The perfect expedition? The one I have dreamed since when I started climbing, but I had never thought that could have become true? Probably yes. For sure, after this adventure, doing something better, more interesting than this will be for me very hard: we gave all we had for this project and everything went in the best way it could. You couldn’t ask for anything better.
Silvan Schupbach, Christian Ledergerber and I arrive in Ittoqqotoormiit, which is the last village on the wild and sparsely populated East coast of Greenland, on August 5th. Our kayaks and the rest of the gear are already there, waiting for us, sent by boat about one month earlier.
We don’t lose any time: only half day playing Tetris, trying to fit all the gear in the hatches of our kayaks and on August 6th at 4pm we start. From here on we’re alone: the three of us and Greenland, with its beauties and its wild and pristine nature.
I need just a few minutes to realize that paddling in the Arctic Sea, with wind, waves and a 170kg heavy kayak, is totally different than paddling on Lugano lake. Well, it was not very hard to imagine, but only when you’re there you really understand what it means.
My kayak feels totally ungovernable, it’s as sunk as a submarine and it doesn’t respond to my commands, I’m almost going adrift and continuously twisted and bounced by the waves! It’s more fighting for survival rather than paddling!
After about 2 hours and a half struggling, we camp for the night. Yes, we started, and that was the most important thing, but we only did 10 km (with a huge effort) and we still have 200 to go…
We’re all quite worried and also Silvan, which is notoriously optimist, cannot ease the tension.
With the usual smile on his face he tells us: “before starting this trip I was a lot of questions in my mind and I was worried for a lot of things, but I was convinced that once we had really started I would have felt much better and relaxed…well, this time it’s exactly the opposite: after this start on the kayaks, my doubts and my fears are much bigger than before!”
“What an awesome start…” I think. Maybe better going to sleep that tomorrow is another day.
The 6th of August is, in fact, another day and the music a little bit changes. At least wind and waves calm down. We refine our personal settings in the kayaks, but nevertheless they’re incredibly slow! I cannot believe to make such a big effort and then move so slow.
When paddling time flows very slowly, the movements of the body are always the same and the mind is free to wander among the thoughts. Differently from Lugano lake, where the landscape is continuously changing, here in Greenland the distances are huge and it’s like being motionless: it feels like the end of a beach or of a bay never gets closer. It’s a sport where you need to find you rhythm, go on without getting to tired finding the right compromise between effort and speed.
A compromise which personally I searched in vain for days and finally I found little by little.
After a traumatic impact, mind and body get used and everyday paddling feels easier or maybe just more normal.
We enter in a route and our days are all the same: we wake up at 8, jump in the kayaks at 9.30, then keep on paddling for 7-8 hours, until the evening, with a few rests in between to recover and eat something. Around 18 we camp, at 19 we have dinner and already at 20 we collapse in our sleeping bag and take a regenerating 12 hours sleep.
I had the feeling to enter in a circle, where everything becomes normal, ordinary, even if for only a few days; luckily this is a virtuous circle, that makes you feel always better with sea, kayak, paddle and dry suit. In 7 days this circle led us to our destination: the end of the Skjllebukt fjord on the Renland peninsula.
But there’s no time for relaxing; we know that the high pressure system in Greenland, after the middle of August, usually goes away and never comes back. We have to start the walk to the place where we’ll set our base camp.
Despite our backs and shoulders are quite trashed after 210 km in the sea, our legs are fresh and rested and ready to contribute for reaching the final goal.
About 20-25 km separated the end of the fjord to the place where we want to set the base camp. Laddy shows down all his load capacity given by his mighty body 1,90 meters tall; Silvan and I don’t stand back. The bags are heavy, but in two days of effort we reach our goal, carrying with us all the gear for climbing and surviving about 20 days, including the portaledge.
Dobbiamo e vogliamo scalare questa parete, non vediamo l’ora di essere tra i primi ad incastrare le mani nelle sue fessure e a tirare i suoi appigli. Individuiamo una linea nel centro. Ci sono dei punti di domanda legati alle zone dove finisce una fessura e, a lato, ne inizia un altra. Una cosa è però chiara e condivisa da tutti, fin da subito: vogliamo assolutamente scalare questo muro in libera. Aprire una via in artificiale su questa parete significherebbe per noi avere fallito.
Laddy apre le danze, i primi tiri sono facili e sporchi. Dobbiamo recuperare un saccone con 35 litri di acqua, portaledge e viveri per 3 giorni, ma siamo inaspettatamente veloci. Silvan mi dice: “visto? Laddy quando recupera la corda le tira forte per davvero!”.
In breve siamo sotto la parte ripida, dove ci aspetta un tetto. La roccia non è certo quella dei nostri sogni (o per lo meno dei miei): ci sono scaglie ovunque, alcune attaccate al tetto che pendono come spade di Damocle sopra di noi. Non so se il prossimo tiro preferirei scalarlo da primo o stare a far sicura sotto quei blocchi. Comunque, parte Silvan. Tensione al massimo: è difficile stare calmo per me in sosta, figuriamoci per lui che scala.
