I am often asked the steepest mountain or face I have ever climbed. This post is the answer. I doubt if I would ever climb anything steeper. No, it has nothing to do with my age or fitness level or my desire to stay alive… the reason is much simpler, more rudimentary. There simply is no steeper mountain face in the world than the West face of Mt Thor. It also ranks among my most technical and intrepid climbs, though at the time it did not appear so. More than half of the ascent had to be aided and I was paired with one of the masters of aid climbing. My buddy and partner in several such crimes, the Ukrainian gymnast, Natalia, or Nat as I called her. Watching her zoom up those mindboggling rocks and thin fissures of ice with the grace of a ballerina and strength of a wild beast, while she accomplished smooth gear placements in invisible cracks without missing a breath I have often wondered if she was the cousin of Spider Man. Now read on.
Trying to clip the quickdraw through a red colored friend I watched my inert fingers as they struggled to curl around the ‘D’ carabiner. It was too damn cold. A second later I knew I was going to drop the protection. It slipped through my hand and spiraled out of sight into the white flurry of snow that the wind drove up the rock face on which Nat and I literally hung from our nails. I watched it fall, willing it to stop and bounce back into my outstretched palm, and waited for it to hit ground. It must have but I did not hear a thing. We were too far up to hear and I was too far exhausted and exhilarated to care.
I looked to my left and below. Nat swung gently from her etriers; the green-blue kernmental rope that she belayed me with rose like Indian rope trick reaching my harness in a series of short waves as the rising wind whipped it intermittently. It was the second day of our climb on the sweeping 1255 m west face of Thor; the worlds steepest and possibly the longest uninterrupted cliff wall. With an average gradient of 105 degrees the face overhung right from the bottom. On my insistence, as I did not prefer aiding, we had free climbed the first half of the face, though till date it baffles me how. Since I pendulumed well away from the face with the overhang around 115 deg, I saw all the way to the bottom and then at my partner and mouthed, silently, ‘Sorry.’ Nat gave me one of her heartbreakingly beautiful smiles and winked. ‘It’s ok, Sat,’ She mouthed, ‘I am here.’ Standing at 155 cm, Nat weighed 42 kg and at this moment her slight frame jingled with more than 20 kg of hardware piled up from shoulder to waist. Our haul bag dangled further below. For an observer on ground it must look comical. Two human beings and one shiny red vinyl coated haul bag swinging freely like the arms of a grandfather clock. Though what would be the most difficult to ascertain was how did they reach where they were.
Thor and its surrounding peaks are one of the most amazing spectacles of nature I have ever seen in my life. Located in the south eastern peninsula of Canada’s Baffin Island, well inside the Arctic Circle in Auyuittuq (let me see who all can pronounce this. If you can’t let me know and I will add the phonetic pronunciation as a P.S. later) National Park, it juts out abruptly from the ground like a walrus’ teeth. If you stand at the bottom of the west face and look up right above, you can see the summit forming an umbrella and falling behind you since it overhangs at a gravity defying angel. It is unbelievably smooth, steep and haunting. The local Innuits call it Qaisualuk and yes, it is named after the Norse God of Thunder. There is absolutely no easy way up to the top of Thor, and west face is often the test ground of the world’s finest rock and aid climbers.
With my penchant for ice and frozen places I was way out of my league but the sheer beauty of the area had lured me up to where I now found myself. I wouldn’t be here with anyone else but Nat. Thor is infamous for rock falls, it is not uncommon to witness boulders the size of a small car crashing down its flanks at regular intervals. Preferring ‘frozen to death’ over ‘crushed to death’ we reached the base of Thor towards the end of March in that charming year of 1996. Reaching Thor is an understatement. You don’t reach Thor, you go through an entire expedition and logistical nightmare rather close to reaching the base camp of Kangchenjunga, only ten times more difficult.
Auyuittuq National Park is really remote and it is far, really far from anywhere. The closest habitation is actually in Greenland across the Davin Strait of the Baffin Bay. We managed to reach Manitoba Churchill from Winnipeg and from there, Nat’s crazy cousin flew us into Pangnirtung in one of the scariest flights I have ever taken. Consider this under the light that every time I fly (which is very often) I sincerely wish that my flight should either get hijacked or crash or fall from air, and you will begin to understand how Anatoly, Nat’s crazy cousin flew.
