It’s not often I hear news that encapsulates everything about serious alpine climbing including winter conditions, an epic month of climbing, and grades of A4, VII and M7+. Indeed there just aren’t many places where you can endure such a feat of superhuman effort but in April, Polish suffer-heroes Marek “Regan” Raganowicz and Marcin “Yeti” Tomaszewski headed out to Baffin Island, Canada to climb a new route on the Polar Sun Spire. Completed in 24 days in temperatures down to -21˚C it pretty much entails everything I loathe about winter climbing; I guess they’re just born harder in Poland.
The Polar Sun Spire is one of the world’s baddest and steepest headwalls coming in at around 1300m in height (the exact height is not known). First climbed in 1996 by Mark Synnott Jeff Chapman and Warren Hollinger over a 39-day epic it has only seen one other route on it from a Norwegian team in 2000. Regan and Yeti had spied what they thought was the most logical line up the face between the two existing ones and headed into the range early April. One of the reasons why climbing in this area is so inhospitable is because you have to head out in the late winter months and be off the mountain before the ice in the fjords and inlets breaks up. Otherwise getting back to civilization is a whole other story.
Arriving on skidoos they quickly got to work ferrying their kit and stores to the base and up the first section of the wall to their first camp. From their first camp they encountered the first of the hard climbing. With a mix of free and aid they inched their way up the face covering numerous pitches of M6/M7 interspersed with some warm up A2/A3 aiding.
Camp II was established below the start of the serious aid difficulties, which the team christened The Boomerang. A rightwards trending crack with a dizzying void and rotten rock that was thankfully held together by the -20˚C temperatures.
“The worst part of The Boomerang was jugging with gear. Every morning we had to jug up loads to the top of the fixed lines and then start to climb. To be honest, it was the worst part of the day. Rapping wasn’t too bad, but day by day we had more knots on the ropes because of cuts by falling rocks, passing knots whilst free hanging is not so nice.”
Fully established into the climb by now, the pair headed on into the next section that they named The Fridge.
“We were truly shocked. When we stepped over the edge of The Boomerang there was some kind of depression leading to The Ridge. The place was so cold because of some strange air circulation. When snow started to fall, the world turned into frozen hell. It was the worst place on the Polar Sun Spire and we had to endure that cold every day passing The Fridge.”
Arriving at their next camp site they spent a mammoth 21 hours hauling all their kit from Camp II to the new Camp III.
“We shared the work: Yeti was hauling and I was working to free the bags when they got jammed. We had to haul in a 3:1 system using two pulleys because of the very heavy loads, but on the second haul Yeti dropped a pulley. He ended up using a carabiner instead but the haul cord wore out on every pitch because of the rubbing on the carabiner so he had to replace it every time. He was so strong I was tempted to sit on the bags to check his abilities!”
After finally ending their marathon moving day at 2:00am they took one of only two days off on the entire climb and rested for the upper headwall.
Above them rose the final bastion of rock to the summit wall. A perfect granite tower with thin vertical cracks that reminded them of The Shield on El Cap – except the team was a lot colder and way more tired by this point. The first pitch from their camp took them up precarious and thin aid climbing on hooks, heads and beaks – not for the faint-hearted.
Progress was slow up the last headwall. The weather would add to the exhaustion and strain but they resolved to climb on no matter what the weather. The constantly freezing temperatures would sap their strength as well – never being in a warm environment and having to endure frozen sleeping bags for nearly the entire duration of their climb would prove quite the physical and mental strain.
20 days in and they established their final camp beneath the last headwall, which they dubbed The Arena. Here they battled some true Arctic weather patterns and found the crux and most memorable pitch of the climb. A heart in mouth exposure on some of the steepest aid they had climbed.
“When we saw The Arena we were ecstatic: it was a beautifully clean, untouched corner. I remember Yeti saying, ‘You know, most guys after so many days of such hard climbing, wouldn’t be happy seeing another challenge. But because we both enjoy the view and challenge, it is clear that after PSS we had other ideas.”
Finally on the 7th May the team summited after spending 24 days on the face.
“We had some problems finding the right way to the summit but after a never-ending wait on belay I finally heard Yeti shout: ‘Regan, I’m on the top!!’ I’ll never forget that moment.”
The new route, Superbalance, represents an incredible effort especially from such a small team. Leaving only a total of 30 hand-drilled bolts on belays and 15 rivets behind them they are now back at work dreaming of their next project.