Way Back in the Day (WBITD) 1975, I was lucky enough as a callow 19 year old youth to take part in a trip to the Weasel Valley on Baffin Island, what follows is a somewhat hazy account based on some fuzzy recollections……… Most, bar one of the photos are taken from the net as I didn’t have a camera.
The team comprised of;
Back in 1974 I managed to put a climbing journalist friend Dick Godfrey in touch with a local, tight knit group of climbers in Newcastle, The Border Climbing Club. A feisty bunch of blokes with a slew of hard alpine climbs behind them. My journo mate wasn’t much of a climber, but had a yen for organisation and was keen to organise an expedition. The climbers, while as hard as nails couldn’t get much beyond organising the odd piss up and argument, and so I played matchmaker.
The chemistry worked and after a flurry of debates, some arguments, a lot of drinking and bullshitting. A tornado of paperwork, fundraising, dances, media and radio interviews followed. All with the goal of getting the group to the Nirvana of the day – The Weasel Valley of Baffin Island. All controlled and administrated by Dick whose planning of the trip was pretty remarkable. (Back then it was as big an undertaking as planning a trip to the Himalaya. Some complex and tenuous logistics had to be organised and ultimately everything fell into place.)
I believe the area had its first real climbing visit in 1953 when Asgard was climbed by a team of Swiss scientists led by Pat Baird. (Baird was an influential climber and explorer of the region for nearly 30 years). In 1961 by a Cambridge University team, explored the Pangnirtun Peninsular and several other trips followed, often with Canadian Pat Baird along. Some credible alpine climbing was done. But the place and it’s magnificent peaks remained largely unknown until a number of trips were carried out by Doug Scott Dennis Henneck and others and written about in Mountain Magazine. The place was clearly a wonderland. And most importantly it looked like there was still a lot left to do.
I’d guess it all took around a year for the planning to turn into a reality. Somehow we had identified a suitable team objective – (Ulu Peak, a little up from the head of the fijord on the right but early summer 1975) Only two of the team had any contemporary US Big Wall experience; Kevin McClane who had several seasons in the Valley and recently had done the Salathe Wall, and his contemporary and competitor, Dave MacDonald who had done the NW Face of Half Dome. The rest of the team (bar me) all had CVs of difficult Western and Eastern Alpine climbs.
Seven other parties were to climb on the Cumberland Peninsular that year; among them; Pete Livesey and Jill Lawrence from the UK, a team of Japanese climbers and Charlie Porter who was to solo an audacious line on Asgard.
We languished for a while in Gander where we were put up by a teacher from Sunderland on a VSO tour with the Inuit. We had had an interesting couple of days floe hopping in the bay outside his prefab butler house before the weather let us move on. A DC3 with tin tractor seats for the passengers took us on the last leg to Pangnirtung.
In Pang we met up with our freight which had been shipped ahead to the Hudson Bay store and arranged for some canoes to take us and our kit up the fjord. There was still a bit of ice around, so there was another delay in departure. Collectively we amused ourselves around Pang. However, Kevin and Dennis took the manly option of hiking in over a couple of days, with the mandatory ‘super heavy’ loads.
Eventually the ice cleared enough for the Inuit to ship us to the head of the fjord where we set up camp. The scenery was unreal, huge walls shooting up from the alluvial bed of the valley. The huge tongue of a hanging glacier curled out of a cwm opposite the camp, while just to our South, Overlord’s three pillars stood guard over the head of the fjord. The base of Ulu, the team’s objective was tucked away in a cwm above us, but the steep upper wall could be seen, and it did look impressively steep.
I recall we spent a day sorting out the freight and stores and then the ‘A Team’, (which did not include me) assembled for a poke at Ulu. We all assisted in ferrying gear up to the base of the wall – an impressive hike with some steep scrambling, and then the Punters – Dick (my Journo friend) and I headed back to the main camp.
