The Fine Line of Bailing - 3rd Pillar of Nalumasortoq

I spent August in Greenland, specifically along the Tasermiut Fjord of SE Greenland. The area was breathtaking, with some of the largest granite walls on earth. Despite both succeeding and failing on bigger objectives during our trip to Greenland, the most memorable climb of the trip in my mind is one that ended after just half a day on route, but included nearly everything I love about remote, adventurous climbing on huge mountains and walls. Writing about those ups and downs of emotion and ascension has been much more memorable than simply recounting our team's obvious success or failure. These in-between "gray areas" are where climbing becomes contemplative.

Scott Bennett, Bryan Gilmore, and myself had set out to climb the south pillar (the right, or 3rd pillar) of Nalumasortoq, as seen from our camp along Tasermiut Fjord. We figured that this route would be a fast-drying and great choice for our poor weather, as it had recently rained for 10 days or so, and several of the non-rain days still held fog and swirling clouds trapped against the peaks. We'd left much of our climbing hardware stashed in a boulder cave below Nalumasortoq, and we wanted the fastest-drying terrain in the area, and figured that a SSW-facing overhanging pillar would be it.

A day before we set out to climb, we started up the valley from our camp, and hiked for 5 hours or so up a river valley and across a small rubble-strewn glacier. Amid creaking rocks and receding remnant ice we created a bivy site for our small tent, and took some sunset photos before settling the alarms for very early in the morning. We'd try to climb the 750m 5.11+ route "Non C'√© Due Senza Tre" (AKA the Italian route) on Nalumasortoq. Normally a route of that length and difficulty wouldn't be a huge challenge for us, but the huge amount of unknown is what makes remote, expedition, and alpine climbing so difficult. Seldom is the topo (or simple list of length and grade) a complete picture of the challenge. 

This route has a convoluted history, which we didn't know until coming home and doing more research. It was attempted, up to pitch 8, in 1996 by a British/Welsh team. A British climber ended up taking a long fall aiding up P8 and badly injuring his back and leg, resulting in an end to their attempt and expedition. The pillar was "completed" (given a name, and graded 5.11c and A3) by an Italian team 4 years later, and I somehow eventually acquired and read about the route in the 2001 AAJ (published years before I was a climber, but featuring American uber-crusher Mike Pennings on the cover).

 However, 2 years after that, an american team (Steve Su, Ari Menitove, Chris Chitty) attempted a "repeat" and came close to freeing this line, while also realizing that the Italians had almost certainly not completed the route, instead rappelling from a narrow, sweeping ledge 200' below the top. The Americans bivied and finished the route via a very steep, wet offwidth located 60m right of the pillar's crest. Ari and Steve Su were nice enough to fill us in on some beta about the area before our trip. A few years later (in 2003) Americans Micah Dash and Thad Friday made 6 separate attempts over a month to complete the route, and eventually finished the climb (and made an all free ascent) over 2 days. It was 23 pitches, 5.11+ R.  In reality, both the FA and FFA of the "Italian route" were done by American teams. There remained some hardware placed by the Welsh party ('96) the Italians (2000) and the American FFA team (2003). Reading Micah's article about their half-dozen tries on the route, I was reminded of wisdom my partner Bryan had picked up from the great Steve House: "You never get up anything the FIRST time..."

Scott finds the safe path (and avoids the fixed mank)
Our morning of ascent began, as it always does on these alpine starts, with a too-early alarm wakeup,  scalding hot Via coffee gulped down between gluey dollops of oatmeal, and some last-minute packing and wondering if the weather would finally clear. Our previous climb had been an all-frozen and mostly-free (I think Bryan freed the whole shebang) ascent of Nalumasortoq's 'Left Pillar' (650m 5.12+ FFA Martin/O'Neill), its 19 pitches had taken place amid some snow flurries and near-frozen fog with zero sun or blue sky until low on the descent. The three of us donned axes and pons over our approach tennis shoes and made a quick jaunt up a small pocket glacier to the start of the climb. The route began with an amazingly clean and splitter thin hands crack slicing up a scoured slab. Although this would be a 4-star pitch at any crag in the world, all I can remember was how cold my hands and feet were, and trying to race up this splitter without having to take off my shoes and socks or thin gloves. It might have been 5.10- or 5.7, but as pitch 1 of a route of this size, it was just about climbing as fast and casually as possible.

Many or all of the belays were bolted (the route has been rappelled), but a British team had recently ripped half of the p2 belay anchor out of the wall on their attempt. It wasn't clear if the threaded machine bolt ever even had a sleeve on it, or if the sleeve was somehow detached and still in the wall. In order to remedy this situation, we wrapped the bolt shaft in some duct tape and smashed it into the wall with a rock. Alpine shim = Bomber!

