Team: Mark Synnott, Alex Lowe, Greg Child, Jared Ogden, Gordon Wiltsie, Jon Catto
When: May-June 1998
Where: Stewart Valley, Baffin Island
Other Media: National Geographic Television
Sponsor: National Geographic, The North Face
The Twin Otter banked a sharp turn to the right, and then literally dove over the top of Sail Peak’s northwest face. As the plane tipped up on its side and began to drop, my view of the vertiginous granite wall was distorted by the g-force, which made it look ludicrously overhanging. Our team of climbers began cheering like kids at an amusement park. Pinned to our seats, we lost 5,000 feet of elevation in a matter of seconds, then leveled off just above the frozen surface of Stewart Lake.
The ice had appeared silky smooth from above, but closer inspection now revealed it to be riddled with cracks and pressure ridges. “Should we abort the landing?” I tried to yell, but my voice was drowned out by the din of the engines and our pilot, who came on over the p.a: “Brace yourselves, this is gonna be a rough one.” When the skis collided with the rock hard ice our plane started skipping like a stone across the lake, sending us into a dangerous tail spin. Reacting quickly, our pilot Duncan gunned one of the engines, and we skidded to a stop. The six of us climbed out onto Stewart Lake, on the east coast of Baffin Island, where the temperature was a bracing -30F. For several minutes, we stood in silent awe of the majestic cliffs lining both sides of this remote arctic valley. Towering directly above us, one of the best big walls any of us had ever seen was basking in the amber light of an evening sunset. “Well boys,” said Greg Child, the trip leader, in his typical sarcastic manner. “I guess this will have to do.”
Truly, we could not have picked a better place to search for uncharted big walls. The east coast of Baffin Island is incised by a series of 26 fjords, the vast majority of which have never been visited by non-native people. Varying between 30 to 70 miles in length, these fjords are lined like granite corridors with sea cliffs of staggering proportions. Located north of Hudson Bay, and west of Greenland, the bulk of this sparsely populated island lies above 66 degrees atitude (the Arctic Circle). Less than 10,000 Inuit call Baffin home, a population that has survived by hunting marine mammals in this treeless, barren wasteland for more than 4,000 years.
The big walls reach their maximum potential in the Sam Ford Fjord, which contains several formations bigger than Yosemite’s 3000-foot El Capitan. As photographer and Baffin expert Eugene Fisher explained in a 1994 Baffin Island photo essay, which appeared in Climbing magazine: “Yosemite Valley would count as a minor side fjord if it were located along this coast.” In 1995, prompted by Fisher’s photo essay, I traveled to the Sam Ford Fjord with two friends. I was so inspired by the climbing potential that I returned for a second time in 1996. All told, over the course of those two years, I spent four months climbing on the rock walls lining Sam Ford Fjord. During that time I established three first ascents, the most impressive of which was our 1996 success on the north face of Polar Sun Spire — a 4,700 foot spire that took 39 days to climb.
Our 1998 Baffin expedition included six people: four climbers (myself, Jared Ogden, Greg Child and Alex Lowe) and two cameramen (Gordon Wiltsie and John Catto). We arrived in Clyde River on May 20th, still close enough to winter that the temperature hovered around zero. Since most of the walls rise directly from the ocean, the only way to safely approach these sea cliffs is to travel when the ocean is still locked beneath a six-foot-thick ice sheet. Consequently, climbers must arrive in May, and be finished by early July, when the ice finally breaks up. Breakup is a dangerous time of year when pack ice makes the fjords impassable by skidoo or boat.
As was their custom, our outfitters, the Illuaq family, invited us to their home to have dinner on our first night in town. In their two story wooden house on the outskirts of Clyde River (pop. 250), Beverly prepared a traditional Inuit meal of arctic char and polar bear. Jushua, her husband and the head guide, sat back smoking his hand rolled cigarettes, looking deadly
serious one moment and then giggling uncontrollably the next. He and a few of his fellow guides, an uncle and two cousins, clucked away in their native Inuktitut language. We never knew exactly what they were talking about, but they kept looking us over, and then busting up laughing. Even if it was at our expense, we couldn’t help but get caught up in their good humor.
