Baffin Island, Nuavut, Canada
AUTHORS: Mike Mandl, Flo Scheimpflug
PHOTOGRAPHY: Timeline Production / Alexander and Thomas Huber, Mario Walder
AN ADVENTURE AT THE END OF THE WORLD. A MISSION. A SEARCH.
The Huber Brothers have hit the trail again. The goal: decode Mount Asgard on Baffin Island.
Nobody has yet managed to free-climb the almost 1000-metre-high south face. And for good reason, since this challenge is at the very limit of physical and psychic feasibility. It’s a mission that is more than a match for a well-rehearsed team. The team has to become a unit, a unit that is totally dedicated to giving its all...
OUT THERE, ALL IN!
Thomas Huber: “A couple of pulls. No more than two or three metres. That's not far. Nothing like as far as the ten thousand kilometres we have covered to get here and finally decode the moves needed to break these last two or three metres. Ten thousand kilometres for a couple of metres — isn't that kind of crazy?”
No. There's no way you can compare it like that. And why? Because simply putting those numbers next to each other doesn't begin to express the dimensions of this kind of adventure. There is one thing you learn when you are climbing: a comparison based on abstract data never adds up. The whole thing is about something else, something that goes much further than that.
SO WHAT'S IT ABOUT THEN?
IT'S ABOUT MISSION IMPOSSIBLE, ENTERING THE UNKNOWN. HEADING DOWN TO ONE OF EARTH'S REMOTEST CORNERS AND FROM THERE PUSHING FORWARDS THROUGH THE MOST IMPENETRABLE AREAS TO SEEK OUT THE MAGIC OF GOING “ALL IN”.
But maybe there's some truth there; perhaps the number crunchers are right in some respects. After all, to want to climb a big wall at the other end of the world you've got to be a little bit crazy.
FAR, FAR AWAY
“Baffin Island? Never heard of it. Why not Ibiza? We've got some amazing deals at the moment.” Try asking your local travel agent to book a flight to Baffin Island and you can expect some strange questions followed by raised eyebrows and some sceptical looks. No wonder, since this northernmost stretch of Canada to the west of Greenland is indeed not listed in brochures as a paradise for sun-seeking holidaymakers, even if they are looking for a bit of action. Baffin Island is the fifth largest island on the planet and at the same time the most uninhabited place you can imagine. With a population of just 11,000 distributed over an area of half a million square kilometres each person could easily have a golf course each in their back yard and still not be lacking space. So if you are into golf or any other kind of fresh air activity, then you better not be oversensitive about the weather, because up here the climate has a unique meteorological instability and basically does what it likes, without warning. The term “summer” is certainly not included in its frequently changing spectrum of offerings, however. It's no secret that all-night beach parties take place elsewhere.
Cheap offers from the travel agent are one thing. The “Finest big walls around the globe” brochure by Alex and Thomas Huber — a.k.a. “The one and only Huberbuam” — is another. Filled with the adventures of the brothers reaching from El Cap to Latok and from Ogre to Nameless Tower, this tome has reached almost biblical proportions. In 2012 it was again high time to add the next chapter, one whose title had been written some years previously, although only in thought.
The Bavarian climbers Christian Schlesener, Mane Reichelt, Luca Guscelli, Bernd Adler, Markus Bruckbauer and Tom Grad returned home from their expedition to Baffin Island. In their luggage they had the most valuable thing climbers can bring back from such a trip: a first ascent called Bavarian Direct (7/A3), a daring line across the 700-metre-high southern buttress of Mount Asgard. Soon after their return the climbers presented a slide show — the ritual conclusion to any expedition. Alex and Thomas, good friends of the climbers, were also invited to the evening show in Rosenheim. They sat together with beers in the darkened room listening to the hum of the projector as it whisked photos across the screen one-after-the-other. Mouths hung open, fingertips were itching, because what they saw was quite simply awe-inspiring. But it wasn't just the sheer beauty of the rock face that fascinated Alex and Thomas.
When they scrutinised the rock face for a more careful look they reckoned they were able to pick out “a line that could work.” Did it really look like this route rated by the first climbers as 7/A3 can be free-climbed?
