In July 2015, Leo led a five-strong team to make the first ascent of Reflections, (E6 6b, A3+, 1250m) on the North West face of the Mirror Wall in Greenland, spending twelve nights on the wall. Although cracking the Mirror was unlikely to cause a superstitious seven years of bad luck, it proved to be a life-affirming trip for Leo in many respects.
This was to be his first major expedition as a father, coming just months after close friend Sean Leary died in a BASE jumping accident, leaving behind his wife and unborn son. The title of Alastair Lee's film - The Last Great Climb - documenting Leo's previous and final expedition with Sean in Antarctica, proved to be tragically prophetic. One year later, extraction from the home comforts of family life on the Mirror Wall provided ample time for self-reflection.
The Renland Peninsula is situated in eastern Greenland in the middle of the world’s largest fjord system - the Scoresby Sund. A bitter-cold Arctic climate might not seem like ideal conditions for establishing a hard multi-pitch rock climb, but just one glimpse at the virgin towers of clean granite rising out of the sea is sufficient to give Renland a second chance.
Initially, people travelled here to earn money by exploiting the area's lucrative whaling industry. In 1822, William Scoresby Jr. surveyed and mapped the area in detail. Through the beauty of the landscape, Scoresby is said to have discovered God on his Greenland expeditions, often attributing misfortunate whaling incidents as evidence of divine intervention. Today, people visit the area in the pursuit of adventure. In 2012, a Swiss team lead by Silvan Schüpbach made the first ascent of the Mirror Wall, establishing Ledgeway to Heaven (1200m, 7b+, A1, 45°).
The combination of untouched rock, a remote location and serious surroundings created a perfect setting for Leo’s return to exploratory climbing expeditions.
Having selected his teammates, Leo’s next step was arranging for the tonnes of gear, food and water required for their month-long expedition. In such a bleak, isolated environment with predatory polar bears in the vicinity, getting the supplies to their location and protecting it from the local thieves proved vital.
A catalyst for this expedition, Paul Walker from Tangent Expeditions had sent Leo a photograph of the wall 6 years ago, suggesting it was probably the biggest unclimbed wall in Greenland and looked to be of significant difficulty. Leo was keen to take on board Paul’s expertise in the area and asked him to lead the logistics for the expedition.
The essentials for an unadulterated Arctic big-wall adventure had been shipped out by Leo in March 2015, when a pallet of haul bags, barrels and holdalls made their way from Hull to Akureyri in northern Iceland, ready to be offloaded and unpacked before setting off in a Twin Otter propeller plane to land 600km north on the Constable Point airstrip at the mouth of the Scoresby Sund. The final leg of the journey involved a 120km transportation across the frozen fjord via snowmobile to an uninhabited hunting outpost named Sydkap, where the supplies would be stashed until the team’s arrival by helicopter in late June.
At this time of year, approach by helicopter was the only option due to ice break-up. Following a scheduled flight from Akureyri, the team landed at Constable Point, ready for a chartered helicopter journey to retrieve their kit and travel to the base of the wall.
'Arriving by helicopter into such a remote, relatively hostile place is quite a trip, one minute you’re being catered for in civilisation, a couple of hours later you’re alone in the middle of nowhere for the next month with a few mates, a massive pile of kit and a major undertaking ahead of you.'
Typically involved in repetitive flights ferrying local Inuit people in remote villages to the airstrip, the team’s complex, mountainous travel itinerary was a welcome change to the day-job for their pilot: ‘This was clearly far more fun than the pilot's standard taxi fares.’ After checking that their cache remained intact and uneaten, the team were dropped off at the foot of the wall to make a base camp, with an anxious wait for the helicopter to return with their unwieldy 960kg load of supplies, suspended by a sling from its underside, before making a hasty trip up to the start of the climb to deposit gear, food and water and returning to camp.
'I could tell immediately it was massive, very steep and clean. It’s also very prominent, the real stand out prize in the area. I like those jewel in the crown objectives.'
