Exploratory Steep Skiing on Baffin Island
The extreme arctic cold takes hold immediately threatening to freeze the very air already warming in the windpipe leaving you gasping for breath as you quickly try to cover any exposed skin for protection.
Organising an expedition trip to Baffin island isn’t straightforward, especially one that depends on self-sufficiency for 30 days’ camping on the sea ice, with the horrific dangers of the winter arctic temperatures, and the ever-present threat of polar bear attack. After two years and many long hours researching, planning and discussing an expedition itinerary with its relative wonders and dangers, there were still lingering doubts. The reality of what we were about to under take suddenly hit home hard with fear and apprehension threatening to derail the trip before it had even started. It took another week of processing the emotional commitment of such a trip before the flights were actually booked.
Stepping out of the small ten-seater plane in the small North Eastern settlement of Clyde River was the second reality check. It’s hard to imagine such a barren, monotone-white landscape where no contrast between the sky and land exists. Being so close to the North Pole our compass would be redundant: if we were to lose our bearings here, it would be game-over for us. The extreme arctic cold takes hold immediately threatening to freeze the very air already warming in the windpipe leaving you gasping for breath as you quickly try to cover any exposed skin for protection. We were to pay the price painfully to the cold for our first mistake. Wearing our expedition boots on the journey meant that we were unconsciously sweating into the liners. Within minutes of touching down in Baffin our feet froze with frightening speed leaving our toes feeling hard and dead like frozen sausages. Managing and checking our extremities for cold injuries and frostbite was to become a daily routine from the start. This frozen feeling was to become a constant, niggling concern – any injury would not only create a rescue drama but would end the trip immediately. Marcus joked that squeezing our feet into ski boots was too much like giving them their own little coffins, but even that did little to ease the tension.
Our driver, Ilko, was a man in his late 60’s, and from a bygone arctic era. Living with his family in a tiny, remote settlement to the north of Clyde River until he was 26 years old. There he survived solely by hunting the wildlife, living in perfect harmony and respect of nature’s rhythms. IIko displayed the calm confidence of a man who knew how to take care of himself in a wilderness few would ever experience, even within Clyde itself. He was an elder whose words and opinions carried a lot of weight in the community. There was a wise and rare spiritual quality to IIko that settled any nerves or doubts amongst the team as he nodded with approval at our itinerary. We hung achingly onto every one of his words, repeating the advise to ourselves to ensure its memory storage in case it would be needed later.
As we headed north across the mouth of Sam Ford Fiord, we found a dead seal pup at a breathing hole that was still warm. It was an polar bear kill and the bear had only just taken a bite before being scared off by the noise of our approaching skidoos. The Inuits joked that we might be lucky because at least the bear was no longer hungry as they stowed the dead seal for their dinner. A pep talk later on in the journey on what not to do in a polar bear attack bought home the shocking revelation that in spite of having a .308 rifle and a pump-action shotgun with magnum shells, the likelihood of us surviving such an attack was minimal. For the first few days camped out on the ice the fear was oppressive as it played tricks with our minds. The silence of the barren landscape was deafening and disconcerting as we looked for early warning signals to any approaching danger. Every lump and bump in the distant ice morphed into a mirage of an approaching bear that we had to check and recheck down the scope of the gun. We rigged a perimeter rope connected to an air horn around the tent as an early warning system in the hope it would give us time to act if the worst happened. It was amazing how such a flimsy system settled the nerves enough to justify sleep. After a few days our confidence grew and in spite of signs of life on our daily excursion we soon found the worry reduced enough to enjoy and appreciate the incredible and unique beauty of our surroundings. Yet the apprehension lingered on in the back of our minds.
For the first few days camped out on the ice the fear was oppressive as it played tricks with our minds. The silence of the barren landscape was deafening and disconcerting as we looked for early warning signals to any approaching danger
We would often catch ourselves just standing in silence staring across the Fiord trying to permanently imprint the view and feeling in our minds. A strange unbreakable bond with the frozen landscape and it’s hardy, ingenious inhabitants (both human and animal) was poignantly growing in all of us.
From our initial camp by Scott Island we moved some 40km deeper into the Fiords towards the increasingly enticing call of the enormous cliffs of Gibbs Fiord that we had spotted days before. As we kited into the Fiord the steep cliffs that looked a few hundred feet high from a distance started to grow into huge imposing, ancient, immense acres of impeccable, vertical rock thousands of feet high. We were left speechless, unable to comprehend the scale and beauty in front of us. Weirdly, it felt like there was an unseen energy coming off the rocks themselves that no matter how many times we took a photo we failed to capture what was really there. We would often catch ourselves just standing in silence staring across the Fiord trying to permanently imprint the view and feeling in our minds. A strange unbreakable bond with the frozen landscape and it’s hardy, ingenious inhabitants (both human and animal) was poignantly growing in all of us.
By now we had settled nicely into a routine aligned to the rise and fall of the sun and its welcomed warmth. Apart from regularly seeing various paw prints from wolves, foxes, and bears there was no obvious signs of life that we complacently started to feel that we were truly alone. Then, one night we were all fast asleep, exhausted from the day’s adventure, when the spine chilling screech of the bear alarm cut through the eerie silence like a car crash right through the tent wall. We sat bolt upright, trying to make sense of where we were and what had just happened, frozen in position, our hearts beat loudly in our own ears. After what seemed like too long Marcus whispered quietly, ‘put your head out of the tent and take a look’. ‘No way,’ I said, fear raising the pitch of my voice. ‘Okay, we both do it together,’ Marcus suggested.
One day, still in Gibbs Fiord, we decided to travel deeper into the fiord to explore more and look for lines to ski. With the cloud base at 600m we passed a buttress akin to a fairy tale fortress with some of the biggest rock walls we had ever seen. A particularly intriguing couloir looked like it hit a cul-de-sac at 600m. With fading light and tiredness setting in we concluded this short line was too beautiful not to explore and as it would not take us long would be a good end to the day.
We finally topped out on the plateau out just before midnight, as the sun dipped below the horizon, and we quickly swapped climbing gear for skis. Initially the couloir required tight, precision turns, but sluffy powder had accumulated after the night’s snowfall providing incredible softness that felt like we were bouncing, child like, on a feather mattress all the way down. Even on the steeper rolls the skiing gave way to rare feelings of pure and utter freedom that no words can describe. Every turn defined our passion in its purest form and what we ultimately live for. At the bottom of the line we celebrated together, all knowing that was one of those precious experiences that may never be relived.
Sponsored and Supported by:
Berghaus, Black Crows Skis, Mountain Boot Company, High5, Gino Watkins Memorial Fund, Wilderness Award, Alpine Ski Club, PLUM, Goal Zero, Lyon Equipment, Concept Pro Shop Chamonix, Western Logistics, Craig Stenhouse
Watch the film from the expedition here.
Ross grew up in the North East of Scotland and started skiing at the age of 7. Since then his skiing has morphed somewhat from resort skiing and slalom racing into ski mountaineering where an impressive list of achievements sees Ross at the forefront of the steep skiing toady. Ross’s passion has him regularly exploring the big mountain ski lines in and around his home of Chamonix, France as well as adventuring the world most interesting mountain ranges around the world.
After a long international career as a swimmer, professional triathlete and adventure racer, Michelle has spent more time focusing on her other passion of ski mountaineering and ski adventure as she looks to challenge herself and further explore the mountains she loves alongside her partner Ross Hewitt. Balancing a hectic career in marketing, Michelle spends much of her spare time in the Alps where she can be found skiing, touring and climbing some of the beautiful steep peaks of the Chamonix valley in France.