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A Baffin Island Odyssey

 

Our trip started with a massive food shop in Ottawa and a night in a cheap hotel discarding unnecessary food packaging and sorting our rations into duffles for each week on the ice. After confirming that we had more than enough food for the trip, and with stomachs rumbling from a long day travelling, we hit the diner across the street for a burger before calling it a day and getting some much needed sleep.

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Jetlag had us up bright and early for a 6am taxi to the airport where a few further packaging shenanigans were required to keep the excess baggage cost down to a level just less than completely staggering. Two flights later we stepped off the plane mid-afternoon in a relatively balmy Clyde River. We soon got a ride into town (no taxi available) and within an hour had permission from the Elders to stay in the shack on the shore. The last time we stayed there I had repaired the door and it was a pleasant surprise to find the shack had undergone some renovations which included a porch, fresh coat of paint and a space heater. It is an ideal stepping-stone for final preparations before heading out onto the ice.

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The next day revolved around securing a ride into the fiords, buying white gas and last minute supplies, checking in with the Mounties and making some final packing adjustments. By the end of the day we had arranged a 7 am pick up the following morning for an estimated 15-hour komatik sled trip into the fiords.

The day dawned fine and by the time we were crossing Sam Ford Fiord it was exceptionally mild and we were shedding layers despite the 40kph wind-chill. Our Inuit guide commented ‘that it felt like being in a sauna.’ Thankfully by the time we reached Scott Island it had started to feel cooler and we encountered deep powder and spent a lot of effort with the snow machines and komatiks getting bogged down. Once in Clark Fiord the snow depth reduced making for easier going and we started to see some ski lines. However at that point we encountered a bear with her cub and decided to press on to the branch, which comes from Gibbs Fiord. Although the peaks are high there, the terrain didn’t offer what we were looking for and we continued onwards to the junction with Gibbs proper. On the approach to Gibbs around 11 pm we spotted a 1200 m wall spilt with a couple of aesthetic couloirs. Knowing there was good skiing throughout Gibbs made it an easy decision to camp. We had chosen to take a significant proportion or real food and we guessed it would be a week before the weight had reduced enough to move under our own power.

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The fine weather made setting up camp late at night as civilised as it can be and by 1 am we were in bed. The next day dawned fine, and we headed off to our first 1200m couloir that turned out to be absolutely incredible. It was a great feeling to hit the jackpot straightaway after 2 years of planning, and with the support of so many. In the middle of the night the weather changed and we were up out of bed, building walls to protect the tents from the wind. We stayed at camp 1 for the next 8 days and skied continuously despite very variable and often ‘Scottish’ type weather. This hindered us more due to low cloud and the ability to spot lines due to low cloud. Simon and myself had kites with us and we really benefitted on the windy days being able to travel for ‘free’ and conserve some energy for the boot packing and skiing. With regular new snow our vertical rate of ascent was dramatically reduced.

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We were still heavy with supplies when the time came to move camp forcing us to put up our heel raisers to have any chance of pulling our sleds. A 6hr stint and 12km later put us under an inspiring looking tower where we made camp 2.

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Camp 2 offered good options on both the south and the north side of the fiord however, the south facing slopes were now frozen hard after the heat at the start of the trip had brought down winter cornices and caused some slides. They required solar to make them skiable. Across the fiord, the north facing slopes were still in great shape and getting top ups of new snow as the variable weather continued. We stayed at camp 2 for the remainder of the trip exploring both sides of the fiords. As out kiting skills improved I even went on a recon kiting 10km upwind by tacking back and forth across the fiord and returning to camp in about under 20 minutes.

Towards the end of the trip the weather was very unsettled and we recorded a daytime temperature of 9C at sea level causing significant avalanche, serac and rock fall. The trip was coming to an end but exiting the fiords did not go smoothly, and by the time everyone was safely back in Clyde River we had used up our weather contingency, missed our flights to Europe, but had an incredible adventure and collected some all-time memories.

