Beginning Again: What a Pro Boulderer Learned on Her First Expedition
It took three flights, one helicopter ride, and an eight-hour boat trip for reality to hit: I had stepped way outside of my comfort zone. I crumbled beneath my 70-pound pack and scanned the water for the departing boat, but it had disappeared into a flotilla of icebergs. Greenland was never on my bucket list, but that’s exactly why I’m here: to see what I can learn.
I can’t take credit for this lofty idea, though. Mountain Hardwear, one of my sponsors, hatched this unique plan to take a couple of young climbers and send them to the end of the world with expedition climber Mike Libecki and to be mentored in a faraway land.
I knew Mike had a pet pig, brewed his own beer, and uttered inspirational maxims like “Why ration passion?” I was also vaguely aware that he is a legend in the adventure-climbing community. Another expedition member, Keith Ladzinski, had a reputation that preceded him as a talented photographer and genuinely nice guy. Our final member, Ethan Pringle, was the only one I knew well; we grew up together in the youth competition circuit and had recently traveled to the European World Cups.
Mike’s depth and breadth of climbing experience made Ethan and I look like gumbies. My trad climbing and expedition knowledge was almost zilch, and my travel résumé highlights included typical U.S. road trips and classic European climbing ventures. The only camping I did was in the back of a truck a few feet from the boulders. It is a testament to Mike’s undying optimism that he was 100 percent willing to escort me, a confirmed boulderer, up a big wall near the Arctic Circle if the opportunity presented itself. Amid so many unknowns and such lofty goals, I hoped that I could at least do the one thing I was most comfortable with: bouldering. But first, Mike had some plans for our team.
Had I remembered this, I might have been more patient as we dealt with weather delays, missing bags, and a complete overhaul to our itinerary as sea ice blocked the way to the area Mike hoped to visit. Finally, we boarded the boat. At first there wasn’t much to see as we motored through thick fog. But then, as I enjoyed a cup of Nescafé on the back deck, the clouds parted to reveal one of the most spectacular landscapes I’d ever seen. Icebergs sat in emerald water, all crisp whites and brilliant blues, against a backdrop of jagged peaks.
Steady rain fell as we unloaded our gear and set up camp. When it finally stopped, we all headed out to explore the granite cirque around us. In a telling display of trip priorities, I made a beeline for the boulders, Mike set off to size up the big walls, and Ethan bounced between all sizes of formations. It was invigorating to explore a new landscape, and as I ran from one boulder to the next, I surveyed rock quality covering the entire spectrum from chunky choss to superb fine-grained granite. I felt small, vulnerable, and alive.
It had been nearly a week since I last climbed—one of the longest rests I had taken in years. My psych reached a high when I awoke to sun the next morning. I was ready to go clean boulders and climb! But the smaller rocks would have to wait a little longer. Mike had spotted the proudest tower in the cirque and wanted us all to try to reach the top as a team. So we set off.
It was scary to think of crossing glaciers and climbing loose rock. As we traversed a steep hillside toward the back of the tower Mike hoped to climb, I sat down, scared to continue. “I’m not crossing with this heavy pack and no rope,” I told myself. Then it occurred me: I had to keep up, or I’d be on my own.
On Mike’s orders, we were to travel light and fast. After failing the “fast” part, I made it to our high camp and started unpacking my gear, including my Pelican camera case. “We’re going light and fast, and you brought your Pelican case? That’s amazing,” Mike laughed. I grinned, not mentioning my comb, toothpaste, and iPhone lenses. By dinner, a jovial mood filled the air, and we took goofy group photos while eating rehydrated potatoes.
The glacier loomed above, but my worry dimmed as I drifted off to sleep on a bed of wildflowers under the stars. The fears of the past few months faded, too. Late at night I awoke to flickers of green in the sky. As I watched the Northern Lights dance above, I was sure I was in the most beautiful place on earth.
Crossing the glacier the next day and ascending a gully of loose boulders to reach our route required what Mike called “ninja tactics”—scurrying and hopping between islands of stability. I had never been on a glacier before, and I was sure I would be swallowed by crevasses or crushed by a boulder. But we made it to the base—just in time for the weather to turn. Then we found ourselves retracing our steps to camp. We hadn’t achieved our group goal, but I was personally quite pleased that I survived the glacier crossing. This was the beginning and the end of my attempts on long objectives in Greenland, as the timeline was too short and the routes too dangerous for my limited experience. For Mike and Ethan, however, this was just the beginning.
