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 latest book, Arctic Eden, is now available for order. It recently won the William Mills Prize as the best polar book of the last two years. Also available: the Horizontal Everest DVD, a Discovery Channel documentary about Jerry's Ellesmere Island journeys.
Glen Crawford has posted a short video of our Mount Logan circumnavigation on Vimeo, below.
As part of the Banf Mountain Book Festival, Alexandra and I went this week to see Australian adventurer Tim Cope's presentation on his 10,000 kilometre trek by horseback from Mongolia to Hungary. His book on the three-year journey, On the Trail of Genghis Khan, is just out and won this year's Adventure category at the festival. Like his film, which aired at the festival two years ago, Cope's book is a quest to understand the people and horse culture of Central Asia. His experiences are not there to show how brave he is, or how he did an obscure route slightly faster than one or two previous parties, or why you should hire him as a motivational speaker. Such a rare treat to have an adventure driven by intellectual curiosity in the hands of someone talented enough to express the essence of his discoveries.
My travel partner Bob Cochran, whom I wrote about in Arctic Eden, arrives today from Los Angeles to take in the festival.
Finished prescreening the Adventure and Feature films for the Banff Mountain Film Festival, helping pick the finalists. The Adventure category was weak this year, although a three-minute Quebec film, available on YouTube and called A Life on a Bike, is a small gem:
The Features category (films of 70 minutes and longer) take a long time to screen but have the most potential to contain gems that you would otherwise miss, because of their demanding length or because the film does not make a great 20-second elevator pitch. Take my favorite film this year, called Erebus: Operation Overdue. The synopsis would read something like: A documentary about the rescue team that retrieved bodies from a plane crash in Antarctica in the 1970s. That does not sound promising, but it's a great film.
Other favorite features: When Hari Got Married, an intimate profile of an extroverted taxi driver in northern India and his arranged marriage; and Antarctica: A Year on Ice, which actually took 10 years to compile, has exquisite footage and gives a sense of what it's really like to work in Antarctica. Trailers below:
Once or twice a year, I join Adventure Canada's arctic cruises as a resource person. This summer, after a change of itinerary because of heavy ice, we began in Resolute and focused on Ellesmere Island and Greenland.
Staff time on land is mostly spent guiding, telling stories, standing polar bear guard, etc. and it's hard to take pictures with professional focus. On my own arctic expeditions, many of the best images have come from working a subject for an hour or more. Yet when I process the cruise images at home, I'm always pleasantly surprised: You get so many opportunities in those two weeks that decent results accrue in spite of your busy-ness.
Sometimes it's simply the chance to take record shots of a place I'd long wanted to visit, like Etah in Greenland or Haa Island on Ellesmere. Other times, an obscure village or fiord leads to unexpected visual opportunities. I've already posted a few images in the previous entry. Below, some more.
The abundance of sea ice this past summer meant that we couldn't follow our original plan to traverse the Northwest Passage. But the ice did lead to lots of polar bear sightings, including this one at a seal kill. Polar bears can be found on land, of course, but they are more common using the summer sea ice as a floating hunting platform.
An arctic fox pup was curious and relaxed around us at Etah, Greenland.
Fellow resource person David Reid at Old Fort Ross in Bellot Strait. David was the last Scots factor ever hired by the Hudson Bay Company. Like many of the staff, he is carrying a shotgun for protection against polar bears. And about an hour later, one bear seemed to be approaching the group on a nearby hillside, but it was just making a clumsy play for some snow geese. When the birds flew off, the bear wandered off in the opposite direction.
Top and above, one of the living quarters at Old Fort Ross.
The Franklin graves on Beechey Island look even more forlorn after a mid-August snowfall.
Jokel Fiord, on east-central Ellesmere Island, was first explored by the Norwegian Otto Sverdrup in 1898-9. "Jokel" means glacier in Norwegian, and a dozen glaciers line the narrow, steep-walled canyon.
In the late 1970s, archaeologist Peter Schledermann found Viking artifacts at this Thule site on little Skraeling Island, just off the coast of Ellesmere. The triangular stones at this communal dwelling indicate a ceremonial entrance for shamans only.
A broken-down Thule kayak stand, Skraeling Island.
A quiet moment in Alexandra Fiord, Ellesmere Island.
The old Polar Inuit hunting camp/explorers' base at Etah, Greenland.
An exploratory hike in a Greenland fiord turned up some old qammaqs, or stone houses, and several graves.
While Illulisat is Greenland's most-visited town because of its many icebergs, some little-known villages are more photogenic. Last year, I was surprised by the beauty of Kangaimiut. This year, Uummannaq was the unanticipated jewel.
Order-out-of-chaos exercises: Top, ripples in a calm sea. Above, rusty nails bleed flowers of color onto some cracked paint on an old outhouse at Dundas Harbour, Devon Island.
