Spindrift Memories - 30 days on Baffin Island's Walker Citadel
The wind and snow are relentless, biting, hissing. We’ve stagnated here three days. Avalanches explode in the distance. Then, from high above — KABOOM! A massive shift in air pressure sucks the portaledge walls out, then in, like King Kong hyperventilating into our rainfly. Everything is shaking and swinging in the ledge. Then a freight train of snow: WHAM! The portaledge doors fly open, blasts of snow fill the ledge. We’re lifted, and then dropped. With at least 700 pounds of humans and gear in the portaledge, and another 500 in the haulbags, the anchor shockloads violently. We are in a washing machine on arctic-mayhem cycle: WHAM! WHAM! WHAM! We prepare to be thrown to our doom on the rock-hard sea ice, 600 feet below.
It was 10 years ago that I endured that night on the Walker Citadel, a granite tower stabbing 4,200 feet from Sam Ford Fjord, Baffin Island. Now as I type on my laptop, I sit next to a campfire in the Wasatch with my 5-year-old daughter, Lilliana. We’re on an adventure just as intriguing, but tonight we don’t suffer. At least, not in the way Russ Mitrovich, Josh Helling, and I did those 32 continuous days on the wall.
My journey to the Walker Citadel started in Yosemite long before I was born. My grandfather, at age 13 in 1935, tired of the family farm in North Dakota; packing dried fruit and meat, he fled for Yosemite. He ended up staying five years and later settled in Fresno. I grew up camping with him in the Valley, mystified by its grand walls and waterfalls. My first trad lead was there. In the 1990s, I moved there; by my fifth season — 1996 — I craved more.
Late that summer, while I worked in The Mountain Shop (Curry Village), a quiet Japanese woman, Misako, walked in. She opened her tattered Meyers/Reid guidebook to El Cap’s Lunar Eclipse and said she needed a partner. I quit my job to join her, and a week later, we topped out. Back at Camp 4, I asked her if she was interested in going to Baffin Island, where so much of the day’s big-wall energy — Baffin Fever — then focussed. The next year, we FA’ed a grade VI on the Weeping Wall, on Baffin’s west coast. Although my first dose of Baffin Fever was incredible, I really dreamed of the east coast’s Sam Ford Fjord — an 80-plus-mile gallery of God’s vertical-granite masterpieces. I started planning: I called one of my best friends and partners, Josh Helling, a guide for Yosemite Mountaineering School.
Josh had been talking to Russ Mitrovich, who’d been to Sam Ford Fjord in 1997, climbing the Great Cross Pillar. There, Russ had been struck by the Walker Citadel’s north face, one of Baffin’s most ominous walls. Russ, too, lived in the Valley — somewhere around Camp 4, I learned, though I’d never met him. We slated a trip for 1998.
Russ and I finally met in my mom’s garage in Fresno, where we racked mounds of tattered, well-used gear. It was all we had — scrappy and underfunded, we were nonetheless the only three guys then willing to sacrifice jobs, relationships, credit cards, and savings accounts for Baffin. We packed 10 haulbags with boxes of chocolate bars and buckets of peanut butter, huge salamis, a three-man portaledge, and -30 F sleeping bags, among hundreds of other items. Each haggard, duct-taped haulbag weighed 69 pounds, exactly one pound under the airline’s baggage-weight limit. “I hope you guys are ready to suffer,” Russ said, adding 200 copperheads to the kitty. He sported what I would learn was his trademark smile, the same maniacal grin you might see on a little kid holding a magnifying glass over an ant.
We flew into Clyde River, on Baffin’s east coast, and then sped onto the frozen ocean with our Inuit guides in komatics — the ancient, 12-foot cargo sleds, now made of wood instead of whalebone and pulled by snowmobiles, not dogs. Arctic reality hit fast: our toes went numb and bitter cold doused our burning psyches as we sped onto the frozen ocean. Eight hours later, halfway in, we stopped at a hunter’s hut near the mouth of Eglington Fjord.
