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The Development of Mountaineering in East and North-East Greenland
An Outline History

Compiled by Jim Gregson, with additional notes by Paul Walker


Most early expeditions to Greenland had scientific rather than mountaineering objectives. Nevertheless, there was considerable exploration and discovery of mountain ranges and a number of ascents were made, perhaps the earliest being J. Payer’s 1870 climb of Payer Spitze (2133m) above Kejser Franz-Joseph Fjord. Further interest in Greenland was catalysed by Nansen’s first crossing of the Inland Ice in 1888 from Umivik to Godthåb (Nuuk).

A number of other routes crossing the ice cap were pioneered at the end of the 19th Century and the start of the 20th. Significantly for future mountaineering, the Swiss Alfred de Quervain’s west to east crossing of 1912 partly discovered and named the Schweizerland area for its array of alpine peaks. The British explorer J.M. Wordie led teams into north-east Greenland in 1926 and 1929, in the latter year making the first ascent of Petermanns Bjerg, the highest mountain in the High Arctic and once thought to be the ‘loftiest in all Greenland’.

The decade of the 1930’s saw a surge of interest in Greenland’s mountains. Between 1930 and 1932 the Gino Watkins-led British Arctic Air-Route Expeditions travelled extensively on the Inland Ice and in the east coast mountains. Attempts were made on Mont Forel, and aerial survey flights led to the discovery of what later became named the Watkins Bjerge, where the highest peaks on the whole island were discovered. In 1933 Miss Louise Boyd’s American Expedition made a number of ascents to the north of Petermann’s Bjerg. Further important discoveries were accomplished by Martin Lindsay’s British Trans-Greenland Expedition which in 1934 crossed the Inland Ice from west to east to fix the position of the "Monarch", later renamed Gunnbjørns Fjeld, confirming its primacy of altitude. Lindsay then sledged hundreds of kilometres south-west to Ammassalik discovering en route the extensive ranges of the Kronprins Frederik Bjerge.

In 1935, Lawrence Wager, who had been a member of Watkins’ expedition, returned to the icebound east coast to pioneer a route inland from Sødalen to make the first ascent of Gunnbjorns Fjeld (c.3693m) as well as sighting the Lemon Bjerge to the north-east of Kangerdlugssuaq Fjord. During 1938 a Swiss expedition including Andre Roch travelled through Schweizerland to make the first ascent of Mont Forel (3360m) and thirteen other significant firsts, among them Laupers Bjerg, Rødebjerg and Rytterknægten, drawing attention to the wealth of fine peaks in this district.

The Post-World War II years heralded an increasing rate of visits to east and north-east Greenland as awareness of the mountaineering possibilities grew. Lauge Koch’s series of East Greenland Expeditions from 1950 to 1953, although scientific in intent, numbered keen mountaineers among its personnel, notably J. Haller and W. Diehl, who climbed many important peaks in Goodenough Land, Swuess Land and other districts of Christian X Land. The ascents of Lauge Kochs Bjerg, Payers Tinde, Hamlet Bjerg, Shackletons Bjerg and Pluto Nunatak date form this period. More northerly still, the Barth Mountains and Dronning Louise Land were also the setting for pioneer ascents by the British North Greenland Expedition 1952-54.

The 1950’s also saw the start of what became prolific development of mountaineering in the spectacular alpine ranges of the Staunings Alps. Expeditions from Norway, Switzerland, Denmark, Austria and Scotland made large numbers of first ascents. In 1954 Haller and Diehl seized their opportunity to be the first to climb Danmarkstinde (Dansketinde), the highest peak in the Staunings (2930m) and repeated the climb of Norsketinde (Stortoppen) soon after its first ascent by Norwegians and Danes. Many more expeditions followed into the Staunings Alps throughout the 1960’s with teams from many nations making multiple first ascents in this very attractive alpine area.

The mountains of the Ammassalik region, Schweizerland and areas near to Mont Forel also continued to draw in expeditions, with extensive achievements throughout the 1960’s by teams from Japan, Switzerland, Sweden and Great Britain. On a Sadder note, the first mountaineering fatalities in Greenland‘s mountains befell the 1966 (British) Royal Navy Expedition which lost two members in separate accidents. The 1963 Scottish East Greenland Expedition led by P.Gribbon climbed extensively in the "Caledonian Alps", adjacent ranges to the Schweizerland Alps, and the Swiss under S.Angerer in 1966 climbed some very impressive peaks from the glaciers extending north-east of the huge Glacier de France.

