27 Nov Dreamy Lines and Perfect Polar Powder
A long-awaited trip to Baffin Island’s remote arctic fjords results in an epic skiing adventure among friends
Looking up at what we just experienced, my eyes glossed over. It was an emotional moment. The climbing, the skiing, the people—it all seemed to coalesce in this one moment.
I had dreamed about skiing in Qikiqtaaluk (Baffin Island) for over a decade. Many times, an expedition was close, but never had it come to fruition. Perhaps it’s because this was the moment that was meant to be—standing next to a skier friend from Massachusetts, a new friend from France, an old friend from Sweden and two good buddies from Tahoe.
The classic Polar Star couloir was our first ski line of the trip, and after all it took to arrive there, each of us seemed to acknowledge the significance as we stared up in collective awe and reverence.
It was late April, and four days prior our crew of six had collected in Yellowknife, the capital of the Northwest Territories, Canada. Far from our intended destination, but our only way into Baffin, we checked in with our charter flight operator the next morning only to find we might not make it after all. Following countless hours of logistical deliberations preparing for the trip, and adapting to issues upon arriving in Yellowknife—including lost and late gear—the thought that it was still not meant to be was real.
Another day passed. Sleep wasn’t easy, but some brief glimmers of spiral green banners from an active aurora borealis helped. As luck would have it, the next visit to Summit Air informed us that the freezing fog that was guarding our entry to Baffin was lifting. Our scheduled aircraft was still not equipped to make the trip in case the fog returned, but we adapted, swapping aircraft for a vessel that could fly in and out with better safety margins.
A few hours later, all six of us were glued to the left side of the plane, amazed at our first views of the Baffin Island fjord lands. It was like 10 Yosemite Valleys that kept going as far as the eye could see. And then we flew a little farther and another series of Yosemite Valleys presented themselves. We had all seen the pictures, but no one could believe their eyes; seeing was believing.
Touching down in Clyde River, we met Ben and Andy Hainnu, our hosts, local guides and all-around support for the trip. We were still more than 90 miles from Sam Ford Fjord, our intended base camp, and that meant we had about 10 hours of snowmobiling before we could set up camp.
We loaded up the next morning for one of the bumpiest rides imaginable. One hour felt like a full day. Every undulation in the tundra was felt through the qamutiik, an Inuit sled that attaches to a Ski-Doo (Baffin term for snowmobile) to transport people and gear out to the frozen sea ice.
But make no mistake: Working with locals on the ground, like Ben and Andy, is a crucial component to any Baffin expedition. It is their Inuit ancestral and current homeland. No one knows the area better than them. The road out from Clyde River may be unpleasant, but anyone who is fortunate enough to experience Baffin in their lifetime will ultimately understand the bumps are worth it—and seeing it alongside local guides is the way.
Planning From the Tahoe Backcountry
Base camps provide a space for rest, thought and reflection. One night I fell asleep asking myself, “How did I get here?” It had all fallen into place, and it was thanks once again to the magic of Tahoe.
Last winter was truly one for the record books in the Sierra. The snow hose never let off. There was so much snow to navigate to get to work, to get to the store—to get to your front door—that the skin track became a good way to catch up with friends. It was on one of those memorable snowy days above Tahoe’s West Shore that I was able to catch up with Cody Townsend.
We toured that day and chatted about the winter and life in general. Eventually, our conversation shifted to Baffin. I knew Baffin was a part of Cody’s “Fifty” project, a quest to ski every line in the book Fifty Classic Ski Descents of North America. The Polar Star couloir was on the list and my hope was that we could join forces later in the season to experience Baffin together, an idea that Cody embraced.
Soon enough, the stars somehow aligned, and our teams assembled despite the enormity of the expedition logistics.
Cody, who had gone through his own ordeal to line up his Baffin trip, brought along his main cinematographer for the Fifty project, Bjarne Salen from Sweden, and renowned French ski mountaineer Vivian Bruchez. My crew included one of my closest backcountry partners, Alpenglow Sports shop manager Jeff Dostie, and an inspiring young ski partner from Massachusetts named Ryan Delana, whom I met on a ski cruise to Antarctica with Tahoe polar explorer Doug Stoup a few years ago.
Into Legendary Terrain
The excruciatingly bumpy Ski-Doo road on the way to base camp had everyone eagerly awaiting our first break. Most of us had gone into a trance to mentally block out the uncomfortable ride when we stopped at an Inuit culture camp near Clyde River.
The camp is something I have experienced in other Indigenous Arctic communities across the circumpolar north. In Canada, government funds are allocated to local Native communities to set up small camps so locals can stay on the land. Historically, many municipalities were forced settlements, like Clyde River, which interrupted traditional cultural practices like hunting. There’s a similar program in Alaska.
We hadn’t been at the camp for more than 10 minutes when a local approached to say hello, sharing his fresh kill of ptarmigan and rabbit as a welcome.
As we ventured from the culture camp, the terrain shifted, with more snow resulting in fewer bumps. Eventually, the landscape began to look like what we had seen from the plane—the same unbelievable terrain we had seen in ski footage and photos from our ski heroes who had been here before us. The views lifted our spirits. Instead of hiding in the qamutiik, we all rose to our feet, balancing ourselves, pointing at walls that held perfect couloir after perfect couloir. We stopped for a minute, and everyone was just laughing. It was hard to believe it was real. It was that beautiful.
