Dispatches, August 1998
Dave Briggs got his first aerial glimpse of Greenland's Sweizerland Mountains from a Bell 210 helicopter back in the summer of 1995, and the image has stuck with him ever since: a chaotic ring of granite peaks erupting from the edge of the ice cap, with 10,000-foot crags, sheer walls, and knife-edged spires whetted by glaciers. For Briggs, then an improvident 26-year-old climbing bum from Portland who dreamed of becoming a world-class explorer, the vista seemed almost too good to be true. Most of the peaks were not only unclimbed, but unnamed, unmapped, and untouched. And in the increasingly attenuated world of explorers who must conjure ever more rarefied feats to be the first at something, the Sweizerlands seemed to offer that most elusive of grails: terra that is utterly incognita.
That summer, Briggs had another appointment to keep-namely, skiing across Greenland's fearsome ice sheet. (Having failed on a previous trip in 1993, he accomplished the 350-mile traverse in a 28-day forced march that he cheerfully describes as "just putting your head down and suffering.") The Sweizerlands, however, never relinquished their pull, and this month his long-anticipated rendezvous with the peaks will finally take place. Now a seasoned 29-year-old professional guide with a r‰sum‰ that includes difficult routes and first ascents from the Himalayas to the Andes to Mount McKinley, Briggs will be making his return journey with climber Jared Ogden of Telluride, Colorado. The centerpiece of their month-long expedition will be an ascent of a 2,200-foot big wall that, like just about everything else in this icy garret of the world, has no name.
The two climbers will boat up a massive fjord from a village called Tasiilaq on Greenland's east coast-an area so remote it is simply known as "the back side" — and then hike some 25 miles inland to establish a base camp in the shadow of what they have dubbed Big Wall X. After that, the only way to go will be up — straight up — for a week or more, a grueling inch-by-inch slog on untested granite in the perpetual light of the Arctic summer. They'll climb without radio or satellite phone, and with no hope of assistance should anything go wrong. "It won't be like Yosemite," notes Briggs. "There won't be a search-and-rescue team to pluck us off the mountain if we make a mistake."
The spires of eastern Greenland have long been rumored to rival not only those of the Sierra's most storied valley, but also the superlative faces of Patagonia and the Dolomites. Yet to date, while teams from Britain, Germany, and Denmark have chipped around the edges of the Sweizerlands, there has never been a serious assault on their walls. No one even has a precise fix on where they are. ("The few maps that do exist are so wrong they're dangerous," notes Briggs.) Which explains why this expedition has sparked excitement in the typically tough-to-impress mountaineering community. Briggs's ascent is important not just for the climb itself, but for the impact it will have in drawing other alpinists to Greenland. "It's the next step for free climbers," says Todd Skinner, one of America's preeminent big-wall artists, who plans to do a bit of his own scouting in Greenland this summer. "It's a hell of a frontier; it has the most unclimbed rock faces in the world-like a lot of Yosemites stacked up together."
While Briggs clearly relishes the role of pioneer, unlike most explorers he has no interest in leaving his Kilroy behind in the Sweizerlands. "In Greenland, mountains are named only for dead guys," he explains. "So if I can help it, there's not going to be any Briggs Wall."
Filed To: Snow Sports