Filing daily reports from
the field would ruin a trip, but it's fun to do pre-briefs and
The store is open! You can now buy books, calendars, prints and the Sledding Equipment List with one-click shopping, via Paypal. Just go to the Store link at the top of this page. Jerry's book, Arctic Eden, won the William Mills Prize as the best polar book of 2010-11 and is one of several products available to order. Alsoin the Store: the Horizontal Everest DVD, a Discovery Channel documentary about Jerry's Ellesmere Island journeys.
On October 20, I received the Polar Medal from the Governor General of Canada, Her Excellency Julie Payette. It was such a thrill in part because it was a total surprise. It's not my style to lobby cronies to nominate me for such things. Some kind, influential person had nominated me because he or she evidently felt that I deserved it. This made it far more meaningful than if I'd merely succeeded in gaming the system.
On Saturday, I'm in Regina to receive the Polar Medal from the Governor General. It's part of the series of Canadian Honours, like the Order of Canada. I like to think of it as an Order of Canada for arctic types.
It's not false modesty to say that there are a lot of worthy candidates out there. I've never pursued such honours, but I'm as delighted as anyone when they happen to come.
I've not kept this site up to date for some months for a few reasons. First, I'm working on a book and my own next expedition is not until 2020. Second, as editor of the adventure website ExplorersWeb, I'm dealing daily with expeditions of all kinds, and most of my input goes there. Finally, there are far fewer expeditions in the areas I'm familiar with -- the eastern High Arctic, Labrador, manhauling in general. While the Antarctic season is approaching, most of those journeys are either repetitive or involve parsing minute differences in route or approach in an attempt to seem original. Claims of speed hauling are common nowadays, for example, but there hasn't been a polar speed record worth raving about since Christian Eide's 24-day, 1,150km ski to the South Pole in 2011.
For me, the highlight of a modest travel year occurred last month, around Foulke Fiord, in northwest Greenland. I was, as usual in late summer, a resource person for the Canadian arctic cruise company, Adventure Canada. We'd attempted to get through the Northwest Passage, but ice was so heavy this year -- caused from both a cold summer and Arctic Ocean ice flushing southward into the Passage -- that no ship made it through this year. One sailboat sank, crushed in the ice near Bellot Strait, and the couple on board had to be rescued by a Coast Guard icebreaker.
So instead, we focused on the eastern Arctic, and eventually reached our farthest north at Foulke Fiord, site of the old Inuit hunting camp of Etah. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many arctic expeditions passed through or based themselves at Etah. Our cruise ship, the Ocean Endeavour, often stops here: the head of the fiord is a good place to hike, and muskox are common on the grassy side slopes. Although there are a couple of broken-down hunting cabins of contemporary vintage here, the traditional community of Etah is not in this location at the head of the fiord, but several kilometres away, on the north side.
Brother John Glacier, named by Elisha Kent Kane in 1855, and two broken-down hunting cabins at the head of Foulke Fiord, sometimes called Etah by modern visitors.
I had a couple of hours off during our visit to track down the location of Etah, and also another nearby historic site that I'd long wanted to visit: the 1860 grave of August Sonntag, one of Isaac Israel Hayes' men. He purportedly died from hypothermia after falling through the ice, although an accusation circulated by the paranoid Hayes suggested that he'd been murdered by the celebrated Greenland guide Hans Hendrik.
Etah: The remains of U.S. explorer Donald MacMillan's Borup Lodge, from 1913-17. Right, the outline of the house, which had been blown down by katabatic winds ripping down from the Greenland ice sheet.
The actual site of Etah featured not only the remains of Donald MacMillan's Borup Lodge (named after a friend of his who died before the expedition left America) but many qammaqs, or Inuit sod and stone houses, where the local people hired to hunt or sew clothing for explorers like Peary and MacMillan lived.
Qammaq at Etah.
The grave of Sonntag, though smaller and subtle, lay hidden in a little cove at the mouth of Foulke Fiord, and was even more thrilling. It looked like the headstone had been upholstered in a thin coat of plaster, and the inscription carefully etched in. I had never seen so old an exploration artifact before: Nothing on the Ellesmere side dates back that far, since the first known Europeans to land on Ellesmere were members of George Nares' expedition in 1875. A couple of additional unmarked graves of similar vintage stood beside it.
The grave of August Sonntag, Foulke Fiord.
A dozen more such sites lie undisturbed in this magical part of Greenland. It's a month-long future project to come up here by kayak and pay my respects to them.
I'm doing some editing for ExplorersWeb and am currently helping put together the arctic expeditions list for this season. If you have an upcoming project in the circumpolar region, drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org and tell me something about who you are and what you're doing.
February 6, 2018
The current issue of The New Yorker has a long piece on a sledding expedition gone wrong. Two years ago, a British man named Henry Worsley tried to manhaul alone across Antarctica in the footsteps of his hero, Ernest Shackleton. Worsley -- who was related to one of the men of that era -- had done two shorter sledding trips with partners. But those companions had gone mainstream in the meantime -- kids, responsible jobs -- and retired from these shenanigans, so Worsley went by himself. Worsley was also a family man, and like so many polar Brits, a member of the SAS (Special Air Service), but he had remained committed to his second love, namely Shackleton.
Worsley seemed to be doing pretty well on the thousand-mile journey. He had passed the South Pole and was on the easier downhill section when he collapsed. He called for evacuation but from his audio posts, he wasn't aware how grave his condition was. He seems to have thought that it was just exhaustion. Within a day or two, he had died of bacterial peritonitis, a freak demise likely due to a prior, undiagnosed medical condition.
According to the New Yorker story, he had intermittent severe stomach cramps, which should have been a warning sign that something was wrong besides fatigue. You monitor yourself extremely carefully out there, because the slightest twinge may indicate the beginnings of a repetitive stress condition or an impending injury. Most of these are phantom twinges: they go away in a day or two, you're fine. Apart from the cramps, though, Worsley must have heard his body telling him something. But he was a bull-headed guy, and chose not to listen. Soldiers are expected to march till they die rather than give up, so he did.
The New Yorker story presents him sympathetically. When I first heard of his demise shortly after it happened, I filed it away as a freak incident. No other polar traveler has died of peritonitis. Besides, he was a Brit, and SAS to boot. In my experience, that was a typical profile of an arctic failure. They always showed up in Resolute, novices with grandiose plans to walk to the North Pole, alone, unsupported, or something similar. They weren't Shackleton lovers, they were Scott men, wanting to re-create that seminal British experience, where the object of the game is not to succeed but to fail in such fine form that you somehow achieve greatness. And always, they did it half right: They failed. Usually after a feeble few days. A remarkable number were ex-SAS.
The British record has improved in recent years, since polar guides have been around to lead them or at least teach them the basics before they set off. Worsley himself went to Iqaluit on Baffin Island for one of these commercially-run how-to courses. But nothing prepares you for a weird serious illness. That's when you have to call an audible, as they say in football. If there's a moral to this story, it's that in the polar regions, indomitable will has to be tempered with common sense.
Recently a correspondent wrote me for tips on solo winter travel, especially regarding risk management. The essence of my response:
Although I usually prefer traveling with a partner, you can adapt to traveling alone. Once you’ve done it a couple of times, you realize that it’s not as risky as those at home think. Almost all my solo expeditions were also done with no communication at all, which ups the level of psychological difficulty considerably. It’s so much easier to have a sat phone, not just for safety, but because you can call home even if you’re just feeling blue.
Some important aspects about solos:
— cut yourself wider safety margins than with a partner or partners.
— avoid working so hard (eg. on a super long day) that you’re blind with fatigue. You can do that with a partner, but if you’re alone, you always need your wits about you. This is a specific case of the wider safety margins.
— They’re physically a little harder but psychologically a lot harder. (My success rate on partnered expeditions is 90%; on solos, 50-60%.) That may be just me. But I find that you need to prepare mentally for solos, eg. by seeing a lot of people just before you go, so you can digest the social whirl while you’re alone on the trail. It helps.
— you need to be very precise and anal about everything — equipment, setting up camp, traveling. Sloppy people do not make good soloists.
— you worry much more during solos. This is healthy; it helps keep you safe.
— the first few days require extra care and attention. By then, you’ve established a routine that should carry you through the rest of the trip. You are then proceeding partly on autopilot, which is much less stressful. But if something new comes up (a storm, strong wind), ramp up that extra level of care again until you’ve nailed how to deal with these new circumstances.
In arctic communities, wilderness begins where the last house ends. Below, some wild scenes taken around Greenland villages.
Earlier this month, a trail runner broke the record for the fastest time to complete the 2,190-mile Appalachian Trail. It took him 45-1/2 days, an average of 48 miles per day.
Of course, "broke the record" implies that there is a record, but when you're talking about adventure, is there? An adventure is not the same as a sporting event. Nevertheless, as a particular route is repeated, its challenges become more familiar and it becomes less of an adventure. Just traveling from England to Switzerland used to be so unknown that it spawned several well-known travel books. The North Face of the Eiger used to be one of climbing's great yardsticks, requiring days of commitment. Then in 1969, a young Reinhold Messner and Peter Habeler completed this classic route in 10 hours, which astonished the mountaineering world. The fastest time is currently 2 hours, 22 minutes and 50 seconds, set by the late speed climber Ueli Steck. Note the "50 seconds". When you start recording seconds, the challenge has definitely moved from adventure to athletics.
Nevertheless, the Messner/Habeler and Steck accomplishments do reveal something important about mountaineering. Climbing skill, equipment and training have so advanced that climbers are now able not just to do old things faster but new things that were previously impossible.
In the polar regions, records are a more specious thing. Too few people have done specific routes to make a big deal out of going incrementally faster than previous parties. This has not, alas, stopped hucksters from trying to differentiate their journeys by claiming some sort of speed record. Explorersweb still has a link listing North and South Pole expeditions and their respective times. Most of these I would not classify as records, any more than if three people pogosticked from Austin to San Diego, the fastest can make some sort of boast based on pogosticking prowess.
The beauty about the Arctic is that there are millions of possible routes. While time taken for these routes says something about the competency of the party, plus the travel conditions during that particular season, or along that particular route, we remain decades from recategorizing arctic travel from adventure to athletics.
A few images from recent Adventure Canada cruises:
Baffin Island near Kimmirut.
A Greenland fiord, choked with iceberg bits.
Nuuk, the capital of Greenland.
The highlight of the fabulous museum at Nuuk is the 600-year-old Greenland mummies, found under a rock ledge near the town of Uummannaq. Although only women and children comprise the eight freeze-dried bodies, the theory that they all died at the same time -- for example, from drowning when their umiak sank -- has been discredited.
Seen from the deck of a 137-metre ship, polar bears are, for once, not intimidating.
This is a writing year for me, so my only arctic travel is the annual gig with Adventure Canada as a lecturer and resource person. These small cruises, with 100-200 passengers, are a little like the tasting menu at a good restaurant: You get to sample a lot in a short time, and learn which items you might like as an entire meal in future.
Whether on cruises or personal travels, wildlife experiences are almost always serendipidous: You can never guarantee sightings of muskox, narwhal, walrus or polar bears -- though I've never not seen a polar bear on a cruise. On some trips, like the Heart of the Arctic that begins next week, polar bears are nearly a sure thing, because the itinerary includes Akpatok Island, at the north end of Ungava Bay. Bears patrol the narrow beach above the cliffs where thousands of thick-billed murres nest. A percentage of chicks routinely fall out of the nests onto the beach -- popcorn for polar bears. Typically, a couple of dozen of them live in awkward proximity to one another all summer. Only bad weather, such as thick fog or strong wind that forces the ship to stay away from the island, can deprive Akpatok-area visitors of bear sightings. It's the summer equivalent of Churchill, Manitoba.
Akpatok Island and some of its summer residents
More commonly, wildlife encounters require luck. One summer, we passed near a tolerant bearded seal, below, along the coast of Baffin Island. On another occasion, an arctic fox at Etah, Greenland wasn't bothered by people at all. Such encounters are more gifts than givens.
Only a personal trip offers the freedom to linger for hours or days. Alexandra and I spotted the Peary caribou below one summer on Axel Heiberg Island. We weren't sure how far away from us they were: without trees or buildings, distances in the High Arctic are deceptive. It took us four hours to reach them on foot -- we thought it would take about an hour and a half -- four hours more to photograph them, then another four hours to walk back to camp.
Long-time arctic traveler John Dunn is dotting the few remaining i's on a lifetime project to travel from Tofino, B.C. to the northern tip of Ellesmere Island in a series of journeys. Now over 60, John has just a few sections left to do, and he has been methodically completing them over the past few weeks. A CBC story during this year's first leg, across Great Slave Lake in the Northwest Terrritories, gives a good overview of the project.
I've never traveled with John but have always admired his landscape photos and amazing record: As far as I know, he's never failed to complete a route.
Linking southern BC with the northern tip of Canada is a mid-career project for John. He began in the early 1990s with a series of eastern Arctic journeys -- first, the length of Ellesmere Island; next, the length of Baffin Island; then Labrador's Torngat Mountains, from the northern tip to Nain. Over the years, he manhauled on Devon Island enough to cover that as well. I figured that he wanted to do Canada North to South in sections. He can still finish that, from both the east and west coasts. Among the land masses, all that remains is little Bylot Island, off northern Baffin, and the relatively easy portion from Nain to Goose Bay. From there, it's comparatively routine to cycle across Canada and effectively cover the entire perimeter of the country in a lifetime. It's a logical and impressive goal.
I have some minor quibbles with the eastern route -- he's done the land masses but not the difficult crossings of Hudson Strait and Lancaster Sound that truly complete the north-south coverage. As a poor kid from working-class Montreal, I've always ignobly wondered how John made a living. He never tried hard to market his photos, and the school talks he gives do not add up to much. His background is British, he went to a good school, and I've long suspected that he is either a latter-day remittance man or that he made a killing prospecting in Australia when he worked as a geologist early on. He is the only other traveler I know who has done this arctic adventure stuff all his adult life.
