Team: Mark Synnott, Warren Holinger, Jeff Chapman
When: May-June 1996
Where: Sam Ford Fjord, Baffin Island
Other Media: We shot a segment that appeared on MTV Sports
Sponsor: The North Face
It was an accepted rule that if you topped off the piss bottle, it was your job to go outside and drain it. When I awoke with an urgent need and found both the skull and crossbones bottles full, I let loose with a string of curses intended to wake up the maggot responsible. The wind had been shaking the tent so vigorously throughout the night that I could hardly sleep anyway, so while Jeff and Warren pretended to be asleep, I settled in by the table to fire up our two stoves and kerosene heater. The tent was soon cooking and I could not help but admire my warmth and comfort in the midst of the full-blown arctic storm which raged outside. Not in my worst nightmare could I have imagined that within the next thirty seconds the tent would be gone. Just as I put the finishing touch on a steaming pot of cowboy coffee, a violent gust ripped the floorless canvas tent right off of us. We were left half naked and near panic in our search for clothing, gloves and boots, all of which was rapidly vanishing into the swirling whiteout which surrounded us.
With socks for gloves, two different boots, and a pair of fleece underwear on my head, I was finally able to straggle over to our guide’s tent, which had also blown down. What I saw inside was like some sick cartoon out of Mad Magazine — Jushua, barefoot and in a tee shirt, smoking a butt, and giggling uncontrollably. I must have looked pretty pathetic, because he thought it was hilarious that we were getting worked. I actually started laughing too. I knew from my previous trip to Baffin Island that the Inuit use laughter as some sort of survival skill. Our two guides Jushua and David shared the most hilarious ongoing joke. I’d swear they must have been sucking nitrous on the sly because I never saw the two hang out when they weren’t laughing hysterically.
The decision to locate our camp directly below the north face of Polar Sun Spire had been a bad one. The Inuit had warned us that it was an exposed position, but we had become completely preoccupied with staking our claim to the wall. We had reason to be concerned because word had come through on the radio that a Japanese team had arrived in Clyde River, intent on the very same wall we had been waiting two years to bag. If it was going to be a showdown, we planned to get out in front first by fixing the first few pitches.
We were late arriving in Sam Ford Fjord because we had spent the past three days exploring the two fjords to the north, the Gibbs and Clark Fjords. The walls we saw were every bit as impressive as the Inuit had led us to believe, and there are still at least 20 more fjords, many of which have never been visited by non-native people. It’s mind boggling to comprehend the number of walls that are hidden away, unnamed, and unseen. I counted more than ten walls over 3,000 feet and one 4,000 foot free standing pillar on the back side of Sillem Island in the Clark Fjord. 2,000 foot walls were too numerous to count. The most impressive wall we encountered was the “Ship’s Prow” on Scott Island — a continuously overhanging buttress of rock which rises directly from the open ocean for more than 2,000 feet.
Warren Hollinger and I, together with Jerry Gore, had already been to the Sam Ford Fjord during a six week visit in May-June 1995. The Polar Sun Spire had been our main objective for that trip, but the wall’s loose rock and northern exposure had completely shut us down. We had, however, completed two grade six new routes on other formations, so we knew that with proper planning and motivation, a line up the center of the 4,000 foot face would be feasible. To solidify our commitment, we left a semi valuable stash of equipment with the Illauq’s.
Even so, the trip almost fell through in September when Warren hit me with the announcement that he was getting married. The wedding would be in March and he doubted whether he would have the money, and more importantly, the blessing from his new bride, to go to Baffin. Without Warren, I began to wonder if I couldn’t have a bigger, better adventure by spending my money to travel somewhere that I had not already been — somewhere nice and warm.
My replacement for Warren was one of my oldest friends. Jeff Chapman and I had grown up together ski racing in Mt. Washington Valley, New Hampshire, and together we had shared countless adventures. Our friendship had long revolved around risk taking and we had even started a club — Crazy Kids — so that all the kids on our ski team would be sure to get their daily ration of fear. While the coaches left us for lunch we’d eat a sandwich on the way to the river, then spend an hour pole vaulting across with bamboo gates, scaling sewer pipes and crossing thin ice. Jeff had always been good at sucking up payment, so I figured he was perfect for this mission.
