“Rock! Rock! ROCK!”
My head snapped up as Cheyne’s voice sounded over the wind. The stone plummeted toward me, and I jumped forward. Everything went white. I crashed to the ground, ears ringing. Instinctively, I was on my feet running. I slammed into the base of the main wall of the Great Cross Pillar, fell again to the ground, stumbled to my feet and ran along the length of the wall. Finally I slumped, breathing heavily. A moment later I realized that the rock had hit me in the back.
It was May of 2015, and Cheyne Lempe and I were in Baffin Island in far northern Canada on our first arctic expedition. Seventy-two hours of air travel and a five-hour snowmobile ride had deposited us in one of the world’s most spectacular big-wall arenas, the Sam Ford Fjord. The rock of the Sam Ford formed 3.6 billion years ago but was buried, smashed, super-heated and re-exposed just 1.8 million years ago when it was carved by the massive glaciers of the Pleistocene era. Now, 4,000-foot vertical walls erupt straight from the meandering ocean inlets.
These inlets, well within the Arctic Circle, remain frozen for most of the year, thawing for only a short period, in a chaotic mix of icebergs and ocean. For big-wall climbing, the season is May and early June, when you can access the walls by snowmobiles but before the breakup of the sea ice later in the summer. Even during this prime season, temperatures are often below zero, with occasional blizzards and other hazards.
“The threat of polar bears is very real,” Levi Palituq told us as we pulled away from the airport in Clyde River. Palituq, a quiet, crewcut Inuit is the local expert on the fjords and big walls on the east coast of Baffin Island. We would later find out that even in whiteout conditions, where the ground and sky fade into one, Palituq knew the way.
“You’re going to an extremely remote place where you won’t see anyone, and it is very possible you will see a bear,” he warned.
The next day, from a wooden sledge towed behind a snowmobile, we watched the terrain shift. The snowy hills of Clyde River grew into the massive and seemingly never-ending vertical walls of the Sam Ford Fjord.
Reaching our destination, we pulled the eight heavy haul bags from the sledges and onto the sea ice. Above us towered the 3,000-foot Great Cross Pillar. Across the fjord, the Polar Sun Spire stood in the shade, clouds spinning around the summit 4,600 feet above the sea ice.
Palituq and his partner pulled out a rifle and chambered a round, then handed it to me. Cheyne had already said he wanted nothing to do with the gun. Our guides fired up their snowmobiles, waving but not looking back. We stood alone on the sea ice, exposed and isolated with the wind howling in our ears.
“Do you want to boil water or hike a load to the base?” I asked.
“I’ll hike first then boil, we can trade off,” said Cheyne.
We were equals in our icy wonderland. We each had different roles to fill, and together we had a balanced energy. I cracked the whip, always eager to get on the wall, while Cheyne demanded an eight-hour sleep schedule. We found middle ground by sleeping for six hours, waking to my alarm, then deciding whether we should sleep another two.
We quickly learned that the wind never stops blowing on the sea ice. But we had adopted the motto “Climb every day,” from our Polish big-wall heroes Marek Raganowicz and Marcin Tomaszewski, whom we knew from Yosemite. So despite the wind, we donned our layers, our balaclavas and our goggles and began the first pitch on the Great Cross Pillar. Our perceptions of scale and distance were seriously askew in this land without any markers of height and distance. The initial cliff band was almost double the height we expected.
Our Baffin trip had started off rocky, a missed flight, a forgotten passport and I could see the intensity of the Arctic weighed heavily on Cheyne who had married his Yosemite love, Jessica Pemble, just a month earlier. When I wasn’t looking he struggled to stay motivated, but when I was he forced a constantly positive attitude that drove us. We decided that any suggestion or idea should always be met with positivity. “Now that’s a great idea!” became our go-to line.
By the third day on the ice we were anxious to commit to the wall and leave the sea ice, where we were exposed and neurotic about encountering polar bears. Every morning when nature called we scanned the horizon for the black nose of the great white bear. We joked about carrying the rifle during our morning business.
On the fifth day we finally left these fears behind and moved to Camp 1, 1,200 feet up the wall, situated on a frozen-talus ledge the size of a football field.
The first pitch on the main wall foreshadowed what the route would entail: wide chimneys stuffed with loose rock and sand. The climbing was steep and the rocks we pulled from these gaping clefts fell far from the wall, smashing the ledge below us.
Our route, which would be the fourth on the formation, followed a massive cleft between the central and right pillars of the Great Cross. Unlike the younger granite of Yosemite or Patagonia where you can jam continuous cracks, the older rock of Baffin Island typically fractures in discontinuous, broken crack systems.
Progress was steady and the higher we climbed, the better the rock became. Every day we jumarred above camp and each led a full 60-meter pitch. When the rope went tight, we drilled an anchor and changed leads. We repeated this process for four days, fixing 800 feet of rope, before we finally packed our camp and hauled our bags higher on the wall to Camp 2.
