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Alabamans 'Marooned at Midnight' for first ascent of an unclimbed wall on Baffin Island

Posted on: September 7, 2017


Marooned at Midnight (VI A3 5.11 R, 17 pitches, 700m) climbs a formation the Inuit call Umiguqjuaq. [Image] Sam England and Ryan LittleMarooned at Midnight (VI A3 5.11 R, 17 pitches, 700m) climbs a formation the Inuit call Umiguqjuaq. [Image] Sam England and Ryan Little

Two Alabamans, Ryan Little, 26, and Sam England, 30, received an American Alpine Club Live Your Dream Grant to attempt the unclimbed Chinese Wall in Baffin Island's famous Sam Ford Fjord this past August—but the sea ice hadn't broken up enough to allow boat access, as they'd planned.

Waiting around wasn't an option. Their outfitter, Levi Palituq, was only available to help them for so long, as he had other commitments later in the week. Ryan Little had quit his job as a geotechnical engineer for the trip, and suddenly, after two years of planning, he and England realized it was time to make a quick decision.

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Palituq told them he had seen some unclimbed walls deep in Clyde Inlet that looked promising. It was August 2. The previous day started with a 17-hour drive from Alabama to Ottawa (to save money on plane tickets), and from there they'd flown to Clyde River to meet Palituq. By midnight that day, Little and England, a software developer, found themselves digging a tent platform in the talus below an unknown wall that the Inuit call Umiguqjuaq.

"It was 40 hours of straight traveling from Alabama," Little said.

They ultimately completed their route—Marooned at Midnight (VI A3 5.11 R, 17 pitches, 700m)—on August 13. Upon their arrival, however, they had much to do to familiarize themselves with their surroundings.

Sam England leading over the roof where he encountered the death block on Pitch 6. [Photo] Ryan LittleSam England leading over the roof where he encountered the "death block" on Pitch 6. [Photo] Ryan Little

In a trip report on SuperTopo.com, which is excerpted here with his permission, England wrote: After sleeping in, we spent the day making a basecamp. The talus field had no level spots so we had to work hard to make a tent platform, cooking table, and some seats. We explored the extent of the accessible wall and scouted about five potential lines. None of them looked that promising, mostly small- to medium-sized features that would probably require much drilling to connect. We finally settled on a series of dihedrals on the southern side of the buttress adjacent to a steep gully draining with our water source. Having not planned to visit this area, we did not have the correct topographic maps, didn't know how tall it was and couldn't get a great view of the entire wall on the way in. We didn't even know if a walk off descent was possible down the adjacent gully. All we knew was what we could see while looking straight up from the base.

Still feeling time pressure, they picked a line and fixed the first two pitches August 4. They intended to commit to the wall the next day but a water bottle broke when they hauled to Pitch 3, so they returned to the ground once more after doing some "big wall math."

The pair encountered some more classic drama on August 7. England wrote: With a thin seam and a roof above, I set off on Pitch 6. The improbable looking roof was dispatched with ease. I was moving along, enjoying a beautiful, A2 splitter on solid rock, until a short traverse across a thin seam. I grabbed a knifeblade and began to nail the traverse when suddenly, the crack widened. The sound of sand and gravel falling could be heard from within the wall. More cracks appeared and I realized I was wedging off a refrigerator-sized block. Not wanting to weight the block and having no other options, I had to pull out the drill for the first time on the route. Two rivets were placed to get around the death block. I continued up a perfect, splitter, 000-sized crack until the rope ran out. Ryan came up and continued up the seam, which eventually became ledgy enough to allow free climbing. Above we could see what appeared to be a parking-spot-sized ledge. Unfortunately, it was a ledgy, uneven terrace without a single crack. Ryan was forced to drill a two-bolt belay just as the rain began....

The weather kept them tied down until August 9, when they reached another highlight.

"The most memorable moment of the route for me was Pitch 9, the 'Double Dihedral Pitch,'" Little wrote in an email: It started with some exciting free moves right off the belay leading to some fun C1. More free climbing lead to the real aid climbing: A3 beaks with some serious top-stepping. Then, after a long, lonely stare upwards, I yelled down to Sam, "I'm gonna start free climbing again. I don't know when its gonna end or if I'll get any gear." Twenty to 25 feet of unprotected 5.9 off the top step of the aider ended with me placing a pin with one hand before going back into aid climbing mode. More beaks led to the roof with the double-dihedral feature. Leaning back off a beak, I tried to peak over the lip to make the call, left or right dihedral. Ultimately, I chose right. It was probably the best pitch of aid I've ever led.

Ryan Little leads the Red Dihedral on Pitch 11. [Photo] Sam EnglandRyan Little leads the "Red Dihedral" on Pitch 11. [Photo] Sam England

Ryan Little settles in under the moon near the top of the wall. [Photo] Sam EnglandRyan Little settles in under the moon near the top of the wall. [Photo] Sam England

Little said the most challenging part of the trip fro him was the descent gully.

"My knees hurt just thinking about dragging the haulbags for a half-mile down 2,000 vertical feet of talus in a gully filled with loose rock, snow and water," he said.

When they got down they had two days left before their scheduled pick-up.

England wrote: Ryan and I grabbed a free climbing rack, one rope, food for two days, and no bivy kit. We made the long approach to the base of the "Thumb" portion of "The Mitten." The large spire looked promising, with a significant corner system on the south face. We climbed 10 pitches through very featured terrain up to 5.10a. We made it about 75 percent of the way to the summit but were turned back [by a] knifeblade-sized crack that went for several pitches. We scouted around the entire South and East sides of the spire, unable to find something we could free climb. Clouds were gathering, the temperature was dropping, and the wind was picking up. We called it here and began our retreat. We had to leave all of our remaining cordage to get down, no bolts were placed. There were many other good looking lines in the area but we were done. We made it back to basecamp late that night, just before a snowstorm hit.

Little said he and England learned multipitch climbing and honed their skills in North Carolina while traveling around the country.

"Together we've done well-established walls in Zion, Yosemite, and the 'little big walls' [on] the North Face of Looking Glass [North Carolina]," he said. "We also have climbing experience in the Canadian Rockies ('Chossies'), Tetons, Alaska, Cascades, and the Bugaboos, to name a few. Sam has rope-soloed 800-foot multipitch routes and I had rope soloed A4 aid climbs previously. Although we didn't have any experience with big wall first ascents, for some adventure points we did the first ascent of the Whitesides Mountain Girdle, which had plenty of adventure points."

On top. [Photo] Ryan LittleOn top. [Photo] Ryan Little

Apparently the Clyde Inlet has been almost completely ignored by climbers until now. Palituq told England and Little that in his 15 years of being the only outfitter in the region, he had never taken anyone there to climb, nor heard of anyone climbing there. Mike Libecki, a veteran of many Baffin Island ascents, said that he had never heard of anyone climbing in Clyde Inlet, either, and that Palituq would likely know. Little said he and England also consulted with Paul McSorley and Marek Reganowicz, who soloed two new routes on the Ship's Prow this spring.

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