Listen to this article
To be the first on the summit of a mountain is the ultimate goal for many climbers but nowadays it is a rare privilege. The ambition to attain that delight enjoyed by our forefathers has been replaced by an emphasis on commercial expeditions that chaperone paying clients up peaks by well-trodden routes. But our climbing expedition to southern Greenland in the summer of 2004 rediscovered the pleasure enjoyed by previous generations: that of travelling in small groups to unexplored places and making first ascents of remote peaks.
The potential of the region for such mountaineering has only recently started to attract the attention of climbers, although it has thousands of square kilometres containing peaks that have never been climbed. There is another attraction. A glance at the maps sets the pulse racing: many have the magic word “Unexplored” on them.
A year before the expedition took place we started the planning, which involved sending 700 kilograms of mountaineering equipment by sea from the UK via Iceland to the village of Nanortalik, near Cape Farewell at the southernmost tip of Greenland.
It is an excellent destination for a mountaineering expedition, and going there is a dream compared with the difficulties of travelling to Third World countries in Asia or South America. Greenland's historical links to Denmark seem to bring legendary Scandinavian efficiency to travel arrangements, and it is easy to see why Greenland is gaining market share in international mountaineering tourism. Organising a mountaineering expedition to Nanortalik is made easier by the efforts of the local tourist office, run by Niels Taekker Jepsen. He has seen the area increase in popularity with expeditions during his 15 years in the job. In 2003, 18 expeditions used the village as a springboard: in 2004, that number was 30.
We travelled by boat 50 miles up Sondre Sermilik, the fjord near Nanortalik, and took that 700kg of pre-shipped equipment ashore, erecting our tents by a ruined hunters' hut. The windows were broken and there were holes in the walls, but we used it to cook and sit in when rain, wind or mosquitoes - and sometimes all three - made outdoor life intolerable.
On the first day we explored the valley behind the hut, hoping to find a way on to the inland ice. We learnt a lot about walking in Greenland, where the maximum speed is only two kilometres an hour. There are no footpaths in this untravelled country, so often you are jumping from boulder to boulder. An injury out there, a long way from help, would be serious. Furthermore, a fine-meshed head net to keep the multitudes of flying, biting things at bay is essential to retain sanity, as is a cream to deter biting and another to treat the inevitable bites. After this baptism of fire, travel through areas containing the vegetation in which these insects thrived was regarded with distaste and it became obvious our planning would centre on movement by sea in the hired inflatable dinghy.
That walk aggravated a bad sprain to my ankle suffered while running to get fit for this trip so I was going to be confined to base camp for the rest of the trip. The other five members of the expedition opted to explore the opposite side of the fjord where there seemed to be dozens of mountains with ridges offering access to high summits. They were to be away for three days, during which they would climb one mountain and come very close to the summit of another before retreating in the face of bad weather.
They would return with tales of the privilege of being the first to stand on the summit of a remote mountain. But I was also privileged. I enjoyed the solitude of being alone for three days in a remote place, surrounded by the rock and ice of Greenland's mountains. Some afternoons an eagle cruised slowly over the camp, head turning slowly as it searched for prey. This was just one of the benefits of living in such a wilderness.
One morning when I was there with another team member, two fishermen arrived by boat and put their net out. They took us out in their boat to see how they fished and gave us a fresh Arctic Char each, which we cooked within an hour on a fire made from driftwood. It was the best fish I have ever eaten.
My friends returned triumphant and told of bivouacs in blizzards and travel among high peaks. After my isolation their return made base camp felt strangely crowded, so I was pleased to be alone again when they left. Two went to climb the peak that dominated base camp. They talked of looking from the summit across hundreds of peaks to the inland ice. The last few metres of the route involved tricky climbing above a big drop in failing light and gathering cloud, and their return to camp the following day was no less exciting. It involved wading knee-deep across two rivers that were only 3 degrees C a leg-numbing experience.
The other three travelled 20 miles up the fjord, avoiding icebergs that can be so dangerous to a small inflatable dinghy. The next morning they left at 10am, crossed a glacier and, taking advantage of the 24-hour daylight of Greenland's summer, climbed through the night to the summit, returning to their bivouac site at 5.30am after a very tough day.
Later in the trip, one team member spent three days exploring alone and returned full of enthusiasm for the tranquillity found in such activity. A group of three enjoyed another Alpine adventure. Threatening bad weather led to their retreat from a high ridge that could have been found in the Alps.
After just over two weeks the boat arrived to pick us up at 6pm as promised, typical of the Scandinavian-style efficiency of Greenland.
We had achieved everything we had set out to do and more: we had wanted to explore remote, unclimbed mountains. We did not chalk up any world-class ascents or rewrite mountaineering history. But we were part of a growing trend back to a lost era when groups of friends could claim first ascents in remote country. And there can hardly be a more beautifully wild part of the world in which to do it than Greenland.