Baffin is really a place that defies all the normal conventions of where alpine skiing should take place. It’s essentially an arctic desert with quite meager precipitation. The world’s 5th largest island. The world’s biggest sea cliffs. Some say the world’s best couloir skiing. Certainly a place of superlatives. Baffin is 2.5 times the size of the UK with a population of 15,000. It has remarkably stable weather and stable snow. The snow is an intriguing combination of super stable and deep snow in the couloirs and a horrible shallow and faceted snowpack on the open slopes. In the 16 days I was out on the ice I skied 14 days and had one day of bad weather. We averaged 1000m vertical skied per day and I skied 14 different lines. We carried guns for safety, not avy gear. The quality of the skiing is very high, very consistent and far safer than in the Alps.
When my ski partner and good friend Ross Hewitt invited me on the trip and confirmed that Berghaus were going to be paying for it I couldn’t believe the good fortune. I will forever be grateful to him. Ross and Michelle Blaydon are Berghaus athletes and extremely fit and experienced ski mountaineers. Marcus Waring had been to Baffin previously, owns lots of guns and is an under the radar ski mountaineering beast. Baffin will never become a popular destination due to the enormous expense and logistical difficulty of getting there. With the arctic warming more rapidly than temperate latitudes, who knows how much longer it will be possible to ski there.
My three team mates went out ahead of me. First Ross and Marcus who worked round the clock to organize our supplies and food. Michelle then followed them shortly afterwards and the three of them traveled out onto the frozen fiordlands, an 8 hour skidoo ride from the nearest town of 500 Inuits, which was a 4 hour flight from Baffin’s capital in the south. I had a guide training course to attend which I could not miss. The plan was for me to travel out independently and meet them on the ice. My trip did not start according to plan. After a sleepless night packing I took a nap in a nice quiet corner of Philadelphia airport, alarm set for 45 minutes before my flight was due to depart. Only I was in the wrong terminal and the airport was far bigger than I had realized. I made it to the gate just as they were sealing the door and even though passengers were still taking their seats they would not let me on. My flight from Ottawa to Baffin was non-refundable and would have cost 1,800 Canadian to buy another ticket. I had to travel the 500 miles from Philly to Ottawa in 6 hours, so the only solution was to caffeinate myself to the max, rent a car and drive through the night.
Once I arrived in Baffin we did not have a predetermined location to rendezvous and suddenly I wished we had made a clearer plan. I knew Ross, Michelle and Marcus had traveled a very considerable distance from where they were dropped off, but I did not know where they were going to be the day I was going to meet them. I did not know how quickly I’d be able to find a ride out and how I was going to meet my Inuit driver. My team was somewhere out there in the wild and I had to get to them. Good practice at becoming more comfortable with uncertainty. The evening before I was due to depart by skidoo with an Inuit hunter I received a text update from the team giving me their location.
Anyway, here are the lines we skied.
My first line, and the only one I skied with Michelle before she left. The three of them had had a brutal 2 weeks of travel and skiing in -30 degree and Michelle had lost half her body weight skiing like a demon and hauling a heavy pulk miles across moraines.
Only 500m vert; Baffin mini golf.
A 1500m south facing line! Nothing previously known about it. A French team snaked us. Would be the crown jewel classic line of most mountain ranges! 45-30 degrees of corn. Think 8 ENSAs stacked ontop of each other. So fast and rippable.
Beluga Spire and the uber classic Polar Star couloir. Baffin’s most celebrated line. Probably 5.2 on the toponeige scale, comparable to the NNE of Les Courtes. The only line where we encountered exposed glacial ice near the top. Marcus has now skied this line more than anyone else, 4 times I think. 40-50 degrees, 1,300m vert.
In the guts of a 1500m, probably unskied line. Marcus scouted this gem on his last trip. It leads to the summit of Walker Citadel, the only amenable way to the top of the world’s largest sea cliff. 30-45 degrees.
Ross in another classic on the Ford Wall.
Camp defense was not taken lightly. A bear perimeter fence with an airhorn was rigged up (Marcus’s ingenious design). I love polar bears as much as the next Greenpeace activist, but if they got too close, well we were ready with a .308 and pump action shotgun loaded with slugs.
Like the East Face of Mont Blanc du Tacul. Splitter couloirs among towering granite. No info on these lines, possible first descent of a steep 1000m southish facing line, the obvious one right of center.
Skinning back to camp one night. Easy to lose track of time in the perpetual light, at times we got into a routine of sleeping in, skiing a north facing line, getting back to camp late at night, then repeating the next day. At times we traveled up to 10km on the flat to reach objectives. It was faster to skate than skin, but expended far more energy.