During a five-week climbing bonanza this summer, Oxford University Mountaineering Club members Tom Codrington, Jacob Cook, Ian Faulkner and Peter Hill sailed among the granite cliffs of Greenland, establishing six new big-wall routes, including two up the thrice-attempted Horn (aka “Upernakik O”; 1700m), and a handful of single-pitch climbs. The 24-hour daylight enabled climbing binges that lasted up to 42 hours and a high quantity of mishaps and tomfoolery. Seal hunters shot bullets over their heads, one rogue husky ate vital climbing equipment, and they made memories they would eradicate from their minds if they could.
Recently, Codrington and Cook sat down to tell me the stories. The following is a distillation of that conversation.
None of you had spent much time on a sailboat prior to the expedition. Would you recommend it?
Tom Codrington: I think probably if you want to actually climb hard, it’s best to fly. There was a reasonable amount of throwing up and not very much eating and absolutely no training of any kind for a long time.
Jacob Cook: Pretty much the hardest aspect of the expedition for me was sailing. Where I felt most at home was on scary, runout pitches on the climbs we were trying. That felt like back to familiarity because I’m used to dealing with that kind of fear and that kind of stressful situation. I found on the boat in storms and stuff was just taking me totally out of my comfort zone.
You mentioned on your blog having a hard time travelling from the airstrip in Ilulissat to Assiat, 200 nautical miles away?
JC: We landed in Ilulissat and the first thing we noticed was that there seemed to be a lot of icebergs in the sea. I’d say the sea was 50 percent icebergs, 50 percent water. So seven days later, me and Ian had been sitting on the dock guarding about 300 kilos worth of gear and food and gas canisters and everything you could possibly imagine. It turned out that the boat wasn’t able to get through the ice and had gone back to wait for us in Assiat. Ian and myself had to find a way of getting from Ilulissat to Assiat.
We started asking around, which was difficult because no one really spoke any English and they were mostly just fisherman. They couldn’t understand what on earth we were trying to do. They were quoting figures like it would cost us 10,000 euro to hire a water taxi. Me and Ian weren’t terribly interested in this, until we found a group of three seal hinters who said, ‘Right, jump on.’
They proceeded to drive 40 mph, weaving in and out of icebergs, looming out of the fog, which is possibly one of the most terrified I’ve ever been, until, five minutes later, I got more terrified, when they started shooting over our heads at seals whilst we cowered in the front of the boat. So that was a bit of an adventure. There was kind of a lot going on, so if I was seasick I wasn’t really paying attention to it. I was more paying attention to the bullets going over my head.
You had some information about The Horn from Matt Burdekin and George Ullrich’s 2010 attempt. How did it live up to your expectations?
JC: We did two separate routes on The Horn as a team, and they were quite different experiences. The first third of the wall–the rock quality was absolutely incredible. You could have taken it out of Yosemite or anywhere in the world really. It was like really beautiful, sculpted granite slabs. After this incredible rock for the first third, we joined this black, chossy band. Everything that was good about it before got completely reversed. We were climbing on rock the consistency of soggy cornflakes. It went from incredible rock quality to incredibly bad.
TC: Jacob and Ian took everything they needed and headed off and Peter and I were like, ‘Well, we’re probably not going to climb very hard right now, but we’ll go and have a bit of a ramble.’ This was the day after we landed after what I think was five weeks [at sea]. So we took the spare gear and you know, some cereal bars. Peter led this ridiculous pitch round the corner of this soggy, wet roof, which involved the crux bit of gear which was this tiny little flake that he managed to put a little sling on and then stand on. It was about the size of a Dorito and it was the only solid hold on the pitch. I’m very glad he led that.
After that we found ourselves halfway up the cliff, and we were like, “Well, it’d be silly to stop now.’ But because we only had the spare gear, we didn’t have any of the serious aid gear so we couldn’t rap the whole cliff because we’d run out of gear. Basically we tried to find a route that we knew we could down climb, which meant that we basically just followed choss all the way up to the top and back down again.
What other aspects of the expedition were unique because you were in Greenland?
TC: My climbing shoe got chewed by a husky. We camped on this island where all of the husky teams were chained up for the winter. They do a lot of barking but they can’t really get at you, so we thought, we’ll just camp here, it’ll be fine. It turned out one husky wasn’t chained up, so we woke up the next morning to find that he’d abducted my shoe.
JC: Another aspect to being in Greenland which I really enjoyed was the 24-hour daylight. We could pretty much wake up when we felt like it, get on the wall, climb until we got to the top, and then come down. You get really, really tired. For instance, mine and Ian’s push on The Horn from bottom to top took about 30 hours and Tom and Peter’s took 42 hours of continuous climbing.
Thinking back on your trip, is there a moment that you would purge from your memory if you could?
JC: At every point on the expedition, I felt that there was an acceptable level of danger, apart from one moment when Ian and I were climbing The Horn. We’d just reached a ledge system when rocks started raining in from the sky all around us. I’m talking blocks the size of microwaves landing like five meters to my left and five meters to my right. I’ve never been so terrified in my life. It felt something like being shot at in a war. Ian and myself found a little overhang and built a belay under that and sort of cowered, pressed against the wall whilst the rocks rained down on us. I reckon if you did that ten times you’d die once.
TC: Nothing quite that bad for me, luckily. I know exactly the moment I would purge–so we’re in the Labrador Sea, and Peter and I were just changing watch. He’d just spent three hours out on deck in the freezing cold, wet, dark horribleness, and I was out to do the same and at that moment, Peter decides that the seasickness is too much. And so he’s sick. But the problem is, he’s sick upwind. So splatter effect on me and of course then I can’t actually do anything about it because I have to be on deck for three hours and you can’t really clean anything anyway. So I was standing on deck feeling quite ill myself, covered in goo.
JC: I think we’ve talked a lot about how parts of the expedition were terrible and horrifying and really uncomfortable, but there were aspects of it, like the opportunity to stand on top of some of these rock faces that no one’s ever stood on top of before in a part of the world that’s getting as close to remote as it’s possible to be, like really genuinely no one for hundreds of miles around, was something really, really special and it made it all worth it by a hundred times. I’d go back right now.
For more stories, photos and route information, visit the team’s expedition blog at oxfordgreenlandexpedition.com.