Words Matthew Holt, pics Matthew Holt, Fiona McIntosh
‘Why are you going to Puffin Island?’ asked my friend Nick, who refuses to be inspired by my trips. I pointed out it was Baffin, not Puffin, but he clearly thought I was missing the point. While islands typically evoke images of swaying coconut trees, piña coladas and sex on the beach, Baffin Island is cold even for the Arctic Circle and most of the Inuit settlements are ‘dry’.
Baffin Island fashion show.
‘First time to Pang?’ the air-steward solicitously enquired. Seated in the front row of the twin-prop plane, Fiona and I both nodded.
‘The approach can get bumpy and don’t be alarmed to see cliffs right by the window,’ he continued. ‘Passengers often scream. We call them Pang screamers’.
In fact, we had a smooth landing and nobody screamed, but on stepping outside the airport the cold sliced right through me. It was noon on a sunny spring day and the temperature was minus 25°C.
A hamlet on Baffin’s east coast, Pangnirtung boasted two grocery stores, a boarded-up church, some functional box-housing and a small lodge down by the frozen sea, which we checked into. The resident Inuit subsist on hunting, fishing and government grants - and seemed remarkably cheery, all things considered.
Camping on Baffin island.
Beside Fiona and me, our team comprised Phil, a diminutive Welsh mountain guide; and Mario, a tall, charismatic Italian, who sang exuberantly, snored loudly and carried a pungent bag of Parmesan cheese. Our goal was the island’s highpoint and - given some debate as to what that was – we planned to climb Tête Blanche and an unnamed bump on the Penny Ice Cap, within 25km of each other and both about 2100m-high.
Before heading into the Auyuittuq National Park, we visited the Rangers’ Station to attend an obligatory briefing. The basic message was that we risked hypothermia, frostbite, crevasses and polar bears, with the probability of a timely rescue close to nil.
‘It gets quite chilly at night,’ the ranger cautioned, ‘Take extra-thick socks.’
‘Don’t worry, we’re all quite experienced’, replied Phil, who was the only one to have brought a full down-suit.
Classic Baffin Island scenery.
The following day, we clambered aboard ‘qamutiiks’, traditional wooden sleds pulled behind snowmobiles, driven by locals wearing sealskin suits. Jolting across the frozen tundra, we travelled 100km in six hours, disembarking at the snout of a glacier. As we set up basecamp, our chauffeurs waved farewell and disappeared over the horizon back towards Pang.
While short on people, Baffin Island is long on polar bears and - just to up the ante - foreigners aren’t permitted firearms. For security, we planned to erect a tripwire around the perimeter of our camp, so at least we’d be awake when the polar bears struck. However, after fumbling for half-an-hour with numb fingers, we gave up. And when we later discovered animal tracks circling our tents, we convinced ourselves they belonged to a fox.
The next morning, we strapped on skis and pulks to ferry some gear up the glacier. Once we’d negotiated the terminal moraine, we came upon a large frozen lake, smooth and flat like an ice rink. After a moment’s deliberation, Phil set off across the middle of it and the rest of us unwisely followed.
As we ventured out further, the snow cover thinned, till there was just a thin film of translucent ice, exposed to the sun and melting. Phil and Fiona safely reached the far shore, but when I was still 100m out, there was an ominous high-pitched crack and I started sinking. Hoiking my ski tips out of the water, I charged across the disintegrating ice, suspended by fear, till an ungainly swallow dive deposited me onto a large boulder, from where I used my pulk as a pontoon to reach terra firma. Behind me, Mario had plunged through the ice as soon as he’d stepped on it and was also now perched on a rock, emptying his boots of water. Dropping our cache, we headed chastened back to base camp, via a more conservative, circuitous, route.
The next three days were less eventful and we made steady progress up the glacier. The weather was good for Baffin Island, with cobalt skies, dazzling sunshine and temperatures in the balmy minus mid-20s. But while the days were bluebird, the nights were bleak, often below -40°C. Inside my sleeping bag, wearing all my clothes, I would lie curled in a foetal position, shivering and rubbing my feet, waiting for the morning sun.
Giluwe, Oceania's highest volcano.
The fifth day found us camped at 1150m on the Norman Glacier, 8km from the high point on the Penny Ice Cap and 15km from Tête Blanche. Provided the weather held, we hoped to tick both off inside four days. Instead, our summit aspirations ended with a whimper, when Phil’s gingery pate poked into our tent.
‘I’ve got frostbite’, he blurted. ‘My big toes are turning black. We need to go back’.
