Love At First Flight
By Andrew McLean

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Originally published in Couloir Magazine

2002 Expedition to Baffin Island 

Club Med 2002 Winter Get Away to Sunny Baffin Island!

Imagine, just you and a friend sharing a cozy tent while hurricane force winds nip at your vestibule. Frolic in 24 hours of sunlight amongst miles of towering granite walls, then retire to a savory meal of half cooked Backpackers Pantry freeze dried Shepard’s Pie, cold soup and scalding Tang! Relish the sensation of being stalked by real LIVE POLAR BEARS! Scream with delight at the bracing chill of waking up in the minus 20-degree climate. Fun for the whole family, this trip of a lifetime features World Class chute skiing, incredible kite skiing and amazing scenery! Book your reservations now!

$2,500 May 19 - April 21
(not including airfare, taxes, licenses, skis, boots, bindings, helmets, food, tents, warm clothes, fuel, stoves, skins, sleds, kites, sleeping bags, a month off of work or beverages)

I know what you’re thinking – “This just sounds too good to be true. What’s the catch?” Alas, the catch is that Club Med doesn’t really offer a trip like this. At least not yet, although I’m sure they will when the word gets out about the exquisite chutes and kiting potential of Baffin Island. As such, in September of 2001, Brad Barlage and I decided to stock up on the tanning butter and put the trip together by ourselves.

The idea was fairly simple – use steerable traction kites to cover the vast stretches of flat sea-ice between what we hoped were skiable couloirs. The outcome of this trip was highly dubious from the start. We wanted to ski chutes that had never been skied before, let alone looked at. We had no idea how many there were, or what condition they might be in. They could be solid ice, or hair triggered avalanche traps. There could be lots of them, or, three. When researching prevailing wind conditions to assess the kiting potential, we learned that sometimes it blows inland, sometimes out, sometimes very strong and sometimes nothing, sometimes every day and sometimes nothing for weeks on end. The ice surface was the same – sometimes rough, sometimes smooth. “I don’t know. It all depends.” This seemed close enough for single celled AT skiers such as ourselves, so we sewed up some kites, booked flights and started making plans. Prepared for success, failure or something in-between, we never would have imagined the trip turning out like it did.

Baffin Island is Canada’s version of Maine. It’s located in the far northeastern corner of Canada, above Montreal and Ottawa and across the Atlantic from Greenland. Shaped roughly like a kidney bean, it is the fifth largest island in the world and half of it resides above the Arctic Circle. Being at 70 degrees north means it’s quite cold, with temperatures averaging around –18c during the month of May, which is when we decided to go. 

Things that you take for granted don’t apply there. When I tried to buy a compass after thinking I’d lost mine, I was told, “Don’t bother. With 51 degrees of declination the needle points almost due west anyway.” The island has three main towns that mark its southern, mid and northern points. Our destination was the mid point town of Clyde River, home of 700 Inuits, a few Southerners and many sledding dogs.

Clyde is strategically located just below some of the most stunning of the 26 fjords that line Baffin’s northeast coast like tines on a comb. The fjords themselves were created as glaciers flowed from the 6,000’ plateau down to the sea, slicing through granite as they went and creating miles and miles of vertical rock walls. These walls have become a rite of passage for hardcore Big Wall climbers, which is how I first caught a glimpse of the skiing potential. In photo after photo, there, between the walls or off in the distance, you could see thin little streamers of snow splitting the rock faces. I never met anyone who really knew or cared anything about them, until one day I went to a slideshow by Mike Libecki who happened to have a perfectly framed photo of one of them. The photo showed a 4,000’ wall with a plum-line couloir running from the top all the way down to the sea-ice. Buried in a cleft with 500’ walls on either side, the couloir had it all – steep, long, straight and narrow. I introduced myself to Mike, talked to him about that photo and asked if there were others like it. His one word answer was enough to set our expedition in motion - “Tons.”

