†††††††††††††††††††††††††† ††††††††† THE GOOD LIFE

 

I was poised on the summit, a tall plinth; all around a profusion of peaks and stupendous walls; glaciers like rivers of light and the camp far below. In the distance a bright dome shimmered. Its surface was furrowed and, as I swooped down low over the ice, I could see a sledge tracking between the crevasses, an Eskimo cajoling his dog team with wild, primitive cries that left a ringing in the ears .....

 

I stirred. I could feel someone moving in the tent, fumbling with the alarm clock. I struggled with the red cocoon and then the door and finally poked my head outside.

 

Outside, Baffin Island was like the land of the dream. The snow crisp underfoot, the air cool and the peaks sharp and bright against a blue Arctic sky. We moved lightly around the camp, cameras to our eyes, celebrating the end of the tedious load carrying under leaden skies. Anticipating a day of carefree mountaineering under the kindly gaze of the mountain gods. We left the camp, the three of us, at 5 a.m., our eyes on the 250Oft SW ridge of Sigurd, a sharp peak on the far side of the lake. We paused at the lake edge, measuring the chances of making a safe crossing on the ice. I took a few tentative steps on the treacherous surface and almost immediately sank through slush to the lake bed. By the time I had dragged my sodden feet from the lake the others had turned south on the long detour round the outlet.

 

On the far side of the lake, National Park squads had marked a path through the moraines with distinct, Eskimo-style cairns. Legend has it that cairns were built during hunting trips so that the caribou, consumed by curiosity, would trot over to investigate; whereupon an Eskimo would pop up to spear the beast. We left the path at a cairn shaped like a man and dog and scrambled up talus to the snout of the glacier. Here we emerged from the shadow of the mountain and stood at the edge of a trough filled, so it seemed, with liquid silver. The lateness of the summer meant that the glacier still had a thick mantle of snow, now softening rapidly under the morning sun.

 

Greg was studying the scene, frowning. "We'd better put the rope on", he announced. Unaccountably I was offered the end. Innocently I led off, heading towards the lateral moraine on the far side. Predictably my feet vanished through the thin crust and I resigned myself to laboriously excavating a trench, of which any Irish navvy would have been proud. Later, we toiled up the moraine, teetering from shaky stone to fickle rock and often losing a leg to an unsuspected cavity veiled by snow. The sun was burning the backs of our necks when we started up the first slabby rocks of the ridge. Here, on friable ledges, we found arctic flowers basking in the heat - moss campion, purple saxifrage, arctic poppy and a solitary mountain aven. We climbed alone, each absorbed in finding his own line, enjoying the familiar feel of warm rough granite and the sensation of silvery space spreading out below. We came together for lunch on a broad terrace. Bill was exultant. "Let us boldly go where no man has gone before", he declared. Something caught Captain Greg's eye. He held up a perfectly preserved packet of Italian Ovomaltino. We laughed, not really caring if some lousy foreigners had been there first, and went on, dancing across slabs, ploughing through snowfields and slithering up damp chimneys. By 2 p.m. we were perched on the summit plinth, peering down half a mile of sheer rock and ice to the glacier on the north side. Southwards I saw the glint of the Weasel River as it wound through the great cleft between Thor and Odin, the mountain warlords. Their attendant peaks in the pantheon, Tyr, Freya and Friga led my eye westwards to where Asgard, the celestial palace, prodded the sky with its broad crown of ice. In the distance a bright dome shimmered in the haze. Far to the north we could just pick out the steep profile of Ozymandias the Great.

 

A long eastward traverse along an airy ridge followed by an ankle-jolting romp down a boulder field brought us back to the glacier, now a furnace of incandescence under the late afternoon sun. Half blinded by sweat, we stumbled and tumbled down the lateral moraine until we met with a man and his dog and could relax in the cool valley. The return to camp was a slow weaving among the moraines, captivated by the orange glow of the dipping sun on the sheer pillars of Breidablik. The tents were deserted: the others were out attempting routes on Friga and Killabuk. All were successful and, though the weather closed in the next day, our spirits were high as we planned our next moves.

 

We were 10 climbers from the North East of Scotland on a five-week visit to Baffin's Cumberland Peninsula. The area, which lies south of the Penny Ice Cap, was first visited by climbers in 1953. In the early seventies the potential of its spectacular granite walls for making steep face climbs was noted. This, together with the area's designation as a national park in 1972, led to a burgeoning of interest from hikers and climbers alike. For the Cumberland Peninsula, though awkward of access, has something for everyone, from backpackers to climbers and mountaineers of every ability and ambition. We had come in over the sea-ice by skidoo-drawn sled. In two days we had carried 80lb loads up to the camp at Summit Lake. Then we had returned over the "aufeis", the loose moraines, the oozing tundra, the quick sands and the river gravels to make another carry.