Some images from Adventure Canada's recent Out of the Northwest Passage cruise, where I was one of the resource people. The Canadian side had been hit with an early winter -- 30cm of snow on parts of Ellesmere Island -- but Greenland remained late-summeresque. And its famous icebergs didn't disappoint. They included the best keyhole iceberg I've seen. The hole is an old meltwater channel that was beneath the glacier from which the iceberg came.
Above, the Greenland town of Uummannaqq, with its distinctive fish-tail peak, crazed sled dogs and colorful houses.
Off to the Arctic on my yearly cruise ship assignment as a resource person with Adventure Canada. The plan had been to go through the Northwest Passage, but this has been a bad ice summer, the first in several years when even the ice-strengthened ship can't get through. So instead we're flying to Resolute Bay, above, and plying the eastern High Arctic -- Devon Island, Ellesmere Island and Greenland: my bailiwick. I'll have walked, skied or kayaked almost all the Canadian part of our route. By this time of year, summer is leaving that extreme part of the north. Even during nice summers, the temperature at midnight hovers around freezing. Currently, it's more like the year I flew back to Resolute from Ellesmere and found a foot of new snow. Current temperature in Res: -4 C and blowing with that 300-days-a-year Resolute wind.
Experienced arctic travelers are used to being flexible and changing their expectations with the conditions. It's more of a learning experience for tourists who -- despite being warned in the trip literature that nothing is carved in stone -- sometimes regard tentative itineraries as a promise.
A Maine man, part of a Sierra Club backpacking tour, was pulled from his tent by a polar bear three days ago in Labrador's Torngat Mountains. His campmates fired flares at the bear, which eventually released him and moved off. A doctor in the group stabilized him and he was evacuated by helicopter to a hospital in Montreal. He is in serious condition but is expected to recover. So instead we're flying to Resolut, above,
Details were slow to emerge, but the attack apparently took place in Nachvak Fiord, which I know well. If you want to have a polar bear incident, you can't do better than Nachvak. The fiord is in the heart of the park, and is arguably its jewel. High cliffs split by ribbon waterfalls line much of the north side. On the south side, hiking is great over treeless tundra, and you can access the highest peaks in the Torngats through river valleys. When I hiked the Torngats for the first time in 1991, we spent much of our time camped in Nachvak Fiord. The summit of Mt. Caubvick, the highest peak in mainland Canada or the U.S. east of the Rockies, is just one long day's march from Nachvak Fiord.
Idyllic hiking in Nachvak Fiord
The Torngats weren't a national park then, and our group carried a firearm as insurance against Labrador's large black bears, which also inhabit that part of the coast and can be quite curious. Polar bears were theoretically possible but absent in practice. But a moratorium on harp seal hunting that began in the 1980s eventually led to an explosion in the seal population along the Labrador coast and in Davis Strait. After a suitable lag time, the polar bear population exploded too. A bear researcher who did an aerial helicopter census in the summers of 2005-7 found astonishing numbers. Not counting the fiords and inlets, there is one polar bear for every 1.5km of coastline in the Torngats.
In 2006, Alexandra and I kayaked the length of the Torngats. We were the new park's first official visitors. I was doing a story for Canadian Geographic magazine, and the park manager -- wisely figuring that it wouldn't be good pr if the park's first visitors were killed by polar bears -- gave us special permission to carry a firearm. As we usually do, we also carried pepper spray and aerial flares, which fired in front of the bear, are effective deterrents. A firearm is a last resort, but as I later pointed out in a sidebar to the Canadian Geographic story, it is essential in polar bear country. When I looked up the Sierra Club's online literature about their backpacking tour, I noticed my article listed among their recommended reading.
Kayaking 500km along the Labrador coast is difficult enough -- there was one gnarly section of 130km, including Nachvak Fiord, where we had few places to land -- but the polar bears were by far the most stressful aspect of the trip. At one point, we had to deal with 11 polar bears in six days from distances of 20 metres or less. Only one was actively interested in us, but polar bears wandering past our tent every morning was certainly a way to wake up quickly.
Polar bears are conservative and easy to scare away most of the time. If you can affect a chutzpah you don't feel, you can usually chase them off with a shout or a single flare or a warning shot. The main problem comes at night. The bear happens on your camp while you're sleeping; it approaches slowly; nothing deters it; it gets closer, more comfortable with the strange-looking tent. That's when most dangerous incidents occur. That's also why most of us bring a perimeter alarm fence. When the bear trips a wire, a loud noise sounds in the tent. It may scare the bear away, but mainly it's there to wake you up before the animal reaches the tent. Then you can respond, and your odds are much better.
Hikers don't carry electric fences that actually shock the bear. They're too heavy and take too long to set up. The national park base camp just outside the south edge of the park does, however, have one of these electrified fences. This party had an alarm fence, but perhaps they didn't set it up properly, because it didn't seem to alert them to the bear's approach.