Our stoke remained high as we pulled into base camp. Once there, an immediate sense of familiarity washed over. We had finally arrived at our intended destination above the Arctic Circle—about as remote as it gets—and yet it felt strangely like home.
It turns out we set up camp in the same location where Tahoe legends Shane McConkey and Scott Gaffney stayed with their ski-BASE crew back in 2000 while filming a timeless segment for Red Bull and Matchstick Productions. Additionally, Baffin Island was the site of Tahoe legend Rick Sylvester’s first documented ski-BASE jump as a stunt double for the 1977 James Bond movie The Spy Who Loved Me.
Even as far away as Baffin, the influence of Tahoe was ever-present. And knowing our heroes had been here and had their minds blown made the experience that much more impactful.
Life in a Land of Dreamy Lines
Seldom do expeditions of this magnitude go off without issue. On our second day of skiing, we came across fresh polar bear tracks on the outskirts of camp. Then, we were hit by a windstorm, which took down the main cook tent that also acted as our communal hangout. But the bear never revisited, fortunately, and the cook tent was repairable thanks to enough shared knowledge among our seasoned team.
After settling in at base camp that first day, minus a few bumps here and there, a somewhat casual routine centered on skiing took over. We picked a new line each day and went for a walk, usually with crampons on our feet, as we only used skins once the entire trip.
For the most part, couloirs start right from the sea ice, which is a unique thing about skiing in Baffin. You live on the sea ice, using V-thread anchors to secure your tent. Above the flat expanse of ice, granite walls tower thousands of feet overhead. We suspected that this cherished alpine region would impress, but Baffin consistently exceeded even the loftiest of our expectations.
Jeff, Ryan and I spent most of our days traveling to lines as a team with our guide, Andy. We celebrated Ryan’s birthday in a couloir he spotted on our way into base camp. We skied on the “Ford Wall,” home to a slew of classic lines most every skier visits when in the area.
While we climbed and skied, Andy would rest or go hunting, but always stick close enough to keep an eye on us. One day, he joined us for the start of a boot-pack up an obscure couloir not far from the Polar Star. Andy said something to the effect that he wondered what it would be like up there. While he is an expert hunter, guide and all-around expedition leader, he had never tried his hand at skiing or climbing, even though he knew the area as well as anyone.
So Andy joined us for part of the climb that day. Later in the trip, Vivian gave him a ski lesson, and you would have never thought he was wearing ill-fitting boots and using someone else’s gear. He took to it with grace, working with the snow, never against it. Getting to know Baffin through Andy was as much a highlight as the skiing. We learned from the love and respect he and his family and friends have for the land, and we got to share a few of our own skills with them as well. The exchange was priceless.
A Couloir-Skier’s Paradise
Each day brought a different adventure, a different high point. The two days we skied as a full crew were two of the more memorable of the trip. The day we used skins, we approached one of the bigger lines of the Ford Wall from the top. Vivian put Cody on a ski belay as Bjarne filmed. Cautiously entering the line, their team moved from the open bowl at the top into the walled section of the couloir and out of view. After giving them some space and time, I dropped in. I’ll never forget rounding the corner and seeing what appeared to be a cave. Jeff and Ryan met me as I inched closer.
Where did our friends go?
As I took a few more side steps down I realized it wasn’t a cave. It was a tunnel, and it was just wide enough to fit through. Instinctively, I grabbed an ice axe and motioned to put my skis on my back to start downclimbing. But Vivian was posted up at the end of the tunnel and coolly reminded me about a technique he employed in which he laid on his back and used the tails of his skis to walk slowly downhill, plunging each ski tail below the next.
In all my years of skiing, I had never tried such a maneuver. Turns out beyond being a five-star human, Vivian is a true master of the skiing craft, and this was one of his many methods to keep skis on while descending a mountain, working fluidly across technical terrain. The trick worked and as Vivian, Cody and Bjarne skied off, I watched as both Jeff and Ryan laughed their way in disbelief through this tunnel in the middle of a 3,000-plus-foot couloir.
Where else in the world but Baffin? It’s a couloir-skier’s paradise and then some.
We made the most of our time, skiing good snow while experiencing some of the best couloir skiing in the world. Thinking about that first day in the Polar Star, we were all relieved to have made it, to be standing at the base of a line so ideal. In a circuit filled with immaculate lines that most savvy backcountry travelers would walk days, even weeks, to ski, each run was accessible right from the sea ice, sometimes a few hundred meters away.
When we finally did arrive at the Polar Star, no one expected to find such amazing snow coating arguably the best line in the area. The Polar Star was filled with perfect polar powder, making each step up and each turn down a memorable experience.
Sometimes just one run is worth all the effort to get there, and despite the creed to never waste a day, some dreams are worth the wait.
Brennan Lagasse has been seeking out the world’s most revered couloirs for many years. It took a long time to make it to Baffin Island from his home on the West Shore of Lake Tahoe, but every ounce of effort was worth it. Check out more of his writing, ski guiding and nonprofit educational work at stateofthebackcountry.com.