The following day, as we entered Sam Ford Fjord, the sun rolled low below the 360-degree panorama of giant walls. I gazed upon the highest rank of stone mountains on Earth — 3,000-to-4,000-foot granite shields and towers rising out of a throne of sea ice. To my right, Kiguti, the Fin, and their families of steep walls; to the left, the gigantic (and to this day overlooked) Ottawa Peak; in front of me, the Beak, the Turret, Broad Peak, and magnificent Polar Sun Spire; across the way, the Great Cross Pillar.
In the middle stood one of the proudest: the Walker Citadel. Take the tallest part of El Cap, add 1,200 feet of golden granite, and plaster it in snow and ice. That’s what stood before us.
We set up our tent on the ice and dove straight into our sleeping bags. Our breath crystallized, lining the tent ceiling with frost that sprinkled our noses. The cold made it hard to fathom climbing. We’d arrived in early May, roughly when the sun begins to stay continuously above the horizon. Regardless, it was still -20 F in the shade, and below 32 F in the sun. But with each passing day, it would warm — we hung onto this dearly.
On May 9, we awoke to a cobalt sky, perfectly calm and quiet. Zillions of tiny ice diamonds sparkled on the frozen ocean. The only sounds were our breath and our hearts beating. We took turns at the spotting scope. There was no debate — we would attempt the steepest, most direct line, dead center. By 1998, some of the area’s more prominent summits had been climbed once, via their back sides and easiest routes, but the vertical, seaside walls were mostly untouched. Climbers like Paul Gagner, Warren Hollinger, Rick Lovelace, and Mark Synnott, among other ace sufferers, had recently taken on the direttissimas. We had to do the same.
Russ won the rock-paper-scissors for the first pitch. He kicked steps in snow and worked his plastic boots into aiders connected to pitons. In two very frosty, sub-zero days, we fixed three groveling pitches. Full down attire, double boots, goggles — the battle was on. The third pitch ended under a 12-foot roof, and we hauled to it for our first portaledge camp. We fixed two more pitches above, and then the reaper knocked.
Relentless snow encases our nylon-tether portaledge fly. Tether: “A rope or chain by which an animal is fastened to a fixed object.” We’re nothing more than animals set free from the cages we call home, chained to this enormous wall. Eight days up here, could be 30 more. We’ve been trapped in the ledge for six of those by a vicious arctic storm. I’m still haunted by the avalanches that almost killed us four days ago. The reaper rode in with fury, trying his hardest to rip us from the wall. I never thought he’d let go.
If not for the cover of the roof, we probably would have perished the night of May 19, either smothered and smashed by the tons of snow unleashed from above or, if our systems tore, killed by a 600-foot fall to the ice. The avalanches came from a giant gully 1,000 feet up on the wall’s left side that funneled over the roof. The roof was big enough . . . just. When the mayhem of those worst 24 hours stopped, we didn’t talk about retreating. We just scooped the snow out of the ledge, tightened our swamis, added leg loops, put on our helmets, and waited out the rest of the storm, a total of six stagnant days without moving. I slept in a hammock enclosed in the bottom part of the rainfly, my intestines bound by Russ’ famous salami, peanut butter, and cheese burritos.
After the storm abated, we started climbing again, through torturous spindrift. Russ led through a maze of shallow seams, bashing in copperheads. He had a gift for the copperhead craft — he enjoyed the time-bomb placements. The next pitch, Josh was forced to wear rock shoes — fine if it hadn’t been -10 F, spindrift howling, and the face crackless and snowy. He soon found himself 50 feet out, scraping snow in search of holds, his feet completely numb. If Josh fell, it would have been a 100-footer over a rope-cutting shark’s fin of rock. He later told me it was his scariest lead ever — a pitch where you make silent deals with God.
