Sadly we had to change our plans for this expedition at the last minute, as forecasts highlighted too much coastal ice to reach the Sund.
We are currently heading west along the north Icelandic coast to Isafjordur to top up water and other final stores before making passage across the Denmark Straight to Angmassalik in Greenland; the only other settlement on the 1500 mile long east coast. We should reach Greenland early next week.
From Angmassalik we will head north up the east Greenland coast and will put ashore if we find a safe spot for some walking. The heavy ice conditions mean we are reluctant to plan much more than that! We hope to stay in Greenland for about a week, returning to Isafjordur around the 26th of July.
weather and wind during our passage to Jan Mayen had been very favourable.
Other than suffering some damage to the gaff – we arrived unscathed and
slightly ahead of schedule. With the weather still on our side it made
sense to keep the momentum and get onto Beerenberg as soon as possible.
involves a hefty approach trek (at sea-level) followed by an ascent of 2277m.
We carried sizeable mountain rucksacks; so were armed for cooking, a rest-stop
and a roped climb of the glacier and ridge traverse.
for Beerenberg dictate that climbers cannot camp on the feature, but the height
and distances involved require a 15-20 hour expedition. We decided to climb to
around 1000 m and stop for a meal and a rest before tackling the real climbing
in the coolest hours of the day.
the weather and visibility remained on our side throughout. We had perfect
views of the mountain as we approached, and whilst we ate and brewed tea, Beerenberg’s
southern side looked close enough to touch. Some 1300 m of altitude and several
kilometres of pristine snow separated us from its lofty summit.
1.30 am we organised ourselves and had one last cup of tea, before stepping off
towards the rock mark below the glacier known as the Nunatak.
roped-up here as a ‘three’ as we were entering the heavily crevassed glacier
area and picked a line up through the dramatic cracks and splits in the ice.
From the shade of the mountain, we could see the whole of the volcano’s shadow
projected against the cloud below us. Incredible!
ascent though the crevasses and seracs was hard work, but the dangers were
visible and obvious. I took a slip to my knees in a narrow but deep crevasse,
but otherwise we hit the southern shoulder without eventuality. Our view from
here was exquisite, and the colours emanating from the crevasse depths were
our early hour, and it being the coolest time of the day, the snow was crisp
and at its firmest. Our crampons and axes bit in well, and progress up the
flank was deliberate and swift. As we neared the crater-rim itself we could see
the sun’s glow on the other side and hear the whistle of the NE wind beyond. We
broke the ridge line and were met by both in full force. The sight was
stunning! The crater was pristine with ancient ice and almost knife edge in
places. It looked like a true alpine ridge, dropping away sharply now on our
right-hand side. Photos and back-slapping followed, before we commenced the
traverse over several smaller summits – to the high point at almost
traverse was pretty special. Although we couldn’t see the southern part of the
island – we had amazing views of the north as well as a partial view of the
The summit section came quickly, but its steep, ice-fluted flank required a
belay to protect against a fall. We took our time here, and then Will led us
the short distance to the tight summit top. The time was now 7 am.
paused for a dram of ‘Kings Ginger’ and time to really survey the vast mountain
around us. The world’s most northern volcano was in the bag; and it felt
quite perfect. As with all descents, ours was fractionally uncomfortable!
Old knees (in my case) and empty stomachs all round incentivised a swift return
to our food bags and a well-earned breakfast. We got down safely, ate, and
stepped into a walk to sea level, and our eventual link-up with Integrity and
the remainder of the team.
No climb is complete without the King’s Ginger
agreed that Beerenberg had given a truly unique climbing experience. It was a
beautiful mountain that allowed itself to be seen throughout the 24 hours, and
it had presented a proper alpine climb. However physically hard the climb, we
had been lucky and extremely privileged to enjoy it.
The closer we got to Jan Mayen, the less visibility there was. The southeast wind brought warm air over the cold Greenland current, which then condensed into a ubiquitous fog. We had to rely on the depth readings to confirm how close we were. Since leaving Husavik, Will had been navigating the traditional way, using a sextant for daily sun-sights, a mechanical log that was towed behind Integrity to measure the distance travelled, and the ship’s compass to estimate direction. In a generous sea, with few other vessels, there is room for dead reckoning or roughly estimating one’s position. This is how sailors in the past reached their destinations with varying degrees of success. However, the fog was a complicating factor as we had expected to see the island and 2,227m volcano from some distance away. In such dense sea-fog it was possible that we might even miss the island altogether and sail right past it, or worse still, bump into it as the renowned English mountaineer, explorer and sailor, Bill Tilman, did in his boat Mischief in 1968.
