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This is my story of our free ascent of the west face of Ulamertorsuaq via a route we named War & Poetry.

The story was published in the Spring 1999, premier issue of National Geographic Adventure Magazine.  

We weren’t even sure how to say its clattery name. A Danish woman, as patient as a babysitter, assured us it was pronounced "OO-la-ma-tor-su-wack".

Our bunch of cowboys, fresh in from Wyoming, could only come up with something that seemed to rhyme with "your-damned-torque-wrench". To people in Greenland, however, Ulamertorsuaq is a musical appellation meaning "Big Cylinder".  And the formation is just that:  a cold, soaring turret, shouldered by the magnificent granite walls along the southern edge of the country.

The first time I saw this black spire was in Doug Scott’s book Himalayan Climber. The British climber named it one of the top climbing objectives of the future. All I knew is that it was among the greatest big walls on the planet, and it beckoned like a phantom.  I had to climb it.

Ten years later, the small photograph had been replaced by a reality three-quarters of a mile high.  Our group had come in the hopes of finding a free-climbing route up the western face, the tallest, most formidable approach to the gigantic silo; we wanted to be the first to do it.

Europeans using aid-climbing techniques had reached its summit several times since the 1970’s.  To our free-climbers’ sensibilities, however, such tactics are unsporting.  Unlike aid-climbing, where one relies on equipment for support and upward progress, a free-climber uses ropes and equipment for safety only and climbs free of their support, as if they were not there.  We did not know, though, whether a free-climbing ascent of Ulamertorsuaq would be possible.

Our team did have a secret weapon:  Todd Skinner.  Todd not only can climb like a scared cat, but can also draw on some monster flow of energy. People traveling with him learn to draw on this energy too.  He knows his way over every kind of rock in the world.

Todd and I became acquainted 20 years ago when we were students at the University of Wyoming-- we actually met while scaling the walls of the university cafeteria.  We stayed in the state and a group of us came to  settle in the town of Lander, where we feasted on all the outstanding rock climbing in the area.

In June 1988, Todd and I managed a free climb of the Salathé Wall on El Capitan in Yosemite.  At the time it was regarded as the world’s most difficult free-climb of a big wall.  After that venture, we began looking around for other seemingly impossible climbs.  Todd and I drew up a list of what we considered the most monolithic  and impressive walls in North America, then we methodically began free-climbing them.  After scaling the likes of the North Face of Mount Hooker in Wyoming, the Great Canadian Knife, and the Direct Northwest Face of Half Dome, we sat down to draw up a second list: What, we asked, were the biggest monoliths around the rest of the world? Todd's account of our group's ascent up the 20,469-foot summit of the Trango Tower in Pakistan was the National GEOGRAPHIC cover story in April 1996. A broken leg forced me to pull out of that trip. But later, on the southern fringe of the Sahara in Mali, I joined Todd to free-climb another wall from the list: the 1,500-foot-tall quartzite needle called the Hand of Fatima.

In the years we have lived, traveled, and climbed together, our group has learned each individual's strengths. The engineer of the group is Mike Lilygren. Meticulous, endlessly energetic, and self- sacrificing, Mike is the one who sits out in the cold and rain overhauling our camp stoves when they go haywire.

Our one-man variety show is the formidably strong Steve Bechtel, a fellow of great wit and performer of impersonations, acrobatics, and unlikely songs. He might improvise a half-hour spiritual, for instance, on the importance of brushing your teeth. Equally creative as a climber, he has a talent for difficult granite-crack climbs.

Steve's younger brother, Jeff, joined our group, although he isn't a climbing enthusiast. A hunting guide in Wyoming and Alaska, he was our base-camp manager. Also on our team: Bobby Model, from Cody, Wyoming, a great climber and a rising star in the galaxy of adventure photographers (see photos on these pages); and Peter Mallamo, a film maker from North Carolina, frequent climber in Lander, and our honorary cowboy.

