Until the year 1930, it was believed that the highest point in Greenland was Mount Forel, located in the Schweizerland range southeast of the island. The mountain and the range were named by the Swiss explorer Alfred de Quervain in 1912.

That year, Quervain’s expedition crossed the Greenland ice cap from Godhavn in the west, heading towards the Sermilik fjord in the east, and along the way discovered a large mountain range which he named Schweizerland (Swiss Land) in honor of his country.

For many years, Mount Forel, standing at 3,383 meters, was considered the highest peak within the Arctic Circle.

However, in 1930, the British Arctic Air Route Expedition led by explorer Gino Watkins was organized. Their objective was to improve the mapping of poorly studied sections of the Greenlandic coast and gather climatic data during the polar winter.

The expedition was a success, including the feat of one of its members, Augustine Courtauld, who remained as a solo observer at an altitude of 2,600 meters atop the ice cap for five months during the winter. Watkins and other expedition members relieved him on May 5, 1931, just as he was running out of food and fuel.

Among the achievements was the discovery of a new mountain range. During one of the expedition’s reconnaissance flights, Watkins spotted a series of mountains extending over 350 kilometers northeast of the Schweizerland range.

Watkins named it the “New Mountains”, but today we know it as the Watkins Range in his honor. It is located in the King Christian IX Land, approximately 60 kilometers inland from the Blosseville Coast.

The entire range consists of nunataks surrounded by huge active glaciers, which are currently in alarming retreat. Nunataks (from the Inuit “nunattak”, meaning “solitary peak”) are mountain peaks surrounded by a glacier or ice field but are not covered in snow themselves.

One of these nunataks in the Watkins Range turned out to have an altitude of 3,694 meters, about 311 meters higher than Mount Forel. It is now known as Mount Gunnbjørn (Gunnbjørn Fjeld in Danish), named in memory of Gunnbjörn Ulfsson, the Viking who was the first European to reach Greenland and, if we consider Greenland as part of the American continent, also to reach America in the late 9th or early 10th century.

Barely five years later, on August 16, 1935, Mount Gunnbjørn was first climbed by a team led by the same Augustine Courtauld who had spent five months alone as an observer during the British Arctic Air Route Expedition.

Mount Gunnbjørn is thus the highest mountain in Greenland, but at the same time, it is also the highest peak in the Kingdom of Denmark, to which the territory belongs, and also the highest peak within the Arctic Circle.

Due to its remote uninhabited location on the east coast of Greenland, reaching it is complicated, and those who wish to visit must rely on dog sleds, helicopters, or snow-capable airplanes for landing. That is why the peak has been climbed only a few times. The second ascent took place in 1971, and the third in 1987.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on April 2, 2024. Puedes leer la versión en español en El Gunnbjørn, un nunatak, es la cumbre más alta del Círculo Polar Ártico, de Groenlandia y de Dinamarca


André Roch, The Swiss Expedition to Greenland, 1938 | Gunnbjørn Mountain (Britannica) | Hvitserk (Universitetet i Bergen) | Wikipedia

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