A few days later the others returned, all a bit crestfallen, having gotten so far up the wall, the cracks that would link the lower wall to the upper chimney system stopped. The prospect of a substantial bolt ladder dissuaded them from continuing, and they had bailed.
So, a somewhat dejected group hung around the campsite for a day or so, recovering and deciding on what to do next. One of the ‘senior members’ Ken Rawlinson had sensed I was itching to have a go at something and generously suggested we should have a look at the Central Pillar of Overlord
Overlord towered above the camp area and comprised of three distinct and huge pillars some buttresses. The left hand one, the least steep of the three had been climbed by a Japanese party the year before. the Central Pillar had been attempted earlier by Doug Scott, but we were aware that they had retreated when Dennis Henneck? had been hit by stonefall. The right hand pillar was as we were aware, virgin. If Dennis is out there perhaps he could fill in some detail?
Of the two remaining ones the central was the most attractive, so we opted for that.
Ken pulled together the rack, which I recall was memorably light. 'You've got to give it (the mountain) a chance Steve', he said with a wink. So with a few nuts, slingS, pegs and crabs, off we went. (We decided to forgoe axes and crampons as there was only a tiny ribbon of snow at the top! And so we set off. The climbing naturally drew you to a line on the right hand side and there, after a few pitches of stepped climbing up slabs and grooves, we found the first of a number of pegs and nuts, marking the descent route used by Scott's party the year before.
Being summertime we just climbed until we started to get weary, pitch followed pitch and at about 1/3 height we came across a generous rubble covered ledge that was suitable for a bivi. I think it even had some moss! We cleared space for our bags ate some grub and crashed out, pretty exhausted.
At some point however, I was awoken by a strange sensation, accompanied by the loudest noise I'd ever heard. The ledge was shaking violently and it was clear that the cliff was being rent apart. There was little to do and nowhere to hide, I curled up in my bag making myself as small as possible, while for what seemed an eternity the mountain shook, the vibrations being interspersed with what were clearly massive impacts close to our ledge.
Eventually the roar subsided, what followed was a smattering of large, but modest in comparison crashes and explosive bangs. I eventually plucked up the courage to poke my head out of my sleeping bag to see two huge columns of dust rising up the couloirs either side of our pillar. The air was thick with the smell of sulphur and almost felt electric, quite possibly static in the dust. Ken too had surfaced and was out of his bag, wide eyed looking at what had passed. We stood gawping at the clouds of dust, slowly rising up the full height of the south couloir. He had just started to gabble something out, when the relative silence was broken by a noise even louder that the one we had just experienced. Snapping our heads to the right we saw that the tip of the hanging glacier opposite had broken away and was crashing to the valley floor. I'm guessing multiple thousands of tons of ice ended up in a huge cone below the fracture, this was spectacle heaped on spectacle! A second or so later we felt the blast of displaced air followed by a relative silence.
I can't recall what we said, probably something very English like 'that was loud'. We had been very lucky in the selection of our bivi ledge, it was on the crest of the pillar and a vertical wall above us gave some protection, I don't think any stonefall hit the ledge, a miracle given what had broken away.
It took most of the day for the dust to settle, and for us to gather our wits about us and continue. We concluded that there must have been an earthquake to have dislodged materials on both sides of the valley.
We were on the route for another two days with another bivi two thirds of the way up, throughout Ken was in charge, pointing me in the right direction. The quality of the climbing was outstanding, sustained 'VS' (5.6) interspersed with occasional E1/2 (5.9/10). The main difficulties culminated at the top of the pillar. A hanging belay at the base of a slender ramp that cut up the face for a hundred feet or so. The junction between the ramp and wall was fractured by a good finger crack which guaranteed success. This was important, as by now, 40 odd pitches up, we didn't have enough kit to reach the first of Scott's abseil gear. Up was the only practical direction.