 

Within a week we were labouring once again under the heavy packs, steering them, weak-kneed, through the crumbling moraines and glacial outflows that lace the terrain beyond Summit Lake. We pitched our second camp at a bend in the Owl Valley where an icy torrent scours the sandy shore. Over the tents loomed the vast granite stumps of Ozymandias, like those twin pillars of old, which held the earth apart from the sky. These 2500 ft unclimbed walls were our prime goal, though one which seemed likely to be thwarted by the unsettled weather, which offered only one good day in every 3 or 4. Yet plenty was achieved during our quota of 2 sunny days, among them the great prize of the Left Leg of Ozymandias, ascents of his left and right subsidiary arms and an ascent of one of the last unclimbed peaks in the area, the highest point of the Penny Ice Cap, the 6500 ft Mount Etchachan.

 

The last days of July saw four of us wading up the Turner Glacier under the mocking gaze of Loki, the jester in the court of the gods. We established a bleak camp on the moraine close to the edge of an enormous collapsed glacial cavern and, with some foreboding, watched a pall of cloud roll in over the ice. For a day and a half we lay entombed until a break in the clouds enticed us out to prospect for routes. This we did by lying on our backs on a flat rock surrounded by whiteness and grey, teasing mists. The following hour was a slow unveiling, a materialisation of mountains from swirling vapours: glistening slabs, ice-streaked walls, soaring ridges and bare granite pillars - all was revealed. We decided on a route for the following day.

 

Next morning, as we trudged across the glacier to the foot of the 3000 ft SW ridge of a peak just east of Loki, the cloud was rolling in from the valley once again. Cirrus forming high in the sky gave notice of 9 or 10 hours before a storm. We went on, anxious to justify the effort of the last few days. By mid-morning we were climbing in fog, catching only fleeting glimpses of Asgard's twin towers and Lokiís cocked jester's cap. The climbing was on superb rough granite. After initial scrambling and a couple of roped pitches, a system of cracks and chimneys gave access through the steep middle section of the ridge to the slabby upper reaches. At this point Mike and Greg forged ahead through the mist while Bill and myself wandered off line and took valuable time climbing a difficult pitch to reach the great upper slab. A thin crack system took us to the very edge of the great slab, overlooking an abyss of unseen depths. Despite the pressures of time and weather we were able to relax and enjoy 600 ft of memorable Severe climbing. We emerged at the top of the ridge, just above the cloud, finding the other two waiting and impatient. We moved together, fast, over the long, 2000 ft summit ridge, reaching the top, a small platform, by a delicate move. It was 7 p.m. In the deepening gloom the tops of Asgard and Loki were just visible. This was no time to enjoy the view, though Bill insisted on climbing to the top. I flung a few stones into a pile and we hurried on down, trying to find the SE ridge we had decided to descend because it had looked easy from below. For a moment the clouds rolled apart and a line of dark towers, ice-sheathed and fearsome, dropped away in front of us. Someone fumbled for a compass and took the bearing; we got the map out, argued, and decided. Meanwhile the clouds had covered up their momentary indiscretion and we plunged blindly downwards, still roped together - Greg in the lead, route finding, Bill and myself in the middle and Mike at the rear with a stream of curses to keep us moving. We clambered down and up such a succession of walls, slabs and ice-choked gullies that my memory is a blur. I have an impression only of terrifying descents into grey voids; of the urgent trust we bestowed on the unlikeliest of belays; and of one controlled slide down a verglassed ramp when a mischievous god opened the clouds to give me an awesome glimpse of a stone-striped glacier 2000 ft below. Once, a huge boulder overturned on top of Mike and he escaped its crushing embrace by a whisker. In 1500 feet of descent the difficulties eased and we took off the rope. Only then did it begin to snow, a full 20 hours after the first portent. We reached the glacier at 2.30 a.m. and crossed it sleepily, moving through the blizzard on a bearing, peering anxiously into a shapeless world of grey and gloom for something to recognise. When, as though by chance, the snow and mist thinned, the base of Loki was revealed and soon after, our tracks of the previous day. 23 hours after leaving we arrived back at the camp on the moraine for an early breakfast.

 

We called the peak Enosiagit, which someone in Pangnirtung told us means 'good life' in Inuit, in recognition of the good life, one of the nine perhaps, that we had enjoyed on its ridges.