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December 18, 2019

A Paddle / Climb Expedition on Baffin Island

Adventure Stories, Climbing

Story and Photos by Bronwyn Hodgins

This summer myself, my husband (Jacob Cook) and two of my long time closest friends (Zack Goldberg-Poch and Thor Stewart) traveled to Baffin Island in northern Canada, only a few hundred km across the bay from Greenland. Our mission was to climb some big mountain faces and to access these cliffs self-propelled by packraft.

I grew up in Ontario, raised by a family of whitewater canoe trippers. At my age, my parents were guiding northern rivers together, like the South Nahanni and the Coppermine rivers. My siblings and I went to canoe tripping camp every summer, first as participants and later as guides. I started rock climbing only as a university student, but quickly became obsessed. I met Jacob in the university climbing club (he’d been climbing since he was a kid) and now seven years later we are married and living in Squamish, BC. We both climb as much as we can, and instead of guiding rivers I now guide rock climbing. So you can understand how excited I was about the opportunity to combine paddling and climbing on an expedition into the remote mountains of Baffin Island!

Up The Fjord, Up The Valley

Our small team of four landed in the remote Inuit community of Pangnirtung, NU, on the east coast of Baffin Island. The following day we inflated our tandem Alpacka Forager packrafts and pushed off onto the arctic ocean. I’d been worried about ice pack this early in the season. I’d also been concerned of the 150mph northerly winds that the locals spoke of.

But, the sea was totally calm; a pane of turquoise glass glistening under the arctic sun. We glided effortlessly, riding the rising tide up the fjord and toward the mountains. After eight hours of solid paddling, we pulled ashore to camp only a km shy of the fjord’s end. What a start to the trip! The next day the wind came from the north, bringing four days of progressively cold and miserable weather. We trudging on, faces to the wind and rain, first dragging the loaded packrafts up the river and then, when the terrain steepened, we lugged the loads on our backs. As we trekked, the mountains grew taller.

Mount Asgard

At the height of the pass we hooked left and wandered up the Caribou and Parade glaciers to the base of Mount Asgard, our first climbing objective. Named after the fortress of the Norse Gods, Mt Asgard’s twin granite towers rise 1000m out of the swooping glacier at its foot. Over the next week, Jacob and I managed to climb both the South and North towers of Asgard, the former via a new route which we put up in an 20-hour continuous push camp to camp. Thor and Zack climbed the North Tower of Asgard (23 hours) and also a previously unclimbed sub-peak of Mount Midgard (seen to the left in the photo above) which they jokingly named “Mount Zacky.” The latter was our group’s longest effort at a grueling 27 hours on the go.

Summit Lake and the Upper Weasel

After Asgard, our bodies and minds were begging for some rest. We spent four days relaxing at Summit Lake: dunking briefly into the frigid water fora wash, eating lots of food and playing some nerdy card games while we waited out a storm.

Then it was time to chance gears; we grabbed our paddling stuff! The upper Weasel is pretty wild. We ran a short rapid at the top, but then the river plunged into a series of drops (Class 5+ according to Eric Boomer who ran the river in 2014). We portaged a couple km before loading our gear into the tubes of our packrafts. After scouting ahead, Jacob and I ran a 500m section of continuous class 3+. The river was flooded which meant eddies were few and far between, but we were able to beach ourselves on a gravel bar to wait for the second boat.

Zack and Thor had some difficulties along the way. Zack fell out of the bow, and then later the entire boat flipped sending them both for a swim. Due to the continuous nature of the river and frigid temperatures, we decided to portage the remaining distance to Mount Thor.

Mount Thor with Thor!

From the very start of planning this trip, one objective stuck out as being an absolute must: Thor had to get to the top of Mount Thor! The mountain is famous for having arguably the tallest vertical drop in the world. We climbed together as a team of four, scrambling up the spectacular south ridge of the peak. We stood on the summit at the golden hour, just as the sun scraped across the horizon before raising once again in our perpetual daylight. The climb took us 21 hours river to river, as we gained and lost over 1500m of elevation.

Arctic River Flamingos

The Lower Weasel had some unique and interesting geology. Long flat stretches of braided river were separated by sharp narrow shoots, caused by great moraines spilling into the valley from either side and effectively “pinching” the flow. We usually opted to portage the initial drop and then put in and run the bottom half or so into some great wave trains above calmer pools. We also sometimes inflated our big pink flamingo! The paddling provided an excellent change of pace from the big mountain missions.

Overnight on the Tower

Camped at the mouth of the Weasel, we decided to set off on one final climb. Over the next two days Thor and Zack made (as far as we know) the first recorded ascent of Mount Ulu and Jacob and I climbed an unnamed golden tower next to it. Both teams spent a night on the side of the wall, sleeping at hanging bivvies on Grade 7 Pods. The second day, Jacob and I followed a beautiful continuous finger-size crack that split the upper half of our tower right up the middle. Jacob managed to free climb the entire route, which he named“The Niv Mizzet Line 5.13- 400m.” We believe this may be the first of the grade put up in fast-and-light alpine style on the island.

After a single rest day (though not nearly enough!), we pushed off once again onto the arctic fjord. We paddled at night this time, for calmer winds, moving silently under a dark purple haze. We forced our strokes to keep to a rhythm despite our exhaustion – the six weeks of expedition were taking their toll. We drifted into the Pang harbor at 3am, in broad daylight.

Climbing with the Qallunaat

We had a few days in the community of Pangnirtung before our flight south. We put up posters around the town that read:

Rock Climbing with the Qallunaat (stupid tourist in the local tongue)
Meet Thursday at noon at the Northern Store
All Ages Welcome!

The next day about 20 kids showed up and followed us to some small cliffs above the town. We set up top ropes and spent the afternoon rock climbing with them! At the end, many of the kids and a few of the parents asked if it would happen again. Unfortunately our flight was the next day, but we left the anchors in place in hopes that future climbers to the area might get the kids out! The afternoon was one of the highlights of the trip.