Black Crows Atris Review

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Black Crows launched the Atris back in 2015 and with all the associated hype I had to give them a try. The cool graphics and colours were easy to fall in love and with double rockered, full under foot camber design, I expected these to be a high performance all mountain ski that would speed scrubs and be equally happy floating over pillows as landing fakey. Now with a lower spine that barely rotates, landing faley isn’t in my list requirements for a ski unless I start planning on skiing backwards while looking through my legs. But the soft tail that allowed this ski to ride fakey also ate into my confidence that it would lose its edge on the steeps and high side me down the slope. Try as I might, this ski just didn’t do it for me and I reverted to Navis FB for big mountain touring and steeps.

Fast forwarding to the 2018 season and the new redesigned Atris arrived with everyone saying I had to try it. To be honest I was pretty skeptical but I did have an ulterior motive. I needed a ski to guide clients on, one with smaller radius and very quick pivot, even at lower client speed. So I decided to give the Atris another go.

The new Atris has the same turning characteristics as the old one but it was immediately evident that the ski had a more homogeneous stiffness from tip to tail tailoring it for the big mountain environment. Very quickly I was using this ski up the Argentiere basin on Col des Courtes, Couturier or Col de la Verte. Whether powder or chalk, charging hard or going slow, this ski worked and it felt lush. For me its easily the best and most polyvalent ski in Black Crows line up and this season I’ll have one pair with PLUMs and one with a harder charging free ride binding in my quiver.

At 108 under foot its fast edge to edge and while it weighs more that the dedicated freebird touring skis, the extra dampening material in the ski is what makes it perform so well without being prohibitive for tours up to 1000 m. For sure if you are touring every day then you’ll want something lighter but if you want to maintain the performance for the downs this is a great choice.

Atris evaluation

DecemberPow

I have to admit that as we approached the ski season I was more than a little demotivated. The last two seasons have been dusters and we were enjoying the most incredible Indian Summer,  starring a possible 3rd winter duster in the face. The biking and cragging were incredible and my only motivation to ski was for an October ski trip to pick off the Caroline Face of Mount Aoraki/Cook in NZ.

Then in mid September a chunk separated off my L5-S1 lumbar disc and logged itself against my sciatic nerve. This caused high frequency electrical pulses down the leg, loss of muscle control and rapid loss of muscle mass. For the first of weeks I was unable to sleep or sit down. I’d walk around the house in the middle of the night until the next cocktail of pain killers kicked in allowing me to grab a couple of hours rest. I’d then lie still on my back with anxiety gnawing at the thought of the pain returning. As soon as I turned onto my side or front the electricity would start and my hip felt it would dislocate from the muscle contractions. My butt ached from lying on it all the time. It didnt take long for me to run out of pain killers. Walking to the pub for some liquid pain relief would have me willing my bad leg to move as quickly as the other, but it was like dragging it through treacle. That was the Uma Thurman moment from Kill Bill where she tries to wiggle her big toe. Sitting in the car was impossible. Eventually the need for food drove me to trying to ride to the supermarket. I discovered cycling provided some relief and got the nerve moving through the muscles and tissues. I immersed myself into two months of rehab on the bike desperate to get my calf and glute working and thinking that getting blood flow, nutrients and movement into the muscle would counter the wastage in the areas affected by sciatic paralysis.

After a few weeks my calf started working, the feeling returned in my foot and I could stand on my tip toes which gave me hope about climbing again. But my glute just withered away and sitting became very uncomfortable with no muscular padding for the nerves. I was sure that I’d be able to sorta ski like that but without the glute stabilising the pelvis there would just be more damaging load going into my lumbar spine. Weeks of exercises followed under the supervision of resident Osteo Carlton Rowlands to isolate the glute and get the neurology to fire. Initially I just couldn’t do the simplest leg lifting movements no matter how hard I tried or willed the glute to work. I kept positive but was realistic that the ski season could end up being more about guiding and very little personally skiing unless I could back to a level of fitness to support the loads free skiing exerts on the body.

The injury was a big wake up call for me in many ways. Over the summer guiding I hadn’t eaten well with nights in the refuges and often had too little sleep over the week. These things are fine for the odd week or two but if the basis of your daily life reduces to this then soon cracks will appear somewhere. However fundamentally there was a weakness through my lower back that had severely limited the way I skied over the last decade. I sensed it and new something was weak there. When I say weak I mean weak relative to my stronger legs which had put me on the podium in the Scottish Junior MTB Series.  But I didn’t know how to strengthen it. Like most of you focused on ab/oblique exercises and the usual gym routines which gave a strong exterior but neglected the core.