Outfitter David Reid and his partners are three-quarters finished their 450-kilometre circumnavigation of Bylot Island, just off the north end of Baffin Island, within view of the village of Pond Inlet, above. At this time of year, the sea is solidly frozen, so you can ski on it while hauling sleds of supplies. This is what they are doing.
I've known David for years, and sometimes work with him on Adventure Canada arctic cruises, where we are both resource people. Although I think that this is his first substantial sledding expedition, he knows what he's doing. He lives in Ottawa now, but for years he operated the outfitting company Polar Sea Adventures out of Pond Inlet.
According to his blog, they're within a week of finishing, so the expedition will have taken them four weeks in all, an average of 16 kilometres a day. It's often possible to do more than that in the High Arctic -- travel conditions are usually so good up there -- but David hopes to do a book, a film and other spinoffs. If they're spending a lot of time taking video, in particular, that can significantly eat into the travel day. It's also impossible to know, from his spare descriptions of rough ice, how much of an impediment it is. This obstacle is what I want to discuss today.
High Arctic sea ice can be as flat as freshwater lake ice, except for hard, wind-carved snow waves called sastrugi. In some areas, though, broken ice pieces from the previous year, or early-winter ice pressed up near land by tides and currents, create a formidable barrier to foot travel.
Off eastern Ellesmere Island. Here, there's enough space between ice blocks that travel is almost unaffected.
This is just a setup: we weren't dumb enough to try to haul through this. A detour of any length, even 30 or 40 kilometres, would be worth it to avoid this extreme rough ice. Progress would be 100 metres/hour, tops, and of course there is nowhere to set a tent at the end of the day. It's also easy to twist an ankle or otherwise injure yourself in this field of chaos.
This is the same general area as the eastern Ellesmere Island photo, but much worse. This image, looking west into Smith Bay, was taken with a 200m or 300mm telephoto lens, so the pieces look much closer together than they really are. However, the ice field is dense enough that no amount of twisting and turning can prevent you having to occasionally haul the loaded sled over a block of ice, as in the image directly below.
Bob Cochran has taken off his skis to maneuver more efficiently. Depending on the weight of the sled, lifting over a large piece of ice can be extremely difficult. Beginning sledders make the mistake of trying to do the lifting with their legs. This burns you out prematurely. The trick is to lean forward, legs locked, and let your body weight do the lifting. With practice, you can do this without breaking stride.
Alexandra Fiord, in east-central Ellesmere Island, has relatively high tides and a shallow shoreline, creating this jumble. I took this shot with a wide-angle lens, not a telephoto, so the blocks are even closer together than they seem. I got trapped in this for several hours and made almost no progress until I worked my way to shore and used the ice foot below, a narrow band of smooth ice between the land and the pressure ice. Note the old Thule kayak stand in the foreground. The bottom photo shows an ice foot by Wellington Channel off Cornwallis Island, near the town of Resolute Bay.
High Arctic sledding is more often like the final image, below. In this, it is easy to average 25 kilometres/day -- on the expedition shown, my partner and I covered 700 kllometres in a month, without killing ourselves. But hit a patch of bad ice, and progress can drop from 4 kilometres an hour to a kilometre a day.
March 15, 2017
Since Kenn Borek Air -- likely following the advice of its lawyers -- stopped providing support for North Pole expeditions two years ago, northern Ellesmere has been a quiet place during what used to be called the Silly Season. At this time of year, sometimes half a dozen expeditions used to flock to Resolute to have a whack at the North Pole. Most of them were not very well-prepared and slunk away after just a few days on the ice, citing frostbite, equipment failure or the ever-handy back injury.
Why such a dismal showing? Because -- as I've pointed out before -- the North Pole draws the same sort of people who want to be guided up Mount Everest. Trophy hunters, not travelers. Lot of hustlers, with a few impractical dreamers thrown into the mix. Too impatient to spend much time learning, since they're in a hurry to become celebrity adventurers. Only occasionally, a really hard team, usually from Scandinavia, showed up in Resolute. Often, they were the ones attempting new, harder wrinkles on that classic route. Most have been done now, though the hardest trek, solo to the Pole and back unsupported (carrying everything with you; no air drops), has never even been attempted. Given that sea ice is thinner and logistics more difficult and expensive, it may never be.
This year, a couple of expeditions managed to get to the starting point at Ward Hunt Island on northern Ellesmere. One of the expeditions, clearly well-funded, had access to its own plane and pilot. Neither lasted long. Ironically, early March, when the sun has just returned, is often the coldest time of year -- colder even than the polar night. In -57C (-70F), the well-funded guy frostbit his fingers while dealing with a fuel leak in his stove. He and his partner were evacuated after just two days. The piggybacking expedition, consisting of a solo guy and his dog and sponsored mainly by a regional car mechanic shop, unsurprisingly flew home at the same time.
Cranky stoves are a fact of life in the -50s; you just have to deal with them. Sometimes the stove doesn't pressurize because the pump cup -- a little leather piece inside the pump -- gets so stiff that it can't maintain the seal needed to build up pressure. But the real danger is that the O-ring, which maintains the seal at the pump opening where you insert the stove hose, shrinks and stiffens in the cold, so that pressurized fuel leaks at the joint between stove and pump/fuel bottle while the stove is running.
This leaking gasoline easily catches fire. I've had to throw my stove board, on which the stove & fuel bottle sit, out of the tent on more than one occasion. I extinguish the fire with snow, then try a different fuel pump. I bring three, and one or the other has always worked, even at -57C. I make sure the pumps come from different eras, because sometimes MSR, which makes the stoves I use, changes its O-ring supplier. Some suppliers' O-rings work better in deep cold than others. In particular, MSR had a phase about a dozen years ago when their O-rings were useless. Two years ago, a tech at MSR told me that you can now request special cold-weather O-rings. I haven't tried them, but on my next cold-weather expedition, I will. At the same time, I'll hedge my bets by also bringing a mix of older, proven pumps.
The North Pole fellow this year also used MSR stoves and carried several pumps, but maybe they were all of the same vintage. But that didn't cause his main problem. While fiddling with his leaking stove wearing liner gloves (something you can only do for seconds in the -50s), he didn't notice that the leaking fuel was soaking his fingers, and the evaporating gasoline was drawing even more heat from the skin. It's like immersing your hands in liquid nitrogen. His fingers were not frozen to the point of amputation, but bad enough. Still, hard to understand not taking care of your fingers when working around a stove at those temps. Below -40, you have to watch your stove like a hawk when it's on, because those fuel leaks are common.
It's a difficult life in the -50s, but liveable with the right gear. I sleep fine; the main issue is that you can only use your hands for a few seconds at a time, no matter what gloves or mitts you're wearing. You take one tent pole out of the sleeve, then you have to warm up your hands in your pockets or against your neck or belly for a few minutes before feeling returns and you can use them again. Breaking camp takes forever.
Alexandra and I skied for a couple of hours today at the Canmore Nordic Centre; temperature about -25C (-13F). Of course that's cool, you have to dress for it, and people from California, Florida, Spain, India, etc. would be understandably frightened to be outside in those temperatures. But once you've camped in -40 or -50, you forever look on cold differently. As Victorian traveler Richard Francis Burton put it, "The bugbear approached has more affinity to the bug than the bear."
The annual Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival begins shortly, and like usual, I've been prescreening some of the films for them. One short local entry called At What Price profiles a young climbing photographer. His work is good. Friends envy his lifestyle, but he's honest enough to admit that he is paid for maybe 10 percent of what he does. The rest of the time, he's just shooting to increase his social media profile.
Ten years ago, he'd be making a good living as a photographer. He'd give his images to a stock photo agency, and they would sell them for books, magazines and especially for advertising, and he'd bring in a high five-figure or even six-figure salary, as was an older Rockies climbing photographer who has since abandoned professional shooting and gone into the academic world. The truth is, photos that used to earn hundreds or thousands of dollars every month now sell for pennies. We earn a fraction of what we used to. A talented and successful friend who at his peak earned close to a quarter of a million dollars a year now gets about $20,000 annually, and his royalties plummet further every year. Another resumed his old, pre-photography job as an airport baggage handler. It is impossible to make a living selling images any more; with rare exceptions, the profession of outdoor photographer has ceased to exist.
Flexible photographers, or those who were always into teaching, can still survive giving workshops, etc. But that is different from being a professional photographer. You're a professional teacher.
What happened is well-known to every older pro: digital imagery. Cameras are better, you learn more quickly because you see your results instantly on the LCD panel, and this has led to a glut of good images. Memory cards are cheap and reusable: Pros used to have to spend several thousand dollars every year on film -- heavy shooters, tens of thousands of dollars -- and this kept most amateurs out of the game. Today, amateurs can take excellent images and they're happy to give them away in exchange for a credit line. And so it goes. I'm not complaining, just stating.
What will become of promising young photographers like the subject of this short film? Many of them soldier on until they get tired of living a student's life into their 30s or even 40s. Others come from well-off backgrounds and can feign success but in truth don't have to make a living at what they do. And one or two exceptionally driven and talented individuals become the Jimmy Chins or Paul Nicklens of the next generation.
More images from the summer Arctic:
Iceberg armchair, off the coast of Baffin Island
Inuit girl, Baffin Island
Old Fort Ross, Somerset Island, Nunavut
Two views of Pangnirtung, which has the prettiest setting of any town in the Canadian Arctic.
Ship in the harbour at Sisimiut, Greenland
Tabular iceberg, Baffin Island
A few images from the recent Adventure Canada cruise, snatched in the moments between doing other tasks. For the first half of August, the Arctic was so benign that even the crossing from Greenland to Baffin Island across Baffin Bay was mirror-calm. Often it was shorts and T-shirt weather, even in the breeze on deck.
An iceberg fluted like the Parthenon
Sillem Island in Gibbs Fiord, one of the high-walled fiords in east-central Baffin Island
The Ocean Endeavour through a keyhole iceberg
Hikers in Karrat Fiord, Greenland
Franklin's cairn, atop Beechey Island. Many tourists visit the graves of Franklin's men on the shore below, but the cairn John Franklin built to be visible from Lancaster Sound is rarely viewed. As a result, although the cairn was rebuilt (Franklin searchers dismantled it to look for notes) and items such as the metal post atop it are of modern vintage, there remain artifacts from 1846, such as bits of rope, the sort of thing long pilfered by souvenir hunters from the more accessible beach.
I've updated Dreamweaver, the program used to create this website, and it's led to no end of headaches, hence the sporadic entries recently. As I'm off today to join the good ship Ocean Endeavour for two weeks in Greenland, Baffin and Devon Islands, IT repair will have to wait until my return.
Arctic cruises are a bit like a tasting menu at a good restaurant: they offer small samples of a lot of things. Even someone like myself who's spent a lot of time out on the land discovers novelties. For example, a couple of visual records of climate change from the trip last year. In the first image, a mudslide from southeastern Devon Island. The permafrost melts and the soil slumps downhill under its own weight as the ice turns to water. In the second image, a clearly dying glacier in Greenland. Such remnants are common sights here in the Rocky Mountains, and in southern arctic locales like the Torngat Mountains of Labrador, where the 32 remaining glaciers are all small, pathetic, shrinking and hiding in shadows. Until recently, it's been less common to see them in far-flung arctic fastnesses.
Although it's been an off year for personal expeditions, smaller trips abound. Alexandra and I are leaving for Vancouver Island today to kayak for a few days around Telegraph Cove. On August 2, I join Adventure Canada for my yearly outing as a lecturer/resource person on their Arctic Safari cruise from Resolute Bay to Greenland. In late August, I'll be heading north again on guiding gigs for a month.
Yasu Ogita of Japan successfully completed his 800km manhauling expedition from Grise Fiord, on Ellesmere Island, to Siorapaluk, Greenland. That's good work. I know the interior Ellesmere section well and it's pretty straightforward, but I liked his caution during the 50-kilometre crossing to Greenland over what can be an unstable ice bridge. Traditionally, Greenlanders and explorers have hurried across the very edge by dog team. The ice is flattest here, but there's a danger it can break off, so speed is important. In 1914, US explorer Donald MacMillan whizzed across in six hours.
On foot, unless the ice is preternaturally good, you have to camp at least once, so Ogita went further north before beginning his crossing. Here, the ice was rougher but more stable. Smart.
In his debrief, he said he had the most trouble with Ellesmere's Sverdrup Pass, below. The narrow chasm bridges Irene Bay to the west with Flagler Fiord on the east coast (red line on map).
The narrowest part of the canyon was so difficult that nineteenth and early twentieth century explorers called it Hell Cleft. It was even harder in those days, because a glacier snout blocked the passage, forcing detours over those windswept gravel hills. The glacier has since shrunk back, liberating the passage, which is at times barely wider than the span of two arms. Strong west winds funnel through the pass, and snow cover is minimal. You can drag a sled over the bare gravel that commonly afflicts certain areas, but it's quite destructive to the runners and to the sled's Gelcoat.
A couple of hundred yards of this sort of manhauling, and your sled will never be the same again. Passes like this are why I prefer my much cheaper but slightly heavier fiberglass sled to Ogita's $5,000 carbon Acapulka model. So much less painful to ruin and replace.
On the west end, near Flagler Fiord, Sverdrup Pass raises a second obstacle: steep ramps of bare ice where a summer river has frozen. They're fairly easy to negotiate if you've thought to bring crampons and a long rope to haul the sled up after you, but these two items are not common on manhauling expeditions -- you don't need them on sea ice. Eventually, however, Ogita managed. When I joined an Inuit sovereignty patrol through Sverdrup Pass once, we were even able to horse the snowmobiles up, though it took hours and involved ropes, several men and and a couple of hours of chiseling the ramp with an ice tool to a slightly gentler grade.
The Seven-Minute Rule
The trick of traveling in very cold weather (I'm talking -40 or -50, not -20) is perpetual motion. You stay warm thanks to exercise metabolism. No bulky clothes, or even specialty items, required. Just the usual layers: polypro, fleece, shell. At those temperatures, there is no such thing as a lunch stop.