But there was a problem. The area is very remote and logistics is spelled with a capital “$.” Without spending $1,000 per day to hire a guide and snowmobile to shuttle us around, how were we going to cover the vast flat stretches between these tempting beauties? Fortunately, destiny had introduced me to NASA wing kites a year earlier, which solved this dilemma like the last piece in a jigsaw puzzle. Folded up, a 5-meter NASA wing is roughly the size of a Nalgene™ bottle, but when deployed, it is capable of propelling you across the ice at speeds faster than you want to go.

My first introduction to this new way of life was down in Antarctica while waiting for the weather to clear. Two Dutch explorers, Marc and Wilco, had used kites to get from the South Pole back to Patriot Hills in 16 days, versus skinning for 69 days on their trip out. They had stories of effortlessly traveling over 150 km per day while pulling a 200 lb sled and at times going so fast that they and their sleds were being lifted in the air. I had to try it. They rigged me up, gave me a few pointers and it was love at first flight. The speed and sensation was incredible. Instead of slogging, you were flying. Huge distances suddenly became reasonable instead of spirit crushing death marches. You could go upwind, downwind, sideways and stop. The harder you pulled, the faster you went. Flat fields of powder suddenly became fair game for face shots. The potential was unreal.

These particular types of kites were derived from the NASA space program where they were designed as steerable parachutes to help recover space shuttle booster rockets. As the designs were in the public domain due to NASA’s taxpayer supported status, some kite designers from the Netherlands got a hold of the plans and tweaked them into the land based pulling monsters that they are now.

These types of kites have several advantages over other RAM air type of designs. First and foremost, they are cheap, light and compact, which means you can afford to own a quiver of them and then carry them without incurring a weight penalty. On this trip, we carried three kites apiece, plus food, clothes, avalanche tools, climbing gear and water, all in a regular day pack. Being a single wall design akin to a sailing spinnaker, they won’t hold and collect snow as other kites do, and, most importantly, they provide ample amounts of pull in little to no wind and shocking amounts of pull in mid to high winds. By carrying GPS’ in our pockets, we were able to track our top speed (54 km/h without a sled, 52 km/h with one), distances traveled and average speed, all of which blew away walking and was far more fun. 

As we had special size and construction requirements, we decided to build our own kites and then tested them in the open fields around Park City, Utah. As a result of this testing and researching the weather on Baffin Island, we decided to bring a 5.0m2 (large), a 14m2 (huge) and a 30m2 kite (monstrous) apiece. We thought this would cover whatever kind of winds we might come across, but in retrospect, something along the size of a postage stamp might have been useful in some of the extremely high winds that funnel down through the fjords.

Our first chance to put all this testing into theory came sooner than we hoped. After trudging down Eglinton Fjord for about an hour, Brad declared “That enough. Time to kite.” The only problem was that the wind was blowing hard onto the cliff walls. If we were over powered, we’d be cheese gratered up against the rock with little to no ceremony. But then again, this is what we were there for, so passion overcame logic and we proceeded to set up. No sooner than we had set out the kites, Joavee, a friend from Clyde River, showed up on his Ski-Doo and stopped to watch. 

Accustomed to watching Southerners come up to his backyard to BASE jump, wall climb, hunt polar bears, defend seal pups and generally have epics, this was something new to even him. As he offered the final words of “Ski-Doo is much faster.” we backed up, put some tension in the lines, took a deep breath, gave the signal and pulled our kites into the air. The impact was immediate. When launching, a kite starts at the bottom of its power stroke and sweeps upward towards the stalled position. The sensation is similar to a dry dock start on water skis, where you go from zero to full speed in a matter of seconds, so you had best be ready. In this case, with a 200 lb sled strapped behind us and a kite possessed by Satan in front, it was all we could do to hang on as we shot down the fjord with blurred vision and no time to look back to see Joavee disappearing in the distance. 

But, it was working! 

We were effortlessly, if not a bit fearfully, cranking down a frozen fjord on our way to go Trophy Chute hunting in the Arctic Circle.

