Why? - Where? - Who? - How?
Beerenberg? will most of you ask themselves jeeringly. Another little hill in Germany? And why such a silly fuss: „first foreigners“?
Well, Beerenberg is the northernmost volcano on earth. Still most will rub their eyes in astonishment: where the heck shall this be?
On the north Atlantic island of Jan Mayen. Again puzzling. Jan Mayen? Never heard of. Or yet by chance? Jan Mayen is floating straight between Iceland and Svalbard, an island full 30 miles long in the form of a tadpole: long tail in the south west, head in the north east. Beerenberg's cone occupies the entire head.
We deal with an extraterritorial possession of Norway, named after the Dutch whaler-captain Jan Jacobs May van Schellinkhout, who had landed there for the first time in 1614, seven years after the island had been discovered. Since a couple of decades the island has been „inhabited“ by always the same number of Norwegians: 18; this is the half-annually rotating crew of a radar and weather station of the Norwegian military.
How high actually is Beerenberg? 7,470 ft. Big deal, you will say, much ado about nothing! But we are 71°05' northern latitude 8°11' western longitude, hence in the Arctics. Once realized these facts, one becomes a bit more respectful. Beerenberg in reality is a volcano of immense format, comparable to the big Andes volcanos, in particular if one considers ascending: One has to start from sea level – 7,470 feet up and down in one run without overnight break, a must because, firstly, there is no accommodation on the way, no hut or cabin, and tents you would not want to carry; secondly, the weather is always changeable, in modest terms, it is just dreadful most of the time. Once a gap opens with sunshine, one has to exploit this mercilessly.
Nice, nice, many of you will still say, but what is special about it? Very simple: You have to get there. Jan Mayen in fact has a landing strip for airplanes, but only support craft for the meteostation are permitted to land there. Tourists on the barren island are restricted to those of accidental cruise ships. At least not normally. However, if one has a suitable transport facility and an acceptable reason to visit Jan Mayen, the police of the Norwegian continental town of Bodø can issue a special permit. Since this year you can get it even more easily: You would simply contact www.ecoexpeditions.no and tell Geir Ulstein, the manager, what is in your mind.
So did we, not anticipating that we would enter new territory: Except the first ascenders – Swiss meteorologist Paul-Louis Mercanton, English polar explorer and geologist James Mann Wordie and naturalist Thomas Charles Lethbridge on a scientific expedition between 9th and 11th August 1921– there have only been crew members of the meteostation on Beerenberg – 18 times altogether; but all of them only Norwegians. This June for the first time foreign tourists entered the island with the intention to climb: Roman and me from Germany.
Soaring clouds over Jan Mayen
Towards Jan Mayen
We had set off from the little Icelandic port of Dalvik, on the yacht „Aurora“ of www.boreaadventures.com with Sigurđur and Rúnar as skippers. It was a windy-wavy passage that took us almost three days cruising against a force 7 gale. Four Norwegians, Johan acting as guide and „expert“, two Englishmen and a Pole – this is what the party consisted of. We set up our tents facing the mountain from southwest, on a hill overlooking the North Laguna. If only we had seen the mountain! Beerenberg had hidden behind a thick barrier of clouds.
On the way from Iceland to Jan Mayen
Up the mountain
Johan went on picking up weather forecasts on his satellite phone; they were all pretty dubious. But then, the day after our landing, the weather service began predicting a brief window of good weather. „Brief“ meant they were not sure themselves how long this window would last. In any case, it always means a thick garland of clouds around the mountain slopes – because there is simply too much water around, so that in any weather more than enough water will evaporate and condense. In case of „good“ weather we would just work our way through the complex system of lateral craters and grooves in the mountain's apron, would push through the fog between 1,000 and 2,000 ft. altitude into glistening sunshine, and then walk up on the flat Crown Prince Olav glacier. It was 2:30 p.m. when we set off from our camp, nothing unusual in those latitudes and this season, for there is sunshine 24 hours a day.
Beerenberg in morning glory
To the Crater
For hours we fought our way uphill in a straight line, always the broad truncated cone of Beerenberg ahead. The Dutch gave the mountain its German sounding name. Yet it is not the German word for berries, it is the Dutch word for bears. But don't be afraid of bears! – even if the mountain is named so, there are no longer polar bears on Jan Mayen. Instead mind the crevasses. They start at 4,900 ft. altitude at the rocky marker called „Nunataken“, a resting place and orientation point in the ice. Here we are to rope up and put on crampons, as from here onwards we tackle the successively steeper inner cone; the slope is called „Bratthenget“. Now widely torn-up, blue-shimmering gorges of yawning crevasses shoot wildly across the glacier; up to 35 degrees steep are the curves that we have to lay cautiously around them in zig-zag moves. We aim for the upper right edge of the horizon and crawl up a steep slope leading us to the brim of the circular crater . Its funnel, filled with snow, is opened towards north-west; out of that opening the craggy Weyprecht glacier pours downstream – and flows directly into the sea below.
Early morning across the crater towards Mercantontoppen
On Haakon VII Toppen
Beerenberg for a long time was thought to be extinct, until it rumbled back to life in 1970 and 1984/85. Now it lies quietly to our feet. Not even fumaroles can be made out in the crater abyss.
It is 1:30 a.m., and the sun is deep. Our gaze wanders widely towards a little, but sharp peak breaking through the mass of clouds beneath: Rudolftoppen, 2,500 ft. high, the highest of Jan Mayen's southern tail. Towards east, Beerenberg casts its broad triangular shadow. Yet the sun won't set, on the contrary. It accompanies us further-on, along the heights and depths of the crater rim, until we come to a standstill in front of a strangely artificial-looking cupola, some 30 ft. surmounting us: Haakon VII toppen, the highest spot of Beerenberg. With a short dash we jump and hook us up the final sheer bluff: And then we stand on top of the dome, the highest point between Norway's Jotunheimen and Greenland. We stand in heaven.
The first Germans on Beerenberg's summit
Yet we are granted only ten minutes on the summit. Our view is primarily caught by the crater and its satellites, all sharp-edged, hardly ever visited peaks. Johan tells us we are the first Germans atop Beerenberg; in addition, Wolfgang with his 64 years is the second oldest ever. Hard to believe.
It is 3 o'clock in the morning on this memorable 30th June 2008, time to sleep, indeed; on the summit in the sunshine it would have been wonderful to enjoy a nap, if only we could have been sure the weather would not turn worse. So we hurry back to the camp and postpone the joyful summit party.
Beerenberg in hindsight
Beerenberg - the exceptional
We descend the same route we had come up, uneventful, but full of pride and joy in our hearts. A brief glance at our watches tells us it is 9 o'clock in the morning when we reach our tents. There is beer waiting, and we help ourselves to a sumptuous freeze-dried breakfast – or is it dinner? – we lost every sense of time. We have achieved something that nobody will imitate for soon. Before all, hardly anybody did this before. We did not conquer Beerenberg – it only gave us the privilege of standing on its summit for a moment; we rather conquered ourselves – since we set off, 18 and a half hours have passed by and 20 miles are behind us. Hundreds have already been on Everest in the meantime, but on Beerenberg? In any case we have pushed ourselves high in the charts, something that nobody really cares. For: Who in heaven knows Beerenberg?
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Flowers in the sand