After nearly two months of hardship, extreme climber Stefan Glowacz and alpinist Robert Jasper return from the Arctic regions of Baffin Island to civilisation.
How does it feel to be exposed? To be exposed in the icy wilderness of Canada’s Arctic northeast – exposed in a world that appears to us to be unreal, for the purpose of discovering the last white spaces on the map that have not yet been surveyed or studied…
On their expedition in the spring of 2008, the extreme climber Stefan Glowacz, alpinist Robert Jasper, camera man Holger Heuber, photographer Klaus Fengler and camera assistant Mariusz Hofmann did not know what awaited them on Baffin Island, the fifth biggest island in the world. They did not know what the mountain wall that they aimed to climb would look like, or whether it would be possible at all to climb a difficult route in icy temperatures as low as minus 35 degrees – in an environment when you run the risk of getting frostbite if you just take off your gloves for a few seconds.
In spite of all the dangers and difficulties that people are faced with in this region, they plan to climb these grandiose and unique walls, which here plunge directly into the sea as nowhere else on earth. And it is only in winter that the climbers have any chance of getting there at all across the frozen sea, as in summer the ice melts completely, changing to a wild and turbulent waste of water. Hitherto no climber has ever tried to reach the Big Walls in the northeast of the island. The region just looks to be too harsh and too dangerous. So far it has only been photographed from the air. But Glowacz and Jasper want to be the first. They are looking for adventure – and on Baffin Island that is what they find.
Each stage of their expedition is accompanied by extreme difficulties. They succeed in journeying to the wall with the help of the native hunters. In these first few days the climbers become intimately acquainted with the loneliness, and above all the cold of this virgin region. They repeatedly suffer from doubts, wondering whether they will even be able to reach the goal they have set for themselves. Icy temperatures, higgledy-piggledy and insuperable ice floes and repeated white-outs when the earth and the sky melt into a blur and you can’t see your hand in front of your face – all these add to the difficulty of their search. And then, too, they have to guard against the danger of attacks from polar bears.
After the team has investigated every corner of the Quernbitter fjord and its side arms, they decide to make a first attempt on the Bastion. This gigantic Big Wall rises directly out of the sea at the entrance to the Buchan Gulf, vertical or with an overhang, to a height of over 700 metres.
The expedition is under acute time pressure. They only have 15 days at most available for this first attempt. By mid-May at latest they will have to make the 350 kilometre return journey to reach civilisation at Clyde River, before the ice starts to break up.
In view of the extreme cold, snowstorms and above all the extreme difficulty of the climb, they can only make slow progress. Free climbing was possible only on exceptional days. Otherwise it was a matter of technical climbing. Nonetheless they are faced with difficulties of the order of a low grade 10. No other expedition in the past has ever managed to overcome difficulties of this scale. After 14 days, 21 lengths of rope and difficulties of the order of 10-/A4, Robert Jasper, Stefan Glowacz, Klaus Fengler, Holger Heuber and Mariusz Hofmann reach the summit. The team stays on the wall for four days, camping in tents; for the rest of the time they return at intervals to base camp on fixed ropes.
The return journey is exhausting. They make very slow progress. The deprivations, cold and pain to which the climbers have been exposed for weeks take their toll on the nerves. Dragging their heavy sleds on the tow line, one day is just like another. Again and again they have to renew the monotonous struggle – to keep going, ignoring the pain in their feet, and not to lose patience if they have only managed to cover a fraction of the entire route. It is like the discovery of slowness in its aboriginal form. On a few windy days they are able to use their snow kites, shortening the journey by a few day’s marches and lifting the spirits.
After 16 days of marching in the frozen waste, the exposed and exhausted team finally reaches the Inuit settlement at Clyde River.
‘Words cannot possibly describe the feelings we have at this moment. This moment of return is one of the essential reasons why we are always setting off on new adventures. Everyone experiences it differently, for himself alone, deep in the heart.’
From the diary of Stefan Glowacz, 2 June 2008