Conquering Giant Glaciers and Ice-Cliffs in Norway
Updated: Feb 28, 2020
When you converse with someone like Sir Ranulph Fiennes, it’s hard not to find yourself wondering whether one man can really have lived such a thrilling and adventurous life. His stories dazzle, inspire, and are sometimes even terrifying. This little slice of his life is one such story.
One of Ran’s first expeditions was leading a team in the first ascent of the largest glacier in continental Europe; the avalanche-ridden Jostedal glacier (known as Jostedalsbreen), in western Norway. In places, this jaw-dropping beast of nature was a sheer cliff of ice and it towered nearly 6,500 feet above the surroundings.
This pivotal expedition served as a reconnaissance mission of sorts for what was to come later in Ran’s life - the many trials, climbs, treks, journeys, and gruelling explorations. And it was only a few short years later that he found himself returning to Jostedal.
In the autumn of 1970, Ran led a team on another dangerous yet essential expedition. Once more, he was tasked with heading up a crew atop the mammoth glacier. The purpose of this expedition was scientific research. The team was tasked by Norwegian Hydrological Board to survey one steep arm of the great glacier and try to estimate its rate of retreat. They were also interested in collecting specimens of the miniscule life forms which resided in the ancient ice of Jostedal.
Those to make Ran’s team included his trusted friend Roger Chapman (Army officer and expert planner), Brendan O’Brian (biologist), Norris Riley (glaciologist) and David Murray Wells (Geographer).
This time, however, the journey was to be much more extreme and much more dangerous than the first. The last ascent had taken up too much time, and now his team needed a faster route to the top. It was decided - perhaps foolheartedly - that they would be parachuting in and land on top of the glacier itself.
The first signs of trouble began on the flight. On the approach to their destination, wind speeds kicked up and the weather began to worsen. However, this expedition meant a lot to the team and they couldn’t let weeks of preparation and years of research go to waste.
Ignoring the weather, the six bold men launched themselves from the small plane that had carried them this far and began their freefall descent. It’s safe to say that it was one of the most hazardous and daring parachute jumps ever conceived. It was filmed by ITN from a helicopter and described by The Times as “the world’s toughest jump”.
The freefall lasted over 10 seconds as the team waited for the perfect moment to pull their chutes. If they were too high up when they released them, the chaotic winds could send them spiralling way off course. If they released them too late, they’d find themselves either landing in crevasses or even cascading into the side of the glacier cliffs and shattering their limbs.
The tiny landing zone they had to aim for, by the great Lodalskapa peak, was barely 100 square yards, yet somehow they made it. Guided on course by nearby Norwegian Pine trees, one of the woods honoured in the making of Ran's Great British Rum as a result.
Photo: The actual decent onto the glacier
One of the team, however, came dangerously close to catastrophe as he was blown off course ever so slightly in the last few seconds of the descent and found himself landing feet away from the precipice edge.
Ran and the team assessed the situation and decided to push on with their mission through the foul weather and the raging winds. Of course, the first thing on everyone’s mind was firmly planting the Union Jack to mark their landing zone on top of the precarious glacier itself. Once that was out of the way, they set off to establish base camp and begin their research.
The trek to the location they had chosen was supposed to take a mere four hours, but in the gruelling maelstrom of ice cold wind and low visibility, it ended up taking over 11 hours to find the right spot. The mist was so bad that some of the team found themselves separated from the group (in a -16°C storm) and had to spend the night on the glacier without sleeping bags and shelter. Although they suffered from exposure because of this horrifying experience, they managed to quickly recover and survive intact.
Once base camp was set up, the scientific research could begin. Each team member was assigned tasks dependant on their area of expertise; geology, glaciology, zoology, etc. Some of them would be checking the markers left from the previous journey to collect data on the movement of the glacier, while some would be studying bacterial life forms and the frozen bodies of lemmings that littered the harsh environment. Others still, would be taking core samples from the thick ice.
After the research was completed - and all of the survey work was out of the way - the team had to embark on the next part of their journey. The descent from the glacier would be equally as perilous as their entry route but nowhere near as quick. Despite the daring nature of the freefall they had to complete to land atop the glacier, the most dangerous part of the journey was still to come.
The team trekked nearly 25 miles across the glacier, following in the footsteps of an ancient Viking trade route. Once they reached the edge, they would have to make a perilous descent of a 2,000 foot ice-cliff to Briksdalen River. A self-confessed sufferer of vertigo, Ran found the descent to be a tough and gruelling challenge.
Photo: Ran and the team on the glacier itself
They had planned to spend the best part of a day descending the nearly vertical cliff, but more bad weather and rough conditions meant that it took two whole days before they found themselves at the bottom. Wide crevices littered the cliff and the only way to cross these seemingly bottomless gaping holes was to carefully shuffle along flimsy aluminium ladders laid out across them.
During the descent, one of the sleds they’d been travelling with plunged down into the abyss and the connecting ropes had to be quickly sliced before it pulled anyone with it. Events like this served as a stark reminder to Ran and his team that death is never more than a few feet away on expeditions of this nature.
Finally, the team managed to reach the Briksdalen River and were able to safely navigate the ice cold rapids and fast-flowing waters straight to their final destination of Loen Lake. Another successful expedition and another adventure under the belt of Sir Ranulph Fiennes and his brave team.
Although all of this was in the name of science and important research into glaciers, it was nothing short of awe-inspiring in its daring execution. We’ve decided to pay tribute to Ran and this breathtaking Norwegian adventure by infusing Sir Ranulph Fiennes’ Great British Rum with flavours inspired by stories like this. Wood from the Norwegian pine tree has been used in the distilling process to provide a rich and cultured taste to a rum worthy of its name.