On the morning of our estimated arrival (based on Will’s laborious sun sight calculations, and his sailor’s instinct for not bumping into things) we all strained to see through the fog for a sign of land. Then it appeared, a jet-black column of basalt. This may have been a volcanic plug in a previous life, but at that moment it was a signpost that told us that we were on the Eastern side of the island in clear water. Phew! We sailed further northeast along the vaporous shoreline to find Båtvika (Boat Bay), which is a rather over optimistic description for what is no more than a dent in the basalt cliffs. Despite its exposed nature, we aimed to anchor there as it was virtually under the nose of the Norwegian base and weather station, known as Olonkinbyen.
We called the station commander by radio to let him know that we were close by. He naturally assumed that we would approach the other of the island, which was less prone to fog and had a better anchorage. After confirming that we were about the drop anchor in Båtvika, he immediately came down to the small black beach to greet us. The thought of stepping onto dry land was one that had sustained me for the past thirty-six hours. I generally don’t suffer from seasickness; however, the last part of the voyage had been a trial for me. I recently read a scientific news item espousing a theory that motion sickness is caused by the brain thinking it has been poisoned. In my case, it felt like alcohol poisoning. The sort of persistent hangover you get when you’ve been to a black tie dinner that starts with champagne, followed by white and red wine with the meal. Port or Madeira during the speeches, more champagne at the cash bar afterwards then off to a club with a group of friends for a couple of Cognacs and a good cigar washed down with a whisky before bed. It felt like a hangover of Churchillian proportions and I hadn’t touched a drop.
I was therefore felt very subdued and tired as the station commander Lt-Col John Anders Bestum gave us a tour of the island in his military 4×4. Despite my condition, it was impossible not to marvel at the stark, even desolate beauty of the island. It was all I had imagined it to be, yet nothing that I had ever experienced before. There was an unforgiving rawness about the island that made absolutely no allowances for humans, as evidenced by the various memorials to those who had perished in the winters, or drowned in the icy cold sea and lagoons. The only flora and fauna that could survive in such an inhospitable place had evolved over thousands of years to do so, mostly birds. And they were there is great numbers living on this pristine island sanctuary.
On return to the base station, we discussed the best routes to climb the Beerenberg. As it happened the weather forecast was favourable for the next 36 hours so the decision was made to go for it. We would sleep on board Integrity that evening and the climbing team would set off around midday to attempt to summit the volcano in the early hours of the following day. The only problem was, I still felt dreadful so I asked the station commander if I might speak to his nurse. He willingly obliged and the delightful Heidi came down to beach with her medical bag to see me. No sooner had I explained the problem I was taken to an empty barrack block so that she could do some more tests out of the wind and cold.
With more equipment than patients, Heidi gave me every test she could think of. The prognosis wasn’t obvious until she ran an ECG on my heart. Then something unexpected showed up. I was told to rest while she consulted with a doctor on mainland Norway. An hour or so later the verdict was delivered; there would be no climb for me. The message was relayed to the others on Integrity who hastily reallocated equipment so that Arthur could be the substitute climber. I wish I could say that I was disappointed, but a strenuous 24 hours on the mountain was the last thing on my mind right then. I was invited to stay on the base that night for observation. So in a Scandi-chic room, I collapsed into a clean, non-rolling bed with the Heidi’s words ringing in my ears, “I’m in the room right opposite you so knock if you need me for anything important”. Maybe I imagined the added emphasis on the last word, but I still couldn’t help thinking that age and experience has a beauty all of its own that eclipses youth these days. Moments later I passed out.
Will was waiting on the jetty in Husavik to greet us after the long, seven-hour scenic drive from Reykjavik, and it was with some relief that we decanted ourselves from the hire car packed to the ceiling with luggage and enough fresh food to last the entire voyage. The sun was still warm and unaccustomedly high in the sky for that time of the evening; a reminder of how close we were to the Arctic Circle. This made unpacking and storing our gear on Integrity a relatively quick and easy task. Will had already unpacked the crate and prepared for sea. Then he hit us with the news that there was a weather system approaching that made conditions favourable for an early departure: the following morning rather than the more leisurely plan for later in the week.
