Words by Brette Harrington. Photos by Joshua Lavigne and Brette Harrington.
Locked within a frozen arctic sea nine months of the year is a mountainous land of granite cliffs, rolling tundra, and expansive icecaps called Baffin Island. Most of the island lies within the Arctic Circle where time can seem to stand still due to the ever-present darkness of the winter months, and the revolving sun of the summer. The Inuit people of Baffin have lived off the land nomadically for approximately 4000 years hunting the mighty bow head whale, seal, narwhals and other arctic animals. Today the Inuit travel by snowmachine over sea ice, and motor boat when the sea ice breaks up, to hunt and explore their mysterious homeland. The first European explorers reached Baffin in 1576 in search of the alleged Northwest Passage to Asia. Over the next 200 years Baffin became a whaling capital but due to over-whaling the industry crashed. The Northwest Passage was finally discovered but was not fit for a shipping lane. The unpredictable sea ice acted as an ever-changing puzzle destroying all hopes of swift passage. Without lament, the arctic waters have been preserved from the industrial and commercial pollution of which would have been.
The Northeast coast of Baffin is lined with deep fjords of granite walls rising thousands of feet above the ice. It is within these fjords that my two partners Marc-Andre Leclerc and Joshua Lavigne and I set our sights on climbing Great Sail Peak.
June 19th, 2016
Marc-Andre and I arrived at the Iqaluit Airport in Southern Baffin overloaded with ten bags, packed full of expedition gear: climbing, camping, rafting equipment and eight weeks worth of food. A friend of Josh’s and local of Baffin Island, Sarah McNair- Landry, picked us up. She took us across the bay to feed her dogsled team. The dogs barked and jumped excitedly on the ice, awaiting their meals of raw meat. Sarah has dogsledded around the entire island with her dogs, as well as Ski-Kited the Northwest Passage. [For more information about Sarah follow or visit wayofthenorth.com].
Josh met us in Iqaluit the following day and together we flew North to the small Inuit community of Clyde River. Clyde River sits on the edge of Clyde Inlet, an arctic bay resting silently under the melting pack ice. The streets of dirt and snow were bustling with people driving about on their Honda quads while children played outside in the fresh spring air. We were met by our outfitter Levi and his son Jaco. Born in Scott Inlet, a fjord on the Northeast coast of Baffin, Levi has spent his entire life exploring the ins-and-outs of his home land. One of the largest threats to the Inuit people are the formidable Polar Bears, wandering the pack ice hunting seals. As the ice breaks apart in the summer the bears retreat to the land; come fall hunger sets in as their food reserves empty, becoming an even greater threat to the Inuit.
It was the summer solstice as we set off on a two day trip across the sea ice for The Stewart Valley. Our caravan consisted of three snowmobiles, each pulling a wooden sled with a small wind shelter, called a Cumatuk for our gear. The trip was often delayed as we navigated through the shifting pack ice and crossed leads of open water. At one stop along the way Marc and I ventured out to a nearby iceberg for a quick ice climb. The center of the iceberg formed a pool of sapphire blue water.
Passing through the Sam Ford Fjord, granite walls rose like giants above the ice. Our caravan voyaged deep into the fjord making a right hand turn into the Walker Arm. A bay forms at a crook in the Walker Arm, which was our drop-off point where we said goodbye to Levi, Jaco and their partner. They handed us their World War I rifle, wrapped in a seal skin case, wished us good luck and took off back to Clyde River. I had never shot a gun before so my confidence in fending off potentially killer bears was close-to-none. Taking a few apprehensive practice shots, I deemed the noise of the gun intimidating enough and we began our trek into the Stewart Valley.
A glacially fed moraine field extended two kilometers between the beach at Walker Arm and the toe of Stewart Lake. Our first few days were spent carrying loads of gear to a camp we had set up at the toe. The Stewart Valley stretched far and high. The Granite walls formed a halfpipe with the frozen lake as the floor. Great Sail Peak stood proudly in profile at the extent of our view. Its sail-like summit arched back as if it was in the hight of wind.
