Last year, Finn McCann wrote an article about climbing El Capitan with his terminally ill father Seamus, who had been diagnosed with a form of lung cancer 8 years earlier. In April this year, Finn embarked on a trip to Greenland with his brother Niall to climb previously untouched mountain routes and descend by speed-wing from the summits. Venturing into the unknown with no guidebooks or specific objectives may be a daunting prospect for some, but Finn and Niall relished the opportunity for adventure. Finn has written an account of the trip, featured below.
There is something very special about climbing a route which is shrouded in history; the likes of The Nose on El Capitan, the ’38 route on the North Face of the Eiger, or a Whillans classic here on home soil. Pulling on the precise holds that your climbing heroes would have used decades before, or climbing past the site of an unimaginable epic, now the stuff of legend. I’m used to preparing for an expedition by studying topos, reading and re-reading route descriptions, and getting psyched by finding photos of the proposed route online.
This year though, I decided I wanted to try something different. I wanted to go somewhere where you couldn’t buy a guidebook, somewhere where the difficulties would be totally unknown, even the objectives would be totally unknown. And that’s how I found myself alongside my brother Niall in a remote valley in the Caledonian Alps of Eastern Greenland.
We reached our basecamp by means of snowmobile, boat, and finally a long ski; man-hauling all our gear in sledges until we found a spot which looked like it would make a pleasant home for the next ten days. The excitement of finding ourselves in a range similar in character and appearance to the Mont Blanc Massif, but being totally on our own, was indescribable. Surrounding our tent were countless unnamed peaks with sheer faces rising thousands of feet into the polar skies. Heaven!
Although we had no specific climbing objectives before arriving, we did have a very specific aim for the trip. We wanted to climb mountains via technical mixed lines and fly off their summits using speed wings, which are basically tiny paragliding wings launched on skis. This was somewhat of an ambitious goal mainly due to the fact that six months earlier neither one of us had any experience of flying whatsoever, let alone flying high velocity speed wings! I had managed to pack quite a number of flights into the preceding months including some invaluable flying training with two experienced friends in Chamonix. Niall however had only managed to find time for one day of training in the Shropshire hills which included five flights and one crash!
So it was with no small amount of trepidation that on our first full day in the valley we found ourselves perched on a steep slope staring down at a dramatically crevassed glacier, our wings laid out behind us, skis on, ready to launch. With only a second or two of delay between us we pointed our skis down the slope and set off. The slope steepened and we accelerated, faster and faster but not yet airborne, until finally, with only metres to go before the slope ran out, we took off. With the roar of the wind in our ears we sped down towards the glacier flying just metres above the jagged seracs, “whooping” and “yipeeing” to one another in a state of utter euphoria. Three giddy minutes later we touched down, skiing for a further minute until the wings lost pressure and fell to the ground. We had a flight in the bag!
With a warm-up flight under our belt we immediately turned our attention to possible climbs we could attempt. By far the most dramatic feature in the valley is a line of jagged spires known by the local people as ‘The Foxes Jaw’. These sheer teeth, very Patagonian in character, looked as though they’d offer some challenging mixed climbing so we quickly picked one out to be our first climbing objective. We packed up our bags with everything we would need for the day: climbing harnesses, rack, ropes, avalanche rescue kit, wings and flying harnesses, food, water, spare clothing, satellite phone and EPIRB. It sounds like an awful lot but it all fitted into our 40 litre rucksacks and weighed little. The scale of the valley quickly became apparent as an hour after leaving our tent we seemed to have made little to no ground and the sun was high by the time we reached the base of the spire. Climbing a steep and narrow couloir which ascended half the height of the peak we soon started to struggle; the enormous amount of snow which plastered every mountain was similar in consistency to mashed potato and clumped together to form hugely heavy balls on our axes and crampons. Of a much greater concern though was the number of avalanches going off throughout the valley. Every few seconds we’d hear the thunder of yet another, blasting down the faces around us, terrifying yet somewhat mesmerising to watch. We ourselves were beginning to get bombarded by small slips from above and by the time we reached the top of the couloir we’d decided it’d be way too dangerous to carry on climbing. So out came the wings. It’s fantastically liberating knowing that no matter how much ground you’ve covered, with a speed wing you can retreat back down in seconds, and with minimal exertion.
