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Miso Soup and M&Ms on Baffin Island, Cross-cultural Big-wall Adventures

  • Feature Article
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1998

Miso Soup and M&Ms on Baffin Island

Cross-cultural big-wall adventures

by Mike J. Libecki

The bold Baffin Island, that wonderland of majestic granite thrones, lost in time landscapes and hypnotisms of solitude—after a whirlwind of planning between California and Japan, Shinichi Sakamoto, Misako Koyanagi, and I had finally made it. Our expectations had been at least to study and explore the region for climbing possibilities. Now, though, we realized that a new route was within our reach.

Shinichi, a Japanese man, and Misako, a Japanese woman, had just met, but I had known both for some time. Shinichi and I had bumped into each other one sunny afternoon in 1992 while searching for climbing partners around Yosemite’s Camp 4. Our similar passions for climbing and living quickly led to friendship, and our climbing partnership formed a solid team. After only a few days climbing together, we were off to Washington Column, and two days later stood on top. Throughout the next few years, we would meet in Yosemite (just before our 1997 Baffin trip, we touched up our climbing skills with a couple weeks of free climbing at Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, and a quick ascent of Never Never Land on El Cap), and in the fall of 1995,I traveled to Japan, where, upon arrival, Shinichi welcomed me with warm sake, raw tuna and squid. My six-week stay included a solo bicycle trip across the main island, an extensive tour of steep, finger-crimping climbing areas, incredible hospitality, and an overload of unique foods. I was amazed by how honest and simple people were, and by their motainai (Japanese: living without waste), which I had not found in America. Japan changed my life.

Misako and I met later, in the summer of 1996, while checking out route topos in the Yosemite climbing shop. Eager to practice my newly studied Japanese, I started talking. As it turned out, we both had substantial big-wall experience, and we were both currently partner-less and eager to climb. A couple days later, we were shuttling loads to the base of El Capitan. I was slightly concerned about having no prior experience climbing with Misako, but after five days of no-hassle climbing (except for a virus I contracted, which caused six to ten bathroom stops per day for three days), we completed El Cap’s Lunar Eclipse.

The compatibility of our climbing style fit like a glove. We did not talk much on the climb; sometimes I would say something about climbing, and Misako would reply softly, “In life we must climb.” After a comment like that, I knew a climbing future awaited us. When we topped out, we talked about when we would climb together next.

“Have you heard of Baffin Island?” I asked.

Like every other big-wall climber, Misako had read and heard about Baffin Island’s granite monoliths. So had Shinichi, and individually we had all pondered putting together an expedition to the northern Arctic to climb a new route on an unclimbed wall. Because my partners lived on the other side of the planet, and summer was getting closer, I wondered if our thoughts were merely a fantasy. A random fax to both revealed that their thoughts corresponded to mine. Unclimbed big-wall fantasies started occupying my mind. Not surprisingly, the same thing was happening to my friends in Japan. Intense planning and research began.

Several months passed. Shinichi and Misako met one another via a high-tech introduction, and our communication and planning became a little easier. Misako and I concluded that time and money would allow us to plan an expedition only in late summer. Shinichi was having difficulties with his schedule and could not commit to our plans. As this would be the first time any of us had gone to such a remote area, the ideal plan was a three-person team: It would give us a better chance to handle an emergency should one arise, reduce the physical strain on each partner, and unite our climbing and mountaineering experiences for a safe and successful expedition. As research continued, we hoped that some kind of universal power would allow Shinichi to join us.

Finally, Shinichi confirmed that he could make it. A mental smile did not leave my mind for the next few weeks.

After much confusing faxing, gear planning, disagreement, and frustration, we decided to meet in Montreal for three days of clearer communication. We arrived within a couple days of each other with huge smiles, emanating optimism. Shinichi and Misako met face-to-face for the first time. We checked into a cozy little motel with a tasty Vietnamese restaurant (the best fried bananas I ever had) just a few minutes away. With only a couple of opposing opinions about our menu for the expedition, it was time to head for the island.

A bit of ostrich and cake for lunch, some relaxing liqueurs, and a couple of planes later, we arrived in Pangnirtung, a small town on the southern end of the island, and settled down in a comfy campsite on the outskirts of town that also was just outside the boundaries of our destination: Auyuittuq National Park Preserve. The people of Pangnirtung were comforting, greeting us with full-teeth smiles and immediate conversation. One local man insisted on giving us and all of our gear a free ride to our campsite, provided us with pertinent information about where to find food and the local government offices, and turned down our offered tip again and again. The local children, who spied on us from behind boulders just outside of our camp, provided first-class entertainment. Their curiosity proved to be strong, and soon they were drinking our hot chocolate, dancing and singing around us, and reminding us with their carefree nature to have fun and not to take ourselves too seriously.

