Doug Scott, now 76, is arguably Britain’s greatest living mountaineer. In this exclusive extract from the first part of his new autobiography, Up and About, Doug recalls his expedition to Baffin Island’s Weasel Valley in 1972, which culminated in the first ascent of the east face of Freya Peak and the first ascent of the South Peak of Mount Asgard.
Two years after conceiving the expedition, we were labouring along Pangnirtung fjord, some of us on foot and some by canoe, steering it around ice floes as we headed for Weasel Valley and the mountains. Dennis and I were transfixed by the skill of an Eskimo hunter known as Killabuk who joined us on the walk in. Towards the head of the fjord we watched him leave our canoe and stalk a seal across the pack ice, inching his way forward behind a little screen of plywood, painted white. Eventually a shot rang out and Killabuk reappeared, pulling the seal across the ice, now with a neat hole through the front of its head just above the eyes.
We didn’t make it all the way to the head of the fjord. Just six miles from the village, at a constriction, the water became choked with ice so we were forced on to land, carrying heavy loads of 100 pounds. At least a helicopter based at Pangnirtung for the summer had already flown in our heavy camera gear and Base Camp tent. Turning one headland after another, hoping that the next one would be the last, we finally staggered into the Weasel Valley to camp beneath Crater Lake.
Looking up the Weasel Valley towards Mount Thor, strikingly visible on the left of the image. Photo by Alastair Lee / www.posingproductions.com
Freed of our heavy loads, we were able to take in the incredible scenery in the perpetual twilight of the Arctic night. Mount Ulu stood sentinel, guarding the approach to the valley. It was the first of many unclimbed granite mountains we were to admire over the coming weeks. We continued up the Weasel Valley valley, turned a corner, and there before us was the unforgettable 5,000-foot west face of Mount Thor. We passed under the snout of the retreating Fork Beard Glacier, the tundra stretching up to striated slabs of rock so recently vacated by ice.
"We continued up the Weasel Valley valley, turned a corner, and there before us was the unforgettable 5,000-foot west face of Mount Thor"
The tangle of lichens and mosses were peppered with purple saxifrage, the yellow Arctic poppies, white heather, willow herb and Baffin Island’s tallest tree - the Arctic willow - now sprouting woolly catkins as it straggled along the ground. This mantle of vegetation supports a wide variety of bird and animal life; we saw snowy owls and occasionally a peregrine falcon, as well as lemmings, Arctic fox and hare. We also found caribou moss, still contaminated by atomic weapon testing in the Arctic in the 1950s and 1960s. Health workers were warning Eskimo women not to breastfeed their children, since their milk was contaminated from consuming caribou liver, which remains a great delicacy among the locals.
We took care to be roped crossing the streams, recalling how John Fleming had perished in the Hindu Kush, and after walking twenty miles averaging just one mile per hour we arrived at Base Camp shattered. Pat Baird had gone ahead to our cache of food with the helicopter and set up some of the tents. When he landed, Pat realised the food, deposited by ski-plane during the winter, was five miles away from where he had recommended and so Pat had busied himself ferrying the huge pile to his preferred campsite above Summit Lake.
Despite his fifty-eight years, Pat was still fit enough to climb a virgin summit every year or so and this is what we did in our first week. Pat, Rob and Steve climbed twin summits overlooking Base Camp and Summit Lake while Dennis and I climbed two 6,000-foot peaks south of Mount Asgard. Ray, Guy and Phil climbed a peak at the head of Baldur Glacier. The weather was perfect throughout those first few days. Only the mosquitoes troubled us. With five summits climbed we were now considerably fitter than on our walk in, and felt ready to tackle the big walls of Asgard.
Dawn breaks across the mountains of Baffin Island beyond the north face of Mount Asgard. Photo by Alastair Lee / www.posingproductions.com
Food and equipment were laid out on the tundra in eight neat piles. The small tents were taken down and we all moved into our big Stormhaven tent ready for an early start next morning. Then ominous high-flying cirrus moved in and before long the sky was full of thick grey cloud bringing rain and wet snow. By morning the tent was lashed by a ferocious gale. We went out to secure the guy lines and pack away the food in polythene sheeting. The hillside was virtually a sheet of water, with every stream overflowing its banks. Visibility dropped to a few yards and we had difficulty in standing in the Force-10 winds.
