|H W Tilman|
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Mischief in Greenland by Brian Holloway
From Mischief and me , Iceland and Greenland 1965. The year was 1965, and we were on the other side of the world from my home, going to Iceland and Greenland, up by the Arctic, where it is very cold and there is much ice and snow, even on the ocean. I was on a very old boat, painted bright yellow with black bulwalks, elderly wooden planks on elderly wooden ribs, fastened with copper roved nails, and built to last. In 1965 the boat was about 67 years old, and the skipper was 65years.
After he left Kenya, he really became best known for his old boat, a Bristol Pilot Cutter 'Mischief' which he annually sailed to very out of the way places, and then came home to write a book about it during winter. He had sailed to Spitzbergen, Greenland, Iceland, Patagonia, South Georgia, and other romantic sounding places that normally wooden yachts would never dare to go to, which added an element to the interest of armchair sailors world wide.
There was a crew of six - three of us being Brians! There was OLD Brad the cook (60) Bill Tilman (67) Noddy the engineer (21) and three Brians around 25 years old. After three weeks of painting, making baggy wrinkle (sail protectors on the shrouds, out of old rope) provisioning for three months at sea, and doing the myriad of chores required for a such a venture, there came the great day came when we finally cast off from the Lymington Shipyard.
We sailed down the English Channel from Lymington, and up outside Ireland.We shared the cold North Atlantic with pilot whales, and sea birds, and little else. There was very little shipping traffic and rather bleak conditions, considering I had just come from sailing in the South Pacific waters.
The ship was so hard to steer that a rope was lashed out to one side, and gradually eased off. As the boat rounded up into the wind, you had to put your back into the tiller, and manually heave it to windward. The four hour watch was a good bit of muscle work I can tell you.
But this wasn't Surtsey- no - this was Little Surtsey, a brand new island first seen only 3 weeks before us, and we were the very first yacht ever to see it. It was very exciting to see this and be there, for this is nature in the raw. An underwater volcano pushes up through the ocean floor, gradually pushing up more and more molten rock,that of course immediately congeals and solidifies. Eventually, the rock piles up enough to break through the waters surface, and a new island is born. If there is a prevailing wind, as up in the Atlantic, the rocks being blown into the sky fall back and create two sides, then a horseshoe shape. It finally closes the last side and the island begins to really take shape. We were there at the horse shoe stage, and the water boiled and hissed like the mouth of a dragon, and large boulders and clouds of smoke and ash were continually blowing into the sky.
Greenland is all rock and ice- the only colour you don't see is green, as there isn't a tree. Mosses are all the fauna that can live there, but surviving are polar bears, musk ox, seals, narwhales and a few humans. Greenland is run by Danes, and with a few Eskimos who live there, the capital of East Greenland, called Angmaggsallik, still only numbered around 500 people.
Getting to it is a mission, for often the coastal waters are blocked in by ice, and though we were there in summer, we still had to negotiate about 5 miles of ice floes to reach the shore. Pack ice like this is measured in density, in other words 10/10 ice is all negotiate about 5 miles of ice floes to reach the shore. Pack ice like this is measured in density, in other words 10/10 ice is all ice, and 0/10 is open water. We had about 6/10, and the channels, or leads as they are called, change as the ice floes move with any swell or current. On an icebreaker this can be daunting enough - we were in a creaky old wooden yacht that was already leaking badly (the finish of your 4 hour watch at the helm meant 200 strokes on the old fashioned pump before retiring).
We wended our way in by fending off with bamboo poles, gaff hooks and sometimes even feet, and many a time we had to retreat to find another way. But eventually we did get through to the rocky coast, and the next day we were able to be photographed standing on an ice flow in the relatively open bay that is Angmagssalik harbour. We met Danes, we cuddled husky puppies, we were invited into timber homes, and thoroughly enjoyed our time there. But it is always time to move on, and we were at the reason for Major Tilman's trip. Being a climber, he loved to scale hitherto unclimbed peaks, and there is every likelihood that, with this place being so remote, there were hundreds of peaks awaiting his un -stepped pleasure.
We motored down the coast and turned into Scholdugen Fiord. The East coast of Greenland is fractured by glaciers that have carved long channels down to the sea. They go inland for around 25 miles or so and are about a quarter of a mile wide. One can only barely imagine the gargantuan and ponderous forces that have carved these fissures over countless eons of time. Up the length of the fiords, glaciers carve regularly, sending thousands of tons of ice and snow plunging into the water below. We had only just arrived at the base of a glacier when we witnessed a great sight - the sight and sound of glacier carving. It was memorable. First the movement seems to be pre empted with a sound like a drum roll, that definitely attracts your attention.