We had a few days on our hands and used them to plan the food, fuel, and gear for our excursion. We had enough supplies to last for about 35 days, half of which would be spent on foot, shuttling gear 15 to 30 miles or more as we searched for an unclimbed wall in Auyuittuq. As luck (or possibly fate) would have it, that same day, while registering at the local government office, we got word of a team of geologists studying in the area who happened to be traveling via helicopter. Off we went to the only lodge in town in hopes of finding the pilot. After a small negotiation and the proper paperwork, we had an airlift scheduled for the next morning.

With mostly clear skies, low wind speed, and a thumbs-up from the pilot, the helicopter lifted, then swung and swayed like a drunken bumble bee from the weight of our eight haul bags clipped below as it slowly made its way up the glacier-carved Weasel Valley. Massive rock formations entwined by serpentine glaciers surrounded us. We studied our maps and wiped drool from our chins, passing by Mt. Turnweather, Mt. Thor, the Asgard twins, and Tyr Peak. Thanks to our pilot, Jim, who flew the helicopter like a child playing with a Christmas toy, we got an in-depth tour of the Auyuittuq area. What we saw was a mountaineer’s dreamland—hundreds of climbing possibilities, from alpine routes to free routes to aid routes, and spectacular trekking galore. Our hearts raced with excitement; at last we were getting a chance to see what we had visualized for so long.

Mesmerized as we were by our visions, we realized we needed to choose a wall—an unclimbed one, of course, but something feasible, given our team’s experience together, our amount of supplies and time, and how far we would have to walk back to civilization. It was like trying to choose only one piece of candy from a favorite candy shop. As the agreed-upon one-hour flight neared its end, deciding on a landing point became necessary. Just a few miles east of Summit Lake, on the Weeping Glacier, past Breidiblik Peak, stood a prominent 600-meter white granite wall with red and black streaks, like a warrior’s painted face. Directly in the center of the wall loomed an enormous roof that looked like a huge closed eye. Though there were no prominent corners, cracks, or features, the three of us spoke at once. An immediate agreement was made. We had found the wall we would attempt to climb. The helicopter unclipped the burden of our gear and landed us on the glacier.

As the helicopter drifted out of sight, we digested the interesting reality of our new glacial home. We had no means of communication; a rescue was not a possibility. Our thoughts were lost to views of our new world as a chilling breeze eased us into a meditative silence. Marvelous granite towers capped thick with ice and snow could be seen in every direction. A black raven flew by screaming a cold welcome; it was the only kind of animal we would see until we left.

We spent the next couple of days studying rock and icefall patterns, shuttling gear to the base of the wall, and scoping for a possible crack system. There seemed to be consistent snow and icefall over all of the wall. The wall itself looked quite blank, but there was one system of cracks and features that departed from a beautiful 100-meter-plus pinnacle attached to the wall. Although it had some noticeably featureless sections, it looked possible for a route— and, fortunately, it seemed to receive the lowest amount of snow and icefall of any sections of the wall. After a totemo oishii (Japanese: delicious) meal of white rice, wakame soup, green tea and M&Ms, we drifted into dreams crowded with visions of the climbing ahead.

Our first day of climbing proved to be sugoi (Japanese: great); a thin A1 splitter took us 60 meters up to a small ledge, from which we climbed an easy 5.8,40-meter chimney/gully to the top of “Stonehenge Pinnacle,” named for its resemblance to the ancient carving. After lunch, we hauled, shuttled, and organized our extensive gear, getting a taste of the intense work that awaited us. As the day ended, I was anxious to get back to base camp for Misako’s bag of Japanese treats. With any luck, she would pull out another surprise—perhaps some kind of sweet-bean candy bar, dried squid, or some crispy rice crackers.

Our thoughts danced merrily that night; blue skies had graced our progress and the climb was under way. As we talked about the unexpectedly perfect weather, Misako noticed her barometer reading dropping, a sign the nice weather was definitely too good to last. I fell asleep that night with difficulty, thinking with contained excitement about the climbing to come.

A new test awaited us the next morning as we awoke to heavy snow and strong wind. We had to make the transition from climbing in comfortable weather to climbing in cold, wet, miserable conditions. I vigorously rammed my ascenders up the ice-dressed ropes to the top of the pinnacle. Misako followed. Even as the wind howled and the snow whipped our faces, Misako moved slowly and gracefully. She spoke softly, her facial expression peaceful, as though she was sleeping. I felt quite safe with her, for I could tell she was always aware of the current situation and took it seriously, whether it was sewing up a line of copperheads or preparing breakfast.

