Team: Mark Synnott, Jim Surette, Ken Sauls, Simon Ahlgren
When: April 2004
Where: Weasel Valeey, Auyuittuq National Park, Baffin Island
From our perch atop a snowy col on the side of Mt. Odin, Ken and I stare into a pristine glacial cirque ringed with mysterious, snow clad peaks. These mountains don’t have names on the map, and I’ll bet that most of them are unclimbed. A glacier runs out of the cirque to the west, connecting into a field of ice that stretches as far as we can see — the Penny Ice Cap, a 6000 square kilometer ice sheet that is said to be a remnant of the last ice age. We’re only 5400 feet above sea level, but it sure feels a lot higher than that. Maybe because we’re on Baffin Island at nearly 67 degrees latitude, north of the arctic circle. And its April, a time of year when sixty mile an hour winds and sub zero temperatures are the norm. Which is nothing actually, compared to what it’s like up here in the dead of winter. After all, we’re closer to the North Pole than we are to a major city.
Ken and I plop down on our packs to rest. We chow some candy bars and jerky, then wash it down with luke warm tea from our thermoses. The temp is easily pushing -10, even colder when the wind picks up. My Gore-tex suit, soaked with sweat from the long climb, is freezing into the consistency of card board. My fingers and toes are numb. “We better get a move on,” says Ken, looking a bit stiff and blue in the lips himself. The summit still lies about 1500 feet above us. We’d both love to top out because Odin (chief god in Norse mythology) is the tallest peak on Baffin Island. But the only possible route to the top is a knife-edge ridge. It would certainly require technical, roped climbing, and since our goal on this trip is to ski everything we climb, the col will have to be our high point.
After carefully clicking into my bindings, I tentatively side slip over the lip. With my edges digging into the 35 degree, hard packed snow, I lean forward, plant my downhill pole, and then throw both skis into air. I land facing the other way, my heart pounding, as Ken yells: “Rip it Mark.” This run would easily be a double black diamond at any ski area – the difference being that up here there’s no lift, and no ski patrol to rescue us if something goes wrong. Ken jumps in behind me. With each turn, he cuts loose a stream of ice crystals that tinkle down the gully, transforming it into a glittering cascade. Colossal granite walls tower thousands of feet above us on either side, making me feel tiny and incredibly vulnerable.
With our heavy packs, the skiing is strenuous, so every few hundred yards Ken and I stop to rest our flaming thighs. We can only marvel at how quickly we’re dropping elevation, after the gut busting effort it took to gain it. Only thirty minutes after dropping in, we shoot out of the bottom of the gully back onto the valley floor. Suddenly in the open, we’re blasted with katabatic winds blowing down valley towards the coast. Before turning back to the hut, Ken points his pole back up at Odin and says. “That was one of the best ski runs ever.”
It was only about 200 years ago that the entire arctic was literally a blank on the map. In the 19th and early 20th century, countless expeditions set off into this unknown territory on a quest to find the fabled northwest passage and the north pole. Their stories are legendary and have inspired many a would be arctic adventurer like myself. I’ve read enough about the arctic to realize, though, that the crown jewel of these lands is not the North Pole — an imaginary point on a floating sheet of ice — or the Northwest Passage — a hoped for shipping route that proved impractical. The most beautiful and dramatic place in the arctic is undoubtedly Baffin Island. Check any map of North America and you’ll see it up there in northern Canada, above Hudson Bay and west of Greenland. Baffin is the world’s fifth largest island, and it’s covered with glaciers, fjords, peninsulas, lakes, tundra, snow capped peaks, and some of the largest rock faces on the planet. It’s also home to about 20,000 Inuit who have lived in this harshly beautiful, unforgiving landscape for more than 4000 years. For me, the chance to interact with these hearty souls is one of the best parts about a visit to this region.