The information the climbers from the initial ascent had spat out made it sound promising. Hallelujah! We have to go there, the Hubers thought, we have to try it. “The dream had been around for some time”, remembers Alex, “and we knew back then that it was going to be a tough dog of a route to free-climb, if that even turned out to be possible”. However, although they still believed in the back of their minds that it was doable, like many dreams this one wasn't immune from the fate of being overtaken by other dreams. Other objectives edged their way into first priority on the climbing calendar, because as far as projects and options are concerned, the vertical universe is as unlimited as it is unforgiving; it always has a load of enticing attractions on offer.
That's why it was some years until Alex and Thomas were offered the opportunity to pick up the tracks their friends had laid in the far north and finish off what they had started so long ago.
“THERE ARE A DOZEN ROUTES ON MOUNT ASGARD, BUT THERE ARE ONLY A FEW THAT YOU CAN EVEN THINK ABOUT FREE-CLIMBING AND OF THOSE BAVARIAN DIRECT IS DEFINITELY THE MOST AWESOME!” — ALEX
A mixed team landed on Baffin Island in the company of the Belgian big wall shooting star Nico Favresse. Why they happened to choose Baffin Island was not because of just a good reason, but the best-ever reason. A wider selection of virgin big walls with such beautiful lines isn't to be found anywhere else on this planet. Despite the huge choice of opportunities, the objective of this ambitious team was clear: Mount Asgard.
Dozens of routes criss-cross the walls of Asgard virtually incognito, but only a very few came into consideration, such as the “Inukshuk” aid route on the north buttress and “Bavarian Direct” on the south buttress. The team decided to attempt the south side, because if any of the routes could be free-climbed then they were convinced it would be this one. They weren't mistaken: after eleven days on Bavarian Direct the team diverted slightly from the original route on the final pitch to a new exit point at the south end of the plateau atop Mount Asgard, literally on their last legs. Nico and his team named their almost entirely free-climbed version of the Bavarian route “The Belgarian” and rated the 850-m tour 5.13b or 8a/A1.
Why “almost entirely free-climbed”?
Because the crux on the tenth and most difficult pitch could only be managed with the technical assistance of a ladder, hence the A1. All the same, news of their success spread like wildfire so that Alex and Thomas couldn't ignore it either: “They had done exactly what we had wanted to do for some time”, is how Alex remembers his first reaction. However, they hadn't missed the boat; the opportunity was still there.
Alex and Thomas didn't doubt that Nico and Olivier Favresse, Sean Villanueva, Stéphane Hanssens and the Spaniard Silvia Vidal had put in a tremendous effort on their eleven-day single push. “Nico and his team are a seriously hard bunch. Setting up a headpoint that far away from civilisation takes some balls”, says Thomas with real appreciation.
Despite the effort the Belgian-Spanish team invested in solving the Bavarian Direct, they didn't manage to put the last stone of the mosaic in place to completely finish the puzzle. For Alex and Thomas there was suddenly hardly no better excuse to travel to Baffin Island.
“FATE MADE EVERYTHING SO STRAIGHTFORWARD. BECAUSE THEY DIDN'T QUITE MANAGE THE FREE-ASCENT IT WAS UP TO US TO SEE WHAT WE COULD MAKE OF IT.” — ALEX
(they: the Belgian team, ed.)
ACCORDING TO THE EDDA, A TOME OF ANCIENT ICELANDIC TEXTS FROM THE 13TH CENTURY, ASGARD IS THE REALM OF THE NORSE GODS.
800 HUNDRED YEARS LATER THE STRIKING YET BEAUTIFUL, AWE-INSPIRING YET INVITING ENTITY OF MOUNT ASGARD HAS LOST NONE OF ITS MYTHICAL MAGIC. IT IS NO LESS GODLY.
BIG WALL & BROTHERHOOD
An 850-metre-high wall, only sparse protection, with several pitches in the tenth grade – from these factors alone it is clear that the chosen line on Mount Asgard is a project that only the very best of the best could complete. Excellence in climbing is naturally a prerequisite in such a case, but in fact only half the story. To be successful on a rock face the magnitude of Mount Asgard, you need more than just the ability to climb hard. You have to be able to work together perfectly as a team.
Thanks to their father, who was a mountain enthusiast, Alex and Thomas took part on excursions into the Alps at an early age. Looking back, it is clear that the basis for their alpine careers took shape during childhood. The two brothers virtually grew up with a craving for adventure. It wasn't long before Alex and Thomas started seeking out their own routes as brothers. As the level of difficulty increased, more often than not their father had to stay at home.