The biking through October and November was incredible with dry warm conditions in Aosta allowing rides over 3400 m cols in a t-shirt. For days with 2500 to 3000 m of climbing I’d go alone or hook up with Davide Capozzi and then ride with my Chamonix friends on my rest days. The larger rides showed the difference in strength in my legs as the muscles were taken to fatigue, but with no ill effects or set backs, my confidence started to grow.  Meanwhile I continued to work on rehab exercises and start the slow process to rebuild the muscle, all to aware the ski season was approaching fast and a compensating body would cause a lot of problems.

10 days in Finale brought an abrupt end to the biking season at the start of December and I returned to a frigid cold and austere Chamonix wondering what I’d do next. The phone rang and it was Tom asking if I wanted to go to Bel Oiseux touring. To be honest I hadn’t even thought about skiing but when I considered it I thought I didn’t have any excuses not to give it a go.  As we set off on our very late start we met a bunch of the Cham crew who had already done a lap and the smiles gave away the good the conditions.  Tom, Johanna and myself talked the whole way up the hill, taking in the scenery and enjoying being back in the mountains.

I took them to the top of a line I knew that was a bit hidden from the others. Once I confirmed we were in the right place the other two jumped in before me. Tom was straight back from skiing the Caroline and no doubt they were thinking the old man was going to ski like a grandpa. I was certainly thinking that. The gnawing fear of a set back and a return to that hateful nerve electrocution torture was holding me back. The thought of hitting a rock on my bad leg and the shock blowing more of the disc contents against the nerve root weighed heavily on my mind. I made two hop turns like an octogenarian, getting the feedback for how well my leg would cope with the shock, and then decided to point the skis downhill and ski the way I wanted. The line was filled with smooth consistent powder which skied beautifully and was gentle on my body. I didn’t stop where the others had held up and continued down to the terminal cliff. What an amazing feeling, hope crept through my mind that I could get back into skiing.

A week later and it was opening day at Grands Montets. A bunch of us Crows had partied hard the night before and I woke up with the feeling that my head was in a vice. Hungover, stiff, dehydrated and with a battered central nervous system I joined the crew at GM and went for a run on the piste in the flat light. It was awful, every unseen bump pinching the sciatic nerve and causing my hamstring to fire and stiffen further affecting my ability to flow over the terrain. I was also struggling to control my direction going through the bumps and initially thought this was a proprioreception problem but in the end worked out that the flexibility in my left leg increased as it flexed up and outwards, rather than straight up. Through the bumps my ski would always track left, just when you wanted to turn right. It all felt a bit pointless and I went home despondent thinking that those days of skiing 15-20 k vertical metres off the lifts were behind me and future skiing might be limited to untracked touring lines. The Mountain Boot and Scarpa crew were in town for 2 days and keen for a second day on GM but I knew I couldn’t handle  that and guilty bailed on them.

The next day Bruno, Layla, Simone, Enrico, Bea and myself headed up a dry looking Skyway for a look around. Below 2100 m was dust after a five month drought and above just had one 30 cm layer. The north wind was howling but as we exited the lift station Bruno announced he thought it wasn’t that cold. As the bitter wind froze my face off I was thinking to myself that I had gone soft hanging out in Finale. Later it emerged Bruno had run back to his van for extra clothes and was still cooling down.

Very quickly skins were falling off and we only made Col d’Entreves using a combination of ski straps and duct tape on the skins. Bruno was keen to go up the ridge and as I set off no one else left the sanctuary of the windscoop at the base. Somewhere on the ridge my hat got sucked off my head but before retreating I spied a lot of snow on Col d’Entreves. For sure it would be rocky getting in but after that it looked sweet. Time to propose a different plan that would get us out of the wind quickly. After passing through the rocks it was time to ski light and cautiously with tips up…these were still shark infested waters with a big cliff below. The headwall was sweet with cold slough and my body held together despite a couple of large rock strikes to my bad leg. Below lay a couple of kilometres of untracked rolling terrain which is a pleasure to ski at full throttle. Full of joy we head back to the bar for a celebratory beer.