The journey from our home base in Wyoming to Greenland's capital of Nuuk took two days and then some, factoring in the 30-hour marathon drive from home to Ottawa in a rattly Suburban, baggage lashed to the roof, a four-hour flight to Iqaluit on Baffin Island, and a three-hour hop to Nuuk, where the weather was so hideous that we were socked in for five days.

But when the fog parts in Greenland, there is a lot to look at. It is, first of all, a stunning place for people-watching. Standing in line at the bakery, for example, would be a tall, blond, Nordic beauty, and next to her, a grizzled, ancient-looking Inuit fisherman wrapped in faded seal skin. On the street were Greenlanders blessed with beautiful facial structure and the most handsome physical features of the two ethnic strains-- haunting, slate-colored eyes set off by rose-olive skin.

You can find entertainment just by visiting the supermarket meat section, which doesn't stop at reindeer and musk ox. After-pondering cuts of narwhal and seal, we chose the fin whale and seal steaks for an evening meal. The texture: soft as filet mignon. The flavor: mighty fishy and livery.

Owing to fog, ice pack, and wind, travel around Greenland seemed an impossibility. The July temperatures never rose above the high 50's. (The highest temperature ever recorded in Greenland's history is a simmering 72.) After days spent trying to arrange some form of transportation, we wrangled a helicopter flight, but it was halted again and again by a brick wall of fog. Finally, eight days later, we made it to Nanortalik, on the southern tip of Greenland. While unloading our baggage, we were faced with a dismal question: How, with all the fog and ice, could we arrange our final leg of travel up the Tasermiut Fjord?

As we stood there wondering, a Greenlandic man walked up and, in broken English, inquired whether we might be interested in hiring his 40-foot fishing boat, the Colo Nanortalik for a ride up the fjord. Five hours later, everyone on the team was bunched at the front of the boat, hoping a first glimpse at the mountain. Suddenly, a crack in the clouds opened. At the 2,000-foot level, where there should have been sky, there was instead wall of solid rock. The 3,600-foot monolith of Ulamertorsuaq was intimidating. This was not going to be a routine climb.

Two hours of steep load carrying from the fjord put us on a flat meadow atop an icy moraine. Here we pitched our tents and established base camp. For minutes of scrambling higher brought us the base of the giant granite cylinder.

Our first forays across the granite surface revealed a pleasing coarseness in texture.  When free-climbing, you worry that a short hold less section, even a six-foot span, will be too blank to climb. Ulamertorsuaq's stone, however, bunioned with feldspar crystals, cut by soaring crack systems, and spangled with black knobs, held great potential.

When we first laid eyes on this stunning landscape, we gave a word of thanks Odin, the Norse god of war and poetry.  Confronting the big tower, we felt we finally arrived at climber's heaven.

Often, climbing a wall is a complex route finding challenge, and the route is generally serpentine. But we decided to climb almost directly up a right-facing comer resembled the spine of an open book.  This spine or dihedral, contained a crack system that we'd follow straight to the summit

During the initial evenings of the expedition, we would rappel back down ropes we left in place and enjoy life in camp. We w pleased to learn that one Greenlandic d definition of "stable weather" was sunny and dry conditions lasting long periods of time.  Another definition: continuous fog and rain.  Our weather fears, coupled with almost 24 hours of Arctic daylight, inspired us to leave camp by 7 a.m. and climb until after midnight sunset, when the world was bathed in a soft, atomic-reactor, blue-green twilight

Mike and Steve did most of the leading on this part of the climb, while Todd and I acted in a support capacity by hauling food, water, and supplies. Steve and Mike moved with a balance of speed and care, their fingers bent like hooks and "crimping" on silver-dollar-thin flakes of rock. Move too fast, and they might slip off, but climb too slowly, and their strength and composure could fail.

The tiny crimps served as handholds and then as footholds for our specially designed climbing shoes.  On these crimps we danced from edge to edge. At times, a vertical crack opened enough to allow us to pull up using jamming techniques. Sometimes cracks were barely wide enough to insert fingertips. At other points, the cracks were deep and wide, allowing an entire hand to fit in the crack, enabling a "hand jam."