Gripping my seat, which was simply strapped to the floor with a frayed hemp rope, till my knuckles turned white, I was very sure if the single engine WWII vintage spider moth did not crash into the Hudson Bay or threw me out of the window as it cart-wheeled intermittently to the accompaniment of Anatoly’s perverse laughter then my heart was surely going to stop soon since it kept leaping into my mouth like a frog looking to exit its well. I have definitely had my share of mad people but Anatoly pretty much is the craziest of them all.
During the six hour long flight with a brief refueling halt at Coral Harbor in the Southampton Island, I must have died at least a dozen times if not more out of sheer fright. When my wobbly feet touched ground I felt I had reached Mecca. I crashed to the soil and kissed mother earth as if I had just returned after a decade of flying in outer space. Crushing me in a bear hug, Anatoly kissed me on both the cheeks (punched by the vodka fumes, I nearly fainted again) and promised to return on the appointed hour to ferry us back home. Yeah, right, I grumbled, only if he lived that long. And I would sell off my grandmother before I stepped into that bloody plane of his ever. It is another story that I had to eat my words after a fun-filled fortnight. As a parting shot, while he revved up the wreck he lovingly called his flying angel, Anatoly screamed, ‘Now Sat, look after my sis, ok, and don’t mess around with her.’ He winked and lifted off and soon disappeared into the clear blue sky.
From Pangnirtung we skied across the frozen fjord straight up north, covering the distance in a day. We ascended the Akshayuk Pass and camped across the Windy Lake. The next day we followed the marker cairns up the valley, crossing Mt Odin to our north and then sighted Thor as it rose majestically spearing the sky with its pointed summit. As we set up our tent near its foot and I craned my neck up I wondered what had I got myself into! I was soon to find out.
Dangling at 1040 m I pondered my options. My fingers were really frozen and my upper limbs screamed for relief. Constant aiding and hammering rock protections had had its effect on me. Moreover I was burdened with a huge cache of metal. It is often opined that aid climbing is the most complex and tedious way to climb as one had to manage so many things simultaneously. And on Thor I was doing an A5. I couldn’t believe it, my previous best was A3 and at a place much closer to ground. I liked the simpler approach of just my ice axes and crampons. Ice climbing was so much simpler. Few hard and well placed tools and up you go like a bird. Ice screw or a peg goes in so much more easily and one could always hang from the leash of the axe and relax and take pictures.
I was on a lead pitch and the short daylight commanded to get the porta-ledge out and fixed. I couldn’t possibly ask Nat to come up and do it. It would not only be a loss of my face (which I was sure she wouldn’t mention to anyone ever) but also it was impossible to reverse our positions. The kilometer deep void under me did nothing to improve the situation or my spirits. Nat waited patiently to make my move. She remained silent and encouraging. I looked back at the wall, just out of my reach and considered my next step. Though it stared at my face it took several minutes to sink in; I had only one choice left. I had to combine two of the most difficult moves of trad and aid climbing, a deadpoint and roof respectively. Asking for a tension traverse I lunged at the hair line crack above my head, standing full out and then some on the topmost step of the etrier. My taped first two fingers found the fissure and went in and then twisted in a painful two-finger lock on its own. I got a fifi in and clipped a sling to my chest. Once the weight shifted from my legs and arms, I relaxed and signaled Nat to get the haul sack and herself up.
While she climbed I got another daisy chain into a higher crack hammering a pair of malleable copperheads. Now we had four anchors jutting off the wall, each countering the other and we could safely spend the night. As Nat reached me and patted me on the back patronizingly, I allowed her to go ahead and do the rest.
The next day we breezed to the top and witnessed an incredibly breathtaking sun rising from the east. Seldom have I been so euphoric. We hugged each other and brewed tea on the summit. I even asked Nat to hang on to my ankles and protruded nearly till the waist over the edge to gaze at the wonderful west face all the way down. As the dizzying angle nearly made my head go on a spin, I found it impossible to believe that I had just climbed the entire face. We came down the relatively easy east face and continued our journey up the valley for few more days of bliss.
P.S. For the serious rock and aid climbers, I know this post lacks technical details. Of course so much more happened on that climb, but for this post meant for general readers I felt the above would suffice. To read about this in details wait for my climbing book to get published. By the way, if any of you are a publisher or a literally agent then do get in touch with me. I am seriously looking for a publisher who would offer me that dream advance and I can enjoy my impending retirement from the Navy doing what I do best. One more thing, none of the pictures accompanying this post are mine, they have been borrowed from friends who do such stuff more regularly. The sole peak picture is indeed of Thor. On Thor I did not even carry my 2.5 kg heavy Nikon FM2. If I did, I would have had to sacrifice that much of hardware and I won’t be here today to tell you this tale then.