By Vlado Linek
Three Slovak mountaineers, Dusan Beranek, Ivan Doskocil, and Vlado Linek, spent five weeks during the summer, 1998, in southern Greenland, with the goal of free climbing the route, Moby Dick (9+, A2) on the west face of the tower, Ulamertorsuaq, which is on Tasermiut Fjord. The first ascent was made by a German-British team in 1994.
Climbing paradise Tasermiut Fjord with Ketil (middle) and Ulamertorsuaq (right).
Photo: Vlado Linek.
Easy Approach– “One week”: We left the European continent
on July 3rd, from Copenhagen, and should have had some hint from the total
chaos of Greenland Air of what we would be in for. Greenland Air had required that we pay
for our tickets at the airport on departure day, but when we arrived at the counter there
were no tickets waiting for us. An hour searching on a computer finally produced our names
and we were allowed to buy tickets and board the flight for our destination –
Bad weather in Narsarsuaq forced us to land in Kangerlussauq, 500 km to the north, where we spent the night in a local hotel (thankfully at Greenland Air’s expense). We departed the following day, but again bad weather diverted our Canadian First Air flight to Baffin Island, for which we had no visas, and were therefore required to spend five hours waiting in a “special room” in the terminal.
When the weather lifted, we continued to Narsarsuaq, arriving in the evening to flocks of aggressive miggies, in spite of the cold. Our first view of outdoors Greenland offered a fjord virtually filled with icebergs.
At the hotel, we were informed that it was not possible to sail directly to Nanortalik because of the ice, but we could get tickets to Qaqortoq, which was the halfway point in our journey on to the climb. The best part about Qaqortoq was the opportunity for free camping. Even the youth hostel there was very expensive. We were also able to buy our first area map of Tasermiut Fjord, so we were able to determine the exact location of Ulamertorsuaq tower.
A day of slaloming among icebergs got us to Qaqortoq, but the situation there was not promising. There was still too much ice and the helicopter had no place for us for the next ten days. But we had come equipped with a significant amount of Slovak vodka, and managed to get ourselves and our 60 kg of extra luggage (free of charge) on a flight in three days.
Tasermiut Fjord – “Climbing Paradise”: The first offer we
found for a speedboat to take us up the Tasermiut Fjord was 3000 DK, which was way out of
our budget. But a climber from Iceland we had met in Qaqortoq told us cheaper boats were
available. We eventually found one of these boats and one week after our departure from
Copenhagen, we reached base camp below Ulamertorsuaq.
The weather was find and sunny, which allowed us a dynamic view of the huge west face of this amazing tower. The entire landscape is a climber’s paradise, and we met there climbers from Great Britain, the USA, and Iceland. Unbelievably huge walls rose in every direction – Ketil, Nalumasortoq, Ulamertorsuaq, and on the other side of the fjord, Church Spire. There seemed only one possible antidote to our excitement – stop taking pictures and start climbing.
Climbing Moby Dick: We intended to climb free the
German-British route, formerly classified as 9+, A2, 31 pitches, 1100 meters. The approach
was terrible, our haulbags (40 kg) were heavy, miggies and mosquitoes sucked out blood.
The first look at our route left us confused because the American team (Todd Skinner and
Paul Piana,) had fixed ropes on Moby Dick, and we didn’t know if we were going to be
able to climb it free. But we discussed it and the Americans agreed to move their ropes to
the right so our route could go free.
We planned to climb the route in six day, utilizing a homemade portaledge , about 20 Friends, a Camelot 5 necessary for two pitches, and 40 liters of water, with the other usual climbing gear. We started on July 11th, at 16:00. The long summer days at the latitude of Greenland were perfect for big wall climbing. That day we climbed eight pitches – 3, 2, 6+, 6+, 6+, 7-, 8- and 7-.
We only had five fixed ropes and during the evening we hauled up all our stuff. At 22:00, we decided not to sleep on the wall, so we rapped down and slept near the face. The climbing had been nice, but not perfect. The rock was solid. We climbed partly on dihedrals and sometimes on slabs.
On July 12th, we started at 09:00 and climbed until dusk stopped us . . . dusk came at 23:30. By then we had reached the Black Man ledge at 400 meters, 15 pitches from the base. This climbing was a bit harder – 5+, 5, 8-, 8-, 7+, 7+, 8-. There are some bolts in the slabs, but mostly it is necessary to place Friends and Nuts. In the 8th pitch there is a blind bolt just four meters above the belay. But Moby Dick head more to the left, so it’s best not to clip this bolt, and instead traverse to the left. This occurs again during the 10th pitch, which is in a dihedral. There is a blind bolt left of the corner, but it is better to follow the dihedral.