No matter how cold it is, of course, you have to pause intermittently, to eat, drink and pee. While manhauling, I do this every hour and a half or two hours. The key is speed: You have to finish these chores and get going again before the exercise heat shuts down and your body cools. It's not necessary to put on a heavy parka if you're fast enough. I've found that seven minutes is the longest break you can take before you pay a price. Longer than that, and you may have to add a layer, then remove it 15 minutes later: very inefficient. Your fingers also go numb, and hurt like hell when feeling returns. Ice climbers call this the screaming barfies; a doctor I traveled with called it reactive hyperemia and suggested that lactic acid builds up during the numb phase. The pain is the lactic acid being reabsorbed. You don't have to have this experience too many times to want to avoid it. After a too-long break, it takes 20 minutes to feel okay again.
It's possible to do everything in a few minutes, though you may still be chewing your snack, or holding a half-eaten sandwich in your hand and grabbing a bite in mid-stride for the next few minutes. Towards the end of the day, I sometimes sit down on the sled or kneel down in the snow briefly just to stretch the lower back. But always, I have the seven-minute rule in my head and keep all stops within that time limit. In slightly milder temperatures, such discipline is not necessary but it's a habit now, and on day ski tours here in the Rockies, partners tease me about my restlessness at break time.
ExplorersWeb reports that Yasu Ogita of Japan plans to manhaul from Grise Fiord on Ellesmere Island to Siorapaluk, the northernmost village in Greenland. The article states that the route is 1000km. I've done the entire way except the crossing to Greenland, so I can say it's closer to 800km. Still, a good length.
I checked the current state of the sea ice in that area using NASA's Worldview satellite imagery, above. The 50km gap between Canada and Greenland is typically the northern terminus of the North Water polynya. Historically, it almost always freezes over, often around the Bache Peninsula, as it has this year. When Frederick Cook and his two Inuit companions walked back to Greenland after their winter on Devon Island in 1909, he claims to have crossed around Bache. Other explorers had it easier: In 1914, Donald MacMillan dogsledded across from Pim Island in just a few hours. And in the early 1970s, some crazy Minnesota snowmobilers went to Greenland from Cape Dunsterville, a section that is so unstable even in good years, it makes my skin crawl to think of the risks they took.
When my partner and I did our trek from Grise Fiord (we actually started 70km further away, on Devon Island), we followed Ellesmere's east coast. We made it all the way to Pim Island with just a couple of dicey sections, at King Edward Point and Cape Norton Shaw. We avoided King Edward Point by taking a two-day shortcut over the ice cap, above, and skirted challenging Cape Norton Shaw along the ice foot, below.
This year, ice conditions are worse in some ways and better than others. The satellite image shows open water or unstable pack ice at almost all the capes. Many of these capes can be cut across, but the ice cliffs north of Cape Norton Shaw cannot. The bad ice goes far in toward Makinson Inlet as well. It would be a difficult route, even though the ice bridge to Greenland seems to have formed this spring, which it did not in the year we attempted to cross to Greenland.
There are ways to avoid the ice cliffs -- for example, by going inland from Grise Fiord and taking a low pass to Makinson Inlet (small red dashed line on the satellite image). However, parts of Makinson Inlet often have deep soft snow, a grim obstacle to sledders, and the ice in the outer regions can be rough, below. In short, ice bridge or not, I wouldn't be too optimistic about the chances for success of an expedition that followed our old route this year.
But the Japanese guy has chosen an indirect but much easier way north from Grise, through low passes and interior fiords, long dashed red line on the satellite image. After about 600km, he emerges on the east coast just south of the Bache Peninsula. This route is quite straightforward. Furthermore, it avoids the heavy polar bear traffic that bedeviled us some nights along the edge of the North Water.
By far the hardest part of his projected trip will be getting to Siorapaluk after he hits Greenland. Look at all that open water pressing against the Greenland coast. It's a long way from landfall to the village. Traditionally, Greenland Inuit skirted open water by mounting the ice sheet, but at Cape Ingersoll, the ramp is a long way to the southeast. I'm not sure Cape Ingersoll-Siorapaluk is doable.
Expedition kayaker Jon Turk was in town to do a TedX talk last week and stayed with Alexandra and I for a couple of days. He regaled us with a story about one of the other speakers. She had run marathons at the South Pole and the North Pole. Now she wants to run across Greenland. She didn't seem to know the place very well, so Jon suggested that the first thing she had to decide was whether to go coast to coast, or just run across the ice cap. "What's an ice cap?" she asked.
February 1, 2016
About a week ago, a South Pole skier named Henry Worsley died after being evacuated short of his goal. By polar standards, he was relatively experienced, having done two Antarctic manhauling expeditions before this one. Remembering back to my early days, I can say that after three trips, you still have large gaps in knowledge and experience, but you've also learned a lot. The intensity and demands of a single two-month expedition teaches someone more than dozens of easy backpacking trips.
According to Explorers Web, Worsley had been stricken with peritonitis, a potentially fatal abdominal inflammation that can lead to organ failure. If true, one has to ask: How do you get this condition on an Antarctic sledding expedition? In some cases, a hernia can lead to peritonitis. I'm not a physician, but I do know that sledding puts a lot of strain on the groin. Some of my partners have had sore groins early on the expedition or after a hard day, which has led them to worry about hernias. Worsley was initially hauling 150 kg, which is a tremendous load no matter how strong you are. It is possible that he suffered a hernia at some point, and mistook the discomfort for fatigue or a groin strain, and so didn't call for evacuation until it was too late.
This is just a theory, but hernias are one of the unromantic dangers that one has to be aware of out there. Monitoring the body, listening for every twinge that might be the first sign that something is about to break down, is an important aspect of safe long-distance travel.
It's -21C (-6F) here in Canmore this morning. When you're in city-think mode, this feels very cold. But out on the land, that's a mild, comfortable temperature to sleep in, and during the day, you might haul a sled in just an undershirt, no hat and liner gloves, if there's no wind.
A few years ago on this page (see Archives 2009) I offered a short list of undone arctic expeditions. I could offer many more, but these were a few intriguing projects that I'd considered over the years but eventually decided that I didn't want to do myself.
One of the suggestions, in particular, has garnered some interest: Canada North to South. Surprisingly, no one has ever attempted to travel from the northern tip of Canada -- Cape Aldrich on Ellesmere Island -- to its southernmost point, Pelee Island, in Ontario's Lake Erie. It's over 5,000 km and takes seven to nine months of manhauling, kayaking and hiking or biking. The logistics are formidable: Apart from the basic work of getting supplies and spare gear to the Inuit communities spaced at 500km intervals along the route, you have to figure some way of getting to your starting point during the Dark Season, when charter aircraft won't land off-strip. It's important to start in early winter to manhaul far enough south -- say, half-way down Baffin Island -- to kayak efficiently; the High Arctic paddling season is just too short and unpredictable, because of sea ice.
One fellow in Ottawa, whom I don't know, created a website and tried to fundraise for a while, but his interest seems to have fizzled out. One of my past expedition partners, Noah Nochasak of Labrador, sketched out a detailed expedition plan as a term paper for the Adventure program he is taking at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, B. C. Noah's a great guy, and there's nothing I'd like better than for him to bring off this expedition, because he'd do it in the same spirit that he's done his other travels.
This summer, an outfitter with whom I previously discussed the project mentioned to me that organization is well underway to help the reality TV personality Survivorman do Canada North to South by snowmobile in 2017, the 150th anniversary of Confederation here in Canada. Snowmobile? Survivorman? The outfitter is making money handling the logistics, and for Survivorman it's a great pr stunt that will only take about three weeks and should attract a lot of attention. But I groaned inwardly when I heard the news, and I wish someone else would tackle it properly. Alas, when you make an idea public, you don't have a choice over who uses it, or in what spirit.
Every year I prescreen the entries to the Banff Mountain Film Festival, to help decide which films get shown. Here are trailers and mini-summaries of some of this year's best.
The Great Alone
The neglected son of an Iditarod winner overcomes cancer, alcoholism and drug use to win the Iditarod himself...several times.
Four young guys train and ride wild mustangs from Mexico to Canada.
The repercussions of last year's deadly avalanche on Mount Everest, told largely from the Sherpas' perspective.
Two women, an environmentalist and a pro-coal activist, unexpectedly find themselves on the same side after a deadly cave-in.
Two childhood friends part ways: One becomes a cautious family man, the other a famous pro skier. Ironically, it is the family man who survives a near-fatal accident in the mountains.
A simple but well-told story about a girls' soccer team in Nepal. One is tempted to use such descriptors as "heartwarming" and "uplifting", but of course, that would ruin things.
A pseudo-ad encouraging us to get out in Nature. Includes tongue-in-cheek display copy like, "Caution: Golf is not nature."
Last month I returned to the Arctic to help guide a second Adventure Canada cruise, from Resolute Bay to Devon Island to Baffin Island to Greenland. Because of heavy pack ice along the east coast of Baffin, impeding landings, we spent most of our two weeks on the Greenland side. Although I visit Greenland almost every year on these cruises, I've never done a personal expedition there. Greenland is, with Svalbard, the arctic destination for Europeans. There's a little kayaking in the fiords, though not many long-distance journeys, and its big walls have drawn climbers from H. W. Tilman to the present day. Mainly, however, expeditioners come to Greenland to ski across the width or length of the Greenland ice cap. Sometimes these are training trips for Antarctic crossings; often nowadays they're attempts at speed records. The principle seems to be, If you can't do something original, do something unoriginal slightly faster. Considering how huge the circumpolar Arctic is, and how many unique projects remain to be done, this approach is at best premature. We usually think of adventurers as being imaginative, but the truth is, in the polar regions most simply are not.
I have no great Greenland plans, although I would like to spend four to six weeks kayaking from Qaanaaq north to the historic areas around Cape Inglefield and back again, poking around the many sites. Cross from Ellesmere Island to Greenland either by skis or by kayak -- a gap in my resume. Visit Charles Francis Hall's grave in far northwestern Greenland. The main hurdle with all these projects is affordable access. When I'm asked what my next project is, I often have to hedge, because I work on several possibilities at the same time, and do the one that materializes first.
Greenland towns tend to be much lovelier than Canadian ones. Partly it's the brightly colored houses that give such a psychological lift in the muted arctic landscape. Partly it's the giant icebergs everywhere; Canadian icebergs are small and few by comparison. Partly it's the traditional details: the dog teams, the kayak frames, the fish drying racks. Greenland is modernizing too -- except north of Cape York, in the domain of the Polar Inuit, dog teams are becoming a tourist affectation rather than the chosen means of winter travel. But these towns are only a generation removed from traditional life rather than three generations. Finally, many Greenland towns are built in steep enclaves or on rocky islands with a Newfoundland outport feel. Below, some images taken from these Greenland towns.
The Ocean Endeavour near Uummannaq, Greenland
Uummannaq, perhaps the most photogenic town in Greenland, thanks to its hilly streets and distinctive Uummannaq Mountain looming above everything.
Qaanaaq, and one commercial use of the image.
Freshly back from traveling the Labrador coast in style, as a lecturer and resource person on an Adventure Canada cruise. Although Alexandra and I have kayaked that entire coast over two-and-a-half months, every new visit deepens our knowledge of that place. Above, passengers hike a riverside in Eclipse Channel, in the northern Torngat Mountains. Eclipse is not actually a channel, since two narrow gravel bars interrupt its continuity, below.
After dragging our boat over the second rocky barrier in the background, we turned left (south), while the scenic river lies off-route to the through paddler, two kilometres to the right. Most northern rivers are shallow and braided, but this short, deep and powerful river courses like a firehose between rock walls. It issues from Eclipse Lake, two kilometres away, tumbles over a falls at the halfway point, then hurries the last kilometre to the ocean. A worthwhile hike, and a scenic highlight of the trip.
Off this week on my annual cruise ship gig as a lecturer/resource person with Adventure Canada. This year, I'll be returning to the Labrador coast. Although I've kayaked that whole coast, these cruises still teach me about the place. Three years ago, we sailed in early October. At that time of year you don't go for the bird life -- most birds have long gone -- but the tundra colors erupt in tropical brilliance. In July, Ramah is green and blue, but October's reds and yellows are electrifying.
I would likely never have visited the fiord on my own at that time of year -- it's a rough season for kayaking, and the long nights increase the possibility of having to deal with a polar bear in the dark. One snowfall -- common at that time of year -- would have turned the Torngats black and white, but we lucked out.
Photo by Kurtis Kristianson/SPL, courtesy of Crowfoot Media
Earlier this month, I took part in a panel in Banff about outdoor risk, along with (from L to R above), local mountaineers Dan Evans, Brad White and Margot Talbot. It was the first time I'd spoken about risk, although it's a popular topic among outdoor motivational speakers. Motivational talks to corporations are well-paying gigs -- some adventurers make a six-figure income based on 10 hours work a year -- and most of us dirtbags would love to hop aboard that gravy train. Alas, I'm more from the school of friend and original Seven Summiteer Pat Morrow, who once said that he didn't give such talks because he just couldn't see himself telling a convention of hog farmers that they too can climb their personal Everest. If I had to try to relate my expeditions to corporate leadership or communication, my tongue would explode and I would never again be able to write an honest line.
However, the topic of risk might be an exception. In preparing for this evening, it became clear to me that every person in the audience -- and every reader of this website -- could talk about risk just as authoritatively. We all take risks in life. Typically, these risks don't involve physical danger, which is what we were talking about that evening, but emotional and spiritual risks are equally serious for all of us. Physical risks are actually simpler to deal with, because you are forced to act promptly, whereas it's possible to avoid dealing with emotional risks indefinitely.
In general, one approaches everyday risks just as one does physical risks: with preparation, caution, calculation and sometimes, just by going for it and accepting the consequences. To avoid risk is to lose out on the positive outcomes too. It's life in neutral.
