is a virtual magnet for adventure and exploration.
Starting with the early sailors searching for the elusive
Northwest Passage, the tradition of exploration lives on to this day,
offering prime opportunities for climbing, skiing and kiting
exploration. Best of all,
nowadays travel to and from this remote island doesn’t involve scurvy,
frostbite or mutiny at sea, just a half day flight from Ottawa or
Over a hundred
years and numerous expeditions were required to finally unlock the
secrets of the
. The impetuous for this
effort was to develop a short cut over the top North America as a
shipping route from Europe to
. The completion of this
momentous event proved two things; first,
that it was indeed possible and second, that it was completely
infeasible due to the sea ice. With
this mystery solved,
slipped back into relative exploration obscurity for the next 75 years.
The next wave of
adventurers to visit
included pioneering mountain climbers.
’s peaks are not very high by international standards, they make up
for it by being remote, cold and plentiful. As an added enticement, the
mountains come straight out of the sea, so a 2,000m peak will be all
climbing and almost no approaching or foothills.
Most of the early climbers were interested in peaks that could be
done just by hiking up them. As
the sport of mountain climbing grew, a sub culture of Big Wall climbing
developed within it, which specialized multi day ascents of
huge, blank, vertical rock walls. The cutting edge practitioners
of this sport developed techniques for living on vertical or overhanging
walls for weeks on end and ascending almost featureless rock.
Once they had outgrown the warm, sunny environment
and granite walls of Yosemite Valley and the Alps, they started
to look for new adventures and found a virtual goldmine of opportunities
The east coast of
is home to not only the largest vertical rock walls in the world, but
also the greatest concentration of them.
The thirty-six fjords that cut inland by up to 20km form a
comb-like geography of towering rock walls.
These glacial cut monoliths represent the highest concentration
of Big Wall climbing challenges anywhere on earth.
Due to the effort and technical skill required to ascent one of
these monsters, less than 100 routes have been climbed on
and almost none of those have received second ascents.
As a Ski
Mountaineer and aspiring Big Wall climber, I was first introduced to
’s skiing potential at a climbing slideshow.
In the world of ski mountaineering, couloirs represent the
ultimate challenge. They are
the narrow, steep, deep clefts that form in the sides of mountains and
act as natural drainpipes for rockfall, avalanches and erosion.
A “perfect” couloir is one that splits a peak from top to
bottom, has little to no
variation from the fall-line and is steep, yet not so steep as to be
unskiable. As I watched the
slideshow, I became aware of numerous “perfect” couloirs lurking in
the background of all the photos and asked the presenter how many there
were in the area. His one
word answer was enough to launch a new era is ski mountaineering
In April of 2002,
Brad Barlage and I set out to discover the potential of skiing these
arctic behemoths. Prior to
our trip, “skiing” on
meant long Nordic treks across the sea ice.
After researching the area through Canadian avalanche experts,
climbers and others who had been there, we found that nobody had
ventured into the tall chutes that lined the fjords.
Determined to find out for ourselves, we flew from
and then caught a Ski Doo ride from Ilko, a local Inuk guide out to
After working our
way into the adjoining Sam Ford fjord, we were able to test our theory
out. Starting from the flats on the frozen sea ice, we estimated our
couloir of choice to be about 600m tall.
Hours later, we were happily shocked to read on our altimeter
that it was 1,100m, or almost double our first guess!
We were able to sight down the entire length of the couloir,
which was lined with gigantic rock walls on each side.
As if it had been designed specifically for skiing, it maintained
a steady 40 degree angle for its entire length and was coated with a
divine frosting of recrystalized artic powder.
Committing to the first turn, we started skiing down the center
with our smiles growing wider by the minute.
At the bottom, it was unanimous; in our 52 years of combined
skiing, we both agreed it was the best run either of us had ever had.
At this point,
the trip could have been over and considered a success, but we had three
more weeks to spend in the area, so we continued to explore other
couloirs. Much to our
disbelief, they stayed as good or even BETTER than our initial
is windswept and has a shallow snowpack, the couloirs had been packed
full of snow by the arctic winds and then preserved from solar melting
by the deep dark clefts of the couloir.
Not only that, but there were indeed tons of these couloirs.
We fell into a daily routine of climbing and skiing a couloir per
day until we had exhausted an area (and ourselves) and then would move
camp to a new area and begin the process all over again.
By the end, we had climbed and skied 19 new couloirs, and were
just beginning to realize the vast potential for ski mountaineering on
One problem that
worried us before starting this trip was how we were going to cover the
long distances between the fjord walls.
The scale of
’s fjords is hard to fathom. At
a steady walking pace, it can take hours to cross from one side to the
other, even though it looks like it will be a matter of a few minutes.
To help with this, we brought along a quiver of different sized
traction kites which we could deploy and have them pull us and our sleds
across the snow. These kites
are similar to a sailboat spinnaker and are controlled by two 30m lines
that attach to a control bar, which in turn is attached to a waist belt
harness. This style of kite
has revolutionized arctic travel by allowing explorers to sail across
snow covered land at speeds up to 60km/hr and cover over 250km in one
While kiting has
been used successfully in Antarctica, it was a major unknown on
. Would the winds be strong
enough or worse yet, too strong? Would
the snow be smooth enough to hold an edge, or would it be a sheet of
glaze ice? The only way to
know was to try it, and once again,
revealed a fantastic new way to explore it.
With the fjords
acting as wind funnels, we experienced smooth, steady kiting across sea
ice that had just enough texture to hold an edge on.
The 24 hours of daylight at that time of year allowed us to
travel whenever we wanted and we often found ourselves kiting well into
the night and eating dinner at 1:00am or later.
The sensation of flying through the cathedral like rock
formations in the stunning alpenglow light of the arctic circle was so
alluring that we had to keep reminding ourselves that we were here to
ski, not just kite.
An integral part
of any trip to the fjord
involves the opportunity to meet the local Inuk guides and villagers.
The creativity and ingenuity of the culture is amazing,
especially considering the limited materials and extreme living
conditions. We modeled our
sled designs on the traditional kamotik and found them ideally suited
for stepping over rough patches of sea ice and tracking well at high
speeds. This time honored
design is a masterpiece of understated simplicity, functionality and
durability – all important features in the arctic.
Out on the land,
we were often visited by people coming and going from fishing camps or
hunting. We finally stopped
asking the kids if they were cold, as they never were and all said
“February is cold. This is
OK.” When arranging for a
ride back to
, we started to explain in detail where we thought we might be in three
weeks, before Roger Etuanget interjected “Don’t worry.
I’ll find you.” Indeed
he did, and even arrived a few hours early.
For people who are use to following the faint trail of arctic
foxes, tracking two skiers is an easy task.
result of meeting Inuits out on the land is that it helps to put your
personal adventures in perspective.
What might seem like a wild trip to the ends of the earth,
suddenly takes on a new light when you meet someone who has grown up in
this environment, as have all of his or her ancestors.
The importance of surviving, staying warm, and being patient
through the dark months of winter are innate skills that have been
passed on through many generations.
As an adventure
is hard to beat. One trip
there leads to another with virtually endless avenues to explore and new
ways to do it. The quality of the adventures are still as high as they
were 100 years ago, but with today’s improved access, the
enjoyment to misery ratio has been tipped significantly in the modern
day explorers favor.