Round up of Baffin Island Trip
Hey everyone, we made it back from Baffin Island safe and sound! We had an INCREDIBLE trip, honestly, nothing could have gone better. The people of Iqualuit and Clyde River made us feel so at home (in fact, in both towns we had our attempts to set up camp in the bay prempted by invites to stay at people’s homes). In the end it was really hard to leave. No doubt I could write several pages just on our experiences with the friendly locals on Baffin Island. Hit me up if you spot me at a watering hole somewhere on the planet and I’ll be happy to share it all with you! Of the 28 days we spent on Baffin, we spent 20 of them camped out on the sea ice, mostly in the Sam Ford Fjord, but also Revoir Pass and Eglington Fjord.. We skied nine huge couloirs, the biggest any of us had ever skied, skied off the summit of one peak (the avalanche we remotely triggered was still visibly humongous from over 20km away), had five travel days and five days for chilling and exploring with our kites. The sun shined for 15 days straight and, though it stymied a few kiting days, we had a lot of calm days.
On day one we set up camp at the base of Kigut Peak and hung around camp, trying to take in the surroundings. Monolithic granite peaks rose up out of the sea all around us. We found it nearly impossible to conceptualize the height and distance of the mountains. At first we guessed the opposite side of the fjord to be two kilometers away, a conservative estimate as turned out to be more than five kilometers away. Thank god for our kites! As the sun slid behind the mountains, we crawled into our sleeping bags, excited to head up the fjord to our ‘warm-up’ couloir. It was narrow, 1800ft high, 45 degrees and riddled with rocks and icy patches, and yes, it was just a warm up for what was to come later in the trip.
All three of us were, well, relatively new to the sport of kiting when we arrived on Baffin. Sure we’d flown the kites that one time out in a farmers field in southern Alberta the month before, but we weren’t quite sure that we were professionals yet. We were, after all, still perfecting the art of laying the kite out and not having the wind blow it away. What better place is there to learn than on a frozen ocean without a tree or barbed wire fence for a thousand kilometers? Actually, it turned out to be super easy. A friend of ours from the Yukon had told us everything we needed to know about kiting, including that Ozone kites were, by far, the best. He was proved correct because with next to no instruction, in the middle of nowhere above the arctic circle, in -20C with big down jackets and mitts on, all three of us laid our kites out on the ice, and launched them with out any trouble at all. With a bit of fiddling around with the bar to figure out how to steer the thing, we were off, heading up the fjord to our skiing destination, two kilometers away. Though the winds weren’t as fierce as we would have liked (we’re new at it, but we like things that go fast, really fast), we were still at the base of the couloir in about half the time it would have taken for us to slog over there with ski poles and butt muscles. Now, with all the energy we’d saved by not slogging for half an hour we could blaze a trail up to the top, click in to our skis, and do what we do best.
Of the couloirs we skied, there was one particular gem that none of us will ever forget. The Polar Star couloir, possibly the most aesthetic peak/couloir combination in the universe, is 3650ft of steep and narrow vertical. We flashed up the slope in a mere four and a half hours (thank you kites for conserving our energy for the 400 foot ‘swim’ at near the top) and plopped ourselves down on the summit, taking in glacial views that are missed by the usual cross-country passerbys down on the ice. Here’s where it gets difficult for me to write. I’ve been skiing for 23 years, and I have never once successfully described a day of skiing, or even a single run, with words. Here again, I’m pretty sure I’m about to fail. To tell you the truth, I tried to keep a journal on this trip, as I usually do, and I’m generally good at keeping it up to date. The last thing I wrote for this trip was:
April 28th, 2007
That’s it. April 28th was the day we skied Polar Star. Occasionally, over the next 12 days, I’d open my journal and think: Where do I even begin? From that day on I didn’t keep a journal. It wasn’t that I was lazy or decided it wasn’t important. I didn’t want to skip a day, and I certainly didn’t want to have the best day of skiing I’ve ever had sound trivial. I’ll try to explain how things went that day and hopefully it works out.
