Doug Scott: The Baffin Island Expedition
- Thursday 15 October 2015
Doug Scott is one of Britain's best mountaineers. He has made forty-five expeditions to the high mountains of Asia and reached the summit of forty peaks, including the first-ascent of Everest by its South West Face. In this extract from Doug's eagerly awaited autobiography, Up and About: the hard road to Everest, he sets out for Baffin Island to discover remote communities and unclimbed peaks.
Home from Spain, I discovered my application for leave of absence to go to Baffin for two months had been rejected. The director of education sent me an amicable letter suggesting that perhaps it was time for me to decide whether I should leave teaching and climb full time. I resigned with some reluctance. I knew the satisfaction I got from teaching was proportional to the time and effort I put into it, but now more than ever I spent more time pondering visits to the mountains and not so much the children in a classroom.
It was, to a certain extent, a step into the unknown. How would I now support my family? Jan had begun teaching and said she would help; she also knew that I’d be able to generate enough income. I overheard some friends in the pub talking about an exorbitant estimate for some straightforward building work. I said I’d do the job for half the estimate. So it was my younger brother Garry and I became S & S Builders. Garry was now at Nottingham University studying civil engineering so between us we had some idea of what construction work involved. We did the job in two days, carting away all the rubble to a nearby dump in the back of my minivan and I ended up with the equivalent of a month’s teaching wage for just two days’ work. Before leaving for Baffin I had jobs lined up for when I returned.
We flew over the vast tundra of northern Quebec, over the ice floes of Ungava Bay, and swapped the jet for a Twin Otter at Frobisher. Within a few hours of leaving Montreal we were on the last lap of our journey to Pangnirtung Fjord into the mountains of Baffin Island. Cloud lay loosely over the range but the pilot was able to point out Summit Lake Pass for he had often flown above it on his way to Broughton Island. We badgered him for his impressions of the mountains and he came up with answers we wanted to hear: ‘Big flattopped mountains, like sawn-off chimney stacks,’ he yelled over the roar of the engine. That, we thought, would be Mount Asgard. Now we could see individual peaks, rising up from sea level to six or seven thousand feet, Alpine in proportion and Alpine in character. We circled and then descended into Pangnirtung. After the dust settled over the dirt strip, we clambered out into the sun to find a semi-circle of young Eskimos1 standing around in striped, flared trousers and shoulder-length hair. We erected our tents near the runway and set off to explore the town.
Pangnirtung began as a trading post for the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1921, but grew significantly only in the early 1960s when an outbreak of distemper killed most of the sled dogs around Cumberland Sound. The Canadian government was also taking a closer interest in Arctic affairs as the region’s strategic importance grew during the Cold War. Pangnirtung offered modern amenities, particularly healthcare, which reduced high infant mortality rates, but also prefabricated, centrally heated houses, a well-stocked and expanding Hudson’s Bay store and a modern school, staffed by Welshmen. Pangnirtung grew from a settlement of a few families grouped around the original Hudson’s Bay post and an old whale-processing plant to a thriving community of more than 800 souls.
We arrived with romantic ideas of meeting sturdy Eskimos striding across the tundra, clothed in seal-skins, paddling kayaks or else surrounded by yelping husky dogs. The Eskimos we met over the next seven weeks were in all outward appearances entirely westernised, wearing fashionable winter clothes you’d see in any Alpine resort. They had long ago preferred motorised canoes and skidoos to kayaks and dog sleds. The only kayak we saw was hanging up in the local museum. There seemed little remarkable about the Eskimos we met, but as we spent more time with them we realised their outward appearances were deceiving. They would make a lasting impression on all of us.
Ray and I had travelled together among the Tibbu of Chad and Afghan tribesmen in the Hindu Kush. They lived simple lives in harsh environments yet they received us in a spirit of true hospitality. We admired them for their natural good humour in the face of adversity. Their uncomplicated lives and obvious contentment caused us to question our own. It happened again as we became more familiar with the Eskimo. They too had a cathartic effect on us; for a time we purged ourselves psychologically of our frenetic, materialistic, cluttered lifestyles.
Up and About is due to be published on 16 November 2016. Click HERE to pre-order a copy for £24. Cloth-bound limited editions, featuring a bound-in numbered and signed page, are available while stocks last.
The team at Summit Lake, Baffin Island, in 1971. L–R: Steve Smith, Ray Gillies, Dennis Hennek, Guy Lee, Phil Koch, Doug Scott and Rob Wood. © Doug Scott/Vertebrate Publishing
A boy eating raw seal steaks in Pangnirtung. © Doug Scott/Vertebrate Publishing
Mount Asgard from the air. © Doug Scott/Vertebrate Publishing
Dennis Hennek leading on the East Pillar of Mount Asgard. © Doug Scott/Vertebrate Publishing
Dennis Hennek rowing one of our canoes up Pangnirtung Fjord to Base Camp, with the magnificent Freya Peak directly ahead. © Doug Scott/Vertebrate Publishing
Local children in Pangnirtung. © Doug Scott/Vertebrate Publishing
To find out more about Doug's autumn 2015 lecture tour, click HERE.