Mi aspetto diverse volte il “take!”, o la sua caduta, o qualche sasso che viene giù sulla mia testa, ma non succede niente di tutto ciò e Silvan scompare sopra il tetto.
It’s the 15th of August. In Italy we call it “Ferragosto”. I think of my friends, especially the not climbers, and the ones which are joking and having fun in front of a barbecue, with lots of meat and lots of wine and beer. I talk about it with my partners. In Switzerland maybe this holiday is less important, maybe for them this day has more the meaning of “this is the end of the summer holidays and from tomorrow you go back to work”. Well, also for us today it’s somehow a holiday, since we have a rest day after 9 days no siesta and tomorrow we go back to business…
After the longest and most adventurous approach of our lives, now we’re looking forward to seeing from close the real reason that led us here; we cannot wait of doing what we know to do best: proceed vertically and not horizontally!
On August 16th we see for the first time our wall from close. I can’t believe to my eyes, I just stare at this beauty for a few seconds without moving. I think that I’m not the kind of person who gets impressed so easily, but what I see is truly amazing: I honestly didn’t think that in 2014 there were big walls like this which are still unclimbed. Under the North-East face of Shark’s Tooth I feel overwhelmed, I have the same feeling of when I was standing under El Cap. It’s incredible, 900 meters of granite, that after a first slabby part, get perfectly vertical or overhangin till the summit!.
We want and must climb this wall, we can’t wait to be the firsts to jam the hands in its cracks and pull on its holds.
We find a line right in the center of the face. There are some questions marks where a crack systems ends and another one starts on its side.
On one thing we all agree: we absolutely want to free climb this big wall. Opening an aid climbing route on this face would be for us almost a failure.
Laddy begins on the first easy and dirty pitches. We have to haul a bag with 35 liters of water, portaledge and food for 4 days but we’re unexpectedly fast. Silvan tells me: “You see? When Laddy pulls the rope he really pulls hard!”
Shortly we’re under the steep part, and we stand below a roof. The rock here for sure is not the one we dreamed to find: the wall is overhanging and never gets water, there are a lot of lose flakes, some of them hanging under the roof, like Damocle’s sword above our heads.
I don’t know if I would prefer climbing or belaying…hard choice, but anyway it’s Silvan who starts. The level of stress is very high: it’s hard to keep calm for me while belaying and I don’t want to imagine for him who’s climbing. I’m expecting many times the “take!”, or a big whipper, or some loose rock landing on my head…but nothing of this happens and after endless minutes, Silvan disappears above the roof.
The second day on the wall my turn to lead comes. I have to face the first unknown: two meters of slabs are dividing two crack systems. I’m nervous and I climb very slowly, I chalk on every hold. It’s cold and I don’t know where to go, I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to free climb this. I follow the crack till its end and eventually a light turns on in my mind: “downclimb for 10 meters and try to traverse!”. So I do. There’s a delicate move on thin edges at the start but then I see some good holds. When I’m at half of the traverse I realize that when I’ll go on the protection at the top of the crack will be less and less useful and the swing in case of fall will be much and much bigger. It’s not easy to stay calm, but the climbing is not too hard and I get safely to the other dihedral.
Here also the rock is not the one I dreamed, but now I feel better and I can climb faster. Another pitch and one more, always sustained but well protectable. Then a pitch where some meters of blind corner force me to push at my limit, risking several times the fall.
Physically and mentally tired I give back the lead to Silvan.
He has to solve a delicate and hard situation: there is another sustained pitch in the dihedral on very brittle rock, then also this crack system ends and another one starts 20 meters on the right.
We’re a little tired and start considering a possible bivy…there are no ledges, thus we all think it would be better to try to go a little further on.
After some sketchy moments and runouts in the corner Silvan has to deal with the traverse, which seems to be a rebus like the previous one. He manages to solve it brilliantly in a similar way as I did before: downclimb and then a very delicate traverse on the slab until the next crack system.
I hear him screaming euphoric: he has seen a niche another 20 meters on the right, something like a cave in the middle of the wall. Later in the evening we all reach this amazing bivy spot. The cave is not as big and deep as we hoped, but anyway we have the portaledge, where two of us can sleep, while the third lays down on the ledge.
Third day: we wake up in the sun! Even though the wall is exposed North-East and then sun leaves us very soon.
I start again, morale is high. Here the rock is solid and the climbing is superb. I can climb well and fast. I get to another traverse, this time leftwards. It turns out to be much easier than the previous ones and suddenly we’re at the beginning of the big crack system which leads directly to the summit!
Now this is the rock of our dreams. The famous Greenlandic granite, the one I had heard and seen in 2009 in the Foxjaw…Solid rock with many features and perfect cracks.
Laddy has the pleasure to lead this part. He climbs resolute and fast. And the craziest thing is that unlike the most, when he find himself in troubles he can climb even faster than before!