But the main problem is that in places like the Torngats, you can't properly defend yourself against the worst encounters because you can't carry a gun in a national park. This makes sense in most parks, including the classic ones here in the Rockies. We have grizzlies, but grizzly disputes, though potentially dangerous, are territorial conflicts and don't require a firearm to resolve. Polar bears are different animals. Unfortunately, in the past few years, we've had several arctic national parks established without resolving the basic issue that independent visitors, including tour groups, need a gun in these areas. It is unsafe to travel without one. Currently, only Inuit can carry firearms in arctic national parks.
Media reports on this current attack mention that the group was advised to bring an Inuit bear monitor with them. This is one of those cover-your-ass advisories that makes no sense in the real world. Except for my friend, Noah Nochasak, it is impossible to find an Inuk willing to carry a 60 or 70-pound backpack for two weeks. Noah himself has tried to find an Inuit partner for his adventures, but he can't, so he ends up traveling with white people, with mixed results. The Inuit bear monitors that the park glibly refers to sit around base camp and chase away the bears that come up to the electrified fence, or join the base camp tourists on little day hikes, which is, along with cruise traffic, the only sort of visitation that the park currently receives. Given the current firearm restriction, this can be considered the safest way to make the best of a bad situation. But traditional independent hiking is not forbidden -- yet -- and the Sierra Club was trying to do that sort of backpack trip.
Since not every polar bear investigates one's camp, there are places inland where such a venture might succeed. Polar bears sometimes wander inland, but there aren't as many of them as on the coast. In Nachvak Fiord, in particular, they are everywhere. On our kayak trip, we saw one on a cliff, presumably hunting for bird eggs; another in a cove that had been our long-awaited lunch spot; another swimming; another prowling the shore. The three below appeared after we had set up camp. They moved off, but the mom had made a seal kill nearby, so they were likely to return. We moved.
Nachvak Fiord: beautiful but one of the likeliest spots in the Torngats to have a close polar bear encounter.
Last year, while on my yearly gig as a resource person with Adventure Canada, we landed near some old Thule ruins. We didn't see a polar bear that day, but we did find the day bed, below, where a polar bear had recently slept. Camping in Nachvak Fiord these days as if it is still 1991 is risky business. On our kayak expedition, we minimized our stay in Nachvak and, figuring safety in numbers, spent most of our time in the camp of some archaeologists, who happened to be there.
Apart from the dubious decision to establish national parks that ordinary Canadians, even experienced wilderness travelers, can't safely camp in, there is another lurking shadow. The injured man is a lawyer. Maybe not him, but somebody who is attacked by a polar bear in future is going to sue Parks Canada for allowing them to travel in such a way (sans firearm) that he cannot protect himself. Then the park will be forced to ban ordinary backpacking. Then, even if polar bear numbers drop in a few years and the risk declines, it will be decades more before one is permitted to enjoy one of these beautiful wilderness areas in the way some of us feel it is intended: on our own.
It has been an interesting past three days in Canmore, Alberta, especially since our house backs on the now-infamous Cougar Creek. Cougar Creek is, or was, a ditch that is dry for 50 weeks a year and which drains the snowmelt from the mountains and June rains around this time. Once every few years, the snowmelt and the rains combine to create a perfect storm that swells the creek beyond normal and causes significant erosion on the sides, which are just loose gravel and dirt. Last winter, the town spent two million dollars stabilizing the streambed with large boulders, tarps and drainage channels after last summer's flow eroded sections of the paved walking trails on both sides of the creek.
On Thursday it began to rain heavily, and the rain continued for almost two days, which is unusual in this semi-arid part of the country, even at this time of year. By Thursday evening, the water was in spate. Cougar Creek is not a sluggish drainage but a mountain stream with a considerable slope.
That night, the creek -- which is 30 metres from our house -- sounded like Niagara Falls. Firemen with flashlights roved about all night, monitoring the water level. They rapped on our door at 4 a.m., notifying us that we might have to evacuate soon. When the light returned at 4:30 or 5 a.m., the stream was a lot higher and it continued to pour. Snow upmountain was being melted by the rain and added to the flow.
In the photo above, you can see erosion has already begun to happen on the far side of the bridge. Part of the paved trail has collapsed into the swollen stream. More ominously, spillover on our side of the pedestrian bridge has begun. An hour later, an entire separate channel of Cougar Creek raged where the firemen were standing. The footbridge had become an island. At 5:30 a.m we got the word to evacuate and went over to some friends nearby. At 7 a.m. we snuck back into the house to pick up a few items and were astonished at how much the creek had swollen in an hour or so. It now flowed right past the bottom of our steps. The trees in the foreground of the photo above had been swept away.