Our bodies were soaking wet by the time we reached the anchors. We got out the hammers and cracked our gear out of its ice cocoon, and I started leading. After a couple of hours, the snow still fell consistently. Looking back at my last solid piece of gear 12 meters below, already several hook moves out, with too big of a rack, my rope and gear soaked, and plastic boots on, I started to feel heavy. I looked down at my crooked Fish hook on a small flake; now was not the time to think about the flake’s inner strength. A thin crack started only a couple meters above. Feeling like a ballet dancer, I carefully slid my boot into the top step of the etrier, then searched for a small Alien and immediately attached it to my daisy chain. With my longest reach, I stretched for solid crack and inserted the piece.

A split second later, before I could even weight it—crack!—the flake I was on broke. Misako let out a shriek. A one-meter daisy-chain fall and a hundred heartbeats later, the Alien held. A few freezing hours and 50 meters after that, I fixed a few pins and sucked on my fingers to get the blood flowing again. We quickly rappelled down to ground, where Shinichi welcomed us with hot green tea and oatmeal.

Shinichi and Misako were up early the next morning and off into the snowy winds at an attempt for more upward progress. After words of encouragement, I nestled into my bag and sipped coffee, trying to watch them through the heavy flakes of snow. As the snow fell harder and harder, they could barely be seen from the ground. Hours later, they returned, reporting ten meters of copperheads higher up.

During the next few days, we made little progress as the heavy storms continued. Though slightly frustrated because we were almost completely confined to our tent, we knew we were finding out how to climb in this weather. There was little room for three people in the tent and the body odors were becoming quite noticeable, but everyone seemed shiawase (happy) and kokochioi (comfortable). Eventually, we awoke to sun—quite a pleasure, as we could dry out and have breakfast outside for the first time in several days.

Due to our cultural differences and sharing of the same space, compromise and respect for our different ways of living were often necessary. Sitting at our breakfast table carved from snow one morning, I spit, necessarily and noisily, away from our eating area. Misako went quiet. Shinichi sternly informed me such a thing was quite rude to him. I stubbornly debated my feelings; such an act was normal to me. Still, it seemed like a good time to get more water for breakfast.

Since we were on the northeast side of the wall, a good weather day offered us about five hours of sunlight. An anchor at our route’s high point now was necessary. It was time to commit to the vertical world. Another day drifted by, lost to opposing opinions and disagreement about our hauling system, supplies we would need on the wall, and where our first wall camp would be. Finally, we tried to move our supplies in a single haul only to find out that, due to weight, a double haul was necessary.

The sun shone once again the following morning, and a no-hassle double haul to our high point was made with just a little more than 16 days’ worth of food and fuel. We now occupied the vertical quarters we had hoped for. A couple of roomy expedition portaledges and plenty of luxuries, including reading and writing material, a radio, lots of chocolates, and other soothing remedies, made our portaledge camp quite comfortable. Gazing out the rainfly door, I could not find words to describe the beauty; it would have been like attempting to describe an example of eternity, magnificence, or a place where fairy tales and magic were real. For all I knew, a dinosaur could have walked around the comer at any time.

Unsurprisingly, strong winds and heavy snow returned our first morning on the wall. The following four days were spent in our ‘ledges trying to keep warm and occupied. We drew food topos of our favorite pizza or sushi (I spent an hour drawing my favorite beer), brushed up on each other’s languages, and had a few debates about Japanese and American culture. It occupied storm-time nicely, and before we knew it, the winds had died down. Though it was still snowing, climbing was feasible again. After contemplating our route’s direction, more upward progress began.

Shinichi called a warning about loose rocks from above as he hammered small knifeblades into a loose, rotten corner. Misako belayed, shivering, while her head and shoulders grew layered with snow. It was a rest day for me; I read my book of meditation and sipped green tea. I kept hearing loose rock warnings from outside my cozy expedition rainfly. Fortunately, I had a pad of paper, a jacket, and my book resting on my lap, for they absorbed the impact of the football-sized rock that barged in straight through the top of my rainfly directly onto me—as though it were being served for dinner!

After patching the hole in the rainfly with sheets of ripstop-nylon and duct tape, we decided to take an alternate (and safer) route than the one above our portaledges. It was, at times, difficult and somewhat frustrating agreeing on decisions about the climb. There was a small language barrier as well; fortunately, Shinichi’s English was excellent, Misako’s English understandable, and my Japanese improving. We learned that our seriousness on all decisions, whether agreed upon or not, was a sort of positive soil in which communication was planted. By listening to each other’s ideas, understanding sprouted and grew into an incredibly deep connection with one another. The communication between us bloomed into new levels of appreciation, trust, and respect as the climb progressed.

