American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Baffin's Still-Untapped Potential, A Bird's Eye View of the Future

  • Feature Article
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1999

Though climbing has been going on in Baffin Island since at least 1934, and in earnest since the early 1970s, it wasn’t until 1994 that the world was formally introduced to the vast untapped climbing potential on the island’s east coast. Eugene Fisher, a photographer who visited the area and documented many of the most impressive formations, published photo essays of his discoveries in both Climbing magazine and The American Alpine Journal. He also published similar material in magazines around the world. In the 1995 AAJ, he inspired a generation of big wall climbers when he wrote: “…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. … Yosemite Valley would count as a minor side fjord if it were located along this vertiginous coast.”

I first read these words in the Yosemite Lodge cafeteria in the company of fellow Camp 4 grovellers. We were dumb-struck. The article boasted five El Capitans and two Great Trangos in one fjord, and practically no one had climbed there. Surely, this had to be a wild exaggeration. Maybe… but Fisher did back up his claims with some impressive photos, and when I called him, he gave me a detailed and convincing explanation of the triangulation method he used to determine the heights of the walls.

Five years later, after three expeditions to the east coast of Baffin Island and an aerial reconnaissance of my own, I can say without hesitation that Fisher was not exaggerating in the least. This pristine arctic wilderness contains what is likely the highest concentration of big walls in the world, and most of them are still virgin.

Several expeditions have visited the Sam Ford Fjord since these articles were published, and approximately ten major new wall routes have been established. The new route activity has finally put the east coast on the map, and it has also brought to light several previous ascents in the area that had fallen into obscurity. At the time of Fisher’s first article, a comprehensive climbing history to the fjords didn’t exist, but in the intervening years a fair amount of information has been unearthed from back issues of the Canadian and American alpine journals. Apparently, the fjords have a richer climbing history than I first suspected.

On my first expedition to the area in 1995, we knew of only one group that had actually climbed in the Sam Ford Fjord. In 1992, Americans Conrad Anker and Jon Turk used sea kayaks to approach and climb two Grade V first ascents in Sam Ford Fjord. Several years later, when my partners and I climbed new routes on the Turret and Polar Sun Spire, we were surprised and somewhat disappointed to find vintage bolts just below the summits. Only later did we find out that these peaks had been bagged in 1986 by a Swiss team that included the late big wall climbing legend, Xaver Bongard. Nearby Broad Peak, which we also thought to be unclimbed, had been ascended by a team from Washington State University in 1978. The Walker Citadel was climbed in 1977. As it turned out, most of the most compelling formations had already been summited by the time we arrived. True, none of these routes had been major big wall extravaganzas, but they were still long, serious climbs in an area that may have been kept quiet intentionally.

Among those who had long held an interest in Baffin’s eastern frontier was the National Geographic Society, but it wasn’t until 1998 that they decided to launch their own expedition to this big wall mecca. The trip was the brainchild of Greg Child, and since I was one of the few people who had actually climbed in the area, I was lucky enough to get invited, along with Jared Ogden, Alex Lowe, Gordon Wiltsie, and John Catto. The best part of the expedition was that we had to do an aerial reconnaissance of the entire length of Baffin Island in order to choose our objective. This was truly my dream come true.

In April, 1998, our team flew to Iqaluit and chartered a Twin Otter in the hopes of finding a wall that rivaled the Polar Sun Spire. We spent the first day flying around Auyuittuq National Park, where clear skies offered phenomenal perspectives of Mt. Thor, Mt. Asgard, and many other impressive formations. Continuing further up the coast beyond the boundary of the national park, we found stacks of uncharted cliffs in the fjords south of Clyde River, particularly in the Itirbilung and Inugsuin Fjords. The next day we continued into the Sam Ford Fjord, along the way passing Eglington Tower, a free-standing 4,000-footer.

