October 4, 2016
At 70°42’25.67″N and 71°29’46.83″W, Baffin Bay is a frozen ocean of crisp white and blue. This land of rock, ice and water was carved and cleaved over two billion years from the Canadian Shield. Our team of three – Marc-Andre Leclerc, Brette Harrington and I – travelled across that same frozen expanse by snow machine toward the eastern fjords of Baffin Island to climb Great Sail Peak.
Several years in the making, our expedition finally unfolded between June 17 and August 5, 2016. The sense of adventure was palpable; with no trip reports or guidebook to direct us, we stepped into the unknown.
The hamlet of Clyde River, Nunavut, is well above the Arctic Circle, so on the summer solstice we were sent off with an endless sunset. Our guide, Levi Palituq – a local outfitter and hunter – and his team navigated us towards the Walker Arm fjord. Though conditions were deteriorating on the ice as summer and the breakup approached, our sleds managed to dodge massive cracks in the splintering ice sheet. For two days we circumvented the open water, sometimes skipping across ice chunks to help bridge the icy waters when the cracks travelled out to sea. As we approached the Sam Ford fjord, the sheer size gave the impression of entering a massive canal with 1400-metre walls. A feeling of insignificance washed over the team as the fjord swallowed us like a great whale.
When we arrived at the southern edge of the Stewart Valley, silence and a low hum settled around us like a blanket. The rising talus, endless ridge lines of granite walls, hanging glaciers and sweeping canyons made the valley seem mythical in scale.
We moved gear toward the windswept beach on the southern edge of Stewart Lake, and spent five days cautiously moving across it, finally arriving at our advanced base camp with a mountain of gear and five weeks of food. We set up our tents in a meadow of moss campion and gazed up at the crown-capped summit of Great Sail Peak. These walls had seen just two ascents until the summer of 2016, and although world-renowned athletes had climbed the face, none had come to free climb.
The logistics of free climbing in the Arctic can be extensive, but after five trips to the eastern fjords, I mapped out a strategy of travelling on the ice in late June and then waiting for the melt, which would give us the best chance of catching summer temperatures. We intentionally trapped ourselves – once the breakup started, there would be no possibility of extraction without a helicopter or icebreaker from Halifax. Our team knew the consequences and recognized the importance of being self-sufficient. We had 30 days to attempt to climb Great Sail Peak.
We hauled bags of gear and food to the wall, established an approach route to the main ledge system 300 metres up, and committed. We free climbed, jugged and hauled our way up the lower wall, free climbing seven pitches of intricate and steep climbing up to 5.12. As we were team-freeing the route, not every member needed to lead each pitch.
We arrived on the ledge that breaks the lower face from the upper two-thirds of climbing. To our surprise, there was a team of climbers already camped there. We knew a pair of Belgians and three Italians were attempting the same wall that summer, but we hadn’t yet met and we couldn’t see them from our camp, so we’d assumed they were farther up the valley. Their team of five had eyed up the same line as us and scooped us in Baffin Island!
So we gathered our thoughts and decided to move down the wall to redirect our energies to a slender turret at the north edge of the wall, away from the main attraction and the belly of the giant.
Climbing in Baffin Island can feel like travelling to the edge of the earth and falling off – a place where time is hijacked by light and shadow.
We mixed free climbing and aid climbing as we moved up, hauling our gear, cleaning the rock and rehearsing difficult moves as we attempted to establish a big wall free climb. In 150 metres, we covered granite, intrusions of diorite, feldspar and mica and even a wall of Precambrian igneous, the ancient core of North America.
The difficult pitches required multiple attempts. A series of discontinuous cracks led to a blank 30-metre traverse. The team free climbed pitches of 5.12 and 5.13 below the traverse, with Marc freeing a bold 12+ crack and a bouldery 5.13 section. We set a portaledge camp below the traverse and morale was high. Then, the storm hit.
A raging south wind blew in off Baffin Bay and mixed with a northern high pressure. With cold air aloft and the rising topography in the fjord, we got slammed. The forecasts had been consistently inconsistent and we were trapped. We hunkered down, tapping into our self-preservation and survival modes. We waited, sure it would pass, but soon any lingering morale morphed into festering. On first few days of the storm, the winds blew any remaining optimism out to sea – then snow and rain arrived and continued for five days. Wall life was desperate; our portaledges acted as sails and my lighter single ledge was buffeted so hard it swiveled 180 degrees numerous times. Snow accumulated below and above, turning the turret into a popsicle. Out of options, we had to make a move: up, or down.
Clad in GORE-TEX and puffy jackets, Brette started us off. She launched across a dramatic traverse above our ledge camp, establishing the team in a faint and shallow corner system. We continued upwards by freeing more difficult corner pitches and leading in blocks, with the leader and second free climbing while the third jugged with a pack. But the free climbing was short lived, as the steepness of the wall gave way to incipient seams and the sky started to transform into drifting layers of fog and rain.
We resorted to mixing aid and free climbing, pushing up tight corners and face seams connected by wet cracks. Brette led an ugly and wet overhanging off-width and handed the sharp end to me. The summit of the turret was guarded by a series of chimneys drenched in snow and a fresh layer of verglas – definitely the team’s psychological crux of the route. We’d been climbing in the rain for hours and were cold, wet and faced with a couple hundred metres of frosted and iced-up chimneys. Morale was low.
This didn’t feel like rock climbing, but more like mixed climbing with rock shoes. I stemmed and pressed up the cracks, and avoided the low-angle ledges covered in ice by climbing the cracks on the side walls. The pitches came together but only because we knew we wouldn’t get a second chance.
The summit of the turret jutted up in three sharp nipples and we extracted ourselves from the chimneys onto a shoulder with easy access to the glacier on the back side. The true summit loomed in the rain clouds above, another couple pitches of wet but moderate climbing. We left it for another day later in the trip. We dropped our gear and peered over the edge, swallowing our stomachs in the process, and reflected on the sheer size and emptiness that loomed below us.
The clouds parted to show the remnants of the storm, snowdrifts overflowing from the glacier, and fresh white on all the peaks. We celebrated with some forgotten food at the bottom of my pack, hugged and watched the sun rise over the black, glistening walls and snowy glaciers to the north.
Joshua Lavigne’s Baffin Island Great Sail Peak climb was made possible byMEC Expedition Support.
In early 2018, Marc-Andre Leclerc and his climbing partner were reported missing in the Medenhall Towers of Alaska. Tragically, the climbing community has lost these two respected and experienced alpinists; they will be remembered and greatly missed.