The plan was to have Jushua and a few of his men drag us and our gear the 70 miles into the Stewart Valley aboard giant sleds called komatiks. The flat, frozen surface of the arctic ocean is a veritable highway for the Inuit and their snowmobiles for eight months out of the year, so we did not anticipate any great hindrances, other than bundling up against the stinging cold. Our group had grown substantially after we joined forces with our guides and a couple of their kids. Learning to hunt and live off the land is as important as learning to read in this harsh environment, and children are routinely granted reprieves from school to go on missions with their dads. They never pass up the opportunity.
In ideal conditions, you should be able to snowmobile into Stewart Valley in two long days. Unfortunately, the weather was particularly atrocious this season, and it stormed nearly constantly starting after the day we arrived. Nine days after leaving Clyde River by snowmobile, we arrived at the base of our objective, thoroughly frozen and road worn from the hard trip. We chose a suitable sight for base camp nestled amongst some giant boulders in the talus slop below the peak. After bidding good-bye to our Inuit friends we began to dig ourselves in. We were definitely feeling frustrated and antsy from the extended approach, so only a few hours after pitching our tents, we loaded up for our first carry to the base of the wall. It was approximately 1500 feet of steep post-holing in knee deep snow, which was no easy task under the 80 pound haul bags.
We spent the next week making three and four carries a day. Because of the media involvement in our climb, we decided to give ourselves a wide measure of security by hauling what climbers refer to as “the kitchen sink.” We had 23 haul bags, each one holding between 60-80 pounds. They contained an untold fortune in camera gear, hundreds of rolls of film, huge bags of beef jerky, freeze-dried dinners, hundreds of Clif bars, sleeping bags, bivi sacks, portaledges (hanging bat tents that clip to the wall and sleep two), a vhf radio, a notebook computer, solar panels, and nearly 2,000 feet of rope.
The rock in Baffin Island — a granitic gneiss — is very unique geologically. Relatively speaking, this stone is quite young, which means it hasn’t had a lot of time to get split up by cracks. Whereas Yosemite Valley granite is riddled with such features, they are few and far between in Baffin. Normally, these lines of weakness are the routes that climbers seek out. Only in cracks, preferably between 1/8″ to 4″ wide, can climbers find placements for pitons, wired stoppers, and camming devices — the tools of the trade. The first 1700 feet of the wall was somewhat low angle and broken. Above this unaesthetic section of the route, the face was split by an enormous ledge, several football-fields-wide. Our plan was to climb up to this ledge, laying static ropes behind us as we went. We would then use these ropes to haul our bags up to our first camp. We were lucky in that the ledge contained several large snowpatches we could use to melt drinking water. This meant we could avoid hauling this significant weight (approx. 8 lbs. per gallon) of water bottles from the bottom.
Thorough logistical planning is an essential requirement for any climbing expedition heading to a remote, alpine environment. Rations such as food and fuel have to be calculated with mathematical precision, and no item, no matter how small, can be overlooked. How many calories will we need per day? How much fuel will it take to melt snow into drinking water? Expeditions have to learn the ropes by a frustrating process of trial and error. To compound the problem, we knew that to document the entire ascent with stills and video, we would have to climb the wall once for real, and then again for the cameras. We had hoped to get by with repeating the good pitches one time, but we soon realized it was impossible to shoot video and stills at the same time; the motor drive and flash from the still camera ruined the sequences for the video. It slowed us down considerably.
