My Top 5 Steep Ski Lines in Chamonix

Choosing my 5 best steep ski lines in Chamonix is a tough call. They aren’t the steepest, most exposed or gnarliest but are a combination of being very aesthetic in one way or another while offering some great skiing. The variety of terrain comes into play with the combination of faces, spines, aretes and the odd couloir greatly adding to the pleasure, interest and overall experience for a skier in the modern idiom where hop turns are reserved solely for ultra serious situations. Skiing is all about the velvet smooth sensations transmitted from the ski and snow quality is the most vital ingredient to deliver this. Going out and scratching down these runs like an alpinist may satisfy those dominated by goal driven tendencies but being patient for the right conditions will yield a much richer experience.

 

1. The Grand Gervasutti Couloir.

An all time classic and the great big funnel on Mont Blanc du Tacul that draws your eye every time you ski in the Valley Blanche. It’s just so aesthetic, with 800 metres of vert, and a pretty steep entry before it eases to about 50° until the bergschrund. No rocks, abseils, its all about the skiing. Overhung by seracs whose threatening nature varies year on year, you will feel their presence as soon as you get in this line and ski it out as fast as possible. 

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2. Mont Mallet Diagonal

While this line in itself is not the most aesthetic, the surroundings about it and the long approach via the Breche Puiseux make it a special journey through the mountains. The situations in the line are incredible looking across to the Dent de Geant with all the hanging seracs under the Rochefort Arete and the full panorama from Tacul to the Chamonix Aiguilles. The skiing is very good with the couloir soon widening into a face offering the opportunity to open it up. Don’t be surprised if you are tight to catch the last train down from Montenevers, we made it by half an hour but certainly felt it in the legs and needed a couple of pints at MBC afterwards.

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3. Col des Courtes

This fine route is steep enough to get the best of us tweaking but its often in condition when the rest of the Argentiere Basin is looking dry and the face can vary enormously from billboard flat to spine central. At 600 m in height its not too much of a slog up though the approach is about as long as it gets in the basin.

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4. The Frendo Spur.

If you hang around Chamonix for long enough your curiosity will draw you onto the test pieces on the North Face of Aiguille du Midi. While the Frendo is rarely in condition, the skiing it offers on big open snow fields with no rocks is where its at, pure free ride skiing without the worries of hitting a shark or being confined to small turns due to the terrain. Col du Plan offers a taste of this in its upper part but the old school skiing in the exit couloirs is often disappointing and slough hardened from the afternoon slides off the West Face of the Aiguille du Plan. After the abseils on the Frendo there is a big 500-600 m pitch of steep open skiing to the shrund which is a lot of fun.

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Frendo spur ski route

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5.  The West Face of Mont Blanc

The ‘rarely glimpsed Himalayan’ face of Mont Blanc comes gives 2000 m of vert to the glacier. Unless you have access to a heli, you will gauge conditions from afar and that makes dropping in onsight pretty committing. After all you have climbed Mont Blanc that morning and climbing out and back to the summit won’t be very appealing to the legs! Again these routes can go without abseil so there is no mountaineering faff once you start skiing. The first 1200 mis fairly sustained at around 50 degrees so no push over.

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Orb Freebird Review

The Orb Freebird has been in the line up at Black Crows since the conception of the Freebird touring range and is instantly recognisable by its iconic fluro yellow topsheet and matching sidewalls.

My initial ski test of the Orb Freebird back in spring 2014 was on a loaned pair. Back then the ski was traditional camber construction which provided plenty of pop and power but wasn’t the easiest thing to pilot on soft snow. I used them to ski Whymper Couloir during a traverse of La Verte from Couturier Couloir.  That day a cruel southerly wind stopped things softening but the Orb’s edge grip did the necessary.

This year the ski has undergone some changes and it’s designer Julien Regnier added a front rocker to the ski to bring it in line with the now well established Navis and Corvus Freebird skis. The Orb FB 178 has put 1 mm on its waist line bringing it to 91 mm and the pair weigh in at 2.99kg. I mounted mine with the 2017 PLUM race 170 bindings with the additional bolt on ski crampon mounts to give me a light but very strong ski for steep skiing above 4000 m, long days and expedition skiing.  The addition of the rocker has been a necessary revolutionary work over for the Orb and made it easy to ski while maintaining its founding characteristics.