One thousand feet above the base was a good-sized overhang. Mike made a beeline toward this feature, which jutted out five feet like the eaves on a very tall house. Clinging below the roof, Mike arched his back and reached out with one hand. At the moment his fingers peeled off the hold, he Ulamertorsuaq Greenland punched out with his legs and leaped for a "bucket" at the lip, swung from the lip of the overhang, and gyrated like a pendulum. Steve carefully belayed the climbing rope in case Mike's crazy trapeze act failed. Hyped on adrenaline and whirling his legs, Mike found the strength to perform a one-arm pull-up. He reached higher over the lip and threw his feet over to hook a heel on another hold. Moments later, he looked down just long enough to flash a smile.

Several pitches later, we reached a dark, heart-shaped feature that we had seen from the ground. This feature, which we named the Dark Heart, was like an immense granite corn flake stuck to the wall. The bottom of this gigantic flake jutted out and formed an overhang half again as big as the one Mike had just climbed. This overhang was split by a one-and-a-quarter-inch cleft and, since climbers love to name things, we dubbed the cleft the Heartbreaker.

The crack was the absolute worst size for Steve's hands, which were a quarter-inch too thick to fit. Steve was crushed to discover this after he had already committed to climbing it. He struggled mightily to turn the lip of the roof but could not find a hand jam that worked.  

But while his hand would not fit, the crack was just right for a one-and­a-half-inch Friend, a spring-loaded cam that Steve set halfway out the seven-foot ceiling. With a carabiner (a snap link with a spring gate), Steve had clipped his rope to the Friend. The combination, with Mike belaying (feeding and holding the rope) from below, provided "bomb-proof" protection in case Steve fell.

Steve has enough climbing experience to know the difference between fear and true danger, and as he struggled to climb this overhang, he knew that he was safe. When he realized that no jam he could get would allow him an easy transition from the overhanging position, he began "thrutching"--climbers' slang for a combination of thrashing and clutching. It's the word that comes to mind when the climber is "gripped"--terribly afraid.

We saw his shoulders hunch and his chin jut out a mile. He held on for another heartbeat, then his hands slipped out of the crack. With a ghoulish shriek, Steve fell violently into space, toppled part way upside down, and ended up dangling-wide-eyed and spinning in the blue Arctic sky. Ever though Steve's pulse was probably about 700, he had the terse, James Bond wherewithal to calmly look down at us and simply say, "Cool!"

We watched Mike lower his partner. Steve was anxious to make another try. The backs of his hands weren't bleeding much but were purpling with bruises and oozing from deep scrapes. He decided a few wraps of athletic tape would prohibit further skin erosion. "Besides," he said, "I think tape sticks to the rock better than blood."

After Steve succeeded in climbing the Heartbreaker, we joined him at the 1,800-foot level, atop the Dark Heart. There we found a gravel-covered ledge about 25 feet long by 2 feet wide. We christened this ledge Dark Heart Camp, and thought about the brutal task of stocking it with food and supplies.

The next morning, Steve and Mike began a hard day as vertical longshoremen, manhandling haul bags of provisions from base camp to our new cache high on the wall. While they worked, Todd and I climbed another 600 feet. At this point, the wall became steeper than vertical. The wall and cracks were overhanging, and the climbing was much more strenuous.

Around midnight, Todd and I rappelled down to the Dark Heart Camp. We suspended a portaledge and settled down for the night.

A two-man portaledge is shaped something like a one-man nylon camping cot. It is hung by nylon straps meeting at a single point, which is then attached to the cliff. When bad weather is expected, the rain fly shrouds it and makes it look something like a tipi. With each body movement or gust of wind, the aluminum cot frame grates ominously against the cliff, while the thin sheet of nylon at our backs seems only to emphasize the void. Portaledges are claustrophobic and clammy, and climbers sleep head-to-foot.

During long stretches of inclement weather, with your
partner’s gamy feet in your face and nothing to do but stare at the anchor that suspends you thousands of feet off the ground, is possible to go a little bit crazy. As we lay there, dangling in our hanging cot and munching on an evening meal of energy bars and water, we radioed the fellows at base camp and told them we would stay on the wall for the balance of the climb.

