided going up an avalanche cone which seemed to offer the shortest route seen from our angle but this turned out to be a deception. Crossing over to the other side, a good trail brought us up in full view of our objective (Pt. 1603, or maybe Richmond Peak ?). After some debate the first rope decided to intercept the ridge some distance beyond the col, whereas the three others (Lanny, Chris and Howard) headed for the col itself. Scott now took over the arduous task of breaking trail. Soon the snow conditions became quite difficult, making every step an effort. On the way up a steep snow gully we came across some flowers clinging to a rocky ledge. Here Scott disappeared round a corner and fought his way up the steepening ridge. Luckily we intersected the ridge just beyond a small tower which barred progress for the others. Further up Edgar took over the lead. It now became quite rocky which permitted slings to be placed. On reaching an exposed but flatter part we joined up again so that Edgar could set off with a new supply of slings. This proved sufficient and following some scrambling, the summit (c. 1700 m) was reached seven hours after leaving camp. The tiny summit allowed the three of us to crowd together. Several avalanches rumbled down towards our approach route on the opposite side while the others made their return, having seen us gain the summit. We enjoyed a brief view of Swiss Peak in glorious sunshine but my proposal of a lunch break was outvoted because of the increasing avalanche danger. Two hours later we were safely down and reached camp after a 12 hour trip.

Having explored this area a bit, we now faced the problem of staying on or trying something new in the few remaining days. In order to investigate the possibility of crossing over to the Bersaekerbrae Glacier, a scouting party of four (Edgar, David, Howard and Scott) set off for Glamus Col (c. 1400 m). Meanwhile Chris rested his strained back (caused by a slip at the col), whereas my swollen ankles (due to load carrying) enjoyed the first day of inactivity. The scouting party reached Glamus Col but unfavourable snow conditions made it too risky to attempt a crossing with full loads. Instead it was decided to gain the Bersaekerbrae from the Skeldal.

We broke camp on day 11 and retreated down the Kishmul Glacier. On reaching the snout of the Skelbrae Glacier, Lanny found a strong ice bridge which saved us from having to wade across the fearsome river. Now we walked along the flat river valley on sandy ground, spotting tracks from a previous party. The first Arctic plover appeared and we enjoyed a good lunch break at a place rich in flowers. Eventually we reached a trail leading up the moraine of the Bersaekerbrae. This trail was followed a few km; then we branched on to the glacier itself where a good campsite was found (c. 600 m).

After the strenuous previous day we made an exploratory walk further up the Bersaekerbrae. The main objective was to look for a food barrel which had been dropped by helicopter and could not be reached by a previous Scottish expedition because of soft snow. In spite of our effort, the goodies remained elusive. Higher up the snow conditions deteriorated and we decided to turn back at a point near the junction with the Dunnotar Glacier.

Our main objective now was Harlech (c. 1900 m), first climbed by lord Hunt's party in the 1960's. From camp we crossed the 2 km wide Bersaekerbrae and found our way between huge boulders to reach the ridge of Harlech. Route finding presented no problem and the scree ridge made for very efficient gain of height. Being the first to reach a shoulder at about 1500 m, I claim the lead for the technical part. After a quick instruction in the use of snow anchors we rope up and start the slow ascent. The first part is mainly on snow and we keep just below the side of the ridge which is corniched. Occasional protruding stones make suitable belay points and a deadman (snow anchor) is also used. In spite of bright sun the snow is still fairly firm but care is needed because of the big drop down the steep snow field. Quite incredibly, I am only wearing a fleece jacket on top of the thermal vest. At one place we cross over to the other side, after some careful steps along the ridge itself. Now it becomes more rocky and the crampons have to take the strain. Finally we see the rock spire and on arriving at its base I take a quick look round the side to ascertain that the subsequent ridge does not continue to rise. This is a great moment! Soon the others arrive, with David leading the second rope. It remains to scramble up a five metre spire. There is a tiny flat top which holds Edgar, Scott and me, then the four others get their chance to gain the highest point. The summit was reached at 11 a.m., some eight hours after leaving camp. We now enjoy some splendid panoramic views, especially towards the Dansketinde and Norsketinde, as well as the peaks at the end of the Bersaekerbrae. All too soon it is time to return. I lead all the way back to the unroping point without any problems in spite of the softer snow. From here we choose a snow gully which makes for a rapid sliding descent, with Lanny winning the race for home. The return across the glacier brings new obstacles. By now the streams have increased considerably and a careful search is needed in order to find suitable points for jumping across. David takes his time getting back, and after a hot drink in camp I return to escort him safely home.

Around 4 the next morning we hear some noises outside. There is a young fox rummaging in our empty dinner bags; however, there is practically no food left. Scott manages to get some pictures before the fox is scared off and runs up the glacier where it faces a bleak future. [This is a year with hardly any lemmings.] We break camp and retrace the track down to the Skel river, where we collect extra food and fuel hidden underneath a large pile of stones. Here we split into two groups in order to scout a possible river crossing which would save the long detour up to ice bridge just below the snout. Both parties report success and the river is crossed at two points; at our place it is divided into three channels and the water reaches up to the knees. Lanny goes ahead to look for camp sites while Chris retrieves the rifle which was hidden on a hill (who says polar bears don't roam inland?). There is only one likely place opposite the Bersaekerbrae moraine but this turns out to be quite good, with clean water a short walk away.

The last long day in the wilderness provides a dramatic experience. It is just possible to sneak along by the river's edge, at the bottom of a boulder field. Then there is a completely flat stretch consisting of partly frozen clay. Here the party strings out, with me and Howard at the rear. The surface is rather sticky but it is no worse than walking on soft snow. Suddenly near the end we are in big trouble. The presence of a tiny trickle of water has changed the consistency of the clay. Our boots begin to sink in deeply after each step and with my heavy load I get completely stuck, falling over. Fortunately I have the presence of mind to fall on to the rifle which provides some support because of its special cover. Assisted by Howard, who has also got stuck in spite of his small weight, I get up and drag my pack on to firm ground, then return to get him out. We are very dirty but relieved to have extricated ourselves from a potentially dangerous situation. Soon we reach the tundra and can begin to admire a variety of flowers which divert attention from the pains of load carrying. Further on we cross a huge ice sheet covering a shallow lake. At our lunch spot we find a 20 year old food dump left by mining prospectors; the honey tastes perfectly fine. Now we change course towards Mestersvig, rather than following the river out to sea. Crossing the last hill, we finally see the airstrip ahead. After some debate, David, Chris and Lanny set off for Mestersvig, whereas the others enjoy a last night in beautiful surroundings. A herd of musk ox are grazing near by and the cry of the snowy owl is heard during the night.

Next morning (day 16) we reach Mestersvig early. There is time to visit the control tower and learn more about this fascinating and remote part which may one day become much more accessible. The plane arrives on schedule and soon we are on our way. This time visibility is good and we have a full view of icebergs on one side and glaciated mountains on the other. Our privileged visit to the Arctic has been a great experience in spite of some poor weather and difficult snow conditions.

Sverre Aarseth


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