Orb freebird evaluation

 

 

 

Arctic Tanning

Baffin Island Ski Mountaineering Expedition-1-25

In 2014 I gazed up Gibbs Fiord into the milky afternoon sun. After 5 days exploring this zone with Marcus Waring and Michelle Blaydon we had an inkling of its potential but hadnt even scraped the surface. In this moment I knew I would have to come back. Finding and convincing a team to spend all their hard earned cash and a lot of time to travel to go ski lines on one of the harshest environments on planet wouldn’t be easy. Fellow Scots Si Christy and Chipie Windross (Chipie has a Scottish granny hidden away somewhere) were first to be recruited. My final victim, although he didnt yet know it, was one of my university wingmen, Dr Evan Cameron. Originally from the Kingdom of Fife, Evan emigrated to New Zealand where he works as a consultant A&E doctor. As luck had it, I would see him during a ski trip to NZ in 2015. Over beers in the warm Christchurch sun I told him how Baffin was just like the Cairngorms except way bigger. He signed up for the trip and I never told him how his piss would freeze before it hit the ground. And so it was, a team of Scottish skiers were Baffin bound.

These photographs tell the tale of an epic trip that I wanted show which no magazine article with its  restrictions on column inches could ever do justice. Never in our wildest dreams could we have imagined finding so much powder in the Arctic desert. In the end the team skied 19 lines, all believed to be first descents except for my repeat of the 1300 m Cantal.

A big thanks goes to the support and sponsorship from the following without which it wouldn’t have been possible:

Arctic Club

Black Crows Skis

Berghaus

PLUM

Scarpa

Julbo Eyewear

Mountain Boot Company

Lyon Equipment

Exped

Petzl

Hydrapak

James Clapham

Marcus Waring

Dr Phil Barron

Our friends in Clyde River, Nunavut Territory, Baffin Island

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Our last minute food shopping was done in Ottawa. Our 2 hotel rooms looked like they had been ransacked by a Rock band by the time we got done repacking.

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Our first glimpse of Nunataks (isolated peaks projecting from the ice/snow) on the flight

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Ice runways in the Arctic

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Thats what we are here to do!

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Home sweet home. Moving into the shack in Clyde where my Baffin love affair started in 2014. This time it temperatures were a lot more civilized

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Packing and repacking. Chipie finds the highest calorie freeze dried meal.

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Evan, Myself, Joamie and Ilkoo discussing thin ice and safe routes through the fiords and showing the Inuit just how deep we wanted to go. I reckoned 15 hours of torture on a komatic (sled) pulled by a snowmachine to the drop off all things going well.

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Getting the knowledge from Master Jedi Ilkoo.

 

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Si is about 6′ 4″. This guy had repeatedly tried to come into town.

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After seeing the bear pelt the next stop was to get some weapons. We had a short session on gun safety and how to load, fire, reload and deal with jams. Our 1942 Enfield 303 rifle was light and robust. Perfect for the harsh environment.

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Come on John, I know you have some whiskey for us!!;) Showing Evan how to load, shoot and reload the shotgun with magnum slugs in the event of a bear attack. We were a team of 4 and needed a minimum of 2 weapons

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The now infamous komatic box. I spent about half an our getting thrown around inside this box before nearly barfing up and making an excuse that I needed to sit on a skidoo and help navigate. Si and Chipie seemed quite happy lying down inside for 15 hours and even managed some sleep!

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Unfortunately Chipie let Evan choose these ‘damn hot’ salamis for the trip that caused mass evacuation every morning

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Trevor Qillaq and Chipie in Sam Ford Fiord

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Si, Evan, Iikoo and Chipie shooting the shit near the Sam Ford Fiord hut

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Running repairs as the snow machines run hot pulling through deep snow. Jean-Marc, Trevor and Joamie testing their resourcefulness. The Arctic was suffering badly from climate change warming in 2016 and despite the Canadian Arctic being significantly less effected than the Norwegian and Russian Arctic, temperatures were hovering near 0C instead of being in the -30C range. Around lunchtime I was stripping off layers and Joamie quipped ‘its like being in a sauna’. At this point its seemed our trip might be really short if the mild weather caused an early ice break up.

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Crossing the mouth of Sam Ford Fiord the weather clears and we get first glimpse of the eye candy

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The overhanging 600 m Ship’s Prow has served as a landmark for the Inuit for generations and marks the entrance to Scott Inlet which leads to Gibbs Fiord. This is John Barry Angutijuak back in 2014 which was significantly colder.

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Joamie Qillaq and Evan Cameron and the Western tip of Scott Island

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Evan, Chipie and Si excited at the prospect of finding deep powder in the Arctic

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Not so excited or not excited in the same way upon finding the prints of this bear family

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‘How big is that, 4000 ft? 5000 ft? 6000 ft?’