We quickly settled in for our first night on board as a quintet and got a first taste of what was to come as Paul commandeered the tiny galley and cooked a surprisingly good evening meal on a temperamental two-ring paraffin cooking stove. Paul’s fractious relationship with the stove was to become one of the highlights of the voyage for me. I will never forget the look in his eyes when he saw burning lighter fuel dripping onto the wooden deck. Looking quickly to me, we both realised the risk of having an impromptu Viking funeral pyre at sea so surreptitiously set about extinguishing the small fire under the stove with damp tea towels until it was out. Disaster was averted and no one, including Will who was only standing two feet away with his back turned towards us, was the wiser (until now…)
As predicted by our frighteningly accurate meteorologist back in the U.K., Chris
Tibbs, the wind veered to the South East so we hurried about our chores the next
morning. Will then gave a cockpit brief with a large-scale admiralty chart that
made Jan Mayen look quite close; not the 350 nautical miles that laid before us.
This may not sound far, but when your average speed is 5 knots (nautical miles
and hour), that’s nearly three days at sea moving at the pace of a steady jog. Will concluded his pre-sailing brief with his two
‘golden rules’; don’t go overboard and don’t ever shout. We nodded in general
agreement and compliance, yet I felt slightly unsure if that meant we couldn’t shout
if someone went overboard.
On Wednesday 15th May we set sail from the beautiful whale-watching capital of Iceland, Husavik, full of excitement and anticipation. Before reaching the open sea, there were a few essential checks to be done, namely confirming the accuracy of the compass, and rehearsing man-overboard (M.O.B.) drills while under sail. We took turns at being at the helm for the latter, which only served to reinforce Will’s first golden rule. The time taken to turn Integrity around to pick up a man overboard from the freezing water would almost certainly be fatal. From then on, I practically crawled around on the upper deck on all fours with my umbilical safety-clip securely fastened to a running line. To watch Will and Arthur move about the deck, climb the rigging, or balance on the bow-sprit ‘whiskers’ without so much as a life-jacket was a terrifying sight, particularly if their recovery relied upon us less experienced sailors carrying out the M.O.B. drill in less than two minutes. I sincerely doubt that even a highly practiced America’s Cup crew could execute such a manoeuvre in time.
By early evening we had crossed the 66 degrees North line of
latitude and into the Arctic Circle. We settled
into our watch routine of two-hours each at the helm, except for Will who was
on call at any time for sail changes and decision-making. With two and half days ahead of us, we needed
to pace ourselves after a busy couple of days. This was short-lived as in the
early hours of Thursday morning there was a plaintive call for Will to come up
After investigating, we discovered a problem with the rigging. The metal joint (gaff jaws) that allows the gaff to move independently to the mast and mainsail, had sheared. We needed to lower the mainsail to inspect the damage properly and Will disassembled the metal components to take below and think about what to do next. In my mind, this was a catastrophic failure, which would mean we would soon be returning ignominiously to port. Yet, after boiling the kettle and leaving Will to his thoughts, the cabin was soon filled with the noise and smell of metalwork. Will managed to fashion a running repair by drilling in new boltholes and grinding the bolts down so they wouldn’t interfere with the swinging action. It was a remarkable feat of engineering that was soon put to the test as we hoisted the mainsail and continued sailing to Jan Mayen.
You know how it is. You are going to the shops and you ask if anyone would like anything while you are there. Since we are going to the Arctic, we thought we’d get in touch with a few people to see if they wanted us to bring anything back for them. Enter Dr Stephanie Wright. Stephanie is a research associate with King’s College London specialising in microplastics. Microscopic particles of plastic from clothing, packaging etc rise into the atmosphere and can be ingested or inhaled, not just by humans, but by the natural environment and the animals who live there.
While it was considered that microplastics were almost to be expected in densely populated areas, only a month ago airborne microplastics were found in what was thought to be pristine wilderness in the Pyrenees.
Yesterday it was reported that a plastic bag had been found during a dive to the bottom of the Mariana Trench.
As humans we have a huge impact on the natural world around us, and it has always been our aim that Integrity and her expeditions could help to observe, and collect data in the more remote corners we gentlemen like to explore.
