A red tent pitched on arctic ice became our only shelter on the lost fjord. A bear-hunting gun was lying in the corner, and outside – four haul bags with food and gear to last two people for thirty days. We switched off the rumbling stove and amidst the sudden silence, started slurping tea and munching candy. Wherever steam accumulated, ice appeared immediately; a whit of spilt water stiffened in an abstract, white shape, which reminded me of a polar bear. We put on our hoods and curled up inside the sleeping bags. The beginning of April on Baffin Island seemed like the coldest hell on Earth to us, but before closing our eyes to sleep, we congratulated each other: our dream has just been realised – we had made it to the base of Polar Sun Spire.
From the moment we mounted the wall, we began calling each other Regan and Yeti. Our normal names stayed somewhere at the bottom, on the fjord; maybe even further away: at home, at work, along with everything we had been doing until then. We left the shore for the unknown ocean of arctic granite. Blue faces of internet nights, unwritten examinations of conscience, papers full of disasters and tragedies, restless thoughts and unfinished cases have all been left far behind. Behind us was all that we wanted to escape, and what we wanted to return to.
The first couple of hours on the wall were jittery and chaotic. On one hand, we wanted to climb quickly, as if we only had one day on the wall; on the other, our rhythms and commands were not harmonious. We’d never climbed together before, so we needed time and patience to adapt. I was calm, constantly staring at the red cracks that ended somewhere above my upturned head, bordering the sky. The first couple of pitches in relation to the whole wall were like drawing out a handful of water from a boundless ocean.
Three days later, after night snowfall, we were carrying haulbags whilst approaching the first fixed line. Jugging up on the rope, I thought that the toughest job was behind us, but it was hauling that really exhausted me, so I was relieved when the evening came. The first bivouac was like a meditational breath, thanks to which we gained peace and rhythm. The next morning, despite snowfall and light breeze, we were in high spirits. From that point, our tent, left behind on the fjord, was fast becoming a vanishing point; every day, after every pitch – smaller and smaller. The specific feeling of being detached, of being off the beaten track, of leaving the shore had finally arrived. It was like starting a trek into the wilderness. A trek which sooths and calms, with first steps marked by anxiety and disharmony. Afterwards, the joy of discovery outweighed the impatience.
In the morning, Yeti clipped jumars and sped upwards. I caught up with him and we started climbing straightaway. It had only been a couple of days before that he had led a challenging M7+ pitch and now I was looking at how confidently and rapidly he was moving. When he was climbing the crack, the ice axe suddenly fell out and his falling body jerked the line. Yeti narrowly escaped hitting his head against a ledge. He checked if the nose was bleeding and inhaled deeply. We looked at each other tellingly but in a moment, Yeti jugged up and climbed in this same, steady rhythm without malediction.
The time is now, I took over the lead, having to climb a rotten corner. Before I set the placement, I had to remove all the loose rocks and clean the cracks. All the rubble was falling; first on my brand new jacket, then somewhere into the abyss below. I think it was then that the stones cut the rope and the portaledge pitched beneath. My mind didn’t dwell while I was removing all the loose rocks one after another, setting cams, hammering beaks and, metre after metre, approaching the ledge for the next stance. We used almost exclusively cams and beaks. Regular pitons didn’t withstand, as the majority of cracks were expanding. The stones cut the ropes almost every day, but even that kind of rotten rock wasn't able to stop us. We finally set up the Camp II, which almost instantly seemed quite depressive to us: it was cold, in deep shadow, and above our heads protruded the overhanging rocks of the Boomerang. But because nothing is ever merely good or bad, we had our daily delight there. At cloudless nights, the setting sun was shining on us. For the full twenty minutes, we exposed our faces and rejoiced in the golden light.
I woke up at five. I wasn’t waiting for the dawn because at this time of the year, the polar day practically doesn’t end. Yeti was still sleeping. I didn’t want to wake him; I felt like a bit of solitude. We were alone only when we climbed, slept, on fixed lines, or whilst waiting on belays. My need of solitude wasn’t directed against anything, and especially not against Yeti. It was a longing for something of my own, a spot of privacy within the closed off space of the portaledge.