Moving to the left of our wall camp proved not only safer, but offered up some great crack systems as well. Two more long pitches brought us about 80 meters up and 40 meters left of our original wall camp, underneath the enormous sheltering roof we had seen from the helicopter. A relaxing sensation came over us as we settled into our new portaledge camp underneath it. Nothing but the roof itself could fall and hit us now.

New thoughts concerned us. There were five to ten pitches to go and about six scheduled days left on the wall, leaving us seven days to walk back to our contact 18 miles away and catch our plane. With a questionable (if any) crack system above the roof, we needed every day to offer good climbing weather. We completed two pitches the next day. Misako led an impressive hook and free pitch over the roof to a series of scary expanding flakes. My heart beat like a drum while I watched flakes crumble beneath her feet as I belayed. Shinichi continued up a splitter expanding corner/flake to what looked like a blank section of the wall. It was my lead. As I started off on the crackless, almost featureless section, my rack of hooks, copperheads, and the bolt kit were readily accessible. Shinichi nervously belayed as I eased out on interesting hooks and copperheads. As I placed another malleable, I heard strange hisses of doubt from Shinichi.

“What?” I asked.

“Mike, that one look very bad,” Shinichi whispered reluctantly. I appreciated his communication but needed his confidence. A little frustrated, I tested the dicey hook piece and tiptoed on to more hooks that eventually lead to a cruiser Lost Arrow nailing frenzy.

Fabulous weather smiled upon us. Gazing down at the glacial pool that grew smaller as we gained elevation, we knew we were getting closer to the top. We were blessed with clear, albeit freezing, weather, but even the cold was almost a comfortable one, offering a real feeling of being alive.

One more loose and funky pitch presented us with a clean, solid corner system that looked as though it would lead straight to the top. We waltzed through a couple more sweet A1 and easy free pitches to the top of the wall. A last 100-meter-plus snow and ice pitch brought us to huge, teetering boulders, loose rock, and ice that seemed to stare evily at us. We stood at the top of the wall wondering if it was really over, staring down at our melted base camp and the once-huge, now-tiny glacial pool below. Our feelings were calm and content; we were ready to go down.

A cantaloupe-sized rock bounced off my knee pad, underscoring the danger still lurking before us. After quick handshakes of victory and a few photos, we descended back to our portaledges seven pitches below. We had one more scheduled day on the wall, so we decided to stay a last night in the vertical world. We celebrated our ascent with an all-we-could-eat feast of freeze-dried stew, salami, cheesecake, chocolate, hot milk and sugar, and whatever else was hidden in the bottom of our food barrel. The last days on the wall, when we had needed good weather, had not only been amazingly gorgeous, but substantially warmer. I felt as though some kind of universal power had let things fall into place.

Still, the journey remained very much alive and dangerous, and a new goal of a safe descent and walk out to civilization occupied our attention. After watching our haul bags make a one-minute descent, we carefully rappelled the rest of the route. Surprisingly, even with 100-meter rappels, our ropes never got completely stuck or damaged, and we eventually stood on mostly solid ground again after 15 days of living on the wall. Though it was quite a pleasure to feel my weight over my feet, I immediately missed the harmony and challenge of living in the vertical world with my Japanese friends.

On our jaunt back to our boat-contact, we came across the tent of Japanese climber Go Abe, a friend of Misako’s, and an acquaintance of mine from Yosemite. It looked like it had been abandoned. Misako told us something was wrong with his tent like that; she felt he was in trouble.

We continued on our walk for the next few days. After arriving back in Pangnirtung, we reported the situation to the local government office, where we found out that a Spanish team, Juan Espany and Cristobal Diaz, who had been climbing on Mt. Thor, saw Go Abe climbing only to suddenly lose sight of him. By the time we left Baffin we found out that Go Abe, a soft-spoken hardman, had died soloing a new route on Mt. Thor. Our trip ended with an array of feelings.

But it also taught us new communication skills, safety techniques, and ideas. A magical relationship was forged between Shinichi, Misako, and me, and new doorways to adventure were discovered. One part of the journey that grew within me remains with me now: Responsibility for impact on any place on Earth is just as important as any other aspect of an adventure into the outdoors. Our arrival in a hidden glacial valley and spectacular climbing area in the northern Arctic drove home the amount of environmental impact just a few people can have in a little time. We left as little evidence as possible of our passage. Adventuring in the best style possible and using proper etiquette is our responsibility not only to practice, but to communicate to fellow and future adventurers throughout the world.

Summary of Statistics

AREA: Auyuittuq National Park Preserve, Baffin Island, Northwest Territories, Canada

FIRST ASCENT: Stoneagin (VI 5.9 A3+, 550 meters) on the Weeping Wall on the Weeping Glacier, July 30 to August 19, 1997, Shinichi Sakamoto, Misako Koyanagi, Mike J. Libecki

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