“A re you sure you want to be left here for a month?” My friend Jeremy asks one last time, his aluminum hunting boat loaded and ready for the 200+ kilometre journey back to Iqaluit.
I look around. Our red tent is pitched on a small grassy bank just above the ocean, surrounded by 1,000-to-1,500-foot unclimbed granite cliffs. Yes, I’m excited to call this little base camp home for the next month, but the thought of Boomer and I putting up new routes in a completely unclimbed zone definitely makes me nervous.
Boomer’s world is whitewater kayaking and first descents of big rivers. Mine is long, cold, Arctic expeditions travelling by kite ski, dog sled or ski. We’ve only recently started climbing.
We don’t have a boat pickup organized, but we’re hopeful that in a month a couple of our friends will make the 200-kilometre trip from Iqaluit to retrieve us before we run out of food. Of course, that depends on the weather co-operating, and the Arctic Ocean ice not blocking access to the fjord.
A bit of a loose plan, but if all goes well, we’ll enjoy a great month of climbing and have just enough time to get home, repack, and head out on a two-week whitewater kayaking adventure, exploring four unpaddled rivers on the Meta Incognita Peninsula. Amidst COVID-19 lockdowns, travel restrictions and a cancelled expedition—this summer is all about exploring our backyard. Lucky for us, our backyard is Baffin Island, the fifth-largest island in the world, and home to some of Canada’s most impressive (and most isolated) landscapes.
“Yup, we’re sure,” I finally say to Jeremy. He smiles, fires up the boat, and motors away. Here we go…
After weeks of scouting via satellite images, Boomer spotted Anijaaq Fjord—inspiring the purchase of a rock drill and the beefing up of our climbing rack. Training was limited to short 20-metre single pitch climbs around my hometown of Iqaluit, but we climbed them often when it wasn’t snowing or raining. We also scoured the surrounding area for new cliffs, learning how to problem solve and put up new routes. Watching the sea ice melt, we eagerly anticipated the start of our climbing adventure.
Aside from satellite images, we had little information on Anijaaq Fjord. No guidebook or climbing topos. In fact, we couldn’t even find a photo of the cliffs. Of course, we are by no means the first people here. Inuit have extensively travelled and hunted this land for centuries, as evidenced by an old tent ring made of rocks adjacent to our camp. The only information we did gather from people who have travelled this coastline is that this area is infested with polar bears and is always windy.
But to our knowledge, the cliffs remain unclimbed.
We kayak around the corner and get a better look at what we eventually decide to call Sedna Wall—the tallest formation in the fjord, the 1,500-foot granite face juts straight out of the Arctic Ocean.
“I think I see a line.” Boomer points and passes me our cheap, twenty-dollar monocular to get a closer, better(ish) look at the system of cracks that run up the wall. “Should we try it and see how far we get?”
“I thought today was a scout day,” I reply, still sore from the previous day’s route, the first of our trip, which ended up being 1,200 feet of grade 5.7 crack climbing.
“Yeah, we can scout from the wall,” he replies. “And we can always retreat at any point and come back to the boats.”
There is confidence in his voice, but we both love pushing long days and I mentally prepare myself. Stepping awkwardly out of my kayak onto a small ledge at the base of the cliff, taking extra care not to slip into the frigid ocean water, I haul my boat up out of the tidal zone and pass it to Boomer so he can secure both our kayaks to the wall. Climb on.
Following the crack system we’d spotted from our kayaks, we jam our hands and feet into the fissure and move up the wall. As we advance, the crack becomes narrow and less featured. Boomer, the much stronger climber, leads what turns out to be the steep crux of the climb—a long, 70-metre pitch of 5.10 climbing. I follow with the heavy pack.
We move steadily upwards until we reach a section of loose rock too dangerous to climb. Avoiding the loose blocks requires almost a full rope-length traverse to the left. Boomer starts off while I slowly feed out rope. He moves horizontally across the rock—carefully, deliberately—and eventually reaches a small ledge where he sets up a belay station and yells, “off belay, climb when ready”.
