Siebe Vanhee | Greenland Chapter 5: The Thumbnail – A struggle with ourselves, the team and the goals…
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Greenland Chapter 5: The Thumbnail – A struggle with ourselves, the team and the goals…

Greenland Chapter 5: The Thumbnail – A struggle with ourselves, the team and the goals…

The Thumbnail is a mighty granite big wall rising straight out of the Torsukattak fjord reaching a height of 1350 meter. This is definitely one of the biggest, maybe ‘the’ biggest, sea cliff in the world. It has been climbed the first time on the far right side of the wall in 2000 by a British team lead by Ian Parnell. Since then three more lines have been climbed on this big wall, but all of them where easier then the British first ascent with the grade E6 6b. The wall has still a lot of first ascent potential and looked like the perfect main objective of our trip.


We had over a week time to attempt a new line on this big seacliff. In the Stordalens basecamp we packed our bags for an adventure of seven days of vertical living. At this point I had the feeling something was wrong in the team. Tim’s ‘fire’ for climbing wasn’t like it was used to be. The packing went slow and logistical thinking was hard. Around noon we left basecamp and kayaked towards the base of the wall, which is about 6 km further south in Torsukattak fjord. Before reaching the base of the wall I peddled far out towards the other side of the fjord. This way I had a good overview of the wall to search for a new and climbable line. I took some pictures from different distances and joined Tim at the base of the wall. Here we found a great start straight out of the kayak. According to the pictures we thought this line would be possible to continue up to the big and spacious horizontal ledge halfway up the wall. The plan was to climb as high as possible that same day and haul all the gear up the wall to our highpoint. Like always in this kind of climbing you have to think several steps ahead. For the descent we would take a gully on the left side of the wall so we had to drop one kayak further south in the fjord at the base of the wall somewhere on shore. After dropping that kayak we would have to return towards the start of the route with the second kayak, jumare up and continue our climb. That second kayak we would leave at the base of our climb.

Most comfortable belayseat! 
Racking up!

Starting a big wall straight out of an inflatable kayak was something surreal. First of all we fixed a Camelot three meters above the water to attach our boats, otherwise they would float away all the time. Then we both struggled to gear up in the boat, it was exciting! Once I was ready, I took off. I was loaded with gear ready to concur the unknown terrain. Smoothly I climbed my way up the wall, enjoying this so much like it’s my first nature! After I made a little mistake and got into a blank section I down climbed and found the right way. Next, I made an anchor and finally saved Tim from the moving kayaks belaying him up the first pitch. He had been waiting quite a while lying down in the kayaks belaying when I was climbing. Tim wasn’t feeling well, his climbing skills weren’t like we were used too and his normally pretty strong and motivated mental state was missing. What could be wrong with him? Tired? No motivation? Intimidated? I didn’t know, but I was worried.
First pitch, off in the unknown.

I continued leading the second pitch, climbing a tricky corner onto a beautiful arête continuing by a dirty crack which I cleaned to place the gear. Again this second pitch was like the first one, a classic pitch on perfect granite, nothing loose and great friction. The technical grade was around 6c French so perfect to start with. Also this pitch Tim followed. At that second belay we discussed our situation and Tim’s tensed feeling. Good and honest communication is a key ingredient on a big wall trip like this one. Mental and physical tiredness from the last few weeks had struck and resulted in low motivation. Maybe it would get better when we had a good sleep on the wall and see the beauty around us waking up above the sea! We tried to give the low motivation a boost and Tim continued for the third pitch that gave way on another blank section. Probably we had to climb back down 5 meters and switch towards another cracksystem. 

But then, before we could even search for another way something surreal happened. While Tim was climbing I looked down towards our kayaks, 80 meters below. Suddenly I saw one of the two haulbags floating away with the current into the fjord. In some way it had flipped out of the kayak. 

