vrijdag 24 oktober 2014

Greenland Chapter 5: The Thumbnail – A struggle with ourselves, the team and the goals…

The Thumbnail is a mighty granite big wall rising straight out of the Torsukattak fjord reaching a height of 1350 meter. This is definitely one of the biggest, maybe ‘the’ biggest, sea cliff in the world. It has been climbed the first time on the far right side of the wall in 2000 by a British team lead by Ian Parnell. Since then three more lines have been climbed on this big wall, but all of them where easier then the British first ascent with the grade E6 6b. The wall has still a lot of first ascent potential and looked like the perfect main objective of our trip.

We had over a week time to attempt a new line on this big seacliff. In the Stordalens basecamp we packed our bags for an adventure of seven days of vertical living. At this point I had the feeling something was wrong in the team. Tim’s ‘fire’ for climbing wasn’t like it was used to be. The packing went slow and logistical thinking was hard. Around noon we left basecamp and kayaked towards the base of the wall, which is about 6 km further south in Torsukattak fjord. Before reaching the base of the wall I peddled far out towards the other side of the fjord. This way I had a good overview of the wall to search for a new and climbable line. I took some pictures from different distances and joined Tim at the base of the wall. Here we found a great start straight out of the kayak. According to the pictures we thought this line would be possible to continue up to the big and spacious horizontal ledge halfway up the wall. The plan was to climb as high as possible that same day and haul all the gear up the wall to our highpoint. Like always in this kind of climbing you have to think several steps ahead. For the descent we would take a gully on the left side of the wall so we had to drop one kayak further south in the fjord at the base of the wall somewhere on shore. After dropping that kayak we would have to return towards the start of the route with the second kayak, jumare up and continue our climb. That second kayak we would leave at the base of our climb.

Most comfortable belayseat! 
Racking up!

Starting a big wall straight out of an inflatable kayak was something surreal. First of all we fixed a Camelot three meters above the water to attach our boats, otherwise they would float away all the time. Then we both struggled to gear up in the boat, it was exciting! Once I was ready, I took off. I was loaded with gear ready to concur the unknown terrain. Smoothly I climbed my way up the wall, enjoying this so much like it’s my first nature! After I made a little mistake and got into a blank section I down climbed and found the right way. Next, I made an anchor and finally saved Tim from the moving kayaks belaying him up the first pitch. He had been waiting quite a while lying down in the kayaks belaying when I was climbing. Tim wasn’t feeling well, his climbing skills weren’t like we were used too and his normally pretty strong and motivated mental state was missing. What could be wrong with him? Tired? No motivation? Intimidated? I didn’t know, but I was worried.
First pitch, off in the unknown.
I continued leading the second pitch, climbing a tricky corner onto a beautiful arête continuing by a dirty crack which I cleaned to place the gear. Again this second pitch was like the first one, a classic pitch on perfect granite, nothing loose and great friction. The technical grade was around 6c French so perfect to start with. Also this pitch Tim followed. At that second belay we discussed our situation and Tim’s tensed feeling. Good and honest communication is a key ingredient on a big wall trip like this one. Mental and physical tiredness from the last few weeks had struck and resulted in low motivation. Maybe it would get better when we had a good sleep on the wall and see the beauty around us waking up above the sea! We tried to give the low motivation a boost and Tim continued for the third pitch that gave way on another blank section. Probably we had to climb back down 5 meters and switch towards another cracksystem. 

But then, before we could even search for another way something surreal happened. While Tim was climbing I looked down towards our kayaks, 80 meters below. Suddenly I saw one of the two haulbags floating away with the current into the fjord. In some way it had flipped out of the kayak. 

I lowered Tim and he continued lowering towards the kayaks using the static line. Quickly Tim detached one kayak from the anchor and peddled towards the floating haulbag. Now the haulbag was full of water and super heavy to lift back into the boat. Tim clipped the haulbag to the boat and peddled back to the static rope. At the mean time I descended and helped Tim hauling the bag into the boat using the static rope. Unfortunately it was the haulbag with all our camping and sleeping gear. The damage wasn’t too bad because we used a lot of drybags. But still things like our sleeping bags, food and first aid where soaked with seawater. It became very clear we could not overnight on the wall with wet sleeping bags, we had to return to basecamp to sleep in a tent. Before returning to basecamp we first went up to our highpoint again, organised the ropes and the gear and left all of it behind with the thought to come back and continue our attempt the next day when everything was dry again.

