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Postcards from Valhalla

Postcards from Valhalla

photography
Alastair Lee
October 2017 | Read
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Jöttnar photo blog

- Mount Asgard, Baffin Island - 


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In August 2009, an expedition led by British climber Leo Houlding set off to make the first free ascent of the North Face of Mount Asgard on Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic. Arriving late in the season, the expedition encountered a series of major setbacks after Houlding and his team-mate Sean Leary arrived at base camp by skydiving over Mount Asgard. The team eventually reached the summit of Asgard, enduring a major storm high on the wall. The expedition was later documented in a film, The Asgard Project, produced and directed by award-winning adventure filmmaker Alastair Lee. To make the movie, Lee accompanied the climbers on their ascent of Asgard. His stunning images from the climb reveal the challenges of big wall climbing in an Arctic environment, and the otherworldly quality of Baffin Island.

In Norse cosmic mythology, Asgard was one of the Nine Realms and the location of Valhalla, the Hall of the Slain: a legendary spirit world to which warriors who had died in combat would be led by the Valkyries.

 

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The distinctive twin towers of Mt Asgard as seen from a glacier tarn behind basecamp



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After 10 days with no sunlight, the expedition was treated to some golden rays at around 6am on the day of the summit push: a much needed moral boost before the bid for the top.



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Leo Houlding, the expedition leader and visionary-in-chief behind the project, seen here en route to the Turner Glacier at the base of Mt Asgard, having jumped out the DC3 that air-dropped the expedition's supplies



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The twin towers of Mt Asgard seen from the DC3 used for the airdrop of kit and the skydive in to basecamp. The left hand north face was the location of the eventual route climbed by the 2009 expedition: steep and cold.



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Nearing the top of the approach to the wall in the early hours of the morning, filmmaker Alastair Lee recalls: "I was feeling pretty unwell at this stage, suffering from sleep deprivation, lack of food, water and generally being over it. Despite how tough the trip was at no point did I not want to be there: I was on a journey like nothing I'd experienced before. Whether I'd ever go on another one like it is a different question."



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The temperature and weather on the sunless north face of Mount Asgard were at the very limit of the conditions in which free climbing is possible. Resting on gear was often required to attempt to warm numb hands and toes.



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Alastair Lee returns to the wall camp after a gripping evening's filming of one of the hardest pitches to go free.


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"Despite how tough the trip was at no point did I not want to be there: I was on a journey like nothing I'd experienced. Whether I'd ever go on another one like it is a different question"

- Alastair Lee


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The late, great American climber Sean Leary aiding a steep pitch high on Asgard's north face in utterly desperate conditions. High winds sent temperatures well below zero, but just a few weeks earlier a Belgium team had free climbed the expedition's original objective on the south west face climbing with their T-shirts off in the sunshine.


 

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Visions of Valhalla: after 10 days on the wall, the night skies cleared and the expedition was treated to an amazing display of the northern lights which ground cameraman Ian Burton captured in an incredible timelapse.

 

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Leaving the wall camp onto the fixed ropes to reach the current high point became known as the 'daily commute'. It was a hair-raising start to the day, as the line was 10 metres or so to the right of the camp over some very exposed terrain. This image shows commuter Jason Pickles getting in his stride.



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Superb scenes high on the wall in the Arctic sunlight after 10 days of poor conditions. As Lee recalls, "it was the perfect moral booster and much needed after the terrible weather we'd experienced."



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The approach and descent to Mount Asgard leads along the Weasel Valley to the head of the Turner Glacier and is one of the most spectacular hikes in the world. Here, photographer Alastair Lee strips down to his undies on the mud flats by the lower section of summit lake. 



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The endless walls of Baffin Island rise up above the Weasel Valley, looking towards Mt Thor, where the glacial retreat across the landscape couldn't be more apparent.



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Emergency huts are positioned along the approach and descent along the Weasel Valley. The occasional polar bear can be spotted and these huts could be your only sanctuary as guns are not allowed in the National Park. Here, the ground crew enjoy a brew and a break from their heavy loads.



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 Mount Asgard in early morning Arctic light at 3 a.m.

Of this image, Alastair Lee recalls that "Several weeks went by at base camp as we waited for a weather window. I enjoyed many an early morning stroll down the glacier with my large format camera looking for interesting conditions or any chinks of light. This shot was taken around 3am whilst the rest of the crew got some rest. For me, these moments I experience alone in the mountains are some of my favourite times of an expedition: lack of sleep, the strange light, the vast landscape, and the sound of cracking ice in the glacier below are wonderfully surreal."


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- The second part of this photo blog will be published on LEGEND next week -

 

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Alastair's Lee film The Asgard Project can be downloaded or bought on DVD from the Posing Productions website


Alastair Lee's stunning photographic book Baffin Island can be bought directly from his photography website

 

 

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Written By
Alastair Lee

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