These days, Baffin is becoming increasingly popular as a unique destination for hiking, skiing, mountain climbing and just plain adventure. Auyuittug National Park, (in Inuktikut Auyuittuq means the land that never melts) in Canada’s Nunavut territory, was established in 1972 to protect 19,500 square kilometers of Baffin’s Cumberland Peninsula. Each year, the park attracts about tk visiors, most of whom will visit during the height of the summer. During the winter, the park is all but deserted, save for the occassional Inuit who pass through Akshayuk pass en route from Pangnirtung to Qiktajuaq, or vice versa. Akshayuk Pass, a deep glacial valley lined with shimmering glaciers and monolithic cliffs, is the park’s centerpeice. At the head of the pass lies Mt Asgard, a stunning, twin summitted rock tower that has inspired climbers from around the world for decades. In Norse mythology, Asgard is the celestial dwelling place of the gods. Most of the famous peaks in the park have names taken from Norse mythology – a tribute to the fact that Leif Erickson (son of Eric the Red) probably visited Baffin back around 1000 AD.
[tk –who named, when and why the Norse theme? Dave, I’m still trying to track down this info]
On a sunny day in mid April, the twin prop touches down on the dirt runway in the Inuit village of Pangnirtung (pop. 1300). As we step off the plane, the first thing I notice is that it’s about fifty degrees colder than it was in Montreal. Standing next to me is my pal Simon Ahlgren, 32, looking every bit the arctic adventurer with his Nordic features, glacier glasses and puffy down jacket. Simon is half Norwegian. He grew up in the Boston area, climbing, skiing and hiking with his dad Hans. He’s been dreaming about a trip to Baffin for at least ten years. Together, we gaze across the runway at the bleak, alien landscape that surrounds us. Weathered, pre-fab houses, with plumes of smoke coming out of their chimneys, line the frozen coastline. Boats and pickup trucks lie here and there, and the air is filled with the hum of snow machines criss-crossing the frozen streets of the village. Rolling, treeless, snowy hills stretch off to the west, and to the north we can see Pangnirtung Fjord running for another twenty miles up to the park boundary. If all goes according to plan, we’ll be heading up that way tomorrow. After the Inuit drop us off, we’ll drag sleds with ten days of provisions 20 miles up the Weasel Valley to the base of Mt. Asgard. Our goal, and it’s an ambitious one, is to climb and then ski down as many peaks as we can. Hopefully we’ll get at least one first descent.
The guy over by the terminal unloading bags from a pickup truck is Ken Sauls, 39, an independent film maker from the tiny mining town of Silverton, Colorado. Ken is just about the only person I know who might be less assuming than Simon. Though he’d never volunteer the info, Ken has climbed mountains all over the world, including several expeditions to big gnarly peaks in the Himalayas. Last year, he climbed Everest, lugging up a motion picture camera for a television series called Global Extremes. Simply put, Ken is a stud. Having him along makes it far more likely that Simon and I will make it back alive.
In the one room terminal everyone is speaking Inuktikut. It’s unlike any other language I’ve ever heard, almost song-like, with strange clucking sounds that come from deep in the throat. We’re soon shaking hands with Joavee Alivaktuk, owner and operator of Alivaktuk Outfitting. “Welcome to Baffin Island,” he says, in perfect English. “How was your trip?” Joavee, mid 40s, has lived in Pangnirtung for his entire life. He’s wearing a snow mobile suit, and stands about 5’ 8” with dark skin, and a round jolly face punctuated by a scrappy little goatee. Many of the older Inuit don’t speak English, because when they were kids the villages didn’t even exist — and so neither did schools. Joavee picked it up on his own, and he now runs one of the more successful businesses in town.
