Adventure in the Fox Jaw cirque

‘Greenland Climb 2011’ won January’s leg of the Berghaus Adventure Challenge.

The team of three, consisting of Josh Glanvill, John Briggs and Graeme Glover, began their adventure by travelling to Greenland where they walked to the Fox Jaw Cirque area to climb a new route on an unclimbed 650m rock spire.

Their account of their adventure is below.

After several months of planning, departure day was upon us! We spent the evening before sorting our food rations and equipment into eight equal bags of 20kg. We could feel the nervous tension rising as we discussed our objective and just wanted to get the trip underway. Bags packed, we ate a hearty meal and got our heads down for the night.

The big day! We arrived at Gatwick loaded down with all our gear, checked in and said our farewells to family who had come to see us off. There was no turning back now – it was on! Arriving in Iceland, we had a night’s layover before flying on to Greenland. So we made our way to the hostel.

After the boredom of the hostel kicked in we headed into Reykjavic, to take in the sights. Realising it was a small and somewhat expensive city, we bought some supplies and ate under the towering cathedral, before heading back to our beds for the night. Morning came and we checked in all our bags at great expense and headed for Greenland.

As we made our final descent into Kulusuk air strip, we were more than alarmed to see east Greenland in winter conditions, given that we had come equipped mainly for a summer expedition. Our next leg was by a helicopter to Tasiilaq, so we crammed ourselves in with our gear and the cargo. After touching down we met up with our contact Dr Hanz Christianson, who kindly let us use his kit shed as our base for a few days. His hospitality knows no bounds and we were welcomed into his home like family, for which we were very grateful. He sorted us out with skis, sledges and some of the best home ground coffee in Greenland. Several days were passed repacking our kit and picking up last minute supplies and chartering a boat to take us the final leg to the fiord.

We made our way over the sea ice to our boat charter and began the nerve wracking journey through the maze of sea ice and icebergs. After several dead ends and closing ice passages (along with a brief toilet break on a large piece of stray ice- gripping) we arrived at the mouth of the fiord, to find it choked with ice. We stepped tentatively onto the ice, quickly packed our sledges and began the 60km slog into the cirque. This was made all the more challenging and hilarious as one member of the team announced he had only skied once on a dry slope!

We hauled our way along the frozen ice over three days, travelling at night when the snow and ice was firmer for skiing on. We were then confronted with a river complex in rapidly melting conditions. Graeme took the lead, crossing suspect and degrading snow and ice bridges across the meltwater torrents. Several ‘dips’ later we were on the final short push to the boulder field under the towering granite walls of the Fox Jaw and began to make our final camp.

After sorting our base camp, we began to make plans for our first attempt on the wall. Then bad luck hit camp as Graeme’s health started to deteriorate rapidly. It was decided that John and I should have an attempt and leave a cache of food and equipment at the foot of the wall. We left Graeme at base camp, to be a point of contact and relay information to the outside world via the sat phone. The wall was attempted in a single ground up push for the summit that lasted 39 hours. Unfortunately, the summit was not reached (high point 900m above sea level). We returned to camp wide eyed, exhausted and beyond hungry.

The next evening when we woke after a much needed and well earned rest, we discussed the climb and Graeme’s deteriorating condition. He was unable to keep fluids or food down for several days. A decision was made to get him out, but he stood firm that John and I should stay and get the job done. He was evacuated to the hospital in Tasiilaq where he spent several days having blood tests and being refuelled and rehydrated, leaving us feeling even more isolated than before!

The weather then broke, bringing rain for several days and speeding up the melting process of the snow and ice that covered the landscape. Time was spent sitting it out under a boulder, festering and brooding over the tactics for the next attempt on the wall. The weather improved and we set out again to the wall. Climbing in the same ground up single push style as before proved unsuccessful and we had to retreat due to injury and exhaustion.

After several days in camp, we took the decision to abandon attempts on the wall for safety issues. We spent time thinking of what to do next, as we needed to do something big or at least get out of camp for a few days. We decided to walk up a ridge on the other side of the valley. This idea then somehow turned into walking to the end of the valley and back over two days at a total distance of approximately 32km. This idea, in turn, became walk up the valley, climb a mountain then return over three days, a nice realistic challenge.

We started walking, and about 8km into the walk John asked me how much food I had packed. “Enough for three days,” was the answer, then I foolishly added “…plus a bit extra”. On paper, we had only just enough food for three and a half days so the plan changed again. We would walk up our valley, sleep, climb a mountain, walk down the coast passing two valleys, sleep again, then inland to follow the neighbouring fjord to the one we had skied up around the peninsula, sleep one last time and finally walk back to camp along the edge of the now mostly defrosted fjord. In hindsight, why and how this was a good idea eludes me, but we did make it back to camp when planned.

We had estimated the distance at around 90km, but when you take into account the constant change in terrain, disappearing and reappearing hunting trails and frustrating detours around waterfalls, giant rock walls and moraines from now distant glaciers it would total far more. The walking would consist of one of us walking far ahead (this was John in the morning, me in the evening), then meeting again every two hours or so. How we managed to keep to this regime was bizarre and we would always make it to our breaks on time. We were living off around 2000 calories a day and as much river water as we could stomach at each stop.

Every day would start as a magical saunter through beautiful unique terrain that constantly changed as we passed through it. As the day wore on it would turn into a nightmare of déjà vu, and playing mind tricks on ourselves. This culminated in me waking John up screaming because I thought he was going to lower me into the fjord head first from our last bivvy site. We made it back to camp and ate for what seemed like hours – protein shakes, vitamin pills and curry were all on the menu. We popped our pain killers and went to bed.

While on the walk out we had been offered a bit of R&R in Iceland by John’s parents – this of course seemed like a great idea, but it meant less rest time before we decamped to the boat pick up. Although we hadn’t been back for a whole day it made sense to me to start moving our gear to the pickup – after all, it was only 12km away. That night I moved a big blue barrel and the now fairly useless sledges to the pickup.

It was an emotional night and when I had left him, John was in the foetal position. When I turned up early in the morning from working through the night I found piles of sick leading to where John slept. John woke up, announced he had ‘shit’ himself, went back to sleep for a couple minutes then started having a conversation with me. He was weak from the sudden illness, and said he could walk out but need time to get his body back strength. I agreed and said I’d wake up and start shuttling gear out – all he had to do was wake up and go when he could.

The pickup was arranged for 1200 on the following day, so when I woke up at midday it was a pressing deadline. I packed the first bag, 30kg of gear, and set off again across what I had finished walking six hours earlier. The route was roughly what had taken us four days to cross on skis. In the middle was a moraine field that took over an hour to cross, although it was barely a kilometre wide. I would get to the pickup point, drop the gear and walk back. Once back at camp John was up; he’d been at the Dioralite and was feeling a bit better. I cooked our last meal at camp, probably the most calorific, horrendously thrown together concoction but it was all needed for one last push.

I planned on leaving at midnight and expected John to be leaving with me but he wanted a couple more hours sleep. I made to the end, only a partial victory because John wasn’t here, nor the boat but there was still time. I couldn’t sleep until we were both on a boat heading back to Tasilaq. John turned up looking very ill and tired; he had burst a vein in his eye when vomiting and was still dehydrated. When he saw the boat, he suddenly became full of energy, which was lucky as I had none left. We got on the boat and headed back to civilisation.

We would like to thank Berghaus, Alpkit and most of all our families for all their support and understanding without which we could not have done all that we did.

Plans are being made to return and finish what we started!

Josh Glanvill (with Graeme Glover and John Briggs).