Paul Stern Land is located in East Greenland, at about 70 degrees North, 30 degrees West, at the head of Scoresbysund, the world largest fjord. It lies on the edge of the Greenland Icecap, and its remote location means that it has rarely been visited by mountaineering expeditions. See the maps page to see maps and aerial photographs of the area.
Visiting an area like this is a very special experience. The sense of remoteness is felt very keenly, especially when you look down from a peak to see the tiny group of dots in the distance which is your camp, and then realise that there might not be any other human beings within a hundred miles. The landscape is stark, but intensely beautiful, especially in the light of the midnight sun. There is also a very real sense of exploration, knowing that no-one has been this way or seen these views before.
Paul Stern Land is a very difficult place to get to overland or by sea: the only easy access is by air. We used a ski-equipped Twin Otter, operated by Flugfelag Islands who own two such planes, and which are based in Akureyri in the north of Iceland. To get to Paul Stern Land requires a flight of about 370 miles from Akureyri to Constable Point airstrip on the east coast of Greenland, where a refuelling stop is required, followed by a further 170 miles flight to Paul Stern Land. Twin Otters are the Land Rovers of aviation: old and rattly, but robust, powerful and easy to maintain in the field. The Twin Otter pilots are a special breed, and highly experienced in landings on glaciers. Flight safety briefings are just, that: brief. ("Put your seatbelts on, the big orange thing at the back is a liferaft, and let us know if the fuel cans under your seat start leaking!")
Logistic support, specialist equipment, and leadership for the expedition was provided by Tangent Expeditions. All our heavy equipment, including skis, tents, climbing gear, food and fuel were freighted out to Constable Point in advance.
The team leader was Nigel Edwards of Tangent Expeditions. Nigel is a very experienced Greenland explorer: this was his 11th trip! The other five members of the team were: Mark Bull and Gillian Duncan from Edinburgh, Al Grove and Julia Lister from Boat of Garten, and Peter Charles-Jones from Caversham. All five are members or former members of the Reading Mountaineering Club.
To travel on the glaciers we used ski touring equipment, either Nordic or Alpine skis. To move all our equipment between camps we used pulks, small fibreglass sledges with canvas covers and a harness, which can be pulled by one or two people. We also used skis to travel from our camps to the base of the mountains. For the most part, the glaciers lacked any significant crevasses, and so we were able to travel unroped.
The main aim of the expedition was to make ascents of previously unclimbed peaks in the area. We succeeded in making first ascents of 11 summits, and also repeat ascents of 2 further peaks (see here for a complete list). Most of the climbing was on snow, with occasional scrambling on rocky ridges. There were few opportunities for harder ascents, as the rock (a quartz- and garnet-rich mica-schist) was of very poor quality, and there was a distinct lack of obvious gully lines. Although the peaks were between 2200m and 2600m above sea level, none required more than about 500m of ascent from our camp sites. Despite their relatively easy nature, many of the peaks gave very fine climbs, and on some of the smaller ones it was possible to ski to the summit.
Although we were only about 20 miles from the nearest fjord, Paul Stern Land lies a long way from the open ocean, and so is less unaffected by Atlantic fronts than more coastal ranges. We had mainly good weather, on only two days out of 19 was it bad enough not to be able to leave camp, and the snowfall did not amount to much. Temperatures were quite mild, generally varying between zero and minus 10C. Camps 1 and 2 were quite exposed to the winds coming of the icecap, which carried quite a lot of drifting snow at times, but Camp 3 was more sheltered. Our tents acted like mini-greenhouses, so when the sun was shining, it could be +20C in the tents despite being below freezing outside.
At this time of year, the sun never sets, only dipping towards the horizon for a few hours during the "night". At both Camps 2 and 3, we had an open aspect to the north, so the sun never disappeared behind the mountains. During the middle of the day, the heat of the sun, combined with the reflections off the snow, could be quite fierce, requiring glacier glasses, sun hats and lots of sun cream. The sun tended to melt the top layers of the snow in the middle of the day, and for this reason (and a desire not to have fried noses and lips!), we did most of our climbing while the sun was low in the sky. This meant waking up late, spending the afternoon in camp eating, drinking and sleeping, before venturing out in the evening and returning in the early hours. At times, the cold and wind resulted in significant wind chill, and it was difficult to stand still for any length of time without starting to get cold.
The largest scale maps of the area are at 1:250,000 scale: the section covering Paul Stern Land is here. This is a useful overview, but not much use for detailed navigation: some of the peaks we climbed barely show up as a single contour ring! Of more use are aerial photographs which show a lot of detail, but lack vertical information. We also used GPS to record key locations which would allow us to navigate safely back to camp in the event of encountering poor visibility.
A lot of time on an expedition of this sort is spent in camp. We used lightweight mountain tents manufacturer by The North Face, which were excellent. Special long tent pegs are need to anchor the tents in the snow. To insulate ourselves from the snow beneath the tents we used a double layer of foam mattresses. Together with 5 season sleeping bags, this proved more than adequate. Because of the dry climate, kit tends not to get too wet, and dries quickly. This means that camping on the glacier is actually a much more pleasant experience, than, say camping in a Scottish winter.
All our water had to be obtained from melting snow: a time consuming business, as melting the snow requires as much energy as boiling the resulting water afterwards. We used MSR Dragonfly stoves, burning Coleman fuel (white gas) which work well in cold climates and gave us few problems. The warmth of the tents was used to melt snow in plastic bags or boxes, which helps to cut down the time required to boil it. All our main meals, puddings and breakfasts were dehydrated: just add water to the bag and stir, and no washing up! Other food included biscuits, chocolate, cake, cheese, tinned fish, sweets and cup-soups.
There isn't enough fuel to use more than small amounts of water for washing, but going without a shower in this environment is not as bad as you might imagine. The cold means that you don't sweat too much ,and there are no bacteria, and hence not much smell!
Photographs by Mark, Al, Peter and Nigel. Video by Peter. Diary by Mark. Many thanks to both Nigel Edwards and Paul Walker of Tangent Expeditions for a smooth and trouble free trip!