This season, three Norwegians set a speed record across the Greenland ice cap: 350 miles in just under 7-1/2 days. No kites, just skis and sleds. Impressive but not unexpected, especially from Norwegians, who both are competent in the polar regions and know how to ski.
In 1989, I manhauled 300 miles in 11 days, from Eureka to Grise Fiord on Ellesmere Island. For years, it was the fastest manhauling expedition on record. But even as I did it, I realized that while it was good for the time -- and was as hard and as fast as I could have done -- elite athletes could have done it even faster. I estimated that 7 days was possible, but given this Greenland pace, even 6 days might be within reach. The Greenlanders averaged 46 miles a day for a week. Once, I manhauled that distance in a single day. It took me 16 hours, and I could not imagine putting in that effort again the following day. Granted, I was walking, not skiing.
As the chance to accomplish firsts has diminished in both mountaineering and the polar regions, speed attempts have become a popular hook. In the Arctic and Antarctic, most of these so-called speed records are not serious. The routes have been done so rarely that inexperienced travelers "distinguish" themselves by doing the distance slightly faster than the previous inexperienced traveler. Call it the Backward Pogosticking from Arkansas to Saskatchewan phenomenon. It is simply plucking at low-hanging fruit.
Speed climbers like Ueli Steck really are superfit and competent. In setting new records up well-known yardsticks like Annapurna or the North Face of the Eiger, they are showing what is possible. Same for those three Norwegians in Greenland.
Three weeks ago, two Dutch manhaulers died when they fell through the sea ice north of Resolute Bay. For background, see this report in ExplorersWeb. I have no further information besides this and follow-up stories, so consider this riff more about raising questions than providing answers.
Falling through the ice is rare in contemporary polar travel but is not unprecedented. It usually happens on the Arctic Ocean during North Pole expeditions, rather than on the generally solid platform between northern islands. Two deaths have occurred on the Arctic Ocean in recent years, both on solo expeditions. In one, a woman perished off northern Russia on her way to the North Pole. North Pole travelers sometimes prefer to start from Russia because the ice is flatter and you're going with the drift rather than against it. But for the first 50 km, the ice is thinner and more unstable than it is off northern Canada. In the second tragedy, a Japanese man died off northern Ellesmere on his way back to land from the North Pole.
Solo travel is always riskier -- I speak as someone who has done 10 solo expeditions -- but two people dying at the same time by falling through the ice is unprecedented in modern times. (For an historical example, however, read In the Land of White Death.) The whole thing has puzzled me, and I wish I had more details. Where exactly did they go through? Some media reports stated that it was near Bathurst Island, but the victims' website, coldfacts.org, shows their projected route much further to the east, near Baillie-Hamilton Island, one of the High Arctic's half dozen regular polynyas (areas of open water). Google "Baillie-Hamilton polynya" to see a copyrighted image of what that region sometimes looks like in late April, when the Dutch pair drowned. That area of strong currents typically has open water. And although the air remains cold in late April, under the midnight sun you rarely get the 30 or 40 belows that quickly refreeze a bad patch, so open water tends to stay open.
Often, arctic expeditions run into problems due to inexperience. The public would be surprised at what rookies many arctic travelers are. They're good with websites and pr, but they've rarely even camped in summer and have little experience in the cold, a fact they hide for the sake of credibility. Some years ago, a British fellow set out, with much boasting ("the last great arctic expedition"), to reach an inaccessible part of the Arctic Ocean. He quit after just a couple of days, citing dangerous ice. Immodestly, he tried to spin it into a climate change story. In all his years of arctic experience, he averred, he had never seen such conditions. But he was just a clown.
These two Dutch fellows were doing climate change work during their expedition, so at first I wondered if they fell into this same category. But on closer inspection, they seemed to be much more serious. They had sophisticated portable equipment with them to measure sea ice, although neither had a scientific background: They were motivational speakers and expedition organizers. Their plan was to research changing ice conditions. Most full-time researchers would just use planes and snowmobiles, but this pair were trying to mate science and adventure. They were 200km from Resolute at the time of the accident. They had been out for three weeks. Two hundred kilometres does not take long to sled in that region; maybe 10-12 average days, although they seemed to be moving fairly slowly, with a biggest day of 20.5 km. Perhaps they would haul for four or five hours, then set up their equipment. It would have been very cold at the start of their expedition, but by late April, the bite has mostly disappeared from the air, except in a wind. In their last audio report, on April 28, one spoke of wearing just an undershirt, a typical experience on calm late spring days.
Partway through their expedition, they diverged from their planned route (dotted green arrow, above) and swung northeast (orange arrow). They were west of the small polynyas at the north ends of Dundas and Baillie-Hamilton Islands but little holes and funny ice seemed to pock several areas in their vicinity, as seen in the satellite photo, below, taken the day before they disappeared. My estimate of their location, marked x, is based on their audio journal entries.
Much of the ocean has frozen solidly (featureless white areas) and can be walked on, camped on, lived on as if it were land. It's at least three feet thick. It's known as land-fast ice and doesn't move between freeze-up and thaw. But the photo also shows several zones of concern: the always-open Hell Gate polynya at the southwest corner of Ellesmere Island, the polynyas around Baillie-Hamilton and Dundas Islands, as well as Lancaster Sound south of Resolute. Sometimes this freezes, and hunters can snowmobile the entire 70 kilometres south from Resolute to Somerset Island, but strong currents often create rough ice or open water. When I sledded the south coast of Cornwallis Island some years ago, the ice was a mess, below. It is impossible to progress over such a surface, but I was able to travel on the ice foot, a smooth ribbon between the moving ice and shore.
Rough ice on the south coast of Cornwallis Island
Besides those large areas of open water, the satellite image reveals several small holes between Bathurst Island and the Grinnell Peninsula, plus two small dark areas west of Baillie-Hamilton Island. Finally, there is what looks like a large patch of disturbed ice west of Dundas Island. As best as I can determine, the fatal accident happened somewhere in that area.
On April 29, the day after their blog entry about how tropical the weather was, authorities received an SOS from the travelers. No details were included about the nature of the emergency, because it was a Spot-type signal rather than a satphone call that would have clarified exactly what was going on. (Spot doesn't work well that far north but units such as InReach, which run off the Iridium network, do.) All these units are waterproof and can be used by someone who has fallen in the water, while satphones cannot.
A plane flew over the site indicated in the emergency signal, and saw two sleds around open water. One sled was in the water, one near it. The Eskimo dog they brought as a polar bear alarm was still at the site. Neither traveler was visible.
The plane couldn't land because of the bad ice. In any case, it was clear that they had somehow perished by falling through thin ice or having the piece of ice they were sledding on break away, then shatter underneath them. The latter is a common danger around open water and strong currents. Countless Inuit hunters have died when a piece of sea ice broke off from shore and drifted away. In the 1920s and 1930s, RCMP officers doing sovereignty patrols out of Dundas Harbour, on southern Devon Island, almost died on more than one occasion because of the treacherous ice along that coast. Eventually, they found it safer to cross the Devon ice cap to the north side of the island, and begin their patrols on the secure ice of Jones Sound. And in the most miraculous escape in arctic history, a group of explorers and Inuit became stranded on an ice floe off the west coast of Greenland in 1872. Over the next several months, they drifted 3,000 km south on an ever-dwindling cake of ice. Incredibly, they were spotted by a whaling ship off the coast of Newfoundland and were all rescued, with no fatalities.
Eventually, a recovery party from Resolute snowmobiled out to the site of this latest tragedy. They brought back the dog, which had remained in the vicinity, plus one of the bodies, which was still attached to a sled floating in open water. This indicated that it really was an accident with thin ice rather than a polar bear attack. The fact that they had their packed sleds indicates that the ice didn't break underneath them when they were in camp, which is sometimes a danger on the Arctic Ocean. It is, however, strange that he would still be attached to the sled: If you fell in the water, you'd have plenty of time to get out before succumbing to hypothermia. The natural thing to do would be to get out of the harness and try to get into warm camp clothes or a sleeping bag. Some imagine that in ice water, you freeze within seconds, but that's a fallacy. Tourists often take polar dips for several minutes. When the flamboyant thermophysiologist Dr. Gordon Giesbrecht ("Professor Popsicle") immersed himself in an icewater bath on the David Letterman show some years ago, he easily endured 17 minutes. Even considering that salt water may run a little colder (the ocean freezes at -2C), one should have at least 5 or 10 minutes to clamber out.
The two victims were experienced sledders, but they had done mainly treks across the Greenland ice cap and were less familiar with sea ice. Sea ice is different from freshwater ice. Often sea ice is safe right to the edge of open water because the weak margin has broken off and what remains is thick and solid. I've stood right on the edge of sea ice and had open water lapping at my toes. This is called the floe edge and is a great place to spot wildlife. However, sometimes ice tries to reform, but it hasn't had enough time or cold to freeze securely. That's when thin ice is a danger.
I'd especially want to know whether the pair had a packraft or drysuits that fit over arctic clothing, which North Pole trekkers use to swim across leads. One of the victims had on his website a clip of this drysuit in action from a previous expedition, but there is no indication whether they had such survival gear on this journey. Such backups are vital around open water or bad ice.
Two guys drown during an expedition to study thinning ice: It was clear that once the general media got hold of the story, some were going to spin it into a parable about climate change. Sure enough, the online magazine Salon soon did a superficial piece about the tragedy as climate change symbolism. The Weather Network jumped on board:
I don't know if you could call them science heroes, because as noted earlier, they were adventurers, not scientists. And death by sea ice happened regularly centuries before climate change. An old adage from the island of Igloolik, Nunavut, states that if you laid in a row the caribou parkas of all the hunters who've fallen through sea ice, it would stretch from Igloolik to the mainland.
Because we don't know the details of what happened to the pair, it's hard to fault anyone. But this was not a freak avalanche or earthquake: with this sort of tragedy, mistakes are usually involved. On my first arctic expedition, I fell through some (freshwater) ice and almost died. I screwed up. In adventure, you sometimes need luck to survive your mistakes.
On sledding technique
I used to think that dragging a sled took no skill at all. I learned by doing it and wasn't conscious of improvement. It's like walking: how technical is that? But traveling with inexperienced manhaulers, I noticed that things that were second nature to me were not obvious to them. Eventually I had to concede that while anyone can pull a sled, to do so properly takes learning.
The most noticeable failing in beginners is improper use of poles. The poles should not be just feelers, but third and fourth legs that contribute almost equally to propulsion. At the beginning of an expedition, my arms are not strong enough to drive close to 50 percent, but they get stronger over the weeks, so that by the end, the triceps become as well-developed as the legs. A quadruped hauls much faster than a biped. If you try to do everything with your legs, the legs tire much earlier in the day.
Preserving the legs is an important part of sledding technique. Most fit people can do seven or eight hours a day, but stretching that to 10 hours, 13 hours, 16 hours requires guile. When hauling a loaded sled over chunks of pressure ice, for example, the innocent approach is to power over with your legs. It's better to use gravity. As the sled begins to go uphill over the ice, I straighten my legs and fall forward, catching myself once the sled passes the fulcrum. With practice, you can do this without breaking stride.
My partner in Labrador, James MacKinnon, was a passionate learner who was always trying to improve his technique in whatever he tackled. As a result, we discussed the fine points of arctic travel a lot. I've already published below his comments on adapting to cold. Here are a few of his impressions about sledding:
JBM: I think of sledding as being as technical as a swimming stroke or cross-country ski stride, when you’re doing movements that aren’t complicated on the face of them, but you want to do them as efficiently as possible.
The technique for deep, soft snow is to make small, quick steps, like trail runners use short strides on steep uphills or cyclists do a high rotation in an easy gear. That keeps you from ever getting to the point where you feel you can’t take another step. If you work too hard in soft snow, you’ll eventually bonk.
When we hit the packed snowmobile trail, I tried to use my deep snow technique at first. I eventually noticed how in hard snow you bent at the waist, putting more weight on your shoulders, then took long strides, planting your feet in front of your chest. At the same time, you planted your pole at the same time as your foot, rather than slightly later. This increased the propulsion from your arms. I tried this and was able to go much faster. That’s not intuitive. The first few days, harder snow also uses different muscles. You feel it more in the groin, for example, especially on snowshoes.
When I got home, I had all these new muscles: my calves were wider, and a ball of muscle had formed at the top of my hamstring. Pectorals and triceps – which I don’t use much in climbing – had also developed.
In Labrador, JB Mackinnon had many great talks in the tent at night -- about previous adventures, books, and as writers will, the realities of making a living in publishing. We also discussed the mental and physical aspects of expeditions. Here's an interview I did with him after we returned about one of those topics: adapting to cold.
JK: You've said that this was your first time on snowshoes. But what were some of your previous experiences with cold?
JBM: The closest I've been to hypothermia was in Africa and the Dominican Republic. Both times, my light clothing got wet. I underestimated how cold the tropics can be in a wind.
My worst encounters with cold all had to do with water. I used to whitewater kayak on Vancouver Island in winter -- it's the rainy season when the rivers are highest. The water was always cold, and often I had to put on the previous day's frozen wetsuit. Then, two or three years ago, I participated in a traditional harvest of wapato bulbs. It's an aquatic tuber also known as Indian potato. You're in water up to your chest, and you stomp these things out of the mud with your bare feet. It was December, and ice had started to form on the river's edge. Afterward, I tried to drink tea to warm up, but I was shaking too badly to bring the cup to my mouth. I had to sit in the car for an hour with the heater blasting to warm up.
JK: What were your first impressions of the extreme cold in Labrador?
JBM: It's hard to get off a plane from Vancouver and walk around Goose Bay and it's -36 and you think, "Hey, I'm going camping in a couple of days."
The morning we started our expedition, it was -40. I was shocked. The signals going from my body to my head were telling me to panic. I overdressed at first because of that reaction. I felt I was in a dangerously cold environment and I needed to be hot -- not just warm -- in order to feel safe.
JK: Yet you adapted quickly to that environment.
