Arcs over the Arctic

Flying high: Andrew McLean blasts across Sam Ford Fjord, Baffin Island, Canada.     Photo: Brad Barlage

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EXPEDITION: ARCS OVER THE ARCTIC
TEAM: ANDREW MCLEAN, BRAD BARLAGE
LOCATION: BAFFIN ISLAND, NUNAVUT, CANADA
OBJECTIVE: TO EXPLORE FJORDS AND VALLEYS BY KITE IN SEARCH OF VIRGIN COULOIRS
DURATION: 23 DAYS
FIRST DESCENTS: 19

KNOCKING OFF THE 5,000-FOOT runs Nortthern Canada's Baffin Island—a largely uninhabited Arctic wilderness in the territory of Nunavut that is full of deep, snowy, virgin couloirs—has long been a dream for ski mountaineers. The trick is getting there. Many of the 184,000-square-mile island's choicest slopes are 500 miles from the territorial capital, Iqaluit, and the only way to go on the cheap is to drag 150 pounds of gear while skiing.

It was time for a better idea, which in this case involves, of all things, kites. Last spring, 41-year-old Andrew McLean, a gear designer and one of the world's top backcountry skiers, teamed up with Brad Barlage, a 29-year-old Black Diamond sales rep, in an expedition that saw them using traction kites—giant nylon arcs that can drag a skier and his load for long distances across ice and snow at up to 32 mph. "These kites are opening up whole new avenues in Arctic travel and exploration," raves McLean, who tested wind-powered travel in Antarctica last year. "This expedition exceeded all expectations."

For the Baffin trip, McLean sewed three sizes of packable kites rigged with reins and steering bars and borrowed Inuit designs to fashion flexible-wood gear sledges. Over the course of a month, McLean and Barlage blasted between the island's fjords and valleys, cherry-picking 19 first descents with lines as long as 5,100 vertical feet. The plum was the potentially fatal Polar Star Couloir, a 3,640-vertical-foot no-fall zone on Mount Beluga with a pitch of 48 degrees. "If you fell at the top, you would slide to the bottom, fall off a 500-foot cliff, and land flat on the sea ice," says Barlage.

Baffin is now home to McLean's ten favorite couloirs—big praise from a gully hound who literally wrote the book, The Chuting Gallery, on skiing rowdy slots in Utah's Wasatch Range. McLean and Barlage estimate that they surveyed a fraction of the island's skiing opportunities. That's why they cached some gear with the Inuit on Baffin's east coast. "We both want to go back again soon," McLean says, "just to go kiting."

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