A big first ascent made by Squamish climbers in Greenland is featured in this year’s Brit Rock Film Tour, which is coming to town on Nov. 25.
Jacob Cook, Bronwyn Hodgins, Angela Vanwiemeersch, Kelsey Watts and Zack Goldberg-Poch, and professional filmmaker Jaron Pham are the first to free-climb Qaersorsuaq, also known as Sanderson’s Hope.
That means they were the first team to reach the top using gear only to catch them if they fell. There had previously been two aid-climbing ascents, allowing people to use various devices for assistance to get to the top.
This past August, the team made the free-climb via a new route they pioneered, which they are calling Sea Barge Circus, with a grade of 5.11+. They estimate the route was about 900 metres.
All people on the team, save for Vanwiemeersch, are Squamish residents.
Qaersorsuaq is a monolith in Greenland that stands roughly 1,000 metres tall. That’s about twice the prominence of the Stawamus Chief.
The ascent was just one part of a long journey. The adventurers underwent a sea-kayaking trip and a portage, spanning a 300-kilometre distance on human power before reaching their objective. The actual amount of travel was even more than that, because after the 20-kilometre portage, the crew had to repeat trips over land from one end to the other to bring supplies to their boats.
It was over 65 days of adventure, though the team only had 61 sleeps, due to the 24-hour sunlight occurring at that time of year.
Forty of those days were spent travelling to Qaersorsuaq, while 20 were spent climbing the monolith.
“For me, it’s about creating a meaningful experience for myself in the wilderness,” said Cook. “And it’s about interacting with the big landscape on its own terms.”
He came up with the idea after scoping out the remote location on Google Earth. Cook had been to that area in Greenland previously in 2013, but, at that time, he felt out of his depth.
“I always kind of thought about going back,” he said. “But going back on my own terms.”
And that’s what he did.
Surveying the satellite images, Cook mapped out a sea kayak path that started in Uummannaq. It followed a system of fjords, which afforded them some protection from the harshest of ocean swells. It also allowed them to stick close enough to land to survey new cliffs.
The team wound up climbing a number of different routes on their way to Qaersorsuaq.
One highlight was a roughly 50-hour first ascent on a face called the Red Wall, Cook said. Hodgins, Vanwiemeersch and Watts, who pioneered the route, dubbed their new climb Time is a Construct. They gave the 400-metre line a grade of 5.11 A2.
Once the team arrived at Qaersorsuaq, a 20-day siege of the wall began.
Cook laughed, recalling that having not seen their objective in person yet, he was worried that upon arrival, the monolith would turn out to be a disappointment to his group. But that worry was quickly put to rest.
“It just looks amazing,” he remembered. “It’s like a free climber’s dream. You know, it’s like El Capitan-sized, rising straight out of the ocean. And the rock quality was some of the best that we saw on our entire trip.”
The first 12 days were spent exploring and establishing a camp on the wall.
Finding a new path up the giant mass of granite was a matter of surveying the area with binoculars, telescopes and zoom lenses to find a crack system that could work, Cook recalled.
Establishing a camp was a matter of climbing to the halfway point, fixing lines to bring up their supplies, and setting up portaledges.
The next eight days were spent living on the wall and climbing to the top.
Cook said that the biggest highlight of the trip was when the team ran into a storm at their high camp.
“While we’re asleep, it just started coming down — like, apocalyptic rainstorm,” he said. “And it was a little scary, because I’ve never really been on a wall in a big storm like that.”
The team was trapped in their portaledges for four days, worried that all the effort had gone to waste. But there was an imperfect moment of opportunity.
“After four days of rain, we were still in a thick, freezing cloud,” remembered Cook with a laugh. “And the wall was totally soaked. But I was like, ‘Hey, guys, I’m thinking about going climbing.”
And so, Cook, Hodges and Watts ventured out of their tents and gave it a go.
“We just started climbing in the worst conditions imaginable,” he said. “There’s some really good photos of that, actually, of [Hodges] leading a pitch just in like, basically, a snowstorm with just soaking wet rock.”
But after they climbed far enough, they actually popped up above the storm.
Cook radioed the rest of his team, who were still at the high camp.
“I was like, ‘You guys, like you’ve got to come up here — it’s sunny,’” Cook said with a chuckle. “And they were just laughing at me. There’s no way. They were still in the rain down there.
The rest of the team eventually was convinced to come up, and they made a final 24-hour push to the summit afterwards.
Cook said it was hard to describe the trip as conventional fun, as it was perhaps one of the most sustained periods of discomfort in his life.
But it was worthwhile.
“It’s more than just a personal achievement,” he said. “It’s, like, a bond with the people that you’re there with, I guess. And that’s kind of the thing that will stick with me, I think. Just the team. That’s probably the main reason I do these things is to build those kinds of relationships with the team.”
The Brit Rock IV tour arrives in Squamish on Nov. 25 at Quest University. The film starts at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets can be found at Eventbrite.