When Yeti opened his eyes, we started the daily routine – coffee, complaining about muscle, tendon and elbow aches, porridge with fruits to warm up, splitting the snacks between the two of us and discussing the plan for the day. We were about to get moving, when Yeti decided to take off his socks and check his feet. It was still warm in the portaledge as we had been cooking, so he took them off quickly after he got out of the sleeping bag. The waxen whiteness of his toes was visible at first glance. After an hour of rubbing the circulation came back, and it turned out his other foot was the same. Usually, as I sipped on my last coffee, I would reserve some time for writing, or rather scribbling crooked letters in an uncomfortable position. On this day, I had neither the time or the urge for it. I took the crusted over shoes out of the outside haulbag; we folded the stove and refilled the fuel bottle, so that we wouldn’t have to worry about it after climbing. Straight after, we hung on ropes and jugged up till the last fixed line…
After the next few days on the red rocks of the Boomerang we got fed up with rotten rock, falling stones, overhanging rocks above our heads, and the sharp edges that cut the rope. The plan for the day was to get to Camp III and prepare for the hauling the day after. Fixed lines were hanging freely, touching the wall occasionally. Frankly speaking, jugging was the worst part of the day. From the very start the pain of hands rubbing against the rope stopped us from moving. We were hitting our hands like an irate audience clapping a poor performance. The longer I waited for circulation to come back, the longer I rested. We started getting hot after the third, fourth, fifth time we changed ropes. Roughly after the third change, I started feeling as if somebody was tearing my arms off. Almost every day, the falling stones and sharp edges cut some of the rope sheaths, so we had to tie safety knots. When were about to finish on Boomerang, there was lots of them: they slowed down the pace of climbing and then rappelling… After an hour and a half of jugging up, warming up and resting, we were ready for the lead. Yeti geared up and climbed over a corner edge, entering a small depression. When I got to the belay stance, I stared at his icy face with disbelief; the cold, unlike at any other part of that wall, obstructed breathing and took away the will to climb. Because of a light breeze it was becoming unbearable. Yeti’s chin, nose and eyelashes were covered with ice. He called that place the Fridge. I started counting whilst flexing my toes, trying to fight off the paralyzing cold. The circulation would come back after two hundred; I counted endlessly until I felt pain and fatigue. I sat down on a belay sit; that allowed me to unburden the harness, which pressed on my thighs, stemming the circulation. Yeti’s scream interrupted the trance-like countdown of toe movements and roused me from the mind-numbing cold. Jugging was like liberation from the frozen abyss, leading us to the East ridge, from which we could see the headwall cut by two beautiful cracks. One of them was waiting for us. We screamed with joy.
Hauling to Camp III reminded me of the Myth of Sisyphus. Hauling bags were getting stuck: their weight increased with every pitch and every coiled rope put into them. Increasing arm, joint and tendon aches interlaced with the loss of feeling and attempts to limber up. When we entered The Fridge, every meter of hauling was met with struggling with spindrifts, the cold and bags getting stuck. We stopped talking to each other. I doubted that I could pull the bags out of the overhang one more time, but when I moved them just a little bit, Yeti sensed it and pushed them up by a couple of centimetres. The cold obstructed breathing; my fingers and toes didn’t want to come back to me, but I kept moving, since the ridge was so close. The day when we got out of Boomerang lasted 21 hours. At 3 a.m., we started to set the portaledge and cook. Above us was a beautiful wall, rewarding the terror of the red crack of Boomerang that we wanted to forget.
We decided to take a day off. It happened to be a sunny Sunday. We drank without limit and stuffed ourselves with sweets and an extra meal; after that came the pain killers. When the arm and palm aches disappeared gradually, we started writing notes, texts and telling stories from other walls – Tatra Mountains, Alps, Patagonia, Alaska, Yosemite. The stories ignited our imaginations to a point where we began making plans for the future. From a couple of our exuberant fantasies we chose distant cliffs, which at the end of the day seemed like vague images from a dream dreamt somewhere at the back of beyond.
Wintry and misty morning found us with frosted gear and stiffened ropes. We shook off the white rime and attacked. That evening, I wrote in my diary:
‘’ A4/A3/A2/A1 – it was one of the most beautiful pitch I’ve ever led in my life. Fish hook, rivet, head, rivet, hook and many, many beaks. I was shouting out with joy at the top belay stance with Yeti accompanying me at the bottom. Sitting on a belay sit, I kept on reliving the beauty of my crack, which seemed like a release from the past torment of Boomerang. It started to snow and the wind was blowing at the second pitch. It must have been then that I froze my cheeks without even noticing. On the open wall, I had no shelter. The wind swayed my sit and hit my face. Luckily, Yeti gave me an extra jacket, which I put on as tightly as I could. The wind was blowing snow into my eyes, and I unconsciously used my gloves to rub it off. In the afternoon, along with the snow and wind, came the fogs. I was watching the rope getting fed out into the white nothingness, when, from the regular wind sounds, I distinguished an unfamiliar noise. At first I thought it was Yeti, but it turned out somebody was calling us from the white void of the base. We responded simultaneously, bursting out screaming into the milky whiteness, outshouting the wind and driving the snow away. It was beautiful. Thanks.’’