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Tuesday

Our drivers are due to arrive today and take us out of the fiords. I get up around 730 am for breakfast. Everything is packed except for the tents, mat, sleeping bag and a stove. It starts to rain and with nothing to do except wait so I get back into my bag and while the time away. The guys could turn up anytime and will want to get back to Clyde straightaway. We break up the day with some al fresco dining at lunchtime and I see that the weather is deteriorating. If the cloud lowered much further it would be tough for the guys to find us, especially with the tents surrounded by protective snow walls. I strapped a section of yellow foam mat to a wooden stake to act as a flag and put some of the duffles up high on top of the walls, anything to increase our visibility. By dinner time the weather was pretty grim and for the first time on the trip I cooked in the atrium of the tent. Evan was delighted with this arrangement of waiter service while he read the history of Nazi Germany during WWII. By this point I guessed that our ride wouldn’t show up until the next day and settled down to get some rest.

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I was in the middle of a deep sleep when Evan shook me awake. ‘They’re here” he said before disappearing outside. I got my jacket and overtrousers on as quickly as you can in a confined space and crawled out into the night to find out what was going on. A glance at my watch revealed it was 1am and none of us expected pickup in the middle of the night.

One driver who we didn’t recognise had arrived on one machine. Evan had been awake in the tent and was way ahead of me, establishing that the other machine had broken down and only 2 of us could go. This was an unexpected curve ball. It was the middle of the night, we were all sleepy and disorientated trying to understand the situation, and the language barrier didn’t help. Eventually we found out that one machine had broken down and had to be towed back to Clyde before our new driver could head out on his own to pick us up. By the time he arrived at our camp he had been on the go 24 hours and wanted to get going as quickly as possible. But he could only take 2 people which meant 2 of the team had to stay and it was unclear if the other machine was repairable. We decided to draw straws with Evan and Chipie drawing the short straws for staying behind.

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It was sleeting and windy, and we now had to repack and leave behind the stoves, food, fuel, rifles, ammo and satellite phone so Evan and Chipie could survive for as long as possible. At this point it was unclear when someone would come for them. I will always remember the solemn look on Chipie’s, which said it all; we all wanted out. With a quick brotherly hug we said our farewells and the boys reminded me to chase up their ride by the time we got back. Knowing we would arrive in the afternoon I was certain they would be on the phone to Clyde at 9 am and find out what was happening before me.

As the komatik pulled away we left the guys with solemn faces and heading out into the mist. Si and myself sitting on the 2-inch beam forming the top of back wall of the komatik so we can see ahead and prepare for the big hits. We share a foam mat to try and minimise the damage our upper legs will receive from pounding of sitting on the beam. The alternative of getting in the komatik is unthinkable, the combination of not being able to see ahead results in motion sickness and the slamming of the sled is brutal on the neck and back. Si and I sit side by side in silence, besides the noise from the snow machine is deafening as it works hard in the wet snow. Our minds are numb and we are worried about the others.

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The steering skis on the skidoo are throwing up icy chunks of snow into our faces, which works its way into our hoods and melts down our necks. Every hour or so often we would stop allowing Kevin to smoke a cigarette and a drink coffee to keep going. We offer him the last of our chocolate; he’s showing incredible resilience to keep going.

Kevin makes a call to Clyde at 7 am and we learn that Joamie has left to catch the boys allowing us to relax a bit knowing someone is going for our teammates.

Arriving at the hunters hut in Ellington Fiord, Kevin, Si and myself all have thousand yards stares…the distances to cover are indescribably, always significantly further than you think is possible.

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Finally we arrive back in Clyde, Kevin has just driven 36 hours straight, and he drops us off and heads straight to bed.

We get back into our shack where it all started. All I want to do is sleep but first as we opened our duffle bags we found our kit was saturated from the spray off the skidoo and we need to dry our things out and pack it away again before the others get back.

After an hours sleep people came to visit and see how we got on and by 9 pm we were quite relaxed and thinking of getting some sleep before the others arrived. That thought quickly evaporated when someone came to tell us that the other driver had activated his SPOT device about 12hrs out near Scott Island. I tried calling our guys on their sat phone and left a message on the answer phone. I knew they would be conserving battery power as much as possible and hunkered down in the poor weather. To make things worse the forecast showed a 4-day blizzard arriving that would hamper any attempt to reach the broken down snow machine. Our guys had enough food and fuel to last them ten days but it turned out the other driver had little food and no stove, which was a major worry. We also didn’t know if he had a good tent with him that would keep him dry. A SAR team had assembled at the town hall and the last thing to do that night was to speak to them and arrange for another machine and sled to go with them and pick up our team. There was little else anyone could do that night until the gas station opened in the morning. By now it was well after midnight and I had 3 hours of sleep in the past 36 hours and really needed to go to sleep. Inside I felt awful, full of worry and sleep was elusive. In the end I managed to drop off and got one 3hr sleep cycle before my brain started to analyze the situation again.

