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We have an early start from our guesthouse in Reykjavik to catch a 7.30am flight from Reykjavik to Akureyri in the north of Iceland. When we land, we have some good news: the weather in Paul Stern Land is good, so we are going in today. We get changed into our expedition kit and load up the ski-equipped Twin Otter for the two hour flight to Constable Point. From the plane there are fine views of the fjord and surrounding mountains, but then nothing but cloud until we start to descend over the mouth of Scoresbysund Ė icebergs!
Constable Point feels like the last place on earth: a grey and dusty gravel airstrip with a small collection of huts and hangars. We collect our kit which was freighted out several weeks before, together with our food and fuel, and leave behind anything we donít need. The Twin Otter is refuelled and (after one false start) we take off again. The weather is cloudy and there isnít much to see. At one point we fly through an icing layer in the clouds: one of the pilots comes back into the passenger cabin and peers out at the skis to check they havenít iced up too much. Thankfully all is well, and we fly on. About 10 miles from our destination the clouds start to break up and we get our first glimpses of the mountains and glaciers. Then we spot the campsite of the previous expedition and three tiny figures on the glacier below. The pilot flies a couple of stomach-churningly tight circuits to check the landing site, and then we are down.
We unload all our gear into a big pile and then help load up again. The previous expedition who are flying out have had mixed weather and a lot of pulk-pulling to do after being landed miles away, out on the icecap. They wish us well and the Twin Otter taxies, takes off and is soon a tiny dot heading away down the glacier. We pitch tents, Nigel test-fires the shotgun, we cook our first meal, and head to bed.
Our landing is about 10km from where we would like to be to have easy access to our intended climbs. The weather is overcast but the visibility is OK, so we decide to move camp up onto a higher plateau. The pulks are loaded with all the gear except some food and fuel which we will have to come back for. Even so the pulks probably weigh 80 or 90 kilos, and itís uphill: a bit of a grim struggle. Each pair adopts different tactics: Nigel and Peter take turns, Gill and Mark harness up in tandem using some long slings, and Al pulls the third pulk with Julia pushing from behind. Nigel (who hates pulling pulks!) implements a strict regime: one hour on then ten minutes rest. Slowly we make progress, but the landscape is so deceptive: the horizon that appears to be ten minutes away is still there an hour later. After four one hour sessions we have travelled far enough: we can now see half a dozen peaks around the skyline and it is a good flat area for the Twin Otter to land when it comes to pick us up, so we pitch camp. Weather is improving: some sun and a fresh wind off the icecap.
Our new campsite has an open aspect to the north, so not only does the sun not set, it doesnít disappear from view at all. Combine this with the tent flapping in the wind, and sleeping well is a bit of a challenge. Itís a bit windy, but the sun is out, so we set off late morning for the nearest peak to the north-east. An hourís skiing takes up to the foot, where we put crampons on and rope up. Zigzagging up straightforward snow slopes soon brings us to the summit, and stunning views, especially to the north and east. Itís quite cold in the wind, so we canít stay long. Back at camp, the wind drops later on, so we build a sun lounge to sit out in. Nigel calls Paul on the satellite phone: weather forecast is a good one.
Today we try an early start to beat the midday sun which is softening the snow surface (and frying our noses). We head north-west, skiing 4.5km to the base of a fine looking peak with a long, level summit ridge. We ski up to a rocky shelf on its shoulder, where the ground steepens, then continue on foot, climbing about 300m to the summit, which is a broad snow dome. The summit ridge is undulating, but wide and uncomplicated: we traverse it out to the slightly lower NE top, then retrace our steps over the main top and back down to our skis. Skiing down the lower slopes is tough: snow conditions are pretty poor. Mark misjudges the lower section, gains too much speed and takes a monster faceplant. Fortunately no damage done except to pride and to his sunglasses, but nothing a bit of gaffer tape canít fix! The route back to camp is slightly uphill and hot work in the early afternoon sun.
Al, Nigel and Mark leave for Camp 1 at 8am pulling empty pulks. Going down is easy: it takes them only 90 minutes. Loaded up with the remaining food and fuel the return journey takes three and half hours. Peter is suffering quite a lot from his new boots, so he spends time making in-field modifications and repairing his shins. The afternoon is windless and hot.
To avoid the midday heat we decided to switch to ďnight-timeĒ climbing. We have a long lie in and a lazy day, leaving at 9pm for a small peak to the east. We manage to climb around its right flank on skis to within a few metres of the summit. The last section we do on foot, but donít need ropes or crampons. More fine views, and no wind, so this time we are able to sit and take it all in. The snow is much firmer at this time of day, so the ski down is easier and much more fun!
Itís bit windier today. Lots of effort put into constructing a fine new toilet. Another 9pm start, heading past Rip Curl for a larger peak just beyond, about 5km skiing from camp. At the base, Julia is feeling rather spaced out, so she and Al return to Camp. The remaining four climb a broad tongue of snow to a steep exit onto the summit ridge. This is composed of very shattered rock, but leads easily in about 200 metres to the highest point. Return is by the same route, and camp is reached at 2am.
Weather slowly deteriorates with clod increasing from the west. By 8pm it is looking decidedly poor, so we decide to stay in camp. Two hours later it starts snowing. We all gather in Mark and Gillís tent and play Monopoly.
Snows most of the day, but getting steadily lighter. By the evening it is good enough to go for a short ski to the small summit nearest camp, climbing by the previous expedition. Nice ski down on the fresh snow, but the light is quite flat. Return to camp, and the snow comes in again.
