It’s insecure and committing. Perch hard on the right foot smear and hold just enough tension in your core. If the subtleties click, you can hover in perfect balance for a moment. But you can’t dwell there; you have to move with authority. Snatch the next crimp like you mean it, like falling might have more serious consequences than usual. Let the thousands of miles traveled and the utter novelty of the experience motivate you to try harder. And then, once you rock over the lip, remember the most important piece of beta: sit and watch the slow-motion dance of the icebergs across the emerald water below. That’s how you climb the little gem of a boulder that sits on the hill in the Hans Christian cirque.
The plan to climb in a remote fjord on the southeast coast of Greenland was hatched in California—three thousand miles, two international flights, a helicopter ride, an eight-hour boat journey—and a whole world away.
[Angie Payne riding the high seas. PHOTO: Keith Ladzinski]
Mike Libecki, Ethan Pringle and I were on the hunt for unexplored rock in a wild and remote setting, and Greenland was a promising place to search for it. I knew the journey would be a departure from my typical climbing routine, which is why I was scared of the idea from the moment it was conceived. Excited, yes, but also intimidated. I am a climber, which definitely involves a certain amount of danger and uncertainty, but I prefer to take my risks in small, calculated doses. For me, that usually comes in the form of a less-than-perfect weather forecast that may force me to abandon my project for the day. If things get really “dicey”, I might get stranded under a boulder in Rocky Mountain National Park while I wait for a fast-moving alpine storm to pass so I can make the short, mellow hike back to the car.
Greenland was a complete mystery to me. I was going there in search of boulders. I hoped they would be made of perfect rock with gorgeous lines up every single one. I had tunnel vision, as I often do, and I was dead set on establishing new boulder problems. But I wasn’t sure the boulders even existed; I could only hope they did.
[Angie and Mike preparing to unload. PHOTO: Keith Ladzinski]
Upon arriving at our base camp, I was itching to get out and explore. Many days had already passed since I had climbed, and needless to say, when the rain temporarily slowed, I was excited to get out of the tent. What I found did not disappoint. There was a lovely fog dancing about in the talus, and it appeared that we had happened upon a great little bouldering zone.
This was a new kind of bouldering for me. I had spent minimal time establishing boulder problems in my sixteen years of climbing. Sure, I had put up a first ascent here and there, but it had never involved finding, cleaning, and climbing the boulder. In Greenland, however, everything changed. If I wanted to climb, I had to go through the process in its entirety.
First, I had to find the promising lines. When I ran around the talus fields in our cirque, I was overcome with excitement. It was the first time that I have truly felt the need to go just a little further in case something amazing was sitting beyond the next ridge. The rock was high quality in most places, and there were numerous obvious lines that jumped out right away. Once I assessed which boulders were really worth cleaning and attempting, I had to begin the dirty work. Mike taught me how to use his hand drill and helped me place a bolt on top of one of the larger boulders. Ethan showed me how to build an anchor in the talus and sling the rope over the other boulders. We both ate our fair share of plant matter as we scrubbed the holds clean of moss and lichen. It was all part of the process.
[Mike teaches Angie how to drill bolts. PHOTO: Keith Ladzinski]
To make things more complicated, some of the giant chunks of rock sat atop an ever-shifting pile of talus that had only recently been spit out by the glacier above or thrown from the surrounding walls. I am accustomed to walking in talus and bouldering in the alpine zones of Colorado, but this was a different world altogether. This was remote bouldering, in a young boulder field, in a volatile environment.
On one occasion, I ventured up near the glacier in our cirque where there was a fresh pile of car-sized boulders. The rock was very clean, a sign to me that it hadn’t been sitting there for very long. My suspicion was confirmed when I attempted to cross the pile and found that nearly every other boulder I stepped on shifted with my weight. The feeling of a rock that size shifting under your feet is unsettling, to say the least. It quickly reminded me that I wasn’t on a well-worn path through the talus in Rocky Mountain National Park. I was likely the first person to ever step on those blocks. It was incredibly intimidating and I felt very small and insignificant and crushable as I tiptoed over the talus beneath those massive walls.
[Angie on the hunt for boulders.]
After a few days, however, I became more comfortable in the foreign environment. I established some problems on the little gem boulder that sits on the hill. Its picturesque placement attracted Keith’s eye, and he wanted to shoot it. I rehearsed the beta in my head: Perch hard, tension, hover, snatch! Then I repeated the boulder a few times, refining the movement into a steady flow. I’m finally climbing in Greenland I thought. And better yet, on a boulder that no one had climbed before. One more time, get those laps in, enjoy this moment, the movement, the flow. Perch, hover, snatch! Fatigue set in just as the sun began to peek out from behind the surrounding walls, throwing brilliant light onto the boulder’s face. One more time, I can do it one more time. Perch, tension…woah losing the tension, fatigue…hover, snatch (barely!), intermediate, find an intermediate, there’s one just up there, looks good enough, feels pretty good, almost there, just one more SNAPahhhhhhhhsh$%! Thunk. Bounce. OUCH.
It only took a second for the hold to break and eject me into the talus. Luckily my hip took the brunt of the fall, sparing my appendages and head from serious damage. I am relatively conscientious about the risks of bouldering, but this took risk to a new level for me. In Greenland you are out there. Eight hours from civilization out there. Breaking yourself in the talus there would really ruin your day. Or your year. That fall gave me a new perspective on remote bouldering and a new respect for its dangers.
Cleaning and climbing new boulders in Greenland gave me a new perspective. It is incredibly rewarding to find, clean, and climb a boulder that no one has ever seen before. At the same time, it is odd to think that you might be the first and last person to ever touch that particular piece of rock. It made me examine my motivations for climbing in a new way. After all, if no one has climbed the boulder before me, certain elements of the “test” that is often inherent in my climbing experience is absent. The boulders had no chalk on them, no names, no grades. But I was drawn to climbing them. I couldn’t resist. I wanted to get to the top. This was an entirely new type of test.
[Angie cleans what would become one of her favorite boulders in Greenland. PHOTO: Keith Ladzinski]
[Angie sticks the move. PHOTO: Keith Ladzinski]
It distilled the whole climbing experience down for me. I was doing my very own thing out there, climbing on boulders that might never be climbed again. It made the climbing so personal, and I began to truly grasp the joy of exploration and development.
Everything was about the climbing itself, the actual movement over the rock, and the beauty of the line. At moments the boulders seemed so unimportant—I was scrambling up rocks in a random granite cirque in the middle of nowhere. But then, the next moment, they seemed like the most important things in the world. After all, if it weren’t for the act of scrambling up small rocks like these, I wouldn’t be in this random cirque in Greenland. I was doing what I love in the most spectacular setting for the pure joy of doing it. What could be more important than that?
[Angie Payne and Ethan Pringle work out the moves. PHOTO: Keith Ladzinski]
Going to Greenland was one of those experiences that I knew would change me, even if just a little. I left a home, a boyfriend, a dog, and a routine behind to step out of my comfort zone for a brief moment in time. And it was intimidating.
But for every ounce of fear I experienced, there was a pound of reward waiting. The unrivaled beauty of my surroundings, the support of my teammates, the excitement of exploring and developing boulders—these are the things that made it all worthwhile. Everything was new, and fascinating, daunting, and, most of all, rewarding.