Most of the work was what we affectionately called “load schlepping.”‘ Only about once every four days would we actually get to lead a pitch. Leading is what it’s all about on any climb, and on a first ascent, it’s the only time you get to actually chart out new territory. It was a real thrill to find a path up a rock face where no person had ever ventured before, but it wasn’t nearly such a treat for the belayer, the man whose job it was to feed the lead rope through a friction device, carefully safeguarding it should the leader fall. Belay stints were lasting upwards of 12 hours on the hardest pitches.
We lived on the big ledge, 1700 feet up the wall, for about ten days before we were finally ready to move up our camp. Unfortunately, this meant that we had to haul our three-ring-circus another 1000 feet vertically. It took us about 24 hours to accomplish this task, which included stringing up our three portaledges below a small roof. We hoped that this overhang would provide us with some shelter from the significant amount of ice and rockfall which had been strafing us from the start. The hauling was brutally hard work and it chafed my hips and legs raw under my harness.
In keeping with our capsule-style ascent, our plan was to continue fixing pitches above the hanging camp, until we felt within striking distance of the top. Unlike ledge camp, where we had been able to walk around completely unroped, we now had to do everything while attached to the cliff with a rope. Everything, from cooking to going to the bathroom, had to be coordinated and orchestrated with the entire group. Our system was to always have someone on lead. Four climbers could be split into two groups, and with 24 hour day light, there was no reason not to be constantly pushing the route forward. This also left time for half the group to work on filming, while the others climbed ahead.
Jared climbing on aid
A big question throughout our climb was whether the crack would ever peter out. Scoping this line from below with binoculars, it had been impossible to tell whether our crack system continued above the roof we were now sleeping under. You could just barely make out a faint ripple in the rock, but it could easily have been a water streak, some lichen, or even a vein of quartz or calcite. It was kind of a gamble, because the route was leading us into the middle of the blankest headwall I’d ever seen. If the crack suddenly ended, we would be forced to drill bolts (a hateful task) or possibly bail. Somehow our dreams had been answered, because the tiny fissure in the rock, often no more than 1/16” thick, just kept going and going.
It was hard to get into any sort of a rhythm with our climbing because the 24 hour day light, and our conflicting schedules and agendas made it almost impossible to have any sort of a plan. Rather it was more of a hodge podge of people doing what they could when they felt like it. No one was getting enough sleep and after a week of listening to water dripping on the Gore-tex rain fly of the portaledge, we were all feeling pretty frazzled. Jared and I were pushing the route ahead one day, planning to fix two lines and return to camp, when we noticed that the rim of the wall was only about 300 feet overhead. We hadn’t been able to see the top for a while, and while we knew we were close, we hadn’t realized how close.
“What do you think?” Jared asked, with a conniving grin on his face. “Should we go for it?” We had made a plan to return to the wall camp one more time before going for the top, and the other guys would definitely be bummed if we led their pitches. Still, there was the top, right above us, beckoning.
I called down to wall camp to tell them we were going for it, but basically, they told us no. There was more filming to do and we had to wait. This was one of the most frustrating moments of the trip for Jared and I, but in contrast to all of our previous climbs, which we had done for fun, this was indeed a paying job. There were strings attached, and one of them was tugging on us now. Reluctantly, we huddled up on a small shady ledge to wait for the rest of the team. We knew it would be a while before they suited up and jumared the 900 feet of free hanging static line to join us.
Reaching the summit of a big wall climb can be a lot different than making the summit of a big snowy peak. Although this mountain did have a fairly distinct highpoint, it did not represent to us the pinnacle of our ascent. The wall itself had been far more dramatic and challenging than this low angle talus field, so I don’t think anyone had any epiphanies or euphoric feelings on top. Rather, we all felt the beginnings of a deep sense of satisfaction which would take some time to fully sink in. It was a relief to know, once for all, that we had succeeded, not only in climbing the wall, but in capturing the experience on film and video. It meant a lot to us, after nearly two months of back breaking work, to be able to bring this experience home to those who might never get a chance to visit the fairy tale arctic environment of Baffin Island.