The day of hauling deposited us at a horrendous hanging belay. Looking up, we saw a perfect ledge just 100 feet away, so I donned the rack and squirmed into a difficult squeeze chimney, heel-toe camming in my double boots, chicken winging in two thick down jackets and finally belly flopping onto the ledge. My feet stuck straight out from the wall while I lay on my stomach building an anchor and admiring the perfect new camp.
That night on the portaledge we blasted Michael Franti tunes and devoured a big dinner. In the arctic, food is your friend. When you feel cold, putting down several hundred calories of M&M’s and nuts stokes the internal fire.
Every day we took in over 5,000 calories and could have eaten more. I shouldn’t have been surprised when I woke late that night to find Cheyne quietly stuffing a handful of snacks into his mouth.
“Are you eating?” I asked, laughing.
“Damn, man,” he said. “I got the nighttime nibbles, yo!”
Above the Nighttime Nibbler Bivy, as we called our portaledge camp, the route dished out steep and difficult chimneys, tearing holes in our puffy arctic battle gear. On day eight, we finally escaped the loose and dangerous corner for safety in hard and exposed aid climbing on the golden wall to the right. Casting off onto the perfect rock, I found small seams and difficult hooking leading right and finally into a long, airy, and exposed crack.
The strong winds blew in a storm that day so we climbed in a full blizzard, our fingers numb despite thick winter gloves. With temperatures of minus 25 Fahrenheit we fixed our ropes and retreated to the shelter of the Nighttime Nibbler Bivy.
By the time we arrived, our fingers and toes were burning from the cold. We pulled off our boots and stuffed our feet into minus-40-degree sleeping bags, rubbing and flexing our toes to bring back the blood flow.
Our 4 a.m. alarm was drowned out by the wind ripping across the wall. Our camp sat in a small sheltered nook, spared from the worst of the storm, but when Cheyne opened the portaledge fly we were hit by the coldest air I have ever felt.
“Holy crap, that is way colder than it has been, right?!” I curled deeper into my bag, “I don’t think we can climb in this!”
We agreed and settled in for a rest day.
By 9 a.m. the strong winds had pushed the blizzard through, leaving calm and sunny skies. We turned on music, made breakfast and prepared for another day. Little did we know that we were embarking on our summit push.
On our ninth day, as the sun dipped below the horizon to the north, we finished another 400 feet of wild and exposed climbing. The shadowy hours of night were the closest thing to darkness we saw at that latitude where the sun shines over 20 hours a day in May. Now on a snowy ledge that cut the entire wall just below the final small headwall, we fixed the final static rope, lengthening the umbilical cord to our camp below. “Yeah Buddy!” yelled Cheyne, and he cast off for the top.
To the south a blizzard pounded the distant walls far away, creating surreal swirls of alpenglow. Across the fjord, the Polar Sun Spire glowed in the sunlight briefly, then faded back into shadow. Above, Cheyne climbed through strange, bullet-hard bubbly rock with few crack systems. When I arrived at the belay, we were tired, but could finally see the top of the wall.
Around midnight, I free climbed left toward a pockmarked black corner and shifted to aid-climbing mode. The small beaks and daunting ledge below gave me déjà vu as I remembered the terrifying ledges perched below similarly hard climbing of the Reticent Wall on El Capitan. I focused on climbing, nailing, testing, weighting and moving on. Placements shifted and twisted, and my heart raced. Beaks, hooks; finally, a solid cam placement. I breathed and relaxed. Then, suddenly, I was standing on top of the Great Cross Pillar. The wall was gone and only a short hike remained to the highest point.
The early morning gold and pink light shone on an endless world of big walls and ocean fjords. When Cheyne arrived, we unroped, embraced and walked toward the true summit of the Great Cross Pillar.
Fox tracks crisscrossed the mountaintop and mouse droppings lay under every stone: There were signs of life everywhere in the barren landscape. We snapped photos and enjoyed the view. Then, exhausted, we descended. In just a few hours we were on the portaledge, bonked and arguing about pulling and coiling our ropes, a rare moment of discord that quickly turned to laugher as we filled our bellies with food and water.
We were excited to jump on another route that would branch off from Camp 1, but after 11 days on the wall we needed a break, mentally and physically. We left our gear at Camp 1 and fixed ropes to the sea ice to rest for a day. We planned to tackle an incipient line up the main face—the only other obvious route on the wall.
The success of our first climb, Deconstructing Jenga (Grade VI A3+ 5.9+), named for the towers of precarious loose blocks, was still fresh in our minds as we organized the remaining food and headed back to Camp 1 just one day later. We had 10 days until our scheduled pickup but only enough food for seven more. The dwindling supply was a stressful detail as we headed toward our second route. No more nighttime nibbles.
In the late afternoon, as I started onto the second route, the winds picked up and temperatures dropped. We were no longer sheltered in the massive corner but exposed, perched on the face of the bulging right pillar. I hammered beak after beak of the smallest size, only driving them into the rock an eighth of an inch before they bottomed; it was thin and intricate protection. I bounced furiously on each piece but they neither shifted nor pulled, so I moved upward.
