- It’s not a good photo. It doesn’t show the wind howling over the summit, forcing us to take what shelter we could among the rocks. It doesn’t show the midnight sun scuttling along the horizon. You can’t tell that we are many miles across a glacier from our tent, which is miles down a lake from base camp, which is miles of barren terrain from the nearest small village and farther still from any hope of rescue in case of injury. It’s as close to the middle of nowhere as I have ever been. And it’s one of the most glorious moments of my life, one of those times when I ask, “What can I ever do to top this?”
- Ayr Lake on Baffin Island was the site of an Alpine Club of Canada camp in 1979. We flew into Clyde River, then had the local Inuit take us by snowmobiles and sleds to the lake, a gruelling trip in total whiteout. I remember at one point in the fog our driver said, “We turn left here.” As far as I could tell, “here” was no different from anything we had seen for the past few hours.
- I have a list of favourite campsites in my head: Floe Lake in Kootenay National Park, Nunalik Spit on the Beaufort Sea, high camp on Huascaran, etc. None of them equal our site on Ayr Lake.
From our tents below a magnificent icefall we looked across the lake to sheer granite walls capped with snow and glaciers spilling down every gully.
The camp was very much a do-it-yourself venture. We had a camp manager but no guide or cook. If we wanted to eat we went to the large food tent, took anything we liked and cooked it. With 24 hour daylight people might be eating breakfast at 1400 and dinner at 0500, depending on when they got in from climbing and slept.
I think the manager was a little baffled as to what to do with the three women on the trip, but we quickly put his mind at ease by organizing our own climbs. The only comment he made was to ask the cause of all the giggles and loud laughter that reverberated through the mountains.
Our packs loaded with food for three meals, plus all our down gear, Ursula, Fran and I set out on our first tour, not knowing what we would find; the maps we had were sketchy at best and not to scale.
We didn’t find anything climbable for quite a while.
Undaunted, we mounted a small hill for a hero shot as the sun was setting.
Later we caught the haunting sight of this mountain in the distance, aglow in the light of a full moon and a barely visible sun. “Let’s climb it!” And we did. There was a freedom here that I had never experienced before. What will we find over the next pass? There’s no need to hurry – the light will always be with us. So we wandered, pushed by curiosity, drawn by wonder until, exhausted, we made our way back to camp.
Our next venture was more ambitious: there was an unclimbed peak far down the lake that seemed to suit our abilities. We would have to use a snowmobile and make a high camp on our own. Of course, none of us knew how to drive a snowmobile, let alone pull a sled, but Ursula was game to try.
We loaded up, Fran sitting behind Ursula, me on the sled. On the lake surface the sled had an alarming tendency to swing back and forth until it swung in front of the snow machine and sent me tumbling across the ice like a silly puffball. Nevertheless, we made it to the right valley and hiked in to the foot of the glacier that led to our mountain.
We felt very alone in our tent. Every noise made us think of polar bears and the fact that the only gun for the group was back at base camp. But next morning dawned bright blue, and we set off on skis. Our first task was to find a way onto the glacier, as the toe offered no access. We eventually found a side gully where crampons and a bit of struggle got us up.
The glacier was so flat and tame that we didn’t bother to rope up; indeed, we never did see signs of a crevasse .
Who knows from what distant mountain the glacier had carried this boulder over the centuries? It made a great lunch stop. Despite the sun the air was cool and we needed our down parkas. Hours pass and we round a corner to see our objective, a large white bulge with a small circle of rock on top. “Looks just like a breast,” chuckles Ursula.
As the sun sinks to the south, we encounter sastruggi, snow whipped by wind into ice hard waves. It’s time to trade skis for crampons.
In the red glow of the setting sun we bend our bodies into a fierce wind and gain the summit. It’s no place to linger. We stuff a summit register under a boulder, pause for a photo and begin the long trek back to our tent.
We made one more excursion from base camp – a traverse to Sam Ford Fjord, one valley over, down the fjord and back to Ayr Lake (which is an ancient fjord whose access to the sea has been blocked).
We again used snowmobiles to go down the lake. In the background (centre right) you can see the glacier we ascended days earlier on our climb. The traverse involved some gnarly thrashing through deep snow in a boulder field and a tricky climb through water over ice to get back to Ayr Lake, but was otherwise simply a pleasant ski tour.
Our camp manager thought that we could return to Clyde River on our own, but the Inuit said firmly that we would get lost. They came to get us, an exhausted but happy group of climbers and skiers.
When we transferred planes in Frobisher Bay (now Iqualuit), the airline announced on the loud speaker, “We’re loading the Alpine Club first. They haven’t had a bath in two weeks.”