So with great relief we cleared this obstacle, then the breche beyond, and the penultimate pitches which brought us to the summit snow field. From the valley, this horizontal white ribbon looked tiny. Up close it transformed into a 200' 45 degree slope of granular ice with a thin cover of snow. However, we had neither axes or crampons! So I set up a rudimentary belay, sitting on a perfect edge of dry granite, with my legs dangling above a 4000' cavernous drop, and the small of my back pressed into the ice. We tied both ropes together, I gave Ken my Stubai hammer, and with two of these (and in EBs) off he went. Cutting and smashing buckets for his feet as he went. Eventually cresting the slope he rolled over the lip and disappeared. It was a nerve wracking half hour to say the least. I took my socks off and put them on over my EBs, and with him walking down the reverse slope of the glacier I set of up the line of holds.........
The walk down the glacier in EBs wasn't sooo bad, but lordy, had we cut it pretty fine! Ken had been phenomenalthroughout; unflappable, good humoured and never less than 100% certain we would make it. (That said, the relief in his eyes when he saw the crack in the back of the ramp pitch was pretty apparent).
After a couple of days recovering we began shuttling loads up the Weasel Valley with the aim of establishing a camp at Summit Lake, this took quite a while with some interminable back and forth shuttling of loads. From some of the interim camps Dave and Kevin climbed and named Mt Northumbria. Climbing through some poor weather. The climb was principally up a 3500' snow and ice coulior.
Dennis Lee, and Kevin (I think) did a new line on the South West Ridge of Turnweather. a 2400' grade IV. Meanwhile Davey and George did the FA of a peak about three miles North West of Turnweather. Unfortunately I haven't been able to identify the slides from this
As we shuttled loads up the valley we passed underneath Thor and met a rather shaken Japanese party who had been attempting the face when the earthquake struck. Already stressed by the scale of what they had taken on, the poor rock they were encountering and difficulty of the climbing, the earthquake had become an understandable ‘last straw’ and they bailed.
More shuttling of loads followed, with extended rest days waiting out heavy rain and sleet.
There was enough time, and daylight to get through Woody Guthrie’s biography and Lord of the Rings. The latter was made all the easier to read given we were on the edge (so it seemed ) of Mordor. There was much crossing the braided streams that dissected the valley always exciting as you could hear, and feel the deadening thud of leg breaking boulders being pushed down stream by the force of the water. Up towards Summit Lake there were two Tyrolean cable crossings, these were quite exciting given they weren't particulaly well engineered and any dunking would have probably been terminal.
After sorting myself out after one such crossing I was picking up my rucksack – a Karrimor haulbag of the period, when, with an audible phhhhhhht, the plasick yoke holding the straps on, separated from the pack. Leaving me with a large, very heavy, red tube – a rucksack no more! A stupid failing that could have had considerable consequences. Thankfully someone had a sailmakers awl and some hefty waxed thread, and after a few hours of work the pack was functional once again.
Once established at the Summit Lake Camp various parties set off to explore the surrounding walls and glaciers. I may be wrong but I don't recall a great deal being done then, though there are slides of folks on glaciers on the other side of the lake. I teamed up with Dennis Lee and we headed up the Caribou glacier which as dry that year. This eventually leads to the base of Asgard.
I recall a series of towering walls and buttresses near opposite Asgard and we walked along looking for a likely line. Eventually we settled on a pillar with a crack, which led to another crack line in a steep wall and thus to a chimney system, then to the clouds and who knows what.
Access to the pillar was protected by a steep slope of neve, perhaps 50 degrees and a couple of hundred feet. We short roped and moved together up this kicking steps as we went. I eventually met the junction of ice and rock about 100 feet to the left of the pillar. Nature had conveniently left a six inch gap which I stuck my arm down and waited for Dennis, (who was hot on my heels) to join me. With my arm down the back of the gap I began kicking steps across to the corner, which I had just about reached when everything I was standing on gave way with a loud crack - and off I went, down the slope holding on to a large shield of ice.
