From the first time that I walked to the base of El Capitan in Yosemite Valley I knew that big wall climbing was going to captivate me. I laid my hands on the granite, the wall soared overhead more than half a mile to the top, distant and dizzying. The idea of passing day after day in the vertical world was so wild and exciting, even today the thought of days or weeks on the wall makes my heart race with excitement.
For years I have dreamed of traveling to the Sam Ford Fjord on Baffin Island, the grandest big wall arena in the world. The confluence of the Sam Ford and the Walker Arm is an incredible example of glacier carved granite, the Fjords were sculpted a billion and a half years ago by massive glaciers pushing through the entire Arctic. At this confluence the walls of granite rise over 4500 feet straight from the water, but for most of the year that water is frozen over several meters thick with sea ice.
When I first found photos of Baffin Island I was just an aspiring big wall climber with but a few ascents of El Capitan under my belt. I was in love with the adventure and the unknown that came from climbing upwards with gear, food, and water for several days all packed into bags to be hauled up the wall with you. The more big wall routes I climbed and the better I got, the smoother the complicated systems became, the more I dreamed of other grand big walls around the world.
Jim Bridwell had once said something to the effect of Yosemite being the training ground for climbing around the world and over the years I have always kept that idea with me. Climbing the established routes in the Valley will teach the prerequisite skills for casting out to more remote regions, bigger walls and new routes. You can practice in the Valley while dreaming of far away places. So for years I looked at hundreds of photos of Baffin Island, where unclimbed formations and never ending new routes still stand, hiding right in the open.
While I have climbed a fair number of Grade VI routes and have spent more nights than I can remember on portaledges, I am far from a honed big wall first ascensionist. That is one skill that Yosemite can no longer teach its disciples. For me, new routes remains the great allure of the little explored and remote regions of the world. It’s only in places like Baffin that you can look up to a mile-long cliff and take your pick of a new line, relying on your skill and judgement to choose right, execute safely and be successful. Yosemite will prepare you, but the adventure lies in the unknown, and that adventure feeds my soul and makes life sweet.