Brotherhood and climbing partnerships have much in common. In both cases the relationships concern close proximity and intensity. In the one instance it is a blood relationship that forms the bond, in the other it is the rope that connects them. But despite the similarities there are exceptions: brotherhood takes the concept of the climbing team to the next level.
YOU ARE BORN A BROTHER, YOU ARE MADE A BROTHER. A CLIMBING TEAM DOESN'T COME TO EXISTENCE SO EASILY. IT’S NOT SOMETHING THAT YOU JUST SLIP INTO, IT'S NOT A BIRTHRIGHT.
FOR SUCH A RELATIONSHIP TO DEVELOP, THERE IS ONE THING THAT THE PARTNERS MUST DO ABOVE ALL:
CLIMBING TOGETHER is something Alex and Thomas have done a great deal of, but that's not everything they have done. Following phases where the brothers work together, there are others where each goes his own way.
An early example: while Alex ascended Om and Open Air, among others, and headed towards the ninth French grade in sport climbing, Thomas opened up End of Silence (8b+), one of the most difficult multi-pitch routes at the time. That there are others who are gifted on the rock face is something of which Alex and Thomas have always been aware. The more their life on the mountain became characterised by their brotherhood, the more they understood how to make their climbing dreams come true with different constellations of climbing teams and with other climbing partners. Thomas: “We quite simply work brilliantly together, complementing each other perfectly, but it is also important that we go our separate ways now and again. When we are ready, then we tackle another project again together.”
This pattern of togetherness and going their own way can be traced throughout the two brothers' climbing career: in 1997 they managed to conquer the 7108 metre-high Latok together with Toni Gutsch and Conrad Anker via Tsering mosong (VII+/A3+). In 2001 Thomas joined up with Iwan Wolf instead of brother Alex on an extraordinary ascent of Shivling (6543 m) — Shiva’s Line (7/A4) is one of the magical routes in the Himalayas mdash; and their ascent was awarded the Piolet d’Or, the unofficial climbing Oscar. In the following year Thomas together with Iwan Wolf and Urs Stöcker were successful on the repeat ascent of Ogre (7285 m). Alexander climbed free solo through the Hasse-Brandler on the Große Zinne mdash; without protection, without a rope, but with plenty of nerves and strength. On the West Buttress he demonstrated that he can also climb pretty well with a rope as well on his initial ascents of Bellavista (2002) and Pan Aroma (2007). A stone's throw from his home, Alex together with another talented local — Guido Unterwurzacher — climbed routes above Lofer Alm such as Donnervogel and Feuertaufe. Both these routes feature minimal protection on pitches up to 8b+ and in this respect are without doubt amongst the most challenging climbs to be found anywhere.
Pure chance “Mario”
Mario Walder is from East Tyrol/Austria and is another young, very promising alpinist who proved during the expedition to Nameless Tower in Karakorum that he is a steadfast climbing partner and a strong asset for any team looking to take on big objectives. Alex Huber met Mario by chance in Patagonia in 2006: the two did a number of tours there together and realised that they work really well together, both in terms of climbing ability and philosophy. “Mario is fit as heck and gets straight down to the job in hand”, is how Alex describes his qualities. His brother has a similar opinion: “Mario is a great buddy as well as a top-class climber on whom you can rely on 100% in any situation.”
What's really important when climbing with a team in uncharted territory is that you are all on the same wavelength mentally. Mario turned out to be virtually the third brother, because: “I place a great deal of value on ethics. Nearly all of my initial ascents have been using classic climbing style. I believe it is very important that classic climbs remain as they are. You need to respect the mountain and the style of the climbers who got there first. For me there is nothing more fulfilling than being in the mountains with fellow climbers and friends to seek out new routes. To spot a line and then climb it is the greatest thing you can imagine - only the line counts!” In addition to their ambitions to lead the way, Mario Walder and the Huber Brothers also share enormous versatility: “I am happy in any terrain: ice, snow, rock, crumbly or not. As a result you can do a lot of things on any mountain in the world.”
That's why it's easy to imagine an extended brotherhood. One in which intensive experience is shared on one and the same rope. One that can perhaps be understood as a family tree or a tribe, brothers and sisters held together by the same passion for climbing.