Nearly midnight, we pitched our homemade portaledge (the same one Martin Heuger and Jaro Dutka used on the north face of the Eiger) on Black Man. It was a pleasant night and we slept until 08:00. The stove worked perfectly, so we were able to have a hot meal and drink. The weather on July 13th was also perfect and it was possible to climb in tee-shirts.
That day we wanted to climb the hardest pitch (excepting the technical one on top). After eight hours of rehearsing, Dusan Beranek succeeded with this 9+ RK
pitch. It consisted of quite nice slab climbing with tiny edges, and boulder problems
with long reaches. This opened our way to the top. We managed four pitches that day (6+,
9+, 8/8+and the 19th AF). We placed protection for the next attempt. There were
only cracks above us, the 600 more meters to the top of Ulamertorsuaq. We returned to
Black Man to sleep. That evening we saw ominous weather signs and knew that we would have
a change the next day.
Dusan Beranek, 31, is one of Slovakia’s best free climbers; every year he puts up some of Slovakia’s hardest routes, up to 8b+. He was with Igor Koller on Qualido, but he had never experienced a big wall as demanding as Ulamertorsuaq. His ability on the hardest sections high on the wall impressed us, but even more with what was to come.
The weather did change on July 14th. There wasn’t much we could do now but rap down. Because the American team had fixed ropes near our route, we asked if we could use the ropes to jumar back to Moby Dick. At first I was opposed to this because then our ascent would no longer be alpine, but after three days of bad weather, we would be out of food and therefore have lost the ability to finish the route. We finally descended during a heavy rain.
The bad weather lasted only a day and a half, so two days later we were back on Black Man and prepared to finish the route. The climbing then, although extreme and strenuous (cracks, cracks and cracks), was beautiful and very airy. It was wonderful to be alone with the rock in such a solitary and beautiful place. After the 19th pitch, the pitches went 9-, 9-, 7, 8+, 9-, 8, 8, 8-, 8-, 7.
We alternated the harder pitches between Dusan and me, the easier ones climbed Ivan Doskocil, 24, a very talented young climber from Martin, Slovakia, the third member of our team. Ulamertorsuaq was his first really big wall.
On July 18th, we decided to climb light and leave the portaledge behind. We wanted to reach the 29th, aid pitch, by dusk, and finish the route (A2, 7, 6) during the night. I was happy to have brought the Camelot 5, because during the 27th pitch there is a ten meter long off-width crack, and I used the cam all the way above me.
We reached a small ledge just below the aid pitch at 23:00, but were not able to continue climbing we could not see the direction or the bolt ladder. The night was terrible! We were exhausted from three days of climbing and I was not able to sleep at all. Every 15 minutes I suffered body cramps.
Summit of Ulamertorsuaq: At dawn, 04:00 on July 29th,
we decided to continue climbing. Dusan was totally burned out, so the rest of it was left
to Ivan and me. Ivan climbed the A2 pitch. At 10:00, we were standing on the summit of
Ulamertorsuaq. How strange it was to have exchanged our vertical world for a horizontal
one. The top of the tower is completely plain and flat. You could play football on top of
it. We are climbers, so we prefer the vertical world, but we were like children when we
got on top and found this horizontal playground.
We had made the summit of Moby Dick, but not completely free. We did not free pitch 24 (8), pitch 25 (8) and pitch 29 (A2). We rapped down to base and tried to get some rest, with the idea of taking another shot at climbing it free. We also had to wait for better weather. But the next morning brought cirrus clouds and then a week of bad weather.
Climbers weathered-out at base camp don’t just “wait,” of course. Certainly not with an American team of Todd, Paul, Bobby, Mike and Steve, who could become honorary Slovaks with their ability to make a party, and a group of “Merry Pranksters” from Iceland (Jokull, Stefan, Gumi) who took their fun from jokes and teasing everybody about everything. The Icelanders once told the Americans that we (the Slovak team) had been eaten by polar bears . . . and they believed it. There was quite a surprise when we came back to base camp.
The Icelandic team wanted to climb a new route to the right of the Austrian Sudtiroler Profil, but they moved after a few pitches to this route. They said the Austrian climbers were crazy, because their route was composed of hard pitches (7c+) and poorly protected with homemade hangers on ten meter runouts. The Icelanders descended after something like the 20th pitch.
There was also a team from Switzerland (Denis Burdet, Olivier Schaller, Regis Dubois), composed of young but highly experienced climbers who had twice been to Baffin Island, twice to Patagonia, as well as many big walls in the Alps and Yosemite. They made two first ascents: to the left of Ulamertorsuaq, a pyramid-like tower, Dalphin Safe, 9 pitches, and another behind Ulamertorsuaq, Pet Gaz.
