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That Time Inuit Hunters Rescued Starving Climbers

Over 20 years ago, Paul Gagner and Rick Lovelace made the first ascent of Superunknown on Baffin Island in northern Canada before nearly dying from starvation.

Superknown is an unrepeated grade-VII big wall climb that took 23 days to establish. It climbs above the Sam Ford Fjord on the Walker Citadel.

They graded the massive 1,200-metre route 5.10+ A3 and climbed it in 26 pitches through storms and bad weather.

They had to make a circuitous traversing descent to find dry ground because the sea ice they’d used to approach the wall melted out.

They then realized the that open water cut off their intended walking route to Clyde River.

Low on food and lacking a radio, they made a short-lived attempt to walk a different route 260 kilometres back.

Walker Citadel on Baffin Island

When they realized their intended route back would leave them astray, they returned to the shoreline near their new route and waited.

Two weeks later, a they were rescued by a group of hunters that happened upon them, saving them from imminent starvation.

Back in the early 1990s, Lovelace held speed records up the North American Wall and Zenyatta Mondatta on El Capitan. Watch his speed solo speed climb up Zodiac below.

The following are quotes from Gagner’s 1996 story in the American Alpine Journal that you can read here.

“After numerous bad weather days, the sun pokes out and we start up the wall. Incredible granite yields beautiful free climbing with good flakes for cams and Stoppers, and after two days of fixing we arrive at a huge gravel- covered ledge 800 feet up, which we name Mastodon Terrace. It is to become our home for the next week as we wait out storms, melt snow for water on the wall above, and move all of our gear up.”

“Brutal wind and rain storms lash us as we hole up in our shelter. Whenever we can, we climb, fixing our ropes higher off the ledge. Several pitches above the ledge, a beautiful fist-to-off-width free pitch leads to an improbable face traverse with sketchy pro, then a small ledge where we can stretch three ropes back to Mastodon.”

“Days pass. Our food supply dwindles. Soon we are down to two bags of ramen and a can of tuna per day between us. We speculate endlessly, wondering why we haven’t been picked up. Another week passes, this time without food. It is an effort to walk 20 feet from the tent to pee. I headrush every time I move; my mind seems detached from my body. We have read all of our books. The Game Boy and DiscMan are salty from their tumble into the ocean. I have read the National Enquirer 50 times. Without any food to cook there is nothing to do but sit and sleep… and speculate.”

“I begin to wonder how people die from starvation. I am skinnier than Rick; it worries me that I will probably be the first to go. Then, after several days of hard rain and huge mudslides, we decide our camp is no longer safe from the hanging mudslopes above us. In our weakened state we stumble through the talus, dragging our tent and gear to a safer spot. The river behind our camp makes a constant drone that sounds like a boat engine. It drives us crazy as we keep looking out the tent door only to see our placid, empty bay.”

“On our 14th day back at camp I wake at 4:30 in the morning. A tone change sharpens my senses, but I ignore it as just another hallucination. Then, at the same time, Rick and I bolt upright and unzip the tent door. We are not hallucinating. A hundred yards from shore a small boat laden with three caribou and three Inuit hunters from Clyde River is slowly approaching. A wave of relief flows over us. All of a sudden everything seems worthwhile: the climb, the lack of food, the stress. Today we will return to civilization and eat. Now there is only the fear of gorging ourselves sick after our extended forced fast.”

Gagner continues to climb big walls and you can follow him on Instagram below.

Gripped magazine turns 20 this year and in celebration, we’re looking back through the years.

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