Of all the gear advances I've seen during my expedition career, the LED headlamp may be the most important. On my first arctic expeditions, only tungsten headlamps were available. Since alkalines don't work well in the cold, I had to power the headlamp with a big lithium D-cell, which lasted about an hour at -40. Because of weight, I could only use the headlamp intermittently. Mostly, my night light was a candle lantern. But candle lanterns don't work well in extreme cold, either. At first, it burns brightly, but the outer part of the candle remains below freezing. As the flame burrows down, walls of wax remain around the wick, blocking much of the light.
While headlamps aren't necessary on High Arctic trips, thanks to the wonderful 24-hour-sun, LED lamps can now illuminate every moment of darkness on arctic and subarctic journeys. They take so little power that you can easily carry enough AA lithiums for an entire two-month trip. My headlamp of choice -- and other arctic travelers use it too -- is Petzl's LED Duo 14 lamp.
Powered by four AA lithiums that give about 30 hours of light in deep cold, it's bright, waterproof and reliable, and the On switch has a locking mechanism that keeps it from turning on accidentally. It has 14 small LED bulbs and a secondary tungsten bulb which I never use. Trail runners find that tungsten gives superior depth perception compared to cool LED light, but for camp use it's unnecessary and just drains the batteries prematurely.
Thanks to lithium technology, which provides steady voltage until the batteries are nearly exhausted, the light does not fade much except when it's time for a fresh set of batteries.
In recent years, some high-end headlamps, above, have become extremely powerful. Petzl's Ultra Rush, for example, can give up to 760 lumens of brightness, while the Duo 14 gives a comparatively modest 67 lumens -- more than ten times less. These are $500 units; a spare rechargeable battery will set you back another $250. Furthermore, I don't know how well the rechargeable batteries perform in the cold. Yet these super-headamps have their uses in arctic travel: There have been times when I've had to go out of the tent at night to pee, or check the bear fence, or shovel away drifting snow that's accumulating against the tent walls. On some expeditions, long days finish after dark. Most headlamps, including the Duo 14, penetrate maybe 15 meters into the blackness. You couldn't see a polar bear coming. But headlamps like the Ultra Rush can serve as valuable secondary lights specifically for use after dark in polar bear country, or when you need to find an elusive feature at night, such as a cabin or a tributary path.
Two favorite bits of domestic gear that are peripherally connected to wilderness travel. First, the ulu -- that crescent-shaped Inuit woman's knife traditionally used for cutting and scraping skins -- also happens to be the world's best pizza cutter.
Second, Alexandra and I are fans of espresso and have a machine at home. On expeditions, we just switch to hot chocolate. But for semi-civilized travels -- for example, at the backcountry lodge where we're skiing next month -- we bring a portable espresso maker created by a company in France called Handpresso. You place a little envelope of espresso (called an E.S.E. pod) inside the unit, add boiling water to a little reservoir and pressurize the closed system with a built-in pump. This drives the water through the grounds at the required pressure. The result is almost as good as the brew from our home machine. To add steamed milk for a latte, heat up some milk and whip it with a battery-operated frother available through Amazon or elsewhere.
Let me warn you that this gear tip might be a little scatological for some palates.
One of the questions that everyone, especially kids, wants to know about arctic travel is, How do you go to the toilet at 40 below? Peeing is easy; there's no danger of frostbite during the 20 or 30 seconds it takes. You're otherwise bundled up, and even a beginner quickly learns to pee with his back to the wind. Sometimes you have to pee in the middle of the night, and then I use a pee bottle, to avoid having to put on boots, etc. to go out of the tent. But you have to empty the bottle immediately, usually in the back vestibule. Otherwise, it's frozen by morning.
As for the other task, cold doesn't affect the bare bottom, and an expedition diet contains so much fat that things tend to happen quickly. No time to read a newspaper. The real problem is mopping up afterward. If it's very cold or windy, this is a ghastly chore, because you have to do it barehanded to avoid the risk of soiling your glove. The hand numbs almost immediately; you have to warm it up on a bare leg or stomach before a second wipe. As the hand unnumbs, it screams in agony. I've seen partners returning to the tent looking half-dead after this operation; it takes them 15 minutes to recover. I'm sure I look the same.