That was the turning point for me where I started to believe my body could recover enough to ski the things I wanted, in the way I wanted and as much as I wanted. Sure I still had loads of rehab to go but I could also see the opportunity to to correct a problem that I’d coped with for some time and build a stronger core to match the strong external muscles which could support the loading I’d throw at it.

The timing was near perfect. As the storm cycle moved in it became clear we were in for some pretty special low level conditions to the valley floor. I skied some pretty special days during this period, all different and memorable for different things. 13 laps on Val Veni with Tom, touring the Signal with Michelle and Cedric in the afternoon, plan laps galore with anyone willing to ski with me. One more after a big run of days I was crammed up against Sam Favret in the Midi bin. I asked how he was and he admitted to be tired. We all got pretty tired that week, it was one of the best in my 20 years in Chamonix.  For sure we could have taken some amazing photos and film. But I just wanted to ski.

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Hoods up, bitter north wind, -25C. Enrico, Simone, Bea, Bruno

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After a hot summer the glacier is very open and only covered with a veneer of snow

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Enrico, Bruno and Layla

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Bruno, Layla, Enrico, Bea, Simone

24474876_1884517945199119_1259260048_o (1)Me opening Col d’Entreves well aware of the sharks hunting below the surface and the big cliff at the base

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Bruno in his element

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and playing with his slough

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Layla

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Bea

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Enrico with his smooth style

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Simone about to hit the afterburner. The whole valley skied beautifully.

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Happy people after a sweet descent from Col d’Entreves that blew away the cobwebs from the previous days parties.

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Flying solo on one of the favourite preseason tours

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The start of December and already over a metre above 2000m but more importantly an absence of the huge ground level facet layers experienced in the last few seasons.

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Always exciting to drop into a new line, especially when you havent been able to scope it from below. Without a rope I expected some dry skiing in the steep lower section. In the end I was able to ski through easily but I did have some snow plates in the pack in case I needed to wade back up to the ridge.

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Another glory day early December

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T-shirts on the up with Douds Charlet, Vivien Bruchez and Graham Pinkerton

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Vivien and Graham. So nice to have someone else do the work. Vivien likes to use much lighter kit than me and is the only person I know that has a completely different style for skiing alpine kit to touring kit.

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Me pysched about the prospect of perfect pow below.

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It was my plan to come here so I get first tracks

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Another gorgeous day, another solo mission to try something new. Excited about the prospect of dropping.

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My line started top right of shot and came down the sunlight ramp. Never hard but always rolling over so the way was not evident. Amazing skiing down the apron where another tourer had skied the hidden couloir on the left. I was really pleased so have managed to explore this area before the high pressure moved off as it was about to get crazy in the valley.

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Then we moved into a five day storm cycle. The 0 iso continued to bounce around which created a thick blanketing base over fallen trees and stumps and bringing all time tree skiing to the valley.  Tom Grant may be small but these days were deep.

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Tom blasting through the forest, chest deep on Noctas

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Me having fun popping off tree stumps

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Tom charging hard in the trees

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This day it snowed about 1 metre while we were on the day. We all had 3 pairs of goggles and came back soaked to the skin to find the car park had been allowed to fill in during the day. My car was at the end of the line and being 4×4 I though it would be easy to get 5 ft onto the ploughed road. An hour of digging saw us clear.

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Another hour to get 5 miles down valley to Bossons with the wet storm icing wipers and windshields as fast as you could clear them. On my street no where to park, 2 m snowbanks and a lot of digging.

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Next day in Courmayeur. A car with 2 m of snow. The road from Entreves buried under avalanche, Courm closed. We head up Pavillion thinking we could ski some ridges safely but full depth propagation triggering convinced us to retreat.

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Things settle in Courmayeur and Tom and myself head back for a fast lads day. The snow is all-time and I mean all time. We stop take one shot on the first run and never stop again. Pillows, stumps, spines, glades…13 laps on Val Veni.

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On one of the spines skiers right of the Val Veni cables. About enter the white room

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Michelle arrives, the weather improves and we hit Montenvers. I love it up there in the milky mid winter afternoon sun. The wind has been out but in the trees its primo.