Joavee drops us off for a homestay outside a small house in the middle of town. “Just go on in,” he says. “Moe is expecting you.” Inside, Moe, the town mechanic, sits glued to the TV watching the NHL playoffs. “Who’s your team?” asks Simon. Moe looks up and sweeps his arm around the room. That’s when we notice that every inch of the place is covered in Toronto Maple Leafs memorabilia. “I looooove the Maple Leafs,” he says with a grin that reveals some fairly rad dental gaps. Moe’s kids have gone to stay with friends to open up the bed space for us. Simon ends up with the daughter’s room. It’s nice, but Simon is somewhat uncomfortable with life-size poster over the bed of a young hunk wearing nothing but a pair tightey-whiteys. “Sweet dreams Simon,” I chuckle, heading down the hall to my room.
In the morning two of Joavee’s nephews, Tim and James, show up with snow mobiles towing huge wooden sleds called komatiks. The sleds are about ten feet long, with a plywood box in the middle. The Inuit have been using komatiks to move around these arctic lands for thousands of years (of course in the old days this was always done with dog teams, not snowmobiles). All of our gear — about 250 pounds worth — gets lashed onto the komatiks, then Simon, Ken and I climb on top.
To get onto the frozen Pangnirtung Fjord, we first have to weave our way through a section of pressure ridges where the ice has buckled into a jumbled, chaotic maze. Despite the temperature — which is below zero — there are pools where sea water has gurgled up through the cracks. Out on the smooth ice in the middle of the fjord, the boys open up the throttle. Suddenly, it feels like icy teeth are ripping into the exposed flesh on my face. By the time we pull up for our first rest break an hour after leaving Pang, my body is chilled to the core. Simon and I jump out of the sled and immediately start doing jumping jacks. Tim and James watch us, looking amused. “Don’t you guys get cold?” asks Simon.
“No, not really,” says Tim, with an interesting accent that is part Inuit, part Canadian. “I guess we’re used to it, eh.” The Inuit, as per their reputation, truly seem to be impervious to the cold. There is something about their metabolism that enables them to spend their lives in arctic cold without suffering from the usual problems such as frost bite and hypothermia. The whole concept of being cold seems foreign and unknown to them.
Where the frozen ocean meets the land we enter a wide gravel plain bisected by the Weasel River. This demarcation is actually the park boundary, marked by an orange sign which we blaze right past without stopping. For hundreds of miles in every direction we are surrounded by a wilderness of glaciers, tundra, frozen rivers and impossibly sheer rocky peaks. My heart quickens when I think that soon the Inuit will be leaving us out here on our own. The ice of the Weasel River is crystal clear and riddled with a mind boggling array fissures and cracks. Peering over the edge of the komatik, I can see pebbles and bits of plant material suspended at various levels in the ice. Ahead, our attention is suddenly drawn to what looks like a person standing on a small rise. Closer inspection reveals it to be an Inukshuk, a traditional Inuit cairn used as the trail marker. This one is certainly unique — there’s a plaque on it that says: Arctic Circle 66 degrees, 33 minutes. There’s no difference from one side of the line to the other, of course, but it’s a cool spot to get a photo. The arctic circle, known by the Inuit as the land of the midnight sun, is the most southerly latitude at which there is 24-hour daylight during the summer solstice. Conversely, it’s also the most southerly latitude that enjoys 24-hour darkness during the winter solstice.
Three hours after leaving the village, we pull up outside a small orange hut. Along Akshayuk pass the park service has constructed nine of these emergency shelters, spaced anywhere from 5.5 to 20 miles apart. As the name implies, you’re only supposed to use them in the event of an “emergency,” such as a violent wind storm, or a polar bear sighting. Normally, you wouldn’t venture into polar bear country without a big gun — after all, they’re one of the only mammals known to routinely attack humans. In this national park, however, it is illegal to carry a firearm (that is, unless you’re an Inuit). “Don’t worry about the bears,” said one of the park wardens during our orientation at the ranger station. “It’s highly unlikely that you’ll run into one. At this time of year they’re all out on the sea ice hunting seal pups.”