While we rested, Jeff explored other valleys, fished for salmon, and collected mussels during low tide in the fjord.

Sleep came. But then, in the night, came the sound rain tapping on the waterproof fly. Whenever we lifted flap, the usual sight was a half-dreamed nightmare of swirling gray mist. Once, we could see down the dizzy drop of the wall, across the glacier, and past minuscule specks of our base-campChuch Spire Peak - Greenland tents to the fjord. The dramatic view lasted all of half a minute.

After 24 hours in this gloomily lit world, neither Todd nor I had any idea of time. We slept until midday. Even if the rain suddenly stopped, the rock would be too wet to free-climb.

Then came the avalanches. A 100-foot-tall hanging serac, weakened by rain, came loose and slid down from the heights. Unlike snowy avalanches in the high mountains, these were blocks of ice the size and heft of small buildings. The hunks broke off and hurtled down not 500 feet away from us. Their impacts on the glacier boomed like a B-52 air strike.

Though visibility was often nil, we would peer intently into the mist while listening to this fear-inspiring sound. When the weather cleared, we got the full, terrifying view of these buildings of ice slugging the glacier below. Huge geysers of snow fanned into the sky.

After several days of rain, the evenings began to partially clear, allowing views of summits rimmed with snow. From hopeful sleep we would be awakened by the depressing white noise of rainfall. We were all very worried that the weather wouldn't change.  We had less than five days to free-climb the remaining 1.800 feet of our route, then descend and carry our gear to the fjord for a rendezvous with our boat.  Steve and Mike had perfected a game in which they colored in the little squares on their portaledge’s ripstop nylon fly, but they were quickly running out of board space.

On the evening of our tenth day of rain, we faced increasing uneasiness in the knowledge that rain here routinely lasts for months.  But Todd announced with authority, "Set your alarm for 5 a.m.  I have this feeling that tomorrow is going to be great".  He then called our to the others to be prepared to get rolling early.  To humor him, I set the alarm.

At five, the alarm chirped and the day was in fact beautiful.  Just a tendril of cloud tickled the summit.  Todd, like a pagan worshiper, stretched his arms toward the sun and let out a barbaric laugh: "Aaarrgh, Odin is testing us!"

The rest of our route appeared geometrically clear.  The crack in the giant open book soared skyward 800 feet above us in the shape of a huge bow.

It was breathtaking to be hanging from jammed hands and standing on feet crammed in the crack.  At times, a set of footholds and a secure hand jam made it possible to bridge across the corner and take a vertigo-inducing glance down between our legs.  Our eyes dollied thousands of feet down, beyond the base of the wall, to the microscopic yellow tents in base camp.

Toward the end of the day, we reached a sloping triangular ledge, halfway between Dark heart and the summit.  It seemed an ideal place to establish another bivouac.

While Steve and Mike hung Portaledges and began readying camp, Todd and I led higher.  Just above the ledge, a massive, 150-foot-high, mitten-shaped flake was somehow attached to the wall.  Steve pointed out this ominous Sword of Damocles and urged Todd to climb gingerly wile he led the next rope length.

Above, the bow-shaped corner slowly began to curve to our right.  the first part of this lead seemed to be made for my hands.  I made rapid progress until, about 50 feet above the ledge, the crack began to widen.  Soon, it had widened from the perfect two-and-a-half-inch-size I loved to an overhanging eight-inch gash.  We had no cams large enough to fit this.  I had reached an impasse, and I climbed back down.  Splitting the otherwise blank wall 30 feet to my right was a very thin fissure.  This crack began at the mitten and split the wall directly to the tip of the bow-shaped dihedral.  If the corner system was the bow, then this thin fissure was the bowstring.

It was one of the most electrifying places I had ever been.  three thousand feet of thin air separated me from the cold ice on the glacier.  Like a fly without wings, I clinged to the sheer side of a huge granite cliff as a momentary wave of vertigo rattled my composure.  Glancing at the rope tied Paul Piana to my harness, I followed it down, past the concerned expression on Todd’s face to a few thready clouds far below.  My fingers were shrieking with pain as torqued them, cuticle deep, into the thin fissure.  The tip of one climbing shoe was pinched sharply in the crack, while the other toe poised on a crumbling flake the width of a kitchen match.  My protection was my rope.  It was clipped to a tiny brass wedge, half the size of a sugar cube, lodged in the crack.

