Molly Thompson: how to claim first ascents of Greenland peaks

Posted by Sarah Stirling on 17/08/2017
Dalmore Junior looming in the background
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Molly Thompson, who has a 9-5 job, has just used five weeks of holiday to lead an expedition to Greenland to climb two virgin peaks with her partner and a few friends. And a surprise awaited Molly on the major summit of the trip! Here Molly explains how they went about planning the trip, and how it all went.

There’s nothing extraordinary about me, I lead what I think to be a very normal life. I’m an engineer with a 9-5 job during the day and a climbing bum hanging around the wall in Loughborough by night (well, evening). I’m known for my bright-coloured outdoor clothing and love of chocolate.

I was introduced to climbing back in school and have never looked back. I love being outdoors, I love to travel and my passion for climbing has taken me to some awesome places around the world. Dry weekends are usually spent cragging in the UK, Peak gritstone being a favourite at the moment.

Annual leave is used to the max  sport climbing in Europe, ice climbing in Norway, bouldering in Fontainebleau and more recently ski touring. Last year I decided it was time to go big – to go somewhere that didn’t have a guidebook, to make our own routes.

The team


Choosing the team to accompany me on this expedition wasn’t difficult, I only knew four people who I knew would (a) be keen and (b) able to take five weeks off work! Joking aside, the team consisted of people I met through the mountaineering club at university. We had been away on many previous climbing trips together. 

A hardy bunch of resilient, experienced and motivated folk with a great sense of adventure, the team consisted of: Jen, a Mountain Leader with a passion for travel, conservation and jelly babies; Alistair, a glaciologist and climber, currently surviving on a diet of rotten fish in Norway; Jesse, a cheese-lover and experienced climber and skier who is registered as blind/severely sight impaired; and Oliver, a Mountain Instructor and Winter Mountain Leader, currently slumming it in a van in the wilds of Scotland.

Logistics and preparation


Planning an expedition like this to somewhere so remote takes a lot of effort: I think we spent 15 months planning. The logistics involved – obtaining the funding required, researching the scientific elements, route planning and sorting out all our gear and food – was a lot to pull together.

The Royal Geographical Society (RGS) had lots of useful information on their website and an extremely helpful PDF of the Polar Expedition Manual. The BMC, meanwhile, have a list of all the available general mountaineering grants and an extensive database of previous expedition reports, which made good reading. The BMC were amongst those who supported us with a grant for the trip.

Our most useful resource was a high-resolution imagery grant from the Digital Globe Foundation: Google Earth imagery only goes so far. We were awarded a mixture of summer and winter images down to 0.5m resolution, so we could plan a safe route avoiding crevasses, dead-ends in the melt streams and other hazards. This proved an extremely worthwhile exercise: the route we plotted at home was pretty much bang on. A huge amount of time saved and great for team moral.

We’d settled on a ski touring trip to Greenland pretty early on, but the area in particular – the central Stauning Alps  it took us a while to decide on that. Many evenings were spent reading scientific papers and discussing ideas with glacial research groups. Weekends were spent trawling maps and previous expedition reports to determine potential new routes and virgin peaks.

We somehow managed to marry all our objectives, both scientific and exploratory, into this one location: the remote Roslin Glacier. Our circular route up the Roslin glacier, over two high cols and down the Bjørnbo glacier, had previously been attempted (in the reverse direction) but never successfully completed. This challenge also provided a draw for us.

The scientific objective


The loss of ice from Greenland’s peripheral glaciers and ice caps is equivalent to between 14% and 20% of the total ice lost from the much larger Greenland Ice Sheet, yet these attract a tiny fraction of the attention. Only three data sets have been collected from different areas of the Stauning Alps: one of these was collected between 1970 and 1975 from the Roslin Glacier. This makes the Staunings really interesting; current records are incredibly sparse, but by repeating past measurements it's possible to get a valuable snapshot of change in the area over the last 40 years.