Which day on the wall? The sunlight slipped through, but straight afterwards, I was wearing everything I had. I hung on the stance, shaking and shielding myself from the wind. Although, at a certain moment I stopped and followed my inner voice, which said repeating ‘listen to the wind, listen to the stones’… I remembered Yeti saying that since we can’t fight the cold, we have to befriend it. It sounded like a quote from Machiavelli, but it was effective. I added talking to myself ‘try to understand the elements, Regan’ and followed the inner voice, thinking ‘maybe it will get better tomorrow’…
At the bivi, I took a picture of myself to see my face. The left corner of my mouth cracked; it oozed pus. I couldn’t eat. I suffered especially when sucking energy gel from sachets, as it cut my scabs. My cheeks were burning, covered in dark, hard crust. In the evening, I applied vaseline and finally slept after taking pain killers, which we had every evening as a kind of dessert.
In the morning, we found ourselves swinging with the wind again as it started snowing densely at the middle part of the headwall. The snow embedded and froze on our faces. My cheeks were stinging unmercifully, but I stubbornly counted the movements of jumars, trying not to think about it. Yeti would say ‘If it’s hard, don’t think, but climb’, so I shook off all the bad thoughts and took delight in the void. On the stance, over our heads opened a great corner leading almost to the top. We called it the Arena. It was snowing heavily; leading in spindrifts was an agony. Every time I attempted to place some pro, the snow would cover the crack; I would curl up for self-defence and start again. We had to stand it somehow: overall, it was only another day and another pitch. After a couple of hours, I was hammering the belay bolt when Yeti caught up, carrying the gear. Covered with ice and shaking like wet dogs, we rapped down to Camp III for the last time.
We started the 20th day on the wall with hauling. The wind was cold and gusty, but in comparison to Boomerang, the hauling was much easier thanks to smooth rock. It was around 5 p.m. that we set the portaledge and slipped into frosty sleeping bags. Yeti gave me some pills for stomach diastole, not admitting he had a tooth ache himself. We started to review and fix the gear. The front points of crampons hardly stuck out from beneath our shoes; step-ins bended and slipped off the boots. We had to adjust them on almost every pitch. The blunt and rounded pics of ice axes were only fit for replacement. The gum was ripped at the tip of the boots; the two layers of leather were absolutely frayed. We sewed and patched the worn out jackets, but it stopped making sense when it became impossible to repair the holes in any way. Shreds of membrane and thermal liners were sticking out from gloves. We called it the effect of the Boomerang Test.
Right after breakfast, Yeti started climbing on the Arena. It was really steep, so the cracks of gray and red rock were visible even when it snowed. The line was set out evenly, so I felt sleepy when suddenly, I heard a falling stone and a scream. ‘I’m gonna fall with the cam, the block is moving!’ screamed Yeti. ‘Rivet, put the rivet!’ I shrieked and instantly heard a hammer pounding the drill bit. Yeti was fast as a sewing machine, he took the weight off the cam and the big block behind which he placed it returned to its position. A moment later, Yeti pulled another block off, which made an arrow fall over my head. We could breathe again, but relaxed fully only when the last stance was prepared. The next pitch was one of the most beautiful on the wall. Maybe it was a reward for that moving block, for Yeti used to say that in the mountains, you get rewarded for all the suffering, the fear and the good job. I was looking at his aiders, swaying in the wind and the tag line, rolling away from the wall, with admiration. A moment after, I was defending myself from spinning around in the air whilst cleaning and pulling out cams passionately. It was like the most beautiful Yosemite climb, after which we came back for a bivi in Camp IV by two rappels in open air.
The top was at our fingertips, so our moods got better every evening. We fooled around and listened to music. Yeti was drawing on the wall of the portaledge while I was setting up pictures with vampire teeth. We started exchanging earthy dreams: a shower, clean clothes, fresh bed with fragrant bedding, freshly brewed coffee and walking around town, looking at girls…
We hadn’t even noticed when, in blind fog, we found ourselves on a flat spot with a stone mound from where you could only descend. Our reflections on the clouds were waving with child-like joy, and beyond the whiteness of clouds, protruded the top, which looked like the tip of the egg laid on a white tablecloth. Nobody in the valley could see the peak of Polar Sun Spire, so we were the only ones who could rejoice in this view; I think that was the reward that Yeti mentioned. We had our wall to ourselves and we took it with us forever…
Superbalance, VII, M7+, A4
North face of Polar Sun Spire, Baffin Island
14/04 – 07/05/2012
Marcin “Yeti” Tomaszewski
Marek “Regan” Raganowicz
More info you can find in the trip report:
or on my web site: