SAM FORD FIORD - BAFFIN ISLAND
EXPEDITION SUMMARY by CONRAD ANKER
In May 1992, Denali the Great One, took from us one of the great climbers. Mugs Stump was enveloped by tons of ice, when he fell into a crevasse on the South Buttress while descending from a successful summit bid. At the time we were sharing a house in Sandy, Utah and Mugs was my mentor and close friend.
Mugs' death was the first time I was faced with the confusion, anger and despair of losing a friend to the mountains. The following summer, Jon Turk, Mugs' friend and peer for many years, asked me to accompany him on a journey he and Mugs had planned together. Jon was somewhat of a legend in sea kayaking circles and he and Mugs had dreamed combining their skills to explore and climb in the wild and remote Sam Ford Fiord on Baffin Island's East coast using sea kayaks. Jon invited me along to complete this climbing and kayaking quest he had planned with Mugs. I accepted his invitation as a way to see their dream come true and honor Mugs in the process.
Jon's plan was to wait for break up to take the pack ice out to sea and then paddle to our climbing objectives. With open oceans, we would be able to hire a small boat to carry us and our gear to the base of the climbs. In Iqaluit, the capital of Baffin, we were informed by the Inuit that the pack ice was thicker than normal this year. Break up, the great dispersal of ice, had yet to happen.
In Clyde River, the last outpost of humanity, the ice was still so thick that local fishermen had not set their boats to the water. Our plan for a boat ride to the base of the granite towers was not to be. Instead, we had the option of a tow behind a snow machine. This technique is the preferred method of travel pre-break up, allowing for an easy, albeit loud and smelly, approach to the hidden giants of Baffin Island. Our problem was that break up was about to happen. Once this starts there is a two week period in which travel, be it on the ice or on the water, is very difficult.
We set out under overcast skies, with our two plastic kayaks lashed to the wooden sleds favored by the Inuit for winter travel, towed by Inuit guides on snowmobiles. Once we left the bay of Clyde River we encountered the first of many leads in the ice. The ice in its dance with the tides, wind and sun forms large cracks, called leads. Some are only a foot across, others as wide as a driveway. All we had to cross. We would approach each lead cautiously, looking for telltale signs of weakness, unhook the sled, pull it across and stand in amazement as our guides would gun their snow machines and hydroplane across the ocean water. Finally we reached a lead too great for the snow machines and our Inuit guides smiled, wished us luck and turned back home.
Living on the land in the Arctic one becomes very familiar with break up and set up. These two weeks each spring and fall mark the transition from winter to the brief, wet summer and back to winter. During these periods of change travel is very difficult. If we were on skis we would not have been able to pass the stretches of open water. A small water craft would be helpless in the jigsaw of ice. Fortunately the kayaks offered a bit of each world. Being plastic, they could be dragged on the ice with a minimum of resistance. When we encountered a lead we would hop into our boats and paddle across. Paddling was easier than dragging and thus we followed the nascent leads into a maze befitting an amusement park. Our little game? We dubbed it "the dance of the absurd".
Originally, our goal was to climb a big wall. We had arrived in Clyde River with a portaledge, a stack of pitons and two haul bags. But with a boat drop off out of the question, we were limited to what we could fit into our kayaks. Three weeks of food, a tent, stove and a rifle is not a trivial load. Wall climbing became a luxury that we couldn't afford. The thick ice forced us to travel by our own means and limited us to climbs attainable with a light rack. It was a blessing in disguise.
Our first objective was Kiguti, a spear of granite above a beach used by the Inuit on hunting forays. The climb was like any number of mountains, nothing too momentous simply a thrust into the obscure. Loose dagger-like flakes that released a torrent of sand when pulled on, raspy fist cracks and the obligatory belays into wet and nasty corners. I remember the blanket of fog below us as we stood on the summit and descended in the evening light. The eerie granite statues stood like sentinels of the deep fiord.
We paddled across the Sam Ford to the northern arm and spied a small, striking peak hidden by a towering, flat capped wall. For our expedition this was the right peak - lower angle moderate and climbable in a day. It was about like climbing Middle Cathedral in Yosemite - which is best just climbed and not described in length or detail.
A loon on the calm morning water, a fit arctic hare bounding behind a boulder, a lone polar bear following his nose for a meal. Tall walls guarded by frozen dunes, intersected by fiords. And the fiords themselves, carved by ice, enslaved to the pull of the sea, a way into the peaks. The Inuit with their confidence and positive outlook, shyness and wry sense of humor. These are the things I remember of my Baffin trip. Yeah, the climbing was good fun, but the true adventure was the journey to the climb and the blessing of the memory of Mugs.