"By morning the tent was lashed by a ferocious gale. The hillside was virtually a sheet of water; visibility dropped to a few yards and we had difficulty in standing in the Force 10 winds"
We rescued wind-tossed cans from the stream and topped up our supply of water ready for a long stretch inside the tent. At least the mosquitoes had gone to earth. After digging drainage channels around the flysheet, we ducked back inside the tent where the weather kept us pinned down for the next two weeks.
After two weeks, a patch of blue sky appeared through the swirling morning mist. By the afternoon the sun was out and we were being bitten by a thousand ravenous mosquitoes. Given the loss of time, we decided to concentrate on two big walls near camp. So far, exploration on Baffin had focused on exploring and making first ascents by easy routes. We now hoped to do something never before attempted in Arctic Canada: to climb one of the big granite faces around us. Guy and Phil set off that same afternoon for the elegant 2,000-foot north buttress of Breidablik.
The spectacular wilderness of Baffin Island's Weasel Valley seen from the air. Mount Thor can be clearly seen on the left side of the entrance to the narrowing at the head of the valley. Photo by Alastair Lee / www.posingproductions.com
The rest of us also took advantage of this respite from the weather. The east face of Freya Peak reared up for 3,000 feet in slabs and a headwall to a point easily seen from our camp. We named the point Killabuk, since the main summit of Freya was set well back towards Asgard. We regretted not making an earlier start since the slabs were a bit harder than expected, and required a rope. The headwall was also more difficult than we bargained and with very little food and no bivvy gear we debated whether it would be prudent to retreat.
Towards evening we were on the headwall but the crack system we were following ended abruptly. We could neither free climb or peg our way up and so the only solution was to arrange a pendulum and try to reach another line of cracks away to the right across a hundred feet of blank rock dripping with water. From a peg placed as high as possible we fixed a rope and slid 150 feet down it. One after the other we swung backwards and forwards, gathering momentum and distance until we could clamber into the new crack. After this exhilarating maneuver we made good progress to a ledge suitable for a miserably cold, wet bivouac. Winter was obviously drawing nearer for there were now a few hours of dark. We were only 600 feet from the top, but the headwall overhung its base by fifty feet; we found the climbing strenuous.
Next morning, as the crack we had gained was now overhanging and full of loose flakes, we followed a ramp round to yet another crack system, crawling along as the ramp narrowed alarmingly. Right at the end it was just possible to stand precariously in balance and reach for a ledge. I tried not to notice the thousand-foot void below. From the ledge I stepped round a corner into sunlight as the sun rose, each of us warming our cold bodies and numb fingers as we flopped down on a large ledge.
"We felt elated to be there, looking across at the peaks stretching out in all directions, still covered in fresh snow from the storms. It is always a good feeling to arrive on the top of an unclimbed summit"
Above, the mountain was cleft by chimneys set at right angles to one another. We wriggled and pushed, getting good friction from the rough red rock. Shafts of sunlight pierced the dark recesses of the mountain now full of the sound of heavy breathing and clanking pegs. After 200 feet we were disgorged on to a wide terrace below the final wall. In two more pitches of hard aiding and some pleasant free climbing we arrived on the summit twenty hours after leaving camp.
We felt elated to be there, looking down on our tents and across at the peaks stretching out in all directions, still covered in fresh snow from the storms. It is always a good feeling to arrive on the top of an unclimbed summit. We lay out in the sun among the weathered rocks scattered about the flat summit. I took photographs of Steve venturing out on a block of granite jutting out for twenty feet above the slabs 1,200 feet below. Having been cooped up for so long in the tents we were doubly elated at having carved out a fine route involving a variety of problems and difficult route finding. Hurrying down the back of the mountain, we made six long abseils to eventually reach the Caribou Glacier.
Described by the British actor, writer and TV presenter Michael Palin as a “fascinating portrait of one of the great figures of mountaineering”, the first volume of Doug Scott’s two-part autobiography, Up and About, tells his story from his childhood in 1940s Nottingham to the summit of Everest, including many of the climbs he established on the world’s highest mountains.
Up and About is out now (Vertebrate Publishing, £24.00)