After a quick tea break, we shake hands with Tim and James and make sure that they’re going to pick us up at this exact spot in ten days. Five minutes later, as the drone of the snow machines is drowned by a gusty north wind, it sinks in that we’re one of only two groups currently in this park, which covers a territory the size of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined. And that’s just the park itself – this wasteland continues far beyond the arbitrary boundaries of the national park. We’ve got a sat phone and there are radios in the emergency shelters, but the truth is that no one is going to sweep in a helicopter to rescue us if things go wrong. We’re totally on our own, 100% commtted to self reliance. It’s a somewhat scary revelation, but on the other hand, it’s exactly what we came here to experience.
We got pretty banged up on the jouncy ride out here, it’s late and a brutal wind convinces us to spend our first night in the emergency shelter. The inside of the hut is snug, about 8’X8’, with a bench on either side and a table on the far wall across from the door. Two tiny, frost-covered windows, with chicken wire inside the glass, provide a small amount of light. The windows are intentionally made small so that a bear can’t fit through them. The huts are designed as much for shelter from the elements as they are as shelter from the polar bears. The door has heavy duty brackets and cross braces that can be used to keep bears from barging their way in. On the table lies a vhf radio attached to a solar panel on the roof. The rangers in Pang monitor the radio just about 24 hours a day, and they also broadcast a weather forecast each morning.
The next day we surprise ourselves by getting up at 4 am and marching straight up to the chute on Mt. Odin’s south face. Talk about starting out the trip with a bang. The only bummer is that Simon decides to turn back shortly after we start up the gully. “This thing is over my head,” he says. “I need to warm up before I can go for something this big. Plus, I’m worried about the avalanche danger.”
When we show back up at the hut around 8pm after the descent of Mt. Odin, Ken and I are wasted. Simo has two steaming mugs of hot chocolate waiting for us. A tiny hint of regret crosses his face when we tell him about the descent, which was probably the single best ski run of our lives. It’s a huge relief to be back in the safety of the hut. No one has any delusions about how long we’d survive an open bivouac out there. The wind has been increasing steadily over the course of the afternoon and it now sounds like 747s are taking off and landing right over the hut. “This is clearly an emergency,” says Ken, sliding into his sleeping bag.
The wind rages throughout the night, causing the hut to creak like some storm bound ship. Ice crystals work their way in through tiny chinks in the doors and windows. By morning, it hasn’t let up one bit, and everything in the hut is frosted white. The windows are completely fogged, and the walls are coated in ice. Just going outside to take a leak is a full-blown survival mission. It’s the first time I’ve ever had to worry about getting frost bite down there. The pounding continues for the next 48 hours. We pass the time eating sausages, telling stories and reading the log book in the hut. Everyone who passes through leaves some kind of note. The last group to come through was a team of two men and two women from Norway a few days ago – me must have just missed them. Ken tells us about the years he spent as a climbing and ski bum in Telluride, Colorado. “I once went for four years without paying rent,” he says. “I lived in a tree house, a cave, my truck, and I even spent a winter in an abandoned meat locker.” At this revelation, Simon and I bust up laughing. “You must feel right at home in here,” says Simon.
On the morning of our fifth day in the park the wind finally abates…sort of. When we exit the hut at 11am, the wind is only gusting up to 30 miles an hour. Somewhat nervously, we strap into our eighty pound sleds and set off up the wind scoured Weasel River with crampons strapped to our boots. Our goal for the day is to haul our sleds about six miles up valley to the next emergency shelter located below the fabled Mt. Thor. I’m relieved to find that the sled moves almost effortlessly on the smooth, horizontal ice. It doesn’t take long, though, for us to enter an uphill section of frozen rapids. Suddenly, the full weight of the sleds threatens to pull us over backwards. We spend the next hour helping each other man haul the loads up over boulders and vertical ice bulges. The temperature with wind chill must easily be pushing -20, but the conditions, rather than detracting from the experience, somehow seem to add to it. Let’s just say that it’s one thing to read about arctic sledging, quite another to do it. Our respect for the early arctic explorer’s grows with each and every step.