Tim in the last grassy bit of the second pitch. 
But that time the wet sleeping bag and the whole floating haulbag situation was not the problem. Before we would be able to continue up this big wall the next day we had to sort out Tim’s and so, the team’s motivation. We are a team of two climbers, when one is not feeling a hundred percent strong mentally and physically, the second teammember cannot compensate this missing energy on his own. As a team of two there is only two angles of looking at the things. When the two are looking from the same angle in the same direction, like it should be on a big wall expedition, things are well and feel easy. But when the two are each looking in a different direction with different expectations, reaching goals will be more complicated. At a certain point one can motivate the other but there is limits on motivation and motivational powers that live in a team. On day 32 if the trip, the day after our Thumbnail attempt we got to the point we head to find a new headspace. We had to agree about the goals and each other’s expectations again, get back at the same level of looking at things, and make the decision of going for it with all our motivation and energy we still had left or to leave that Thumbnail wall behind and find other goals. This last decision meant a lot to me. It was not just a climb that we would leave behind; it was a whole expedition, great efforts, organisation and most of all… a dream. But this was reality and it hurts. Sometimes things are not like you expect them to be. I thought I knew the risks of an expedition. Not reaching your objectives can happen because of an accident or bad weather, but this? Leaving the wall behind because my partner didn’t feel well and motivated anymore, this I didn’t expect. But it had to be the right decision. I understand Tim, sometimes you feel just empty, mentally as well as physically. Continuing in this state could be dangerous and not worth it. So the second decision it became. We left the wall behind, I left a dream behind…

A dream which is still there to go back to...
New and smaller objectives – The Dreadlock Peak

Dreadlock Peak in the back.
The next day we decided to kayak back to the Thumbnail and take down the first two pitches we climbed. We recovered all the gear and returned to basecamp. But now we needed one more objective, we couldn’t leave this last destination of the trip without climbing a single wall and reaching a summit. It was hard to face the fact we hiked and kayaked all the way for just climbing up a big wall 80 meters. So we needed something to climb in our last 5 days before the British crew came back to give us a lift to England. There is a big difference between climbing a wall of 1350 meters or one of 400 meters, for a wall like this last one we still had the energy and motivation. From Stordalens basecamp we could see one beautiful peak further down the Qingeq Kujalleq valley. Like everywhere in this area it was hard to estimate the distance to the wall and the height of the wall. This wall was a lookalike of the Grand Capucin in Chamonix. We estimated the climb would count 12 to 15 pitches and 500 to 600 meters high.

When our minds were set on climbing this peak, our mental state got better as before. Motivation returned because we knew this could be an objective we could still realise in the exhausted state we were by then. But still, somewhere inside us, the odd feeling of not continuing for our main goal remained. We took off to the wall, a long and extremely steep two-hour hike brought us to the base of the wall inside of a couloirs. The first afternoon we climbed up four incredible pitches. Not only the wall looked like Grand Capucin but also the rock quality was at least as good! Pitch two, three and four where all classics, graded more or less 6c+. A lot of different small crack systems close to each other made the climbs feel very sporty with good but small gear. I lead the second pitch, when I left the first belay I realised this is what I like the most! I love granite climbing and I adore climbing new lines. There is this extra touch to it I can’t exactly describe. My mind is extremely focused and the awareness of leading on yet unclimbed terrain makes me extremely carful but steady. We fixed a static rope from the anchor of the third pitch straight to the ground and went down in the evening. This would give us a quick start tomorrow when we would like to top out the estimated 12 to 15 pitches. We left all the gear up and descended two hours by food towards our advanced basecamp only one hour from the real bas camp.

