Mt Turnweather – Baffin Island

Delano Lavigne on Mt. Turnweather

Every journey has a beginning, a point at which forces coalesce to encourage us to adventure into the unknown. This adventure, to climb a granite big wall in the Canadian arctic with my younger brother, Delano, started in 2005 when we traveled to the Northwest Territories to attempt the remarkable Lotus Flower Tower – Delano’s first big wall and our first grand adventure together. During this trip, I recognized that we had a bond that transcended our fraternal contract and that our trust for eachother emboldened us to live a life of meaning through the discovery of ourselves. Our partnership has become something that is neither defined solely by climbing or kinship but by an interchangeable student-teacher connection. This is why we continue to plan adventures together and why this summer, we found ourselves stepping off a plane in Pangnirtung, Nunavut ready to journey towards the granite walls of Mt. Turnweather.

2000 metres wide and 1000 metres high. Contemplating the best line.

2000 metres wide and 1000 metres high. Contemplating the best line.

We walked across the gravel airstrip, pushed by the arctic air blowing in from the Cumberland Sound and entered the one-room airport. We were immediately greeted by a young inuit boy and his father, Rikki, with wide smiles and eager to get us on our way. After three days of travel we are also eager to be loading our bags onto Rikki’s boat and starting our journey towards the mythical granite walls of Auyuittuq National Park. Within two hours of arriving we are happily taking our first steps towards Mount Turnweather. The tundra quietly yields to the weight of our feet, absorbing the sounds of our presence and we, too, are absorbing the sounds, smells, and sights of the expansive landscape, acclimating to our new home. The sound of water everywhere; it runs off the cliffs of Overlord peak that looms above, it trickles under the thick tussocks of moss that blanket the valley floor, and gushes through countless glacial moraines. We move along methodically, each finding and holding our own pace.

After two and half hours we turn north and up the Turnweather glacier. The path is undefined and fresh with fallen rock but awards us with a reasonably straightforward approach. Over the next 4 hours we pass meadows painted pink, white and yellow by recently blossomed wild flowers; unnamed and unclimbed walls; and exposed crevasses that run deep under our feet. With our knees week from the weight of our packs we are happy, if not forced, to stop every hour. Soon enough we arrive at where we will make our home for what will be the next two weeks. It is an unassuming island of rock haphazardly strewn on the glacier, but it offers us a place to sit, find shelter and stretch amongst the sea of ice. It also offers us inspiring views of the 900m northwest face of Mt.Turnweather. Once we settle in we are eager to walk unencumbered up the glacier to get a better look at our objective, which is a welcome respite from the labour of the previous days. We study the walls and make every effort to learn its hidden secrets, those that will permit us passage to its towering summit. We are quick to notice, with great consternation, that the wall is wet. In fact all the walls are wet. A snowy winter and a late summer have cast a mild doubt over our ability to free-climb in the unfavorable conditions. Nevertheless, we return to our tent ready for a rest day and optimistic that a few days of good weather will dry the stone enough for us to free-climb. During our rest days we are disappointedly greeted with heavy clouds, thick fog and generally cold temperatures. But feeling the need to stay physically and mentally fit we manage to get out and likely complete two first ascents. The first is a scramble up an unknown upside-down, bowl shaped peak to the northeast of our camp. The second is the east ridge of Gauntlet Peak (Violett’s Ridge 400m, Grade V, 5.8 FA). The day of rock-climbing offered us a sense of the free-climbing conditions in suboptimal temperatures and although the belays were cold the climbing was reasonable. We thought that even with a bit of wet rock, free-climbing Mt. Turnweather was still possible.

When the time came for us to give Dry Line (5.10/A2, established in 1996 by Jia Condon and Rich Prohaska ) a try we had already spent a day establishing five new pitches. We had opted to find our own variation to the original route as the line Dry Line seemed to be a bit of a falsity. We awoke to gray skies but relatively stable weather; weather sufficient to at least offer us an attempt at the wall. What was unclear and a little foreboding was whether or not the conditions would hold for the two days we would need to free-climb twenty four pitches of unknown terrain. Equipped with all the gear, food, warm clothes and bravado we would need we started up our fixed lines and were soon treading through a handful of classic alpine granite pitches; wet, loose and traversing – ranging from 5.8 to 5.10. We pushed our line to the top of a pillar which was perched above an overhanging void on the left and a blank wall to the right. We were faced with a decision to either rappel and do a large pendulum to the right to an unknown crack or piece together a precarious and unprotectable traverse to an insignificant seam. Delano opted for the pendulum but as I examined the terrain above I opted for the traverse.

As I stepped off our perch and climbed further away from the ledge I looked back to assess the hazard. I looked down at the fall potential and then up at  Delano. I could see the concern in his eyes but we said nothing and he steadily held the rope. The weather had started to deteriorate with clouds and wind blowing across the horizon causing the climbing conditions to become more challenging. The wind numbed my fingers,  pitched the rope back and forth across the wall, and heightened my awareness of the consequences while the outcome remained unclear. This is the moment when a line must be drawn in the sand; a line to separate recreation from adventure; the known from the unknown, .The intricacies of the pitch unfolded as my experience, and a  little luck, delivered me to the belay unscathed. Delano followed, pushing himself through the cold and the cruxes, arriving at the belay without falling.  He was elated and his eyes  made open to the experience  and rush of exploratory free climbing on an alpine big wall. I worked through another pitch of exciting and committing 5.12 climbing. My enthusiasm rising in a crescendo of perfect jams, engaging face climbing and splitter cracks. I stood 60 meters above my brother with a feverishness for more. Delano on the other hand hung from the belay below with anxiety and an unknown fear pulsing in his veins. He was grappling with an unfamiliar voice in his head, a voice urging him to go down. With a pain in his heart but no hesitation in his voice he yelled up from below and stated unequivocally  “I want to go down.” At first I was confused, ‘just as things were getting good, I thought to myself” but I couldn’t ignore his conviction and I trusted his decision.  I abandoned to this voice, to his mountain sense, and before long we were retracing our steps to the base of the wall.

We moved along the glacier under clear skies and a setting sun. The mood was unsettled yet reconciled. unsettled as we waited for a change in the weather which would validate our retreat; reconciled because the decision between us was held against no one. We settled into our sleeping bags and waited for the rain but it never came…until the next morning when it started to storm and the wind, rain and cold pounded our tent, lasting 14 hrs. We spend our day thankful for being in our dry tent,   thinking of the epic that would have been, 800 metres up the wall, wet and hypothermic and .  which was an unbearable thought. Delano’s intuition had saved us from both a certain and a serious epic. I might have  been the teacher and Delano the pupil while adventuring up into the unknown, but the roles had been reversed when it came to making the intuitive decision to retreat and avoid an epic. Again, our adventure together created a circumstance where we  needed to trust in each other. We choose an adventure unencumbered by our egos and in the process discovered ourselves beyond what would be possible on our own.

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Joshua Lavigne is an Internationally certified Mountain Guide living in Canmore Alberta.