A few months ago, I read of a polar traveler who carries some of those loose-fitting plastic gloves that doctors use for intimate exams. He places this glove over a liner glove, so the wiping hand remains covered. Although I haven't tried it yet, this strikes me as a remarkable little idea that has the potential to, shall we say, eliminate the worst part of a winter expedition day.
Alexandra suffers from a common ailment called Raynaud's, which makes her hands sensitive to cold. It's the main reason why she joins me on summer arctic trips but not winter ones. Not only do her fingers turn blue in classic Raynaud's fashion but they hurt like hell. When she cross-country skis on cold days, she usually puts chemical handwarmers into her mitts before she goes.
For her birthday this year, I bought her a pair of electric gloves that I heard about during my recent arctic cruise. One of the other resource people uses them for winter cycling. Made by an entrepreneur in Calgary, these MotionHeat gloves have three warmth settings, Low, Medium and High. You can switch from one to the other by pushing an LED button on the cuff. White is Low, Blue is Medium, Red is High. The gloves are powered by rechargeable lithium batteries that either squeeze into a pocket in the cuff or fit in a pocket inside your jacket via an accessory cable that goes from each glove through the sleeves.
These skintight liner gloves are meant to be used with a second pair of overgloves, which protect the thin Lycra and act as a windbreak.
Nemo Equipment has a new version of an old idea for an extreme winter bag: a tunnel extension to keep the face warmer. This would be ok for climbers spending a couple of days at -40 on a high-altitude push, but is unsuitable for arctic travel. Within a week, that collar would be a casque of ice from frozen breath. Short of drying the bag out in a cabin, there is no way to remove the ice.
In late spring, when the sun is high enough, you can lay the bag outside for an hour or two and the sun will sublimate the night's accumulation of frost, as I'm doing below. But this only works before the bag has been gummed up by weeks of breathing on it. Also, if the sun is strong enough to have this effect, the nights will no longer be cold enough to need a down tunnel around your face.
So how do you keep your face warm at -40 or -50? You can't put your head inside a normal sleeping bag for the same reasons: the moisture in breath will pollute the insulation and quickly turn the bag into a frozen coffin. For graphic descriptions of this, read the Winter Journey section of Cherry-Garrard's The Worst Journey in the World. The three of them innocently slept with their heads inside their bags, and soon they had to force their way into what felt like super-starched envelopes, devoid of warmth.
I keep my face warm on cold nights by having a balaclava over it. It's mainly the nose that gets cold; cheeks, lips, etc. don't seem to feel it. I find it too claustrophic to bring the balaclava up over my mouth. Instead, I pull the balaclava down and hook it over my nose.
The collar of even a normal bag ices up over time, but it's endurable. On the coldest trips, I slip the big down bag inside a custom-made synthetic overbag, which adds a few degrees of warmth but mainly protects the down from the damaging effects of breathing.
This year I'm again prescreening films for the Banff Mountain Film Festival. It's a great way to see films that you'd otherwise miss during the hectic two days of the festival itself. Last year I discovered several features, including Happiness, Rising From Ashes and Mountain Runners, that didn't become finalists but which have stayed with me.
One film that will probably not be a finalist this year is called The Crossing, about two young Australians who set out to walk across Victoria Island in the central Arctic. It's a pretty standard expedition film, but to their credit, they admitted how little they knew, so there's a limit to how fervently you can scratch your head about some of their equipment choices. Suffice it to say that they traveled using the principles of the British Arctic explorers of the 19th century: Set out with no experience and twice as much weight as you actually need and see if you can succeed regardless.
The tundra tires on their amphibious kayaks were almost the diameter of a human. Those of us who pull sleds in the Arctic in summer as well as winter tend to use the large version of these.
I've been a diehard user of loose sled traces (rope or webbing) since my first expedition, when rigid poles kept me from backing up when I blundered onto thin river ice. I had to keep sledding forward and try to get back on firmer ice, but I fell through before I could. Although the rigid poles lay on the bad ice and supported me while -- waist deep in ice water -- I maneuvered out of the harness and crawled to safety with my gear, I hated not being able to go backward when I first encountered the bad ice. Since then, I've used loose traces. Apart from safety, they also let me walk back to the sled and pick up overmitts, a snack or a drink of water, or sit on the sled for a quick rest, all without getting out of the harness.