JBM: I'd mentally prepared myself to feel badly for the first few days. But even on the first day, I realized that I was well enough equipped to be warm, day and night. Little by little, I got smarter about dressing. By day three, the alarm bells had gone and I remember thinking that adapting hadn't been that hard a process.
JK: What did you learn about the cold on this trip?
JBM: First, how you have to manage your pace and clothing in order not to overheat and sweat too much. (For me, it's hard not to sweat at all.)
Second, I learned to be conscious of what my true body condition was, versus what the frigid temperatures were telling me to believe.
At the beginning of every day, I tried to warm up slowly, with small, slow steps. If you're not warmed up, it's easy to damage a tendon, ligament or muscle. Some years ago, my partner was sitting at her desk for several hours. The room was cold, she was stiff, and she got up and ran to fetch something and tore her Achilles tendon.
I learned from you that there are moments of stoicism that one simply has to endure, like putting on 40-below boots in the morning. Also, not to hesitate putting layers on or taking them off. Sometimes this fine-tuning seems like futzing or wasting time, but it's really important. Lastly, the cold has certain counter-intuitive aspects. When your body core temperature starts to drop, you feel it in your hands first, for example. Your core doesn't feel cold but you need an extra layer, not just a thicker pair of gloves.
As long as you stay off glaciers and away from avalanche slopes, winter manhauling is a comparatively safe wilderness activity. Extreme cold may require a willingness to suffer, but it's not dangerous. The only two manhauling dangers in the North are falling through the ice and polar bears.
As readers of this website know, I've had many run-ins with polar bears. And on my first Labrador expedition many years ago, as an inexperienced traveler, I broke through the ice and almost didn't survive. I was careless. Some sled haulers on the Arctic Ocean have actually perished by falling into freezing water, but I would argue that they were to blame as well. They just weren't as lucky as I was.
On this recent Labrador expedition, we were only theoretically in polar bear country. An encounter that far south, deep in the interior, would have been a truly freak event. About 10 years ago, friends in St. Augustine, on the Quebec Lower North Shore, saw polar bear tracks in the interior southeast of our position, closer to the pack ice of the Gulf of the St. Lawrence. Out of respect for my past encounters, we carried a firearm just in case, and always brought it into the tent with us overnight, but no bear passed by.
However, the danger from thin ice this time was the most serious it has been since that first near-disaster years ago. On most northern rivers, the holes around rapids are obvious, and the ice even a footstep away from open water is reassuringly thick. At one narrows, where another major watercourse joined the St. Augustine River, we had to detour through the woods to avoid some thin ice. But the real crux of the expedition came a few days later, at a 13-kilometre section known locally as the Devil's Hole. Here, the river drops an average of 16 metres (50 feet) per kilometre. Huge.
The aerial photo, above, looks to have been taken around early April; there wasn't that much open water at the beginning of March. Nevertheless, from the moment we entered Devil's Hole, we felt at risk. If we'd just been snowshoeing, we could have easily kept to the wooded slopes above the river, but they were too steep and wooded for sleds, and canyon walls on both banks hindered short detours. Mostly, we had to work the river itself.
In the first kilometre, we were in peril two or three times. In the top photo, James is hauling over a bridge of thin ice and airy snow, as a torrent rages loudly beneath him.
At this rate, it was going to take us four days to get through this 13-km section. If the other 12 kilometres were anything like the first, we would have to risk falling into the rapids dozens of times. This sort of travel is like crossing an avalanche slope: You either make it in one piece or you don't make it at all. And as we took chances to creep forward that first day, I kept wondering: three days later, eight kilometres in, if we face an unacceptably risky section after so much hard work and commitment, will we show good judgment and turn back, or will we roll the dice with our lives? It would be very hard to turn back.
So, after four hours, we decided to retreat out of Devil's Hole in favor of a long overland detour. Turning back at that early stage was not hard. Neither of us like uncontrolled risks. Unlike some other adventurers, arctic travelers prefer controlled situations. We enjoy hard work, contemplation and long periods out on the land, not brief, intense sections of out-of-our-skin terror. James, a serious climber, had previously scaled the Nose of El Capitan. While that involved more exposure to danger than this sledding journey, his skill and systematic approach to every pitch allowed him to remain in control of his fate.
Abandoning Devil's Hole turned out to be our expedition's key decision. We not only eliminated probable disaster in exchange for having to snowshoe a few extra kilometres, but a day later, we bumped into an old snowmobile track, left -- we later learned -- by our friend Felix Fequet from St. Augustine. The semi-packed trail upped our mileage from a sad 7 kilometres a day to 12 kilometres. Shortly after, we hit a main trappers' snowmobile trail. We no longer even needed snowshoes. The first 100km on this difficult expedition had taken us 16 days; we did the last 100km to St. Augustine, safely, in 4 days.
Everyone who works in the arts runs into piracy. Photo agencies used to pursue unauthorized use of images aggressively. Pre-digital piracy was so difficult that it tended to be a commissioned sin, in which perpetrators knew what they were doing. Today, screen captures and other digital tools make piracy an easy and often unthinking act. A few months ago, I noticed that a store in Banff was using an image of mine to advertise one of their services. My rule of thumb is to send a polite letter first, on the assumption that it's an innocent error: Many people simply don't realize that they have to pay to use someone's photo. That was the case here. The store owner liked the image and wanted to keep using it, so we negotiated a licensing fee. Everyone won.
You'd drive yourself crazy pursuing every 10-year-old who's using an image of yours as a screen saver or for a school project. If you go to Twitter and look up @ellesmereisland, you'll see one of my polar bear shots. I have no idea whose handle this is. It's not an active account, so it might be someone who wanted to reserve the name in the hope of selling it later.
Pirated images turn up even in legitimate sources. Amazon is selling an iPhone case cover, above, showing me hauling across the northern Labrador tundra. I took the shot using a radio trigger, a kind of fancy self-timer. This image is not with any of my stock agencies, so it's either a screen capture from this website or from a magazine article I did after the expedition. From the company's name and lack of online presence, I suspect that Love Destiny is out of China, still the top spot for digital piracy.
We arrived in St. Augustine tired and sore but in pretty good shape after 34 hard days. No major ailments, just a few temporary issues. In the temperatures that we experienced, it's hard to avoid frostnipped fingertips. Gloves inevitably get a little wet, then freeze; you have to dry them through hand warmth, which means stuffing fingers into frozen gloves at -30 or -40. The fingertips become sensitive, as if you're learning how to play the guitar, and erupt in second-degree-burn-type blisters. Along with the tenderness, they go away in time.
We were also putting such pressure on the balls of our feet from the heavy pulling that after a while, we each lost feeling in the toes of one foot -- a nerve irritation called neurapraxia. I've had it before: the feeling returns in a month or two.
These little ailments, plus other challenges -- such as stuffing your feet into 40-below boots; the feet first scream, then go numb for two or three hours -- would deter many people from ever wanting to do such a trek. Understandable. But really, it's not that bad. To enjoy a month out in the wilderness, all that's required of you is hard work and a little stoicism.
Back from Labrador after a very hard 400km snowshoe trek with partner JB MacKinnon. We went from Sheshatshiu, near Goose Bay, to St. Augustine, on Quebec's Lower North Shore. While western Canada basked in springlike temperatures through February and March, southern Labrador had the coldest winter on record. On our first 20 days, 12 days were -40 to -50C. The snow on our river routes was uniformly soft. The fact that the trek took us only 34 days is thanks to us finding a packed snowmobile trail toward the end. Our first 100km took us 16 days; the last 100 km took four.
Most of the time, we fought to make 7-8km/day in the unpacked snow -- a hard-won km/hr. The work was so hard that we simply couldn't put in more than seven-hour days. Wind occasionally blew, and we were always hopeful that it would transform the snow into a supportive surface over which we could travel swiftly, but it never did. Once the snow has had time to settle, wind doesn't do much to it. You want a strong wind immediately after a snowfall, when the powdered snow is easily blown around and transformed into hard sastrugi.
We weren't the only creatures struggling in the soft snow. As we hauled up the Kenamu River, we kept running into moose -- mostly cow- and-calf pairs -- feeding on the willows along the shore. A moose's long, spindly legs give new meaning to postholing. The moose sank up to their bellies, leaving tracks like mutant otters, as one Labrador man later put it. (Otters slide on their bellies and leave toboggan-like trails.) The moose had such a hard time that we could have run them down on snowshoes. In the deep snow, they could not have used their legs -- their only weapons -- to protect themselves. Luckily for them, the snow was too deep for wolves too, and we saw no tracks.
JB MacKinnon and I leave for our 400km snowshoe/sledding trek through Labrador on Feb. 5. We spent a few days in Goose Bay with friends, then expect to hit the trail on Feb. 9.
Snowfall after snowfall has belted the Goose Bay area; little wonder that the stop signs in town rest atop such high poles. All this snow will make for some hard traveling.
Another interesting technical obstacle is the Trans Labrador Highway, which we cross near our halfway point. Snowploughs create deep canyons of snow. At some point, we have to descend one cliff and up the other. This will surely be a job for JB's climbing skills.
Our other most technical section is a 16-kilometre stretch along the St. Augustine River. The river narrows, rapids create much open water, even in midwinter, and steep banks on both sides make sled detours difficult. This area is known locally by the colorful name, the Devil's Hole.
In early February, writer JB (James) MacKinnon and I are heading to Labrador to snowshoe 400 kilometres along an old Innu route from Sheshatshiu (near Goose Bay) to St. Augustine, on the Quebec North Shore. It should take 25-28 days. We're beginning in the heart of winter because our route mainly follows two rivers, the Kenamu in Labrador and the St. Augustine in Quebec, and we want to hit the rapids on those waterways when they are mostly frozen and there exist sneak routes around open water, even in the canyon sections.
Thus the journey will be cold, though less severe than early February in northern interior Labrador. We'll have to deal with frequent lows in the -30s rather than the -40s and -50s. On the other hand, we may encounter far more difficult travel conditions than further north, because thicker forest means softer snow: In open country, wind and cold transform the snow into a hard surface over which a sled glides easily.
Pulling even a moderately weighted sled through knee-deep powder is one of the most aerobic chores it is possible to do. Imagine hauling 50 steps at 100 percent effort, then, gasping, stop to regain your breath, then take another 50 steps, catch your breath, and continue to do this all day. Six hours of interval training.
My partner James is author of The 100 Mile Diet and most recently, The Once and Future World. He's also an exquisite magazine writer. We are both past contributing editors to Explore magazine. James edited (wonderfully) my piece on the 2012 sledding trip I did with Noah Nochasak, from Nain, Labrador to Kangiqsualujjuaq, in northern Quebec. It first appeared in Explore and was later picked up by Readers' Digest and by the online publication, Perceptive Travel.
My account of sledding intrigued James, who is no slouch in the outdoors. Although he has limited experience in winter camping, he snowboards, mountain bikes and is a 5.12d [read: serious] climber who has scaled El Capitan, the same big wall (though not the same route) as the one recently completed by Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson.
For me, our route is a completion of sorts. I've kayaked the whole Labrador coast, from Killinek down to the Straits, and I've pulled a sled through most of the interior. This will complete my informal north-south winter route through Labrador. Really, it's just an excuse to do another journey, through a part of the peninsula I haven't tackled before.
I'd hoped to find an Innu man to join us as a third member and share his understanding of their part of the country. In recent years, hundreds of Innu have undertaken long snowshoe walks through Labrador and Quebec, reconnecting with the ancient ways of travel. Though important and inspirational, these walks were all heavily supported by snowmobilers, who carried most of the gear and food, tamped down the trail and sometimes, set up the trekkers' bush tent every day ahead of their arrival in camp. I joined one of those walks back in 2008, with well-known Innu figure Elizabeth Penashue.
I put out the word as best I could, but no one in the Innu community expressed any interest in joining us on our unsupported trek to St. Augustine. It made me recognize yet again how unique my Inuit friend Noah is, for his passion to travel out on the land for weeks, the way southerners like myself do it, but underpinned with the spirituality and tradition of of his culture.
Re the polar bear attack discussed below, one of my correspondents, Randall Osczevski, explains how hard it is to find a reliable high-voltage electric fence for wilderness travel (versus the alarm-style model that I use): "There are two problems with an electric fence. First, the bear has to make electrical contact with the bare wire, even though it is covered with fur which is probably a poor conductor of electricity. Second, it has to be electrically grounded. On dry snow, the latter isn't likely, or on dry moss, either."
Randall is a retired scientist who used to work at a government cold-research lab in Toronto. He's best known for reinventing the wind chill factor, to make it more accurate. Everyone uses his version nowadays.
Another problem that Randall didn't mention is that it takes significant power to have a high-voltage charge running through a wire for hours every night. You'd need to backpack a pretty hefty battery. As a result, most electrical safety fences are heavy, semi-permanent devices -- such as the one used at the Torngats park base camp.
All the portable fences used in polar bear country by travelers are the alarm type. It needs minimal electricity: I can power mine for two months on a little 9-volt battery. It was surprising to read that the Sierra Club guides brought a shock-type fence to Labrador, but not surprising that it didn't work.
Anatomy of a Polar Bear Attack
In July 2013, a polar bear dragged a hiker out of his tent in Labrador's Torngat Mountains. The rest of his group -- part of a Sierra Club tour to that national park -- managed to scare off the bear by firing flares. The hiker was badly injured but was medivaced out after a few hours and survived.
A New York journalist working for an environmental group has just come out with a Kindle ebook about the incident, called Melt Down: Terror at the Top of the World. She combines the story of the attack with an overview about disappearing sea ice and its effect on polar bears. She connects climate change with an increasing number of polar bear/human encounters. The implication is that skinny bears are desperately seeking out human prey.
Her story of the attack was gripping, and her background on polar bears and melting sea ice was pretty good, too. But climate change had nothing to do with this attack. By all accounts, this bear was healthy. Starvation, in fact, has nothing to do with most polar bear attacks on people.
I've seen at least 100 polar bears out on the land, and have had to chase away over a dozen predatory individuals. Like the Torngats attack, many of these incidents happened at night, when I was sleeping. An approaching bear becomes increasingly comfortable with the sights and smells of a quiet camp. It gets closer. Then things may escalate.