We stood outside our friends' home and watched trees, hot tubs, propane tanks, large screen TVs, and green pipes sweep downstream. Banks were being eroded as we watched. The 20 metre wide stream now spanned almost the entire width of the valley. It was eating away lawns and approaching houses on both sides. There was a real danger that the paved bridge over the creek upstream would be destroyed, turning this part of town into an island. Part of the road had already sluffed away.
All residents from our side of the creek were told to leave. Schoolbuses shuttled us refugees over the compromised bridge to downtown Canmore. As the rain continued, Alexandra and I spent the night with a friend.
By Saturday morning -- yesterday -- our neighborhood looked very different. The creek had eaten through to the very edges of the houses on both sides. The more protected houses on the west side (RHS, looking downstream) still had a couple of feet of lawn left. On our side of the creek, the footbridge -- which, anchored to concrete embankments, had turned out to be almost indestructible -- had worsened matters for many residents. Trees and other flotsam piled up against it and the water diverted to the houses. The situation looked dire for many of our neighbors, whose foundations looked compromised.
Meanwhile, backhoes had valiantly worked throughout the night to divert the water away from the houses and back into a central channel. The water level had fallen, although Cougar Creek still raged feistily. But the berms built up on either side kept the water in the channel. Until this backhoe work, the creek had ceased to be a trough and was a valley-wide torrent at house level.
We may have escaped the worst of the damage, or not. Our balcony was tilted from the loss of a support beam but remained miraculously intact, the foundation was exposed but not undercut, cracked or buckled. On the other hand, water had broken through the basement suite, blew out the door, and flooded it to a height of two metres (three-metre ceiling) before withdrawing and leaving a layer of greasy silt on the floor. The path to the back of the house from the street now ends in a two-metre drop. While some residents whose houses were untouched by the creek have been allowed back in their homes, we are not yet.
A few more images from our circumnavigation of Mt. Logan.
Sledding shots are essentially scenics with people, so variety is hard to achieve when both light and landscape don't change much. The best sledding images have a graphic simplicity.
Avalanche off the north face of Mt. Logan.
Foreground nunataks, looking south toward cloud-shrouded Mt. St. Elias.
Sunstar silhouettes follow an easy formula: f/11 or f/16, manual exposure, meter off the sky beside the sun.
Just back from Mount Logan in Kluane National Park, where Glen Crawford, Jerry Auld and I skied 240 kilometres around the largest mountain on earth by bulk in 10 days, under blazing sunshine for all except half a day. The problem was not staying warm, it was remaining cool. Those who have not been on snow in late spring will find it hard to believe how hot that usually chilly environment can be. It felt like 20 or 25 degrees C, and the reflection off the snow was withering.
I've posted some photos below. Ten days is a decent time and reflects a strong team, perfect weather and ideal snow conditions. By late afternoon, the morning crust would turn mushy but nothing that presented any real obstacle to pull light (120 pound) sleds through.
One of Kluane's wardens told me that this route is done about once every two years, but legendary bush pilot Andy Williams says that this reflects attempts rather than successes, and that only about half a dozen parties have succeeded. To put our journey in perspective, the first party to circumski Mount Logan were also from Canmore, Alberta. They went earlier in the season, skied in, did the circumnav, and skied out. Oh, and they also climbed Logan in the process.
It is not a hard route, though I was grateful to my mountaineer partners for steering us safely through several crevasse fields. As an arctic sledder who has done almost all his trips with loose sled traces (rope or webbing), I was interested to see how rigid traces (aluminum or fiberglass poles) were more efficient in this mountainous environment. They let you ski side hills and downhills without a lot of fussing with sled brakes and overturned sleds.
I think I bruised a rib late in the trip by falling asleep on my iPhone, which I brought for its GPS and kept warm in a pocket overnight. A little embarrassing, but given the isolated environment and crevasses large enough to swallow a whole town, it could have been worse.
Hauling at the foot of Mount Logan. Typical Rockies-size mountains reach barely to the lower line of peaks.
Glen Crawford picking a safe route around some crevasses.
Roped up through a crevasse field in mid-afternoon, when the snow bridges softened.
Jerry Auld gets in a short run at the end of a day of sled hauling.
Moonset over the St. Elias Range, Alaska from the top of the Mussel Glacier.
Next week two partners and I are off to Kluane National Park in the Yukon to ski 250 kilometres around Mount Logan, the most massive mountain on earth. Nothing unique about this route -- there's even a map of Mount Logan showing the usual circumski route with a dotted red line. A Kluane park warden I spoke to estimated that it's done once every couple of years. The route was pioneered in the 1970s by two local mountaineers from here in Canmore, Alberta. Adventurer Pat Morrow also did the trip in his salad days, and considers it one of the loveliest he's done. Some of his photos are below. It's entirely on glaciers, which means ropes and climbing harnesses as well as the usual accoutrements of sledding. Our route runs from 5,000 to about 10,000 feet. At this time of year, even the world's largest ice cap outside the polar regions is not that cold: -17C (0 F) would be a minimum. On a sunny, windless day, we'd be in T-shirts.
