In the Shadow of Thor: welcome to Baffin island

Resident Aus Geo Adventure photographer ‘Watto’ joins one of Canada’s leading adventurers Kevin Vallely and his team in a bid to undertake a winter traverse of Baffin Island’s 97-kilometre Akshayuk Pass. But this is an expedition with a twist.
By Mark Watson November 6, 2019 Reading Time: 9 Minutes

I am going to be honest with you from the outset. I am quaking in my boots. Literally!

I could blame the frozen Arctic Ocean under my feet but my boots are specialist minus 100 degree Celsius Endurance boots. Maybe I should blame the minus 20 degree Celcius air temperature outside of my tent, but with a forewarning of potential minus 50 degree Celsius night-time temps, I’m layered up to handle the conditions.

I even have specialist Polar Mitts designed for the Austrian Military to allow me to operate my camera without getting frostbite.

And so really, I am out of excuses.

Our setting up of camp within the territory of one of the most imposing predators on the planet, the nanuq (polar bear) simply has me shit-scared!

My pre-trip notes suggest the mighty meat-eater can swim for hundreds of kilometres, run blazingly fast, has an incredible sense of smell, exceptional eyesight and is a naturally curious creature. It also happens to be the largest living carnivore on Earth and, most worryingly, will hunt and prey on humans if hungry. Fortunately, us mere homo sapiens are offered a slim fighting chance through deterrents such as electric fences, capsicum spray, ‘bear banger’ explosive charges and firearms. However, as I crouch 100 metres from a small cluster of tents attempting to photograph a glimmering Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) on day one of our Crossing the Divide expedition, I realise I have none of these. Most bear deterrents are considered dangerous goods and thus not transportable, and only indigenous Qikiqtaaluk are allowed to carry firearms.

I recall the “Safety in Polar Bear Country” pamphlet firmly suggesting to travel in groups during the day and stay together to increase safety. But my sole purpose for being here is to document our expedition, often from afar, sometimes at night. I am listed on the expedition notes as “filmer/photographer”, but it is beginning to dawn on me my title might translate better to “bait”. Fortunately, I have an Ace up my sleeve in the form of fellow documentarian Jase Hancox. But Jase admits he’s been training under the “fasterthanwatto” hashtag, claiming if we have an encounter, he simply needs to be faster than me. With the rest of the team cocooning themselves in polar sleeping bags, I choose to crunch my way back over a frozen ocean to the relative safety of my tent. My Aurora photo can wait for another day, when we are off the sea ice and there’s less chance of encounters with the great white hunter of the north.

An ulterior motive

It took an entire day huddled in a qamutik (traditional rawhide-lashed sledge with wooden crossbars and runners) hauled behind a skidoo to reach our starting point of the North Pangnirtung Fjord on the eastern flanks of Baffin Island, the fifth largest island in the world. From here our team objective is to each haul a 35-45kg sled and pack for six hours per day for seven to 10 days in a bid to undertake a winter traverse of the majestic but imposing Akshayuk Pass in Auyuittuq National Park. The word Auyuittuq is an Inuktitut word meaning “Land that Never Melts” and sets a scene of snow and ice defining an Arctic landscape, sculpted by glaciers with sheer granite walls towering taller than any on the planet. Here we will find the flat topped peaks of Mt Asgard, the circling glaciers of The Bridesmaid and the sheer 1250m cliffs of Mt Thor, the earth’s greatest vertical drop.

This expedition is not a world first, nor is it a natural-history documentary. This expedition is part personal challenge and part social exercise. Our intent is to undertake a gruelling life-changing experience whilst simultaneously assessing team dynamics in an extreme environment where the wrong decision may have life-threatening consequences. This ‘expedition with a difference’ brings together a varied crew of twelve with deliberate intent to generate real-life team dynamics rather than an entire party of experts. Polar expert Kevin Vallely leads the team but we find ourselves in a melting pot of experience and personalities, from skiers and mountaineers to pilots and CEOs all the way to Amanda, the most cheerful of the team who also happens to have never been camping before, let alone in a frigid and frozen Arctic landscape. The sponsor and brainchild of such a project is the AIP group; in simple terms, we are guinea pigs for high-end corporate training simulations. But the truth be told, climbing into my tent under the Northern Lights in one of the most pristine landscapes on our planet has me grinning foolishly. I’ll put my hand up for guinea pig duty any-day. It’s the next morning when I notice a young polar bear footprint only metres from our camp that it dawns on me guinea pigs are quite a long way down the food chain.