Most predators are opportunists. If a potential meal presents itself, they'll consider it, even though it's not their usual fare. But predators are also conservative. If this unfamiliar prey seems formidable, they'll think twice. Predators have to avoid injury, because a wounded animal usually perishes. Polar bear researcher Nikita Ovsyanikov once told me that polar bears are among the most conservative animals in the world. This makes sense, because their typical prey, the ring seal, is harmless, so hunting is a danger-free activity. They aren't used to prey that fights back.
Almost all my close calls with polar bears have been with adolescent males, like the one above. Like their human counterparts, adolescent males are cocky and curious. They haven't learned humility.
Alexandra and I also had an incident in Labrador in 2011 with a full-grown male, during one of our kayak expeditions. It allowed itself to be chased away but wouldn't leave the scene. It kept returning. Although this was a problem bear, it was big and fat and healthy.
Very few travelers have had as many encounters with polar bears as I have, but one who has is Alfred Duller. Alfred, a retired schoolteacher from Austria, has spent 30 years hiking and kayaking Labrador. He's been pulled from his tent twice by polar bears, including by a mother with cubs. His experience with predatory bears has run the gamut: males, females, adolescents. Like me, he's never had to deal with a skinny bear. They're just not common. I've seen only one: on the Lower Savage Islands off the south coast of Baffin Island. This was during a cruise with Adventure Canada, where every summer I'm one of the resource people. We photographed the animal from the safety of a Zodiac.
Most polar bears scare off fairly easily, but the usual deterrents might not work with an animal like this, which has nothing to lose. You might have to shoot it, and anyone who travels the Arctic has to be mentally prepared to do this, even though the last thing a traveler wants is to kill a polar bear. But such a desperate animal was not the culprit last year in the Torngats.
The Sierra Club used to run tours in the High Arctic. Rather than work the same area every year, they picked new exploratory routes, in exciting parts of Ellesmere and Axel Heiberg Islands. No other company offered those imaginative adventures up there.
Nevertheless, when I heard that the Sierra Club had a tour planned for the Torngats, I wondered what they were thinking. My first experience in the Torngats had been on a similar backpacking tour back in 1991, but there were no polar bears then. The population has since exploded, perhaps because of the current moratorium on harp seal hunting. Nachvak Fiord is particularly dangerous. When Alexandra and I kayaked the length of the Torngats in 2006, we saw more polar bears in Nachvak Fiord than anywhere else. We had special permission to carry a firearm in the new national park, but the Sierra Club guides did not. As I've written before, firearms are a vital last resort in polar bear country. No one travels the Arctic without one. The prohibition against firearms in all Canadian national parks makes certain arctic reserves, including the Torngats, currently unsafe to travel.
According to Melt Down, the group carried an electric fence and a flare gun in lieu of a firearm. Flares are very effective; fences are only good if you use them properly. If you don't, they provide a false sense of security. This group's fence seemed to be a lot like the bear bells worn by inexperienced hikers here in the Rockies: a mere talisman. In recent years, three parties have had serious incidents with polar bears when their fences did not work properly. All these cases seem to have been more operator error than defective product.
My own security fence emits a loud alarm if a polar bear interrupts the circuit by breaking the perimeter wire. The noise might scare the bear away, but its primary function is to wake me up before the bear reaches the tent. Fences are a pain. Mine takes at least half an hour to set up. At the end of a long day, that's significant. The fence also requires small repairs almost daily. False alarms are common.
Alfred Duller's fence is more elaborate, as befitting someone who has been dragged from his tent by a polar bear. The diameter of his enclosed zone is about 60 metres. He understandably prefers lots of warning, but he sets up more base camps than I do. It's hard to spend an hour or two setting up a fence on a long-distance expedition where one packs up and travels every day.
The Sierra Club's borrowed fence did not sound an alarm but supposedly gave a strong shock to anything that brushed against it. The ebook gave the impression that it was not working well, but no one was willing to touch it to verify its effectiveness.
Judging from one photo in the ebook, the attack happened near the site below, where our own group camped in 1991 and not far from where Alexandra and I briefly set up our tent in 2006 before a polar bear showed up with her two cubs. We immediately relocated to the other side of the fiord.
The Sierra Club group spotted two polar bears on their second day, one a female with a cub, the other a male. The male approached until a flare made it retreat. But polar bears often don't flee entirely, they just withdraw a brief distance, then go about their business again. Often they wander off for good. Sometimes not. This bear lay down on a ridge nearby and just watched them.
For some reason, they didn't move their camp. It was a rainy afternoon, and they had faith in their talismanic bear fence. It's easy to speak from hindsight, of course, but without question if I found myself in Nachvak Fiord, with a polar bear lying down on a nearby knoll, I would have immediately moved camp as far inland as I could, rain or not. I would have tried to increase distance by going high up a ridge, although even that isn't a guaranteed escape: A researcher once noted that in bad weather, polar bears sometimes go high, seemingly preferring the snowfall of the upper reaches to the rain downslope.
Still, they're most common along the coast, so even a kilometre or two inland would have removed the group from the casual beachcombers, if not from the bears actively drawn to human smells. There actually aren't many of these. Most polar bears prefer to avoid people. But the hikers needed to get away from that male loitering around. It didn't bother them the first night, so they pushed their luck and stayed there a second night.
Most of the hikers had his or her own tent, all serried within the tight perimeter of the fence. One of the men was a loud snorer, and he was the one the bear targeted in the middle of the night. It's impossible to tell if his snoring drew the bear to him, although I've had two incidents where shouting from inside a tent, where the bears couldn't see me, made them even more interested. I've never read any research about this, nor had it confirmed by Inuit hunters, but based on those two episodes, I'll never make noise at a polar bear from inside a tent again. By comparison, shouting from outside, within full view of the animal, sometimes scares it off.
Whereas my friend Alfred was dragged out of his tent both times by his sleeping bag, this bear seized the unfortunate Sierra Club hiker by his head. The fence had evidently not worked. Its electric jolt either wasn't strong enough to deter a thousand-pound, heavily insulated polar bear, or the fence was not sending out a current. The man's screams woke the camp, as the bear dragged him toward the beach. One of their guides fired two flares, and the polar bear dropped its victim and lumbered off.
As quickly as it had started, the incident was over. That's the nature of a polar bear attack. Life sort of scales back to normal instantly, although your nerves remain so jangled that you certainly don't sleep again that night.
What made this attack different, of course, was that the man was gravely injured. A physician in the group managed to stabilize him. Eventually he was evacuated by helicopter to Kuujjuaq, then flown to Montreal. After several operations, he recovered. Although he was a U.S. lawyer, he was big-spirited enough to sue neither Parks Canada nor the Sierra Club, which put clients in a predicament that even the Torngats' own risk management consultant called "only a matter of time." The man even returned to Nachvak Fiord this past summer, by boat, with the journalist.
I'd summarize the causes of this incident as follows:
1. They relied too much on a fence without understanding either how (or whether) it worked or its limitations. When sleeping in polar bear country, with or without a fence, you have to keep one ear always awake, listening for sounds. The bear often pokes around camp for some time before making its move. On expeditions in polar bear country, it's important not to be so exhausted at the end of the day that you sleep too soundly.
2. A polar bear was hanging around their camp for two days, yet they failed to relocate.
3. Although tour operators have worked the Torngats intermittently since the 1970s, the explosion of polar bears in northern Labrador has made hiking unsafe along the coast, especially since the creation of the national park in 2006 has meant that outfitters and independent travelers can no longer carry a firearm. Only local Inuit can. (Adventure Canada uses armed Inuit bear monitors when taking passengers on day hikes in the Torngats.)
Near the end of Melt Down, park superintendent Judy Rowell suggests that local people who know the Torngats would only do that sort of camping a minimum of 10 kilometres inland, well away from most polar bears. Setting aside the fact that Inuit no longer travel that way, retreating 10 kilometres from the ocean makes little practical sense in this coastal range. With or without a gun, I would be very nervous camping again on the shores of Nachvak Fiord. Polar bears are sure to pass closely. Most will not bother you, but you have to be prepared for one or two serious encounters. It is certainly not a place for tour groups.
Occasionally I'm contacted by historians working on arctic books set in the areas I've traveled. They've done their archival work, but as a rule, they've never been north. They're looking for details on what the place is actually like, from someone familiar with both the environment and the subject of their research. I'm happy to help, especially because in my own books, I often try to reinterpret explorers' adventures and misadventures from the perspective of an educated traveler.
One of these historians has just come out with his biography of the Fram, the greatest of all polar ships. Published by the University Press of New England, Charles W. Johnson's Ice Ship chronicles the Fram's three classic expeditions under Norway's great polar trio of Nansen, Sverdrup and Amundsen.
I've visited the Fram at its final resting place near Oslo, where it is housed as a museum. And on Ellesmere Island, I've seen bolts to which the Fram was moored, memorial crosses to the two crewmen who perished on the expedition and dozens of camps where Sverdrup and his men discovered Axel Heiberg Island and covered more of Ellesmere Island than every other explorer combined.
While Ice Ship isn't a mainly a picture book, its 9x9" format includes many old photos from those expeditions. And it incorporates information that has only become public in recent years -- the suicide of Sverdrup's doctor, the sometimes acrimonious rivalry between scientists and sailors on the Second Fram Expedition, and what lay behind the conflict between Amundsen and Johansen, who was such a strong traveler and had figured so prominently on Nansen's expedition. (Moral: Even if a leader screws up, you criticize him at your peril.)
Last month I prescreened many of the films for the upcoming Banff Mountain Film Festival. Three or four other prescreeners and I waded through all the good and bad films entered this year in the Mountain Environment/Natural History, Mountain Culture and Adventure categories. Below, some personal favorites.
Note that not all of these will be screened at the festival or the following world tour. Some of them are just too long -- there is limited room for 90-minute films. But if you have a chance to see them somewhere, they are worth it.
Mountain Environment & Natural History
Touching the Wild
How does the Marlboro Man spend his time when he can no longer do cigarette ads? He roams the Wyoming chaparral with a herd of mule deer who've adopted him as a family member. This PBS Nature documentary with the totally forgettable name is an unforgettable watching experience. Naturalist Joe Hutto really is your classic Hollywood cowpoke. He squints, he carries a lever-action 30-30, he wears a beautifully styled denim shirt, he sheds a reluctant tear -- but not before lowering his head modestly into the shadows. Joking aside, he's a great on-camera presence, and his intimate and emotional connection with some local mule deer is pure magic.
16 Legs -- Spider Love
The festival always gets lots of competent BBC and National Geographic wildlife films, but this one is different -- quirky, funny, a one-off project. A arachnologist hires a cinematographer to film the mating of a Tasmanian cave spider. Like many cave creatures, the spider does not like light -- an obstacle to filming. It also tends to remain motionless for weeks at a time. When the scientist first appears on camera, dressed in a black shirt flamboyantly embroidered with large spiders, he earns a chuckle. It's not the last laugh in this very engaging film. Unfortunately, the trailer captures none of this.
A small gold-mining town in Columbia under threat from greedy Canadian developers takes matters into its own hands. Sounds like your usual environmental morality play, but extremely well done.
A cartoon telling of the rediscovery of a supposedly extinct species of stick insect on exotic Lord Howe Island in the Tasman Sea.
Superb documentary of America's infatuation with dams.
And Then We Swam
Everywhere but the polar regions, the British are competent adventurers; but culturally they love to embark on mega-projects with little knowledge and only pluck to see them through. This is another fine example of that genre. Two young guys set off to row across the Indian Ocean without a support boat or any experience rowing. Incredibly, they cover 3,500 miles until just before landfall in Mauritius, when they try to get through a reef and disaster strikes.
Under the Wings
Alas, this 87-minute film will not be shown at the festival. A commercial jet pilot, soaring at 37,000 feet above everything, wonders what the world beneath him is like, so he decides to cycle from Guangzhou airport in China to Paris along the flight path he knows so well. Long-distance tensions with his wife add add a recognizable but little-explored reality to this imaginative journey.
Mystery of the Arctic Cairn
A journey on Ellesmere Island, along a route I've traveled myself. I kinda wonder why they brought four dogs with them -- you only need one as a polar bear guard, and dogs eat almost as much as people, increasing the load -- but they've done a good job at making a sledding journey engaging. I love sledding, but I recognize that it can be like watching paint dry; all the interesting stuff is internal.
Even the world's remotest places are slowly modernizing, and this film shows the temptations of television and internet coming to medieval Bhutan. It focuses on a boy studying to be a monk but who really just wants to be a kid. The intimacy is striking; it's as if the camera isn't there.
All great films have one feature in common: memorable characters. Here, two eccentric Egyptians, an old woman and an herbalist, lovingly tend their oasis gardens in the countryside far from Cairo, the pyramids and politics.
A weeper about a 90-year-old man, his love affair with his wife and with flyfishing, and his war memories. Only marginally about mountains, but possibly the best film at this year's festival.
No trailer on this one. Portrays a small mountain village in northern Italy through profiles of residents with different and sometimes clashing relationships to it -- the young woman who dreams of moving away, the stranger who settled here, the farmer who loves his lot, the guy who succeeded as a businessman in a far-off city and now returns to his native village only as a somewhat stuffy outsider. Lovely cinematography.
Expeditions as Weight Loss Programs
Part of the fun of expeditions is being able to eat as much as you want, whatever you want, and still lose weight. A pound of chocolate a day? Check. A breakfast or supper bowl so heavy that you can barely lift it? Check. Brownies, candies, butter in everything? Check, check, check.
I shed a few pounds on every expedition, but because I know how much food to bring, the weight loss is rarely more than five pounds or so, even on a hard two month sledding trek. The most I ever lost was on a relatively non-physical trip: a month in the Karakum Desert of Turkmenistan. My Russian friends who organized it brought little food; we lived mainly on bread and tomatoes, and not a lot of those. I came back after four weeks 15 pounds lighter and looking pretty gaunt.