My two partners are local ski mountaineers Glen Crawford and Jerry Auld. Glen's a full-time videographer; among many other projects, he filmed the Discovery Channel/Canadian Geographic Television documentary based on my book, The Horizontal Everest. Jerry Auld, whose idea this trip was, is a programmer and writer of mountain fiction. Both are serious ski mountaineers who can rig Z-pulleys in their sleep. I'm a mediocre downhiller and more or less a non-climber, but I've done 17 sledding expeditions longer than this one, while they've never sledded and this is their longest journey -- so ours will be a mix of skills.
We're planning on skiing the distance in two and a half weeks. However, another party attempting the same route earlier this spring turned back because of heavy snowfall. Even with relatively light sleds, dragging through deep powder is one of the most aerobic tests you could ask for. It's like doing sprint sets on 400 metres all day long. You have to stop to catch your breath after every 50 or 100 steps.
Photos from circumski of Mt. Logan courtesy of Pat Morrow.
The four guys currently sledding on Ellesmere seem to be enjoying their time on the land. They've had no problems, and they're now into the warmer part of spring. Sledding Ellesmere at this time of year approaches paradise.
It's a little odd that they received an air drop after just two weeks. It's possible to do their entire projected route without any resupplies, and they'll have at least two, including another one in a further two weeks at the Eureka Weather Station. The whole beauty of sledding is that it lets you travel completely self-sustained for six to eight weeks; a handful of teams have even sledded three months unsupported across Antarctica. This is also the best part of Ellesmere Island for sledding -- sunny weather, little wind, flat ice, great snow -- so I wonder why they weren't more ambitious. Lack of confidence? A 20 mpd average is a realistic target in that region. But they're putting in a low-key six or seven hours a day and covering 13-14 miles. Considering that there's 24 hours of sunlight, that's a short day.
Of course, on this current trip each member is carrying almost twice the necessary food because they have four dogs with them. Dogs eat about 2 lbs/day, almost as much as a person does. The Norwegian explorer Otto Sverdrup, whom their project loosely commemorates, combined skiing and dogs, but Sverdrup had full teams and hunted muskoxen and polar bears to feed them.
Gym rats, day trippers and the physical life
Here in the Rockies there are two kinds of active outdoor people. There are the day tourers, who are constantly hieing off for a full day of skiing or hiking, but would never be caught running round a track or skiing laps at the Nordic Centre. Then there are the gym rats, who are constantly exercising but for whom a day outing is an event.
Day to day, I'm a gym rat. Yesterday I swam 2500 metres; the day before that, I did bike, treadmill and weights at Canmore's new recreation facility; before that, I skate-skied for an hour in the heavy mush of melting snow at the Nordic Centre. Last weekend, Alexandra and I did a little ski tour into Paradise Valley near Lake Louise. That's the once every week or two event.
The gym rat stuff is mere maintenance for the yearly hard expeditions. The daily hour or two of exercise slows deterioration, but the deterioration is subtly occurring. But I spend on average two full months every year out in the wilderness, exercising 12 hours a day. That total physical life is what really checks deterioration and keeps fitness at a decently high level.
These long spells of exercise feel completely different from the gym rat stuff or the day tour. So few of us have the chance to experience this difference, because regular life prohibits. How many of us can simply disappear for a month or two at a time? I'm not bragging that I can; I'm just saying: Expedition exercise feels different because it involves almost every waking moment, not just an hour or two slotted in. Apart from the general cardio and muscle benefits, those long days of measured effort for weeks toughen the important little things like ligaments and tendons and develop core strength. The benefits of those two months carry over the rest of the year. I credit expeditions with helping me avoid athletic injuries.
So many studies on athletics, and so many workout columns in the outdoor mags, yet I've never seen one piece investigating the physiological differences between working out an hour a day at a higher intensity versus 12 hours a day for two months.
British Magnetic Pole expedition fizzles out
I've poked the Brits often enough on this website, with justification, but sometimes a little sympathy is in order. This pair weren't very good, but at least they weren't billing themselves as the greatest thing since Captain Cook. They weren't blaming climate change for their failure.
These two guys from the Royal Air Force were trying to sled the approximately 600 km from Resolute to Ellef Ringnes Island. Why Ellef Ringnes? Because it was briefly the site of the North Magnetic Pole in the 1990s and is relatively easy to get to. So in a stretch, you can call it a "Pole" -- although you could with equal justification just stay in Resolute and call that a Pole too, since on its wanderings since James Clark Ross discovered it on the Boothia Peninsula in 1831, the Magnetic Pole passed just west of town. When I started traveling the High Arctic in the late 1980s, the Magnetic Pole was still so close that the compass didn't work in Resolute. The needle moved sluggishly, as if through treacle, and never settled on anything.