Fiona and I proposed alternative courses of action, which involved being slightly more cavalier with his toes, but by then Phil was already heading down. Two days later, as we sheepishly loaded our gear onto the qamutiiks that had come to fetch us, I consoled myself that alcohol-free Pang would have been no place for a celebration.
Mount Wilhelm, Papua New Guinea's highest peak.
‘Papua New Guinea’ mulled Nick, looked tanned and relaxed after a Caribbean vacation, ‘Don’t they eat people there?’
I pointed out cannibalism had long since died out, though – to be honest – I wasn’t sure. Nonetheless, after our cold turkey on Baffin Island, somewhere tropical appealed.
Just south of the equator, Papua New Guinea is a primordial land of dense jungle and jagged mountains, with only a few gouged mines and mean cities as testament to modernity. Divided by 800 languages and fierce clan loyalties, the seven million inhabitants are united by a penchant for fighting.
On this trip, Fiona and I were accompanied by Rob, a wiry Englishman, with an enthusiasm for bagging promontories that made us feel quite dilettante. He even popped out between planes in Hong Kong to run up a hill. In an efficient week, we stomped up Mount Wilhelm (the country’s highpoint at 4509m) and Giluwe (Oceania’s highest volcano at 4367m), but they were both in the central Highlands and well-trod by trekkers. The real purpose for our visit was Mount Boising, at 4150m the highpoint in the remote, rarely-visited Finisterre Range, which ranks among the world’s 50 most prominent peaks. Long considered too much trouble, it was first climbed in June 2014 by two persistent Norwegians, and ours was the second expedition to bother.
Trekking into Mount Boising.
When we reached Madang on the northern coast, the casuarina trees were swaying in the wind, swarms of disturbed bats wheeled overhead and heavy waves pummelled the harbour wall. It was two days before the storm relented and we were able to charter a boatman to take us to Saidor, a small mission station 100km along the coast.
Meeting our boatman at the harbour, we were momentarily cheered by the large white motorboat moored at the jetty, till we spotted a small, open plastic hull bobbing alongside. We hunkered down amidst the four-man crew, who’d been brought along as ballast to keep the craft from flipping. Out in Astrolabe Bay, there was gunmetal grey swell in every direction and it was an elongated hour before the smudgy blur of land appeared on the horizon and I could start speculating on our chances of survival.
It was going to take five days to hike from Saidor to Mount Boising, and require escorts from the various tribes owning the land. Word of our arrival had already passed up the mountain and there was a small army waiting. Though only the size of pygmies, they were a fierce-looking bunch: barefoot, half-naked, carrying machetes or bows and arrows, and with front teeth stained crimson from chewing betel nuts.
Trekking into Mount Boising.
Our chaperones moved at a brisk clip and we had to speed-march to keep up, slithering up and down muddy banks, fording waist-deep rivers and wobbling over precarious felled logs. As we edged across exposed cliffs, villagers would come bounding past, laden with cabbages and onions, on their way to Saidor market.
On the second day we reached Gwarawon, a village on the crest of a hill at 1700m, with a bumpy grass airstrip, if no sign of any planes. Like the previous night, we slept in a simple bamboo hut under mosquito nets we’d carried up, which only served to trap the insects inside for we soon had complexions like relief maps. We dined on potatoes and yams, which also featured at breakfast and lunch.
At Gwarawon we were due to be passed onto another tribe, who owned the next parcel of land, including the summit of Mount Boising. Their delegation arrived the following morning, about 20 of them, with even more weapons and less front teeth than our current hosts. For crossing their land, they demanded US$25,000. It appeared they’d mistaken us for gods descended from the heavens and our rucksacks for portable ATMs. There might even have been a comic charm to the scene, but for the fact they were getting quite agitated and waving machetes.
Mount Boising from Gwarawon.
Negotiations continued all day, with the clan’s spokesman paying scant heed to normal negotiating practice or maths. Eventually, we compromised on US$2500, which - not coincidentally - was all we had. Though, by this stage we weren’t feeling wholly confident as to our safety, with Mount Boising in view, we decided to continue, on the understanding we’d only pay them when we got back. Since it was dusk, our departure was postponed till the following morning.
At dawn, a posse of agitated villagers arrived at our hut. We steeled ourselves for further fee negotiations, but it was more serious than that. They brought news that a heavily-armed gang was coming down the mountain to rob us. Advised to flee, we fled.
It took two days to reach Saidor, where we stayed in the Catholic mission; two more days for the sea to calm down, so we could charter a dingy back to Madang; and two months to shake off the various infections we’d picked up on the trip.
While pedants might point to some differences between a jagged ridge in tropical New Guinea and an icy dome on Baffin Island, to me they’re the same. In both cases, I should have listened to Nick.
Departing from Saidor.
First published in SA Mountain