Before a winter arctic expedition, it's important to upholster with moleskin all metal and hard plastic items that you'll be touching with bare skin or thin gloves: the bridges and arms of eyeglasses, Thermos, the lower half of a mechanical pencil, the parts of a camera that touch your face. The fuzziness of moleskin insulates better and feels much warmer than tape.
Some Christmas images taken by Alexandra with her iPad using the Hipstamatic app and processed through Nik Software's Silver Efex or Color Efex. The same effects can be created in Photoshop, but it would take much longer than these intuitive programs.
Often, I don't carry a headlamp on expeditions: Most of the travel season on Ellesmere Island has 24 hours of sun, so this usually indispensible camping gadget has no use. In March in the High Arctic, however, or in lower parts of the North, a good headlamp is vital. For almost 10 years, I've used the fabulous Duo LED-14 from Petzl. Its halogen option isn't very useful, but the headlamp is bright, waterproof (=good for kayaking at night) and runs off AA lithiums. A set of 4 AAs gives 30-35 hours of light in the -30s or -40s. It didn't surprise me when I saw that Borge Ousland's headlamp of choice on his winter North Pole expedition was the same model.
About four years ago, however, I was in a situation where the LED-14 wasn't enough. I was camped in northern Labrador at this time of year. Labrador is not as far north as you might imagine: Even the Torngats are merely the latitude of northern Scotland. Still, in early December, nights last from 3:30pm till almost 8:30am the following morning. What's more, December is a wild time of year in Labrador. The sea has not yet frozen, winds are high, storms common and clouds can be other-planetary.
One night I had 110kph winds; luckily my Hilleberg Keron 3GT tent was solidly nailed to the ice of a small lake. Two nights later, the wind shifted after I set up camp, and drifting snow began to press against the long side of the tent.
A good tunnel tent can resist crosswinds, but snow quickly builds up, and up, and up against the windward wall. Soon the drift reaches ceiling height. It begins to stress the wall. You have to go outside every three hours or so to shovel away the accumulated snow, or you will be engulfed, and poles will bend/break under the pressure of the wind-driven snow.
Northern Labrador is serious polar bear country, and my Petzl's beam reached only 15 metres into the blackness. As I shoveled, shotgun slung over my back, I frequently glanced around. If something was coming, I wouldn't see it until it was almost upon me. These were nerve-wracking half-hour shoveling sessions.
Some months later, I read how Europeans in High Arctic regions like Svalbard and Iceland pride themselves on their high-end headlamps, which they use throughout the dark season. These expensive lamps cast their beams for dozens of metres, yet are no heavier than a serious camping light like the LED-14. Petzl's Ultra Belt Accu 4, for example, is more than five times brighter than the LED-14. It also retails for $500.
Unfortunately, it only runs off rechargeables, so a spare battery or two (about $200 each) is also necessary. You wouldn't use it except for traveling or setting up camp at night, or being outside where there was a bear risk. An all-purpose light like the LED-14 would serve for interior chores such as cooking, reading, making notes and packing.
On that December trip, I finished my shoveling duties without visitors. Still, I later learned from the helicopter pilot who picked me up that a polar bear had followed my tracks to within a kilometre of my camp. Next time, the super-headlamp will be part of my kit.
It's so easy to create arty photo effects using iPhone apps like Hipstamatic and Color Splash. Thanks to Roger Vernon for the heads-up. Roger lives here in Canmore and is a cinematographer/Director of Photography. Recently he's filmed the Twilight series and The Bourne Legacy. A fine visual artist, he's always experimenting, always discovering new tools.
You could do this sort of thing in Photoshop but it would take time. The Color Splash image of the girl, bottom, took just seconds to bring off. The Hipstamatic shot was done directly on an iPhone.
Alexandra and I took in Eric & Sarah McNair-Landry's NW Passage presentation at Canmore's Festival of Eagles last night. Then we all headed over to the Georgetown for a drink. Great to be able to speak to sledding peers about the torque on Berwin bindings, or the possibility of skate-skiing to the South Pole. There are so few sledders that most conversations about sled travel, even with outdoor people, glide on the surface of the experience: windpacked snow makes it possible to pull 250 lbs, etc. But this was like discussing arctic history with Kenn Harper, Wiliam Barr or Robert Bryce: You could get into nuances. Lots of fun.
Why I prefer Hilleberg Keron tents in windy places, such as Labrador:
First, a lone traveler can put them up in a gale. Very hard to do with dome tents, because the third and fourth poles, which give strength and structure to domes, are difficult to manage without breaking in hard winds. Second, while a tunnel tent works best with the narrow end into the wind, it also shrugs off crosswinds. Third -- and you never plan for this -- I've used my Hilleberg in 110 kph (70mph) winds: minimal noise and shaking, and wind did not even snake underneath and buffet the tent up and down. That's about as serious a test as any tent should have to bear.