Still, for all the horrorshow climbing, the belayer suffered most — shivering, kicking, fighting for circulation while forcing the frost-sheathed rope through the Grigri. The leader mostly kept warm while climbing, and the third partner stayed snug in the ledge. Some leads took the better part of a day. We had a handful of novels, and our journals filled quickly.
By the time we fixed our seventh pitch, we’d been on the wall nine days. The weather calmed, and it felt good to be moving again. Soon, we found a rhythm that lasted the entire route: each member would lead, belay, and then take a day off. When your day off came, it was like a small vacation — there was no envy for the other two as they jugged into the swirling snow.
Each morning, we took an hour or two to don battle armor, melt snow, cook breakfast, take a dump, slap jumars on the icy fixed lines, and start into the unknown. We’d also brought 200 pounds of two-liter bottles filled with water, sleeping-bag-stashing a few each night so our body heat melted them. We also found if you didn’t sleep with your baby wipes, they’d freeze, leaving them useless for the morning relief. Baby wipes became essential: they were the only way to prevent crotch rot and rashes.
We hauled to pitch 7, Camp 2. We fixed pitches, ate peanut-butter-and-salami burritos and scrambled eggs and cheese, laughed with (and at) each other, farted, missed our girlfriends, talked about politics and religion, and slowly formed an unspoken vow of big-wall marriage. Ice axes worked perfectly in moss- and ice-caked cracks. Frozen belays and memories in the spindrift. At pitch 11, we set up Camp 3 and wondered where the sun had gone.
Rustling haulbags. I wake up. Russ sits up, too, holding a .44 six-shooter in each hand. “Did you hear that?!” we both whisper. I pull a sawed-off 12-gauge from my sleeping bag. Suddenly, the fly slashes open. Josh screams in pain — they’ve got him. I see clumps of ruby eyes — halved, glistening pomegranates — black skin, long, white-furred legs ending in a single hook slashing at my face. Giant arctic wall tarantulas. Ch-chik, baboom, ch-chik, baboom! Two down. “Die, f—kers!”
“Mike, wake up! The sun’s out!” Josh told me. No giant tarantulas — just the first break from snow in nine days. Finally, the sun and I could see each other.
Each time we moved camp, it took at least 20 hours — to break everything down, haul, and rebuild our portaledge safe haven. Just packing the haulbags took more than two hours (opening a frozen haulbag is like bending thick aluminum). And then the hauling: I’d go up, set up the 5-inch pulley, and then Russ would join me to counterweight, with Josh lowering out the bags. Double hauls. Repeat. Just as we moved the second set of bags to Camp 3, the wind and snow started. In just minutes, I was so cold I needed two hands to open a biner. A couple hours later, our hanging stove warmed freeze-dried stew mixed with cheese and salami. Safe again in our ledge, we reminisced about when we’d each lost our virginity and how much we missed beer, sushi, cheeseburgers . . . and warm, sunny Yosemite. We weren’t even halfway up the wall.
Pitch 12 and 13 continued with unending spindrift and the demand for our full attention. I started pitch 14 on a calm day and moved quickly up a perfect Lost Arrow corner. An hour later, I arrived at the giant ledge bisecting the Walker Citadel. Teetering at the lip sat sharp chunks of stone, from cinder block- to TV-sized — lethal shrapnel ready to fall with a push of the breeze.
I yelled down that we needed to move camp . . . now.
My wall spouses didn’t like the news but neither did they question my decision — as with any marriage, you must trust your partner. As we hauled, Josh was stuck below, hiding beneath the bags as he jugged in their wake; wall grenades exploded as the bags rounded the lip. Josh took only one hit — directly in the head by a bowling-ball-sized stone, no injury, helmet unbroken, and a sore neck for which he took ibuprofen pills the size of pinto beans.
Seventeen days on the wall, 14 pitches; halfway.
At the ledge, everything changed: we’d risen out of the shadows cast by the walls across the fjord, and we welcomed sunburns on our faces, enjoying balmy, 30 F weather. The under-vertical pitches and ice-filled cracks morphed into badass steep aid. And, for the first time in 17 days, we could shit without hanging in swamis.
