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Baffin Island: Big Past, Bigger Future

Baffin Island: Big Past, Bigger Future

Eugene Fisher

ERIK THE RED WAS BOOTED OUT of Iceland in 986 AD for, as one historian dryly puts it, “twice taking human life without reasonable cause.” Before long, this violent exile was in the real estate business, enticing settlers to come join him at his new colony on the west coast of Greenland. Those who fell for the hype found themselves trying to farm on stony moraines in the cold shadow of a continental ice sheet the size of Mexico. The resident Inuit expressed their appreciation of the new visitors by popping them with arrows whenever given the chance.

In 1003 AD, Erik sent his son Leif off on a sailing voyage to find construction timber. During this sortie, the lad became the first European to touch North America, somewhere along the east coast of Baffin Island. He called his landing point Helluland, “the country of flat stones.” The east coast has about as much timber as the moon, and Leif quickly scurried south for Nova Scotia.

It’s ironic that this first contact point between the Old and New Worlds would become a true lost coast, one of the least visited places on earth. A couple of hundred Inuit hunters know this stupendous meeting of land and sea, but their interests are specific—seeking marine mammals to feed their families—and the sea cliffs that form the backdrop to their hunting grounds are viewed mostly as an annoying obstacle to inland travel.

These are cliffs, however, that would bring a Robbins, a Bridwell or a Middendorf to the brink of cardiac arrest. For here, on the east coast of the world’s fifth-largest island, are a series of 26 fjords, some 18 to 70 miles in length, that contain some of the tallest vertical rock walls on earth, walls that exceed even the fabled faces of Mount Thor and Asgard in Baffin’s icy interior highlands.

This coast reaches its epiphany at Sam Ford Fjord, which contains five formations larger and steeper than E1 Capitan, and at least two that rival the Great Trango Tower in both size and verticality. These isolated large formations would be stunning enough, but what confounds the first-time visitor’s senses are the miles of “smaller” cliffs, literally thousands of buttresses and arêtes that are Grade V and VI (Yosemite Decimal System). Yosemite Valley would count as a minor side fjord if it were located along this vertiginous coast.

The rock is both superb and peculiar. A very old gneiss, it is as hard or harder than Yosemite granite and yet surprisingly rough. This high-friction aspect is important because these cliffs have relatively little in the way of linked vertical crack-and-dihedral systems which are the usual lines of weakness on a classic granite wall. The major Grade VI walls will either be extreme free climbing or will require extensive hooking or copperheading to link the meandering crack systems.

In a world so well catalogued, how many major climbing areas escaped detection for so long? It can be said in one word: ice. During the summer and autumn, Baffin’s east coast is guarded by a formidable gauntlet of storm-tossed seas and grinding loose pack ice. Baffin Bay is a gigantic counter-clockwise gyre. Currents sweep north along the coast of Greenland and capture the icebergs calved off its tidewater glaciers. These bergs, some of them as big as Manhattan Island, are carried hundreds of miles north to Thule and then double back as the current carries them south along the east Baffin coast. Here they plow great furrows through the spring sea ice and, mixing with thousands of smaller bergs and old multi-year ice, form a violent cauldron that is one of the earth’s most menacing environments.

Each of the world’s great Grade VI arenas has a secondary barrier beyond the size and steepness of the walls. In Patagonia, it is the weather. For the Baltoro, the altitude. On east Baffin, it is the specter of being unable to reach the walls because of sea ice, or more intimidating, the possibility of finishing your climb and finding yourself trapped by 50 to 100 miles of jumbled loose pack. John Turk, one of the only climbers to attempt an east Baffin big wall, likened it to feeling like “a fly in a bottle.”

This is a region ruled by vagaries of weather to an extent duplicated only in the Antarctic. Those who seek to visit these walls really have only three strategies. The first is to access the walls in early to mid May when Inuit hunters can be hired to take you by snowmobile or dogsled. During this season, the six-foot-thick sea ice is a veritable freeway. The caveat is that you must finish your climbing and be picked up no later than the end of June. Miss that critical date and you find yourself trapped for a minimum of four to six weeks — during the break-up, there is no way even the Inuit can travel the coast. If you choose this early season, bring your double boots and aiders, and kiss off doing much free climbing—temperatures will range from -10°F to +30°F— and the katabatic winds coming off the continental icecap can be ferocious. (In Pangnirtung, the roofs of the houses are wired to the ground with half-inch steel cables.)

The second strategy is to get taken in near the end of June and plan on being “trapped” until a motorboat pickup in mid to late August. You will need sea kayaks in order to move around within the fjords. The ice during July is a mashed jumble of open-water leads, partially intact landfast ice and moving bergs. Experienced sea kayakers will be able to move about, but it will be exhausting and nerve-wracking. The big plus is that July, with its 24-hour daylight and 40°F to 50°F temperatures, will allow free climbing.

A final tactic is to wait until mid-August when you can be taken to the base of your wall by motorboat. You will still need sea kayaks to move about within the fjords, but it will mostly be open-water kayaking with only an occasional bit of ice. August, however, marks the onset of autumn and the weather is wetter, colder and by early September, the 24-hour daylight has dwindled to 14 hours. You must leave by the second week of September or the big autumn storms will create swells that preclude motorboat travel on the open-ocean coast. A forced overwintering on this coast will not be pleasant—in fact you will be found starved to death and solidly frozen at -40° when the first Inuit hunters show up along the coast in December. Assuming, of course, that the polar bears haven’t walked off with your carcass.

Remember also that generalizing about eastern Arctic ice conditions is about as certain as predicting the weather or the likelihood of a successful marriage—everyone makes predictions, but few would bet money on them! In most atypical years, the beginning of the spring breakup can vary three weeks in either direction.

Within the climbing world, Sam Ford is the best known of the fjords if you can count visits by two parties “well known!” Aerial flights by the author indicate that many of the more northerly fjords offer a number of features as large or larger than El Capitan, as well as uncountable smaller Vs or VIs. Of particular note is the great 4200-foot formation in Qernbitter Fjord, and the overhanging 2500-foot prow of Scott Island. This last feature faces straight out into the open ocean and would be a climb in a setting of almost unimaginable wildness and power.

Traveling to these northern fjords will be a serious undertaking. Even among the Inuit hunters, only the older men who are full-time “professionals” feel comfortable venturing so far from the village of Clyde River. Their travels are generally done during the winter when it is easy to travel on the sea-ice freeway. Summer access, by motorboat, kayak or a combination of the two, will be a major epic, possible in only some years. There is no bush-plane or helicopter system as in Alaska or the Yukon, and the only charterable planes are First Air’s big Twin Otters. These large planes cost over $1500 per hour with a required eight hours from their base station in Iqaluit to the eastern fjords. There are very few landing sites after the sea ice begins to corrugate in early May.

East Baffin Island offers a true time machine, a chance to experience exploratory mountaineering as it was practiced by Whymper, Mallory or the Duke of the Abruzzi. Weaving a kayak through a maze of glistening icebergs under the greatest cliffs on earth and this wild frontier offers connoisseurs of wilderness climbing everything one could ever dream of. Bon appetit!

Logistics: Air transport north from Ottawa, First Air, Carp, Ontario, tel: 613-839-1247; fax: 613-839-5690. Boat and snowmobile transport along the east coast, Beverly Illauq, Qullikut Outfitters, Clyde River, NWT, tel: 819-924- 6268; fax: 819-924-6362. Maps: US/Canadian Map Store, tel: 414-731-0101. World Aeronautical Chart C-12. For more details, see Climbing N°147.