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.
Back in Last November in 2012, Ben Briggs and I went up to climb the Dru Couloir. Conditions were excellent, but we made a couple route finding errors in the dark and the rock pitches were quite time consuming.
This October I randomly bumped into Tasmanian beast Kim Ladiges in Macdonalds. The first and only other time we had climbed together was on the Peuterey Integrale back in 2010. Ben Tibbets joined us at the last minute to complete our trio.
Magnificent photos courtesy of Ben Tibbetts.
A light dusting of snow, thin mixed and black ice were the order of the day.
A BD Firstlight tent made the bivi more comfortable. The bivi at the bottom of the Dru is very well situated and seems to be a prime spot for epic sunsets.
The glacier was easy enough to negotiate, save for a ball tingling three foot gap jump over a monstrous crevasse. After the schrund there is 50m of 70 degree brittle ice, then a long stretch of 50-60 degree neve.Before the rock wall and nominee crack, there are 3 rope lengths of slightly steeper neve covering rotten rock. In 2012 conditions were much fatter and we easily ran up this section, confused by the mention of chossy grade 3 rock in the guide book. This time there was thin snow and neve on the slabs making it insecure and tedious with very spaced gear.
There are in situ anchors at all of the belays for the rock section, which is a useful reference point for the Nominee. It follows a very steep finger width pegged up crack. It can be climbed in one pitch with 60s. Last year Ben and I struggled up it using a combo of free and aid. It goes free at M7+ sport grade. I’m not a regular dry tooler so hard to say how this would compare to a M7+ at a dry tooling crag. IMO, unless you are a uber wad on your tools, there is no point trying to free it. It’s simply not a good pitch of free climbing. The placements are tenuous and there are pegs everywhere. Once you admit this to yourself, it makes sense to attack it with full aid tactics. Kim, fresh off his last Yosemite trip, pissed up it in minutes with etriers. We ascended the rope which was far quicker and easier than our approach last year. Alpine aiding on second sucks.
After the aiding, there is a long tricky M6 pitch. First a short steep step, then veer right to a pegged corner. After 20m of sustained climbing, keep heading right over slabs. It is easy to make the mistake of continuing straight up. I led this section in a full 60m pitch to the start of the crux offwidth.
Last year I climbed half of the pitch before bailing and protected the start with a stubby screw. This year there was a little ice in the back of the wide crack, but not enough to be much use. The crux is a full 60m of sustained hard mixed. Starts off M6/M6+, with the crux wide flake M7. Scottish 8 free. I’d recommend taking camlots 3 and 4. Great effort by Kim. Easier with lots of ice or no ice (in winter 2011 it was dry, and talked to one French guide who took his crampons off for it and jammed it with thin gloves).
We were hoping to move together up it but it was mostly heinous black ice, so we pitched it. Usually the S bend (crux of the upper couloir) is pretty mellow mixed or just ice. We find a tricky overhanging snow plugged that was quick time consuming. Good lead by Ben, then onto the last 4 pitches of black ice.
From the Breche, its 800m of rapping back down. Best to head straight down the overhanging chimneys of the direct. All anchors are in place but on the lower neve they may be hard to find and of questionable integrity. We arrived back late at our bivi and crashed there for the remainder of the night. Great to finally complete this mega classic on a truly iconic mountain.
My season in Cham finished earlier than usual this year. Towards the end of April I went up to the Lake District to attend a BMG training course there. We worked on guiding multipitch rock climbing and short roping with Adrian Nelhams and Stu McAleese. The course was superbly run and I learned a lot in a condensed four days. Write up from Paul Swail.
I’m now back from a ski expedition to Baffin Island, and reports from that will be coming soon. I had really productive March and April in Cham skiing some great lines with new and old friends. More will come, but here is the highlight of my shortened Cham spring, featuring Ben Briggs and Brendon O’Sullivan.