Mates don’t let mates snowshoe

“Mates don’t let mate’s snowshoe,” was the running joke as we packed sleds 100km back over the sea-ice in the tiny 600-strong Inuit Settlement of Qikiqtarjuaq. The majority of our team had vast experience in snowsports or mountain terrain and preferred the speed of skis over the plodding of snowshoes. However a need for skis on the solid river-ice we expected to encounter was near zero, so snowshoes are strapped to sleds alongside ice-spikes purely as an emergency.

We travel south and inland, away from the coastal sea-ice, and the weather is perfect. Daytime temperatures hover around minus ten degrees Celsius, the fjordlands are beginning to close up and there is little to no wind. Our first night’s camp provided a glimmering Aurora Borealis and thankfully a predator free night. Travelling away from the sea-ice means my polar bear fear begins to abate and we are making good time to our next camp when conditions begin to change. First, the windblown sastrugit grows softer underfoot, and then boots begin to break the crust. Only kilometres later we find ourselves calf-deep in a riverbed of snow, breaking through to ankle-snapping rocks. Our progress slows to a crawl and our overnight camp begins to look a long, long way away. Tom smashes his knee on the ice but we are hesitant to stop; we need to reach a suitable campsite. He reluctantly allows his gear to be redistributed and painfully limps on.

It is midday on day two when we eat our words and strap on snowshoes. Nobody is laughing now. We encounter snowshoe conditions for the next two days while Tom’s knee begins to swell and Amanda’s blisters grow to become excruciating. Our expedition is starting to prove it’s no walk in a park and cracks are beginning to show.

We settle into a daily rhythm: wake up, layer up (in full-down insulation), boil water, eat food, break camp, walk for 10 minutes, remove layers, walk for two hours, layer up, eat, de-layer, walk, layer up, eat, de-layer, walk… . Finally we set camp, boil more water, eat and sleep. I learn the luxury of running water is never quite as craved as when you are forced to de-glove in minus thirty-degree temperatures to light a fuel stove.

An unexpected daily dilemma comes in the form of body temperature regulation. We learn when we’re not cold, we are hot, but the phrase, “You sweat, you die!” is not far off the truth in such a harsh environment. Damp clothes mean frozen clothes and lead to potential hypothermia… we maintain a strict “stay dry, stay warm,” routine. Calorie intake is boosted dramatically from our everyday diet as keeping warm burns calories and we find the constant sub-zero temperatures lead to an inability to overcome a daily calorie deficit. In essence, we cannot help but lose weight. We are not suited to this environment but surrounding us, hidden from sight, life exists in a far more suitable package. Arctic hares survive the frigid winters eating woody plants and mosses, while the Arctic fox is the only canid whose foot pads are covered in fur. Hidden in the tundra caribou still roam, wolves and wolverine prey on weasels and lemmings and on the sea ice polar bears hunt for walrus, leopard and harp seal while narwhal, orca, and beluga whale swim below.

Whilst we are not adapted to this ice-bound world in which we find ourselves,  the good news however is we are making good time, the weather is spectacular, the landscape breathtaking and most importantly the team is gelling and working together. That is, until day four…

Conflict

Sweating and staggering at last light on day four, we’ve broken our own rules. It was midday when the wind began to howl and pace was quickened to avoid being caught out by an incoming storm; however, I was not present at the time. I’d dropped back to photograph the team against an awe-inspiring Mount Asgard. It was only when I noticed the crew moving fast and I realised I couldn’t catch them that I began to curse. My UHF radio had frozen and without communication I couldn’t ask the team to wait. Kevin was concentrating on keeping the team warm by moving at a fast pace. He had confidence my previous alpine expedition experience would keep me making sensible decisions. I had less faith in myself than he did.