A word of advice: Unlike freestanding tents, tunnel tents like the Hilleberg Keron need bombproof staking. In winter I carry nails and a hammer to nail the tiedowns to windblown ice. In summer, I weigh down the stakes with half a ton of rocks when a storm is brewing. Such tents wouldn't be great in a hurricane on a sandy beach.
One other footnote: Though these tents resist crosswinds, drifting snow accumulates on the long side and threatens to bury the windward side of the tent. Shoveling every three or four hours, depending on the wind violence and loose snow, is necessary when the long side faces the wind.
For decades, polar travelers have had problems with fillings, crowns and bridges falling out during cold-weather trips. Typical dental glue can't handle extremes of expansion and contraction. This is a real inconvenience, because frozen food is so hard to chew that you need all your ivories intact.
Some years ago, I raised this issue with my dentist. I've already mentioned him here as a creative guy, former head of the Alberta Dental Association, who painted a miniature polar bear on one of my crowns, and a muskox on another. He did a little research and came up with a glue that was more stable in heat and cold. Since then, I haven't had any problems.
Just finished making an addendum to my June 28 entry below about GoreTex. In it, I mention Backpackinglight.com. Ultralight backpacking has been around at least 40 years. Warmlite's Jack Stephenson was making two- and three-pound mountain tents in the 1970s. The first phase of ultralight backpacking kinda faded away after it became clear that ultralight gear didn't last long. To a certain extent, that's still the case. Nevertheless, many people will spend hundreds of dollars to save an ounce or two.
Some years ago, as part of a sponsorship deal, Mountain Safety Research kindly gave me 10 titanium fuel bottles. These bottles, a little less than a quart each in capacity, really are lighter than their aluminum counterparts. Nevertheless, the 10 bottles together save a mere pound in total. I only ever bring four or five of them on an expedition, anyway, because at higher capacities it's just as light to carry the four-liter can that the white gas comes in.
MSR never sold these titanium bottles on the open market, and I've read that they're highly sought-after on Ebay by ultralight backpackers. As an experiment, I put one of my spares up for auction recently. It fetched $150. Not bad!
In colder winter temperatures (below -25C in the tent), it's hard to keep your nose warm in the sleeping bag. You can't stick your face inside the bag, of course, or the moisture in breath will condense in the insulation and turn the bag into a frozen armor-plated shell in no time. (see Cherry-Garrard's The Worst Journey in the World for a classic example of this) Your face must remain outside, even as the hood and collar of the bag swaddle the rest of your head. The cold doesn't bother the other exposed parts of the face, such as the mouth and cheeks, but the nose must be protected.
I wear a 300-weight fleece balaclava in camp, including to bed. I've tried pulling the lower part of the balaclava up over my nose, but the thick material over the mouth feels too claustrophobic while trying to breathe. Instead, I pull the top part of the balaclava down over my eyes and hook it over the nose. This keeps the nose warm, even at -40 or -50. Note that this hooking technique works only with schnozzes, not with cute button noses.
When GoreTex first came out, it didn't work well but was brilliantly hyped. Eventually, it began to work better as a material for rain garments, thanks in part to better designs. Now in recent years, there are several types of GoreTex -- Paclite, Active Shell, Pro Shell. The first two are popular because the clothing made with them is light and soft rather than boardy. They also pack away easily. Unfortunately, they leak. Only the high end garments made with Pro Shell GoreTex actually do the job. Some examples: Outdoor Research's Maximus jacket, Arc'teryx's Beta AR and Alpha SV jackets, and their Beta AR pant, which has performed perfectly on assignment here in rainy Newfoundland.
The problem with Pro Shell is that it doesn't breathe as well as the lower end GoreTex, so it's contraindicated for aerobic activities in mild climates and best for long spells of moderate activity in cooler climes like the Arctic. But if you're going to pay hundreds of dollars for a waterproof garment, it should not be soaking on the inside after a half-hour walk in a Newfoundland village, as my new GoreTex Active Shell jacket was recently. A week after I returned, I ditched the inferior GoreTex and ordered a Pro Shell Beta AR jacket from Arc'teryx.
There are two highly interesting articles about GoreTex and the waterproof/breatheable debate. One covers the controversy surrounding GoreTex's heavy-handed tactics with competitors and appeared last March in Outside magazine. The second is a 9,000-word analysis of waterproof/breatheable membranes by the founder of Backpackinglight.com (a small payment is required to access the article).
Kamiks are my favorite footwear for walking in the arctic spring, but admittedly these homemade sealskin boots are hard to get. I go north often enough that I simply ask around in a village on Baffin Island or further north for someone willing to make me a pair. They cost about $300.
