Despite challenging conditions including illness, crevasse falls, storms and plundering polar bears, Leo Houlding and a small team of Brits have climbed a new line on an epic 1,200m granite big wall in Arctic Greenland. Leo described Mirror Wall as: "A beautiful tombstone of glass-smooth granite, taller than El Capitan’s Dawn Wall and set in this pristine but harsh Arctic wilderness."
Dropped off by helicopter on the Edward Bailey Glacier on 25th June, the team spent the first few days establishing a base camp and finding a safe approach through a glacier to the base of the wall.
There's not much comms in the rarely-visited area of north-east Greenland where Mirror Wall lies, and rare updates from Leo usually brought news of fresh challenges.
The weather turned from sunshine to strong winds, freezing rain and snow. The whole team except Leo were struck down with sickness and diarrhoea. The route proved more difficult than hoped and the team were forced to aid climb two of the pitches. All this added up to a final challenge: a race to get to the top and descend in time to make the once-weekly flight to Iceland on the 28th July, Houlding’s 35th birthday.
Success: the team topped out in 'an upwards snow storm' at 4:20am on the 22nd July, having free-climbed 23 of the 25 pitches and spent 12 nights on the wall, and made it down just in time to make their flight home.
Paul Walker of Tangent Expeditions, who operate mountaineering and ski touring expeditions to Arctic Greenland, commented: “After spending a lifetime climbing in the Arctic, I believe that the main face of Mirror Wall is the single most impressive unclimbed wall in the whole of Greenland. It’s an extreme objective of the highest calibre in every sense - just getting there is a major logistical challenge.”
What drew you to attempt a line on this particular face, in this farflung part of the world?
LH: Mirror Wall stands out so proud from the landscape. It's big and blank; by far the most impressive feature in the region. When I first started looking into it, it was unclimbed. A Swiss team made the first ascent in great style in 2012 but the main face remained unclimbed. I like how obscure it is. Nobody has heard of it and I wouldn’t be surprised if nobody ever goes there again. Pure unadulterated pointless hardcore adventure.
Mirror Wall has been described as the most impressive unclimbed wall in Greenland - how hard was the actual climbing?
There are many impressive walls and lines in Greenland, and I haven’t seen any of others so can't comment. However, I know that sitting on the top my feet were dangling above the tallest vertical drop I’ve ever seen. At least 1100m directly above the snow; way bigger than El Cap.
The climbing was hard and serious. On paper E6 6b, (VI 5.12b) A3+, 1250m doesn’t sound like much but in reality it took a lifetime of experience to find the way. It wasn’t at all clear if we would find a way to the top.
How do you research new lines you want to climb apart from Google Earth - what resources are out there?
I use Google Earth for ground logistics and approach. Google searches for images and reports of previous expeditions are useful. To my knowledge there have only been about ten expeditions in the area and only one of those involved technical climbing. The old references of the AAJ (American Alpine Journal) and Mountain Info are also extremely valuable and much easier to access now they are all online.
Just getting there seemed a major challenge. Can you sum up the amount of planning and prep that goes into an expedition like this, so you can get it right on that one climb?
There is a small Inuit community at the mouth of the Scoresby Sund, and Air Greenland have an AS350 helicopter stationed at the closest airstrip; a bleak pace called called Constable Point. The Mirror Wall is about 200 km inland. The helicopter only flies a couple of times a week to taxi people from the village to the airstrip, so is available to charter (albeit at considerable expense) the rest of the time.
To reduce heli-time we shipped most of our gear and supplies in advance and had it snowmobiled as close to the wall as possible by Tangent Expedition logistics before the sea ice broke up in late May and early June.
Tangent saw a polar bear and two cubs on their way back, which was a major cause for concern. If the bears found our depot for sure they would’ve eaten anything they could, and we had no way of knowing until we arrived by heli at the start of our expedition. Thankfully the bears hadn’t found it, otherwise we’d be pretty damn skinny by now!
They key to a successful expedition is to be in position, sufficiently fit, with everything that you need, ready to pounce on the stroke of luck required for a summit bid. This requires thinking through all the potential scenarios and obstacles that will be faced and possessing the necessary skills and kit to overcome them.
Having what you need, where and when you need it can be more difficult than it sounds. A single item at a specific moment can be the difference between success and failure. A proper big wall first ascent such as this is a heavy and slow operation. It’s not rocket science but there are no short cuts nor is there any quick way of gaining the experience required to pull it off.
Can you describe the atmosphere there - the snow, the polar bears and other wildlife, the landscape?
It’s quite a hostile, uninviting environment. No trees, no shrubs. We saw three birds in five weeks and no animals. When we arrived there was lots of snow, which melted during our stay causing a dramatic change in the landscape as well as endless rockfalls, serac collapses and avalanches.