European adventurers in the 1980s and 1990s who wanted to do the much harder Geographic North Pole often did the Magnetic Pole first. This shakedown trip gave them a decent distance to manage, and some experience sledding and dealing with the sort of cold that you just can't find in Europe. A few for whom the Magnetic Pole was an end in itself tried to deceive the public by calling it simply "the Pole" and hoping no one would notice.
After spending several years conveniently close to Resolute, the Magnetic Pole went on a tear after 1996 and is now somewhere in the Arctic Ocean, toward Russia. It's now even harder to reach than the Geographic Pole. That hasn't stopped some from continuing to run trips from Resolute to Ellef Ringnes Island and billing it as a "Magnetic Pole" journey. There's a very silly race with teams of beginners doing that route every year or so. When I was in Resolute in 2005, they had just shot two polar bears -- that route runs through pretty heavy bear country. No idea whether they've shot any bears since. It's not something you hear about unless you're there.
This current duo were using the route in the old way, as preparation for a Geographic Pole expedition. Unfortunately, many Brits who seem attracted to the Arctic do not have an aptitude for it. Perhaps it's partly cultural: They follow the old British style of avoiding too much preparation because that smacks of professionalism and is in poor style. The idea is to succeed as plucky gentlemen amateurs.
Perhaps the military background also has a lot to do with it: In my observation, military style often clashes with good arctic sense. As part of a magazine assignment, I did a winter snowshoe trip once with some Canadian soldiers out of Ottawa. Two hours into the hike, half of them were crippled with blisters and drenched with sweat. In the military, one person just does not stop a troop of 20 to tweak his clothing layers or to put on moleskin, but that is precisely the sort of individual care that the Arctic requires. You can't just tough out the cold or ignore an incipient injury. To be both British and military is a double whammy.
You don't actually need training to do a sledding expedition, which is mostly nontechnical. I started out on my own, with a lot of research and preparation. So did several other competent arctic travelers I know. And maybe I was naturally careful about looking after myself in the cold.
Before two Australian beginners did their South Pole round trip a couple of years ago, they took a Northwinds course in Iqaluit -- far cheaper and more effective than heading off on your own to Resolute. Others hire guides. A guide would have helped this twosome. Among other things, a guide would have asked them: Why are you doing this route at the coldest time of year, in early March? If you started in early April, it would still be plenty cold but you'd have more light and slipperier snow for sledding. You'd learn 90% of what you'd need to travel in even colder conditions for a Geographic Pole journey.
Shortly, a 20-strong party of mostly Innu will be snowshoeing the 220 kilometres from Makkovik to Sheshatshui in Labrador. At the same time, Innu elder Elizabeth Penashue will leave next week on her annual three-week snowshoe trek through the Mealy Mountains to what locals call Pants Lake. Such communal treks have been going on for several years now. More than other Canadian aboriginal groups, the Innu seem to be making an attempt to renew their connection to the land.
Elizabeth started this custom about 13 years ago. In 2009, an Innu fellow in his mid-20s named Michel Andrew walked alone between Labrador's two Innu communities, Sheshashui to Natuashish. This was the first of a series of walks for him. They have been more community events than hard-core treks: Supporters on snowmobiles transport most of the food, set up camp each night and tamp down the trail. (Large Innu bush tents take hours to set up.) However, the softer nature of the projects has allowed many people to participate who would not want or be able to drag a heavy sled through winter Labrador. Nevertheless, it's possible that one or two of the young walkers will enjoy the experience so much that they will eventually do truly traditional, unsupported treks. It's been three generations since Innu in Labrador have traveled the old way.
When I was starting out, I spent one Christmas in a bush tent with an Innu friend and his family. Luc Andre didn't snowshoe long distances trapping and hunting, but he grew up among traditional generations who had. One morning I joined Luc on a ptarmigan hunt. He started snowshoeing at a tremendous clip. Though I was an athlete and he was an overweight guy who never exercised, I could barely keep up. We were flying through the soft snow at about 4-1/2 mph. After an hour, his wheels fell off, but I've never forgotten that pace. I had the impression that this was the traditional Innu pace that those who lived on the land could keep up all day.
Elizabeth Penashue hauling, with friend, in the Mealy Mountains.
Yike...30 years ago today, on January 24, 1983, I began my first northern expedition, a 600-kilometre solo manhauling journey across midwinter Labrador. I only made it halfway that first time (I returned a year later and successfully did the entire route), but I immediately fell in love with sledding, the Arctic and life on the land. I've done arctic wilderness journeys almost every year since.
Some travel highlights:
1983. Looking rugged after a month and a half of camping, rather than like a dog.
1984. Learning to make dozens of thousand-calorie peanut butter and jam sandwiches the day before leaving on a winter expedition. Frozen, they stay fresh for months. Much more efficient than chipping rock-hard shards of peanut butter out of the jar with a knife at 40 below.
