Most students spend their summer months completing an internship, taking a well earned rest or sunbathing in a warmer climates. But Theo Weiss, a fourth year ancient history student, spent last summer in Greenland with the aim to make a route across from Tuno through to Sermilik Fjord. Theo travelled the route in ten days and spent the rest of the time immersing himself in the culture of the local Inuit people.
Theo set off with with four friends, Steffan Danino, Fraser Davies and Nick Seccombe, in August to trek through a remote area of Eastern Greenland. “The main thing that we wanted to do was this crossing, which we weren’t sure how long it was going to take us. We set out with ten days food and it took us exactly ten days. We had hoped it would take about eight and that was quite a generous amount of time and it ended up taking a little bit longer than that.”
This was not the first time that Theo had been part of a difficult expedition. He has had a long love affair with expeditioning and has been interested in the outdoors since his childhood: “I used to be in something called the woodcraft folk when I was younger and I was into the outdoors and stuff like that. I didn’t do that much at school but during my gap year I wanted to do something interesting and I heard about the British Schools’ Exploring Society and I found out about them through the Anglo-Norge society in London. My family is Norwegian on one side, so I went along to these talks in London and they did a presentation on Svalbard and about sending young explorers out there, so I decided I wanted to go along. That was a five-and-a-half week expedition of kayaking and mountaineering.
“When I came here I joined the mountaineering society and also the expedition society, which I am now president of. We try to educate people about skills and things like that. I try to keep my interest going with expedition society.”
As the group all had a lot of expeditioning experience, they decided to organise this expedition to Greenland entirely independently. Other than some financial support from Gino Watkins Fund, the Sandy and Zorica Glen Charitable Settlement and the Andrew Croft Memorial Fund, the trek was organised by Theo and his friends: “Part of the fun is the logistics sort of thing. Picking a destination and going how can we get this to work, how can we get the equipment and things like that. In total it took about two years to get the expedition together. Steffan, who was the leader of the expedition, phoned me on Christmas day two years ago and said: ‘Do you want to go to Greenland?’ I hadn’t heard from him in a little while but I said yes and I was on board from then. We started trying to work out how to get hold of supplies there and whether we had the necessary skills, because it can be quite technical at times.”
In an interesting coincidence, Theo did receive some advice from a man living within St Andrews. He discovered that an old University physics professor had completed a similar trek across Greenland exactly 50 years ago. Professor Philip Gribbon was part of a St Andrews expedition to Greenland in 1963. “Whilst I was in St Andrews planning all of this, I went and chatted to Freddie Fforde because I was trying to get the University involved in some way. It came through to Freddie knowing an old professor, who knew another professor called Phillip Gribbon. He still lives in town and he is now an elderly man. I spent a lot of time with him learning about the Inuit and comparing his maps with mine and seeing how the glaciers have changed and that sort of stuff. It was exactly 50 years since he was there and he was in a very remote place that people don’t usually go to. As far as I know, it is the first St Andrews expedition there. It was a very strange coincidence. He is an absolutely fascinating guy.
“We were just comparing notes and things like that. He warned me that it was pretty tough but the Inuit were very friendly, so we knew going into the town that they were very welcoming to visitors. He told us little things like not to arrive in a town and give gifts. That was a really nice piece of advice about the Inuit and how to approach them.”
On their way back to base camp, the team searched for remnants of the camp used by the expeditioners 50 years ago and came across something very similar to the one that Professor Gribbon described. They also used the expedition to collect rock samples for the geology department at the University.
Theo also agreed with Professor Gribbon’s advice as the group spent a week living in an Inuit village and becoming friendly with the local people. During this time, he experienced many special events and learnt about the Inuit culture. He described one particular highlight of the trip: “On the day before we left, we had been out sealing with this local chap called Giorg. He had invited us to go to his granddaughter’s first birthday. We turned up to this party and it was literally the whole town in one room. Then the food came out and Giorg’s wife had prepared this large feast of pretty much every Arctic speciality so we had this thing called Mattak. They prepare the meat and bury it in the ground for a couple of weeks and then they dig it back up so it is kind of rotting flesh. His son was a killer whale hunter and we had some of that and he regaled us with tales of going out hunting.
“Then Giorg decided to bring forth the prized meat, which was a polar bear that he had shot himself, a couple of months before. The Inuit have a quota for how many they can kill and they had killed that already but one had come into the town. Giorg has the major hunter and the best shot had gone out and shot this polar bear. He proceeded to demonstrate how he had done that in the middle of his living room. It was about a seven foot polar bear, on its hinds legs. He basically went right up to it and was less than a metre away and just shot it right in the neck with the intention to preserve the skin and the meat as well. Then we all sat and had polar bear at his granddaughter’s first birthday.”
Theo said that discovering the beauty of the country around him was another highlight of the trip: “Every night we did a bear watch. Considering there were four of us and we wanted to get at least eight hours sleep, we had to do about three and a half hours each, which was quite a long time to be standing out on your own with a rifle, just kind of looking out. There was one particular night, were we were in the middle of our ten day crossing and we were all pretty tired and other the other guys had gone to bed. I was standing with my rifle, looking out onto this fjord and it was a full moon so I could see right across the fjord.
“I heard some sort of stones dropping on this headland. I went to check if it was a bear and what I realised pretty quickly was that it was actually a loud puff of what sounded like smoke. I started to look out towards the water and I could see this big jet of steam and I realised that there was a whale swimming in the fjord and just at that moment the sky opened up and the northern lights came out. This initial bit of green came out and then that blew up into cacophony of different lights. I was just standing out there in the night, quite amazed at what was going on.”
However, the trek was not always enjoyable and they faced many difficulties along the way. The group walked for about ten or eleven hours each day over tough terrain and rocky moraine fields. “That can be quite a tough experience because you’ve got to have your balance on check and gaping holes can just open up.”
One particular issue was wading across ice cold rivers with almost 40kg of equipment on their backs:
“We had a location where we wanted to put the base camp. There was basically a kind of valley and we were on one side and then on the other side there was a glacier running up to a series of mountains. We had hoped to put our base camp on the other side of this river so we could shoot off in another direction. As it turned out, it was just sand and then straight up rock so there was absolutely nowhere to put the camp. We ended up having to put the base camp near where we had rocked up on this boat.
“This was fine at first until we went down into the valley and realised that the whole thing was basically cut across by rivers running off the glacier. To get to the other side and start the trek, we had to cross this valley and that involved crossing these rivers. These rivers were running straight off the glacier so it was ice water that then runs straight into the fjord. As soon as we got into the water we realised how deep it was. Initially, it was up to our knees and then we got halfway, it was up to our waist and we were going across this with ten days equipment on our backs. It involved stripping down to boxers, putting our boots around our necks and just wading across this river.
“The problem was that once you got across one, there was a bit of sand and there was another one so you had to cross these repeatedly. Because we had not been able to put our camp on the other side, we had to cross this valley about four times which meant that getting back to base camp took three times as long as it should have. That obviously affects food and stuff but also sheer endurance. It was a very unpleasant experience.”
Despite these difficulties, Theo remains passionate about promoting expeditioning eager to continue to explore more in the future: “I’d like to cross the Greenland ice sheet at some point but that’s pretty far off. Some of the Inuit friends that we made offered to take us up to the ice on the dog sleds in the winter.
“I’d also like to try some different expeditioning, maybe some desert expeditioning and I will be cross country skiing in Norway in the winter. We are hoping with expeditioning society to go to Eastern Europe and do a week long expedition in the mountains there.”