During our trip to Jan Mayen, Justin will take snow samples from various altitudes on the slopes of the Beerenberg volcano for analysis by Dr Stephanie and her team. We have also been instructed on how to collect atmospheric deposition i.e. setting dust. If airborne microfibres are found, they can be matched with meteorological records taken on the island to try to determine where they came from.
As an Arctic nature reserve, Jan Mayen is a perfect location for adventure and science. We have been given permission from the Norwegian Police Commissioner of Bodo to collect samples and we hope they will be useful to Stephanie’s team.
So, we are currently driving north from Reykjavik to Husavik in Iceland to meet our captain and Integrity, and to get ready for our voyage to Jan Mayen. This trip, as with any sea voyage, is largely determined by the weather.
Our meteorologist Chris Tibbs sent a report to Will yesterday and our plans have now changed. Originally, we planned to set off for Jan Mayen on Friday 17 May, but in order to stay ahead of a NE wind, we are leaving tomorrow morning at 10 am. Plans to stop at Leirhofn have been abandoned, although we may have a chance on the return journey.
This means we have the rest of today for final stowage, drills and checks, before an early supper and a good night’s sleep.
Jan Mayen is 360 miles from Husavik and averaging 5 knots per hour, we will be able to cover 120 miles per day. We should reach Jan Mayen later on Friday. The forecasted winds also mean we have changed our destination from Kvalrossbukta on the north of the island to Batvika on the south coast. This does have the benefit of being closer to the Norwegian military base.
Sailing to Jan Mayen on a 43ft Gentlemen’s Cutter is just part of this great adventure. On arrival; and on finding a safe and sheltered anchorage, Will, Justin and myself plan to haul some kit onto the beach and make preparations for an ascent of the island’s impressive volcano; Beerenberg.
At 2277m Beerenberg is the world’s northernmost volcano and it dominates this extraordinary island. Often shrouded in cloud and foreboding with its dressing of glacier; it offers a true mountaineering challenge.
It has been climbed before of course, but I’d wager it’s not in many people’s logbook. The three of us plan to yomp with hefty rucksacks to a point near the snow line, where we will establish a bivi, rest-up and get ourselves set for what we think will be a ‘long-day’ on the mountain’s SW flank.
The feature is heavily crevassed, and we will need to move roped together at all times. Each year, as the glacier descends, these cracks move and change, so a significant part of our ascent to the crater rim will involve selecting the optimum line through these obstacles. It will be a long slog, but our Norway training should have put us in good stead for a gnarly day out!
On reaching the crater rim, we hope to be traversing steadily to the volcano’s high point. The ice is likely to be pretty firm along this spine, and again crampons and axes will be necessary to gain purchase across its many undulations. If weather conditions are kind, this traverse should offer the most amazing view of the whole island.
But, we do have to be realistic. We have a short time window to work in and we are still relatively early in the season, so the weather will influence every aspect of this trip. Nothing is guaranteed… but we will be throwing all we have at this beautiful volcano climb.
To be among the tiny handful of people to have stood upon Beerenberg’s lofty roof will be an honour and a privilege.
There have been many expeditions to Jan Mayen since 1614, and our research into previous trips brought us all the way to…Bristol.
On June 25 1938 a young geologist, Donald Ashby, left England for Tromso in Norway on an Imperial College expedition to carry out a geological survey of Jan Mayen. 70 years later, at Bristol University, artist Milo Newman discovered Donald’s archive of photo negatives, rock samples and writings from the trip.
Milo works with photography, sound recordings and written texts. His work is landscaped-based and explores environmental narratives through an examination of histories, memories and place. His new book, The Mapping of Jan Mayen, curates memory, history, science and geography to recreate the story of Donald’s expedition to the island.
We got in touch with Milo to tell him about our expedition, and we now have a copy of his book to take to Jan Mayen. He has also allowed us to showcase some of the photo’s from his book on this blog.
Working with the School of Earth Sciences, Bristol University, Milo is hosting three events in Bristol to launch his book and exhibit the Donald Ashby collection.
Will, our skipper is the quintessential English gentleman. Well educated, intellectually curious, adventurous and generous. He personifies George Bernard Shaw’s definition of a gentleman being “one who puts more into the world than he takes out”.