1,250m of perfect granite rising from the glacier formed part of the attraction for Leo. Featureless, virgin rock which eventually inspired the team to name their first ascent Reflections:‘Initially I was struck by the scale, at least the height. It’s really very tall. Next the blankness, the lower half is almost completely devoid of features, like a Mirror?!’
However, a daunting approach traversing a heavily crevassed glacier with snow bridges aplenty, threatened by avalanches, rock falls and serac collapse was the first hurdle for the team, heightened by the added psychological strain of knowing that help is not ready to hand in case of emergency in such a remote location. For Leo, though, without these additional elements making up the fabric of the trip, the wall would simply be yet another stunning big wall climb, rather than a full-on adventure.
‘The remoteness is part of the attraction. I find the trick is to take your time to become accustomed to the place. Make a comfortable base camp and spend a day or so figuring out the lie of the land, water sources, landmarks, the best approach etc. When it comes to climbing for sure I find myself reeling it in a bit in such remote places.’
Having paid the price of a bad mistake in 2002 on Cerro Torre, Patagonia, where he pushed too hard on run-out terrain in a remote place and crushed his talus bone, Leo learnt that ‘an injury that would mean 6 weeks out of the game at home could be fatal up there.’ Being unable to walk in such a rugged setting was a stark reminder of the seriousness of these expeditions: half a mile up a rock face with limited communications and poor accessibility.
The birth of Reflections wasn’t realised without some minor setbacks, which fortunately proved not to be too serious or limiting. On day one, Leo assured his team that ‘at 72˚N, it’s pretty much a sterile environment’ and that the water in the glacial melt pool neighbouring their camp would be safe to drink, ‘even when Waldo questioned the little floating, swimming things.’ Leo’s confidence in his belief served only himself, with every team member except for Leo falling ill: ‘Waldo got particularly nailed with three days of acute diarrhoea and vomiting. He couldn’t even keep water down and after 72 hours I was starting to get worried. Thankfully the Ciprofloxacin worked and he got better but it’s a harsh way to start the trip. I felt pretty guilty.’ Five days of adverse weather conditions - which pinned the team to basecamp - alongside a few crevasse falls and rock impacts thankfully proved to be nothing more than ‘worrisome’ to Leo and his team.
Spending an extended period of time in a remote corner of the world in such proximity to the same group of people could easily cause friction. However, the team’s morale remained high, even in the poor weather. Home comforts were key to sustaining enthusiasm: warm clothes and sleeping bags, music, single malt, sweets, chocolate and good food. For Matt Pickles, the days spent on the wall were a far cry from his prior climbing experiences. Leo commented: ‘I’m not sure Matt Pickles - who is from a sunny sport climbing background - was that into all the hard work, suffering and cold of big walling. Attempting to free a hard new route on such a big, steep, blank wall is not an efficient business. We only did 24 pitches in a month! You could do more in a day in Spain!’
For Leo, spending time tethered to a 2000ft blank rock face is a normality. His experience of big walling around the globe has lead him to adjust quickly to life on the wall. 20-30ft falls whilst aid climbing are dismissed due to being on steep ground and therefore ‘clean.’ In fact, the most hazardous episode was - according to Leo - ferrying loads across the glacier and up the loaded snow slope onto the wall. ‘I felt much safer when we were firmly established in a port-a-ledge camp on the wall. Which is ironic as it was there that I got woken up by rock the size of cricket ball falling from far above hitting me in the nuts! The wall above was overhanging for a thousand feet, it must’ve been a spin bowler! Scared the shit out of me but no serious damage.’
'“That was lucky” said Mini-Pickles from his ledge a few feet away. Not my initial reaction but I suppose he was right. Could’ve knocked all my teeth out or been the size of a football!’
As a big-walling connoisseur with a résumé featuring an extensive list of big-wall ticks, how did the climbing on Reflections compare to other big-wall routes? Leo likened the style to an El Capitan nail-up. Unlike the more continuous classic crack climbs and aid routes such as The Nose or Salathe, Leo compared the route to The Shield or the North America Wall.