Hours passed in moments as my gear ran low.
“You’re out of rope!” Cheyne yelled.
Relieved, I drilled an anchor, fixed ropes and descended back to our camp while Cheyne began the arduous task of cleaning the overhanging wall.
The wind blew strongly and steadily as I set up the portaledge at Camp 1. The ropes streamed across the face above.
Damn, I should have tied them down.
Cheyne had finished cleaning the pitch and was organizing the gear at the anchor above, when I left the portaledge and ran under him to grab the rope.
That was when he shouted, “Rock! Rock! ROCK!”
The block flew through the air, dislodged from just overhead. I tried to jump but never made it. The block struck my lower back just left of my spine. It drove me to the ground, but like an animal under attack, I gained my feet and ran.
Thirty feet later I slumped to the snow, lying on my side, breathing heavily. Was my back broken? Wide eyed, I stared at nothing, unable to move my head, emotions numb as I thought through our emergency plan. A minute later Cheyne was at my side, panting, terror in his eyes. He had watched me, he thought, die. He’d seen the block strike and drive me to the ground. Lying there, I shivered for the first time on the entire trip.
Cheyne helped me onto the sleeping pads, pulled on the down pants and carefully tucked a sleeping bag around me. I needed to eat. I needed to drink. We needed to remain calm. We used a small tube from the drill kit as a straw and I sucked down a half liter of water. I could wiggle my toes but couldn’t move my torso. Cheyne checked my back to find the swelling had already begun and a large abrasion across the skin. I stuffed the fear down deep inside—stay calm.
I asked Cheyne to sit in front of me where I could see him without moving. Despite the pain, I felt calm and collected. Both Cheyne and I had worked for Yosemite Search and Rescue, and we knew what to do.
“We’ve done this dozens of times,” I told Cheyne. “If we were in Yosemite we would be laughing and joking, rescuing someone. Right now, we are saving ourselves. Let’s figure out our options.”
We were in an exposed position 1,200 feet up the wall, in a land where there was no chance of rescue. I knew I wouldn’t shake this off, but I also refused to believe my back was broken. Getting to the sea ice was the only option. I lay immobile on the snow, breathing deeply, while Cheyne jumped into hero mode—stress and exhaustion forgotten.
He quickly recovered the fixed ropes, filled a haulbag with the emergency essentials—sleeping bags, clothing, food, stoves and our medical kit—and helped me to my feet. Pain exploded through my body. Still, I knew I would make it. I had to make it.
Cheyne led the rappels with the heavy haulbag and 1,200 feet of rope hanging from his waist. He double-checked my harness, and we made sure I could control my own rappels. Then we began the painful process of moving down the wall. As Cheyne dropped into the first rappel I glanced across the fjord at the golden light illuminating the Polar Sun Spire. I breathed in the cold arctic air and fought back tears. Our predicament was both terrifying and beautiful.
“I love this, Cheyne!” I yelled. “Look at the view. Next time we have to climb that!”
He looked up at me, intensity and determination hidden behind his dark framed glasses. A smile broke across his face. “You’re insane. You are insane!”
The next two and half days at base camp on the ice were for me a haze of sleeping, eating and reflecting on what had happened. Cheyne returned to Camp 1 to collect all of the gear, a monumental task.
We made emotional phone calls home, and on the second night we reached Levi Palituq. I could tell he was extremely concerned, but in his flat and emotionless tone he asked, “This is no reason to panic?” His intonation made me believe it was a statement.
“I’ll leave early,” he said. “I should arrive by lunch.”
Despite having just spent his whole day on a snowmobile he seemed unfazed at leaving within hours to pick us up.
When Palituq arrived he pushed past Cheyne and walked straight to the tent, bellowing, “You’re not dead yet?!”
In those two days at camp it didn’t matter whether I was broken or not. I was simply grateful to be alive. There were so many other possible outcomes. Had the rock struck my head, even with a helmet, I would surely have died. When I got home, a doctor took two rounds of x-rays and confirmed that nothing was broken.
While on the ice, Cheyne and I talked about the minor mistakes that led to the accident. He’d been at the belay, emotionally drained and questioning the whole trip. His attention lapsed as he pulled the rope, dislodging the block that hit me. I should have warned him that I was moving below. In the mountains little things compound, they build in an exponential way and disaster can strike quickly. A hand-sized scar on my lower back is all that is left of the accident, a visual reminder of how lucky I got and the important lessons we learned.
A friend once told me that alpinists have two jars. One of luck and one of skill. Each time you pinch something from the luck jar you put it into the jar of skill, but eventually that luck runs out. You don’t want to rely on luck, not in the mountains, not anywhere. So pinch from that jar carefully, and hone your skills. I used a lot of luck that day. I don’t want to reach into that jar again.
This article originally appeared in Rock & Ice - 2016 ASCENT #234. The original article featured photos by Cheyne Lempe and writing by myself. It was an introspective journey to reflect on such a tumultuous and amazing trip.