Mont Blanc du Tacul is one of the Alp’s most popular and accessible 4000ers. Which is one of the reasons dropping into the south face is so cool. Going in an instant from the familiar and pedestrian normal route, to the wild savagery of Mont Blanc’s steep south side. Just like the Sentinel Rouge and the Col de la Brenva, the ambiance is electrifying. All senses are instantly engaged. The sunny aspect belies the very serious and committing nature of these descents. Skiing it onsight is simpler and reduces the exposure on the south slopes, but it adds to the adventure and commitment.
This was without doubt one of the most technical and sustained descents I’ve ever done, and a fantastic adventure. It has been skied just a handful of times and I very much doubt it will ever become a classic. However, a French crew skied it more recently and made a nice edit for Epic TV. It looks like they benefited from much more snow build up on the line and managed ok with one rap. We skied it during a very dry and warm spell.
At the top.
Chillin. I managed to almost doze off here. We waited for it to soften. Sorry for the blatant way Ben is advertising White Dot here.
‘What’s down there?’
Nice top slope. Steep but clean and open.
Techy slopes keeps the concentration up.
Good turns on good snow
Damn my shit looks good, thanks sponsors for giving me the best gear.
Sloppy palming of the slope. Steep all the way.
Questing to get to the anchor for the mandatory 40m rap. Ben’s mixed skiing is often an asset to the team.
After the rap, we ended up in the skiing some 50-55 degree refrozen crust. Perfectly edgeable though. Then came what looked like steps of water ice. Ben skied first and edged through and jumped the last step. Damn. Well, I didn’t like the look of it. Brendan wasn’t sure either. We transitioned to crampons and got both tools out. However, instead of water ice it was grey mush. As I kicked in, running water welled up around my boots. My frontpoints had no purchase on the rock slab underneath. We made a 5m rap.
Back in the sun and some good turns here.
The line weaves intricately through the rocks.
Last week, Luca, Minna, Kirsti and I went over to explore one of the beautiful freeride descents emptying into the Brenva Basin. One of the charming features of the ‘Couloir Cache’ is that it is a half hour skin from the lift. Cache of course means hidden, and it is indeed well hidden. To access the entrance, 2 diagonal raps are needed to get over 2 other couloir systems. No doubt this line was spotted by an alpinist on the Brenva Glacier, or perhaps somewhere high on the Peuterey Arete.
Once in the couloir we were pleased to find 30cm of cold, stable powder snow. Although the couloir is only 400m long, it’s a really pleasing consistent pitch. We were the first team in there this season.
Out onto the Brenva glacier the snow was perfect and rippable. With how much the glacier has receded, more of the skiing is on rocks to the skiers left side which provides a perfect playground of small natural booters. At the moment, there is no ideal way off the Brenva, and we had to contend with a hideous gully exposed to the crumbling mass of the disintegrating glacier above.
Minna at the first anchor.
Boys at work.
The south face of Mont Blanc is a 1500m high wall of granit, snow and some of the most monolithic and menacing seracs in the Alps. To the left of the classic Brenva Spur, most of the skiable lines had previously been descended but once. There was once a time when this wall received some attention from alpinists, the ‘Route Major’ being one of the classic tougher routes to the summit of Europe’s highest peak. However, fashions and perceptions change and climbers and skiers ceased to visit the heart of the Brenva wall.
Amid improbably towering ice cliffs and bands of rock, one distinct couloir splits the middle of the face, cutting a dramatic line down from just below the summit, right through its guts and down onto the Brenva Glacier. To the discerning ski mountaineer, the couloir appears to be something of an obvious ‘ski line’. Yet, after one descent by Toni Valeruz in 1978, and a year later being climbed by a Japanese team, no one else has ever even been there.
When ski conditions are good on the north face of Mont Blanc, which is often from late March through May, dozens of ski mountaineers may descend it each day down to the Bossons Glacier. Besides the north face, every other possible ski descent from this busy mountain rests firmly within the realms of what is considered ‘extreme skiing’, and very rarely does anyone ski one of the alternative routes.
Mont Blanc is by no means remote, and the mighty south face is in full view from the top lift station. Yet it retains a slightly mystical aura of being untouchable, and the access in or out is by no means straightforward by the standards of the European Alps. While I’m no stranger to skiing scary lines in the Alps, I have never skied anywhere else with a more wild or serious feel to it. Until the history and mystique of the wall seduced me into considering skiing it, I certainly found it difficult to visualize being in the heart of it.