The Facebook site, Iqaluit Auction Bids, often has kamiks for sale; you just have to wait for a pair in your size.(Make sure they come high enough, too; kamiks should reach just below the knee.) Prices may be almost double what you'd pay an Inuit woman to sew you a pair, but it's an option for those with a spring sea ice trip in the offing and no arctic connections.
Only problem with kamiks is that since they are from untanned leather, they must be stored in the freezer. Our freezer is so full of kamiks that there is little room for food.
Clowning around in kamiks.
I enjoy coffee at home, but on expeditions I convert to hot chocolate, going cold turkey on the java. I've never had withdrawal headaches, except when I used to drink at Starbucks. Then, I would get a splitting headache for half a day when I stopped. I used to think that Starbucks spiked their beans with extra caffeine. But this past winter, I went backcountry skiing with Tom Hoyne, the chief roaster from Kicking Horse Coffee, a popular brand in western Canada, and mentioned this to him. His explanation was more subtle:
My interpretation of why you would get the effects from Starbucks would be based on how coffee is roasted and the chemical effects of caffeine on your central nervous system. I know that Starbucks uses some of the same producers, co-ops that we use. I don't believe that they doctor their coffee in any way. Also, coffee has not been genetically modified, to my knowledge, in the Arabica species. The Brazilians are trying to genetically modify the Arabica species to take out the gene that produces caffeine so they can grow a decaf plant. There has been some challenges with that and they have been very secret about the process. What I do know is that Starbucks roasts very dark. How dark? Well that we measure in a few different ways. I use a near infrared photo spectrometer that measures wavelengths in the ground coffee particles that then gives me a number to correlate with degree of darkness. To make a long process short, if Starbucks roasts their beans to a 24% shrinkage rate (the amount of mass lost during the roasting process) and I roast them to a 18% shrinkage rate, you would have to drink 6% more beans of my coffee to get the same physiological effect. If you were to count the amount of beans in a pound of Starbucks there would be more beans per pound, in a dark roast than a light roast. Therefore, if you are using a scale of 14 grams of coffee in your portafilter for espresso you would have 6% more beans, ground coffee particles, in that 14 grams. Since caffeine is very stable in the roasting process, yet it is totally water soluble you will extract more caffeine in your 14 grams. Now, your central nervous system is extremely fine tuned to very slight adjustments of your caffeine intake. I am very susceptible to these changes and get headaches because of my job requiring me to intake varying levels of caffeine at different times. Your bodies response to the headache is directly related to a day of increased caffeine and withdraw to it. I compare it to a smoker that has gone from 10 cigarettes to 5 a day. You are still addicted and will go through the symptoms to get to 5 a day. We may not think of why we choose to drink the same amount of coffee every day, but it is our body telling us that it is best to keep it balanced. So even though you have had the same amount of coffee in your espresso by weight, you are actually using more beans to get the same amount of coffee. There is 1.2% of available caffeine in the Arabica species, regardless if it is Starbucks or Kicking Horse Coffee, as compared to 2.4% in Robusta, that is why if you drink low grade coffee at times from a crappy vendor, you may really get the jitters. They will only put in about 20% Robusta in the blend, yet your body can really notice those changes.
I recently had the chance to test how a good down air mattress handles the cold. The Exped DownMat 9 is rated (by its manufacturers) to -38C. It includes an ingenious hand pump so that you don't have to blow into the mattress with moist breath to inflate it, which would mess up the down. It has two valves, one for inflation, the other for deflation (red arrows).
Ordinary air mattresses do not work as sleeping mats, because summer or winter, you feel the cold air underneath you. Adding down creates to some extent a layer of insulation, so you're not just lying on a cold bed of air.
I was skeptical about using a DAM in the cold, because I imagined that you'd need a lot of down to create enough insulation. Maybe the entire concept of using one in winter was flawed.
This, unfortunately, turns out to be the truth. I tested the Exped outside at -30C, well within the mattress's stated range. The frigid air underneath was not only immediately palpable, but the valve caps were impossible to open at -30C. Even a pair of pliers could not uncap the valve. In order to inflate the mattress enough, I had to bring it inside to warm up the valve cap enough to pull it open.
My Inuit partner Noah also has this Exped model and used it in the -20s shortly before our expedition. He also noted that it was nowhere near warm enough.
I should point out that the problem is not just with this model. The Triple Bag from Warmlite -- my preferred arctic sleeping bag, and the one that Noah chose for our trip -- comes with a down air mattress by default. (I ordered mine with special open cell foam, which is superwarm, if bulky.) Their DAM, like the Exped, was useless in the cold. Noah threw his away and inserted three or four layers of closed cell foam into the envelope under the bag. This worked fine throughout our expedition.