We installed a network of ten ablation stakes on the Roslin Glacier. The stakes were drilled to a depth of 6m at lower elevations and 5m further up glacier at 200m height gain intervals. The stakes should remain in place on the glacier for at least two to three years, providing a long window of opportunity for repeat measurements to be collected.

Yes, we need repeat measurements  any volunteers? Stake locations have been passed to the World Glacier Monitoring Service so future measurements can be added to their records once they have been collected.

What's special about Greenland?

Greenland is like no other place I've ever been: it's stunningly beautiful, very white and brutally cold! The journey to the Stauning Alps took a couple of days on snowmobiles, over sea ice and snow-covered rolling hills.

The icebergs frozen in time in the sea ice were mega! Approaching the mouth of the Roslin Glacier, the rolling hills turned into immense jagged mountain peaks – a quite intimidating sight, broken only by the glacial valleys.

The remoteness added to the imposing landscape made it a pretty daunting prospect at first, but as the days went by I grew to love it. The silence, the pristine untouched snow and the meandering frozen melt streams.

The itinerary

April 6 Arrive at Constable Point, Greenland
April 7-8 Skidoo travel to base of Roslin Glacier
April 9-18 Travel on skis, pulling pulks up the Roslin and taking scientific measurements April 19 Crossed first col
April 20 Crossed second col
April 21 Travel on skis, pulling pulks down the Bjørnbo to base of 1st unclimbed peak 
April 22 Climbed first unclimbed peak
April 23 Ski approach to 2nd unclimbed peak
April 24 Climbed second unclimbed peak
April 25 Ski approach to third unclimbed peak
April 26 Attempted third unclimbed peak, retreated due to avalanche danger
April 27-29 Travel on skis, pulling pulks down to the base of the Bjørnbo Glacier
April 30-May 1 Arctic storm - no movement
May 2-3 Skidoo travel back to Constable Point
May 4 Left Greenland by plane

Peak 1
Name of mountain: TBC
Altitude: 2,237m
Grade: PD

We saw an awesome peak with an ice buttress in its centre, a triple spire summit and a feature that we called ‘the middle finger’, an impressive column of rock jutting out from the ridge. Through the binoculars, a route to the summit looked possible – only the top section looked like it might slow our progress.

Early the next morning, we skinned up as far as we could, and when it got too steep we swapped to crampons. We continued up the steep snow for what felt like ages. We traversed below a few rocky sections and hugged close to the left side of a buttress. The snow was soft but we ploughed on and a decent stairway was kicked for what must have been about 700m of ascent.

About 100m from the summit we were stopped by a tricky loose rock section. We roped up here, but the rock was very friable and so gear was pretty sketchy. After a few pitches of climbing, there was only room for one person on the summit pinnacle, so we each had our own individual summit photo!

For me the summit celebrations were somewhat muted... down-climbing is my nemesis, so the fear in the back of my mind suppressed the elation. The fall from the descent on the second col may have also played a part in this. Once we were down safe and sound the celebrations began! It was such a huge achievement and the feeling was amazing. You couldn’t wipe the smile off my face.

We cracked open a box of After Eight mints that I’d stashed away as a surprise treat for a special occasion. This was definitely it!

Peak 2
Name of mountain: Boughfell
Altitude: 2,191m
Grade: AD (ascent) PD (descent)

Unlike the first peak, we’d selected the second peak from the comfort of our sofas back in the UK. This was our main target – it stood out on the satellite imagery and looked truly immense, a much harder looking prospect than the first. Up at 7am sharp, after a quick cold breakfast, we harnessed up and set of on a nice steady ascent to a huge snow bowl.

We were surrounded on three sides by towering buttresses and snow gullies. We had chosen the highest peak and eyed up a line, which was almost continuous to the top. The snow as much harder here and it was pretty good going until we hit a large slab of rock under a shallow bit of powder snow. In the shade and struggling to get beyond the rock, I started to get cold.

But Ollie found a way, a massive effort that showed much bravery: a fantastic lead. He then belayed the rest of the team across this section and we were then back on snow. We then veered off to the left and negotiated soft and unstable snow around an arête into another snow gully that led all the way to the summit. And looking down, this snow gully continued all the way down to the snow bowl: a much easier descent. It was still a long way to the top. We gradually made our way, kicking steps in the snow.