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Michelle enjoying the sun and views

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Me enjoying a moment in the sun

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Oh yeah, this is going to be sweet

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Me kicking off

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Dave Searle with his characteristic photo powerlide

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Me a bit lower

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Michelle

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Michelle

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Michelle

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The temps were rising and I wanted to get as much as possible before the snow went off. I managed to convince Michelle into another lap to the L’M but Cedric was wiser and went to Moo for a big lunch. After a hours skinning and teasing Michelle onwards with its just over the next morraine we were in a position and Michelle was very grumpy with me.

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Changing weather as the sun goes down but a lush time to be up high

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It was still quiet in the valley so we were able to move around. This day started on Brevent, moved to Grands Montets and ended on Montenvers. Michelle here in Chapeau

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Me in Chapeau

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Me scoping out some potential lines

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Michelle at the Chapeau buvette, always after a cheeky beer 😉

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Riding Montenvers and refueling

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Michelle

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Changing venue, Tom Coney and myself have dawn run down Cosmiques

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Warm milky light as Coney drops off the Midi arete

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Amazing inversions over the Aravis. I have the lurgie and am soaked in sweat by the bottom.

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After a coffee and a change in clothes, Michelle and myself do a few GM laps. The wind had buffed the snow but it was consistent and grippy providing good piste like skiing

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Christmas Eve. Warm temps, find fucked offpiste but great piste skiing.

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Christmas Day. Time to tour

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Scoping alternatives

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Michelle skiing into Belvedere

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The dry summer has revealed a step on the Belvedere. It was a bit of a pig to dry ski through.

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Michelle swooping down the Berard valley

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Happy times waiting for the little train at le Buet

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27th. My birthday. Its been warm but the snow is coming. We wait until 2 pm and hit the Midi. Its real good and just the 2 of us there

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Me again

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Another reset overnight and on the 28th its open by 1030. Easily best day of the season. 9 laps of the plan with various people joining me during the day; Michelle, Tom Coney, James Sleigh and Ian Wilson-Young. No time for photos until we were cruising down the Pre de Rocher track into town  as the sun went down. This made me a happy man as the Plan is a real tester for your body with loads of shock and impact. Having a long day there is a good test to see where you are at and if the body will cope with the mega days in the big mountains.

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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

 

 

 

The British Mountain Guides Scottish Winter Test

This year I spent January, February and March this winter in Scotland preparing for the British Mountain Guides (BMG) winter test that is based in the Cairngorm mountains there. I learnt to climb and ski there so I was no stranger to the place and love it to bits, but Scottish winter climbing is so unique that climbing in other ranges around the world does little to prepare you for the onslought of the sub-Arctic weather, or provide you with the cunning skills required to climb, and more importantly, protect  heavily rimed and snowed up mixed climbs. Its fair to say that some of the climbing I have done there have involved the most technical trad protected leads that fully engage the mind.

The first week there was spent in the Cairngorms getting my eye back into climbing snowed up rock before relocating to Ben Nevis for a week’s winter training with the BMG. It had been mild and dry winter in the lead up but the trainers did a brilliant job making the most of the conditions to show us the guiding techniques for short roping, approaching climbs, guiding mixed and ice routes, descending, navigating and general client care.

Since I’d already spent years climbing in the Cairngorms, I decided to use some of my trip to explore some of the remoter areas of Scotland that were still 4-5 hours drive from where I used to live in Aberdeen. The beautiful region of the far North West known as Torridon was on my to do list and as it happens Martin Moran and his wife Joy have been running a guiding agency there for 32 years. When they offered me a job guiding in February I jumped at the chance and fellow trainee guide Guy Steven and myself were allocated to deliver the technical mountaineer course.

On week 1 I had the pleasure of Singaporeans Jie Ling and Arnette Wong. We visited Beinn Eighe, Ben Nevis, Skye and the Kintail, all being strong contenders for Scotland’s best scenery and climbing. On Week 2 I met Peter and Chris who were two strapping strong lads and we ticked off Beinn Eighe’s East and West Buttress, Cobalt Butress and Seamstress in the Cairngorms. On my final week I had the company of Californian Linda Sun and Londoner Guy Arnold and did Fruar Tholl;s Right End Buttress, Beinn Eighe’s West Buttress integral, Cobalt Buttress, Pot of Gold in the Cairngorms and finished with a big dry tooling session. Linda had come to Scotland lured by the promise of climbing icefall routes such as Poacher’s or Salmon Leap but with Scotland experiencing a dry winter there was no ice to be had and having never done any mixed climbing she took a little persuasion to swing her brand new picks into the frozen turf. However by the end of the week she was fully sold on subtleties of mixed climbing and was seconding grade Vs with ease.Brilliant. Despite Scotland experiencing a dry and mild winter it was still producing fantastic adventures with great company.