But as I pointed out on the Expeditions page, this recent circumski of Mt. Logan involved more downhill than, as an arctic specialist, I am used to. One day, we skied 3,000 feet down the Mussel glacier, top photo. (We'd hauled 4,000 feet uphill the day before.)
The slopes were relatively gentle, and you can get down them with either loose or rigid traces. But my companions' rigid systems let them descend much faster than I could. They took off their climbing skins, pointed their skis downhill and away they went. Glen's system, in which a crossbar linked his two poles, provided even more stability than Jerry Auld's poles, which were connected to the sled but not to each other. Sometimes his sled overturned as mine did, though not as often.
Glen's sled, left, Jerry Auld's , right.
A rigid pole system. The U attaches securely to the nose of the sled through clips or polyethylene eyes.
There are ways of getting down even steep hills with loose traces. A spare piece of webbing looped under the sled runners and clipped on top of the sled with Fastex acts as a sled brake. It's not perfect -- it may have little effect on icy or windblasted slopes -- but it manages most descents. Pat Morrow told me of skiing down Mount Vinson in Antarctica with a sled by dragging a duffle behind as a sort of sea anchor.
Nevertheless, in a mountain environment of ups and downs, a rigid system is simply more efficient. As I futzed with sled brakes and the frequently overturned sled and creeping progress, I envied Glen far below, almost out of sight, descending effortlessly in minutes.
Every traveler loves maps. They're gateways to dreams. And when the dreams become real and a trip is planned, maps become a puzzle. What scale(s) should you bring? What about backups? I've never had the wind snatch a vital topo out of my hands and run away with it, but that can happen.
Here in the Canadian Rockies, or in any serious mountains, 1:250,000 scale topo maps, with their typical 200- or even 500-foot contours, are not enough for navigation. Where you can or can't go depends so much on local relief that only the standard Canadian 1:50,000 maps carry enough contour detail.
In the Arctic, it's a different story. I still bring 1:50,000s on kayaking expeditions, because I want to judge if a little inlet holds promise as a landing or campsite. On most sledding expeditions in the High Arctic, though, 1:250,000s are enough. In any case, 1:50,000 scale topos used to be rare up there, although a full series now exists. The only time 1:50,000s are important is during overland passages involving precise routefinding through a maze of hillocks and creek ravines. I used the 1:50,000s constantly when my partner and I were crossing Labrador's confusing tundra last year. Once we reached the George River, maps of any kind were hardly necessary. We just kept to the same frozen waterway for weeks.
Most High Arctic sledding takes place on the sea ice or in broad, obvious valleys where -- because of the infinite visibility of the tundra -- you could hardly get lost if you tried.
Technically, you don't even need paper maps any more, since modern GPS's include topos. But I find the screens too small for navigation, although they're great for verifying your current position. Still, the batteries don't last very long and are hard to recharge in the field.
I used to buy topo maps one by one. For a long trip, the cost totalled hundreds of dollars. They were one-sided and had lots of wasted space around the borders that I'd trim off to save weight and space. Single-sided maps were inefficient, but they were your only option. Thanks to the thick stock on which they were printed, they lasted for years, until repeated folding and trail moisture began to wear away key details.
Maps in the office
About 10 years ago, digital maps became popular. For $100, you could buy a DVD of all the topos in a travel area, such as Nunavut or Labrador, and print them out yourself. Since my professional printer can handle up to 13x19 paper, the maps can be almost the size of old-fashioned government charts, if desired. This not only saves money, but since you can crop the digital topos as desired, you rarely encounter the irritating situation where you need two or even four maps for a small trip, because your chosen route happens to fall at the corners of several adjoining topos.
Typically, I put the 1:250,000 overview maps on larger paper and the 1:50,000s (the U.S. uses 1:63,000) on 8-1/2 x 11 paper, which fits conveniently in a large Ziploc bag. I print all maps double-sided, and number them with a Sharpie. If you're traveling hard, 1:50,000 maps on letter-sized paper last only a couple of hours before you're on to the next one. On a fast sledding or kayaking expedition, even a full-sized 1:250,000 topo lasts only a day.