2013 has so far been a truly exceptional year in terms of the quantity and quality of snow that fell on the Mont Blanc range. Epic conditions in late spring continued to provide a wealth of possible objectives in early summer. When the going is that good and motivation is high, it’s impossible not to plot and scheme about the next big objective. Wanting to ski something a bit out of the ordinary to finish off an extraordinary season, I was all ears when my partners Ben and Luca suggested taking a look at Sentinelle Rouge Couloir.
The parameters of what constitutes a justifiable risk are very personal, but to me, if the line could be skied quickly and ideally without any rapelling or down climbing, the time spent underneath the monstrous serac hanging above it would be brief. While climbing the route to check the conditions was simply out of the question, we wanted to be diligent. Our team made two separate excursions to check the snow cover on the line. While it looked very promising, there was no way to be sure. To ski it would require total commitment in getting to the bottom of the couloir and onto the Brenva Glacier.
After a night bivying at the top lift station, we set out at 1am for the summit of Mont Blanc. At 6am we skied off the summit and located the entrance to the couloir. The snow was rock hard so we sat and waited. At this point there was no commitment we could have easily turned back. Was the risk justifiable and would we be able to ski it quickly? There was really no way to tell until we slid into the heart of it.
Getting progressively colder while sitting on the edge of the wall, dropping in was starting to lose its already tenuous appeal. Bailing to the valley via the safety of the Trois Monts seemed like the wiser course. Ben got restless and clipped into his skis. A couple turns down and it was clear the snow was less than ideal. At the top the snow soft and grippy, but then quickly turned into icy neve. Ben slid out of view, but we could hear the audible scratching of his skis on a hard surface. I waited a bit longer, hoping that minute by minute the sun would soften the neve. After thirty minutes I realized I could wait no longer. The top slope is a different aspect from the couloir, and the snow lower down could be getting dangerously soft.
To traverse into the couloir, I crossed the neve, swinging the pick of my Nomic firmly into it and carefully stepping down and across. Fully accepting I was now going to ski down, my brain switched into survival mode. With hyper focus and adrenaline driven tunnel vision I entered a delicate crux between some rocks. Straight-lining a tight choke, I was into the couloir and directly below the towering serac. The snow was amenably soft. Time to go. Skiing as fast as I could, the stress and tension caused my legs to fatigue quicker than usual. Two cruxes in the upper section went past in a blur, edging over a 55 degree section of water ice with a thin smearing of snow. The line soon widened and the angle lessened to 45 degrees. I started to rapidly loose elevation with big turns on near perfect corn.
Leaving the couloir, I followed Ben’s tracks traversing out left onto more broken mixed ground. Catching Ben near the bottom, we quickly scooted up Col Moore. When I dropped in, I thought Luca had turned around, not wanting to contend with the uncertainty of the top icy traverse, all the more difficult and dangerous on a board. Now it appeared he was halfway down. The sun was intensifying and the Brenva face was coming alive. I had a flight to catch and couldn’t afford to wait. Ben stayed behind to guide Luca to the safety of the col. Dehydrated and sweltering in the July heat, the south facing Brenva basin was becoming an energy sapping furnace. I slogged back alone to the nearest lift, the Helbronner.
Back in Chamonix I checked that Luca had made it off the face, and then rushed to the airport. Contemplating what we had done, I found immense satisfaction in taking in the aesthetics of our achievement. A huge and beautiful line skied in the purest style possible. The skiing itself was too stressful to be very enjoyable, and it wasn’t one of my best experiences in the mountains. But it was an interesting psychological exercise and a trip through the most wild and deadly scenery imaginable.
Additional photos from Ben and Luca.
At the start of Arpil 2012, Ben Briggs and I climbed Late to Say I’m Sorry which is a stunning line on the north face of the Grand Rocheuse, one of the slightly less famous 4000ers. Jon and Will’s ascent in the winter of 2010 seems to have plucked this Jasper route from obscurity, and begun the route’s transformation into a popular modern classic (testpiece). The route deserves attention and offers the most immaculate granit goulotte climbing I have ever come across.