From the top of the couloir, we could only see about 20 feet down. The slope rolled away quickly and steeply, out of sight, sandwiched between 2000 ft rock walls. Had we not just climbed it, we’d have be sure that it wouldn’t go. The couloir has a bend a ways down, and from the top, it simply looks like the slope rolls off into a pit, an inescapable abyss. It was a surreal moment, starring down the slope, thinking about what lies ahead. Since Nathalie was the winner of the Salomon contest, we gave her the option of going first. We said ‘option’ because, well, we hoped she wouldn’t be interested. Not likely. A couple turns and over the roll she went and out of sight. I’d scored second. Though I’d been slightly nervous when we first summited the couloir, my nerves had relaxed, and after watching nat ski off, I anxiously waited for the radio call that it was my time to drop.
Nearly all the couloirs we skied had a really interesting snowpack, particularly in the upper portions. At the surface, there was always a thin soft slab of wind blown snow. Since Baffin Island is technically a desert, what little snow it does receive is blown around by the winter blizzards and deposited in the couloirs. Since Baffin Island is also above the arctic circle it also tends to have very long cold spells. This results in the formation of depth hoar, thin crystals that are generally considered to be a very weak layer that fails easily. We found depth hoar up to a foot or more deep. This, to make things more interesting, would be sitting on shear blue ice in the upper portions of the couloirs. Needless to say, we nearly pooped our pants when we first came across this nasty looking snowpack a few days before we encountered it in Polar Star. Oddly enough, after several tests and a couple nerve-wracking drop-ins (once you find this snow pack you’re already in the guts of the couloir, so there’s not a whole lot you can do but ski cut it and hope for the best) we discovered that this concoction of snow was totally bomber.
Skiing such snow, is an experience I’m not sure I’ll ever have again. In Polar Star it was particularly amazing. The slope was so steep, that after a few turns, the sluff would start to build. Depth hoar is really really light, and you could ski in a fair amount of sluff before it would start to give you trouble. I remember making my turns and having the snow pour all around me and over me as I skied. It felt as though I was skiing a river. The sound the crystals made as they passed reminded me of wind chimes. It was so beautiful that no matter how much my legs were burning and no matter how much the sluff was accumulating, I simply would not stop. I became totally absorbed into the moment, the snow flowing around me, linking my turns down a steep river of snow. Eventually the snow became too much, and it rolled me over and back on to my feet which was when I finally stopped to let the snow flow pass. By that point I assumed I must be almost halfway down..but no, that was only the first quarter, still more than 2700 feet of epic skiing to go!
I could probably go on for quite a while. Describing our camp, the drudgery of moving it through a windless pass for several days, the other epic couloirs we found (including one that appears to possibly be a first decent in Revoir Pass), the igloo we built (actually we call it an iglarp…we had to tarp the roof because we couldn’t get the blocks to stay in place. A local inuit explained why it wouldn’t work, but I won’t get into it, you’ll just have to go to Baffin and try it for yourself), the group of base jumpers we met as we arrived in Eglington Fjord (one of whom was Matt who works for Ozone and is one rad dude), the sled dog that mysteriously showed up in camp one night and proceeded to have puppies in one of our backpacks and countless other moments that were unforgettable. I didn’t need a journal, how can I forget even the slightest detail of such a trip?
Thank you again Ozone for helping us get some kites for our trip. They saved us so much time and energy and were a blast to rip around with. Thank you Salomon and Saab and the Live Your Dreams contest for making the dream possible for three broke ski bums. Most of all, thanks to everyone we met in Iqualuit and Clyde River, particularly, Sam, Issa, Levi, Peter, Morty and Gail. The mountains and snow would have been there, but your generosity and hospitality is what made this trip unforgettable.
Stephen LeMaistre, Nathalie Gervais, Cory Boschman