“Dunno but its fuckin huge”

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More enough for us, twin sisters, left and right. After 2 years in the planning with nothing to go on but an inkling of gullies from Google Earth, we arrive deep in Gibbs Fiord around 1 am after a hellish 15 hour snow machine ride to find pure gold. That night we had a dram to celebrate the start of what we hoped would be a successful exploratory expedition.

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Heading out of camp on day 1 with no idea of what we will find armed with kite & rifle

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Si heading up fiord to our objectives which lie under the sun

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No wind and mild temps made things feel very pleasant allowing us to slowly adjust to life on the ice

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Let the torture session commence.

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Si and the guys about 600 m up. Evan and Chipie have yet to accept that towing skis here is way more efficient that carrying them.

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Up, up and ever onwards. Approaching the 1000 m mark

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Deep powder in 2016 meant bootpacking took an inordinate amount of energy and time unlike 2014 where encountered chalky snow.

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Nearly there, Si still smiling at the rude 1200 m warm up line

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At 1200 m we encounter mixed ground and its finally time to ski the first line of our trip

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And its skiing great

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Si Christy skiing as Chipie makes final preps

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Chipie making his first turns of the trip

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1200 m of boot deep powder to the fiord

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Chipie getting into the flow zone

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Ancient hallways, the faults in the rock provide perfect skiing. The granite on Baffin is some of the oldest on our planet at 3.5 billion years and volcanic rock there has been dated to 4.5 billion years old when the Earth’s crust was still being created.

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This photo still induces a lot of emotion: that moment when you realise the snow is so good the next stop will be on the fiord 1000 m below.

 

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The stoked team regroup and savour a moment on Baffin without a biting wind. We have all made a massive commitment in time and money to come here. Without the backing and support of various grants and organisations it would never have been possible. Fortunately that leap into the unknown has paid off.

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Late afternoon sun on the chalkier apron

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The last carefree turns to the fiord

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Camp may as well have been on the dark side of the moon as the hard frost bears down in the shade.

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Ross Hewitt Baffin Island Ski Mountaineering Expedition

Day 2 and the weather was far from civilized. We quest off down fiord to see what we can find, armed as usual.

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An hour from camp. That’ll do nicely.

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Evan putting the booter in while I slipstream

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Time for me to break trail. Evan feeling happy about our find

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Nearly there

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The team having a spot of lunch on the plateau – could be cairngorm apart from the plethora of 1000-1500 m lines to ski and the presence of man eating bears.

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Chipie slotting it through the narrows

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Evan about to get a facefull

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To give a sense of scale check out the skier on the boulder

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Back on the fiord there is enough wind to fly. I wave goodbye and set sail to solo another line I spotted on the way out. Si has his first kite experience and flies back to camp in a few minutes and is instantly sold on the energy savings from kiting. The others have the drudgery of and hour or so skinning back.

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I top out on my second line of the day to find this haunting view down Gibbs Fiord

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Line 2 of the day

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Sheltering out the wind in the mouth of the 1200 m Mel Gibb’s Couloir which was first skied by Francois Kern’s team in 2014. Extreme coffee drinking was the order of the day before a massive drop in temperature as the sun disappeared. This was a long way from out from base camp 1 and after skiing straight for a couple of years I’d not really made allowances for the lower fitness of the team who had full time jobs doing other things. Any ways things werent to be as the warm sun of pervious days had brought down the winter cornices on the south facing slopes leaving ice glazed snow. Drinking coffee was the best thing I ever did in this couloir!

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Turn around deep in Mel Gibb’s. 3 attempts all ended in failure due to bad snow or high wind.

 

Ross Hewitt Baffin Island Ski Mountaineering Expedition

With the return of settled weather we returned to the twin sister of line 1.

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Couloirs on a grand scale filled with cold sloughy powder

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The team strung out deep in their own battle against the pain

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Nearly there

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Near the top we hit wind loadings that created enough doubt to wait for a group decision – it was an easy one to make!

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Me leading off on the steep initial turns

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Si following while Evan and Chipie transition.

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As the angles eased the snow just got better and better

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Me trying to ski fast and not run out of leg power

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Yes – Chipie thrilled about another sunning ski line. An early finish meant we arrived back at camp to enjoy an afternoon coffee drinking session in the sunshine.

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Enjoying the sunshine at camp

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Looking up fiord. Our camp was situated west beyond Sillem Island

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The sabre tooth makes the start of 30 km of the grandest rock architecture on the planet

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The following day brought poor visibility and high wind so Evan and myself went to the hanging glacier line that was opposite camp. We had all spent many days conjecturing about the angle of the hanging glacier that looked like a Rond from straight on. In the end it turned out to be about 40 degree max and very ameniable. It cleared for a moment on the plateau and we started out for the summit several kms away. Unlike 2014, the regular snowfall had meant a good snowpack even on the plateau. However its soon closed in again and armed with only a rudimentary GPS we were not equipped to navigate to the summit and turned back. (compass performs poorly here due to the massive magnetic deviation).