A second later I came on the rope and pulled Dennis off (The joys of moving together!) and we shot down the slope. I managed to get my axe out from between my shoulder blades and began to brake, this meant Dennis accelerated past me and took the lead in our unwanted race to the glacier. My braking was having some effect at slowing us, but couldn’t stop Dennis going over the final, short vertical wall that led directly to the glacier. It did however, provide him with a soft catch and as I slid down to the lip I found him standing, shaken, if not stirred.
Relieved, I slid to the edge of the wall and jumped down beside him. In doing so I neatly punched a hole through the snow into a crevasse he was standing on.I don’t recall how I got out, I do recall the small hole I was heading for, anyways, eventually I emerged and we sorted ourselves out; put our crampons on and headed up the slope to the base of the corner. Despite what had gone before, what followed was pure delight, several pitches corners and a perfect hands crack on a vertical wall which led up towards a chimney system, little edges outside the crack were made for boots, all at about 5.8/9.
However, when we made it to the recess at the base of the chimney system we discovered our dénouement. It was a horribly flared bomb-bay leading to an off-width system. The largest piece we had was one No 9 Hex – It just wasn’t going to happen. So we set up the first of several abseils and beat a retreat.
As is usually the case, what had taken several hours to get up seemed to take minutes to get down and before we knew it we were back on the glacier heading back to the Summit lake camp.
More bad weather followed, days of rain and sleet followed and we generally sat under a tarp trying to stay dry. I fell into an extended topor in the tent, which didn’t go down well with the rest of the team. These tortured group dynamics are traditionally skimmed over in British climbing literature, and I will follow that line here, other than to say nearly 40 years later that some of them were right tw#ts…..
Anyhow when I came out of hibernation Dennis and I attempted a quick ascent of the Scott Henneck route on Killabuk which was directly behind the camp. We started off at the lowest point of the slabs and took a diagonal line up and right towards the headwall.
The climbing wasn’t difficult, but here wasn’t much gear – not that we had a lot, never the less we made pretty quick progress up to the headwall.
We climbed a couple of pitches and I set off hoping to reach the wider cracks in the corner above, engrossed in the climbing I didn’t notice the subtle drop in temperature, but I couldn’t fail to notice the snow. After a shouted discussion about what to do, I set up an abseil and went back down to Dennis. Just below the belay was a shallow overhang, so we headed there and spent a night chilling in the wet snow.
The night sort of passed and when the next day (sort of) dawned we were a bit wet, cold and deflated and decided to bail…. The descent could have proved very tricky, with long diagonal pitches on snowy/icy rock, The first abseil off the ledge below the headwall was a little freaky; Dennis chipped some shallow grooves into a flake that took a thin tape tie off loop, but as it happened, down and to the right of the headwall was a gully system that provided an easy escape. The tension fell away as we realised getting off the damn thing wasn’t going to be a drama.
Back at the camp nothing much more had happened and it was time to get ready to hike out.
Soon after we began the long slog out, and met on the way in a bloke walking in who had a big reputation, bigger beard, and a big rucksac – Charlie Porter, shuttling loads en route to completion of his solo route Asgard – Now there’s a story. Kevin knew him from the valley and an impromptu discussion took place. Given how long it had taken us to collectively shuttle our gear and supplies up to Summit Lake, I was somewhat awestruck by his plans.
The remainder of the walk out was a slog, we all got lost in the drudgery of it and were strung out for miles. But we made the RV with the boats and started our return to civilisation. The guys and I split in Montreal, they had a party, I wanted to get home and managed an upgrade, great for me but perhaps a dissapointment for my fellow business class passengers.
What happened to everyone overt he years: Davey sadly died in a car crash, Len and Geordie succumbed to illnesses, Kevin emigrated to Canada, eventually establishing a publishing company. Ken and Dennis both had full careers in the outdoor industry, Ken also did some difficult Himalayan climbing. Dennis continues to climb, Dick continued his career as a journalist, survived and recovered from a very nasty motorcycle crash and is now retired. I had a career
in the military, then a period with the police as an analyst and am now retired, but still climbing.