Herewith the eagerly awaited final instalment of Bader Grant Recipient of the Month, Jesse Dufton’s awesome expedition to the Stauning Alps. Jesse is registered blind/severely sight impaired and for him to complete this epic challenge is a huge inspiration to everyone. We applaud Jesse’s courage and commitment and were proud and delighted to have been able to support him on this journey.
We are extremely grateful to him for putting this adventure into such thoroughly enjoyable and readable reports so that the armchair travellers amongst us can really get a feel for what was involved for the team in completing this expedition. This understanding is again helped enormously by the stunning photographs taken by Molly Thompson and fellow team memberOliver Mentz. We are very grateful to them for allowing us to publish them.
In the last episode, Jesse concentrated on the scientific aspect of the trip, and you can read that if you haven’t already by clicking on the link below. In this report, he writes movingly about the mountaineering aspect and it makes for very gripping reading.
You will see that there is also a very good reason why I was keen to publish this last instalment on Valentine’s Day! Many congratulations Jesse and Molly – we wish you every happiness together!
All objectives achieved and a truly amazing trip of a lifetime. Jesse Dufton
Jesse’s story continues below:
Now that all the science was complete our focus turned to the mountaineering aspect of our trip. The first challenge we had to overcome was passing the 2 cols which lay between the Roslin and Bjornbo glaciers. The last day climbing up to the first col was particularly tough. We had more than 800m of ascent that day and when we reached our camp in a small flat area just below the col I was exhausted. With hindsight, I think this was my physical low point of the trip. I had been making my own tracks and not following behind anyone for most of the day. Just don’t let the other blurry blobs get too far away and check that you’re heading in the right direction every now and again and it’ll be fine…
I stayed at camp while the others skied up to investigate what we would have to deal with the next day to get over the col and down the other side. My legs were so broken I didn’t join them. They reported that it looked fairly straight forward. There was a snow filled gulley leading down from the col to the plateau below. We should be able to abseil down without too much trouble. That evening we planned are strategy with ordering and rope work, so we were all clear how it was going to work.
When we woke in the morning it was snowing and had been for some time overnight as there were several inches covering the tents. A well timed enforced rest day! To attempt crossing the col in fresh snow would be dangerous due to the heightened risk of avalanches, so we had our first rest day of the expedition, my legs were extremely grateful. The following morning, feeling moderately rested, we pushed up to the col to attempt to cross. The last steep section to the top was too steep for 1 person to pull a pulk up. We had to have one person pulling and another behind pushing in order to get the sleds up the last section.
At the top of the col, we set up an anchor, tied all our ropes together and lowered Molly down the other side first. Despite not being able to see I am familiar enough with all the required rope work to be able to do it essentially blindfold, on this occasion Ollie had it all in hand and I was left to wait my turn to be lowered. Molly had been lowered the 190m our ropes allowed. She then set about kicking a “party ledge” into the snow slope on which we would each join her in turn. I went next with 2 pulks. We tied these to the end of the rope next to one another and I was tethered below them to guide them on the descent. Most people probably think that walking backwards down a steep snow filled couloir in Greenland when you can’t see much is mental, but I guess I’m used to it, or I’ve got more than a few screws loose! Anyway, it was fairly easy to do a brisk backward jog and keep the pulks under control. When I got down to Molly the angle of the slope had eased so I was able to untie from the rope and walk backwards further down while holding one of the pulks above me. For the last and most shallow angled section of the slope the easiest way down was to use the pulk as a toboggan. I didn’t need to worry about crashing into anyone or anything, in front of me was pristine untouched snow. I could see a huge flat expanse of snow before it rose into another mountain range far in the distance. It was incredible.