It is just over 700m to the top of the technical climbing, then another 300 of moderate mixed to the summit of the Grand Rocheuse. This is a great winter route as it can be done in a day off first bin if you rap from the top of the steep pitches. There are good in-situ anchors on rock, then the Coutrier can be v-threaded. If you summit the Grand Rocheuse I think it would be logical (and easiest) to then descend the Whymper or traverse the Verte and descend the Coutrier. This then makes the outing a lot longer and more committing. We skied in off 1st bin and then skied down in the dark.
It was the 2nd time in 2 weeks I had attempted the route, first time Charlie Boscoe and I bailed after television sized blocks came hurtling down the Coutrier, released from the mixed ground to climber’s right on the triangle. When Ben and I began up the Coutrier it wasn’t cold but it was certainly below freezing, and again a couple huge blocks came close to us. However, we decided it was just as quick to continue up out of the danger zone which seemed to be the 60 degree choke near the bottom.
Once up the initial slopes of the Coutrier, you head slightly right into steeper mixed ground.
Start of the crux pitch, M6 roof. After you pass this, you can continue up into a steep corner (M6 usually). There was very little ice in the corner when we were there, so Ben veered right into a steep crack system (M7 or A1). Good effort to Ben for freeing the roof.
On the way down, we noticed it would have been possible to miss this pitch out entirely and instead climb 70-80 placage to the left which connected to the next belay. However, we stuck to the route, and anyway its hard to tell if it goes from the belay below the roof.
After this mixed pitch (M6ish) there are 2-3 pitches of immaculate ice, mostly sustained at 80 degrees maybe vertical in places. There is enough gear in the rock to make it fairly safe, but we were also able to place screws.
Ben Briggs and I climbed this route at the end of October 2011. All superlatives apply to the Matterhorn, it is a truly incredible mountain. Climbing and skiing above Zermatt is inconvenient and expensive, as you have to park in Tasch and then get stung for parking, the train and then a lift ticket. We opted to approach the Hornli by taking a trail up to climber’s right of the ski area. This was a bit of a slog, and we wished we had paid for the lift halfway which eliminates much of the vertical gain of the hike up.
When viewed from Zermatt, the 1100m north face of the Matterhorn is incredibly impressive. The quality of the climbing is not that impressive, but this is not a route you do for high quality climbing. The crumbly, layered limestone is certainly not Chamonix granit and sometimes offers little in the way of protection. Which isn’t too bad, since the climbing is never that hard.
While the climbing is not too hard and its best to move together over most of the face, its mostly not super easy either. The cruxes consist of thin traverses on snappy, slabby rock between the ice gullies. The conditions we found the face in were certainly acceptable, but I don’t think you would want to go up there if it was much drier, considering the quality of the rock.
While we were approaching the Hornli, a roped team of 3 Italians fell off the lower easy ground, roped toegther. We saw the heli come in the pick up their bodies. A grim reminder of how badly it can go wrong when on easy ground, and it certainly wasn’t great for the pysche.
To get up to the start of the face you have to haul on an old rope up a short steep rock wall. This isn’t too bad, and seems preferable to trying to climb what was steep and thin ice to the right. The first 400m of the route is steady 50-60 degree ground but with limited gear. Shortly after there is some M4 and then the crux M5 gully (Scottish V, limited protection). The line then follows a series of gullies (mainly Scot IV) but the dry traverses require a steady head. The last 300-400m (Scot III-IV) isn’t that steep but seems to go on forever. Overall for the route, small gear seemed to be more useful than big gear, and we even smashed a couple pegs in.
There really aren’t any bivi spots, and most teams climb the face in a day. It took us 10 hours from schrund to summit. The descent down the Hornli is pretty straightforward but requires some attention. We got to the Salvay just as it was getting dark and crashed there for the night.
Ben on one of the cruxes (the M5 gully). Not that hard but not much gear.
Obligatory summit shots.
Down the fixed lines on the Hornli, onto the Salvay hut.