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After skiing the hanging glacier we dropped out the cloud and enjoyed perfect fresh powder to the fiord.

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What took hours to climb was despatched in seconds on the descent

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After skiing the hanging glacier line it was time to eat and in the sanctuary at the start of the line we got the stove going and had our long overdue lunch. I wasn’t finished skiing and said goodbye to Evan and went for a quick sprint up the booter left by Si and Chipie before kiting back. At camp the wind was hellish and it was a grim vigil minding the stove out in the open knowing the others were tucked up in warm sleeping bags.

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Thanks to Si and Chipie for this boot pack which allowed me a quick bonus lap

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The next day the wind blew hard down fiord dampening spirits to ski but by late afternoon it had abated slightly and I wasn’t keen to lose a day. Si was up for some sport so we headed up fiord to try another line. In theory the couloir should have been sheltered but updraught turned to downdraft and around 900 m up we bailed due to new accumulations. Skiing in the evening is my favourite time of day and the mellow light was well worth going out for.

Ross Hewitt Baffin Island Ski Mountaineering Expedition

After nearly a week at camp 1 it was time to move.  Having seen the enticing view down Gibbs Fiord past the hidden entrances to Mel Gibbs and Cantal to our own Stairway to Heaven some 15 km down fiord we knew  our 2nd base camp would be located under the square cut tower. We had gone into the fiords loaded with real food to supplement the lighter freeze dried food and help maintain a healthy digestive tract but after only a week behind us we were still heavily laden. With sleds piled high it was time to beak camp. I pulled as hard as I could against tow rope but couldn’t move the sled. I put up the heal raisers on my bindings to mimic starting blocks on the athletics track. The sled pulled forward and i was underway. The next six hours were brutal as we all pulled at our limit down fiord into a biting wind. At one point my 5 mm cordalette tow line broke, the breaking load on that is around 500 kgs!

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First night in Camp 2 with our bear perimeter fence and cooking area already set up

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Ross Hewitt Baffin Island Ski Mountaineering Expedition

The next day all of us were feeling it in the hamstrings after such a hard hauling session moving camps.  With cold powder still available on the North facing side we decided to go check out the hidden gems awaiting on this face. One reoccurring feature of Baffin is the most unlikely looking lines often twist and turn beyond sight and actually go to the summit. The only way to find out is to give them a go.

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Line of the day was a straight 700 m of relatively easy angle to a small col. Perfect rest

Ross Hewitt Baffin Island Ski Mountaineering Expedition

After several days of strong winds which had us building walls to protect the tents, it finally dawned clear and still. The days objective was the couloir in the background.

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Ross Hewitt Baffin Island Ski Mountaineering Expedition

500 m up the line and things were heating up fast. The rest of the couloir was in the shade and the sun moving off. I was keen to up the pace into the sanctuary of the cooler air with Si while Chipie and Evan bailed.

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Cold snow in the upper couloir took us to a col behind the square tower

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Steep, deep and narrow in the upper section

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Si getting to grips with the S bend

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Me skiing. Still techy here with some ice under the new snow

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The final steep section before the couloir opened out in its lower 3rd

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Si enjoying some of the final powder turns of the trip

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Milky afternoon sunlight on route back to camp

Ross Hewitt Baffin Island Ski Mountaineering Expedition

I wasn’t done for the day and the big ramp line (next to the kite above) on the north facing side was calling to me. After a big lunch at camp I swapped out Si for Chipie and we launched our kites and sailed the 4 km across fiord to the ramp entrance.

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Chipie enjoying the late afternoon light as he secures his kite to an ice screw

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This elegant couloir led up to the ramp

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Now late in the season even the North facing slopes were catching a lot of evening sun

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We found sweet cold powder on the ramp which was about 100 m wide. A nice feature after all the couloirs!

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Chipie

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Me in the exit couloir. It was getting late and with the temperature dropping fast we had a push on to get back to camp and have a hearty meal to sustain us through the polar night. After 1800 m of bootpacking that day I was starving!