Increasingly, topos are available free online. I am not as educated about this resource as some people, because I already own the DVDs for the areas where I typically travel. But recently I was researching a route on the Alaskan border that I might do next month and found this exhaustive set of 1:250,000 and 1:63,000 topos. The files are easily large enough to print clearly.
It was much harder to find a similar resource for Canadian maps. Toporama, the main government digital map website, is one of those Kafkaesque nightmares designed to be, ironically, unnavigable. Google was of little help. Thankfully, a fellow wilderness traveler who used to work in government pointed me to the Canadian site for free 1:50,000 and 1:300,000 topos. It's one of those old-fashioned ftp, Windows 95-looking places, which is probably why it eludes search engines, but all the maps are there.
Finally, don't overlook the VFR navigation charts that bush pilots use. These 1:500,000 maps give a great overview for long-distance journeys. Ellesmere Island, for example, is covered in two charts, Ellesmere and Alert; northern Labrador has Goose Bay and Ungava. What I like most about them, besides the fact that they're double-sided, is that they're just the right size for penciling in landmarks, historic sites, literary quotes, etc. My charts are awash in chicken tracks related to those areas.
The need to breathe is the most inconvenient part of winter travel. At night, the moisture in breath freezes on the collar and hood of your sleeping bag. Over the days and weeks, that part of the sleeping bag increasingly becomes a rigid helmet. Insulation is compromised. You can't stick your head inside the sleeping bag, or the moisture will affect the entire bag. (Read The Worst Journey in the World for the consequences of this.) As it is, the bag suffers from transpiration through the pores, but the damage is not as dramatic as it is on the part of the bag near your mouth.
During the day, breath likewise freezes on the collar of your jacket and especially on any facemask. I don't wear a facemask in still air, no matter how cold, but there's no getting around the need for one in a headwind. By the end of the day, the facemask is a mess. The mouth and nose area are thick with ice. On a day trip, who cares, but if you have to wear the same facemask day after day, what do you do?
Pick the right sort of facemask, for one. The first kind I tried was one of those neoprene half-masks that cover the nose, cheeks and chin and Velcro behind the head. Little holes over the mouth area allow you to breathe. Problem is, neoprene is warm but it takes a long time to dry and is an inappropriate material for a garment that gets wet -- except, of course, in a wetsuit, which is hung to dry after every use.
Surplus stores carry down masks which cover the entire head and are very warm, but down is even harder to dry than neoprene. Wool balaclavas also ice up beyond drying. Fleece versions are much better, but after a windy day with your nose and mouth buried in one, they also become sodden and icy. And ordinary balaclavas are not quite enough for the coldest, windiest conditions.
Some modern products try to get high-tech with facemasks. Some make the wearer look like Darth Vader. Other companies like Scott make full facemasks that seem popular on windy Antarctic trips. I have no experience with these; they too would ice up but might still (unpleasantly) protect the face.
For several years, I've been using Outdoor Research's Gorilla balaclava. Its nosepiece attaches with Velcro, so can be removed if the wind drops or, especially, in the evening. The nosepiece is the main thing that ices up. I rest it near the camp stove while making supper and melting water, close enough so that the material doesn't melt but near enough that the accumulated ice steams off. By the end of the evening chores, it's usually dry again.
OR's latest model of the Gorilla is inferior to their previous version, because the nosepiece is thinner, smaller and has a mesh piece over the mouth, which is not necessary and just provides another surface to ice up. So I've rigged a thin, fast-drying piece of fleece which attaches to the sides of the balaclava like the nosepiece does but which doesn't cover the mouth.
As for what to do about the sleeping bag hood and collar: On the coldest arctic winter trips, I carry a synthetic overbag which fits over the down bag. This overbag shields the down from most of the damage from breathing.
Climbing skins for manhauling
We manhaulers all use climbing skins on the bottom of our skis for traction. Neither wax nor the bas-relief scales on waxless skis gives enough grip to pull a heavy sled. Borge Ousland told me of one exception: With his characteristic mix of good contacts and clever thinking, he once had Fischer put scales along the entire length of a ski, not just in the kick area. He claimed that these custom skis had enough grip to haul lighter sleds, up to around 130 lbs.