Creaking and cracking sounds follow, and the ice finally splits, and then its sheer bulk seems to be in slow motion as it falls away, dropping thousands of tons to the slush ice waiting below, bombing into the water with stunning brutality. A big wave of water is expelled, but instead of roaring over and engulfing us like a tidal wave, it is subdued by the slush, and does no more than rock the boat.
We spent about 2 weeks, in two fiords, the only sound being the oft heard carving of glaciers, and an occasional piece of small ice drift against our hull. Were we bored? Far from it. The water teemed with fish, catfish and salmon. And at night, we had the aurora bolaris, the Northern Lights, playing for us like it was our own cinema theatre. We were simply left in awe, words struggle to describe the magnificent beauty of the night sky scene. Best I can do is say it was like the shimmering and twisting folds of mighty window drapes, blowing in an unseen wind, and exposing the door to another world. Greens, purples, violets,constantly changing colours of every hue, constantly folding, unfolding, twining and then disappearing, only to reappear as another vision of light and beauty. We watched nightly until the cold air drove us back into the snug of the cabin.
But it was time to climb the hills. Major Bill Tilman had chosen me as I had done some skiing and some sailing (albeit little of both I confess, but sailing around the South Pacific on a tiny boat must have impressed him). So one morning after a hearty breakfast all of us crew, save the 60 year old cook, set off with packs and ropes, tents and food up, up a steep moss covered slope, breakfast all of us crew, save the 60 year old cook, set off with packs and ropes, tents and food up, up a steep moss covered slope, that flanked a nearby glacier. The climb took us more than 2000' above sea level, and there far far below, like a match head, was our yellow hulled boat, just visible in the clear air, amongst much curious ice.
The others left Bill and I after a cup of tea, and we prepared our camp. The larger rocks were scraped away till we had a bed of smaller rocks. Over this a two man tent was erected, and before it got too cold a meal was brewed. The English must delight in self punishment, and food is to be endured not enjoyed ( though the cup of tea is an entirely The English must delight in self punishment, and food is to be endured not enjoyed ( though the cup of tea is an entirely different matter). So dinner was the shared contents of a tin of pemmican. I am sure (well I sure hope anyway) that they still don't make and sell this stuff, even to cave divers, 747 bungy jumpers, naked mountain walkers, or dribbling idiots. It is (I imagine) some kind of meat extract, a bit like marmite with fat and meat, and was long favoured by Captain Randolph Scott and other maniac extreme explorers. It is said that they died or went mad due to the lead poisoning from when their tinned food was sealed. I think it's more likely that they had more than two helpings of pemmican. Needless to say, I only had one, and I am still alive today. It was just bloody awful stuff!
Next day, we roped across fascinating fissures across the glacier, with bottomless depths and the brightest of green blue ice. One slip, and we would never be seen again. As no one other than Major Tilman on board could navigate, I wonder what would have happened if we hadn't returned?
On the far side of the glacier, a rock wall rose for another 2000'. I am no climber, though I have don't have much fear of heights and have a good sense of balance still. We made it to the top, to discover we were on a knife edge- a foot over and it plunged down and have a good sense of balance still. We made it to the top, to discover we were on a knife edge- a foot over and it plunged down a nearly sheer slope all the way to the sea. A wonderful place to be. Bill (Tilman) pulled out an old can and we wrote our names and dated it and then piled a cairn of rocks over the top. I had climbed onto my first and only virgin (peak). We retraced, this time glissading down a very steep snow line. "Hold onto your ice axe at the head, use the top of the handle in the snow as a brake and a rudder, oh, and don't go too fast as you will lose control and end up a pile of broken bones on those rocks way down there."
We had earlier so laboriously climbed, chipped footholds in ice walls, and hand climbing some rather interesting rock. Now, it was sooo much fun as we slithered all the way down to base, arriving much too soon, and after packing our gear back down the hill we were able to hail the boat, our home. We visited another fiord, and met up with the men at a weather station on a very remote island called Tingiamuit. before sailing off back to Lymington, England. After 3 months away, coming back might have been an anti - climax, but it proved to be far from it. Near the English Channel again, a real storm blew up. 80 knots of wind, and simply enormous seas. Then on the second night we came within a few metres or so of being run down by a large freighter."