Tim in one of the last pitches at Dreadlock Peak.
After a night sleeping under the portaledge fly in full moonlight we woke up at 5:40 am and hiked back up. We were ready for a long day, considering the descent of the wall that would take a while since we had to make our own rappel anchors. We jumared up the static rope and climbed up to our high point. Continuing our route, the grades got easier (6a/b) and we made quick progress. Against all expectations we arrived on the summit after only four more pitches, so eight pitches in total. The day now looked different and shorter as expected when we toped out when it was only midday. We were both a little disappointed the wall turned out to be less big as we thought and the climbing besides the first four pitches was very easy. On the top we chilled for a while and talked about the process of our whole Greenland trip and how it could have changed like that. Great reflections were made on the top of this peak and we enjoyed the amazing environment on this exposed peak between all the other mountains and walls around us.

The top of Dreadlock Peak.
During our hike through Klosterdalen valley we talked about reaching a next summit. We hoped it would be the summit of a great challenge. I decided to cut of my two old dreadlocks I wore for three years and wanted to do this on the summit of a first ascent. Now we were sitting on top of the Grand Capucin lookalike peak and had just done a first ascent. It wasn’t the first ascent of a new big wall route on the Thumbnail. It wasn’t the most satisfying summit and the big challenge we had hoped for but it still was a first ascent. So this is where the Petzl Sparta knife came in handy. Like I had agreed with myself before, I cut of the ‘rat tails’ and left them on the summit. Symbolically: sometimes you have to break with the past! This is when Tim and I decided ‘Dreadlock Peak’ was born. We climbed an easy but nice and classic line of 370 meters on Dreadlock Peak, 8 pitches on a wall of 300 to 350 meters height, graded French 6c+/7a.

The dread is still there! 
The rappels went smooth; we left some pitons, tag and one nut. Tim always went first testing the rap anchor backed up with a proper anchor when I went lightweight on sometimes just one piton or sling, scary and exciting! In this climb I realised again how much I love the pure climbing when you have to make your own anchors, search your own way and decent your own route in your own style. It’s adventurous, exciting and it demands some thinking ahead.
Still we had three days left before the Brits would pick us up. Opposite of the Dreadlock Peak we had seen one other wall that looked climbable in one day. The upper part of the wall attracted us the most. It was a nice and smooth looking orange wall with some obvious corners. After one day of rest we approached this wall lightweight style. The first five pitches were funky with a lot of short technical bits divided by several ledges.  In the sixed pitch we traversed 60 meters towards a big horizontal ledge of which we started off straight into a perfect corner crack. These next two pitches might have been of the best we had done in Greenland. Once on top we could descent on the backside and walk (and scramble) straight towards basecamp in only 1 hour. This day was great, we both enjoyed what we thought would be our last climb in Greenland.
The walls opposite of Dreadlock Peak which we climbed on the left.
This part of the trip was mentally the most difficult. But I’m sure both of us learned some lessons about travelling, setting goals, being in the middle of nowhere with a friend, communication and way more. On this I will reflect in the last Chapter 7. But first there is the story about our return to Belgium, this time no plane but a sailboat will bring us home after a big trip! Getting sick and bored because of the endless amount of water… Coming soon: “Chapter 6: Upgrade – from kayak to sailboat crossing the Atlantic!”.

The Bitisch sailboat 'Quastar' in the evening sun!
Me placing a belay for the kayaks!
Fishing: 10 fish in one hour! 
The nature food: mushrooms, blueberry jam and fresh Arctic Char!
A cute Inuit kid from Aappilattoq playing at the water.
In Stordalens we caught loads of fish!
Drying our rope after getting our gear out of the Thumbnail.
Ready for a 'rat tail' cut!

maandag 20 oktober 2014

Greenland Chapter 4: Earth and Water - Towards the unknown fjords and a new objective