And the family is growing…
If there is a tribe then Max Reichel and Franz Hinterbrandner are also inevitably part of it. Working under the name of Timeline Production, these two from Berchtesgaden made a name for themselves some time ago as expert and inspirational extreme cameramen. Just like with the climbing team, it's important you get to know your film crew, because trust and reliability are the most important ingredients on adventurous projects.
The Huber Brothers' relationship to Max and Franz has reached the strength it is at after many years of joint ventures and numerous productions like “Centre of the Universe”, “Eiszeit” and “Eternal Flame” already mentioned above. The greatest project the friends undertook together where Reichel and Hinterbrandner contributed their camera skills must surely have been the documentary “Am Limit”, which went on to win the Bavarian Film Prize. And yet again it was time to take it to the limit. At the end of the world. With the best bunch of buddies that you could hope for on such an expedition.
“BECAUSE IT'S EASIER TO FIND PEOPLE WHO CLIMB AT YOUR LEVEL THAN PEOPLE WHO SHARE YOUR CLIMBING PHILOSOPHY.” — ALEX + THOMAS
REALM OF THE GODS
Alex, Thomas, Mario and the Timeline boys finally stood at the foot of Mount Asgard at the end of their arduous 60 km approach. Anticipation was mixed with a feeling of uncertainty. Suddenly the fog bank opened up to reveal the mighty southern tower. But the euphoria evaporated as quickly as it arose with the impact of a hammer blow dealt out personally by Thor, the god of thunder: “There was a constant cracking noise and the approach through the couloir looked like a battlefield. Rocks the size of half a car were lying around.” Danger was in the air, but it was calculable. Thanks to the information provided by the Bavarians and the Belgians who climbed here first and were kind enough to provide all the support needed, the team knew that they would be safe as soon as the approach was behind them and they were on the wall. This was how Thomas managed the risks: “We could assess the dangers relatively well to minimise exposure to the risks. Apart from that we knew that we would be climbing a perfect route.”
Ready, set, but not go yet.
Because the ice had receded significantly since 1996 and left behind an impossible looking section right at the start of the route, a problem that the Belgians also had to deal with on their ascent. They had to send their techy climbing technician Silvia Vidal on ahead until the pitch could be headpointed and given a 5.12c and 7c/E8.
RISK & REWARD
However, neither Alex not Thomas could agree on this grade of difficulty rating: “Right at the start of the first pitch we were taken very much by surprise, because Nico and his team had rated the whole business 7c. For us it felt more like 8a+.” Three whole grades more difficult! How did that reflect the rest of the grading? In particular, what about the grade ten crux pitch which has to be free-climbed?
“WELL GREAT, IF THAT IS SUPPOSED TO BE A LOWER 7C, THEN THE CRUX IS BOUND TO BE IN THE REGION OF AN UPPER 8B.”, was what Thomas was thinking. But a good team doesn't let itself go off the rails just because of a few hiccups getting started.
Asgard gave the team a cool reception, no doubt about that, because just to get your feet off the ground you had to up the revs and give it everything you've got — a classic cold start. Instead of skyhooks it was the good old fingers of steel that were applied, and when they came into contact with the rock they were ripped to shreds until at last “Belay!” rang out and at last the finger tips began to thaw out again. That it started off so tough was totally unexpected for Alex, Thomas and Mario. On the other hand they were on Baffin Island, not on a Spanish beach, and whoever gets this far should be prepared for a bit of unpleasantness and able to take the rough with the even rougher. The apparent disadvantage of a non-existent easy start does have a good side to it: if you are put under pressure from the very beginning then you are more likely to reach top form sooner and even more importantly, gain a psychological advantage. The next few pitches also seemed to be harder overall than the description implied. However, thanks to the pitches at the start the boys had been made less sensitive to unpleasant surprises. They remained optimistic and didn't worry unnecessarily about the key pitch, which was still way above them: “We will see soon enough what it is like up there — just wait until we've actually got up there.” However, before they got to see anything, visibility disappeared and poor weather moved in.
For the team that meant retreating to base camp, playing cards, telling jokes you can't tell at home, and above all staying safe and sound. Their patience paid off. At last the weather god showed mercy, it cleared up, and Alex, Thomas and Mario got back to work.