The team initially planned to climb directly up the centre of the wall, but the lower half proved too blank. ‘It would’ve required too much drilling,' Leo adds, 'so we skirted up left of centre before traversing back towards the middle into an amazing crack system. We had to drill a 10 bolt ladder to link features and there was an awesome hard-aid pitch - like the Shield headwall - if you’re into that kind of thing.’
‘There was a really nice mix of first class climbing. Face, Crack, Wide, thin, unusual, classic. The rock was brilliant and most of the pitches were 3 star quality.’
Despite attempting to free as much of the line as possible, Leo maintains that an entirely free ascent of Revelations would not be feasible. The team could possibly have freed the top half of the Big Aid Pitch at around 8a/8a+, but time was tight and the weather was poor, however, Leo claims that the lower part and the bolt ladder would be impossible: 'Prove me wrong! Although there may be options for 3 or 4 pitch variations or a completely different top half which might go.’
I think it was gradual and yes, a serious expedition brings things more clearly into focus than normal day to day adventures. I've always found longer trips to far away places are a good time for reflection. Some of the guys pine for girlfriends, Pikey decided he would propose and did so soon after getting back. In some ways life changes immediately upon becoming a parent but others, particularly attitude and outlook, evolve more slowly. This was 2 years after my daughter's birth and after a few other major life events, so I’d had time to get my head around it.
How accepting of your activities were your own parents when you were young?
My parents we extremely supportive and accepting of my adventures all the way through. I took over the lead from my Dad at 12. They allowed me to go on weekend camping/climbing trips unaccompanied from the age of 13. And I spent the whole summer alone in North Wales age 14. We were of modest financial means but I was extremely spoilt with love and freedom.
People often describe individuals with families undertaking adventurous and risky activities as ‘selfish.’ Was there a degree of selfishness in your actions before you took on family responsibilities, and if so, are there still remnants of that now?
Of course there is an element of selfishness to indulging in any high risk activity. Throw in a family and the long periods away and loss of earnings/financial investment involved and a big expedition makes you even more self-centred. However, as anybody who has been on an adventure knows, they are healthy experiences that I believe make us grow, develop and improve as people.
Can you describe how it felt to be away from your wife and young daughter?
When the weather is good there is so much to do that other than for a short time before going to sleep or getting up there isn’t much time to be home sick. However, in bad weather when there’s not much to do I definitely found myself feeling far more home sick than previously. Children are only young once and each stage is so ephemeral and so special it’s a shame to miss it. But by the same token life comes and goes in the blink of an eye and we have such finite time to live our own lives and reach for our own dreams. If you’re not careful you’ll find yourself old wishing you’d done more. It’s a difficult balance to find.
You missed Freja’s 2nd birthday – how will you explain to her when she’s a bit older why you are drawn to the mountains, and what you get from it?
We’ve just celebrated her 3rd Birthday and she is already aware that sometimes Daddy goes away on big adventures for lots of sleeps. She already asks if when she’s a big girl she can come with me. I tell her she keeps me safe when I’m away as I have to come back because I love her so much. If she’s still keen in a few years I can’t wait to teach her all the great games I’ve learned and share with her all the magical places I’ve discovered. I really hope we get the chance.
Are you happy as a parent to introduce Freya to the world of climbing, adventure and the risks that come with it as she grows up?
I’m certainly keen to expose Freya to climbing, adventure and the outdoor lifestyle and if she chooses to engage with it my wife and I will give every opportunity. Again I think there’s a fine balance between giving children the opportunity to try things early in life and pushing them too hard. We took her skiing for the first time last winter - aged 2 and half - and it didn’t go very well! I’m optimistic for the coming season! That said, I look at some of the things I have done over the last 20 years or so and I seriously question whether I would like her to follow my tracks. On some occasions most certainly not.
I think that camping, wild places and appreciation of nature are values that everybody should hold. Freya may choose a different path in life, but no path need exclude these fundamental values. One of the things I love most about climbing is that it gives reason to spending long periods of time in the most amazing places, having fun with friends.
You were the oldest on the team and have mentioned feeling a sense of responsibility for the rest of the group. Was there in some way a continuation of your role as a father on the wall?