I lowered Tim and he continued lowering towards the kayaks using the static line. Quickly Tim detached one kayak from the anchor and peddled towards the floating haulbag. Now the haulbag was full of water and super heavy to lift back into the boat. Tim clipped the haulbag to the boat and peddled back to the static rope. At the mean time I descended and helped Tim hauling the bag into the boat using the static rope. Unfortunately it was the haulbag with all our camping and sleeping gear. The damage wasn’t too bad because we used a lot of drybags. But still things like our sleeping bags, food and first aid where soaked with seawater. It became very clear we could not overnight on the wall with wet sleeping bags, we had to return to basecamp to sleep in a tent. Before returning to basecamp we first went up to our highpoint again, organised the ropes and the gear and left all of it behind with the thought to come back and continue our attempt the next day when everything was dry again.

Tim in the last grassy bit of the second pitch. 
But that time the wet sleeping bag and the whole floating haulbag situation was not the problem. Before we would be able to continue up this big wall the next day we had to sort out Tim’s and so, the team’s motivation. We are a team of two climbers, when one is not feeling a hundred percent strong mentally and physically, the second teammember cannot compensate this missing energy on his own. As a team of two there is only two angles of looking at the things. When the two are looking from the same angle in the same direction, like it should be on a big wall expedition, things are well and feel easy. But when the two are each looking in a different direction with different expectations, reaching goals will be more complicated. At a certain point one can motivate the other but there is limits on motivation and motivational powers that live in a team. On day 32 if the trip, the day after our Thumbnail attempt we got to the point we head to find a new headspace. We had to agree about the goals and each other’s expectations again, get back at the same level of looking at things, and make the decision of going for it with all our motivation and energy we still had left or to leave that Thumbnail wall behind and find other goals. This last decision meant a lot to me. It was not just a climb that we would leave behind; it was a whole expedition, great efforts, organisation and most of all… a dream. But this was reality and it hurts. Sometimes things are not like you expect them to be. I thought I knew the risks of an expedition. Not reaching your objectives can happen because of an accident or bad weather, but this? Leaving the wall behind because my partner didn’t feel well and motivated anymore, this I didn’t expect. But it had to be the right decision. I understand Tim, sometimes you feel just empty, mentally as well as physically. Continuing in this state could be dangerous and not worth it. So the second decision it became. We left the wall behind, I left a dream behind…

A dream which is still there to go back to…
New and smaller objectives – The Dreadlock Peak

Dreadlock Peak in the back.

The next day we decided to kayak back to the Thumbnail and take down the first two pitches we climbed. We recovered all the gear and returned to basecamp. But now we needed one more objective, we couldn’t leave this last destination of the trip without climbing a single wall and reaching a summit. It was hard to face the fact we hiked and kayaked all the way for just climbing up a big wall 80 meters. So we needed something to climb in our last 5 days before the British crew came back to give us a lift to England. There is a big difference between climbing a wall of 1350 meters or one of 400 meters, for a wall like this last one we still had the energy and motivation. From Stordalens basecamp we could see one beautiful peak further down the Qingeq Kujalleq valley. Like everywhere in this area it was hard to estimate the distance to the wall and the height of the wall. This wall was a lookalike of the Grand Capucin in Chamonix. We estimated the climb would count 12 to 15 pitches and 500 to 600 meters high.


When our minds were set on climbing this peak, our mental state got better as before. Motivation returned because we knew this could be an objective we could still realise in the exhausted state we were by then. But still, somewhere inside us, the odd feeling of not continuing for our main goal remained. We took off to the wall, a long and extremely steep two-hour hike brought us to the base of the wall inside of a couloirs. The first afternoon we climbed up four incredible pitches. Not only the wall looked like Grand Capucin but also the rock quality was at least as good! Pitch two, three and four where all classics, graded more or less 6c+. A lot of different small crack systems close to each other made the climbs feel very sporty with good but small gear. I lead the second pitch, when I left the first belay I realised this is what I like the most! I love granite climbing and I adore climbing new lines. There is this extra touch to it I can’t exactly describe. My mind is extremely focused and the awareness of leading on yet unclimbed terrain makes me extremely carful but steady. We fixed a static rope from the anchor of the third pitch straight to the ground and went down in the evening. This would give us a quick start tomorrow when we would like to top out the estimated 12 to 15 pitches. We left all the gear up and descended two hours by food towards our advanced basecamp only one hour from the real bas camp.

