BANFF TO BAFFIN: LOCAL ADVENTURERS
SKI THE POLAR STAR COULOIR
By Meghan J. Ward / Photos by Dan Evans
Every adventure starts with the seed of an idea. Whether that seed sprouts into a full-fledged expedition depends on the willingness of a team to accept the unknowns and dream big. For 17 days this past spring, Banff locals, Dan Evans and Michelle Brazier, did just that – skiing into the white, wide-open wilderness of Sam Ford Fjord in northeast Baffin Island. Happy to go home having explored the region and ticking off a few couloirs, halfway through their trip Evans and Brazier set their sights on a prized couloir.
Dan Evans had a vision, and it started rather simply. A trip up to Inuvik in Canada’s Northwest Territories in his childhood had planted a seed, and since that trip he wanted to return to the North.
Evans also had his eye on certain ski descents, and one trip in particular was included in a book already on his bookshelf: 50 Classic Ski Descents of North America. The Sam Ford Fjord area on Baffin Island is chock-full with rarely skied couloirs, such as the Polar Star Couloir on the Beluga Spire. Evans’ plans to return to the Arctic ‘someday’ snowballed into a 17-day expedition to Sam Ford Fjord, where he could ski couloirs and, as a photographer and videographer, further embed himself in the niche of adventure action sports.
To find teammates, he put a call out to his Banff ski community. Michelle Brazier, a talented and fearless skier, raised her hand. Joined by two of Evans’ friends, Patrick Bruce, from Edmonton, and William Hyndman, based in Iqaluit, the team began finalizing their plans.
While strong skiers, Evans and Brazier knew they lacked expedition experience. But, this didn’t hold them back. When they landed expedition support from MEC and the Alpine Club of Canada (through the Jen Higgins Fund), as well as further sponsorship from Helly Hansen, K2 Skis, and Yamnuska’s Backcountry Kitchen, they knew they had the green light to go.
It takes at least two flights to get to Iqaluit from Banff, and three for Brazier, who stopped in her hometown of Toronto en route to Baffin Island. Three flights meant three chances for an airline to lose equipment, which is exactly what happened. Brazier arrived in Iqaluit without her skis. After a string of other mishaps prior to the expedition even beginning, her skis arrived in Iqaluit right before the team was due to fly to Clyde River, their entry point for Sam Ford Fjord.
As last minute details resolved themselves, the team began calling the expedition “The Baffin Miracle”.
After flying with 600 lbs of gear from Iqaluit to Clyde River, on April 18, 2015, Brazier, Evans and Bruce set off for the wilderness via qamutik (a traditional Inuit sled used for travel on snow or ice) pulled by snowmobiles. Hyndman would join them on Day 10. The chilly, four and a halfhour qamutik ride – these particular sleds covered in seal blood from a recent hunt – left them battered and bruised.
That night they pitched their camp at the base of the Polar Sun Spire, which they figured was central to everything.
But, central to everything in Sam Ford Fjord meant it was close to nothing.
After a day of rest and getting their bearings on their objectives, the team moved camp on Day 3. Crossing five kilometres on the ice in -25°C, with all of their gear, was a full-day mission, and the most morale-breaking stretch of the trip. The cold hit the team hard. Brazier lost feeling in her hands, which she was eventually able to warm with hand warmers and Evans’ oversized expedition mitts, while Evans’ toes succumbed to frostbite.
The team spent four days at that camp, ticking off couloirs and exploring. With no particular objectives, just a wish list, they were able to keep the pressure off, especially as skiers new to a longer expedition. But, Evans constantly wondered how his feet would hold up.
“The couloirs were the most challenging part of keeping feet warm,” he said. “Once you’re in it, and the higher you go, the longer it’s going to take to get out of there.”
Fortunately, his feet continued to withstand the ski boots and cold temperatures. On their days off from skiing couloirs, the team explored via kites provided by Bruce and, as Evans explained, “spent half their time melting snow, keeping warm, cooking and drying gear.”
By Day 9, the team had moved camp to bring the Polar Star Couloir on the Beluga Spire within their reach. With 1100 metres of 45- to 50-degree snow, this spine of snow has gone down in the history books as the best skiing couloir on the planet.
“We started off by saying, ‘if we make it there and set up a camp, we’ll be happy,’ but once I saw this objective I had to do it,” said Brazier. “If I can ski one couloir, mission accomplished. If I can ski Polar Star Couloir, that’s above and beyond.”
Evans, whose feet were still a liability, dug deep and committed to skiing the couloir. “I just tried to keep my feet warm and as comfortable as could be,” he said.
While most couloirs took Brazier and Evans two or three hours of boot-packing to ascend, the Polar Star Couloir took them five. As the couloir crumbled away to waist-deep snow and the hardest climbing they’d yet encountered on the trip, Evans turned his thoughts to his family – his wife and son – for motivation. Upon reaching the top, he was overwhelmed with emotion and gratitude for the people waiting for him back at home.
Fortunately for the skiers, 1100 metres up meant a long, exhilarating ski down.
Brazier had doubts prior to dropping in, wondering if the ski descent was beyond her abilities. “But, one turn in and I realized ‘I got this’,” she said. “It was a dream. When I skied out and hit the sea ice you couldn’t wipe the smile off my face. I still almost can’t believe I did it. That’s what other people do, not me.”
With their big objective behind them, in the days to follow the team knocked off three more couloirs, zigzagged through the fjord by kite, and came close to topping out on an unnamed peak.
By May 3, 2015, having completed more objectives than they bargained for, they had made their way back to Clyde River. As a storm descended on the small community, Brazier and Evans felt lucky they weren’t still out on the sea ice. Still, the raging storm prevented them from flying out and, with only a landline as access to the outside world, making changes to their flights wasn’t a straightforward task.
Once they were back in Banff, the skiers were able to reflect on what the trip meant for them in the grand scheme of things.
“It was an amazing amount of time to put my whole life into perspective,” explained Evans, “and to identify which priorities are actually important to me. You don’t get that on a day trip. It was incredible to be able to do these things that not many people can do.”
Brazier said people have been asking her if she’d do it again. “Absolutely,” she said. “It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life, especially as a girl. Knowing that few women, or female Canadians, have done what we did. It definitely made me feel proud to be Canadian and a girl.”
Dan Evans and Michelle Brazier would like to their sponsors: Helly Hansen, MEC, K2 Skis, Yamnuska Backcountry Kitchen (who supplied all of their dinners) and The Alpine Club of Canada.
This expedition was made possible through a grant from the Jen Higgins Fund of the Alpine Club of Canada.
Writer, adventurer, outdoorsy mama and summit cartwheeler, Meghan J. Ward is the editor and co-founder at Crowfoot Media and lives for backcountry getaways.