The headwall above inspired us: Indian red and silver granite — there was no snow. Still, it was a long way. We worked through kitty-litter flares, paper-thin seams, hollow/echoey flakes, hooks, and heads. Delicious, balletic, bodyweight-only placements too delicate to bounce-test. We jugged and hauled in space. Four rope-stretcher pitches brought us to Camp 5, pitch 18. When it was your lead, you were boss. The route didn’t allow otherwise. Russ started off pitch 18 into overhanging granite: exposed, with natural hooks. He was as carefree as he’d been since the first pitch. Then — Whiplash! — he took a daisy fall and shockloaded his previous hook. It held. He looked over at Josh and me as we peeked out of the portaledge, cracked his wicked grin, commented how nice it was the hook held, and then continued. The hook stuck this time, and Russ worked his way through overhanging natural hooks, heads, and beaks. Stout A4, setting the stage for the hard mental aid to follow.
The next 700 feet continued in a blur of hammer blows. Our haulbags lost weight as we gained muscle, psyche, and momentum. We watched the melting ocean’s metamorphosis: the once-white frozen plains were turning electric blue, with giant cracks in the sea ice splitting the fjord. We hauled to Camp 6, more than 3,000 feet up, the summit still nowhere in sight.
A winding snake of open-book cracks consumed every blade, arrow, RURP, and beak in our arsenal. Giddy cracks to pitch 25. Pitch 26 was mine and, in my opinion, the sweetest. Natural hooks into tied-off No. 1 blades, then mandatory RURPs. An overhanging micro-seam. I felt so heavy with plastic boots, the tiny cables creaking as I weighted each piece, my body hanging out. It wasn’t possible to bounce-test. After 50 feet, I faced the long-ride-reality moment if a RURP blew, highlighting one variable of the thousands for which we climb big walls: Russian Roulette Aid. Then hooks on expando flakes ended my eight-hour shot of adrenaline.
On day 29, Josh and I jugged to my high point. Soon, Josh’s tagline dangled in space as he disappeared into the sky. Russ and I joined him in a shallow corner, water seeping from a roof above. Russ climbed through, cursing his way out of sight through an overhanging squeeze. Two hours went by, then, barely audible: “I’mmm . . . onnn . . . the . . . summittt!” Josh and I remained calm — until we were on top with Russ, it was premature to celebrate.
Josh cleaned, and then fixed my line. I had to lower out 40 feet into 4,000 feet of space and watch as my tattered 10mm static turned into 8mm from the weight-and-stretch as I jugged. I stopped 30 feet from the summit and embraced the moment, bathed in the 24-hour sunlight that had turned this expedition into one continuous day. I joined Russ and Josh on top at 3 a.m., our 30th day on the wall. I peeled off my long underwear, so caked with dead skin, sweat, and filth, it appeared painted with pancake batter.
For a month, our only focus had been this wall — I’d forgotten about bills, work, and the rat race. A switch flipped, and my body and mind prepared for an end to our time here and of our wall marriage. Two days after summiting, we stood in puddles on the frozen sea. With the initial fixing, the climb took 36 days. We named it Mahayana Wall, a VII 5.10 A4, after the form of Buddhism focussed on the greater vehicle toward the awakened state of mind, something we’d learned much of on Walker Citadel. It was June 18, and patches of slush and meltwater covered the sea ice. We set up camp in the mire and radioed our Inuit guides.
Now, 10 years later, I am a full-time dad when not traveling. I still chase adventure, searching for the same magic I felt on the Walker Citadel, though my passion for climbing is fueled mostly by my daughter. I want to share a big secret of life with her: if you truly believe in yourself, you can do anything.
Mountain Hardwear athlete Mike Libecki is just back from his fifth trip (and a new first ascent) in east Greenland. He lives with his daughter, Lilliana, near Little Cottonwood Canyon, Utah, with their dog, cats, and potbellied pig.