Tim in one of the last pitches at Dreadlock Peak.
After a night sleeping under the portaledge fly in full moonlight we woke up at 5:40 am and hiked back up. We were ready for a long day, considering the descent of the wall that would take a while since we had to make our own rappel anchors. We jumared up the static rope and climbed up to our high point. Continuing our route, the grades got easier (6a/b) and we made quick progress. Against all expectations we arrived on the summit after only four more pitches, so eight pitches in total. The day now looked different and shorter as expected when we toped out when it was only midday. We were both a little disappointed the wall turned out to be less big as we thought and the climbing besides the first four pitches was very easy. On the top we chilled for a while and talked about the process of our whole Greenland trip and how it could have changed like that. Great reflections were made on the top of this peak and we enjoyed the amazing environment on this exposed peak between all the other mountains and walls around us.

The top of Dreadlock Peak.

During our hike through Klosterdalen valley we talked about reaching a next summit. We hoped it would be the summit of a great challenge. I decided to cut of my two old dreadlocks I wore for three years and wanted to do this on the summit of a first ascent. Now we were sitting on top of the Grand Capucin lookalike peak and had just done a first ascent. It wasn’t the first ascent of a new big wall route on the Thumbnail. It wasn’t the most satisfying summit and the big challenge we had hoped for but it still was a first ascent. So this is where the Petzl Sparta knife came in handy. Like I had agreed with myself before, I cut of the ‘rat tails’ and left them on the summit. Symbolically: sometimes you have to break with the past! This is when Tim and I decided ‘Dreadlock Peak’ was born. We climbed an easy but nice and classic line of 370 meters on Dreadlock Peak, 8 pitches on a wall of 300 to 350 meters height, graded French 6c+/7a.

The dread is still there! 
The rappels went smooth; we left some pitons, tag and one nut. Tim always went first testing the rap anchor backed up with a proper anchor when I went lightweight on sometimes just one piton or sling, scary and exciting! In this climb I realised again how much I love the pure climbing when you have to make your own anchors, search your own way and decent your own route in your own style. It’s adventurous, exciting and it demands some thinking ahead.
Still we had three days left before the Brits would pick us up. Opposite of the Dreadlock Peak we had seen one other wall that looked climbable in one day. The upper part of the wall attracted us the most. It was a nice and smooth looking orange wall with some obvious corners. After one day of rest we approached this wall lightweight style. The first five pitches were funky with a lot of short technical bits divided by several ledges.  In the sixed pitch we traversed 60 meters towards a big horizontal ledge of which we started off straight into a perfect corner crack. These next two pitches might have been of the best we had done in Greenland. Once on top we could descent on the backside and walk (and scramble) straight towards basecamp in only 1 hour. This day was great, we both enjoyed what we thought would be our last climb in Greenland.

The walls opposite of Dreadlock Peak which we climbed on the left.
This part of the trip was mentally the most difficult. But I’m sure both of us learned some lessons about travelling, setting goals, being in the middle of nowhere with a friend, communication and way more. On this I will reflect in the last Chapter 7. But first there is the story about our return to Belgium, this time no plane but a sailboat will bring us home after a big trip! Getting sick and bored because of the endless amount of water… Coming soon: “Chapter 6: Upgrade – from kayak to sailboat crossing the Atlantic!”.

The Bitisch sailboat ‘Quastar’ in the evening sun!
Me placing a belay for the kayaks!
Fishing: 10 fish in one hour! 
The nature food: mushrooms, blueberry jam and fresh Arctic Char!
A cute Inuit kid from Aappilattoq playing at the water.
In Stordalens we caught loads of fish!

Drying our rope after getting our gear out of the Thumbnail.
Ready for a ‘rat tail’ cut!
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