Exploring Vertical Virgin Earth
My first climbing trip to Yosemite changed my life forever. At 18, I left college, packed up my truck, drove to Yosemite and never looked back. That was more than 20 years, 70 expeditions, 7 continents, and 70+ countries ago.
One of those 70 countries was the magical land of Greenland, where I landed in 1998. Little did I know it would be the beginning of a long love affair with grand rock walls and towers, majestic polar bears, giant diamond-like icebergs, unique Inuit friends, and an endless list of wonders.
I have returned to Greenland for 10 expeditions—over an accumulated year of my life. It's still one of the least-explored areas on the planet. So naturally, it’s a dreamland for climbers seeking remote, unspoiled routes.
In the far reaches of Greenland’s unexplored east coast and deepest fjords lies the elusive, untouched Polar Bear Fang Tower. In June 2015, my brother and I set out to find it and climb it.
Once we landed in Greenland, we were supposed to travel 45 hours and 400 miles by boat, navigating a near impossible maze of sea ice to reach a remote fjord that I had failed to reach on three previous expeditions. Our boat captain Bendt Josvassen and his wife led us there. We never stopped moving, slowly threading our way through icebergs drifting in electric-blue sea. My pulse pounded with optimism. I knew we were going to make it this time.
The maps showed a thin channel of open water we could sneak through to get into the larger part of the fjord where we hoped to climb, but when we got there, it was jammed with ice. Bendt expertly steered the boat back and forth, investigating the ice, for about 20 minutes. Then he slowly approached a section of ice and pushed the bow up onto it. Next thing I knew, we had cleared the blockade of ice and were slowly maneuvering deeper into the fjord.
I had satellite images from the Danish government and every map ever made of this area. The Polar Bear Fang Tower was just around the corner. I told Bendt where we wanted to be dropped off.
The next morning we set up a deluxe base camp, then started up the long valley toward the elusive tower, shotgun over my shoulder and pockets stuffed with flares and pepper spray. We hiked for a few hours up a talus ridge, and eventually came to the first of several glaciers lined with big, deep crevasses we would have to cross. I showed my brother everything I could about the technique for this terrain, then armed him with ice axes and rescue gear. We harnessed up, tied in and continued shuttling loads.
My brother had only done two climbs in his life, and was inexperienced on super-technical mountain terrain, so he was learning—or relearning—as we went. But I knew from past experience that Andy had the focus, determination, and communication skills for this climb. He had followed me up a big wall in the Tien Shan in China, and up a huge route on Asan in the Karavshin in Kyrgyzstan.
He was an excellent expedition partner. We had fun. We laughed. It’s beautiful to share grand adventures as brothers. On these trips, joy is the most important fuel.
After a few days, a few dozen miles of hiking, and several glacier crossings, we approached a beautiful granite ridge surrounded by glaciers, about 900 meters above the ocean and our base camp. We had carried enough supplies to stay up at our high camp for at least 12 days.
Finally we stood at the base of the tower that I had been trying to get to for a decade. There was no doubt in my mind that no human had been here before. No doubt in my mind that the Polar Bear Fang Tower was unclimbed.
Most of the rock looked loose, but after a couple of hours of scoping, I could see a few possible routes that appeared somewhat safe. Once back at high camp, I spent time with my 300mm lens scoping lines from bottom to top. This was no place for a beginner, let alone someone on his third climb ever. Brotherhood, blood, bond, belief.
Once the sun came out, we racked up and headed to the base of the tower. I brought the satellite phone—the first time I’d ever brought one on a climb. At least Andy would have a fighting chance if something happened to me up there. I planned to free climb the entire route, while Andy would follow me up on Jumars.
We left our stove and took CLIF BARs, SHOTs, BLOKS and three liters of water. I led with two ropes and a double rack of cams and nuts, a few hexes, a hammer, six pitons, four bird beaks, and two alpine aiders. Andy would follow me with the pack, food, bivy sacks, satellite phone, Year of the Ram masks, approach shoes, a small bolt kit for emergencies, headlamps, and jackets. We both had two-way radios clipped to our harnesses.
We started in light fog and clouds. By the third pitch, I’d already been forced off my planned route to avoid huge, hanging daggers of rock. We ended up veering way left, but the fun 5.10 pitches delighted me. I knew my brother would be jugging on a rope amid lots of loose rock, with little experience, so I focused on how the rope would run, placing extra gear for directionals.
The next morning we crawled out of our frost-covered bivy sacks and washed down Double Expresso CLIF SHOTs and CLIF BARs. We jugged back to the anchor, and Andy stacked ropes as I racked gear. So far, I had not encountered anything harder than 5.11 and all of my anchors were natural pro. We climbed all day until the sun went around the corner and shade trapped us in shiver-land.
I knew we were getting near the top because we were above every other summit I could see. Often the last technical pitch below a summit can be the most dangerous in terms of loose rock. But here, a full 60 meters of 5.9, clean granite took me to within 20 meters of the true summit. To the west, I noticed what looked like a huge mushroom cloud from a nuclear explosion—a storm system headed our way. The summit celebration would have to wait till morning.
We never really slept, but eventually crawled out of our frozen bivy sacks when the sun came back out. Now we finally celebrated the summit, donning our Year of the Ram masks for photos. On my watch the elevation read 2,030 meters. We were on the highest summit as far as we could see, nearly 400 miles from civilization. It was a glorious moment, not only because of the years I had spent trying to be in this exact place, but also to be here with my brother. And to see my brother give everything he had to be here with me.
Story by Mike Libecki, CLIF athlete
During our time in the hills, the weather cooperated with us flawlessly, almost as if we were directing it ourselves. For this part of the country, that is a rare occurrence. In the seven days I was up there, it only rained once. Luckily, that happened to be the one night I had decided we should treat ourselves and stay in the Conrad Kain hut for the night.
At the end of our week, everyone was still in good spirits. Sure, we had a couple more scrapes and bruises, and maybe a few new holes in our clothes than we did when we started the week, but we were stoked. We had just spent an entire week climbing in this place with basically zero hiccups to our plan. Everyone climbed safely, we summited all of our objectives, and we dodged any bad weather with incredible accuracy. I’d do it again in a heartbeat.
Words and Photos by Ben Matthews