Skins give good grip but also reduce glide, hence the canny manhauler's desire to eliminate or minimize their use. On my early journeys, I hadn't thought this through, so my skins spanned the full width of my touring skis. I wasn't much of a skier then anyway, so glide was irrelevant. I thought skis were useful while hauling a sled merely to float on the snow and were better than snowshoes because you pushed skis forward but had to lift a three-pound snowshoe with each step. Obviously, skis made you less tired, except in deep powder.
Since then, I've refined my skinning approach considerably. My skins are mohair rather than nylon because mohair glides better. And they're now half the width of my narrow touring skis. I bought the skinniest skins I could find -- 50mm wide -- and cut them down the middle with scissors. Then I tracked down some bails small enough to hook on the tips of my Europa 99s. These narrow bails were so hard to find in this era of fat skis that I bought enough to last a lifetime. With a little duct tape on the edges to further narrow the bail, they even fit on racing skis.
The 25mm width gives enough grip, even with slippery mohair, to haul a sled of any weight. 20mm would work too, and give slightly better glide. Not sure about 15mm. When Colltex sponsored me, I didn't think to ask for enough skins to slice them into various widths and lengths to see at what point they failed to give adequate grip.
I carry an extra tube of skin glue with me, in case the skins start to come off or (in the southern Arctic) I have to slog through slush on lakes or rivers. Fixing slushed-up skins is a time-consuming job in the tent. You have to melt the frozen slush off over the camp stove, dry the skins, then reapply the glue. Miserable! Doesn't happen often, luckily.
Other travelers have experimented with interesting ways to increase glide on their skins and also to affix them more securely. One team of Europeans gouged a wide groove down the center of their skis with a router, so that their skins were partly inset. (Seems to me that simply narrowing the skins would be easier.) Others screw their skins to the skis so they can't possibly come off. With a dedicated pair of arctic skis, you could also permanently attach the skins before the expedition with bombproof Gorilla Glue. Since I don't deal with slush or flooded summer sea ice often, removeable skin glue works fine for me.
You could also experiment with shortening the length of the skins, especially if they are permanently fixed on. Skis with skins barely longer than the kick area might glide very well. Commercial skins are always full length, because on steep slopes, you need grip on the tips and tails of your skis. Manhauling has different requirements.
Not long ago, a top U.S. wildlife photographer joined a photo tour to a tropical destination. This guy has been making a living from his animal imagery since the late 70s. He still spends at least half the year in the field. He is the real McCoy.
But on this tour, he found himself a bit of an outcast. No one was interested in him. No one asked what he did. He's a quiet guy, but the main reason seemed to be that his gear was not as new or as expensive as that of the doctors and dentists and other clients on the trip. They were all shooting with Nikon D4's and Canon EOS 1DX's while his main camera was the competent but comparatively humble Nikon D5000. What could he possibly teach them?
Group conversation tended to be mostly about gear. Pros talk gear sometimes too, but never as a pissing contest. Gear is a tool, not a symbol of how serious we are about our hobby.
On rainy days, most of the photographers would gather in the lodge and take turns showing the images they were so proud of on a screen. Meanwhile, my professional friend stood outside on the balcony by himself, hard at work photographing birds in the rain.
Random thoughts about temperature:
Some people are good in the cold. Some are good in the heat. I've never met anyone who's good in both.
Earlier this week, at the Australian Open, the temperature during some of the night matches dropped to the low or mid-50s (11 or 12C). Both Roger Federer and Andy Murray, who are good in the heat, wore undershirts. I would never wear an undershirt even while walking in such mild conditions, let alone running as intensely as they do. On the other hand, I can barely jog for half an hour in 30C temperatures, let alone do sprint sets for four hours.
Professionals like Federer and Murray know what to wear. Despite coming from Switzerland and Scotland, they're just sensitive to cold. But many people overdress because they are afraid of the cold or because of inexperience. When I skate-ski at the Canmore Nordic Centre, wearing an undershirt and a wind vest on a -5C day, many beginners are sporting thick hats, big mitts, insulated pants and car coats down to their knees. In Canadian cities in winter, it's common to see joggers wearing full GoreTex suits in what for some of us is shorts and T-shirt running weather. They dress for the first five minutes of their outing, not realizing that when exercising, you dress for when you're warmed up, not for when you're starting.
