Fifteen hundred feet below the points of my crampons, windswept fjord ice bunches against the dark, 4,000-foot stone walls of Nachvak Fjord. The ice appears almost liquid, its brilliant emerald color – caused by flash-freezing – nearly glowing in contrast to the desaturated tones of the subarctic North. White snow. Black rock. Ashen sky.
I’m halfway up a nameless couloir in Labrador’s Torngat Mountains – or to the Inuit, Torngait, which means “place where spirits dwell.” Here, on the northeastern edge of North America, it’s easy to feel alone – as if this land is empty and far from human reach. My ski partner and I are 125 miles from a village, 200 miles from a hospital or airstrip and 300 miles from a paved road. But the Torngait is far from unexplored.
For 7,000 years, tribes of the North have survived here, living off the land – the caribou, seals and arctic char. Only the polar bears have been here longer. Our base camp is an abandoned Moravian mission built in 1830 and called Hebron, or “place of refuge.” There, we are camped with a group of Inuit hunters, elders and youth who have come back to their ancestral lands – now Torngat Mountains National Park – to harvest caribou and share stories of the way it used to be, not so long ago.
Elder Willie Etok began his life here, in Nachvak Fjord, 74 years ago. He lived in a sealskin tent in the summer and a sod hut in the winter. His mother made windows by sewing strips of dried sealskin into semi-opaque panes. He knows the shaded inlets and precipices by their Inuit names, translated literally to things like “good place for hunting seals,” or “where char try to swim upstream.” Each place holds memories, good and bad.
Another elder, Lutie, is old enough to remember the Spanish flu epidemic that killed most of his family. He remembers watching friends and family starve during lean winters. He remembers learning of WWII when a U.S. bomber crashed into the ice. Elders like Lutie and Willie remember clearly another epoch of northern life – life before prefab homes, snowmobiles and microwaves. Before expedition skiing.
My calves scream for relief from the strain of frontpointing for 2,000 feet. This small voluntary suffering, however, seems laughable compared to the realities of daily life in these fjords. It is the simple difference between sport and survival. But our hosts do not mock or resent our recreational presence, as I thought they might. They are interested in our objectives, and intensely proud that we came all the way to the Torngats to climb and ski. They are pleased to show their homeland to people who can appreciate its beauty, power and significance.
At the top of the couloir, I step into my skis at last. Three thousand feet below, the fjord gleams under clearing skies, and I see the cliff-shadowed cove where Willie once lived. His journey is astonishing – from sealskin tent to satellite TV – but his love for these mountains is unwavering in a way I could never understand.
A cold wind rushes inland, pushing ahead of it a skiff of fine snow, and as we slide gently into the 40-degree curve of the couloir, pride wells in my chest. I’m proud to know these mountains; to meet Willie, Lutie and the others who have chosen to preserve and share this place with the world; to hear their stories and feel the bond between land and culture. These mountains are alive, and here, where cliffs erupt from Arctic seas and polar bears stalk the ice like ghosts, the Torngait spirits will surely dwell forever.