A few feet above me, a granite gum ball jutted from the vertical rock.  Reaching that tiny foothold might take the strain off my fingers and calm my racing mind.  Todd read my panicked expression and nodded to assure me that he would hold the climbing rope and catch any fall.

But the rope seemed too thin, my strength was fading, and the "protection" seemed to be a joke.  I was afraid to risk a fall by moving, but in delaying I would fatigue and fall for sure, possibly yanking the tiny wedge from the crack. Suddenly, the flake shattered. I plummeted 25 feet down the wall, jerked to a stop, and stayed dangling from the rope. Todd held on.  The fall had lasted just one or two seconds, but it was time enough to question all existence.

A chill wind began to knife through our jackets. We could see the rest of our team wisely retreating to our last bivouac. We felt a sudden need to hurry.

As Todd began snugging the laces of his climbing shoes and preparing himself mentally for his attempt on this fantastic fissure, I was putting on my Gore-Tex shell for protection from the large silver drops that smacked us. While Todd hurriedly selected gear, he was talking to himself: "Are we crazy? The wall is getting soaked. Maybe we should down." But be never paused in his preparations.

Todd launched himself up the crack, screaming vile oaths at the gods for bringing rain. It was a valiant, inspired, and doomed lead effort. Up into the darkness he jammed, with water sluicing down. He made it 90 feet before ending his soggy pursuit, his hands slipped from the crack, and he fell.

We dropped to our portaledges and a 36-hour term of confinement. Todd had screamed so much climbing that he was as hoarse as a lifelong smoker.

When the alarm sounded at 5:30 a.m., Todd unzipped the fly, looked out, and yelled: "We live! The gods love us!" We were above the clouds.

After a rapid breakfast, we resumed battle with the bowstring crack. This time there was no cursing, just steady upward movement. Todd anchored himself to the wall after having free-climbed the most elegant and beautiful pitch of the entire climb.

After I led a pitch that ended in a strange cave-like alcove, Steve and Mike took the lead and began climbing the remaining six rope lengths to the top. The fantastic weather held. Then the radio cracked and we heard Mike say the words we dreaded.

"Paul and Todd, uh, we have reached a point where the crack has ended.... It's just stopped, and I'm afraid we can't follow it anymore."

Then, heart breaking radio silence. Todd and I looked at each other, crushed. After all the hard climbing, after all the miserable waiting in the dank prison of a portaledge, it seemed a blank section was going to rob us of our free ascent. I asked if there might be some prayer of an alternative. I pleaded with them to carefully look around for some other tiny edges or traverse that would lead to the top.

Mike responded: "Uh, that's a negative; we we've checked out the other cracks, and the only possibility ends right where we are now. There is no way to climb any farther...." 

Then we heard radioed laughter mixed with faint whoops from above.

The pranksters. Of course it was impossible to climb anymore-- Steve and Mike were calling from the summit! Todd and I quickly climbed the last two pitches. Soon we were all assembled on the domed, rocky summit.

Overwhelmed, we looked off the other side at other immense walls that held back the vast Greenland ice sheet stretching to the north. To the south, the ice-packed Atlantic. To the west and high above, the sky was diamond-shot indigo. The setting sun formed a smoldering coal in a cloudy hearth of silver and rose.

In honor of Odin and the Viking spirit, we christened our new climb War and Poetry. We couldn't linger long, though. Even after an 18-hour climbing day, we would need another seven watery hours to get down. We bad a boat to meet.

It was well past midnight when the rains resumed. As the cobalt chill set in, we rappelled over the edge and into 3,600 feet of Arctic twilight. Looking up, we were grateful to see the alpenglow's last dance along the summit cornice and a poetic display of northern lights.

© 2000 Paul Piana


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