BMG Route Card: Gunnbjørnsfjeld SW ridge, East Greenland

© Phil Pool - BMG

In this feature from the British Mountain Guides, a qualified and experienced guide chooses us a route up one of the world's most beautiful mountains.

Here Phil Pool takes us to the frozen wastelands of the Arctic on a mission to explore East Greenland.

"As the highest peak in the Arctic, Gunnbjørnsfjeld is often referred to as the "8th summit" amongst those wishing to add to their 7 summits challenge. With only two or three ascents each year this very rarely visited mountain has had only about 60 ascents to date."

‘Probably the only time a party has ever been photographed on the summit from the air’  © Phil Pool - BMG
‘Probably the only time a party has ever been photographed on the summit from the air’

‘Arriving at base camp by Twin Otter ski plane’  © Phil Pool - BMG
‘Arriving at base camp by Twin Otter ski plane’

  • Range: Watkins Range, East Greenland
  • Mountain: Gunnbjørnsfjeld 3,693m, the highest mountain in the Arctic
  • Route: Southwest ridge.
  • Return: Decend route by SW ridge
  • Length: 1500m 10 – 15 hours
  • Grade: PD
  • Guidebook & Map: Getting information and maps can be tricky, but the best information to be found at for logistics information, maps and air photographs.
  • Valley base: South fork of Woolley Glacier

Approach: The remoteness of mountains in East Greenland make approach difficult and this is normally achieved by charter of a Twin Otter ski plane flying from either Constable Point in East Greenland or Ísafjörður in Iceland.

‘ Leaving base camp  early morning for a one day ascent’  © Phil Pool - BMG
‘ Leaving base camp early morning for a one day ascent’
Route Summary: This mountain can be climbed mainly on skis with a long approach up the east glacier to the col at the end of the SW ridge. The glacier is not too steep, but is in a fantastic position with huge hanging glaciers and seracs on the north faces to your left and south facing gullies with wet snow avalanches thundering down on your right. The crevasses are monstrous and obvious, but this is not a place to be in poor visibility. Keep left of centre up the glacier and head for a bowl at c.2850m. It flattens out here and this makes a good campsite. A short steeper climb out of the bowl brings you to the upper glacier and you make for the col in the distance to the left of the mountain. Don't try and cut the corner, it's steep to the upper col at the foot of the ridge and the slope up to it can be blue ice. At the col, you can leave skis and put on crampons. I have skied along the ridge to the upper col, but it changes every year and is often too difficult. Crampon up the slope to the summit ridge. This is the steep bit, only about 40 degrees but a massive drop over seracs down the west face. Don't go too close to the rocks on your right, it's further away from the drop, but steeper. Once on the summit ridge it's an easy walk to the summit and endless views across the Greenland Ice Cap.

Best tactics for an ascent: There are plenty of delays in Arctic travel with weather and flight delays so 2 – 3 weeks should be put aside UK to UK. The best time of year is late April to early June when the weather can be quite settled and the winter temperatures have risen. Once established at base camp, you have a couple of options. You can go straight for the summit from camp in one long day with 1500m of ascent over 10km. The disadvantage of this, apart from the long day, is that you have no chance for acclimatisation, but it's an option if you are short of time. The other option is to establish a camp in a wonderful little glacial bowl at C. 2850m using pulk sledges. This make good acclimatisation, cuts the summit day time considerably and puts you in a good position for other mountains in the area. You are also closer to your shelter; help is a long way away. Polar bears are rare, but one did attack the base camp on the 2006 1st winter ascent.

‘Summit slope has a big drop down the west face, but is the only difficulty of the climb’  © Phil Pool - BMG
‘Summit slope has a big drop down the west face, but is the only difficulty of the climb’

Descent: You go down the way you came, but you have to careful on the steep bit if the snow conditions are bad. Gunnbjørnsfjeld has only had a handful of ski descents from the summit, but once back at the col the ski-ing back to camp can range from wonderful powder to rock hard sastrugi, usually a mixture of both.

What makes it so special: The remoteness of Gunnbjørnsfjeld meant that it was not climbed until 1935 with only two other ascents up until 1988. The Watkins range contains all of the 10 highest mountains in the Arctic and many parties continue to climb Dome and Cone the 2nd and 3rd highest mountains. You are very unlikely to meet anyone else out there and there are still unclimbed summits awaiting first ascents.

‘Arriving at camp 2 ferrying loads on pulk sledges’  © Phil Pool - BMG
‘Arriving at camp 2 ferrying loads on pulk sledges’

Philip Poole: ‘Phil relaxing in a Spanish canyon’  © Phil Pool - BMG
Philip Poole: ‘Phil relaxing in a Spanish canyon’
Philip Poole is an IFMGA and British Mountain Guide (BMG) living in the Lake District.

After 15 years guiding ski touring and mountaineering in the Alps and two seasons in Antarctica, Phil now specialises in Polar expeditions to Greenland. When not in the Arctic, he runs canyoning trips to France, ice climbing courses in Norway and Lake District rock climbing.

BMG Guide Logo  © BMG

5 Mar, 2012
Great article, an amazing place. I went with Tangent and Phil in 2008, even though we didn't climb Gunnbjørnsfjeld, it was a fantastic trip, thoroughly recommend!
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