I break down the anchor and yell back, “climbing”.
I hesitate and take a deep breath. I focus on my feet and hand placements, slowly moving across the wall, stopping to remove the pieces of protection Boomer placed. The traverse is easy—probably one of the easiest pitches we’ve done today. But, while placing my left foot, I accidentally dislodge a rock. Watching it tumble down the side of the cliff and plunge into the ocean below drives home the sheer size of the void below me. I try to play it cool, but my heart is racing. This is a good time to be honest: I’m scared of heights. Or maybe I’m scared of falling from heights. Either way, the effect is the same.
I know I’m safe. If I fall, the rope will catch me. Maybe I’ll swing and get banged up, but I’ll be fine. I tell myself my fear is irrational. I take another step, then another. Inches give way to feet, I make it.
It’s now close to 7:00 p.m. and the sun is getting low. We need to get off this cliff before darkness falls. More than halfway up the wall, our quickest exit option is to simply keep climbing rather than retreat back to our boats. I feel like this was Boomer’s plan all along, and I am just as keen to get to the top. Neither of us brings up the idea of retreating.
Trying to ignore what’s below and how much rock is above; I focus on my next step and hold. Suddenly, I hear Boomer’s voice, “Is that a bear swimming in the ocean?”
I brave a glance downward and see a white blob. It disappears into the ocean and reappears. “It’s a beluga whale,” I shout back, and pause for a moment to watch the whale pass by. A thousand feet up, the views are endless and the Arctic Ocean extends as far as my eye can see to the east. To the southwest, the ice cap glistens, surrounded by another entire range of unclimbed peaks. Pausing and taking in the panorama, I’m reminded of the beauty and vastness of Baffin Island. In this moment there is no place I’d rather be.
Ten pitches later, we reach the top of Sedna Wall just in time to watch the sun disappear. After a celebratory high-five, Boomer hands me half of his granola bar, and I dig out the last of my gummy sharks to share. I’ll need the boost of energy, and my headlamp, for the trail-less hike back to camp (we’ll use our inflatable pack raft to retrieve the kayaks tomorrow).
“That was a nice relaxing rest day” I say, massaging my shore shoulder. “What should we climb next?”
• • •
Low clouds conceal the mountain tops, and a light drizzle patters the roof of our tent. I keep an eye on the pot of water. As soon as it boils, I turn off our stove and pour myself a cup of mint tea. I pull my sleeping bag over my legs and pull out my book. Boomer strums his small travel guitar. These small tasks are all we have, tent-bound as the weather forces us to take a much-needed rest day.
At dusk, Boomer heads out to pee and check that the electric bear fence encircling our small camp is turned on before we retire for the night.
“Sarah, there is a bear outside the tent,” he says calmly, but with urgency in his voice.
I grab our gun from the vestibule and tear open the tent door to get a visual. I spot a large polar bear on the beach.
“That is the fattest bear I’ve ever seen. He doesn’t look hungry.”
Convinced, Boomer returns to the shelter of the tent and we keep an eye on the bear. Very slowly he wanders past camp, stopping often to dig up the tundra or rest. Then, he hikes up the valley, takes a sharp left-hand turn and begins climbing the steep scree slope—our descent route off the Sedna Wall.
“Where is he going?” Boomer asks, “There are no seals or food up there.”
“Maybe he wants to enjoy the view,” I reply, “And he must not be afraid of heights.”
For three more weeks, we climb and explore the Anijaaq Fjord, soaking in the solitude of our own private playground. When we are not climbing or resting, we hike and kayak the fjord to explore our temporary home. In the end, our friends’ boats do arrive (slightly delayed due to the ice blocking the entrance of the fjord), and we pack up and ship out with five new routes behind us. Ahead lies the Meta Incognita Peninsula—where the next adventure awaits.