Thursday

By 7 am I’d had enough of lying in my sleeping bag and knew there was lots to do so I got up. When I went outside for a pee it was a shock to discover over a foot of new snow had fallen and a full blizzard was in progress. Not good. Si and myself headed back to the emergency response room but there was no news except that a team was preparing to go out once the weather abated. The only information we could share was that Evan was an emergency doctor and experienced mountaineer and would be close to the breakdown site. I checked in with our contact in Clyde River only to find out the boys hadn’t called, but then if I was out there in bad weather I’d just save the battery until I thought someone might be coming. We were all due to fly out that day but luckily they were postponed to the following day, which meant we didn’t each lose $2500. The day passed by slowly as we waited and by late afternoon the team headed out into the blizzard, but a couple of hours later they called to say they had to stop at Ellington Fiords hut to dry their clothes. Again, there was nothing more to do except try to get some sleep.

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Friday

The next morning it was Si who was up early, clearly agitated after a poor nights sleep and worried; his wife was due to go in for an operation in a few days and her grandfather had just died. Poking my head out the door of the shack, the weather was worse than the previous day. Till now the weather had changed every day, and here we were with guys stuck in the field with a prolonged worsening storm. After a quick brew and a muesli bar for breakfast we headed back to the emergency response room. As we hurried through town we could barely keep our eyes open for the force of the driving snow. There was a short incline where the trucks in town had struggled for traction. In the flat light we failed to spot the polished white ice and in comical fashion I ended up falling arse over tit. Si offered a hand but before I could take it he lost it himself and his feet went from under him landing him on his shoulders. After a couple more similar incidents we took a direct line preferring wading through deep snow over breaking something on the white ice.

As we waited patiently for news with the SAR team members who were manning the phones, the conversation meandered onto where we were from. Upon realising we were mainly Scots, they opened up to us and extended their friendship while we shouldered the burden of worry waiting for news. They were proud to tell us about their Scottish ancestry and adoption of Scottish surnames to reflect the positive relationship they had with the Scots during the whaling years of the early 1800s.

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At lunchtime we popped back to the shack to finish off the remains of our expedition food, and sat in silence for an hour trying to cope with all the thoughts and emotions running amok. We had been using a space heater to take the chill off, and it seemed to flare up every time it ran low on fuel. This time I switched it off well before it got to that stage and let it cool for an hour before starting to refill it. I was about halfway through when the fuel in the tank caught fire which spread almost instantaneously up the siphon pump tube and into the jerry can. Si leapt up to open the doors as I ran outside with the pump and jerry can ablaze, dripping burning liquid fuel everywhere. Si grabbed a shovel and started smothering the flames with snow. Somehow we had avoided damaging the heater or worse, burning down the hut but Si’s Baffin boots had taken a beating with the upper gaiter getting melted right through. As if we didn’t have enough to worry about right then!

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Once again our flights were scheduled for late afternoon and I knew Si had to get home ASAP. I had a guides course to get to, but as the team leader I felt the right thing to do was to stay on Baffin and assist the SAR team at the emergency response room as much as possible, at least until I knew everyone was safe and enroute out of the fiords. The thought of losing my flights was a big financial stress considering I had been unemployed for a year, but peoples lives were at stake. …All through the day the hourly checks with the weather station showed the wind holding at 60kph. All flights were cancelled once again, this was a relief for me as there was no decision to make, but I could see Si getting more stressed about his family situation.

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Suddenly at 5pm the ravens and snow buntings could be seen outside the window. The team at the Ellington Hut called to say they were heading out to take advantage in the lull. At 830 pm they called back to say they had arrived at the hut on Sam Ford Fiord and found Chipie with the Inuit driver who had walked for 16 hours and 50km from the breakdown site to try and radio. They were cold but ok, and a team was continuing to the breakdown site for Evan. Good news at last and it was clear that Evan and Chipie had been picked up and then broken down, but I struggled to understand why Evan had been left behind and why hadn’t they phoned? We waited another 3 hours to receive the news that the 2 guys are at the breakdown site were ok. I felt immense relief and finally realised that 2 Inuits had gone out on the same machine and Evan was with the other one. They would all stay at the Sam Ford Fiord hut that night and get dry and warm up. The tension in the SARs room lifted immensely and we talked for another hour before finally hitting the sack and letting the stress subside. We wouldn’t be able to piece the story together until they all got back into town.