Kangikitsoq Fjord... Almost!!!
… Together we cruised down the mountain river in our kayaks with a ton of gear. We were surrounded by the most beautiful mountains, glaciers, rocky fields, flowers, meadows,… in a nutshell: wild nature at its best! Unlike the flat and deep waters of the fjords, kayaking on this shallow and small mountain river in Klosterdalen with a rubber ‘flat-water’ kayak was exciting. We had been sick of hiking! Check out the ridiculous amount of hiking we did to follow the story: 
Greenland Big Wall Kayak Trip - The Map

Me, kayaking straight into the small lake.
Back in time… (day 23)

After the disappointment of the Titans we returned on day 23 all the way towards the Tasermiut entrance of the Klosterdalen valley and ended our third day hiking back where we started. We aimed to get all the other gear we had left three days before and carry it up to the Titans and from there on we would make our way with a total of 240kg towards the other end of the valley (Kangikitsoq Fjord). When we arrived that night at 8pm we saw a sailboat that had his anchorage in the bay below the Ketil Fjeld south face. Tim, social and unashamed like he is, didn’t hesitate and suggested to go and have a look at the sailboat. Who knows… maybe they could bring our gear to the other side of the Klosterdalen Valley so we didn’t have to carry it all… We blew up a kayak and peddled straight to the boat. This is where we met a nice crew of British sailors on their ten week trip in south Greenland. After some thee and blueberry crumble we had a plan, they agreed bringing our extra food and gear (40kg) towards the Inuit Village of Aappilattoq. They would be there in more or less one week, that’s the time we probably needed to carry all our gear to the other end of the valley and continue by kayak to the village.

Back to day 26…

Our two loaded kayaks in the small lake after the river excitement.
We were lucky because we could cover some distance in the valley by kayak. During the last five days we hiked three times every distance with a backpack of 35 kg, so 6 bag’s in total for the two of us. The days were long, the distance we covered we did five times, three times with the bags and two times to return for the bags. This morning we started our day with some kayaking on the big river lake which is 2,5 km long. What a luxury, not having to hike that distance five times! Unfortunately, from the end of the lake we had to hike more or less 2 km again with the bags. We hiked to a point were we could set up the kayaks again and continue on the mountain river that alights in a small mountain lake. This is where we are right now, I was ahead of Tim kayaking in the direction of the small lake. The closer we came to the lake the calmer the river became. Suddenly the stream pushed us into the lake, which was breathtakingly. The lake was full of granite boulders sticking out of the water and on shore on both sides of the lake, smooth hills covered with low blackberry bushes and more boulders gave a peaceful atmosphere. At the end of the lake the river continued, but this time it became to wild for our rubber boats to go any further. Here we got on shore and made camp, only half a day hiking with all the bags and we would be at the beginning of the Kangikitsoq Fjord.

Day 27, our legs were tired and keeping balance hiking over this rough terrain with 35kg became more difficult every day. It was about time we could kayak long distances again. In five times 40 minutes walking we arrived at the start of the fjord. What a relief and a great performance. In total we hiked the Klosterdalen valley (22,5 km) five times with a total of 100 kg per person on the back and an altitude gain and descent of 600m through rough terrain. This afternoon we deserved a rest. We found a grassy flat spot next to the seawater, the weather was nice and we chilled and made our small expedition pizzas. Our idyllic camping spot was located next to the rivermouth and surrounded by the sea. We were surrounded by steep hills as well on the land as in the sea. The hills in the sea made gorgeous little islands.     
Expedition pizza's!
The Idillic camping spot at the start of the Kangikitsoq Fjord.
Only one hour later things changed on our heavenly camping spot. Although the sea was very far away when we had pitched up the tent, the tides came in quickly. Suddenly we started to worry about the dryness of our spot, maybe this grassy spot didn’t had any low bushes because the seawater would cover it when the tides get high? This would explain the few death fish we found lying around in the grass…  We had only ten minutes to react. We ate our last pizza and started to blow up the kayaks, took the tent down and packed everything together. We had to rush, the seawater already started to flood on the grass. Before we even entirely realised what was happening, small fish were swimming where our tent had been five minutes ago and we were standing ankle deep in the water. I’ve never blown up a kayak this quick! Loaded with the gear, they were now floating on top of the grassy spot. This was the easiest way to get off shore we had ever experienced, in ten minutes the tides lifted our kayaks and off we went. The rules of Nature, you have to listen. 
Me ready for take off from the grassy platform!