We travelled through this beautiful wilderness and the next day we reached the second col. It was clear stood on top that this was going to be much much more difficult. There were 2 options for a descent, both were much steeper, much longer than the first and would require multiple 190m sections of lowering and abseiling. I couldn’t see enough detail to appreciate what we had to do. The rest of the team seemed hesitant. Both slopes had huge cornices at the top – overhanging sections of snow deposited on the downwind slope. They’re often unstable and have a habit of collapsing into an avalanche when you attempt to cross them. This was going to be tricky.
We built an anchor just above the cornice and Ollie went over without a pulk to create a second anchor underneath the cornice so we could attach to something after our first abseil section. He then had to climb back up the rope with special knots called prussik loops to get his pulk. This done it was my turn. Abseiling isn’t an issue for me, I can’t see much but you don’t really need to. You don’t get much choice where you’re going, just follow the rope down. Abseiling with a pulk is interesting, it gets caught on things as you go down and is generally a pain in the arse! At least I was strong enough to manhandle it out of the way, Molly and Jen didn’t have this option and cursed it the entire way down.
We had all completed the first abseil and Ollie had just started to lower Jen down the first leg of the slope below the cornice when disaster struck. The 3 point anchor we had built suddenly gave way, Ollie, Jen and all 5 of our pulks started to slide uncontrollably, falling down with increasing speed. A moment later the leash that had been connecting Alistair to the “safety” of the anchor came tight and dragged him off the ledge that we had all been sat on, pulling him tumbling down the slope. Molly and I (not tied into the anchor system) were left sat helpless on the small snow ledge watching the carnage unfold below. 4 of the pulks were connected at point and as they fell they rolled over one another and the handles and other pieces of debris were thrown off. I was not able to see all the detail but the huge cloud of snow which was kicked up by the maelstrom was obvious and it made a huge racket. Molly and I watched in horror unable to do anything. I thought I’d lost 3 friends that day.
Eventually the mass of carnage came to a stop on the flat section of the Bjornbo glacier. Amazingly none of them were seriously hurt, Jen was unable to speak due to a massive adrenaline overload but this quickly passed. So very lucky. Only one problem now – Molly and I were still sat on a small snow ledge at the top of the slope, no ropes, ice axes or crampons. Time to get out of trouble. I led and climbed backwards down the slope kicking steps with my big ski boots and punching big holes with my fists, which Molly could then follow down in. There was a vertical section for several meters which worried me. Fortunately, we passed this without incident, collected the scattered debris and made it down to the others. They had fallen some 270m and the lack of any injuries and the minor damage to the pulks which contained all our survival kit was amazing and a great relief. We moved out of the avalanche zone and set up camp, time for a stiff hot chocolate and some reflection. We’d arrived on the Bjornbo and we’d done it in pretty dramatic fashion.
After a morning of repairs, the following afternoon we skied to the base of our first climbing peak. My team studied the terrain through binoculars and picked what they thought was a possible route to the top. A day later we started on our summit attempt. We skied up as far as we could before switching from skis to crampons. This is where it got harder for me, on skis I can just slide one foot forward after the other, without skis you have to kick steps. When you’re following someone, you can step in the steps they’ve already kicked. Or you can when you can see them! Standing in pre-kicked steps is vastly easier than kicking the steps yourself. I wound up burning a lot more energy than the others as I couldn’t always find the steps the others had kicked. Being heavier than the rest was also a disadvantage in soft snow, as often when I did find a step, my extra weight would cause it to collapse. I made slow progress but was very determined. After much swearing and grumpiness from me we all reached the final section of the climb. Here there were many loose rocks poking through the snow. It’s disconcerting to climb as everything you touch moves. We roped up and gingerly picked our way to the summit one at a time. We’d hoped to have a nice snow dome to stand on top of as a group but the peak was only large enough for one person. Pulling up and looking over the other side of the mountain was great! Taking a moment to soak in the scene, I can’t make out the detail anymore but I can still see the mountains and the white streaks of glaciers in between them. A very special moment.
