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In September 2022 we received an e-mail from 88 year old Captain Reverend Bob Shepton: “Longshot, It would be great if we could do something next summer, but age creeps on… East Greenland? I have a boat available.” 
Nicolas Favresse (my climbing partner for more than 25 years) and I (Sean Villanueva) had previously done two sailing-climbing expeditions in the arctic with Bob on board his 33 foot Westerly the Dodo’s Delight.

But things had changed, Bob had sold the Dodo’s Delight and he was almost 90.

It did cross our minds that maybe Bob had aspirations to a similar ending as his big inspiration, the mountain-travel explorer H.W. Tilman, who, as an octogenarian, disappeared at sea, together with his sailboat and, even more concerning to us, the whole crew!

But the Mirror Wall, a massive shield of shiny granite deep inside the Fjord of Scorsbury Sund on East coast of Greenland had been on our radar for years. The granite is said to be so blank and smooth that a climber can see their own reflection… literally but maybe also figuratively…

It felt obvious to ask our good friend Ben Ditto, an American climber/photographer who had been with us on the previous Dodo’s Delight trips,  he replied with a “How can I say no?

Bob put us in contact with Michael Brooks or Mike, a sympathetic Englishman, former British military, experienced sailor, and proud captain of Cornelia, a 46 foot, two masted, steel hull sailboat. An efficient tank of a boat, perfect for an arctic expedition!

Mike decided he needed another sailor. Sean Beecher, from Kinsale, Ireland, a cheerful 58 year old with a short grey beard, has the toughness of an Irish fisherman mixed with the jolliness of a Santa Claus.

We were looking for a fourth climber to share the load. We asked everybody who is anybody but they all either already had plans, or they had a girlfriend. With all this rejection Nico and I were starting to think that maybe it was time to question ourselves.

Then somebody suggested we ask bold-head-point climber Franco Cooksen from Yorkshire, UK. He was immediately excited to join. Both Nico and I had recently watched the film “Fall Theory” in which Franco can be admired climbing up bold routes, or more precisely, mostly flying downwards breaking sky-hooks, bouncing off ledges, surviving ground-falls and somehow walking away with barely a scratch. “I hope he’s not a total kamikaze!” Nico told me. 
Franco further informed us that he had zero sailing and big wall experience, that he is not very brave and that he mostly top-ropes.
Nevertheless, we were excited to see what his skills could bring to the team.

On June 20 this heterogeneous troupe met up in the harbour of Oban, Scotland.
It took more than a week to buy supplies and organise all the storage on board. 
Since the days of Noa’s Arc, no boat has ever been ready on time, and this boat is no exception” Bob concluded. The epic sail to Greenland took more than a month. It included rough seas, vomiting, dodging storms in Faroe Islands and Iceland, lots of hang-boarding, waiting for the sea-ice to clear up on the East-Coast of Greenland and finally some ice-floe slaloming and breaking. It felt good to arrive at the fjord of Skillebugt, our drop-off point. We celebrated with an afternoon of bouldering, while captain Mike and Seany B valiantly battled with strong currents and low-waters as they ferried our gear and food for one month in autonomy, to our base camp on the coast.

The next day we started the 30km approach to the Mirror Wall, filled with excitement to finally get to see our objective with our own eyes. The scenery was so surreal, with a mix of crevasse sewn glaciers, sandy deserts and big blocks of freestanding ice it was like walking through a Salvador Dali painting.
Finally we entered a never-ending moraine of grey scree with opalescent walls of ice. We had been walking for more than ten hours as we contemplated our way through a narrow canyon. Suddenly I heard a loud splash behind me, I turned around to see Nico in a pool of glacial-water, being pulled down by his heavy backpack. I genuinely worried he would drown, but before I could react he managed to drag himself out. “Ok, lets keep walking to stay warm!” he said, quickly followed with “oh shit, I’m bleeding!
There was a deep gash on his upper shin exposing his tibia-bone. Anywhere else this injury would have been minor, just a matter of a few stitches and letting it heal. But here, days from any medical attention, with the risk of an infection, it was very serious. Nico had put a lot of effort into organising this trip and now it seemed his expedition was over before we had even gotten to see the Mirror Wall. Nico went back to the boat to recover from his injury, while Ben, Franco and I with the graceful help of captain Mike continued ferrying loads to the base of the Mirror Wall.
Ten days later, we were ready to start climbing. By that time Nico’s wound seemed to have recovered enough to take the risk to join us, so he hiked up to advanced base camp just before we committed to the wall. We then spent two long days hauling food, water and all the gear up to the big ledge, just below the smooth, featureless headwall. However, with all the effort Nico’s wound was showing signs of infection. He started taking antibiotics and from then on, to avoid exerting himself he had to stay at portaledge camp, resting, reading, cooking and playing music.

We spent the next seven days fighting our way up the blank headwall. The climbing was very intense, with a mix of hard free-climbing, long committing run-outs and slow precarious aid climbing. Most days we were on the verge of bailing, just barely making enough progress to keep going. We were slowly running out of food, toilet paper and time. It seemed we were only a mere 30m away from an obvious crack system leading all the way to the summit. But I couldn’t free climb to the next feature, and I had run out of aid -climbing possibilities. Maybe if I stood up high on the bolt and placed another bolt, then I could reach the flake. Or maybe it would be just out of reach and then I would have to place another bolt and then it would be a bolt-ladder. Where should one draw the line? We had decided “no bolt from a bolt”. There had to be either free climbing or hard aid climbing between bolts.
Here I could do neither.

That’s it. This is as far as we go.” I shouted down. There was a moment of silence. Then Franco slowly started applauding. The sound of hands clapping echoed over the wall. It felt like a genuine praise of the effort I had put in. It gave me goose-bumps and whirled up emotions. “Lets get the fuck off this wall safely!” Ben said. But before heading down, Franco was excited to lead one of the most featureless looking section that he had been practicing on a top rope. After a few falls, in a spectacular effort, with fingers and toes numbed from pulling on razor-blade holds in the cold, he managed to red-point that section. It was amazing to watch. To many it might seem ridiculous to try and red-point a pitch of a climb that doesn’t even go to the top, but surely the pure joy of trying hard and moving over rock is the essence of climbing.
The summit can not be above all.

As we were installing rappels to recover all the static ropes, I told Ben “I feel gutted”. He looked at me for a couple of seconds, his lips clenched, then he grabbed the orange static rope and coiled it onto his shoulders as he sang: “You got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold ‘em. Know when to walk away and know when to run…”  good old Kenny Roger’s signature song from 1978, The Gambler.

We had put our cards on the table and lost, it was time to let go. 
We had to be grateful for the experience of a bunch of friends, finding this amazing challenge in this mind-blowing location and coming back safely.



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