In the end, the thought of missing out on the wall was more than Warren could handle, and somehow he convinced his wife that he had to go. With Warren back on the team, I knew that we had a far better chance. Warren is the most confident, self-assured guy I know, and he told me in no uncertain terms that our success was virtually guaranteed. Unlike some of my other friends who can talk a big game, Warren backs himself by getting out there and going sick. We had done some fairly serious head butting the year before, but so far he had only body slammed me once during a drunken scrap.
As it turned out, we need not have been so paranoid about the Japanese. Koshi, Kozo, June and Uti were totally cool and did not in any way intend to snake our first ascent. They were however, so dead set on Polar Sun Spire that they decided to fix the first thousand feet of a route to the left of ours, in anticipation of returning to finish it next year. We were a little bummed to be sharing the wall when there was still so much virgin rock in the area, but the Japanese were true to their word and left the fjord after only a two week visit.
Getting motivated to start the climb was made more difficult by the fact that conditions outside the tent were as bleak as anything we had ever experienced. In early May the temperatures hover around 0-10 degrees and even the slightest wind can make traveling outdoors horrendously unpleasant. Warren kept reminding me of our folly whenever I second guessed my reasons for being there. “Hey man, this is what we’ve been looking forward to for two years.”
The high winds of the blizzard were a serious concern for us as we began to prepare in earnest for our life on the wall. What would seventy mile an hour winds do to the portaledge if we were caught up high in a storm? If the fly was ripped off, could we survive in the open? What if we dropped a sleeping bag, the stove, or worse yet, an entire haulbag? My biggest fear in big wall climbing has always been of dropping an absolutely essential item. On most of the walls I have done it really is no big deal. Baffin is a different story. You drop the portaledge and you might end up a popsicle.
A hand drawn topo described the features we wanted to climb, but I stared at the wall for so long with the binoculars that I didn’t really need it. “First Arch,” “Second Arch” to the “Dogleg” and then straight up to the “Wicked Brow Roof.” Several options were still under hot debate because Warren was always arguing for the more difficult variation, while I defended the natural line.Jeff usually liked to stay out of our arguments, but he took my side on this one. It blew our minds that Warren was actually worried the climb would not be sick enough. .
The line we had scoped the year before through the headwall above first snow ledge began with a feature we dubbed the “Arch Enemy”– a 500 foot overhanging corner system of crystalline blue gneiss, layered with pearly ribbons of calcite which gave the rock a paisley look. First, we would have to tackle a buttress on the right side of a huge slabby amphitheater which led to the first snow ledge about 1,000 feet above the ice.
On lead, it was often snowing and spindrift would blown down the cliff, sifting down sleeves and collars and reducing visibility. Bare hand climbing was out of the question , so a lot of it had to be aided.
After three long days of work we had five 60 meter stretchers strung through the center of the amphitheater, which left us with no choice but to pack up our five haul bags with the food and equipment we would need for a month on the wall. The problem was, nobody really knew how much food that should be. Jeff felt strongly that we were going far too light, and I had a tendency to agree with him. Our food pile was big, but three guys can eat a heap of food in a month. Warren thought we were already bringing too much, so a healthy argument ensued in which Jeff told us straight out that he had never been full from eating. Granted, the guy can eat a lot — I have seen him shut down the buffet at Circus Circus more than once. Warren was horrified. “You mean you could eat everything we have in one sitting?” he asked Jeff, as a joke. Jeff looked at the pile, about one haul bags worth, and nodded. “Yeah, I think I could probably do it. If not in one day, then in two for sure.” It was frightening, because I could tell that he was dead serious. Warren and I now had legitimate reason for concern. Would Jeff lose control and eat it all one day when we were out climbing? Would he starve to death if we forced him to stick to his strict daily ration?
Similar to our feeling in basecamp, it was hard to motivate when it came time to get out of the three man portaledge at our first camp on the wall. Sometimes, the weather sucked so bad we wouldn’t even get up. The lower hammock in our Diamond Ledge we called “Little Rico,” and I remember laying down there for like three days without even moving. We weren’t eating regularly or sufficiently, just hibernating, waiting for the weather to improve. Eventually, we realized that we were going to have to climb in shit or we were not going to be doing the wall. It was hard to stay motivated, because, basically, nobody was having a good time.