1985. Retracing Leonidas Hubbard's 1903 canoe journey up the Susan River in Labrador and discovering that wilderness travel can be a valid form of historical research.
1986. First night of paradise on Ellesmere Island.
1987. Carrying 100-lb packs in Central Asia with Russian adventurers to train for a North Pole expedition. Russia's a crazy place! Love it!
1988. Two months on Ellesmere on two separate sledding expeditions with different partners, including getting wasted from traveling round the clock for three days straight.
1989. Walked 500km from Eureka to Grise Fiord on Ellesmere in 11 days. A pure athletic exercise. At that speed, you learn a lot about travel but not much about a place. Fastest manhauling trek in the polar regions until Christian Eide's fine sprint to the South Pole a couple of years ago.
1990. First expedition to Axel Heiberg Island. Also did a waterless trek across Turkmenistan's Karakum Desert with some nutty Russians. Traveled at night (keep mouth closed to minimize water loss!) and took refuge during the hot day in pits dug in the sand with our hands. Tried drinking pee during the trek to see if it would help. As expected, it was too salty. And gross!
1991: Climbed Mt. Caubvick on first visit to Labrador's Torngats. Learned Russian and spent three months photographing during the fall of the Soviet Union. Most surreal trip ever. The wife of a friend tells me, with classic Russian bluntness, "You just like it here because when you get tired of living our interesting life, you can go back to your country, where everything works."
1992. Poking around Russia's hard-to-reach Kuril Islands. Lenin statues still common but new churches springing up like weeds. Earthquakes so common here that people slept with their IDs beside their beds so they could grab them and run in the middle of the night, if necessary. And indeed, this part of Yuzhno-Kurilsk was destroyed by an earthquake and subsequent tsumami a year or two after this photo was taken.
1993. Returned to the spectacular volcanic region of Kamchatka. 27 rolls of film in one day; almost 1,000 frames: a record. Possibly the second best scenery in the world, next to the US Southwest.
1994. Back to the High Arctic. A 600-km solo expedition cut short by a running injury during training that allowed just 7-8 hours of hauling/day. Not enough. As usual, carried no radio or satphone, which is like climbing free solo: Without a rope, you have to be more conservative with field decisions. I only began bringing comms in 2005, as a luxury.
1995. Hiking/photographing northern Ellesmere. Not high mileage but hard travel because of the heavy backpack, which included 30 lbs of camera gear. The 500mm lens, in particular, was a killer.
1996. Two months' spring sledding on Ellesmere. Joined Inuit sovereignty patrol and found the spot from which explorer Otto Sverdrup discovered Axel Heiberg Island. Returned to hike the island most of the summer.
1997. 700km Ellesmere/Axel expedition. Then photographing Ukraine: climbing radio antennas, scrambling over sloped roofs for better angles...love how no one cares about liability over there!
1998. Four months on Ellesmere/Axel on four expeditions. A lot of travel compared to most, but a bush pilot in Resolute tells me, "Last year, I spent 321 days in hotel rooms."
1999. Alexandra's first expeditions: two months on Devon and Axel Heiberg Islands. Incredibly warm weather, sunshine 24 hours a day. Earworm of the summer: I Wear My Sunglasses At Night.
2000. We become the first travelers in over 20 years to get permission to visit the restricted military base at Alert. Military hospitality, once granted, is second to none. Some years earlier -- at the end of the season when the commander was trying to use up allotted helicopter hours -- a Canadian Forces chopper flew 100 miles across Ellesmere to deliver me a surprise treat of some ham sandwiches.
2001. While guiding an Ellesmere tour, we meet "L.A. Bob" Cochran, left, who becomes a close friend and travel partner. Bob has long been obsessed with David Brainard, right, of the Greely expedition.
2002. Traveled two months in Russia's Kuril Islands and Tuva, where Alexandra was thrown at full gallop by her horse. She landed on her back but was just winded. Her closest call.
2004. Returned to winter Labrador to re-do 1984 route, to see how a veteran traveler would fare 20 years later against his younger self. Finished a week faster this time around.
2005. A month sledding Ellesmere with L.A. Bob. Revisited the ice cave discovered by Otto Sverdrup in 1900 and which I first saw in 1988. "It was like fairyland, beautiful and fear-inspiring at the same time," wrote the normally stuffy Norwegian.
2006. Kayaking the length of Labrador's Torngat Mountains with Alexandra. Weather idyllic. We're the first official visitors to the new national park.
2007. Weatherbeaten after sledding 700km on Ellesmere. Summer kayak trip in Labrador. Five close calls with polar bears: worst year ever.
2008. Kayaking 800km solo along the southeastern coast of Labrador. Spent a day looking unsuccessfully for the 18th-C remains of George Cartwright's house in Stage Cove.