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Saturday

Once again the weather was bad outside and predictably all flights were grounded. Inside I was hoping we would all be reunited and leave Baffin together. It would be important so the other guys knew we hadn’t just left them and gone home, and there were a lot of people we still had to square up with in Clyde and it would be impossible to explain this in a note. As usual the weather improved late afternoon and the guys arrived back around 10 pm. We sat down and started to swap accounts of what had gone on at either end.

The Events from Evan and Chipie’s Perspective

Wednesday

Ross and Si departed at 2 am in poor weather and we were left alone, hoping and waiting for someone to come. There was nothing else to go apart from going back to bed. In the afternoon the other snow machine arrived and we got underway but by Scott Island the snow machine ran low on gas. The 2 Inuit drivers believed there was fuel at the Sam Ford Fiord hut and decided to make a run for that leaving us with the komatik but they soon ran out of gas and had to walk back to us, abandoning the machine. Knowing they needed outside help the Inuit activated their SPOT device. Our sat phone had developed a fault and would not connect to the network, which increased their uncertainty of whether any help was coming. We decide to make camp and assess things in the morning.

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Thursday

Chipie made the decision to walk to the Sam Ford Fiord hut and access the radio there and potentially find gas. So Chipie set off with one of the drivers who promptly fell through a snow covered lead in the ice. After sorting that out, Chipie led the way checking for leads with a ski pole each step. While doing this, his goggles got plastered and he continued with them off but got a bad case of snow blindness. If it hadn’t been a serious situation it would have all been quite comical and 16 hours later, and with one able pair of eyes between them, they made the hut, only to find no fuel.

Meanwhile Evan and the other Inuit driver were still holed up in the tent at the komatik site passing the time by sleeping and playing games to keep up morale.

Eventually, the rescue team made it to the hut, and proceeded to the breakdown site.

Yes! We made it. Half the team and our Inuit guides and friends got stuck coming 12 hours out in the fiords of Baffin in the Arctic with a broken snow machine in a four day blizzard. Its been an emotional rollercoaster waiting with the good people of Clyde River for a break in the weather for a team to go out into the storm and get them – it all ended well with no one left behind. If I were to choose one positive from what has been one of the most mentally challenging weeks of my life, it would be how the Inuit of Clyde opened up to us and extended their friendship, while we shouldered the burden of worry waiting for news.

Epilogue

 

It really was a ‘trip’ in both senses of the word. The moment a polar bear ran along side the snow machine on the way in was the wake up call that this landscape is ‘otherworldly’, incredibly beautiful, and totally unforgiving…and has been inhabited and lived off by the Thule and Inuit for thousands of years. So much to say but being an engineer I just don’t have the linguistic skills to convey it all succinctly.

I just made it home and slept 12hrs straight – more than I have done in the last 20 years – it wasn’t nearly enough and I would have continued sleeping if Michelle hadn’t got me up. I missed the guides training course and to be honest, needed some downtime while my mind goes over the events of our trip before it refocuses on where my path lies.

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Usually I come back from a trip like this buzzing with memories and excitement, and full of confidence. I had pushed myself hard in the fiords, trying to ski as much as possible to make the most of the opportunity. I was physically and mentally ready to go home a couple of days before the pickup, satisfied I had given it my all. By this point I’d been away about 6 weeks and all I wanted to do was go home and chill out. This time round I brought back the burden of days and nights of worry and it took some time to shake it off. Everyone got out safe and unharmed. Yes, we all blew a few thousands extra dollars that we didn’t have on flights and courses, but it’s only money, and that can be replaced. Sure everything turned out ok, but to me that felt like luck rather than design.

We left Clyde River in a hurry as our flight was brought forward 6 hours, which caught us on the hop. There were so many people to see and thank in Clyde and I will try contact you all to extend our thanks.

The Scot have a saying: “All’s Well That Ends Well!”

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Ross Hewitt

Ross Hewitt

What trends have you noticed in your backcountry community?

In Europe are starting to see many brands dictate that their athletes were helmets and to meet the demands of the backcountry skier, dual rated helmets have arrived on the market (meeting the standards EN12492 for mountaineering and EN1077 skiing). With wider skis allowing us to tour right from the first snowfall, protecting ourselves from the sharks has to be a good thing, right?

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