When the heli first dropped us off and disappeared, even base camp felt threatening and serious. Looking up at the crevassed glacier, deep snow and massive, featureless wall it's easy to think: this is impossible, we are going to die, let's just go home now.
But gradually, physically and psychologically you begin to find your feet and gently extend a zone of comfort, beginning with a terraced tent platform and resilient base camp, extending a trail up the glacier and getting a proper look at the face, then continuing in small increments all the way up the giant face to the top and back down again. By the time you leave, the hostile landscape is more like a gnarly friend than a menacing enemy.
How do you know Joe and Matt, the other climbers, and why did you decide to have them along on the team?
I have done stuff with all the guys over the years and all are very talented and experienced in their fields, however none of them have ever been on a big wall expedition first ascent like this.
Joe is from South Africa and is a strong trad climber with lots of experience on bigger routes in remote areas. Matt Pickles (cousin of Jason) is an 8c sport climber who used to trad climb and has climbed El Cap once. Waldo is an extreme recreational tree climber and rigging master with some rock climbing experience (rock climbers can learn much from tree climbers about rigging and rope management). Matt Pycroft is a young talented adventure filmmaker and photographer.
They didn’t know each other but I figured we’d all get along and that I have enough experience to take care of all the big wall and remote expedition logistics, hard aid and other stuff, so long as the crew were motivated and had a good attitude.
What were conditions like, both in the snow and on the wall?
The snow was deep and soft. We had one serious crevasse fall - Matt Pycroft disappeared 3m down a hole retracing steps we’d made earlier, and we had many nerve-racking up to waist minor incidents.
The weather was amazing for the first two weeks. Sunny, stable, no wind or cloud. It helped us find our feet and get established but just when we thought we were in for a sun rock expedition we got slapped by four days of tent-bound storm. Then for the remains the weather was pretty unstable and cold. What we’d call poor winter conditions here in the Lakes. Below zero, snow, hail, sleet, cloud but just claimable with lots of clothes and motivation.
What supplies did you carry up the wall?
We had almost a ton of kit in base camp. We brought about 300 kgs of kit and supplies on the wall.
How long did it take compared to what you anticipated?
It took about a week longer than I anticipated, due in part to a bout of sickness and diarrhoea from a poisonous glacial pool, the poor weather and snow conditions. I had my eye on a secondary objective and an idea for another jaunt had we had that week spare, but thankfully we had just enough time for our primary goal.
What was the worst moment of the expedition?
Being woken by a fist-size rock hitting me in the balls. Watching everybody in the crew bar me go down with sickness and diarrhoea on day two. Realising the snow slope below the wall was really steep, really deep and really loaded.
And the best?
Reaching a small ledge high on the headwall after a long, hard aid pitch and seeing that the rest would go free. Finding snow at our second wall camp, meaning we wouldn’t have to haul hundreds of kgs of snow. Introducing a team of great guys to each other and testing our capabilities in anger. The helicopter arriving through the fog to get us out just in time for the once-weekly flight to Iceland. Everybody getting home safely and successfully.
This is your first major expedition since becoming a father. It's also your first expedition since your long-time climbing partner and close friend Sean ‘Stanley’ Leary died in a wingsuit accident. Has your perspective on life in the vertical world changed?
I noticed a clear change in my heart. Although out there life was very much day-to-day and most concerns were the immediate ones, deep inside my thoughts reached far beyond the snow slope or blank section I was facing, back to the rolling hills of the Lakes and for decades into the future as a doting father.
I'm definitely more risk averse now - I was extremely conscious all the time about the countless hazards my friends and I were facing, with more thought for potential consequences of things going wrong.
I felt danger keenly throughout the trip for both myself and the crew. I don't want to miss out on the ephemeral joy of Freya's childhood, but expressing myself in this landscape is a part of me. Having the privilege of running wild with those strong guys out in that grown up playground for weeks on end is to be cherished too.
I thought much about Stanley, his widow Annemeika, and fatherless son Finn. Stanley’s death, pursuing his dream of freedom and flight at such an untimely moment, has made me question my own values and drive. One day a tiger or a life-time as a sheep? Surely there is another path? I suppose I'll continue to strive to find the balance between domestic and wild, comfort and epic, family and adventure.
What's next for you - do you have any climbing expedition goals in mind?
I've literally just got home, so am looking forward to some time with my wife and daughter who turned two while I was leading the blankest section of the route. I have many expedition ideas, big and small, but no firm plans just yet. I'm hoping to do a long distance kite ski trip next spring... I will let you know more soon!
Read: More about Leo Houlding and Mirror Wall on the Berghaus website.
Watch Leo Houlding climb one of the most famous rock climbs in the UK on BMC TV:
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