At the top of the Windy Lake rapids we emerge onto a huge gravel plain. Up valley, the view is dominated by a 3500-foot tusk of gray/brown granite that overhangs the east side of the valley. This is the mighty Thor, long considered the tallest rock precipice on earth. In Norse mythology Thor is the god of thunder and war, son of Odin, the chief god. He was also known for his ability to imbibe mass quantities of alcohol. Just looking at Thor makes me nervous.
We spend that night camped outside the Thor shelter, about six miles from where the nephews dropped us off. In the morning, a stiff headwind almost convinces us to take a rest day. Today we need to cover another six or so miles up to Summit Lake, where the plan is to establish our basecamp. With the wind biting into the skin on my face, I quickly realize that every bit of exposed skin needs to be covered if I don’t want to get frost bite. The problem is that my breath coats the inside of my neck warmer in a thick layer of frozen spittle. With each gust of wind, the neck warmer presses into my face, making it hard to breath and freezing the tip of my nose. We stop to rest every couple hours, but I find that I can only stop moving for a few minutes before my body starts to shiver involuntarily.
By early evening, we crest a rise and find ourselves standing on the edge of Summit Lake. This five-mile-long lake marks the height of land at Akshayuk Pass. Water from the lake flows both north and south, down the Owl and Weasel Rivers. Simon catches up to me on the edge of the lake. Wrapped up like the Pillsbury Dough Boy, he raises an arm and points towards the far shoreline where we can just discern the outlines of the next emergency shelter. “I can’t believe I actually signed up to spend my hard earned vacation doing this,” says Simon, his voice muffled by his ice encrusted balaclava. “I think there must be something seriously wrong with me.” We both start laughing, because for some sick reason, we’re loving every minute.
Once again, on account of the wind, we declare an emergency, and the three of us line up like sardines on the floor of the hut. Ken and Simon are snorers (they say I am too, but I don’t believe them) so it’s crucial for me to fall asleep before they do. I burrow into my bag, reading by the light of my headlamp, but really, I’m only half concentrating on the book. Part of me is already tensed, waiting for the nocturnal pig impersonations to begin. Sure enough, less than five pages into James Bond: License Renewed, Ken starts up, followed shortly by Simon. God knows what time it is when I finally fall asleep. When my alarm goes off at 5am, I really can’t think of anything more unpleasant than leaving the cozy warmth of my down sleeping bag. Call me a slacker. I hit the off button and roll over. By the time I force myself up, it’s 8:30. “How does it look out there?” asks Ken, when I poke my head out the door.
There’s no wind and a deep blue sky pulses overhead. “Well, let’s just say it wasn’t the best day to oversleep.”
It’s 11am by the time we ski out of camp, day packs on our backs. Our plan is to ski about eight miles up the Caribou and then the Parade Glaciers to Mt. Asgard, where we hope to find some virgin powder stashes. All told, this could be the biggest day of the trip. We just have to make sure that we’re back before 10pm, which is about when it gets dark. We’ve got special climbing skins stuck to the bottom of our skis. The skins grip the snow, allowing us to walk up hill. The snow is perfect: hard packed and dry, we’re able to glide a few feet with each kick of the foot. What a feeling to be on the move, totally self-contained, headed into the unknown for an arctic adventure. Head down, legs pumping, I’m suddenly taken aback when my skis cross a seriously disturbing set of paw prints. Each is about 10 inches long, and I can clearly see where the four toes crunched into the snow in front of the pad. But what really gives it away are puncture-like claw marks in front each toe. “Uh guys, I think we have problem,” I stammer.
“HOLY SHIT!” exclaims Ken, when he sees the tracks. “These are fresh polar bear prints, and I mean fresh.” Had they been here for any amount of time the wind and snow would have easily erased them. The tracks follow a circuitous path across the lake…straight towards the shelter.