After 6 weeks in Scotland it was time for a quick trip home for the weekend to see Michelle and get a quick fix skiing.  It was still low tide in the Alps with little change from when I left after Christmas but with spring like conditions we enjoyed a nice run down from the Aiguille du Tacul and another in Y couloir.

Then it was back to it and the final few weeks leading up to the test were spent in the Cairngorms practising guiding skills. The whole winter so far had been plagued by persistent southerly gales with temperatures bouncing up and down. Finally as the first group started their test it looked like winter had returned and should be set for us. Cruelly the temperature bounced once again and most of our test week was spent in positive temperatures.  With atypical conditions that few had seen in 20 years, the test itself became more mental than physical making conservative safe decisions on where to go and what to do.

The 6 day test kicks off with an overnight expedition where the candidate gets to demonstrate their knowledge of climbing history, geology, snow and ice craft, snow science, night navigation, client care, bivi skills, and of course rope skills for protecting clients while moving through the mountains.  Our journey started out from the Cairngorm ski centre and passed through Coire an t-Sneachda where some of our rope skills were assessed. After we travelled on to Coire Domhain where we had a brew in the snow holing zone.  We set off on night navigation as the sun started to set and made our way around the Cairngorm Plateau navigating to the various locations requested. Once the assessor was happy with the navigation we dropped down to the Hutchinson Memorial Hut situated on the Braemar watershed side of the Cairngorms in Coire Etchachan. It had been twenty years since I had visited this mountain hut, or bothy as they are known, and it was good to see it newly renovated.  After cooking some dinner for the team we settled down to a few hours sleep and got away early in the morning.

Day 2 dawned clear and mild as we made our way back onto the Cairngorm Plateau towards Carn Etchachan in glorious warm sunshine. There we were assessed on snow science and ability to manage a team descent down the steep terrain of Pinnacle Gully. We then held an ice skills class before returning over the plateau and making the short rope descent down the goat track and heading back to Glenmore Lodge for the debrief.

The mild weather was due to continue over the next 2 days which meant we needed to get the personal ice climbing day done as quickly as possible. That meant getting up at 3 am, driving an hour and a half followed by a 2 hour yomp up Ben Nevis to seek out any remaining ice before a warm band of rain past over at noon. With a few pitches of ice despatched we topped out on the Ben just as the monsoon started which ensured we were all wet to the pants by the time we got back to the cars.

Back at Glenmore lodge we all had our personal debriefs before demolishing dinner and getting an early night to catch up on lost sleep.  The personal mixed climbing day was scheduled next but the forecast wasn’t looking good and sure enough the next morning brought storm force winds and positive temperatures. After some discussions the assessment team called the day off and left us to prepare for the 2 final client days.  This meant that we would each have to come back the following week to sit the personal mixed climbing day.

Meanwhile we needed to plan and prepare what to do on the first client day and the weather was not cooperating. Summit temperatures had been above freezing for the previous 24 hours which would mean soggy turf, loose rock and out of condition climbs. My mind wondered through all the possible ridges available in the area to do as a mountaineering objective and I spent a lot of time asking all the instructors and guides at Glenmore Lodge about what had been done recently. Conditions on the nearby Moray coast at the sandstone crags of Cummingston would have been perfect for rock climbing. Ally and myself had already enjoyed 2 lush days sports climbing at Brin Rock in the middle of January but going rock climbing wasn’t going to pass us a mountain guide’s winter test.

I went to bed with some good ideas of what to do and decided to wait to the morning , meet my client and ascertain their fitness and ability and make a plan A, B, D and D to cover all eventualities. I really wanted to avoid focusing on an instructional day as it isn’t my background and delivering in a structured manor off the cuff doesn’t come naturally to me. After all it was a guiding exam and if at all possible I wanted to cover lots of ground while throwing in some teaching and coaching along the way where appropriate.