After examining the Walker Arm of Sam Ford, which didn’t contain anything too appealing once past the Walker Citadel, we continued exploring the fjords between Sam Ford and the village of Pond Inlet. We were particularly interested in the remote Quernbiter Fjord, which had been recommended by Fisher as an area where we might find a 4,000+ foot cliff. We did find a huge wall in Quernbiter, but unfortunately it was a bit too broken up for our tastes. Still, it was one of the most worthy objectives we saw on our flight. Overall, the potential in the fjords north of Gibbs was not quite as good as I had always hoped. There are dozens of good objectives hidden back in the nooks and crannies, but it was clear that the best concentration of walls is to be found in the area surrounding Sam Ford Fjord. We decided that the very best unclimbed wall in Baffin Island was located in the Stewart Valley, between Sam Ford and Gibbs Fjord. We chose a striking 3,800-foot cliff that we called “Great Sail Peak,” in reference to a nearby formation labeled Sail Peak on our map, as our objective.

We wondered, at the time, who had named this mountain, but it wasn’t until just recently that we learned of other expeditions that had previously visited the Stewart Valley. In 1977, a Canadian group established a base camp in Stewart Valley and made 19 first ascents in the area. Like most of the early expeditions to the east coast, they concentrated on peak bagging, not on ascending the monolithic walls themselves. Their report contained a reference to climbing what appears to be Sail Peak, but their maps and written description didn’t contain enough detail for me to say for sure. They did mention leaving a summit register, which we didn’t find when we were on top.

Realistically, most of the best lines in Sam Ford Fjord have been ticked off at this point, but there are still a few exceptions. Eglington Tower (located just outside Sam Ford near Revoir Pass) has still not been climbed by a big-wall route (it was first climbed on August 21, 1934, by Britons Sir John Hanham and T.G. Longstaff, and also climbed in winter by K.W. Barke), nor has the Tugalik Wall, an escarpment several miles long and up to 4,000 feet high. Polar Sun Spire, which is, according to our recon, the biggest wall in Baffin, still has only one route. Closer to the mouth of the fjord, the 4,000+ foot Chinese Wall, attempted unsuccessfully in 1997, is also still virgin. The 2,000-foot Ship’s Prow of Scott Island, located at the mouth of Gibbs and Clark Fjords, makes up for its relative lack of height by overhanging continuously in a clean sweep of gneiss that rises directly from the open ocean (Americans are planning an attempt for the spring of 1999). Stewart Valley contains several 2,000-foot walls, in addition to a formation of proportions similar to Sail Peak (it will likely also see an attempt in 1999 by a British team). Gibbs Fjord, where there are several appealing formations well over 3,000 feet in height, has yet to see a single ascent that I am aware of. To the best of my knowledge, no walls in Gibbs have even been named.

Believe it or not, we are starting to run out of 4,000-footers on the east coast, but there are still countless lesser walls, especially in the 2,000-foot range. As Eugene Fisher wrote in his AAJ article, “…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.” Contrary to what some people predicted when the east coast began to gain notoriety in the world climbing press, however, the area will most likely never be overcrowded. The unique logistical problem of dealing with ice-packed fjords, coupled with the extreme cold, has so far kept the traffic down to a couple of expeditions per season. It will be decades, perhaps centuries, before Baffin’s fjords are even close to climbed out. It is also important to understand that, by and large, the Inuit are committed to developing this area to its full potential. In remote arctic villages like Clyde River and Pangnirtung, adventure-tourism and guiding are really the only means by which the Inuit can hope to develop a self-sustaining economy.

Many people have also asked me about the free climbing potential on Baffin’s east coast. Unfortunately, it is not great. Because the rock in Baffin—a granitic gneiss—is so young geologically, it has not had the time to fracture into continuous crack systems common in places like Yosemite, Patagonia, and the Baltoro. This translates into huge walls with only limited climbing potential, and that being predominantly hard aid. The lack of deep, continuous cracks, combined with the cold weather, will seriously limit the amount of hard free climbing that can be accomplished in the fjords.

For me, the fact that this will never be an easy place to visit is something that accounts for a large measure of its appeal. For those who do make the effort, chances are good they’ll have the entire coast to themselves, or at least their own fjord. It’s nice to know, in a day and age when other big wall destinations are becoming over-run, that there is still a place where you can commit yourself to total self-reliance. There’s only one point on which I think Eugene Fisher missed the mark: Yosemite Valley would not be a minor side valley on this coast. The more we search for untapped walls around the world, the more we have to appreciate what we have in our own backyard.

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