During this bad weather we hiked a bit and came to the largest big wall I have ever seen – Ketil, 1400 meters. This wall is not as good for free climbing as Ulamertorsuaq, because Ketil has a cap and when there is snow on top, the wall and wet and could have hazardous rock fall. Our hiking also showed us the glacier Sermeq from the vicinity of the end of the Tasermiut Fjord.
Moby Dick Free: The weather turned good on the morning of July
26th, more than 3 weeks after we left the continent, and we decided to have
another go at the big wall. We jumared 700 meters, but just at Noon it started snowing and
we had to rap down. We were being pushed now by our pre-arranged schedule to depart, July
30th. July 28th would be our last day for climbing.
On July 27th, we got a present from the Icelandic team – a bunch of Powerbars – and the morning of July 28th, our last shot, dawned with blue sky. Dusan woke up nervous and when we got to the wall, he noticed that he had forgotten his seat harness, so he ran back to get it. We began to jumar at 08:30. Ivan decided to stay back and not go with us. Dusan and I jummared like robots, much more better than our initial clumsiness few days ago. We jummared to the “heart,” 500 meters up, in 80 minutes. There we came across Todd and Paul eating breakfast on their portaledge. They wished us luck (while I ogled their fancy portaledge).
We lost 90 minutes after discovering that the American fixed ropes were torn up. Further bad luck had left us in a bad spot, in an awful off-width corner crack. We had left all our gear high on the wall and only by chance had five Friends with us. We climbed this pitch, maybe 20 meters, tied the ends of ropes, and finally at 13:00, traversed to Moby Dick.
Pitch numbers 24 and 25, both graded 8, were climbed quickly and free. The last pitch
was the 29th, A2. The weather was good, although it was cold, about zero C. I
faced that scary off-width crack. Suddenly Bobby Model, a professional American
photographer, appeared on the fixed rope and wanted to take some pictures of our final
efforts on Moby Dick free. At 19:30, we reached the small ledge just below the A2 pitch.
During our descent on July 19th, we added two bolts to this pitch for free climbing. Dusko is a better climber than I am, so the first attempt was his. At first he practiced some moves and clipped some gear. At 20:45, he said he was ready. Bobby jumared up to the pitch on the other rope. Dusan climbed like a magician. The start is an open crack, and then a traverse on a smooth slab to the right. He completed the crux, but the last five meters were wet and he had to be careful not to slip. At 21:15, he clipped the belay and I hung there amazed at his ability. After 700 meters of jumaring, 300 meters of hard climbing, and 12 hours of time in cold weather, he succeeded on the first attempt on a 9+ (5.13a) pitch, 1000 meters above the first pitch. Bobby took about 60 pictures of this success, some are just perfect. Thank you Bobby.
I wanted a chance at this pitch free, but realized that by then it was much too late, and we still faced a four hour descent and to remove our gear from the wall. But I am not too sad, because we climbed Moby Dick free as a team, and I got in plenty of hard, exciting climbing.
By Midnight we were on the “heart,” and Todd and Paul were the first to congratulate us on the climb, which was for us an especially good feeling. We were on the ground at 01:30, where Ivan waited for us with hot food and a hot drink.
Easy Departure – “One week”: The weather went bad again.
The Icelandic expedition’s boat did not come for them, which caused them to miss their
flight the following day. Our boat came, but the captain said that there was more ice in
Nanortalik than he had ever seen for that time of year. We left this climbing paradise in
a heavy rain. We had tickets for the helicopter, but the weather was too bad to fly. So we
were stuck in the village, waiting four more days for the weather to lift. The flight
company put us up at the local hotel for no charge – which is good, because we
couldn’t have paid anyway – and we were again like children when, after three weeks in
nature, we found ourselves in a nice hotel with restaurant food and showers. We even got
to watch some local football match just by the hotel in Nanortalik.
The weather kept us out of Narsarsuaq long enough to miss our flight to Copenhagen by six hours, we were put up in another “free” hotel. We didn’t mind being rewarded with a free hotel after a wonderful free climb.
Two more days and we finally got back to the European continent, and then home.
Ulamertorsuaq, West Face, “Moby Dick,” 9+, 5.13a, first free ascent – Dusan Beranek, Ivan Doskocil, and Vlado Linek, 11. - 14., 17. - 19., 26. a 28. 7. 1998, 31 pitches, 1120 m, fixed ropes, 5 pitches 9-/ 9+, 10 pitches 8-/ 8+, 2 bolts were added