I slept on the Exped on Noah's floor in Nain, and it was wonderfully comfortable. But I would not use it much below freezing.
The windier an expedition -- and this one was very windy -- the harder it is to do more sophisticated photography. Images like the one immediately below are easy to get in any conditions. Just hurry ahead of your partner, go to one side, crank down the aperture to f/11 or f/16 to get the sun star, take the shot and continue.
On the other hand, more elaborate setups like the self-timed shot below of the two of us, requiring a tripod and a radio trigger of some sort -- either PocketWizards or the walkie-talkie system I wrote about last year in Outdoor Photographer -- take so long that they are impossible to do when the wind is howling. It's just too cold to stop for that long.
Sleeping bags are usually sold in their nice, tight stuff sacks. It's reasonable to assume that that's how you store them. But it isn't.
If you keep a sleeping bag (either down or synthetic) tightly condensed in a stuff sack for months at a time, the insulation will become permanently compressed and never achieve full loft again. Loft traps air and is what makes a sleeping bag (or a parka) warm.
Companies like Mountain Equipment Co-op sell big cotton sacks for proper sleeping bag storage. This vastly increases the storage space required, of course -- which is why retailers keep their sleeping bags stuffed away -- but a properly cared-for bag lasts 15 or 20 years, even using it as much as I do, while a bag imprisoned in a stuff sack deteriorates noticeably after several months.
When I lived in a city apartment, the storage issue was a major headache. The three (!) storage lockers were piled to the rafters with outdoor gear. Even today, our two-car garage is lined -- Alexandra might say jammed -- with storage sacks and bins containing tents, parkas and sleeping bags.
In the recent Nunatsiaq News story about our upcoming expedition, one perceptive reader asked in the comment section why I was carrying Pledge wipes in the photo. A second reader replied, "They work really well for cleaning glasses when the salt spray hits your face."
Bull's eye. Pledge wipes also remove salt and water residue from binoculars, camera lenses and other optics. Lens cleaners, tissues and lens cloths don't work nearly as well. Thanks to National Geographic photographer Paul Nicklen for sharing this tip with me.
Am testing an Exped down air mattress. A good time for such a test, since the Rockies are experiencing winter's first cold snap. I left the mattress out all day on the balcony at -30C; this mattress is rated to -38C. In the evening, I placed my sleeping bag on it and crawled in. My back felt cold. I tried my usual open-cell foam mattress, which is bulky but a proven performer in arctic temperatures. No heat loss from underneath. Conclusion: be very careful using down air mattresses in extreme cold.
As a postscript, I later tried to open the valve to deflate it, and couldn't get the plug out, even with pliers. The mattress needed to warm up inside before the plug could be worked open.
January 11, 2012
I've mentioned my friend Alfred Duller of Austria here before: a fine Labrador traveler, and a masterful builder of equipment. I tip my hat to these travelers with an engineering streak. Alfred built my polar bear alarm fence a few years ago; he has just made a new compass tray for me. A compass tray is a lightweight harness that holds the compass in front of you in poor visibility, so you don't have to stop every five steps to take a new bearing. It is one of those little finesses that you may use once or twice a trip, or -- on the Arctic Ocean, for example, or on the ice caps here in the Rockies -- sometimes every day.
Alfred got wrapped up in the project and built two models. One weighs 265 gm, the other 140 gm! That's barely over 1/4 lb. He used lightweight aluminum on both of them, after first testing to make sure that aluminum did not affect the compass. The Fastex on the bottom arm (only one shown) clips onto the mating pieces on my sled harness. A strap threads through the loop at the tip and attaches to my chest harness, holding the assembly at waist level.
While working on the project, Alfred decided to test other objects that might or might not affect a compass. Here are his results. The firearms may seem strange, but if you've been pulled from your tent twice by polar bears, as Alfred has, you recognize that carrying a firearm in the Arctic is necessary.
OBJECT ____________deviation, 1-5 cm from compass ___________deviation, 30cm from compass
shotgun _________________5 to 10 ° _____________________ ________ 0
357 magnum revolver ______15° __________________________________0
ammo, revolver ____________ 0 ___________________________________0
Kalashnikov, 20 round clip
with full metal jackets ________20° _________________________________0
camera battery Lith-ion,
3700 mAh ________________10° __________________________________0
1900 mAh, 3.5 Volt,
of Motorola Iriudium ________10° _________________________________0 ( thus ok when carried on the body to keep warm)
my (cheap) metal wrist watch_ 0 ___________________________________0
satphone without battery_____ 20- 40° _____________________________3° or more
cell phone__________________strong effect, around 40° ______________3° or more
Garmin)................................. 15° ________________________________0 (so ok when carried in pocket)
knife (medium sized) ________10° ________________________________0 .... (so ok when worn on hip)