Next morning I met Paul Jackson who would be my client for the next 2 days. Paul is an ex-marine / Falklands war vet who now works in the Oil and Gas Industry as an asset manager. He falls into the category of an alpha male high achiever where time is a major commodity. The Fiacall ribs would provide safe climbing sheltered from the worst of the westerly gales and by the end of the day we climbed 3 mini routes covering a fair bit of ground and throwing in some snow science instruction along the way. This was by far the worst day of the exam for the candidates as it was difficult to pin down an inspiring option and doubt played heavily on the mind. Having seen my client move well on rock, I went to bed a lot happier knowing he was up for smashing a couple of grade IV/Vs the following day with the return of winter conditions.

Thankfully the final day of our week dawned clear and cold with light winds and it was back to normal winter conditions. All the doubts we had experienced about what to do on the previous day were gone and it was time to go mixed climbing. An early start from the Lodge allowed us to make the most of the day and comply with the non-negotiable return time of 4 pm. We headed for Mess of Potage to maximise the climbing to walking ratio and started up initial pitches of the Message before taking on the burly top pitch of the Melting Pot V,6. Having smashed this Paul just wanted more and we did the brilliant direct start to Hidden Chimney to finish the day.

Once we got back to the lodge there was time for a quick shower before our individual debriefs for the day. We all had to come back the following week to take the personal mixed climbing day and that loomed like a shadow over us. Despite this we all wanted to get debriefed on how the week had gone so far and adjourned to the bar for the long wait knowing the first results were unlikely to be given before 11 pm.  By 9 pm we’d already had half a dozen pints and were all feeling somewhat jaded after a busy week with less than optimal amount of sleep. As we started to relax from the busy week, falling asleep at the bar was a real possibility and I went to get some coffee for the lads. By 11 pm its fair to say we were all wasted in every sense of the word and desperate for some sleep. Finally the examiners were ready and called the first candidate. We were all on tenterhooks and hoped we hadn’t made any major errors during the week and embarrassed ourselves. I continued to wait n tenterhooks as the second, third and fourth candidates were called and passed provided they passed the mixed day the following week. The pressure was mounting and with the initial candidates getting provisional passes it felt inevitable that someone would be deferred. My mind wondered if the mistakes I had made during the week would be viewed as minor or result in a deferral. During a week long assessment its unlikely that your performance will free from errors and the effect of exam stress comes into play an impacts negatively on performance.

At last I was called and prepared for the worst just kept  quiet and listened to my feedback. As expected its started off with the things I had done well and I was braced for the shit sandwich only to hear, come back next week, do the mixed climbing day and you will pass! Relief and happiness washed over me with a new wave of fatigue. I was over the biggest hurdle on the way to becoming a British Mountain Guide and the mental burden of the Scottish winter test was being me. Afterwards I stayed up into the wee small hours chatting about the week and our experiences with my friends Jack Geldard and Ally Swinton before crashing out for a few hours well earned sleep.

I now had a few days off before the mixed climbing exam and went to see my Mother in Aberdeen. It was great to relax a little and eat well after a busy week and I needed a couple days to rest a pulled hamstring but all the time there was the final day in the back of my mind.  4 of the guys elected to do their final day on the Monday while Swinton an myself chose the following Wednesday. I drove back to Aviemore on Tuesday and met up with David Thexton to climb the good Burning and Looting mixed route on the Fiacall. On the Wednesday Ally and myself went into our final day knowing the other 4 had passed so the pressure was on not to fluff it at the final hurdle. The weather was kind and conditions good so we headed back to the Mess of Potage for a couple more laps. I kicked off climbing a big pitch combining Pot of Gold and the Message. All I had to do was climb steadily and not mess up the ropes and I would pass – I’ve probably never climbed so slowly, but steady and sure was the theme of the day. With my part done it was over to Ally who despatched the Melting Pot. As we walked out of the Northern Corries for the final time that winter we got given the news that we had both passed.

Ally and myself said our fair wells in Aviemore before hitting the road south. I ‘d hoped to get to Michelle’s work flat in middle England but the adrenaline of the day soon faded and was replaced by deep fatigue from the stress of the test and a long winter on the hill. Luckily for me my sister lives in the Scottish borders and I stopped off at theirs to celebrate passing with bubbles, beers and a dram or 2!

 

2016 Baffin Island Ski Trip

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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 hadn’t 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 didn’t 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 bound for a Baffin Island ski trip in 2016.

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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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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Chipie slotting it through the narrows

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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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.

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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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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.

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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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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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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

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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

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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

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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

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Chipie on another wallow fest

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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

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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.

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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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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

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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