As the eldest and by far the most experienced, not to mention the instigator of the expedition, there was certainly a degree of responsibility on my shoulders. To say I “fathered" them is bit much but contains some truth. I remember thinking one point after convincing Waldo that it was fine to jumar a single 7.3mm dynamic rope tied to a single 8mm bolt “what am I going to tell his Mum if something goes wrong?” The immense knock on effects of our actions and the risks we take on others' lives is something that hadn’t occurred to me so overtly on previous trips.
This was also your first expedition since the death of close friend Sean 'Stanley' Leary, who died in a wingsuit accident in 2014, leaving behind a wife and an unborn son. How did his death affect you personally, and consequently your approach to adventure?
Stanley’s death in March 2014 had a massive impact on my life. Freya was 8 months old and Stanley’s wife was 7 months pregnant when he died. It was really tragic and a horrible thing to witness from so close. All that I have said about becoming a father was redoubled by the loss of such a close friend at such a critical time. Those two events in such a short period really shook me to the core and made me seriously question my values and the life I’d been living up to that point. It was certainly a very maturing double whammy.It took another life changing "non-event" to shift my focus back and make me realise perhaps my outlook hadn’t been so wrong all along...
On July 17th 2014 I was due to fly from Amsterdam to Kula Lumpur on Malaysian Airlines flight MH-17 to film a Discovery TV show in the jungle of Borneo. A last minute change of schedule meant I flew out a few days earlier. That was the flight that was shot down by Russian separatists over Ukraine killing all 298 onboard including 80 children. I quite literally had a seat with my name on it on that plane and were it not for one very small decision made with the click of a mouse a couple of weeks earlier, I would not have lived to see my daughter's first birthday.
Such a completely random near miss reminded me how shockingly fragile life is and that however hard we try to influence our paths, ultimately we are not in control of our destiny. Shit happens irrelevant of parenthood, family or precautions taken. It in strange way it got me psyched to get after it again and ultimately led to the Mirror Wall trip a year later.
Using modern technology, it is now easier than ever to keep in touch with family and friends back home, even in remote locations. Has this changed the feel of remote adventure climbing, and how?
On the one hand I hate satellite communications and how they remove the complete disconnection of really remote places. I caught the last generation where some places were really out of touch. Mobile phones didn’t work in Yosemite until in early 2000’s! I never used to carry comms and loved the self reliance that that brought with it. On the other hand it’s great to be able to speak to loved ones now and again, but I try to keep it more weekly than daily. The critical factor is in case of emergency. Having witnessed a few CASEVAC’s (casualty evacuations) first hand I can no longer really imagine going somewhere really remote to do something high risk without proper communications. It’s the difference between life and death. Working with ex-special ops boys on TV jobs definitely made me think differently about preparing for disaster. Before, I’d always taken the “prevention is best cure” i.e. don’t screw up. These days I take a methodical approach to assessing each risk and the best course of action in case of emergency. Often that is still "don’t screw up there" but having a proper plan, printed out and shared with the crew can be a life saver. I always have a back up comms platform. They fail and are critical.
Then there's the whole blog/social media beast, which is again a double-edged sword. Content creation is a vital source of funding for expensive trips and sharing hardcore adventure in real time with those who are interested is a gift. However, getting online and posting stuff with 2.5 kbps connection after a long day of action is a real chore!
'The lure of these savage, wild, untamed places and the undying drive to challenge such impossible looking, perfect faces, always smoulders quietly in the back of my mind. I suppose I’ll continue to strive to find the balance between domestic and wild, comfort and epic, family and adventure.'
What did you learn on this expedition that you will take into your next?
Helicopters are extremely expensive but very useful tools. Keep an eye on the time when in flight! Better preparation leads to better results. Tree climbers are great riggers. The weather can be shit even in “stable” climates. Drones and sat comms don’t work at all well in high latitude, rugged topography (you can’t see much sky, hence less satellites). Always go for as long as you possibly can - we could’ve done with another week to do some more climbs. Don’t plan a family holiday for the week following a remote expedition - I nearly missed the once weekly flight out of Greenland and hence our family holiday - stressful!
Jackson Jago (JJ)
October 7th, 2016