Climbing in Greenland
Some of the world’s most spectacular sheer rock faces are found in South Greenland. Every year they attract climbers from all over the world. In 2003 Ben Heason was a member of a British team pursuing its dream of climbing the walls of rock.
I was born and grew up in Snowdonia, North Wales, so mountains have always been a natural part of my life. Both my parents climbed back in the ’60s, and I’ve inherited their passion for climbing and spirit of adventure to travel to remote and challenging parts of the world.
Although I did very little actual rock climbing with ropes and equipment while I was growing up, I had a somewhat unusually adventurous outdoor-oriented upbringing. As a 4-year old I had walked the Annapurna Circuit in the Himalayas. By the age of 13 I had climbed the highest mountains in Morocco, Greece and Thailand. But it wasn’t until I joined Birmingham University Mountaineering Club in 1994 that I became properly hooked. Some may say obsessed…
In 1996 I graduated with a BSc in Sports and Exercise Science and moved to Sheffield, which is the undisputed centre of British climbing, and have lived here ever since.
Following a trip to Thailand, I realised that I had done too much what I would term »convenience climbing«, which involves climbing up rock faces with predefined routes and challenges. Of course it’s still fun for obvious reasons, but I couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that I needed to test myself with something more challenging.
My brother had shown me fantastic photos of his expedition to Greenland a couple of years earlier. These pictures inspired me, and I felt that I had to try it for myself. So I set about organizing an expedition to Greenland in 2003.
South Greenland, a place to climb
Organizing such a trip required thorough preparation, in particular, because we had an incredible amount of equipment with us. We certainly had a feeling of both excitement and trepidation when we were dropped at a beach in South Greenland, miles from anywhere.
We set up a fantastic little camp as our base, surrounded by an incredible mix of rocks and boulders that were just crying out to be climbed, but first of all, we needed to get a clear picture of what lay ahead.
We took things easy on the first day by warming up with a 500-metre pitch which my brother had set up two years previously.
My biggest challenge was trying to reach the top via a 23-pitch, 1000-m route with a couple of insecure ledges as the only possible resting points. We decided to begin our attempt the following day.
The big climb on the Greenlandic mountain
On our first day on the mountain, my buddy Si and I climbed nine pitches that were all relatively straightforward. We knew that we wouldn’t be able to reach the top in one day, so we spent the night on the only available ledge just after the ninth pitch.
We continued our climb at seven the next morning. Fortunately, the first few pitches were easy, which made them ideal as a means of warming up, after which the difficulty of the climb increased considerably. It took me about an hour to complete a long winding route.
I had a vague description of the route, but it was still incredibly nerve-wracking. I was never completely sure that we were heading the right way, and every now and again I had to choose a route where I knew there was no way back. It was now very clear to us that the adventure we’d hoped to experience was well underway.
Give up climbing in Greenland?
After crossing and climbing a fantastic crevice, I began to get tired, both mentally and physically. While establishing a fastening point during the next pitch, I glanced up and hoped that Si would have the energy to manage a couple more pitches. This was the pitch on which my brother’s friends had almost given up and the one that they said was the most difficult to climb. And I could see why.
Unfortunately, Si was of the opinion that the next corner was too risky and politely informed me that he wouldn’t climb any further. It was a huge challenge that involved lots of pain and swearing. At one point I shouted down to Si and asked him to put me on the rope as I was completely exhausted. But fortunately he wouldn’t, so I was forced to continue and I managed to fight my way up to an easier section.
Having seen the route, I was beginning to lose heart but was very determined to complete the climb. It was Si’s turn to lead and we headed up to the next pitch. Fortunately, it wasn’t as difficult and led to a fantastic route that looked much harder from below. At this point, everything seemed to be going well. By 9 o’clock in the evening, we only had three pitches left to climb: two of them were easy and the last was a planned route. We reckoned that it wouldn’t be difficult to reach the top from where we were.