They climbed pitch after pitch until they had finally got there: the team was now hanging off the belay point below the crux. What the three of them hanging off the belay staring up into the unknown knew about the crux — those critical 2 or 3 m — didn't amount to much. Could they decode this pitch, and if so, how difficult was it going to be? As difficult as they expected? As difficult as they hoped? As difficult as they feared? And what if this crux can't be decoded, taken apart, put back together again, solved? If you fail on five, six, or seven of these thousands of moves that you need to climb up a wall like this? What then?
They quickly worked out the right hand holds and footholds; an important starting point on which to build. Next step: the sequencing. Which hand grabs where and which foot follows had to be sussed out in detail and then coded onto the hard drive before being hard-wired. They analysed, tried out, deleted the code and tried again. The foreboding they felt about this section based on the first pitch of the climb gradually evaporated as they got to grips with the most critical point of the route, the crux. This could be free-climbed, no problem. Providing, of course, that you can handle stuff grade tens are made of in expedition conditions at the end of the world. As luck would have it, Alex, Thomas and Mario do belong to this rare species. Still: “The job isn't done until you've put in the effort up there,” says Alex.
The crux was behind them, but that didn't mean that it was all over, because first all the remaining pitches had to be free-climbed too. It was still risky. “The route is incredibly challenging. You could easily end up falling 15 m and if you do that at the wrong point, then you'll either end up dead as a doornail or severely injured”, is how Thomas describes the situation.
Another problem cropped up in addition to the complex climbing for which even the best climber doesn't have a solution off the cuff: the weather. It then turned its thermostat back down to poor.
“THAT'S THE REAL PROBLEM: IN THE MOUNTAINS IT'S NOT ENOUGH TO BE A GOOD CLIMBER WITH A LOAD OF EXPERIENCE, YOU ALSO NEED A BIT OF LUCK.” — ALEX
The mental endurance that you need to be able to wait for this lucky moment, that's something that you just need to have with you. They needed luck and they were given it. The weather improved and gave its OK for the rest of the climb. The rock, on the other hand, still had a number of surprises in store. The difficulty of the final pitches ought to be a great deal easier than those below, promised the topo, but it was still a tricky business. The system of chimneys, rated grade 7, had been partially iced over and was covered in snow following the previous spate of bad weather:
“EVEN ON THE LAST FEW METRES THE ASGARD DID US NO FAVOURS.” — ALEX
TEAM FREE ASCENT
Finally they had done it and Alex, Thomas and Mario reached the summit plateau. It was ten in the evening, the sun went down and you could see the moon pinned to the heavens. “A moment that was holy,” remembers Thomas. Behind them lay ten days on the rock face and below them the 700 m of climbing that form the Bavarian-Belgian Direct combination, on which they managed a team free ascent, where each gave everything they had in them, contributing their part to the success of the team. Thomas describes it like this: “Everything goes like clockwork, blind trust is the order of the day.” Asked whether there is a hierarchy within the team, he says simply: “There's no envy on the mountain, we are a team, we are a unit...
...What counts is that we manage to reach the top together and find a way back to safety together and at the end of the day can say that we had a fantastic time. We had a laugh together and we froze our butts off together. It was hard, but it was great.” The difficulties that were waiting for the team were sometimes harder than expected and it wasn't just the climbing team that put their success in doubt now and again. The Timeline boys also sometimes envisaged their film “washed away by the Weasel River”. But Max and Franz managed to hang in there — so finally standing on the plateau of Mount Asgard was even more rewarding.
It didn't take long to decide on a route name that not only conveyed the feeling at the summit, but also accompanied the tour from the beginning: Bavarian-Belgian Friendship.
Three good reasons:
Firstly it was friends from their home in Bavaria who ascended the Direct in 1996 to pave the way for the 2012 project. Secondly, it was friends from Belgium who sussed out a way to free-climb the route, demonstrating that it was possible, even if they didn't have the privilege of solving the whole puzzle themselves. And finally it was the friends Alex, Thomas, Mario, Max and Franz, who undertook the long journey to successfully finish this major project.
To climb this big wall at the end of the world, ten thousand kilometres for a couple of metres, you've got to be kind of crazy to want to do that. “We are all born mad. Some remain so.”* Thank goodness!
*Quote: Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot, 1953