Some of my expedition partners have lost a lot of weight. When Bob Cochran and I manhauled 700km up the east coast of Ellesmere Island in 2007, I lost almost nothing, while Bob lost 25 pounds. We ate the same breakfasts and suppers, but Bob didn't eat enough during the day. It's hard to eat large amounts of frozen food, but you have to force yourself. When he returned home to Los Angeles and put on his city clothes, Bob said, "I felt like a little boy wearing his father's pants."
When an expedition ends, you don't begin to gain weight back immediately. Your metabolism continues shrew-like for some time. How long depends on the length and severity of the trip. A hard month and a half of travel gives you about a week when you can do no exercise, eat like a horse and still lose weight. This afterdrop is a feature of every trip. You lose weight as your muscles shrink. Muscle is heavy, and it's not uncommon to drop an extra four pounds, beyond what you lost on the trip itself, in the first few days after returning home.
If anyone wants to lose 20 pounds while eating all they want, this is the way. There's a niche to be filled running expeditions as weight-loss clinics.
Prowling the long strand at Burnett Bay
A grey whale gives itself a good scratch on the sandy bottom near camp.
One of the intimate views in the Hakai area, off the central BC coast.
lexandra and I recently returned from a small non-Arctic adventure, kayaking 250 kilometres off the central coast of British Columbia from Bella Bella to Port Hardy, on northern Vancouver Island. It took us 10 easy days. Only the last day, when we paddled 50km to Port Hardy to avoid bad weather that was moving in, was at an expedition pace. In other words, you hurt a bit and are somewhat bagged at the end of the day.
A 250km journey is a strange beast, neither expedition nor recreational trip. I haven't done many of them; this one and last year's 200 km circumski around Mount Logan are the only two. Usually I prefer 400km and up. The 10-day trip differs from the 25, 30 or 50-day journey in that the end is in play from the beginning. In other words, on a month-long expedition, if you're weatherbound for a couple of days near the beginning, it doesn't matter. You can make it up imperceptibly along the way. But on a 10-day trip, a delay of any sort changes the arithmetic dramatically. You suddenly have to paddle 30 km a day instead of 20. On a short trip, thinking two or three days ahead is necessary from the start.
Since Alexandra and I knew that we could cover 50 kilometres if we had to, the 25 km/day target was quite conservative. It allowed us to paddle from 7:30am till 1 pm or so and have lots of time to prowl the beaches around our campsite at the end of the day. As usual in kayaking, when the need to cover distance creates a certain pressure, we got up early (5am) in order to paddle mostly during the calm mornings, before the afternoon winds rise. The only disadvantage of that, besides packing in the dark for the first 45 minutes, is that mornings were often foggy (August is known as Fogust on that part of the BC coast) and we did most of our crossings just staring at the compass. Land only became visible, as a dark smudge, when we were half a kilomtere away.
A little-known (at least, in the English world) but impressive northern expedition is about to wrap up successfully. Four Quebec guides have been skiing and pulling sleds from Montreal to Kuujjuaq, near the northern tip of the province. They'll finish their 2,000-km journey in the next few days.
Called Projet Karibu (Project Caribou), it is in part an homage to the four Quebecois who first hauled that distance in 133 days back in 1980. At the time, I too lived in Montreal, and when I began to prepare my own first sledding expedition, across Labrador, I contacted the leader of that 1980 group, Andre Laperriere, for advice. Andre was generous and forthcoming and introduced me to one of his sponsors, the local outdoor company Kanuk.
At the time, Kanuk made some of the most imaginative winter gear in the world, and I still use some of their ideas, although I now have them custom-made: To survive, Kanuk abanoned the miniscule winter camping market and transformed itself into a manufacturer of town-and-country wear.
Andre was a great talker and energetic planner. He and his friend Louis Craig, another of the original four sledders, wanted to become the first Quebecers to scale an 8,000-metre peak, so they joined an expedition to Annapurna. It didn't go well. Some members died, and while Andre and his friend survived, I had the sense that that close call spooked them out of their Himalayan ambitions permanently. When I left Montreal, I lost touch with him.
I didn't have much faith in Eric Larsen's North Pole expedition because he and his partner started off carrying 317 pounds for 55 days -- 50 pounds more than necessary. Nevertheless, they plugged away at 3 miles per day for the first month and after 41 days, are now making good progress.
Unlike most expeditions, which rely on the temporary Russian ice station Barneo for the affordable flight out, they have the funding for their own charter. Every spring, Barneo does the logistics for North Pole tourism -- Last Degree treks, champagne flights to the Pole, etc. Because they set up camp near the North Pole itself, pickup flights are vastly cheaper than hiring a Twin Otter from Resolute, which costs about $100,000. The downside is that Barneo pulls up stakes early: They've already shut down. In recent years, many expeditions failed because they couldn't reach the Pole before Barneo's close date.
Larsen's daily blog is more readable than most. Both he and his partner seem somewhat depressive characters, who don't really enjoy being out there, but that transparency is more interesting than the blank affect of a typical expedition report.
Mountaineering and arctic travel both take place in worlds dominated by austerity and purity. In most ways, however, the two activities are quite dissimilar. Arctic travel tends not to appeal to climbers, who use the word "slog" a lot in reference to it. Mountaineers are sprinters -- a climb takes hours or at most days -- while arctic travelers are marathoners. It hardly makes sense to speak of arctic travel except in multiple weeks.
Then there's weather. Many mountaineers I know have abundant horror stories in which they spent vast quantities of time in a tent, waiting for a weather window in which to race to the summit. In some particularly gnarly parts of the world, they had to wait out 20 days of storms to climb for three or four days. This is unheard-of on arctic sledding expeditions, where you can move in just about anything. You don't have to worry about avalanche conditions, and good visibility is not as important, because there isn't the danger of falling off a 3,000-foot cliff.
Occasionally, an arctic headwind is so strong that it doesn't make sense to travel: It's exhausting and you don't make enough mileage to justify the effort or the risk of frostbite. In places like the High Arctic, it also doesn't happen that often. In 13 High Arctic sledding expeditions, I've been windbound about a week in total. Sometimes windbound days are just well-timed days off.
This isn't true everywhere. Labrador is far windier than Ellesmere Island or elsewhere in the High Arctic. Still, a typical expedition into the prevailing wind might require three windbound days in a month and a half. On my worst expedition for weather -- the 550 km route in 2012 with Noah Nochasak, from Nain, Labrador to Kangiqsualujjuaq in northern Quebec -- we sat out the wind for five days out of 44. Most of the layovers occurred in the barrens, a notoriously windy place, and we took some of that time off from caution: We were carrying a dome tent, which is more spacious than a tunnel tent but harder to set up in a gale.
Tailwinds are easier to bear than headwinds, and I've only opted out of a tailwind once, during a violent storm on the Quebec-Labrador border in mid-February. The temperature was -40 and the wind howled for three days at 30 to 35 knots. (see photo below) This was the last camp where I'd have the protection of trees before the open barrens. A good time for discretion. After almost a month on the trail, it was also a great opportunity to recharge the batteries by sleeping 18 hours a day.
The guy mentioned in my January 8 entry had to be rescued a few days after starting his expedition. CBC has this quote from him: "He said he now realizes that choosing the right equipment and testing it out beforehand is really important."
I'm a big fan of Australian Tim Cope's work. He's the best sort of traveler: stoic, talented, intellectually curious. At the Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival in 2012, everyone loved the film he did on his three-and-a-half-year journey on horseback from Mongolia to Hungary. And last year, his book on that trip, On the Trail of Genghis Khan, deservedly won the grand prize at the festival. The book not only describes a great journey; it is also -- one could even say mainly -- about the nomadic cultures he connects with along the way. It is conspicuously lacking in the superficial historical sections that pollute many adventure books. His background riffs are personal and informed. Check out this recent interview on Australian radio about Crimea. What a contrast to the polar types still yapping about Peary reaching the North Pole.
From a professional adventurer's point of view, there are serious difficulties with such long trips, especially those with a cultural focus: Few travelers who specialize in 5,000km epics do more than one or two of them. They are so disruptive to every other aspect of one's life. (Tim did this trip in his 20s, when it is easier to be footloose and fancy free.) Furthermore, to get the most out of the journey, you must do tons of reading beforehand. You must be almost an expert on the place before you go, in order to recognize and get the most out of what you see. Finally, and most difficult, you have to learn the language of the region through which you are traveling. Tim's experiences would not have been the same had he not been fluent in Russian. His Russian allowed him to get inside rather than stay outside.
Very few places remain on earth that are geographically large enough to permit 4,000 or 5,000-kilometre journeys, and where there is simultaneously an indigenous culture that still partly follows its ancient traditions, in the way that the nomads of the Asian steppe do. Tim could follow up by traveling across northern Russia -- he already has the language. But where else?
Here's a link to a research paper on Carbon Monoxide in Tents. Thanks to climber/doctor Tom Hornbein for passing this on to me. It's interesting reading for those of us who cook in a tent or snow shelter. I only wish that apart from the well-known risk of CO poisoning, the paper delved into whether low levels of carbon monoxide in a well-ventilated tent affect athletic performance: a more subtle question. I've never noticed anything, but you'd think it should...
A shout out to a fine traveler who has never shouted out about himself. Alfred Duller is a now-retired schoolteacher from Innsbruck, Austria. About 30 years ago, he and his brother went on a canoe trip on a river near southern Labrador. Their canoe dumped in the second day; they lost everything. They were too deep in the wilderness to walk out, so for the next four weeks, they survived by eating bark and tiny fish which they killed with stones. When a rescue helicopter eventually came looking for them, it carried body bags. But both Alfred and his brother had survived.
Despite this terrible introduction to the north, Alfred became obsessed with Labrador, and especially with the Torngat Mountains. Every summer he went back, kayaking and hiking. His goal was not to make giant miles; he was an explorer who enjoyed poking around. He seemed to go everywhere: looking at his obsessively annotated topo maps, every intriguing little valley, every bay, every ridgeline, bears his footprints. Over the years, he's become the most knowledgeable person alive about the Torngat Mountains.
I've had lots of run-ins with polar bears, but nothing compared to Alfred. He's been dragged out of his tent, twice. After these nightmarish episodes, he invented a bear alarm fence. It's the model I now use. He says that polar bears have triggered it approximately 100 times.
If I had to psychologize, I'd say that Labrador has given Alfred a sense of freedom compared to the rigid, Teutonic Austrian culture in which he lives most of the year. So it's both ironic and tragic that Alfred can't go back to the Torngats because of bureaucracy. Since that area became a national park, non-Inuit can no longer carry a firearm to protect themselves. More than anyone, Alfred knows that a firearm is vital in northern Labrador. So the leading expert on the Torngats remains in exile in his native Austria.
A short ps to yesterday's training entry: Admittedly, I'm prejudiced in favor of swimming as a training tool for arctic sledding, since I began as a marathon swimmer. But apart from strengthening the lower back, swimming also works the triceps, which are, counterintuitively, among the most important sledding muscles. Good sledders use their arms, via the ski poles, almost as much as their legs for propulsion. Inexperienced sledders tend to use ski poles as delicate little feelers rather than as third and fourth legs. By the end of an expedition, triceps should be as well-developed as quads and back muscles.
Even when I'm not training for an expedition, I work out almost daily. That's the price a restless person pays for his squirrelyness: If you don't take the edge off somehow, you can't sit or think. Above, today's cross-country ski workout at the Canmore Nordic Centre, my standard 7.2-mile route. Times are nothing special in a town that's home to the Olympic cross-country and biathlon teams, but it's not a bad recreational pace, I suppose. Slower/faster splits indicate uphill and downhill sections.
I've been active all my life, so I don't need to up the training much before an expedition. At least, before a sledding expedition. If I plan to carry a 100-pound backpack, I'll walk around with one for an hour or two a day; likewise, kayaking training involves paddling for an hour and a half or two hours a day four days a week. Then in the field, I'll ease in by paddling five or six hours a day for the first couple of days before bumping it up to seven or eight hours. I try to avoid monster days for the first week or two. If I feel a twinge anywhere, I scale down temporarily before the twinge becomes pain, the precursor to injury.
Manhauling a sled is different, because after 17 expeditions, I seem to have enough muscle memory not to have to train specifically for it. I've never hauled tires or other sled surrogates. Because pulling a heavy sled taxes the lower back, however, I make sure to work swimming into my general training regime. The crawl stroke seems to strengthen the same lower back muscles used in sledding.
So much research has been done about the effects of exercise, yet I've never been able to find a single paper on the physiological differences between exercising 12 hours a day for two solid months -- the typical arctic expedition situation -- versus exercising an hour or two a day year round. But I can say anecdotally: the physical life led on a long expedition feels completely different from a daily workout, even if the home workout is more intense. On expeditions, my heart never hits 170, as it does every day while cross-country skiing. (The exception is pulling a loaded sled through deep powder, but that rarely happens in the windswept, dry Arctic.) Nevertheless, I consider that my daily workouts merely slow the deterioration between expeditions. It's living that total physical life an average of two months a year that keeps me fit.
By comparison with the expedition discussed earlier this week, with its small likelihood of success, check out this interview on CBC's Labrador Morning with an American canoeist who plans this summer to retrace Mina Hubbard's 1905 expedition through the Labrador interior, using only traditional equipment. He radiates competence. Chance of success: extremely high.
The Hubbard saga is the most famous in the exploration of Labrador. It has all the elements of a good yarn: tragedy, survival, rivalry. It also has a couple of good books to stoke interest: the original The Lure of the Labrador Wild, by one of the survivors, Dillon Wallace; and Great Heart, a novelistic but accurate retelling published in modern times.
In 1903, a young New York magazine editor named Leonidas Hubbard and two companions set off from Northwest River, near modern Goose Bay, to attempt to traverse the then-unknown interior of Labrador as far as the mouth of the George River. They made mistakes, had bad luck; Hubbard perished, the other two barely survived.
