Web Winter 2013

An Arctic Expedition Trilogy Perceived


 

A curious walrus coming to say hello. [Photo] Mike Libecki

Of course, this affected my expedition in more than one way. I would most likely not have to travel over sea ice from the sailboat to get to the island on my own. This created an easier and faster approach, but also took away from the anticipated intensity to reach the island on my own through the ice. I suppose it worked out for the best; we had some delays getting to the island and I had much less time in the area than I had hoped for. The sailboat became encased in fog and we moved slowly, going around chunks of sea ice and large icebergs. We were less than two miles from the island I wanted to explore and climb, but could not see more than 40 feet from the sailboat, it was right in front of us, confirmed by the boat's radar. I was elated, psyched and caught in a moment of ultimate realization. After eight years of believing, of dedication, I was about to get to live my dream and climb in Franz Josef Land.

Four hours passed and the fog finally lifted. I could see the rock walls, like large sea cliffs, and they were beautiful. I was incredibly excited, but in the back of my mind several warning signs went off as I was about to get in my small rafts (one in tow with my gear) and head to the island. My main concern was the rifle promised to me that did not come to fruition. My plan was to immediately climb up one pitch and get a port-a-ledge camp set up so I would be safe from polar bears. The rock walls, though beautiful, looked very questionable in quality. The walls were basically cliff bands of basalt rock, old columns of volcanic chamber uplifts, capped by an obvious rotten band of rock. Somewhere deep within, my perception of the rock from the boat gave me the chills, not necessarily in a good way. Unfortunately I have had frightening experiences with rock fall in the past.

In Baffin Island, a partner and I were nearly crushed by a 2,000-pound stone, when the freeze-thaw season was in motion. In Antarctica, I pulled off some flakes that opened a can of worms to a massive rock fall, crashing below as I trembled in fetal position. In Afghanistan, I climbed under a big, loose hanging flake half the size of my two-car garage door, over one foot thick. I tapped it with my hammer. It was questionable for sure. I had to move up and diagonally underneath the huge hanging flake to continue the route. I went for it. Less than ten minutes later, as I was making an anchor about ten feet to the left of the flake, it let go and exploded against the wall and on the ground. Two of my ropes got cut half way through in three spots. I still cringe when I think about how close I was to that horrible fate.

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In addition to the rock fall and polar bear fears, the Russian official on the boat still had to give final permission to climb here. There were quite a lot of birds and nesting sites, but also areas of the cliffs that were void of bird activity. He showed me two spots that I would be allowed to climb, of course, that had no evidence of bird activity. Piles of sharp talus at the base of the walls occupied my mind (they had fallen to get there), as did the rotten top band of the walls. We had seen several polar bears on the way here, but none in this particular area, fortunately.

I put on my drysuit and pfd, loaded my haul bags full of gear and food into the second raft, and said goodbye to the Russian sailboat. Less than two hours later I started shuttling loads to the base of the wall. From the shore, I watched the sailboat disappear as fog again encased the island, then rain started to fall as the wind picked up.

Finally leaving the sailboat on my own to the rock walls, nothing but mystery ahead. [Photo] Mike Libecki

On my first gear shuttle from the shore to the wall, I found a huge pile of polar bear feces mixed with feathers. Fuck. All I thought about were the two Russians that had been killed and eaten in Franz Josef Land the previous year, and from what I had heard, they had rifles with them. I had only two flares (in my front pockets the entire time) to scare a polar bear away should one arrive. I became extremely cautious, constantly looking around all of the time, just in case a polar bear was lurking.

Within a few hours, I had my gear shuttled to the base of the rock wall that I was officially given permission to climb. Just to the left of me, cracking sounds of baseball-sized stones added to the talus field and reminded me of the rotten sections high above. Wind and misty rain did not help.

There were plenty of cracks in the rock to place gear and start climbing. These rock cliffs, roughly 300 to 400 meters high, are better described as countless vertical columns of rock all stuck together, sort of like single pieces of uncooked spaghetti noodles bound in a tight package at the market. I started rope soloing so I could get a camp set up on the rock face and stay safe from polar bears. About twenty feet up, a couple soccer ball-size rocks crashed onto the talus to my left again. I have had communication like this from mountains in the past. About sixty feet up, as I hammered in a knife blade piton, the rock shattered like glass plates, they sounded like ceramic tiles breaking as they hit the talus below.

The mysterious rock walls, beautiful yet questionable quality of rock in Franz Josef Land. [Photo] Mike Libecki

Fuck. I realized I was in denial. The rock quality was, for lack of a better term, shitty. There was simply no more denying it. This section of rock was like ceramic platelets all stacked together without mortar looking for any reason to crumble after ages of stagnation. I had enough experience to know it was time to back off and consider another route. I downclimbed as I looked for polar bears in every direction. At the base, as I packed my haul bags, a few bowling balls exploded ten feet to the left of me. Had they been in a bowling alley, they would have shattered the bowling pins, had they hit me, I would not be typing this. Rocks of all sizes had been constantly falling just to the left of me since I had arrived at the wall. I dragged all of my gear away from the wall, broke out my stove and made coffee. The pile of polar bear shit mixed with feathers reminded me of the danger lurking. I needed to have a little talk with myself about my next move.

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