Our idyllic camping spot became a watery swamp!
This time we searched for a safer spot high above the seawater. It didn’t require much discussion time to decide were our new camping spot would be. We chose one of the islands in the middle of the fjord, climbed up on one with a perfect flat spot and made an even more idyllic camping spot come true! Here we were, seven days of hiking behind, on a small island surrounded by water, fish and mountains. The feeling of autonomy was highly present, we got there on our own strength with 200kg of gear. Satisfied we enjoyed the bareness around us we had never experienced somewhere else before.
Tim and I pointing at the magic island, look at that dome on the dome-like island!
For extra training I exercised my standup paddle boarding techniques! 
Chilling with all our mess on the island.
The water way to an unknown culture

It was day 28th of the trip since we had left Belgium and for the first day in one week our legs could rest the whole day. This time we made our arms work. Again we woke up on a sunny day, packed our tent and left the island. We continued by kayak descending the Kangikitsoq Fjord following our ‘old school’ maps in the direction of Aappilattoq. This was such a nice way of transportation, the kayaks are big, stable and comfortable. Both of us had each three big bags on top of the kayak. Using lashing straps, ropes and minitractions we strapped the bags to the boats so they couldn’t fall out on moving water. The first 45 minutes my whole upper body was hurting but after a while it is like running, you just go and find your own rhythm and flow. Because the environment around us was so big and intimidating you really feel small and vulnerable. The fjord is long and 2 km wide so peddling sometimes seems endless. 

Exploring the icebergs...
Three weeks before, when we left Nanortalik we talked to José, the head guide of the tourist company ‘Tasermiut Expeditions’, about the kayak conditions in these fjords. With a little concern he told us the sea could get really rough because of the wind that slides down the glaciers straight into the fjords. On the map he showed us several spots were the Piteraq can get really bad. Kayaking in this sunny and airless weather wasn’t particularly scary. I guess the weather gods were with us because with our big fat inflatable kayaks we realised to peddle twice as far the distance José told us would be possible in one day. We kayaked 17 km all the way towards the exit of the Kangerluk fjord and it took us about 6 to 7 hours. It felt so great to cover a distance this big in one day compared to the slow hiking days where we had to hike every gained distance five times.
Tim enjoying our 5th our of kayaking that day! 
Kids were standing on shore between the red, green and blue houses of the Inuit village Aappilattoq. We arrived in their bay on our 29th day in between the fisherman’s speedboats and got on shore. The kids welcomed us immediately and helped pulling out our kayaks and moving the gear on shore. Like always it felt strange to arrive in a remote place were people live and you don’t really belong. Aappilattoq has 120 citizens who live in small wooden and colourful houses. The atmosphere is mysterious at the beginning, mostly we saw kids playing around, but that was it. There is not much going on besides fishing in summer and seal hunting in the winter. 
A quite morning in Aappilattoq.
The village is basic; there was a kid’s playground, where we were standing with our gear, a small school, one shop, a post office and one community house. First of all we went to the shop and bought some real bread, fruit, cake and more sweets. Delicious! We bought the food we were craving for the last several weeks. But it was strange when we finally had the food. It did feel like the amazing relief we imagined it would feel like. Strange sometimes how quick you forget the luxury you have when you’re right in the middle of it! Sometimes it’s just better to dream about something you don’t have then when you finally get it, even with the food it is like that. At the shop and postoffice we hoped to find our two bags the British sailors promised to deliver. Apparently they hadn’t seen any sailboat for a long time so we hoped we would still cross them when continuing towards the basecamp of the Thumbnail in Stordalens Havn. After we got stuffed with all the unhealthy food we started to have a look around. Soon we realised we had nothing to do there besides eating. What a life, but not what we were here for! The moment we decided to leave Aappilattoq by kayak again we met Themo, the only citizen who spoke some English. He told us about the village and the life as an Inuit in Aappilattoq. The citizens are very social and the community feeling is very important for them.