The following days we shuttled gear in sleds across the lake to the base of Great Sail Peak. Great Sail is defined by a Northwest Turret feature, a central Golden Pillar, and the central face rounding off with a West Buttress. The lower section of the wall is split off from the upper by a horizontal ledge system. Great Sail Peak had two established lines; one from an American Team in ’96 and one from a Russian team in ’08. This was the first time a team attempted to climb it in the summer. We planned on climbing a new route so we walked across the ice to get a wider view of the wall.
The West Buttress was an obvious free line consisting of ledges and crack systems. The Northwest Turret had two very subtle and elegant corner systems arising about a quarter of the way up the feature. The Golden Pillar, shielded with granite plates was not the place for a free climb, but my gaze was caught by a sliver of crack threading its way up the first half of the center of the wall. I called over to Josh to take a look. He was impressed, but given the upper half looked rather blank he did not consider it as a possibility for a free climb, which was his main objective. We focused our attention on establishing a new line up the lower section, avoiding the rambly and loose start established by the Americans in ’96.
Our lower line was direct and steep, climbing faint seams and flakes. It miraculously connected into seven pitches of steep climbing up to 12b.
Upon arrival at the ledge we ran into another team of climbers; three Italians and two Belgian climbers. They had established a high camp on the ledge and were climbing different lines on the upper wall. It felt like a random coincidence that we would all meet here on Great Sail peak after the wall had not seen an ascent since 2008. Marc and I walked over to check out the line on the Golden Pillar. The splitter crack system stretched half way up the face, arching back to an overhanging offset crack. The two of us spent hours examining the line, realizing that it may not go free after the end of the wave, but technical aid may be the way up. Josh was not so certain about the line as he was determined to free climb, but with a bit of convincing we started up. One week went by as we pushed a line up the center of the pillar. We had freed the first ten pitches, after having established the pitches by aid first. We then came to a section that would not go free and Marc and I spent hours aiding the pitch in the cold wind. The next morning we woke up on our porta-ledge and had a team discussion. Josh was feeling uneasy about the change in climbing style so we made the tough decision to go down to high camp and find a different line. The weather was holding and we had time.
We moved over to the Northwest Turret, an unclimbed feature of Great Sail. The golden rock towered over us as we examined the features. A steep crack system prevailed, but was proceeded by apparently blank slab on the first 200 meters or so. With hope that we would find a way through the slab, we packed our food for one week and would establish the line ground up. By the end of day one we had made it to the base of the slab and set up our porta-ledge base camp. Life on the ledges was quite comfy until we were hit with a five day cyclone. Winds raged through the valley pelting our ledges with sleet and snow and freezing our ropes. The days went by rather fast for the most part as Marc and I continued to push our line up the next pitch despite the poor conditions. The aid climbing was rather technical on hooks and copper heads and the strong winds made things even more exciting. We placed a few bolts to establish the pitch as a free climbing project. When conditions were too violent we retreated back to our ledges, wrapped ourselves in our sleeping bags and read Cuentos de la Selva (Stories of the Jungle), Horacio Quiroga. Our supplies were running low but the cyclone was on its way out. We woke on the sixth morning to wet ropes and only a cool breeze due to our warm mountain climbing jackets. Around 12PM we started up. I took the first block, free climbing as much as possible, but resorting to aid when necessary. It rained on us for most of the day and the cracks were wet and slimy. The steep wall was continuous and sustained, leaving us few to no ledges for belays. Josh valiantly led up the upper chimneys encrusted in vereglass in the upper half. I were exhausted by the time we reached the summit around 5AM, but, but excited at the same time, to have finally reached the top. I was relieved to take off my heavy harness from my mountain climbing jacket which was weighed down with climbing gear. We relaxed on the top to take in the views. The sun glistened in the Northern sky and glaciers filled the cirque behind Great Sail, pouring their waters into the deep caverns. Snowy white mountain peaks encircled us from below in 360 degrees. Beyond the mountains to the North the fjords spilled into Baffin Bay. I peaked over the edge to get a view of the relief. I quivered imagining how the the base jumpers feel to leap off these walls; 1100 meters of vertical dropping down to Stewart Lake. I felt unstable, swaying ever so slightly. I backed away from the edge. It was the first time in over a week that I had stood on solid ground. The storm was breaking just in time for our decent, so we started down, making rappels to the bottom. We call our route the Northwest Turret 5.13a, A2, 21 pitches.