In arctic travel, it's obviously important to dress warmly but it's more important to dress cool. Someone who's too hot will feel sluggish and slow down. Sometimes you don't even realize why you're going so slowly: It's because you're hot! Because of this, it's better to underdress slightly, because it makes you go faster in order to generate more exercise warmth.
It's easy to tell when you're truly wearing too little: your fingers start to go numb and they don't un-numb within 15 minutes or so. That's the time to put on an extra layer. Note that this early numbness is not the numbness of frostbite. Ice hasn't formed in the cells, the circulation has just slowed or shut down and lactic acid is building up. This early numbness hurts.
Winter is great for active people who suffer in the heat, because there is so much to do: skiing, running, skating, cycling. In summer, to avoid heat, I prefer swimming for aerobic exercise. Even there, you go faster when the water's cool. Most public pools are far too hot, because athletic directors respond to complaints from seniors, mummies with kids and those who just want a relaxed swimming experience, ie, the majority. But if you train seriously, the elevated temperatures in these pools sap energy. The best pool I ever swam at was a university pool that was kept at 79F. The cool water gave an opening shock when you first jumped in, but you warmed up after a few minutes, as you do when running in winter with a T-shirt. And you could swim as hard as you wanted without wilting. Most public pools, by comparison, are 84F or 85F. Because of water's great density compared to air, that 5 or 6 degrees makes a huge difference. An experienced swimmer can tell when the water temperature changes by just a single degree.
I'm not a great advocate of wind chill: Even the new scale is exaggerated, and people tend to cite it because it makes the cold that they are enduring sound more impressive. It's a way of exaggerating without actually lying. But a wind chill equivalent of 40 below feels totally different from the real 40 below.
Still, wind is the hardest thing an arctic traveler has to deal with. "I laugh at the cold, I laugh at the dark, I laugh at the ice, but I do not laugh at the winds," Fridtjof Nansen wrote once. "They are everything." And although I've camped down to -54C (-64F), the most dangerous temperature I've ever experienced was 40 below with a 30-knot wind on the Labrador plateau. Usually at those temperatures the air is calm; not this time. Traveling would have been risky and taken too much energy for too little distance, so I sat it out in the tent. In a nearby Inuit village, a young fellow died in that storm when his snowmobile broke down.
Sitting out -40 and 30-knot winds.
January 25, 2013
Poked around Mountain Equipment Co-op (Canada's REI) yesterday, as I sometimes do, just to see what's new in gear. A couple of items caught my eye. First, what MEC calls their Expedition Bootie. Booties are soft camp boots with down or synthetic fill to keep your feet warm at the end of the day. They're soft as slippers and feel great after a day of skiing or trekking.
Booties are usually just ankle-high, but MEC's have a noninsulated extension that comes up just below the knee. I've been looking for commercial booties like this for years: When I was starting out, the Montreal company Kanuk made a fabulous pair. They were one of several imaginative winter camping items that Kanuk designed in its early years. Unfortunately, the owner soon realized that outdoor companies do not survive by specializing in items for winter camping, no matter how imaginative. Now they make town-and-country stuff. So following the basic design of their expedition bootie, I have new ones custom-made periodically. This is a pain, and I've always kept my eye open for comparable booties that are available over the counter.
Unfortunately, MEC's Expedition Booties, above left, have the right design but aren't warm enough for a true expedition boot. My own custom-made booties, above right, are twice as thick and keep the feet warm down to -50C. MEC's are ordinary booties to which an extension snow cuff has been added.
In arctic travel, it's important to carry a snow knife for two reasons: one, as a survival tool, in case something happens to your tent (hurricane or polar bear); two, to build a wall of snow blocks as a windbreak or (for group travel) a biffy.
Inuit sometimes make their own snow knives (for example, from a carpenter's square). Often they just use a ripsaw. This last is not a particularly lightweight solution, but since they're on snowmobiles, an extra pound or so doesn't matter.
Most lightweight snow knives available in outdoor stores are for cutting test snow blocks in avalanche country. They're usually too short for igloo/snow wall building. But MEC's Backcountry Access Snow Saw (below) is just long enough. Incidentally, a serrated edge is not necessary for cutting snow blocks: That's why a carpenter's square with its tip rounded off and sharpened and its handle built up into a nice grip also works well.