The following morning, in an impressive display, Mike hiked back to the tower and made its first ascent, solo, by the long south ridge. He and Ethan later spotted an even bigger prize: a 3,500-foot pillar on the north side of the tower. The two began work on a new route, eventually completing it in a 50-hour push and returning to camp less than 12 hours before the boat came to pick us up. Although I wasn’t climbing with them, I was motivated by Ethan and Mike’s ambition. It was time for me to do the same in my realm.
Before arriving in Greenland, I could count the boulder problems I had cleaned and climbed for a first ascent on one hand.
I thought I grasped the work and vision that went into establishing the existing problems I normally climbed, but I didn’t fully appreciate the process. After surveying the cirque, I chose to clean the biggest block close to camp, a beautiful brown and tan boulder standing alone in the only grassy patch for miles. It begged to be climbed, but I had to rig a rope to clean the best lines, and there was no obvious anchor. Mike, still in camp at that point, taught me how to place a bolt. After nearly smashing my fingers a few dozen times as I hammered on the hand drill, we were ready to hang the rope. The next challenge was cleaning, which was an incredibly messy job, but my mosquito head net doubled nicely as a face shield.
Over the course of the next few days, I slowly got the hang of cleaning and climbing new boulders, but the process was challenging. Although I can be creative with beta on established problems, I’m generally a “color inside the lines” person. Sometimes I wanted a route to go a certain way, but nature had already decided a different path. Ethan discovered the best line in our cirque, on a huge boulder we deemed the Ship’s Prow. This difficult problem climbed crimps up an overhanging face punctuated by a dyno in the middle. Ethan also pointed out a lovely little gem of a boulder perched on top of a hill near camp. One day, all alone, I put some time into cleaning this boulder and climbed two fun new problems on it. It was so picturesque that Keith and I returned later to capture it. It felt good to find my flow on an untouched boulder. This is what I was waiting for. Enthralled, I climbed it again and again. Then, with the snap of a hold, I rocketed into the talus and back to the reality of our remote location. My hip was badly bruised, and I knew I was lucky as I hobbled away from the boulder.
I climbed cautiously after dodging that broken-hold bullet, but I still had unfinished business scattered around the cirque as the trip neared its end. I’d worked so hard to develop these boulders that I had a whole new appreciation for the simple act of moving over rock. Names, grades, and the expectations they evoke meant less to me now—there were only intriguing lines beckoning me to scale them. I hope I can recapture that free feeling wherever I climb.
- Little things can make a big difference. Don’t leave home without baby wipes and a little something to cheer yourself up when you get down. I rarely paint my nails, but I brought nail polish to lift my spirits and add some femininity to that testosterone-filled camp.
- Music beats homesickness. It helped me fall asleep every night, and we had a Goal Zero solar-powered speaker for the group tent.
- Satellite phones are amazing. Having one made me feel much safer and less homesick.
- Don’t pack expectations. I struggled with the timing of this trip because I had some big competitions and projects I wanted to stay in shape for. But when you go to an undeveloped area, very little of the time is spent actually climbing. I wish I had relaxed a bit and not worried so much about losing fitness.
- Flexibility is key. This goes with forgetting expectations. We had to change our destination, wait on lost bags, and pray for good weather. I just had to go with the flow and try to be patient. It was worth it.
- Be careful and don’t get too comfortable. In the middle of nowhere, there’s a fine line between fun and disaster.
- Communicate. At times I didn’t want to seem like a wimp, so I didn’t speak up about being scared when it could have been helpful. Being open and honest beats pride.
- Learn the meaning of light and fast. I learned from Libecki that “light” doesn’t necessarily mean “not heavy,” but it does mean you don’t bring some items I saw to be necessities.
- Optimism is a powerful force. Libecki was never even a tiny bit negative about anything that happened to us. When our trip was in its last week and he and Ethan were still fixing lines on the first few pitches of their new route, I didn’t think they’d have time to finish. Mike never doubted it openly—and they sent.
Most expeditions to east Greenland begin by flying to the village of Kulusuk via Reykjavik, Iceland. A short helicopter ride takes you to the town of Tasiilaq to buy food and arrange a ferry up or down the coast. Transportation, lodging, and supplies are pricey. A four-man American expedition to Kangertitivatsiaq Fjord, the same area Payne’s team visited, spent more than $4,000/person for a one-month trip in 2012. Their report is a great planning resource; download it at climbing.com/greenlandreport.