Our rest days consisted of bouldering, stretching, reading, and cooking. The Belgians stopped in to bring us freshly caught Arctic Char which we pan-seared and breaded for a delicious meal. We geared up for our next climb, the West Buttress of Great Sail Peak.
We changed our strategy from Big Wall to more of an alpine ascent and prepared ourselves for a single push climb to the Summit. The climbing was generally crack climbing, with a bit of slab mixed in. We lead in blocks, climbing all day. Around evening the skies darkened with billowing thunderheads in the East. Marc was in the midst of leading perhaps one of the most spectacular pitches high up on the face as the evening light streamed through, frosting the peaks around us in a golden glow. Marc scraped away the gritty rock, leaving the pitch clean and enjoyable for Josh and I to follow. It was around 3AM when we reached the summit. Our bodies were exhausted from the long day of climbing but we were all in awe of the beautiful scenery which surrounded us; domes of ice, cascading glaciers, and deep fjords. We rappelled the route and were back at the base in just about 24 hours since our departure. We call our line The West Buttress of Great Sail peak, 12a, C1, 1100m.
Although the climbing was completed, our journey was far from over. The Stewart lake had melted out during the wind storm and our means of return was a long and strenuous paddle. We made two trips across the 10 kilometer expanse of lake shuttling our gear. My body was stiff and terribly neglected from the lack of stretching and relaxation between the climb, the paddle, and the heavy load carrying over the moraine. It was the fourth of August and we had made it back to the Walker Arm.
We waited on the white sandy beach overlooking the arctic waters. Seals played in the calm waters of the early morning, their cheerful voices echoed across the bay. We spent two days waiting for Levi to pick us up. The open ocean can be violent and make for a dangerous crossing if the time is not right. Arctic flowers were in bloom and green grasses blanketed the surrounding hills. A pod of Narwhals swam through the bay, taking their time and indulging in the cool clear water of the bay. They poked their heads out of the water showing off their long ivory tusks. Icebergs floated casually along with the pod of Narwhal into the depths of the Walker Arm. Finally Levi and his comrade showed up at the beach in their wooden motor boat. We loaded up our gear and left the Walker Arm in what felt like a split second. The change in pace was shocking after having spent six weeks moving no faster than the speed of a loaded down walk. It was sad to say goodbye to this place where we had become so familiar with, connected to in a way. Giant Icebergs drifted aimlessly in the open waters awaiting the proximate months where the sea ice would solidify, locking them in place for another long and dark year.
— I’d like to thank Joshua Lavigne for arranging this amazing trip, Inviting Marc and I, and for taking such beautiful images.
— A special thanks to The Copp/Dash Inspire award and MEC expedition grant for making our Baffin Island expedition come true!
— Thanks to Goal Zero, all of our cameras and electronics stayed charged using their sustainable solar technology.
–Thanks to The Farm House Natural Cheese in Agassiz for the donations of Gouda, Goat Gouda, Jalepeño Gouda, Gruyere, and Roquefort. Without these delicious cheeses we would have lost Marc- Andre from the expedition.
–Thanks to Lyo Foods for the delicious and Nutricious freeze-dried meals and fruit!
–Thanks to Arc’teryx for all the support; making the high end technical apparel, backpacks and harnesses to sustain the Arctic conditions.
–Thanks to G7 for providing the porta-ledges, our hangning beds that withstood the six day storm, as well as many other nights up on the wall!
 Synnott, Mark. Climbing Trekking &Skiing Baffin Island. Surrey: Rocky Mountain Books, 2008.