2009. Writing Arctic Eden. Only three nights in a tent all year!
2010. A planned Labrador summer expedition flops at the last minute, so exploring the Mealy Mountains by foot and packraft.
2011. Alexandra and I kayak Labrador's midcoast from Nain to Rigolet. Have now kayaked the entire coast of Labrador from Killinek to the Straits. A polar bear scared the hell out of us a few hours after this photo was taken.
2012. Manhauled 550km from Nain to Kangiqsualujjuaq with 25-year-old Inuit friend, Noah Nochasak. Lousy weather, good partner!
I've read 30 to 35 books on the North Pole, but it doesn't take a studious streak to conclude that neither Robert Peary nor Frederick Cook reached it. Mainly, it takes a bullshit detector. It's an alarm bell that rings when fraud is present. It doesn't have anything to do with brains or insight. It's a separate bell.
It's been clanging lately, as I read of Lance Armstrong's latest maneuvers. The guy has always creeped me out. To those with a bullshit detector, the fact that such a person would dope is a no-brainer, and it astonished me how many otherwise intelligent journalists failed to see it. Some are now hurt and angry; others wonder if his contrition is genuine: the lack of a bullshit detector once again.
Robert Peary and Lance Armstrong are very similar: They were both into the fame and power game. In this game, anything goes. Morals are for suckers. Truth is a maneuver. Both are inconvenient but can be useful. Both are meted out in highly controlled doses. You can't trust anything they say or do. Instead, you try to understand the strategy behind it.
There's a lot of lesser bullshit in the expedition world. Reading about polar projects, I can usually tick off pretty quickly bull, bull, bull, genuine, bull, bull, maybe. A lot of the bull is small pumpkins, and doesn't need a Royal Commission or a lot of fretting. In fact, the best thing about a bullshit detector is that the genuine can be truly loved, and it will never disappoint you.
January 7, 2013
Received an email yesterday from an articulate 16-year-old who had just read Arctic Eden and fell in love with the High Arctic. He wanted to know how he could live that sort of life, or get up there, or start doing these things, or find a career that would let him indulge his (still distant) love of the outdoors. Part of my response was tailored to his letter, but since it also answers general questions of possible interest to others, I reproduce it below:
Your letter raises big questions about your future course that are impossible for anyone to answer -- not me, not you. That's not to say that answers don't exist. It's just that you have to try things before you know whether or not they're right for you.
I did many of the expeditions from Arctic Eden while based in Toronto. So while southern Ontario is the worst place in the country for someone who loves the outdoors, you don't have to live in the north to travel the north.
In The Horizontal Everest, I describe how I started arctic travel. I had no experience, and knew no one. I prepared as well as I could and then made a leap in the dark. That doesn't work with some things, but winter travel isn't very technical (compared to, say, whitewater canoeing or downhill skiing), so it worked. Such dreams are not impossible, but you have to try them on for size before you can say they're really for you.
At 16, incidentally, I was a long way from doing these things. I was more interested in athletics and being a good student (yuck, I know). Arctic travel is not like some things, like climbing. Here in the Rockies, where I now live, a lot of climber friends moved here just after high school or university and joined the outdoor community. Those drawn to sea kayaking move beside the ocean when they're old enough. Whitewater kayakers live around rivers. But wilderness travelers usually live in the south and craft a certain flexibility in their lives that let them travel for two or three months a year. Don't ask me how to do this: everyone does it differently. Some turn down good careers in order to have flexible jobs. Some avoid buying a house, which is the most expensive thing that adults deal with, next to kids. If you want to live a certain life, you go for it, and are willfully deaf to what other people say.
The High Arctic is truly great, but I started with the subarctic, which is more accessible and almost as wild. You have no idea how expensive it is to get to Ellesmere! It was much cheaper when I started. On the other hand, I can do a trip in Labrador or the northern mainland for comparatively little. The first trip or two will tell you if you really like crazy wilderness travel, or if it just seems great from the comfort of home.
The two key things I did in my early years, I think, was to be superfit, and study hard. I wasn't particularly interested in school, but in retrospect studying is like lifting weights with your brain: it makes your brain stronger. Then in time, you can apply that organized thinking to things you really care about. When I lived in southern Ontario, I wasn't doing a lot of outdoor stuff, apart from those long trips a couple of times a year, but I was at the gym almost every day, or running, or marathon swimming, or walking for hours on city streets, which I still enjoy.
I have no idea if these thoughts will be any help. But one thing I can say: the only way you'll choose the right course is to try different things. Some you'll discover you like, some you won't, and gradually your path begins to focus.
NOTE: A few years ago, I made a list here called the Top Ten Expedition BS that somehow has gone semi-viral. Every day, people come to this site looking for it. You can still find it through the Expeditions2008 archive, but for easy access, I thought I'd include it at the bottom of this page. I have made one tweak to the original list, replacing one item with another more common one.
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 -- climbing K2, for
example. 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.
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.