Suddenly we got invited for coffee and cake in the small house of an old, but known and well appreciated man. It was his 65th birthday and he started his retirement after many years of working in the community centre. Tim and I sat in the middle of the room, surrounded by a whole Inuit family of all ages. After a while only my curiosity broke the awkward silences when I tried to communicate with them using sign language and the easiest English I could speak. Slowly we got to know the family situation and why the ‘birthday grandpa’ was such a respected man. He had been the communication point of the village for several years. 
The party house with some local loading up the beers!
That night we got invited to the most random party I had ever been to. With almost forty people we sat around tables in a small red Inuit hut the size of a squash room. We got dinner and drinks like we were family members. Tim and I expected some funky Inuit meal but against all our expectations they served us an almost typical Belgian meal! Because they don’t have land to grow vegetables and the climate isn’t perfect for it, they have to buy vegetables in the store, in cans of coarse. They served us peas and carrots in a can, boiled potatoes and a peace of meat, the perfect Flemish dish, which made us think of our families at home. Except for the meat, it was a particular bird they had shot around the area. After some ceremony and singing in Greenlandic language the party started. The local band appeared and the tables went aside! The local band had one guitar and one keyboard with an amplifier. We were curious about the music they would play. As soon as everything was installed they immediately started. Before we knew everybody was dancing and singing out loud and we were right in the middle of it. While Tim was dancing with the mega drunk lady of the son of the birthday grandpa, I was swinging around the small hut with a lady three times my weight! The big guy behind the keyboard pressed infrequently some random keys and played some beats while the guy with the guitar jammed quite well. Suddenly the music changed and some kind of soccer loud screaming song started. Tim and I had no clue what happened when we suddenly followed everybody outside in a row dancing in a circle around the whole house singing the soccer-like song. Enjoying ourselves we danced and sang for a bit longer before leaving the party that was getting more and more full of drunk little Inuit’s. I hope my birthday party is as cool when I’m 65.
On the right... Tim's drunk but lovely dancing partner for the night!
Meeting up with the ‘Lads’

The next day, day 30, we said goodbye to some hangover locals, packed our tent and left again by kayak in the direction of Stordalens Havn, 10 km further away. While kayaking we kept an eye open hoping we would run into the British sailors. Lucky bastards we were, when we arrived at Stordalens Havn the Brits sailed into the bay at the same time we did. Unbelievable actually how much ‘logistical’ luck we have on this trip. We didn’t have to pay too much for all the bags on the plane, the Norwegain lift into Tasermiut, the British sailors who transported 40 kilo’s and most of all… the weather that was more or less good for about 30 days now! What is next? Or what not? We planned to stay for two more weeks in the area of Torsukatak Fjord so we could aim for a new line on the humongous big wall ‘The Thumbnail’ with a height of 1350 meter. Also we had been thinking about our way back home. Since we had met the British sailors we had the idea to ask them if we could join them on their sailboat crossing the Atlantic ocean all the way back to England. The last few days Tim had been obsessively talking about sailing all day every day. So when we met them again in Stordalens Havn Tim bluntly asked the crew if we could get a ride back on their boat. Friendly and psyched as they were they didn’t mind having two dirtbags with over 200kg of stinky climbing gear on their boat. They would pick us up in over a week time so we could have an attempt on the Thumbnail before crossing the ocean back to civilisation.

The mighty Thumbnail blasting out of the water!
We spent one night in Stordalens Havn basecamp and prepared for the Big Wall goal. Finally we reached the point we had aimed for this long. The Thumbnail was waiting for us… a new virgin big wall climb was there to be climbed. But things turned out differently… things turned out not liked expected… A complex story of disappointments… in ourselves, in the team… This story will be revealed in the next “Chapter 5: The Thumbnail – A struggle with ourselves, the team and the goals…”

Some bouldering on the way in Klosterdalen.
Pizza time in the 'very' soon flooded meadow.
Tim's first 'first' ascent!
The island! 
Found a new bone for my though surfer boy neckless! 

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