You’ve heard of skiers hiring helicopters to drop them atop forbidding peaks. But you’ve probably never heard of any rock climbers chartering sailboats across iceberg-ridden oceans to reach some of the most remote and inaccessible big-wall climbing objectives on earth.
Yet this was precisely the mad mission for an international team of four climbers and one old sea captain, Reverend Bob Shepton, all aboard a 33-foot sloop dubbed the Dodo’s Delight. The climbers included two Belgian brothers, Olivier and Nicolas Favresse; American Ben Ditto, and an Irish-Belgian, Sean Villanueva O’Driscoll. Each is considered a world-class free climber. Shepton, now in his 80s, is a renowned Arctic explorer, with two traverses of the treacherous Northwest Passage in his small, 36-year-old boat.
Ditto has heard his adventures with the Belgians described as “fringe, which I really like,” he says. “It made me think that there are ‘normal adventures’ for fancy guys with big budgets. And then there are ‘fringe adventures’ for total madmen.”
In 2014, the team set sail from Aasiaat, on the west coast of Greenland, ultimately steering toward Baffin Island, 400 miles across Baffin Bay. Over the course of the next three months, the climbers would establish 10 major new rock climbs along the coasts of both Greenland and Baffin Island. The routes were typically between 500 to 1,100 meters in height, and usually around 5.11+ in difficulty.
Those basic numbers, however, belie the richness of the experience, which is captured in the raucous and musical short film “Dodo’s Delight,” appearing in this season’s REEL ROCK film tour. The climbers and their intrepid captain relish their time together on the boat, spent singing and drinking and playing music, as much if not more than their feats up on the rock. The story of their film is a reminder that, even in the grips of danger and discomfort, sometimes it’s best to not take life too seriously.
National Geographic Adventure caught up with Ditto, who works as an itinerant professional photographer, to relive the epic fringe adventure.
Before this trip, you had actually been on a similar adventure with this exact team. Tell us about that first trip, and how it differed from the latest one.
In 2010, we explored and climbed with Bob Shepton aboard the Dodo’s Delight along the west coast of Greenland from as far north as the town of Upernavik (at the 72nd parallel) to the better-known southern cliffs around Nanortalik. Over a period of around two-and-a-half months, our team established nine new routes. It was also the first time any of the formations had been climbed, though Bob, who has worked and explored in the area for years, had been trying to find climbers for the cliffs previously. After all the climbing we sailed back to Bob’s home of Scotland.
In 2014 we started in Greenland. Our idea was to get to Baffin ASAP, but the pack ice along Baffin’s east side was too thick, which we deduced from the study of meteorological models for nautical travel. So while waited for the main event we climbed some more new routes at a new zone in Greenland before heading over to Baffin to climb in Sam Ford Fjord, Walker Inlet, and Gibbs Fjord.
I have a great time with the Belgians and Bob, and I love a good adventure, especially one with no fixed objective and the time to actually wait out storms to get some climbing done.
What were the most significant ascents?
All of the formations and routes are badass, but the most significant lines in my mind are the Drunken Pillar, the Imaginary Line, the Plank Wall, and the east face of the Turret. They are on impressive features, and are the kinds of routes that might become classics if they were in areas that people actually climb.
In the REEL ROCK film, there is a lot of singing and jamming. Over the course of three months, did that ever get old?
Doesn’t anything get old? But in the end, you have to roll along and enjoy those things because you realize you don’t have any control over it. It’s a mix of enjoying the journey, and if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.
I’m not naturally much of a musician, but I’ve had a lot of fun learning how to play the spoons (percussion) and the harmonica on our trips together.
Any good stories that happened that didn't make it into the film cut?
Right at the end of the trip, Nico and Sean were out climbing the Plank Wall, but Olivier and I went for a hike and to eat wild blueberries instead.
We could see the wall where Nico and Sean were climbing. It looked cold and sketchy as hell, and we patted ourselves on the back for making a good decision to not climb. About a minute later, I looked up in time to see a polar bear not very far away. We had no means of protection, having grown weary of carrying around Bob’s rifle. The bear stood, sniffed, and began to come back our direction at a deliberate pace. We felt certain the bear had followed our scent on the hike that day and come to see what was for dinner.
We quickly pondered our next move—perhaps down-climbing 3,000 feet to the fjord? And then what?
In the end the bear cruised off. Back at the ship, Bob was beside himself that Olivier and I weren’t out climbing—basically he thought we were wimps. But it was still a polar-bear encounter at point-blank range. I’ll take it.