As is often the case the mood changes when you start thinking about getting down. Fortunately, this wasn’t too traumatic on this occasion. I managed to ski down the couloir we had climbed up. I can’t see basically anything so need to take it fairly slow and pick my way down following someone else or within shouting distance so they can yell “turn” at me at the appropriate time. I made it down and now time to properly celebrate! We had just claimed our very own first ascent up a mountain previously unclimbed!
Our second peak was more of a standalone mountain and posed a greater challenge – more height to gain during the climb and much longer approach. We skied up as far as we could like before, swapping to crampons at the base of a snow gully. This was fairly straightforward initially, but we did need to get the rope out and climb delicately over a rock step which was blocking our route. Climbing rock in ski boots, crampons and with axes is hard, it makes you wish you were wearing the little rock climbing shoes that climbers wear in the summer. It is especially hard for me as I am much more reliant on the feel that I get through my feet when climbing than the others are. In the little rock shoes you can feel the rock under your feet and develop a sixth sense about whether or not your foot is secure, in huge ski boots with metal spikes strapped on the bottom you don’t have this sensitivity. Despite this I seemed to pass the rock step with less difficulty than rest, to their amazement, not sure why. No fear approach.
After the rock step the gulley we were climbing petered out and we needed to traverse around a powder covered arête in order to reach another gulley which lead all the way to the summit. This was the most nerve racking section of climbing we did. I felt very worried and terrified I’d slip and plummet below, nothing felt secure. Despite the others reassurance, every step I made, I ensured was huge, before moving on. The powder snow was very loose and I had to stamp repeatedly on a foothold before I had any confidence that it wasn’t going to simply collapse under me as soon as I weighted it. You are not tied to anything as there is nothing solid to attach to, attaching a rope to your team mate would only mean that if one of you slipped then both of you would fall. We picked our way around the arête and were very glad to reach more solid snow in the next gully. People sometimes ask if not being able to see actually helps with situations like this as you can’t see the drop below, I’m not sure that’s true, I can’t see it but I know it’s there and what will happen if the snow under me gives way.
We all climbed the last section easily, it was a long way but we were awed by the 360 degree vista from the summit. This peak had room for all of us on top. We all took a moment to appreciate the situation, and to scoff some more peanuts the fact this climb had been significantly longer and harder added to the sense of achievement, an amazing feeling. Time to spring my surprise, I got down on one knee and proposed to Molly. Amazingly Ollie was quick enough with his camera to catch the moment. Molly said yes, though she did struggle to overcome her shock. I had a ring, not gold/diamonds but a rehab device climbers use to aid recovery when they injure a finger. It fit over her big glove! I had been carrying it around for the last 3 weeks desperately trying not to lose it. A valid concern it turns out as now the deed was done Molly gave it to me to look after, unfortunately I didn’t do this very well as it is now lost. I think I must have fumbled putting it back in my pocket with my huge gloves on, it must still be in Greenland, I doubt anyone will ever find it again!
The descent was uneventful and we reached camp some 11.5 hours after we’d set off, a long day and we all felt pretty spent. The remainder of the expedition was spent descending back down the Bjornbo in time to avoid an arctic storm which buried our camp in over 1m of snow! Fortunately, we’d managed to get to our pickup point before it hit. Just the matter of a 17-hour bottom battering snow mobile ride back to Constable Point to round off our expedition. We all desperately wanted some fresh food and needed a long shower after not washing for a month we stank.
All objectives achieved and a truly amazing trip of a lifetime. Thanks so much to everyone who supported us and made it possible, especially the Douglas Bader foundation. I am hugely grateful for your support…thank you!
We’ve loved having Jesse as our Bader Grant Recipient of the Month. He is going to be a very hard act to follow! Thank you so much for your fantastic contribution to the website, Jesse. We wish you the very best of luck and success with your future adventures both at home and further afield!
Please click on the link to visit the Bader Grants News section of the website where you will find Jesse’s previous reports.
We have another inspirational BGRotM lined up to take over in March. Watch this space for more details….