As the decade of the 1960’s closed and moved into its successor, the1970’s, the numbers of expeditions with mountaineering ambitions also grew. However, the majority of them continued to visit areas already known, leading to more intensive development with some notable increases in technical climbing standards, rather than exploration in new regions. Improved access by air, most importantly via the airstrip at Kulusuk on the east coast began to make significant differences, although there were still a number of fine initiatives made by air-borne approaches. The European nations were at the forefront of the development of mountaineering with many groups originating from Italy, France, Germany and Great Britain. The Staunings Alps continued to draw attention and there was a renewal of interest into the considerable possibilities of the Kronprins Frederik Bjerge. The high peaks in the Mont Forel district were a magnet for some but others sought out difficulty elsewhere, such as the Swiss ascents of the Cisdon, the Istinde and the Eismeer Jungfrau near the Pourquoi-Pas Glacier in 1966, and the Croatians on Ingolffjeld in 1971. Further north a few groups attempted to open up the harder to reach unknown regions behind the Blosseville Coast and areas adjacent to Scoresby Sund.

Interest was encouraged at this time by the publication of two important sources of information. Mario Fantin published his major work in Italian. "Montagne di Groenlandia" tried to cover a full account of all expeditions to Greenland up to 1969. In 1971, Donald Bennet’s "Staunings Alps" chronicled the intensive development of that region.

During the summer of 1970, Andrew Ross’s expedition sailed by open boat all the way from Scoresby Sund to Wiedemanns Fjord then trekked inland to succeed on the challenging first ascent of Ejmar Mikkelsens Fjeld, a major success. In 1972 Gunnbjorns Fjeld received only its second ascent by Alastair Allan’s British-Danish team and in the eastern sector of the Watkins Bjerge, Brown and Soper from Britain’s Sheffield University climbed the high Borgetinde for the first time. Another British group began to open up the Roscoe Bjerge in Liverpool Land.

Another important initiative occurred in 1972. The Westminster East Greenland Expedition, including Stan Woolley, sailed from Kulusuk to Kangerdlugssuaq Fjord and once landed, explored via the Frederiksbjorg glacier into the Lemon Bjerge, drawing attention to these exciting alpine ranges first seen by L.Wager in 1935. Woolley was also instrumental in subsequent years in opening up other areas, most importantly the difficult to reach northerly parts of the Kronprins Frederik Bjerge. All through the later 1970’s and 1980’s expeditions numbers grew, with much more intensive development in districts where it was known the good mountaineering objectives proliferated, including many ascents of new routes on peaks already climbed.

As access to Greenland’s eastern and north-eastern mountains has always been problematic, a major change in the 1980’s was to give a very significant impetus to Arctic mountaineering. This was the start of icecap and glacier landings for mountain expeditions by ski-equipped Twin Otter aircraft from Iceland. Such approaches began in 1988 in the Watkins Bjerge marking the long association of skilful Icelandic pilots with mountaineering expeditions. The first flights were made in to the Watkins Bjerge, eliminating the time-consuming overland approaches and which led to a surge of interest in the mountains surrounding Gunnbjørns Fjeld, as well as popularising ascents on the highest of Greenland’s summits. It soon became clear that ten or more of the highest Arctic mountains were clustered in this region. In 1988 The British team, including Jim Lowther and Lewis Jones, climbed Gunnbjørns Fjeld, the Cone and the Dome, the latter two of which were open to later claims by the Swede, Ingemar Olssen that these exceeded the former in height. This claim was finally put to rest after Derek Fordham's team ascent in 1996 which took more accurate altitude measurements showing Gunnbjørns Fjeld to indeed be the highest. The Cone and the Dome were later officially renamed as Qaqqaq Johnson and Qaqqaq Kershaw and measured and confirmed by acurate GPS as Greenland’s third and second highest mountains. Also in 1988 a Swedish Group led by Bengt Rodin succeeded in climbing both Gunnnbjørns Fjeld and Mount Forel during the same expedition by making the huge 450km ski journey between the two peaks.