We were both completely exhausted, however, and neither of us wanted to take the lead, but we had yet another challenging pitch ahead of us. The planned route was wet and having studied it carefully, it soon became clear that it wasn’t safe. I just wanted to give up, call for rescue or try to climb down again. There was nothing attractive about attempting this apparently impossible route. But we realised that there was no way down, so we had no choice but to keep climbing upwards.
The final push climbing the Greenlandic mountainside
We were forced to begin to climb up a seemingly impossible route to the left of the planned route. Normally I’m a very optimistic person, and the only thing that kept me going was the thought that the next pitch was sure to be easier. I fought my way up the next 40 m. When I next looked up, my heart sank. I couldn’t believe my eyes, and I called down to Si that it looked impossible and was simply too big an ask. I was becoming increasingly pessimistic, in addition to which it was getting dark, although the light never completely fades during the summer in the Arctic.
My hands were so painful that I almost couldn’t touch the mountainside, but I had to ignore the pain. My fingers were completely shredded and my shoulders and back began to cramp up if I tried to put my arms behind my back to rest. I was almost in a state of shock. It wasn’t that I was afraid of dying, just afraid of the unknown. It felt like I was suspended in the midst of a hard grit route; there was no turning back and the only way was up, although this was something I didn’t wish to do.
I managed to get around the next corner and at last, could see a place to rest; I felt like weeping with relief. Fortunately, the next pitches were easier and shorter, and we reached the summit at around two o’clock in the morning.
Looking back on it now, it probably wasn’t so difficult, but it felt harder at the time.
However, completing that route is, without doubt, my proudest achievement in all the years I’ve been climbing.
It was an epic 4-hour climb down, but actually not that bad, and I can’t remember ever being so happy to be able to sit down.
Recreation and climbing in South Greenland
I was completely crippled for the next four days. I could hardly hold a cup of tea, and indeed just the thought of making a cup of tea was tiring. I couldn’t even pull on my socks and shoes. Next time, I thought, I’ll use tape gloves.
I spent the next couple of days rubbing cream into my badly suffering hands whilst I got some much-needed rest and relaxation.
Meanwhile, the others were fighting their own way up the sheer rock face. They put in a supreme effort and found a new route on the mountain, climbed 21 pitches in addition to two up the huge centre section of the mountain face. Others managed to climb up the impressive route slightly to the right of ours.
I spent the rest of the trip climbing fantastic, world-class rocks near our camp. However, the highlight of the trip was undoubtedly my first climb on the vertical rock face.
I definitely want to go on more expeditions like this one to Greenland, but when I got back home I most of all needed to indulge in the »convenience climbing« I mentioned at the beginning of the article.
Facts about Ben Heason
- Ben Heason is a professional mountain climber, adventurer and coach, and a highly-regarded motivational speaker.
- Ben Heason’s brother, Matt Heason, went on an expedition in South Greenland in 1991 with the British Schools Exploring Society and won the Captain Scott Society’s annual award and Young Explorer of the Year in 1992. He is president of the Swansea University Mountaineering Club and has subsequently led yet another Big Wall climbing expedition to Prince William Sound.
- With brother Matt’s trip to Greenland as his inspiration, Ben Heason planned and carried out his expedition to South Greenland in 2003 as described in this article.
- Ben Heason works today as a full-time professional climber and coach. As a motivational speaker for sports clubs, schools, adventure exhibitions and businesses, he has held more than 350 speeches throughout the world.
- Ben Heason has climbed more than 8,000 routes throughout the UK, Ireland, France, Spain, Italy, Germany, Switzerland, Czech Republic, Greece, Slovenia, Jordan, Mali, Egypt, Morocco, Norway, Greenland, Canada, USA, Venezuela, Australia, New Zealand, Sweden and Thailand.
- The article is abridged for the benefit of those readers that may not be climbing experts. As a highly experienced climber, Ben Heason’s original article contained grading (E6 7b, etc.) of each route, pitch, technical difficulty, types of crevice, etc. We hope our readers understand our decision and that Ben and other climbers around the globe will be able to forgive us.