Short on time but still want a real mountain wilderness adventure? This group of friends hopped on a flight – and 36 hours later they were looking up at an unclimbed mountain.
For most people in today’s frenetic world, being able to take months off to go on an expedition is simply out of the question. They are the preserve of professional adventurers and explorers with time on their hands. Or so you’d think. But expeditions don’t have to take months out of your diary. Wilderness can be discovered closer to home, as Andrew Denton recently discovered in Greenland.
Denton is not a professional explorer or mountain guide – although he’s banked nearly enough experience over the years that he almost could be if he wanted. Rather, he’s a busy working guy with a lot of demands on his time. The CEO of the Outdoor Industries Association, a consultant and investor, today his time is mostly taken up with efforts in the charity sector to get people into the outdoors.
“We’re not sponsored athletes but ordinary people with ordinary jobs in our 50s.”
Which makes their recent efforts in Greenland all the more impressive. In the space of a few weeks he and a group of five friends managed to ascend 12 mountains which they believe have never been climbed before. Besides ice axe, crampons and rifle he also had with him a Land Rover Explore Outdoor Phone.
“We’re not sponsored athletes,” he says. “We’re ordinary people with ordinary jobs but very keen and enthusiastic explorers. The average age was well into our 50s, and we’ve been doing trips together for 20 to 30 years all over the world.”
He says Greenland is probably the easiest place in the world they’ve found to find first ascents, in terms of ratio of ease of access to the ability to find virgin peaks.
“There are 1,000s of unclimbed mountains.”
“Most places, certainly in Europe and Scandinavia, everyone’s climbed everything,” he tells us. “Even in the Himalaya most things have been done that are relatively accessible. It would take you a week just to trek in and find an objective whereas you can take an Easyjet flight to Iceland, hop on a small private charter, get to the east coast of Greenland and within 36 hours be sat ready to climb a mountain that’s potentially never been climbed before. That’s amazing.”
The East Coast of Greenland has long been a favoured destination among exploratory mountaineers. Neal Gwynne, an expedition leader, has led five trips there. A former school master, in 2015 he led a group of ten 16 to 18 year-olds from Worksop College – they took off in a vintage Catalina sea plane from Loch Lomand, landed on a remote lake and made three first ascents.
“You can still do true exploration in Greenland and visit valleys that no one’s walked in, or see glaciers that have never been seen before,” he says. “There are thousands of unclimbed mountains along the coastline and there’s hardly anyone there, just two settlements along the coast and that’s it.”
“Bears are a constant danger.”
“There’s incredible wildlife too,” he adds. “arctic foxes, musk oxen, narwhals and polar bears.”
“Bears are a constant danger,” says Denton. “They are one of the only animals in the world that actively hunts man for food. There were three spotted within 10km of us but luckily none found us.”
“You have to set proximity alarms and trip wires against them and take a rifle and flares wherever you go,” Denton says.
Bad weather greeted their party on arrival and for the first week they were confined to locals’ wooden huts in the settlement of Kulusuk, home to 50 families and 400 dogs.
They made some day trips but as soon as the weather cleared they were able to jump aboard a rigid inflatable boat (RIB) and set up a BASE camp on the ice near Kangertivartikajk. From there the plan was to ski-tour up as many peaks as possible.
“We worked with a local Greenland guide from Pirhuk Expeditions,” says Denton. “He was fantastic and has a fascinating story; as a young hard core climber from Scotland he went to Greenland when he was 18 and was adopted by a Greenlandic Inuit family. Now 36, he runs support for international adventures like us, helping, guiding and acting as a liaison with the local hunters.”
“You have to earn your turns.”
Every morning, if the weather was good the party would get in the RIB and search for a new island or area and try to find a mountain to climb. The group were ski-mountaineering (also known as ski-touring), a sport that’s become visibly popular across the Alps in recent years. The skis are like regular alpine skis, only lighter and with a different binding set-up.
During the ascent nylon skins are placed underneath for grip while the binding is adjusted to let the heel rise, allowing a normal hiking movement. It is then locked back down for the descents.
“When we ran out of snow we’d put crampons on and climb the last bit carrying our skis, then look for a nice couloir to ski back down to the boat.”
In purely skiing terms, the descents offered a very poor return, he says, lasting as little as 20 minutes after hiking up around 1,000m of ascent in three to four hours.
“It’s a million miles from the lift-serviced skiing you get in places like Courcheval,” he says. “You’d ski down in this really choppy, heavy and difficult snow with avalanche debris and crevasses. You really had to put a lot of work in to earn your turns; we see ourselves more as alpinists than skiers.”
Using the Explore phone
Besides the ski-mountaineering equipment, also with them was a Land Rover Explore Outdoor Phone, on its first mission to the uniquely challenging polar and maritime climate. Electronic devices do not traditionally enjoy the combination of salt water, sea-air and extreme cold. (Explorers have been known to keep spare batteries near their nether regions to keep them warm.)
Denton says the Explore phone proved its rugged credentials. “I think it has real potential in the outdoors. It’s got three or four features that are genuinely better than a Galaxy or iPhone. I was able to use it with any gloves. It’s robust, water and shock proof and you can put the adventure pack on and get better GPS and longer battery life.”
The Explore was limited only by one thing – Greenland’s lack of phone signal. Fortunately, this proved no hindrance to the explorers. During the three week trip they made a total of 12 first ascents. “It was great,” he adds. The team is now planning the next mission.