I was soon sweating in my efforts to catch the shrinking figures of our expedition, breaking the cardinal rule of keeping dry. With the phrase “you sweat, you die” looping my brain, I spent the remainder of the day looking over my shoulder for any signs of a half-tonne predator chasing me down for a midday snack all the while trying the UHF to ask the team to slow, but to no avail. When I finally reached camp I was fuming. I stormed past an exhausted Tom, still lying in the snow from the final push against the growing gale and angrily questioned, “What the f#*k was that all about?”.

I was pissed and it appears I lit a fire. Tom’s knee was swollen blue,  Amanda’s blisters were weeping and bleeding and I was generally just pissed at the decision to break the crew up. The next 20 minutes saw a good solid team argument; some siding with me, others with Kev’s decision to push on. In an effort to vent my frustration and stay warm I grabbed my shovel and furiously dug a kitchen platform and two long bench seats. Sculpting a final stove platform with my shovel it finally dawned on me that our heated ‘barney’ was a blessing in disguise. We’d previously been eating in individual tents but this evening we could all sit as a group (for the first time) on seats in the shared warmth in our new ‘mess tent’ to eat our freeze-dried delight.

As spiced rum was shared around, tempers calmed and we remembered why we were here; to learn to work together as a team. We felt a little like being in a twisted reality-TV show, albeit one with a spectacular view though our tent door. A game of ‘killer’ (an elaborate variation of wink-murder) is introduced to the fray and soon even the howling winds outside  couldn’t dampen spirits. Killer rapidly escalated to a cunning game of poker-face and convoluted lies and subsequently became our go-to game for time-killing and much needed laughs.

A land of Norse Gods

Two days on and spirits are high as days grow longer. We were gaining an extra 10 minutes per day, and yesterday had proved so unseasonably warm some of us stripped even thermal shirts on the climb up Akshayuk Pass. Kev asked what I thought the temperature was? My reply was, “definitely above zero.” Kev checked his watch, “Nope; minus eight degrees.” All I could do was laugh. It seems the body is getting used to the cold.

Last night we were treated  to a spectacular display of the Northern Lights. A brilliant green snake shimmered and twisted its way through the night sky, silhouetting the imposing granite peaks and glaciers of the 2000m Penny Ice Cap. I will remember this moment for as long as I live. Today is different, however. The mercury has dropped again and clouds have rolled in to deliver an apt drama for our entry into the lands of the Norse gods. The twin flat-topped peaks of Mount Asgard shrink behind us as we descend the valley of thunder and wisdom, home to Thor Peak and Mount Odin. Our descent from Akshayuk Pass is where Thor makes his presence known.

Through the parting clouds an immense granite tooth tears from the frozen tundra to reach to the sky. Swirling clouds and snow flurries intermittently hide the monster but there is no doubt Thor is present. Hovering over us, his 1675m silhouette dominates the Cumberland Peninsula and looks over the 6000 square kilometres of the Penny Ice Cap. It is here amongst such a formidable landscape of rock and ice that we witness dramatic changes caused by global warming. Our previous two days bypassed the Highway, Turner, Rundle, Norman and Caribou glaciers, all of which are rapidly receding. On review of previous expedition photos it is hard to imagine a time when these rivers of ice flowed deep into this valley. To the north of Thor Peak lies Fork Beard Glacier, named for its shape, but nowadays the fork is no longer apparent. This grand landscape humbles us, reminding us how small we really are but in this moment we realise how much impact we have, and it is frightening.

We make camp in the shadow of Thor as the northern winds begin to tear into the valley and the storm hits in earnest.

For two days and two nights we are ravaged by howling Arctic winds from the north and choose to stay hunkered in our camp. We’re jovial though; we’ve become accustomed to the disposition of our Arctic home and a storm day means a rest day – and a rest day is a good day.

The Germanic Gods of old appear to choose to let us pass and under clearing skies we traipse to the Arctic Circle. At 66 degrees and 30 minutes of latitude we celebrate as a team. The hard yards are behind us; we’ve literally weathered the storm. All too soon we find ourselves exiting the southern reaches of the Akshayuk corridor into a frozen Cumberland Sound. Sore, blistered and bruised we’ve achieved what we set out to do.

For me, the vision of Asgard, Thor and Odin will etched in my mind for as long as I live. Not only did we traverse the breadth of Baffin Island but we melded as a team. We emerged in good spirits, without frostbite, and rather importantly without becoming ‘Nanuq nibbles’ to a hungry polar bear.