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Chipie in the exit

Ross Hewitt Baffin Island Ski Mountaineering Expedition

This Dru like spire rose like a clit out of a crucible and so the name Clit Route was born

Ross Hewitt Baffin Island Ski Mountaineering Expedition

After a foul weather day I left camp at 5 pm and skinned over to the Clit Route. Although it had barely snowed on the fiord, the soaring spires around the couloir were creatng their own weather and it was snowing massive flakes leaving a continuous accumulation of chest deep powder in the couloir. It was an eerie and spooky solo mission; every so often spin drift avalanches would come out of the mist down the vertical walls and there would be a few seconds delay before it engulfed me where I would keep doubt at bay and remind myself it was just spindrift.  I arrived at the col soaked to the skin, physically completely spent from wallowing up the powder and mentally stimulated. I’d pushed myself beyond my normal comfort zone into that area ‘where the magic happens’. After 2 years of planning the expedition with many the ups and downs along the way, this was the moment I had been hoping and looking for, 10 pm and about to drop into a deep powder filled 900 m line sandwiched between walls that soared overhead to 1800 m. Excited to say the least.

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One stop on the way down just to snap a photo for nostalgia

Ross Hewitt Baffin Island Ski Mountaineering Expedition

I arrived back at camp in the small hours buzzing from my nocturnal excursion. The next day Si and Chipie couldn’t hold back and went off to repeat the line. In my mind Chipie captured the shot of the trip as Si blasted down deep slough spines in the sun.

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Me looking beat the next day

Ross Hewitt Baffin Island Ski Mountaineering Expedition

One stormy day I flew my kite about 20 km upwind down fiord to check out lines. Reaching the far point of our 2014 expedition brought back good memories of a nightshift spent climbing and skiing the 1250 m Stairway to Heaven.

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More fresh snow overnight meant it was time to ski pow

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Deep

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Oh so good

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Faceshots in the Canadian Arctic – would you believe it?

Ross Hewitt Baffin Island Ski Mountaineering Expedition

Overhead blower, that’ll do nicely

Ross Hewitt Baffin Island Ski Mountaineering Expedition

Chipie on another wallow fest

Ross Hewitt Baffin Island Ski Mountaineering Expedition

The twist and turns in the couloir architecture are typical of Baffin and mean its an adventure to climb up and see if they go anywhere

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Heading pack to camp

Ross Hewitt Baffin Island Ski Mountaineering Expedition

Last rays before the thermal crash

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The north wall of Gibbs Fiord looking east

Ross Hewitt Baffin Island Ski Mountaineering Expedition

Mel Gibbs and Cantal Couloirs. As the weeks went by the sun was getting stronger and bringing the south facing lines into play. As you can see these lines are rarely straight up and the sun might hit one part of the line first thing before moving round onto the rest of the line. Or it may just not work well as a spring line with the trajectory of the sun. My next mission was to repeat the 1300 m Cantal on the right, first skied by Francois Kern’s team in 2014.

Ross Hewitt Baffin Island Ski Mountaineering Expedition

5 am on the fiord. Only Chipie and myself are up and getting ready but with different objectives. Chipie had his eye on the 500 m line to the right of the camp tower while I was headed for the 1300 m Cantal.

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At the top of Cantal after a long solo bootpack. No wind but in a hurry to ski before the upper couloir dropped back into the shade.

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Ready to ski. 1300 m of corn harvest to the fiord

Ross Hewitt Baffin Island Ski Mountaineering Expedition

For a few minutes out of a month long stay we enjoyed a brief windless moment – the shear luxury of no frigid breeze and no worrying about stuff getting blown to Greenland or destroyed by the wind. And then the sun set behind the mountain and tit dropped to -30C again.

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Si, Chipie and Evan just enjoying the moment

Ross Hewitt Baffin Island Ski Mountaineering Expedition

The corn cycle continued and with Evan and Si we hit an 1100 m line just down fiord from the camp.

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Si Christy

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Me skiing

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A moments rest under Scott island on the way out. I reflect on our awesome adventure that started here in 2014 with Marcus Waring and Michelle Blaydon.

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Kevin Qillaq at the Ellington Fiord hut 30 hours into a driving mission to get us out

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Sitting relecting on what had been an awesome trip. Dreading getting back on the komatik but also wanting to get it over with. 3 hours should see us in town. All that remained to do was get Chipie and Evan out of the fiords.

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Si in the Ellington Fiord hut. We had been on Baffin for a month and awake for nearly 24 hours. A shower and a pint were long overdue.

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Simon Christy

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Evan Cameron

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Stephen Chipie Windross

Ross Hewitt Baffin Island Ski Mountaineering Expedition

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Gibbs Fiord

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Base Camp 1

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Rifle practice

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The North wall of Gibbs

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The Clit Route left of centre

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The south facing side of Gibbs

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View from

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Dawn starts

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Free climbing?

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Base camp 2 couloir tops out on a col behind the square tower

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Arctic tanning