Flying side by side we soared close to the terrain, proximity flying to get an even bigger rush out of the speed of the wings. Half way down I looked back to see how Niall was doing but he’d clearly taken a different line to me so I couldn’t spot him. With the usual sense of relief but disappointment at it all being over I landed on the valley bottom and looked back to watch Niall come in to land. But he was nowhere to be seen. The seconds turned into minutes and he was still nowhere to be seen. My imagination was going wild. Had he hit one of the ridges we’d flown over? Had his wing stalled mid-flight? Was he still alive? Trying not to let my imagination get the better of me I re-packed my sack with everything I’d need to pull Niall out of a crevasse and set off on my skis back up the glacier. An hour after having landed I was skiing like a madman, as fast as my legs could take me, my lungs burning, and a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye I spotted movement high above me, it took a second to properly absorb what it was I was seeing, and then the relief flooded over me. Niall’s bright orange canopy was only just visible flying impressively high above me. I watched, barely breathing, until he landed, at which point I felt myself let out a huge sigh of relief.
What had happened as it turned out was that shortly after taking off Niall had flown very low to the ground and transitioned from flying into skiing, he misjudged the terrain he was skiing and wiped out at 40+mph. Uninjured he spent the next half an hour digging himself out of the powder, retrieving a ski and setting himself up for another launch only to be foiled by the appearance of a tail wind. Finally, on attempt number three he took off and practically went into orbit to avoid decking out again! All’s well that ends well, but I was shaken by the experience and it took me a while to see the funny side!
Two days later we fulfilled our ambition of flying off the summit of a mountain. We picked a prominent peak close to our tent which faced the prevailing winds and had an obvious summit dome which we could launch from. Conditions were ideal when we left the tent first thing in the morning but throughout the day the clouds built and it became apparent that the winds weren’t going to be from the prevailing direction that day. We forged up nevertheless through some exciting terrain. Steep and narrow couloirs, some technical mixed climbing, and finally a challenging corniced ridge which took us to the summit dome. After a brief visit to the summit nipple we found a potential launch site. The winds were 180 degrees out, meaning that we were launching in a turbulent rotor on the leeward side of the mountain, far from ideal. I was definitely more concerned than Niall; partly because I was worried about him and partly because I knew better than he did just how dangerous it is to launch in a rotor. I set off first, my wing getting buffeted around by the turbulent air and only just settling before I launched off the cliff. I looked back with huge relief to see Niall performing a perfect launch and soaring away from the mountain. Immediately I felt my wing getting thrown around by the strong winds so I quickly decided to fly as far from the mountain as I could and for the duration of the flight I was occupied by just trying to keep the canopy under control. This was far from the blissful and euphoric experience I’d been hoping for. At least I could see that Niall was still with me. We shook hands once reunited on the ground and headed back to the tent to celebrate, but I couldn’t help but feel somewhat disappointed with the experience we’d had.
We turned our attention away from flying for the next few days. Keen to keep our feet on solid ground! This gave us a great chance to explore the valley a little more and see what other fun could be had. The best discovery, only an hour and a half from our basecamp, was a huge ice cascade. It appeared to have formed from the debris of an avalanche which had spilled over a series of overhanging cliffs and clearly experienced enough freeze- thaw action to become climbable ice. Armed with just five ice screws and an Abalakov threader we set off on a freezing morning, in the region of -15 Celsius, to tackle the cascade. From a distance it looked like straight forward Scottish III max, but as we got closer it seemed to grow and steepen until by the time we were standing at its base we could see that we were facing something much more challenging. What we ended up with was three pitches of quality ice with vertical and overhanging steps up to Scottish V/VI, undoubtedly one of the best ice climbs I’ve ever completed and one that unfortunately is unlikely to ever be repeated due to the unlikely means of its formation. We named our route ‘The Ephemeral Avalanche’.
With just one day left before having to head home we decided to have another go at a summit flight. We picked a mountain with a particularly exciting glacier tumbling down from just below its summit and set off nice and early with fingers crossed that the weather conditions would hold. The excitement built throughout the climb as we realised that everything was falling into place for a perfect flight and we barely touched the summit before setting up for our launch. With clear blue skies and barely a breath of wind we flew from the very summit of this unnamed peak with the most beautiful mountain range I’ve ever seen laid out beneath us, not another soul in sight. We flew no more than twenty metres from one another the whole way down, sharing many a “whoop” and “yeehaa”, before landing in perfect synchrony after four minutes of utter perfection, a fitting climax to an already amazing expedition.
There is something very special about climbing routes with a history. As I discovered on this trip though, setting out with no specific expectations or objectives, just taking a step into the unknown, can be rewarding on a totally different level. Quite simply, we set out to have an adventure, and that’s exactly what we had.
Watch a video of the expedition and a training video from the brothers below:
Finn is a 27 year-old climber and adventurer sponsored by Mammut and runs a social entreprise organisation called Talk on the Wild Side. Over the last twelve years Finn has been on more than twenty-five overseas expeditions with ascents of high altitude mountains in the Himalayas, multi-day big walls, and technical Alpine mixed routes. He has climbed trad E8, sport 8a and bouldered V10.
- The Nose: Climbed Despite Cancer 14 Aug, 2013
Finn is sponsored by: Mammut