When I received the invitation to join this first Integrity expedition, my response was reflexive simply because it was from Will. He and I had been involved in another adventure in 2011 when we supported Jock Wishart’s Row to the Pole. Will was the shipwright brought along to make good any damage to the rowing boat by ice, and I ran the base camp at Resolute Bay. I was immediately impressed by Will’s practical skills and exciting ideas for the other expeditions. His enthusiasm was infectious, however, work and family commitments meant that it wasn’t possible to go on a sailing adventure together until now.
Will then asked if I knew anyone with climbing experience. Without a moment’s hesitation, I thought
of Paul. Paul and I were near contemporaries during Royal Marines officer
training. He then went on to qualify as a Mountain Leader, one of the toughest
specialisations in the Royal Marines’ inventory of very tough courses. Paul is an exceptional mountain man, but the real reason I
suggested him is that he is extraordinarily good company. He exemplifies the Commando Spirit,
possessing courage, determination, unselfishness, and cheerfulness in the face
of adversity. If bonhomie could be bottled, Paul would be
a one-man distillery…
It wasn’t until our training weekend in Norway that I met Arthur. Arthur, like Will, is also a shipwright and shares the same intellectual curiosity for the world around him; his field of expertise is geo-archaeology. Arthur’s skills as a shipwright have recently taken him to Japan to work on another classic boat on behalf of Stirling & Son. Apart from being an expert shipwright and sailor, the most notable feature about Arthur is that he is completely impervious to cold. As the rest of us tightened the draw cords on our jacket hoods in the face of a blizzard, Arthur seemed unaware of the thickening mat of snow in his hair, beard and moustache. And then at the first sight of flowing water in an ice-fringed pool, Arthur would strip down to his shorts and frolic like a seal looking for its next meal. I’m sure that our enigmatic Frenchman still has some surprises up his sleeve. If Jules Verne himself were to write this account, he could not have created a character quite like Arthur.
Our fourth member is Chris. I didn’t meet Chris until we all gathered together for a planning meeting and dinner at Will and Sara’s Elizabethan manor house on the edge of Dartmoor, which was once occupied by Sir Francis Drake’s niece. In front of a cavernous inglenook fireplace, big enough to park a small car, Chris quietly sipped a beer and assessed his sailing mates for this voyage. He no doubt quickly came to the conclusion that he was the one true seaman amongst us having served in a variety of roles at sea for most of his life. My impression of Chris is that he is the sort of sailor who can keep a cool head in a big sea! And being a regular crewmember of Integrity, he’s just the right person to instruct Paul and I in the finer points of sailing a gaff-rigged cutter. In fact, we might need to learn some of the blunter points too before we set sail into the Arctic Sea. I imagine that Chris can tie at least twenty-five different sailor’s knots in his sleep and knows the right use for each one of them.
Finally there is me. I’m without question that least qualified or useful person to
be in the crew. However, I intend to be learn how to dice an onion in a rolling
sea, cook at least four different stews, and memorise how everyone takes their
tea. I’ve also taken it upon
myself to be the chief chronicler of this adventure.
Victualling – keeping crew warm, fed and watered – is a tricky job at the best of times. You need to take account of the number of crew, the length of voyage, dietary constraints, the distance to resupplying ports and storage capacity on board. In days gone by, when crews numbered in the hundreds and voyages lasted for several years, provisions would account for a large part of the ship’s ballast and it wasn’t uncommon to share the voyage with sheep, goats and pigs.
Although we drew the line at livestock, victualling Integrity for this first gentlemen’s adventure was not without its problems. Integrity was planned to sail on several voyages totalling over 250 man days from Husavik in north Iceland – a country famed not only for its volcanoes and rugged landscape, but also for its exorbitant prices. Not surprising really as almost everything is imported.
It soon became clear that sending the bulk of the provisions
by sea was going to be the most cost-effective solution. A pallet was duly
constructed and loaded with non-perishable food purchased from Suma, the West
Yorkshire-based co-operative along with coal, peat, climbing and fishing gear,
collapsible water containers and survival rations. The pallet did eventually
make its way to Húsavík after spending several unaccountable weeks in customs
Provisions will be supplemented by the 3kg flight allowance
and perishable foods such as dairy products and vegetables will be bought in Iceland
at one of the ‘budget’ supermarkets.
The next job will be finding space on board Integrity for all this stuff. And then of course there is the question of who’s going to cook. That’s probably the subject of another post though.