Hubbard's wife Mina resented the account of Dillon Wallace, which implied that her husband, though wonderful, was not perfect. Two years later, she set out with some local guides to do the route her husband had attempted. At the same time, her husband's old friend, Dillon Wallace, was beginning a separate expedition with the same goal. Mina had come to detest Wallace. In the end, she reached the mouth of the George River several weeks ahead of him. In modern times, Mina has become popular with urban feminists, perhaps because she was essentially a city woman who stuck it to her rival so thoroughly on the traditional male battleground of wilderness exploration.
Mina has always seemed to me a bit of a pill, and her resentment of Wallace was unreasonable. Leonidas comes off very well in The Lure of the Labrador Wild. The best thing about Mina's expedition was the maps she produced of her route. After achieving closure of her husband's death in this way, she married and moved to England. She never did anything further in the exploration field.
Years ago, on one of my first expeditions, a partner and I were the first to retrace Leonidas's route up the miserable Susan River. Stubbornly keeping to this stony creek, believing against all evidence that it was a native waterway, was the main cause of Hubbard's demise. It was a sufferfest. No Innu traveler in his right mind would pick this route.
The contemporary US canoeist's retrace is one of several expeditions inspired by the Hubbard tale. Mina's route is long and involves challenging poling/hauling up the Naskapi River, before reaching the Height of Land. The downstream section of the route, along what is now the Smallwood Reservoir to the George River and downstream to Kangiqsualujjuaq, has been done many times and is a straightforward route for experienced wilderness paddlers.
Leonidas Hubbard's trail journal, July 27, 1903, along Labrador's Susan River. Note the ominous, "Stopped early -- chilled." Hubbard found many reasons, including observation of the Sabbath, not to travel when speed during the short Labrador summer was essential.
January 8, 2014
Polar guide Richard Weber once spoke of seeing various North Pole expeditions in Resolute preparing to leave and being able to instantly tick off in his mind which ones had a chance of success. "Fail, fail, fail, maybe, fail, fail..." I feel the same way when I read the bold announcements of polar travelers, many quite inexperienced, about to set out on epics. This week, ExplorersWeb ran a story about a fellow from France who will shortly begin a 2,300 km solo sledding journey from mainland Canada to Greenland.
Good luck to him. This is an interesting project, and certainly possible. I'd be most concerned about the open water of Bellot Strait en route to Somerset Island near the beginning of his trek. Or the sometimes open water of Lancaster Sound near Resolute, which might require a big detour. Finally, there are the unpredictable conditions of the North Water between Canada and Greenland, which stopped Bob Cochran and I after 700km in 2007. Traditionally, an ice bridge allows you to cross; in recent years, this bridge often doesn't form.
A few extraordinary people, mentally tough, obsessively well-prepared and quick learners, do occasionally bring off their first expeditions despite inexperience. But when a novice sledder writes about snowblindness and dangerously thin ice around river mouths in the High Arctic as two of the premier obstacles, and lists unrealistic daily mileages that he expects to maintain, I immediately think, "Fail."
Bellot Strait, between mainland Canada, left, and Somerset Island: not far across, but strong currents keep it from freezing solidly.
NOTE: A few years ago, I made a list here called the Top Ten Expedition BS that has gone semi-viral. Readers often come to this site looking for it in the archives. For easy access, I thought I'd include it at the bottom of this page.
Expedition bs has always
been around. Those quaint Renaissance-era sagas of
someone sailing to the North Pole and finding a tunnel to the
center of the earth probably traces back to
some huckster in a frilled collar and balloon pants
looking for the Elizabethan version of celebrity, or hoping to
convince a gullible king to fund his future
endeavors. Expedition bs crosses all outdoor disciplines,
although Everest climbs and North Pole treks get more than
their fair share, because of their iconic stature. The less
technical something is, and the more instantly famous you can
get doing it, the more it attracts amateurs with
questionable motives. In arctic travel today, it's common
for those with big egos and small experience
to boast of undertaking "the greatest exploration of the
Arctic ever" or trekking to "the last important
place on Earth no one has reached."
In compiling this list, I first vetted
it with other adventurers, since this Top Ten is admittedly
polar-bs-biased. Climber/paraglider Will Gadd, one of the
world's best outdoor athletes, suggested another entry:
"Decrying all future attempts on your objective as unworthy."
I'd never heard of this, so I asked another well-known
mountaineer about it: "Is this a climbing thing?"
"It's a Reinhold Messner thing," he
Below, the 10 most egregious ways outdoor types
posture and/or try to fool the public.
1. Faking an accomplishment
Explorers' claims used to be taken at
face value before it became clear that gentlemen could, and
did, lie. Whether it's a first ascent of Mt.
McKinley or up some aesthetic Patagonian spire, a
round-the-world yacht race, or a trek to a slippery place
like the North Pole, where you can't leave notes or build
cairns, exploration has a rich history of fakery.
The question is, how much still goes
on? The late, great Resolute outfitter Bezal Jesudason used to
clear his throat tellingly whenever the conversation turned to
a certain Italian who claimed to have reached the North Pole
in the 1970s. Now and then, rumors bruit -- about expeditions,
supposedly unsupported, that received surreptitious air drops,
for example, or the motivational speaker who didn't really
summit. But most modern fakery probably occurs in less
complicated projects, especially solo ones. The
media never investigates whether a traveler is
telling the truth or not. Why bother?
On the other hand, there's little to
be gained from lying if you just go out quietly and try
something. Attention-getting projects require greater
In general, most bs comes not from
what someone does, but why they do it. Exploration remains one
of the easiest roads to celebrity. A beginner fires off a
press release and so it begins. By contrast, imagine how much
work it takes for an athlete or a physicist to become as well
2. Claiming something is a first, when
Usually this is just self-serving
laziness. Why look too closely into what's been done before
when ignorance allows you to grandly claim priority? Other
times it involves splitting hairs, so if an earlier expedition
did something microscopically different from you, it can, for
your convenience, be ignored. Rarely, it is an outright
lie from someone for whom the end justifies the means, as when
Robert Peary tried to wrest the discovery of Axel Heiberg
Island from Otto Sverdrup: "No, no, no, he didn't discover it
-- I saw that island the year before." Yeah, right.
Nowadays, this doesn't work with
iconic endeavors, in which who did what,
when, how is well known. But it's still in play with more
3. Pretending that an expedition is
all about something socially relevant
A century ago, climbers used to boil a
thermometer on summits to estimate the mountain's height and
claimed to be contributing to science.
Later, others made a big deal of taking ice samples, or
blood samples, or water samples en route. This hobby science
was popular expedition shtick for years and still has its
practitioners. In large, though, it's been replaced by the
mantra of Raising Awareness, as
in Raising Awareness of Multiple Sclerosis or,
especially, Raising Awareness about Climate Change. If I see
one more expedition muttering concerned platitudes about how
the Arctic has changed since they were there ten years
ago, or how there are actually areas of open water on the
Arctic Ocean in summer, I'm going to scream.
Very occasionally, there are people
for whom environmental concern is the real spinning cog
driving their project. They're incredibly admirable, but
they're also rare as hen's teeth. With most, it's just a
fundraising and publicity gimmick.
4. Claiming that an expedition
proves something it doesn't
Wearing wool knickers and hobnail
boots while climbing the Second Step on Everest does not prove
Mallory did it. Nor does cutting off eight of your toes and
dogsledding to the North Pole prove Peary succeeded,
I've always envied mountaineers
their sense of history. Many polar travelers, on the
other hand, even good ones, seem to have barely skimmed the
Coles Notes version of arctic history. Still, if you're trying
to get your expedition noticed, there are few better ways than
claiming that your endeavor resolves some age-old
Not that there's anything wrong with
following in the footsteps of past explorers. It's a
legitimate form of historical research, as valid as poring
through archives. But you gotta do your homework first.
Otherwise it's just misinformation, or disinformation.
5. Hiding the fact
that an expedition is guided
Some challenges are
so formidable that they're almost beyond guiding. In the case of others, and polar travel in
particular, a guide reduces something that is extremely
difficult, especially psychologically, to an endurance
feat that any fit and motivated client can
to the North Pole and South Pole are guided. Not just
last-degree expeditions, which have always been for
tourists (albeit a special kind), but also full-length
projects. I'm not sure how necessary a guide is on a South
Pole trek, but in the case of the more difficult North Pole,
it's an enormous advantage. Very few people succeed in doing
the entire distance to the North Pole themselves. Even fewer
succeed on the first attempt. Add a guide, and the success
rate becomes essentially 100%.
Today, an expedition
may be named the Tom Thumb Polar Expedition,
but likely as not, Tom's just the vain and
ambitious guy holding the purse strings, hoping to make
a name as an explorer and often forgetting to mention
publicly that one of his teammates is a little more than
a fellow traveler.
6. Making an expedition
sound harder than it is
One of the nice things
about climbing or white-water kayaking is that challenges are
graded numerically, so there's little opportunity to inflate
an accomplishment. Not so in polar travel, which the public
doesn't really understand and where there are no clear
yardsticks. Many imagine, for example, that pulling a
150-pound sled is a superhuman act, little realizing that any
grandmother who jogs on Sunday can do it. But 150 pounds
sounds good, and 250 pounds sounds even better, because for
those unfamiliar with sledding, it's natural to compare it to
how hard it would be to backpack those weights. As a result,
those who want to impress can easily do so. Because
there's not really a polar community as such, just a few
people doing things independently of one another, it's hard
for the media to verify just how difficult something is. Besides, the media doesn't usually bother to verify human-interest stories like adventure.
The other side of this
equation -- and this comes up time and again in this countdown
-- is that many polar adventurers are novices. Given that this
sort of project takes a healthy amount of
self-esteem to begin with, it's easy for the adventurers
themselves to think, "Wow, I'm pulling a 250-pound sled for 12
miles at 30 below. I must be amazing." Alas, it's easier than
7. Telling your audience
that all it takes to live this life is the courage to follow
your dreams, when you're sitting on a trust fund
Many people would be
surprised at the number of adventurers who don't have to make
a living. Nothing wrong with being born well off, if you make
the most of it: the great Bill Tillman was a gentleman
amateur. So, for that matter, was Charles Darwin.
But as a poor bloke, I've
always been aware that the hardest part of adventure is making
a living at it. (The adventure itself is just personal hunger,
and is almost effortless.) When adventurers give presentations
and claim -- often in response to audience questions
at the end -- that they make a living from selling
photos, or from book royalties, I cringe. Since I
myself survive partly from photography, I know the
business and I can say that the only ones making serious
coin from adventure photography are full-time photographers,
not expedition types.
Even if you're a serious
shooter, it's not easy. A National Geographic photographer I
know used to make much of his income flipping houses
-- he'd buy a fixer-upper, renovate it, then resell at a
profit. Several handyman adventurers go that route. One
well-known big-wall climber builds outdoor decks. As for
books, the royalties are rarely significant unless you're
Jon Krakauer or David Roberts. So it's dishonest when a
"professional" adventurer tries to inspire without admitting
that he or she doesn't need to earn a living like the rest of
If you want to know how
adventurers really make a living, it's often by motivational
speaking. I'm not talking about storytelling with pretty
pictures, but presentations crafted to a business
audience, in which the message is Teamwork or Leadership or
similar corporate psychology buzzwords. Nowadays, it
seems, everyone bills themselves as a "keynote speaker". And
why not? If you can lay it on thick, the money is incredible.
There are people making a six-figure income based on 10 hours
work a year.
accomplishments of these adventurers are genuine. Twenty
years later, sadly, some of them are still giving the same
lecture, based on one triumphant afternoon. Others are glib
phonies. Neither climbers nor adventurers, they climb Mt.
Everest specifically to launch a career in motivational
speaking. As bad, in my mind, are the ones who haven't done
anything yet but presume to have valuable lessons to impart to
the rest of us.
There is something
refreshing about the attitude of a first-class
adventurer like Pat Morrow, who admits that he never gave
motivational talks because "I just couldn't see myself
telling a convention of hog farmers that they too can climb
their personal Everest."
9. Doing one or two
expeditions, then retiring and affecting the pose of an elder
Again, the nature of polar
travel. Good climbers climb every day or two, but
most polar sledders are not, pardon the pun, in it
for the long haul. Typically they do the North Pole or
the South Pole, then retire. A few do both. If they're
particularly serious, they also cross Antarctica or the Arctic
Ocean. That's it. End of polar icons. Too bad, because the
sledding life really is a fine one. It's as if 99% of climbers
just did Everest and maybe the Seven Summits.
Especially in Britain, it
seems that once retired, these one-trick ponies vigorously
posture as wise greybeards in all matters
polar. (Maybe one-eyed kings rather than one-trick ponies
is a more apt description.) This was more understandable in
the 19th century -- for years, Adolphus Greely was considered
America's greatest living polar explorer, based on one
disastrous expedition. But standards of experience are
different now. Will Steger, for example, was doing impressive
arctic stuff as a dirtbag long before he hit the big time.
10. Presenting mistakes or incompetence as force majeure
Every year, expeditioners strike off to a flourish of trumpets, only to quit sometimes for the silliest reasons. Their stove breaks down. The satphone fails to charge. Gasoline leaks and contaminates their food. Or they run out of food/fuel, necessitating a high-profile "rescue."
On extreme projects, gear often needs repairs. But unless a polar bear smashes the sled into 100 pieces, the journey should be able to continue. That's what a repair kit and backups of key items are for. But some adventurers use these minor glitches as an excuse to bail. Others are so out of their depth that they can't deal with more adversity. Or in their preparations, they've taken the time to create a website, get sponsors and have a media plan, but have neglected to learn how a stove works. Few own up to these mistakes: It's always the fault of the equipment or the conditions.
Sometimes, it seems as if an expedition invents problems to get more media attention. The media is not very interested in most adventures except as a cute kicker at the end of the real news. The exception is, if something goes wrong. If a delayed pickup is made to seem like you're stranded and desperate and out of food, you might get world headlines rather than a shadow of a whisper of a postscript of a mention.