“This bear probably came out of hibernation recently,” says Simon. “He’ll be looking for food. Do you see anything to eat around here besides us?” We scan the horizon, expecting the bear to pop out from behind a boulder at any moment. After a quick discussion, we decide to high tail it back to the hut. A few paranoid minutes later, we’re safely barricaded back inside the emergency shelter. The first thing we do is call the rangers on the vhf.
“XLI 322 this is portable four, come in,” calls Simon, sounding unbelievably gripped.
“Portable four, this is XLI-322, we copy loud and clear.”
Simon spends the next ten minutes answering questions: how big are the prints, how far are they spaced, which way were they headed, how fresh did they look. After a brief pause, the rangers asks: “Are you guys sure it wasn’t a boot print?
Simon, Ken and I look at each other and then crack up. “Man, they must think we’re pretty clueless,” says Ken.
When we finally convince them that the tracks are for real, the rangers advise us to stay in the hut. “We’ll be up there tomorrow afternoon to check out the tracks,” says the warden. “We’ll see you then.”
So we spend the rest of the day sitting on our butts in the hut. It’s maddening, because it just happens to be the best weather we’ve seen yet. Finally, late in the day, Simon says what’s on all of our minds: “This is bullshit. I didn’t come all the way up here to sit around in this hut.”
“ I’ll bet that bear is just as scared of us, as we are of him,” responds Ken.
The next morning, we decide to leave a note for the rangers, instead of calling them. This way they can’t talk us out of our plan – which is to try and do what we failed to do the day before. The gloom of sitting around in the hut is quickly dispelled as we slide off across the ice. We’re surrounded in every direction by rock, snow and ice. There is no bare ground, no plants, no trees, and we hope, no bears. Just in case, we’ve each got an ice axe handy.
The climb from Summit Lake up onto the Caribou Glacier takes a couple hours. Up on the glacier, we follow the slow flowing frozen river of ice with our eyes until it disappears into the shimmering Penny Icecap. This massive dome of ice promises unlimited potential for adventure, its skin punctured by granite towers rising precipitously from the ice. Unfortunately, that adventure will have to wait for another day. We contour around a 2000 foot cliff on Mt. Freya’s west face (in Norse mythology, Freya is Odin’s wife, the blonde-haired, blue-eyed goddess of love and beauty) and then finally, there it is — Mt. Asgard. The peak has the most distinct shape of any mountain I’ve ever laid eyes upon. It’s twin towers look like gigantic, flat-topped, prehistoric tree stumps. The north tower especially draws my attention. It’s north face sports a sheer wall of granite nearly 4000 feet high. Simon and Ken are equally mesmerized.
More skinning brings us up to a col between Mt. Asgard and Mt. Frigga. It’s decision time. We’re close to ten miles from camp and it’s getting late. We don’t have tents, sleeping bags or even a stove, therefore it’s absolutely essential that we make it back to the hut before dark. The smart choice would be to retrace our route. There are the tracks leading right back the way we came.
But why then do I find myself itching to drop off the backside of the col into the unknown? The virgin, untracked powder surely has something to do with it. I can’t see where exactly this run will lead us, but I know that eventually it has to drop us on the Turner Glacier below Asgard’s north face. From there we should be able to ski back down to the north end of Summit Lake. All told, we’re looking at about a 15 mile round trip.
“What’s the worst that could happen?” asks Ken, revealing that he too is leaning towards the more adventurous of the two options.
Skins are ripped off the skis, then one by one, we push off the col. As we carve through six inches of fresh powder, primal cries of joy echo off the skyscrapers of rock that surround us. Losing myself in the moment, I switch off all conscious thought, letting my body find the sweet spot of each turn. Staring across at Simon and Ken, two tiny figures in a land of mythic proportions, it hits me that we must be giving the Norse gods up in their palace on Mt. Asgard quite a show. The Norse gods — slayers of giants, ogres and demons — can appreciate a good adventure when they see one.