Catch Wind of An Adventure
By Andrew McLean

Back to Writings Index
Originally published in Up Here Magazine - June 2005

Baffin Island 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, with Baffin 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 Montreal.  

Over a hundred years and numerous expeditions were required to finally unlock the secrets of the Northwest Passage .  The impetuous for this effort was to develop a short cut over the top North America as a shipping route from Europe to Asia .  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, Baffin Island slipped back into relative exploration obscurity for the next 75 years.  

The next wave of adventurers to visit Baffin Island included pioneering mountain climbers.  Although Baffin ’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 in Baffin Island .

The east coast of Baffin Island 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 Baffin and almost none of those have received second ascents.

As a Ski Mountaineer and aspiring Big Wall climber, I was first introduced to Baffin Island ’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 exploration in Baffin Island – “Tons.”

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 Baffin Island 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 Ottawa to Clyde River and then caught a Ski Doo ride from Ilko, a local Inuk guide out to Eglinton fjord.

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  descent!  Although most of Baffin Island 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 Baffin Island . 

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 Baffin Island ’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 day.

While kiting has been used successfully in Antarctica, it was a major unknown on Baffin Island .  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, Baffin Island 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 county of Baffin Island 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 Clyde River , 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. 

An unexpected 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 destination, Baffin Island 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.

Copyright - Andrew McLean Back to Writings Index