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2005 Baffin Island Expedition Report

I was blissfully unaware of the 'severe weather warning' email which had been sent from the Ayuttik National Park office on Baffin Island just after we set off from London: a good thing, as I would have immediately put Plan B into action (to hide in the toilets at Heathrow airport and refuse to come out).

We soon got to hear about the adverse conditions though: a call for us just before we boarded our (very small) plane to our final destination informed us that the sea ice north of our route has partially melted and would be impassable on a skidoo, plus a polar bear had recently been sighted in the park: we therefore had to hastily re-think our plans. Our conclusion was that we would have to abandon the original plan of traversing the Ashuak Pass from North to South, and instead would have to enter the park from the South, walk to the middle and return the way we had came. The decision was reached matter of factly: it was becoming clear to me that on a trip like this you just have to accept the conditions and adapt.

On registering in the National Parks office in Pangnurtung before we set off we were told more about this recent extreme weather: a 'mild' (!?) spell a few weeks earlier had resulted in a period of unsettled weather and blizzards. The additional threat of a polar bear in the area meant that we were advised by the park rangers to stay in the emergency shelters located every ten miles or so along the route. So, armed with our polar bear repellent kit (spray, bangers and flares) and clutching my not very reassuring advice booklet ("If the bear shows signs of stalking or hunting you FIGHT BACK: use any potential weapon, group together and make loud noises".....) we climbed into what can only be described as a wooden box and towed by skidoo to the place where our adventure would begin, an emergency shelter which we could barely see as it was 95% covered in snow.....evidence, if any were needed, of the recent severe weather. Some serious digging ensued before we were able to appreciate our first night's accommodation: a tiny hut with nothing in it except for a lot of snow and a radio providing contact with the National Park office; reassuring, at least, to know that we had some contact with the outside world. There was also a log book in the shelter with comments written by previous visitors to the park: entertaining reading, although the entries stopped abruptly in September 2004, when winter starts and sane people don't even think about coming here.......my rather tentative entry, written with 2 pairs of gloves on, was the first for six months.

The weather was extraordinarily cold (an average of -25) but bright and sunny, and it stayed this way for the first couple of days so I had reasonably good conditions to re-learn how to do absolutely everything: getting dressed, going to the toilet, eating, walking, all seemed twice as difficult in these conditions. I suffered badly from cold hands and felt helpless and frustrated trying to do everything with 3 pairs of gloves on. I was able to admire the absolutely stunning dramatic scenery with prompting, but remained preoccupied with practicalities for the first few days.

Unfortunately these weather conditions did not continue. Three days into the trip the wind started up and we had two grim days of extremely harsh conditions, so bad on one day that we had to turn back and were therefore unable to reach Summit Lake, the mid-point of the route we were heading for. The wind made progress extremely laborious and slow and visibility was very poor, made worse by the fact that my goggles kept freezing over: regular checking of each others' faces also revealed that we were both suffering from 'frost nip' (the preliminary stages of frost bite). A huge amount of mental and physical stamina was required.

For one scary night the wind was so strong that our tiny shelter was shaking: the noise of the howling wind was utterly terrifying and it was too windy to go outside, resulting in us having to develop makeshift toilet facilities inside the shelter out of our empty freeze-dried food bags.....all social niceties forgotten by this point. Disposing of the blocks of frozen urine from the bags the following morning was possibly one of the more surreal moments of the trip!

For our final few days things became easier as the weather eased off slightly and I began to get more accustomed to the conditions and routines. We were able to speak to friends and family using the satellite phone which was an amazing and moving experience: we were also able to book a skidoo to come and pick us up, a point in the trip which I was really looking forward to as it would signify the end of the expedition. Ironically the skidoo ride back to Pangnurtung was the coldest I had been during the whole trip! I had envisaged triumphantly standing up cheering and shouting as we reached civilisation again, but instead I sat huddled in the wooden box cursing our well meaning Inuit skidoo driver who decided to stop and have a leisurely cigarette on route, while I turned blue and lost all feeling in my limbs. He was clearly amused at our escapade and thought we were mad to embark on such a foolhardy trip: at that point I certainly agreed with him!

However after a hot shower and a proper meal (served on a plate! At a table!) I was able to begin to reflect on the phenomenal experience I had just had. I feel so privileged to have been to this amazing place and to have discovered a side of myself which I didn't know I possessed. Looking back now I can hardly believe what I achieved. A truly life-changing experience which I would recommend to anyone.Sam Evans, Baffin expedition 2005

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