The first stop was at a pair of nice looking little couloirs that had sprouted up out of the sea-ice. Weighing in at 1,800’ apiece, they were a quaint intro to Baffin skiing, but not really anything to sat-phone home about. Feeling that there most be bigger and better things further along, we put in two days of walking and kiting down Eglinton Fjord to get us to the base of Revoir Pass. On a topo map, this pass is a mere two-inch separation between the end of one fjord and the middle of another. Logistically, it’s a Godsend, which saves you the effort of retracing days of travel, only to have to regain that ground again when you cross over into the next fjord. 

Once we surmounted this obstacle and made it down into the sheltered cove of Swiss Bay, I realized where we were. Legendary landmarks from photographs suddenly roared up in towering relief – Sam Ford Fjord, Polar Sun Spire, Great Cross Pillar, Ottawa Peak, The Fin, The Walker Spur and Kigut Peak – all names I’d heard of before, but now in the beaming midnight sun of the Arctic Circle and total silence. Nothing I had ever seen before – peaks, rock walls, glacial valleys, European cathedrals, or Antarctic landscapes even touched this. Everywhere we looked there were splitter couloirs streaming down from the skies. After months of planning, agonizing and spending, it was at that point that we knew the trip was going to be a raging success. Regardless of what happened in the next three weeks, just being in this spot and experiencing the awe of the Arctic landscape made it all worthwhile. And the best was yet to come.

First things first, we set our sights on the one we’d seen in Mike Libecki’s slide show that was located on Mt. Beluga. As part of the chuting ritual, you have to guess how big it is before you actually climb and ski it. Guesstimating it at around 1,800’ we were blown away an hour later to still be climbing up it and even further surprised when we checked our Altimax watches at the top. It logged in at a hefty 3,640’. But that was nothing compared to the skiing down. The snow conditions are a bizarre mix of coastal weather, Continental dryness, Arctic cold and hurricane force winds. How all of that translates into perfect, stable powder is a mystery to me, but it did. Skiing down between walls so high that the sun never touches the snow in the chute, you can see the entire line stretching out ahead of you, until it finally dead-ends straight into the sea ice at 45 degrees way off in the distance. There wasn’t a bad turn to be had in the entire line and with 60 years of cumulative skiing between us, there wasn’t any debate either – we both instantly deemed it “Best Run” of our entire lives. As it was the guiding inspiration of the trip, we agreed to call it the Polar Star Couloir.

With twenty days left to ski, we fell into a routine of moving camp every few days, then climbing and skiing the chutes in the immediate area until we had tapped it out. Even though it hardly seemed possible, the couloirs stayed as good, if not even better, than Polar Star. A hidden couloir on the Northwest Passage opened up 4,000’ of superb skiing. Polar Disorder featured a 50° headwall in a 3,750’ chute that seemed suspended in space above Sam Ford Fjord. The Inquisition Couloir on Great Cross Peak tortured us with 5,100 of vertical above a huge cliff. The East Face of Polar Sun Spire was the only open skiable slope we found and measured in with the biggest vertical of the trip. Intestinal Fortitude, named after a freeze-dried cooking accident, offered the deepest powder and a multitude of spires. The Crosshairs Couloir marked the confluence of Stewart Valley, an icefield with polar bear tracks, the Walker Arm and the Walker Spur with 3,200’ of stellar turns. All told, we skied 19 lines, of which ten were the top ten of my life. And there’s so many more!

All of this just goes to prove the theory of Expedition Relativity: the more trips you go on, the better chance you have of having one turn out. With help from a Polartec Challenge Grant and equipment from The North Face, the trip turned out to be an excellent value for your Ski Mountaineering dollar. The biggest expense (aside from the kites, food and other necessities of life) was the airfare, which with the currency exchange turned out to be about $1,400. Ski-Doos are a way of life up there, and should you decide to use them to get shuttled around with, locals like Roger Etuangat not only know the way to carry the sleigh, but how to get there as well. Logistically, Baffin is fairly straightforward – fly into Ottawa or Montreal, take First Air to Clyde River, put on your jacket and head out to the fjords.

In the end, Brad and I remained good friends, kept all of our digits, weren’t eaten by Polar Bears, buried by avalanches or sucked through a crack in the ice. What more could you ask for, except to return next year and do it all over again?

Copyright - Andrew McLean Back to Writings Index