My First Expedition To The Last Arctic Wilderness On The Planet - Part 1
I had only recently returned to the UK after a late summer trip to the Bugaboos; Canadian Warren Hollinger and I had succeeded in establishing a new 1000m route over 8 days - and getting struck by lightning on the summit as a reward!
Consequently, I was still enjoying the bizarre experience of being completely uninterested in climbing, though this only lasted two weeks. My urge to climb flooded back as the October ’94 edition of “Climbing” Magazine came out, featuring a 12-page article by Eugene Fisher on
Baffin Island and its 26 awesome Eastern fjords - each one with more acreage of climbable rock than the whole of Yosemite Valley. I was totally smitten with the idea of the last unexplored Arctic Big Wall paradise. Coincidentally, so was Warren, thousands of miles away in Hawaii.
Warren’s only thought was to attempt the biggest thing out there and bugger the consequences. The stupendous North Face of Polar Sun Spire (below), lying deep within the confines of Sam Ford Fjord (the most impressive of the 26 in my opinion) was the natural objective. Polar Sun presented a dead vertical sweep of granite estimated by Eugene to be over 1,300m high - greater than even the huge 1,160m West Face of Mount Thor in the island’s southern sector.
Preparation for this trip was especially difficult for me as my wife Jackie was expecting our first baby in February ’95, and I was gambling on an early birth! This was combined with a very busy schedule at specialist retailer’s Cotswold The Outdoor People, heading up their sales and marketing team.
th May 1995 I flew into Montreal in the early morning light. Warren was there, waiting, accompanied by a Colorado climber by the name of Mark Synnott (pictured below). Mark was an old buddy with whom Warren had done a number of hard Yosemite Valley nail-ups’ as well as the Nose in a day. Now we were a trio, and suddenly life shifted up a gear as we plunged headlong into a frenzied two-day session of Wall provisioning and logistics. We were young (-ish!) and highly charged, and had no idea was happening. Unbeknownst to us then, history was about to be made; our laid back American friend was destined to become THE most famous North Face Athlete of all time, and this trip was to be the one to launch his career, turning Mark from aspiring debutant to seasoned professional.
As we flew into Clyde River, the tiny Inuit settlement before the ice, reality hit. It was well below zero, and the only thing I could make out through the swirling snow was a solitary Portacabin (the 'Airport'!) and a mean-looking guy wearing a bear fur jacket. Jushua Illuaq (below) was to be our guide and Arctic mentor for the next week, and as I looked into his scarred face, I immediately sensed this guy was really tough. Time was to prove my snapshot judgement correct. Jushua IS the hardest guy on the planet, killing his first Polar Bear aged just 7, and surviving a series of proper epics that left a trail of dead men in their wake. This was going to be a fun trip!
Within 48 hours we were on our way, powering across the ice on skidoos and into the Arctic vastness that is the Eastern Fjords. Lying slumped on the Komotik (an Inuit sledge) trying to maintain circulation in the -25C wind-chill I thought back to Fisher’s letter of support for our expedition;
The proposed climb on Polar Sun Spire, if successful, will certainly stand as one of the most sustained rock walls in The World, on par with routes on Great Trango. The violent sea ice particular to East Baffin also ensures that this venture will have a seriousness and isolation rivalled only by Antarctic climbs. This is corroborated by C.D. Len Forest, Commander of the Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker fleet. In conversations with me he has declared that the ice choked eastern coast of Baffin is ‘Canada’s Pole of Inaccessibility’, more cut off from the World than even the coasts of Ellesmere Island.”
The views coming into Sam fjord were absolutely stunning and we begged our guides to take us on a tour of the very peaks we had dreamed about through the pages of Eugene’s article. After a 3 or 4 hour ride we decided to leave Polar Sun as our first objective because of the vast amounts of early season snowfall. We plumbed instead for the gothic might of The Great Cross Pillar, and its awesome South Face. Great Cross is so named because of a distinct cross that can be seen to the west of the main pillar. Formed by black water streaks, the cross was not obvious until pointed out to us by Gramps, a village elder so named by us because we were unable to pronounce his real name, Iqaqrialuq.
We pitched camp right underneath the face on the rock hard sea ice. Celebrations were well in order. We had arrived intact, we had a gobsmacking objective right in front of us, and so right on cue Warren produced a virgin bottle of Jack Daniel’s. Everything would’ve been fine, had it not been for the fact that we had been without sleep by this stage for at least 24 hours, unacclimatised as we were to the constant daylight at these latitudes. Moreover, our last full meal was over 12 hours ago. The raw alcohol hit deep, affecting us in very different ways. Mark fell over unconscious, I started to run around dementedly fearing a polar bear attack at any moment, whilst Warren suddenly leaped to attention and grabbed the rifle that we had been advised to carry because of the bear threat. He leaped out of the tent and proceeded to blaze a trail of wanton destruction, the sawn off , pump-action shot gun exploding in his hands as he let fly round after round. Ice, rock, plastic barrels, all succumbed to the onslaught. Eventually I managed to wrestle the deadly weapon from his shaking hands. He collapsed in the tent and went instantaneously into a deep sleep. The Polar Sun made a complete circle above our heads before we surfaced again.
Having well and truly established Base Camp, we immediately started fixing rope, working on a line up the overhanging central buttress of the 900m high pillar. We spent 5 days on and off fixing, and then cut loose and blasted for the top. On the fourth day proper on the wall I took up the belay as Warren proceeded to lead out a 10 hour horror pitch of artificial climbing. It started as a sky hook traverse on tiny quartz crystals across to a death block. This was so named because it was detached and rested on a sloping edge at the start of the seam Warren was about to follow. If he fell he’d take the rock with him, slicing the rope in the process. Warren then ran it out on body-weight No. 1 Copper Heads to the lip of a small overhang. Copper Heads are 1cm long pieces of actual copper that aid climbers to smash into tiny crevices - they will take body weight only. Reaching way out in his aiders he made a blind hook placement, rocked over onto it, only to see it oscillate wildly as he came up to eye level with it. Mark, a full 100meters below us, was rushing around in an effort to clear the hanging portaledges. He was in prime drop zone position, directly below the pitch and already the beneficiary of a number of large missiles Warren had cleared from the route…