Seeking Adventure in Newfoundland

Reinhold Messner talks about 'white wilderness,' referring to land that is set aside for adventure. The map is blank and the guidebooks and blogs lack descriptions. White wilderness is space where a person goes to make discoveries.  It is where one journeys to explore, to engage with the unknown, and to have adventures.

Armed with a keen sense for adventure and rumors of deep fjords and towering frozen waterfalls, Tom and I were on our way to the town of Rocky Harbor on the Island of Newfoundland. We had driven for twenty hours from New Hampshire to North Sydney Harbor on the tip of Nova Scotia, embarked on a twelve hour ferry ride across the Cabot Strait, and were now driving up the west side of the island.  To our east a storm obscured snow covered  hillsides.  To the west the Strait of St Laurence raged with blinding white and biting cold.  Ahead lay the icy road to the town of Rocky Harbor and our contact, Walt.

For the past twenty five years a crew of dedicated climbers has been combing over the island of Newfoundland seeking it’s hidden treasures. Their bounty has been immense. They have scaled hundreds of vertical ice routes and granite big walls, and in a fashion oftentimes unfamiliar in today’s climbing scene, they have left  much of this unreported and undocumented.  In this way they have preserved the white wilderness for others willing to make the journey.

Walt, it turned out, was the owner of a local restaurant, and when we tracked him down a few hours after our arrival he sat us down with cups of coffee to spin us yarns about the island. He had lived in Rocky Harbor all his life and the wild crash of sea and rock were familiar to his senses. We asked him if he was able to take us to the fjords with their mysterious ice routes.  He nodded, more than happy to give us a lift.

At 6:55 AM the next morning Tom and I were sitting in our truck at the appointed location, a blizzard howling around us, wondering if Walt would appear.  At seven sharp he pulled up, right on time.

“Are you sure you want to head out there today? Looks a little stormy…” he yelled over the din of the storm in his deep Newfie accent.

"The forecasting model showed it clearing in an hour,” I yelled back. “if you are game , we’d love to venture forth.”

With a shrug and a knowing grin, he ushered us to a sled he had hitched to his snowmobile.

‘Exploration is in our nature. We began as wanderers, and we are wanderers still.’

-Carl Sagan

The hypothesis laid forth by Sagan is used as an argument for the importance of space travel and the exploration of the universe, but I think he would have agreed that his words also apply to exploration down here on our dear planet Earth. While there are certainly still unexplored, unknown and undocumented corners of our world, they are fewer than they once were. But, what is ‘unknown’ other than simply the undescribed and unshared? On the island of Newfoundland, adventure and exploration are alive and well, perpetuated by a lack of sharing by those who have experienced her white wilderness.

We drove fast through the tight forest of trees. As the timber began to thin we could sense the shade of walls around us through white of the storm. Eventually, Walt  gunned onto the frozen fjord and our world turned to a vast enclosure with imperceptible white walls. We squinted into the whiteout, knowing that the steep edges of the waterway were not far off.

After twenty minutes, Walt slowed the snowmobile and we slid to a stop. Looking around at the white and frozen landscape, he informed us that we were at our destination. The storm had not eased and we could see nothing through the blizzard. Walt asked if we were certain  we wanted to stay in this inhospitable terrain. Undaunted, we assured Walt and he left us with plans to return later that evening.

As he drove away, the drone of his snowmobile quickly faded into the wind. Tom and I stood on the horizontal frozen ice and waited.

Eventually the maelstrom began to subside, and through the snow a rim became perceptible and walls began to loom. Tom and I stared in awe as 1,200’ frozen waterfalls, cascading over vertical to overhanging cliffs, materialized around us.

So often information is shared with a sense of glory. Having completed something that no one has ever accomplished, we are keen to share, and people are keen to listen. Photos and articles might appear, boosting an ego and igniting a craving for more. Glory and passion mingle until we forget, for just a moment, that it is the adventure, the love of climbing, and our own exploration of our personal white wilderness that is the true glory.

For some it might be, at times, difficult to determine whether the motivation is the glory of first ascending or an actual love the of climbing involved and the adventure of the unknown. 

In Newfoundland Tom and I were treated to a litmus test. There would be no documentation. There would be no glory of our names listed alongside technical grades. There was simply the unknown terrain and our sense of adventure. Would that be enough?


Five hours later we were standing atop the edge of the fjord with  more than a thousand feet of gorgeous steep ice below us. We sat in frozen grass, laughing at our luck. We’d come to Newfoundland seeking big terrain and white wilderness. Our travel had already paid off and we had two weeks of adventure ahead of us. Tom and I high-fived and started rappelling, ecstatic for our find, our sense of adventure, and our love of climbing.

In Newfoundland the white wilderness is preserved by a lack of sharing and documentation. A sense of adventure for the new and unexplored can be experienced independent of where you are and the number of explorers who have preceded you.

Ignore the guidebooks and the blogs and simply engage the terrain. Imagine, entering the North Cascades, with no information on what routes have been completed. Walk to the base of a peak and choose the line that makes you high-five and feel giddy with excitement.

Messner’s “White Wilderness” and Sagan’s “Exploration” are available to all of us.

Safe Travels.

 --Graham Zimmerman is an Exped emissary to the world of adventure. His essays on the game of alpinism will appear regularly on the Exped blog