After three pitches we did a bit of scrambling and arrived at the base of the main pillar itself, unable to find a belay anchor shown on our topo. Maybe this talus-covered ledge had previously held 10m of snow, which would have allowed us to reach a bleak-looking piton (and maybe one bolt?) anchor now hanging above our heads on an otherwise blank wall, but we found ourselves unsure of where to go. Scott continued leading his block, and wisely chose to follow his own routefinding and FA instinct, beginning on the far right and making a long, loose, marginally-protected traverse left above the (apparently off-route) fixed hardware, gaining a tat-strewn belay perch. Despite having 3 different bolts (all in fairly significant stages of decay) and a possible jingus piece of pro behind a small flake, we hung nervously and gingerly from the 4-piece anchor, which Scott had wisely set very low under this arrangement of dubious anchor points. In retrospect, I think that the 2 completely rusted rivet bolts were relics of the '96 Welsh team, while the mis-drilled aluminum petzl hanger was placed for some free climbing protection in 2002 or 2003, as the start of the next pitch could easily have resulted in a factor-2 fall. Above we could see at least 1 more bolt, but reaching it looked like it would require at least 10m of wet and very difficult face climbing straight above the belay. And given the state of decay, corrosion, and bad location of fixed hardware we'd encountered in Greenland, it wasn't clear if Scott should even climb toward it. Scott eventually climbed straight right off our belay and methodically whittled in a bunch of halfway-decent pro behind flakes and grooves, veering steeply upward and then back left into the bomber corner we'd come to reach. These two pitches involved key routefinding and judgement moments, and I feel like Scott did a great job getting us through them quickly and safely, rather than blindly charging toward the old (off-route, or aid) bolts. Since we were climbing in a team of 3 with 2 dynamic ropes, these pitches actually were dispatched by switching over into half-rope technique mid pitch, and having both followers belaying the leader on one rope each. The overall challenges of these pitches belied their moderate freeclimbing grades.

After a straightforward steep corner, I took the lead for what we though would be the heart of the route - several hundred meters of amazing-looking cracks and corners on the pillar crest. It appeared to have water streaks in many spots, but we were happy to have routefinding challenges over . I began up an immaculate huge white corner, like something out of the Needles in California. Although this pitch was just marked as 5.11c or maybe 5.11+ on our topos, it exemplifies so much that I love about these kinds of routes. Low on the pitch, upon looking up at the long stretch of tips or sub-tips looming overhead, I had Bryan and Scott grab a rock off the belay ledge and clip into into a chalk bag on the tag line. I hauled up the rock while perched on a small stance, and used it to bash vigorously on a couple pitons which were coated in a healthy layer of rust, the only fixed pro on the pitch. The corner looked to remain mostly a seam for the next 50m, but without pitons. Above this point I climbed steadily if nervously. Luckily for me, both sides of the very obtuse corner would occasionally hold a small and squared-off crimp edge, making for great footholds to complement the tips and finger openings. However, I was having a rough time trusting the smears of tiny feet while feeling wool socks, cold toes, and oversized shoes slipping on slick or wet granite. I came very close to trying to bail out of this lead, either by finding a good piece and lowering off, or resorting to aid and taking my shoes and socks off to warm my feet, depump, and get my head together. But I kept whittling away at the lead, and after ~30m I arrived at a small ledge where I could finally get in a bomber red camalot. I'd placed nearly every small cam or RP on our rack (a double set from tips on up), but was still looking at another 100' of the same.

Myself near the end of a long, demanding lead 

Rather than belay on this small sloping stance, I lowered 15m or 20m down the pitch and cleaned most of the small cams that I'd placed. I wouldn't bring up Scott and Bryan to where I was, but instead would keep heading up towards what I hoped would be a bolted belay. In this silly yet fantastic world of trying to freeclimb routes like these, I'd still consider this to be free climbing. Rather than belay up my followers and do 2 separate 30m pitches via natural ledges, I'd resupply with gear from below and then keep going. The friction and rope weight from dragging up 20lbs of ropes would add some real challenge to the top of the corner. To climb the entire 60m without back-cleaning, I think most folks would happily place at least 4 or 5 each blue and green alien sizes.

The next pitch is almost certainly the pitch where the initial Welsh attempt stopped due to a long, injurious fall. I moved 5m up and left from the belay, and found myself peering up a very shallow and obtuse corner, which was running with water. Rather than a finger or hand crack, there was a closed-off seam which wouldn't accept cams, and which featured a string of 4 bashed-in copperheads. Unfortunately, 3 of the 4 had been rusted and broken, no longer featuring a cable to clip as protection. I gingerly reached up and clipped the only remaining head with my tag line, and down-stemmed to the belay. After pulling on the rope with about 15lb of force, the remaining hardware snapped, and the rope came whipping down to the belay. Test result: negative. This pitch had been the aid crux, and also perhaps the mental freeclimbing crux, but had gone free at 5.11a R by Ari Menitove. Micah Dash and Thad Friday had also freed this section. So I hung at the belay staring down at a soaring thin corner I'd just push us through, having climbing past my self-doubts, but now hesitating beneath a short section of climbing that I'd been excited about testing myself on. We had no pitons (though the presence of 4 copperheads gave us doubt that the flare would take pins) and no bolts. If we had bolts, would we feel justified in placing them? Would we feel compelled to ask the Italian non-FA "FA" team? The Americans who actually made the FA and freed this pitch? Or the other Americans (one now deceased) who made the FFA of the whole route? I looked up at the pitch again, tested a few smears along the wet sides of the corner, accepted that we'd have at least 10m of factor-2 terrain above some sharp ledges and flakes, and decided that I didn't want to commit to the corner. Knowing that others before me had sent this pitch, climbers I'd long read about and admired, I was feeling pretty low. As Bryan and Scott both also demurred from committing to the runout, we set up our harness for going down rather than up.

Pouting as we prepare to bail
When the route was freed, the 4 fixed heads above the belay were at most 7 years old. Now they are likely 20 years old and in a natural watercourse, which likely explains why they are all now broken stubs of metal. I'd like to think I can climb 5.11 R, but that day and in those conditions I couldn't. In the end, I think we made the right choice but I will never know if we could have pushed through and sent or not. I'd certainly suggest that the next team bring a few (stainless steel) bolts and hangers.

Movies in the tent

Approaching Nalumasortoq

More nice weather on our climb day

1 comment:

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