Wake up to sunshine, a stiff breeze from the north and colder temperatures. Leave at 6pm for a long ski (6km) to the base of a fine looking peak. A steep climb on snow leads to the crest of the ridge, then some easier ground to a final sting in the tail: the summit is an awkward slabby block which has room for only one person at a time, and is wildly exposed on the far side. After a fair amount of faffing about (during which we all get rather cold) we head back down and make the long ski back to camp. The views are stunning, but a strengthening wind raises lots of spindrift. Big lenticular clouds donít bode well for tomorrowís weather.
Lots of spindrift in the night, so tents need digging out in the morning. Weather still OK, but not completely settled, so we opt for a short ski (3km) to a small peak in the middle of the glacier.
We have run out of peaks to do from Camp 2, except for Ararat and Mount Emyr, which were done by the previous expedition. We decide to move camp about 10km to the east, but will return to Camp 2 for pick-up by the Twin Otter. We pack up the pulks and leave at 4pm. Three one-hour sessions are enough, as the second half is all downhill. We make camp at the junction between two valleys. Increasing clouds look ominous, despite a good forecast from Paul.
Starts snowing in morning, and lasts all day. Itís not very heavy, but visibility is much too poor to leave camp. We are confined to tents, and play cards in the evening.
Weather improving but, never clears completely. Julia tries her hand at snow sculpture and produces a lovely dolphin! By evening it is good enough to venture out (without Julia who has acquired a nasty cough). We ski east up the glacier, then towards the south ridge of the peak. Nigel, in front as usual, discovers the bergschrund unexpectedly, so we rope up but continue on ski as far as we can until the ridge narrows. The crest is a sharp snow arÍte, but we are able to traverse easily below this and above a series of rocky shelves. Further on we gain a wider crest and the summit block. The cloud is down on some of the other tops, but there is a beautiful, eerie light. Skiing down is entertaining as we need to stay roped up until beyond the bergschrund. After this, though, the ski back to camp is all downhill, and a delight.
It snows most of the night, but itís very light: thereís only a centimeter on the ground by morning. Itís another teasing weather day, with spells of light snow and sun (and, bizarrely, both at the same time). We leave at 9pm, skirting the base of the ridge behind camp, and climb steadily to a col on the far side of the peak. The bergschrund seems closed, so we donít rope up until we abandon the skis just above the col. Easy snow at first, then a narrow and exposed snow arÍte leads to a rocky summit. Itís still quite overcast but clearer skies are moving in from the north-west. We return to the skis, and Gill and Julia descend back to camp. The remaining four traverse the col the the foot of the neighbouring peak. A steep and exposed snow ridge leads to a flat section. Then a rocky step is turned easily by snow on the left, and finally easy broken rocks lead to the top, with a big drop to the glacier on the south side. We are treated to stunning views as the cloud slowly clear and the midnight sun spreads its light across the landscape. On the descent we spot an Arctic Hare crossing over the col: it stops and stares at our ski tracks! Itís the only living creature we see all expedition. Another great ski back to camp.
Blue skies again, at last! We decide to spend another day at this camp. This time we split into two teams. Peter and Nigel climb a tricky ridge to one of the pair of summits to the north-east. This involves some steep traversing to avoid some massive unstable blocks, and a very narrow snow arÍte to finish. Meanwhile the other four head west to a low ridge, visiting a top at either end. The ski back down is good, apart from one section of evil breakable crust.
Sadly our time is running out, and we have to return to Camp 2 to be ready for pick-up in two daysí from now. We have a long lie-in and wait for cooler conditions to start the long pull. The first hour goes well: the snow surface is good and firm, but in the second hour it is more crusty and much harder work. Nevertheless, we make good time (four and half hours for the 10km). We pitch up, build a new toilet and head to bed. One of the colder nights: -10C and a stiff breeze.
Nigel contacts Paul on the satellite phone, and he confirms we are all set to leave tomorrow. We start sorting and drying kit. In the evening, Peter,Al and Mark go for a final climb, to one of the peaks done by the previous expedition. We ski round the side of Garnet Dome, then rope up at the base of the hill. A long slope snow, easy at first, then steepening with some mixed ground, leads to a pleasant rocky summit ridge. Good views, as we are higher than any of the other peaks we have climbed. Another good ski back.
The weather has a last little trick up its sleeve: at 6am we wake to zero visibility and heavy snow! An hour later it starts to clear, and at 7.30am Nigel phones Paul. We delay the decision by an hour, but by 8.30am it has cleared up a lot and our flight is on. We pack up all the kit and wait. At 3pm the Twin Otter arrives: we set off a smoke flare and the plane lands first time around. We load up, then Julia and Gill insist on a photo session with the pilots! In contrast to coming in, the flight out is stunning. We fly over all the peaks we have climbed, then have superb views of the Rolige Brae Glacier, the inner fjords, Milne Land, and a still-frozen Scoresbysund. At Constable Point we have just 10 minuyes to collect kit and refuel before the airport closes at 5pm! Then we are off again, with views of Liverpool Land, Ittoqqortoormiit village and the sea ice. At 7pm we land at Akureyri, leave behind the kit which is to be freighted back to the UK, and get on the plane to Reykjavik. After a quick shower (bliss!) we go out for something to eat. Everywhere is shut except a take-away pizza place, but the food tastes fantastic anyway. Bed at 1.30am, very tired.