The worst payment, by far, was belaying. Thankfully, we had made the call to bring a single portaledge as a belay seat. Most leads on the headwall were taking upwards of ten hours and there were even a couple in the fifteen hour range. For the leader, it was an intense test of endurance, but at least you were bolstered by the thrill of negotiating through uncharted territory. For the belayer, it was an exercise in sucking up the cold and extreme boredom. Even with a sleeping bag and pad, the belayer would always have cold feet.
On our 10th day on the wall Jeff and I were treated to the pleasure of another 500 foot free hanging jug to our high point. The misty weather was conducive to creating rime, and the ropes were often coated with this flaky frosting. Back ties were not an option, so we always dreaded these jingus jug sessions. It was Warren’s day to stay behind and rest in the ledge and we were both insanely jealous. As I racked up to lead, Jeff had a confession for me. “I’m not really having that much fun on this anymore, and I’m really starting to wonder why I’m doing it if it’s not going to be fun.” I knew that Jeff had been struggling with something over the past few days because his face often looked like he had been sucking on a lemon. He had been waiting for several days for his psyche to ride a wave back up, but it had been slow coming around. Apparently he just needed to get it out in the open, because by the time I finished my lead, his psyche had made a complete reversal. I didn’t know what had come together for him, but to see him smile and laugh at my crude jokes made me also feel better than I had in a while.
Back in camp, Warren had a troubling realization for us. He had spent the day melting water for our push up the headwall. The 20 gallons he had filled was already frozen — not partially, completely. That night we worked on melting the ice back into water. It would have been easy if we could have cut open the bottles, but we needed them for higher up. The bottom line: it would take three times as much time and therefore fuel to get water out of our bottles. We had ropes fixed about 700 feet up the headwall, which put us about 1700 feet up a 4,000+ foot wall. We had two choices, descend to basecamp for more fuel and food, or strip our ropes and take a ski tour.
Back in basecamp, we called our outfitter, Beverly Illauq, to let her know that we were moving slow and would probably be late for our pickup on June 16th. It was June 6th. We discussed the possibility of missing breakup, knowing that it was a real concern. The ice broke end of June last year, and as things were panning out, we could easily be on the wall that long. Beverly would arrange to have six weeks of food left in basecamp if this situation came to pass.
After ascending 1,700 feet of fixed line, we settled in at our first hanging camp on the headwall with 5 gallons of white gas and enough food for what we hoped could be stretched to thirty days. Our route was massively overhanging and traversed wildly — rappelling it would be impossible. The wall received three hours of sun on a nice day, but most days were overcast so we lived in a psyche debilitating foggy gloom. We reached the second snow ledge above the headwall two weeks later with only one gallon of water left out of the 27 we had hauled. We were fortunate, considering we had not seen a single ledge that would hold snow in nearly 2,000 feet.
By this point we had been on the wall for long enough that things were getting downright skanky. A lot of the skank was coming from my sleeping bag. The -30 synthetic was actually too warm, and I would often sweat at night. Invariably, the condensation would be blocked on the bottom by the sleeping pad and my bag would be sopping wet with liquid sweat that had passed through multiple scum caked layers of long underwear. My bag was stagnant, and therefore, so was I. For some reason Warren had vowed that he would not change his underwear for the entire trip, and by the way things were looking, he probably couldn’t have peeled them off anyway.
We made light of our cramped and dingy living situation by joking around a lot. Warren had a song about me that he liked to sing whenever it was my turn to sleep down in “Little Rico”, i.e. the hammock. He nicknamed me Chachi, and would harass me almost constantly whenever I was down in Rico. Sometimes, all three of us would be singing derogatory songs about each other at the same time, creating an unintelligible babble which made me feel like I was in the loony bin. Warren is an EMT, so he knew a lot about heinous diseases and other grotesque medical phenomena that kept me quizzing him almost constantly. No subject was too sick for us not to at least give it a dabble.