And finally, we were up and over the summit cornice and had a full 360° view of mountains and glaciers: it was absolutely stunning. This felt like an even greater achievement than the previous peak: 1100m of ascent and more technically challenging. I felt on top of the world!

A surprise for Molly

What made it even more special was being proposed to, Jesse got down on one knee and asked me to marry him on the summit! We all had to snap our attention back to the down-climb that was still going to be tricky and potentially dangerous. We each down-climbed the second gully all the way back to the snow bowl. It was hard work and we got hot and sweaty.

We never thought that we would get this hot in Greenland! A quick ski back to camp rounded off an outstanding day: we’d been out for over 11 hours and all felt exhausted.

Peak 3
Name of mountain: unnamed
Altitude: 1,777m

The third peak we planned to climb to was the stand-out summit on a ridgeline further down the Bjørnbo glacier. it looked like a straightforward snow gully to the top. We packed bags for a light and fast ascent, but our energy levels were much lower now, cumulative exertions over the previous three weeks starting to take effect.

We started by tracing a route through the undulating terrain and streams and headed down to cross the major melt stream on the edge of the glacier that stood between us and our target peak. We skied down along the edge of the frozen river to find a place to cross, but there were no suitable snow bridges and it took a while to find a suitable crossing point.

A little further down the glacier than hoped, we were now looking quite a long way back up at the peak. Skinning up the lower reaches of the mountain was hot work, and we were soon down to only our base layers. We were in strong sunshine and it was hard going zig-zagging up the mountainside. The temperatures had really warmed up, it was approximately -5 degrees C, which, considering the temperatures we had been used to (-20’s!) felt tropical!

We made it up to a snow plateau on a wide arête below the large gully we had planned to climb. We sat and had lunch here and felt quite lethargic. The warmth of the sun was heating the rocks up and causing the snow to slip; there were avalanches going off on all the surrounding mountains. We didn’t want to take any unnecessary risks or push our luck, so took the decision to go no further. It was a tough decision as it was our last chance of another summit: an arctic storm was imminent in the next few days.

Greenland snow

The snow in Greenland was very different to snow in places that any of us had skied before  Scotland, the Alps or Norway. It was really powdery. In April, it hadn’t got warm enough to significantly melt the snow and allow it to consolidate. This meant that it was good for skiing, but we didn’t really get much of a chance to appreciate that with pulks (a type of sledge), in tow.

We saw some awesome-looking lines, which no doubt would have been brilliant to ski down, but it was getting to the start that proved the biggest obstacle. We noticed the snow quality much more when climbing: it felt very soft and insecure. The steps we kicked or stamped were quite deep in places, which it made the climbing hard work. 

Several sections felt very sketchy because of the insecure snow. Thinking back though, the most dramatic evidence of this was when our anchor ripped out crossing the second col, something that would never have happened if we had had some solid neve to attach to.

Wildlife

We saw wildlife in the valley bottom, but higher up in the glacial systems we were all alone. We saw polar bear tracks but not the bears themselves, thankfully. We did see many herds of musk oxen, though, and were lucky enough to get within 100m of three adults and a young. Hardy mammals, how they survive in such extreme conditions with such little food, I'll never know! Snow buntings, an arctic lemming, arctic foxes and arctic hares completed our wildlife ticklist. 

After three weeks in the high glacial system, coming back down into the valley and seeing animal tracks in the snow was a welcome sight! It caused quite a lot of excitement – we had some company!

Molly Thompson has been named an SES Explorer of the year by the Scientific Exploration Society following the trip.


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1) Anonymous User
08/09/2017
Ironically the BMC refused to insure this expedition and still continue to decline all expedition insurance applications for Greenland expeditions involving first ascents or remote peaks where a permit is required. A complete nonsense when these kind of expeditions have their safety policies and crisis management plans scrutinized more than almost anywhere else in the world.

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