“You ready?” Boomer yells back at me as his kayak plunges into the rapid. I follow, paddling hard to compensate for the strong current and keeping an eye on the path he choses to navigate the turbulent water. The rapid is long, and I zig zag back and forth avoiding rocks.
Soon, a horizon line appears ahead of us on the river and we quickly pull over to shore. I scramble down the steep bank to get a better look at the rapid ahead. The river funnels into a tight rocky canyon and drops steeply, creating an impressive slide before disappearing out of sight. The short canyon has steep, committing walls, and the next waterfall is impossible to see.
“I’m going to hike around this one,” I tell Boomer. But first, I take up a position on shore with my throw-line bag in hand to ensure Boomer makes it through the tight canyon safely. He does, so I hike back to my boat, awkwardly balancing it onto its nose before lowering it onto my shoulder.
Now that we’re halfway through our trip—carrying less food and fuel—the weight of my boat is somewhat manageable. We started at the ocean a week ago, and spent the first two days hiking ten kilometres, hauling gear and boats up 2,000 feet of elevation to the source of our first river. The expedition route—with lots more hiking to come—will lead us across the Meta Incognita Peninsula and link together four never-before-run rivers. If these waterways have names—in English or Inuktitut —we haven’t been able to find anyone who knows what they are.
I rejoin Boomer below the rapids, and we casually float along as the river meanders through the lush tundra valley and past several curious caribou grazing on the shoreline.
“You hear that?” Boomer asks, suddenly excited. “Sounds like a big rapid ahead.”
It’s not a rapid, it’s a waterfall. I stand at the lip watching the clear blue water tumble and freefall 20 feet into a pool below. “I’m going to run it” Boomer says, handing me the camera. Through the distance of a viewfinder, I watch him steer his yellow kayak into position, take a final stroke, and brace for the impact of the landing, tucking his body forward onto the bow of his boat. He comes up grinning, gives a hoot and looks expectantly at me.
Nervous, I stare at the waterfall, my mind churning: do I run this drop, or hike around? It’s the biggest waterfall I’ve even contemplated running—big enough for potential injury on impact. Excuses come easily: it’s remote, a rescue would be difficult, I’m cold and tired, it’s the end of the day. Standing at the lip, I feel a splash of vertigo and take a couple steps back.
This waterfall scares me, but I also want to paddle it.
I hike back to my boat. I get in and stretch my neoprene spray skirt over the cockpit, running my fingers along the edge to double check everything is properly secured. I splash my face with cold water, take a deep breath, and force a smile—this is why we’re here. I’m doing this for fun. In the moment, my fears are uncomfortable—but all the planning and preparation, the training, that exposed feeling climbing and clinging to a 1,500-foot cliff, the brutal hikes with our loaded kayaks—these are moments I will remember forever. This waterfall is exactly what we came for, to explore the hidden corners of our backyard.
I push my boat into the flow and the current carries me quickly downstream—there is no turning back. I focus on entering the rapid just left of the visible rock and keep my kayak pointed down river. As I approach the falls, I plant my paddle to set my angle, so I don’t injure myself on impact. The current pushes my boat over the lip and I spot my landing in the pool of water below.
“F**k that is a long way down.” I can feel myself start to freefall…
Did I mention I’m scared of heights?
Climbs by the Numbers
“The Line” on Raven Rock Wall / grade: 5.7 / 1,200 feet / 6 pitches
“Sedna” on Sedna Wall / grade 5.10 / 1,500 feet / 10 pitches
“Beluga” on Sedna Wall / grade 5.8 / 1,500 feet / 10 pitches
“Taqriaqsuit” on Shadow Wall / grade 5.9 / 600 feet / 4 pitches
“Shape Shifter” on Ijiraat Wall / grade 5.10 / 1,100 feet / 8 pitches
Rivers by the Numbers
Rivers paddled: 4
Kilometres hiked: 40
River kilometres paddled: 85
Waterfalls run: 32 waterfalls / slides