We did, of course, also have our bad times. Sometimes, my need for privacy became an insatiable craving, and the fact that I could not get away from my partners drove me nearly out of my mind. These feelings were most intense whenever I got simultaneously ripped by both Jeff and Warren. Such was the case at our camp below the “Wicked Brow.” It had all started when I asked Jeff if he could move because I needed to use the facilities. I had just returned to the ledge after cleaning a difficult traverse pitch and my mood was completely sour. Seeing Jeff all spread out and not psyched to move made me even more testy. In the course of the maneuver a few choice sarcastic remarks were made by me and Jeff finally snapped. He went straight for my weakest flank, saying I had been bossing him around and placing special emphasis on the fact that I always have to be right. Warren soon piped in from Rico to back him up, while I just looked out the window smoking cigarettes and shaking like a leaf. All I wanted, more than anything in the world, was to get away from them. Jeff was already backed as far into the opposite corner as possible — there was no escape.
Unfortunately, when you’re on a wall, no matter how bad you want to ignore your partner, you can’t. Sometimes we’d talk it through and come to resolutions in which everyone felt appeased. Other times we’d let it rankle and fester until someone finally came unglued. Somehow, a path was always agreed upon. Mostly, it had become a simple matter of continuing to follow the crack.
From the second snow ledge we climbed up the right side of an enormous pillar which formed the central buttress of the north face. The rock quality had changed dramatically. The overhangs below had been crusty and scaled with potato chips, and the cracks had been scarce. The pillar saw a lot more weather and the rock was a beautiful golden gneiss which fractured into perfect Yosemite style cracks. We could move a lot faster now that we had real features to climb, but it was impossible to ignore the massive cracks which now spanned the fjord from one side to the other. Would the Inuit be able to cross these on their snow machines? If they could not get in to drop off the extra food, we would be forced into true survival mode. I had never hunted and the thought of killing a seal was not appealing, but hell, I’d do it in a second if I was starving. Jeff seemed especially psyched to revert back into a full Cro Magnon. I knew if it came down to it, he would probably ending up eating both Warren and I.
One thing that had remained constant throughout the trip was my bitter morning blues. It had become a total routine for me to sort through all the shit in my life when my eyes were still crusty with sleep. A lot of times I thought about my ex- girlfriend. I wanted to share my experience with her, but I knew that this time she would not be waiting for me at home. My climbs were always my own deal, and I knew that she thought it was pretty selfish. My parents had often expressed a similar sentiment and I had to admit that no one got much out of it other than myself. It was definitely a shitty revelation.
As far as I could go into my personal bad trip, I could also get so high. Leaving the portaledge, though I dreaded it, was always the cure for my blues. Outside, I would look down to the frozen ocean and the craggy outline of far away peaks and revel in the same lonely feeling that before had brought me so low. Only now it was a feeling that gave me strength and the resolve I needed to deal with the strain of wall life. I knew that Jeff and Warren also had their bad times, but for the most part, we kept our personal fears and weaknesses private.
After three weeks on our second push up the wall, we were finally getting close to the top. It is easy to say that it’s not the summit that matters, that the real reason we climb is for the experience, the process. The reality, I knew, was that if we didn’t make it to the top, we would all be extremely disappointed. I had never worked so hard for anything in my life, and now that we were getting close, I was starting to get nervous. When I thought about being on top, it made me feel like I do when approaching a girl I like for the first time — an anxious tightness in my chest that makes my heart beat fast and my palms sweat.
The summit is often anticlimactic, but on this one, my earlier apprehension made it all the more sweet when I finally pulled over the lip. I had given up a lot to visit this perch, including my home in Colorado, a girlfriend, and also any chance at having a real job. Throughout the 39 days it had taken to climb the wall I second guessed myself a thousand times. Was it worth it? Had I sacrificed too much in my selfish quest for adventure? All I had to do was look at Warren and Jeff staggering around and jibbering like punch drunk idiots to know that it was meant to be. We had been attached to each other like Siamese triplets for more than a month of the most intense living any of us had ever experienced. During that time we had driven each other into countless hair pulling, screaming fits, but those epics seemed like nothing now, as we danced a jig, arm in arm, on the summit block.