As the 1980’s gave way to the 1990’s, the popularity of the mountains of East Greenland escalated, despite the continuing high levels of expense involved in getting there. Regions like the Staunings Alps, the Lemon Bjerge, and Schweizerland, where good quality rock climbing and technical mountaineering are in plentiful supply drew in more mountaineers each year. Helicopter and ski-plane access made it easier to get quickly into the heart of the mountains, even allowing for the, at times, inevitable bad weather delays. Interest in the highest summits has also maintained a steady stream of expeditions, and guided parties have become regular, particularly to Gunnbjørns Fjeld which normally receives between two and four ascents each season.

In 1998 a Swiss team of four, led by Roland Aeschimann, made the second ascent of Ejnar Mikkelsens Fjeld by a repeat of the south glacier approach, probably the single most impressive peak in the whole of Greenland with faces on three sides rising some 6,000ft from the Kronborg Glacier. This was followed in 2000 by the second ascent of it's close neighbour Borgetinde by a Tangent group led by Nigel Edwards, along with several other first ascents in the region. Tragically at this time, a nearby peak was the site of the death of the nephew of well known Dutch climber Ronald Naar in a crevasse fall during their ski descent on a new peak in poor visibility.

There has also been an increasing level of interest in the development of new areas, especially by groups form Great Britain. This has resulted in much more travel, exploration and ascents in the Kronprins Frederik Bjerge, the Lemon Bjerge, the many peaks round the Kangerdluassuaq Basin, the Watkins Bjerge, and areas behind the Blosseville Coast such as the Rignys Bjerg mountains, Lindbergh Fjelde, the Gronau Nunatakker, the mountains of Knud Rasmussen Land and the remote peaks of the aptly named Camp Icefield. Further north still, within the Greenland National Park area, more British groups have been very active climbing in Goodenough Land, Louise Boyd’s Land, the Martin Knudsens and Niels Holgersens Nunatakker and Dronning Louise Land, A major factor in these recent developments since the early nineties has been the role of Paul Walker and his logistics operation, Tangent Expeditions International, which by co-ordination of air operations has facilitated access for many expeditions into these more remote areas during the 1990's and 2000's.

Further south, the Schweizerland region continues to be a major draw with continuing development of high standard rock climbing, and increasingly the seeking out of big wall climbing as seen in the Fox Jaw Cirque above Tasiilaq Fjord, and on prominent peaks like Tupilak by the September 16 Glacier. The Staunings alps too, continue to exercise their hold on those seeking demanding alpine climbing. These trends seem likely to persist, alongside a growing interest in ski-touring and ski-mountaineering. Many previously unclimbed and unexplored mountain ranges still exist throughout east and northeast Greenland, containing literally thousands of remaining unclimbed summits. The last few years have also seen the first signs of development of winter mountaineering in Greenland, an exciting and challenging prospect. In March 2004 Paul Walker led an international team of climbers who attempted the first ever winter ascent of Gunnbjørnsfjeld, the highest mountain in the Arctic at 3,693m. Forced back by temperatures in the -40's and strong winds and frightening windchill on the summit ridge it will no doubt only be a matter of time before this, and numerous other peaks, begin to attract and receive true winter ascents. Indeed Paul Walker and Team Tangent returned to the mountain in March 2006 to make a successful winter attempt from the north side of the mountain. Thus, although Greenland’s many and varied mountains lack the altitude of the Himalaya or the Andes, their remoteness and likeness to Antarctica, and the promise of new ascents will go on attracting those who search for the rewards of exploration and attainment of new mountaineering experiences as the 21st Century marches on.

Reference Sources.

  1. Mountaineering in Greenland 1870 – 1966 in The Mountain World 1966 – 1967, Swiss Foundation for Alpine Research.
  2. Mountaineering in Greenland in The American Alpine Journal Issue 53 1979.
  3. Mountaineering in Greenland 1977 –1986 in The American Alpine Journal Issue 62 1988.
  4. Sea, Ice and Rock C. Bonington and R. Knox-Johnston 1992.
  5. Greenland Ventures S. Woolley 2004.
  6. Tangent Expeditions.
Greenland logistics