The glacier down in the valley looks smaller and smaller.
At the end of the afternoon we reach the summit of Shark’s Tooth.
The great shark hunt is over. Or better, we caught the shark, now we’ve to take it home.
It’s hard for us to think of anything better than this. We had climbed the line of our dreams, all free, all onsight. We never used bolts for climbing, we had to leave only two of them: one for the seconds and the bags in a traverse and the second for hanging the portaledge.
Difficulties? At our limit, hard for us. Many times we thought about falling or we were not sure to reach the next hold. We can estimate a grade, but this time we leave the question for the repeaters.
The fourth day we rappel down the Russian route on the North arête. We found the most of the stations and leave us only little gear of ours.
The thought that we managed to climb this wall almost without leaving any track of our passage fulfills me with proud and happiness. I like thinking that in 2, 20 or 200 years somebody else will arrive under Shark’s tooth and will have the chance to leave almost our same adventure, challenging this wall like the nature has created it.
Back to base camp, the situation is at least weird. We’ve enough food for staying here another two weeks, but our minds are already thinking to the way back. Our bodies are here, in this incredible valley where there are still so many mountains and big walls to climb. But our heads are already on the kayaks and is already thinking of the long way home. What a contradiction. The goal of the expedition is reached, in the best style possible and now we only have to think of going back. But we’re alpinist and climbers, we’re mountain lovers, and when we see these wild and virgin mountains and walls our eyes are shining and we cannot stand still and just look.
So we complete another two successful climbs. The first a rock climbing route, opened by Silvan and I, on a sunny pillar further inside the glacier. We name the route “Oasis” due to the mellow conditions and mild weather we enjoyed during our climb.
The second is more a classic mountaineering ascent mainly on ice, snow and mixed terrain for about 1800 meters of difference in altitude from the base of the glacier to the summit. This climb is completed by me and Laddy and the summit we reached is probably the highest and most aesthetic mountain of the range, probably still unclimbed.
Day after day it comes the time to go back. We’re all looking forward to getting back in the kayaks and in the wet drysuit.
It’s the 30th of August when we begin the long way home. The 85kg (plus the weight of our body) which we had on the kayaks are now less than half and we can feel the difference into the water.
I find back my Laser 5.50 as I knew it and feel the balance which I had lost on the way there. The first day we do a big effort, paddling among iceberg of different sizes, and we cover a distance of almost 50 km.
“If it keeps going like this, going back will be a walk in the park!”, I think before camping for the night.
But unfortunately it doesn’t keep going like this. In fact conditions dramatically change: first rain, then wind; it’s impossible to go on and we’re forced to take two rest days. The third day it’s still rainy and cold, but not windy. We try to go. The combinations of wetness inside the drysuit and the rain which falls all day long amplifies the sensation of cold. After 7 hours no stop, we decide it’s time to camp. Inside our tent everything is soaking wet, water inside and water outside, it’s hard to keep something dry.
The following days alternate headwind and good paddling conditions; after having realized that with headwind the effort is huge and the progress meaningless we decide to jump in and out the kayaks according to the weather conditions.
Another 3 days of paddling lead us almost to our destination. We found a shelter in an old abandoned house. Tomorrow will be our last day: 20-25 km, 4 hours of kayaking, separate us and Ittoqqotoormiit.
We enjoy our last dinner and the last night of this expedition in a dry shelter.
It’s already 3 nights I am dreaming to be at home: I dream Arianna, I dream my friends and my bed. It’s quite a shared feeling among the group, also my friends can’t wait to be back to civilization.
But it’s not over until it’s over!
At 5 in the morning I’m waked up by Laddy’s screams. In less than a second I pass from the relax of sleeping to a state of hyper-activity and total panic!
A polar bear entered in our house and now it’s at 2 meters from me and at less than one meter from Laddy. We cannot do anything but scream and make noise. I start to beat a table on the ground for making the loudest noise as possible.
It looks like our desperate attempt works…with some grunts the bear goes outside the house.
Pure adrenaline: we take out the pepper spray and the flares and try to assess the situation. The bear remains around but we feel out of the danger zone.
Poor bear! We think our bear was a female and we baptize her “Berta”. The poor Berta was probably dying of hunger when she smelled something strange (probably due to the fact that we hadn’t cleaned our feet since a long time…), she was curious and got closer to see what it was. And before entering the house she even knocked the door…for sure she didn’t deserve such a bad welcome!
Breakfast, a coffee, a tea and then an infusion.
Second breakfast: other coffee and other tea…and 3 hours fly away think of Berta again and again.
The weather at least looks better and we jump for the last time into our kayaks.
But the Arctic sea make no discount and after a mellow start the wind rises. We have to fight every meter which separated us from the civilization against headwind and waves.
It’s Saturday 6th of September when we arrive in Ittoqqotoormiit. 32 days after our start.
It’s a pity that now this expedition is really over.