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Finding Frontiers On The Edge Of The Earth

June 28, 2017

 

 

The Frontier: Greenland is one of the world’s most remote and strikingly beautiful countries. With half of its landmass located above the Arctic Circle much of its backcountry remains unexplored. Our BaseLantern beta tester, Chris Brinlee Jr. set out to spend a few weeks in Eastern Greenland, climbing peaks that remain unclimbed. 

Just one year prior to embarking on my frontier expedition to Eastern Greenland, I climbed my first-ever multi-pitch trad route in Washington’s North Cascades with Andrew Yasso, my climbing partner. At the time, I knew almost nothing about alpine rock climbing, but I knew that I wanted to experience climbing in remote regions of the world. How did I make the leap from total novice, to being able to carry out an expedition in one of the most remote places on earth? It came down to education, experience, and planning; those are the staples for any venture out to Find Your Frontier.

Education

The first step is to trying something new is learning how to do it and learn how to do it right. That education can take many forms. When I first learned to backcountry backpack, it was through research online: reading articles about necessary gear, how to pack, and all of the elements that go into making a successful backpacking trip (How do you get wilderness permits? How do you ethically poop in the woods? What do you eat while hiking for days at a time?)

While training and education are invaluable--they are only activated through experience. Once you learn, you’ve got to practice.

First-Hand Experience

My first ever backpacking trip was at Yosemite National Park. My friend Orey and I started off at the trailhead for Upper Yosemite Falls around noon in July--and I lugged a 60 pound pack full of things that I didn't need (including a zero-degree synthetic sleeping bag, a survival knife and hatchet, and way too much food) up the 3.9 mile-long stone staircase, gaining almost 3,000’ of elevation before reaching the top. We continued into the backcountry; and proceeded to hike 35 miles within those few days. We were both very fit; that’s the only reason we were able to pull off the trip--because we had both been carrying way too much stuff. After the first few hours, I had realized the err of my ways; I spent the rest of the trip ruminating over what I could have left behind.

Since then, I’ve backpacked thousands of miles all over the world; not once have I carried so much superfluous gear. As a result, I move quicker and with less effort, which allows me to experience more, and experience more enjoyably.

With alpinism, as mentioned before, the stakes can be higher. Andrew, who is a world-class professional instructor and guide for AAI, taught me most of the systems and techniques required for alpine climbing; as a result, I knew what he expected and required in a partner. Much of my alpine experience up to that point had been under his tutelage; when things got a little hairy on the descent, we were able to hold it together.

Planning for the Frontier
Edge of the earth planning
 

Planning is the key to making the most effective use out of always-limited resources, including time and money--both of which are closely linked together. Time, as always, is the most valuable resource; so it must be carefully considered. What factors play into time? Vacation days or personal obligations, seasonal changes, weather patterns, and supply levels (such as food, fuel, water, etc.) all play a role, vying for attention. Money follows closely behind.

Our expedition to Eastern Greenland was subject to the same limitations. Andrew had a newly-wed wife waiting at home; I had a subsequent trip planned for the Alps. Winter was quickly approaching. We only had limited information on the area (and what beta we could establish was only thanks to Google Earth) and would have to do a lot of paddling to visually locate climbable rock.

Adaptation
Kayaking Greenland
 

One of the most important aspects of planning for an adventure is adaptation. Adventures will almost never go according to plan (that’s the core idea of an adventure, right?) Being able to pivot and adapt will not only allow for the most effective use of your resources, but it will also prevent the mental downers that can result when things go awry.

Take our trip to Greenland for example. Getting to the country and then finding our base camp, was an endeavour in itself. First we flew from the States to Reykjavik, Iceland--before catching a plane to Kulusuk, Greenland, which landed on a tiny gravel runway surrounded by glaciated peaks.

From Kulusuk (population 240) we paddled 16' corrugated plastic Oru Coast+ Kayaks 50 miles into the Ammassalik fjord system--all the way to its terminus at Tasiilaq fjord. We didn't know what we would find there; our research had been limited to Google Earth flyovers. We hoped for good granite and unclimbed lines.

Northern California - Private Campsite
 

Most of the peaks towering above the fingery fjord were obviously chossy; loose rock piled up on the ground. For nearly 50 miles, there was little promise of finding what needed to be found. Then, mere hours before giving up and turning around the demeanor changed. One hundred meters ahead, Andrew’s paddle dropped and both his fists flew into the sky. The sound of his excited shouts echoed off the mountains and reflected around. We had found granite. Beautiful, splitter granite. Andrew and I wasted no time beaching the boats, unloading our gear, and setting up camp. The very next morning, we'd go after our line.

Northern California - Private Campsite
 
The First Ascent in Greenland

The glacial approach was beautiful, the climbing was fun, the difficulty was moderate; and with Andrew on lead, we flew to the top in no time. Summit celebrations were had, a cairn was built to leave our mark; after taking photos we started to make our way down.

Northern California - Private Campsite
 

The thing about first ascents is that they often involve first descents; the latter almost always occur under less-than-ideal circumstances: with weary bodies, tired minds, and vanishing daylight. All applied.

Darkness was setting in. Andrew and I still weren't off the route. In fact, we weren't even close to reaching the glacier yet. Sketchy down climbs on loose, chossy rock were followed by equally sketchy rappels. More down climbing. Another rappel. By 10pm, it was fully dark. Another rappel--this one off a bollard of snow; our rock shoes slid down the icy slope.

Finally, we reached our packs at the bottom. 11pm. Warm boots provided a welcome respite from the cold air and ice--but we still weren't out of the woods, so-to-speak. The glacier that we had crossed earlier that day was riddled with crevasses; it wasn't safe to jump across them in the dark. We'd have to find another way.

As Andrew and I navigated across the slow-moving river of ice we joked, "Wouldn't it be funny to say that we were guided back to camp by the Northern Lights?" Not 15 minutes later, I paused after seeing a flicker in the sky. There they were. Leaping. Dancing. Illuminating the night as we hiked. The Northern Lights truly did guide our way back to camp, where the BaseLantern was waiting to take over their plight.

The Takeaways
Greenland - Northern Lights Shot
 

Finding my Frontier through climbing in Eastern Greenland was incredibly rewarding, because it showed that with the right mindset and preparation that anything was possible, even if it seemed totally out of reach. Additionally, the experience gained in Greenland prepared me for my subsequent climbs in the Alps, which were even challenging in many similar ways. Those experiences were only possible through the key pillars discussed before.

Education is the foundation of any new frontier. Experience is the house that you build upon it. Planning is the blueprint. Adaptation keeps the process moving forward when faced with unforeseen challenges. Incorporate these pillars into your pursuits and you’ll surely Find Your Frontier.

Chances are that Chris Brinlee, Jr. wrote this from the road (or on a boat, plane, or train) while traveling around the globe. Wanna see what he’s currently up to? Follow his adventures and stories on Instagram.

 
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