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The Frozen North – Baffin Island Expedition 2014

Author: Rhian Jones

In March 2014, Rhian Jones (2004) went on expedition to cross Baffin Island on foot in order to raise funds for the Youth Adventure Trust. What follows is her account of her time on the expedition.

rhianAs I gazed up at the polar bear skin, stretched on a frame to dry in the bright sun, I had the thought that I was probably suffering from sensory overload and no longer processing what I was seeing. The Inuit hunter who had shot the bear a few days ago cheerfully informed my group that it wasn’t even that big a bear – ‘It’s seven feet tall but they can reach up to eleven.’ Seven feet was certainly impressive enough from my point of view, which at that point was about level with its back legs. I swallowed and ran my hand through its translucent fur, entertaining the thought that perhaps touching the bear may make it seem less frightening. I certainly didn’t feel any braver as we said goodbye to the hunter and carried on our way.

baffin-mapWe were in Qikiqtarjuaq, an Inuit village on the Northern coast of Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic. Lying just west of Greenland, Baffin is the world’s fifth largest island yet is incredibly remote and unpopulated (with a population hovering at just under 500 people, Qikiqtarjuraq is one of the more notable population centres yet, in winter, it can only be reached from the outside world by a tiny prop plane that bounces down the icy runway when the weather allows). I was part of a 5-strong expedition aiming to cross the Island from coast to coast through the famed Akshayuk Pass and this village was the final stop on our 60 hour journey from the UK. The Pass itself is an ancient Inuit travel route: a snaking river and lake system which has cut a corridor through towering granite peaks and tumbling glaciers, crossing the Arctic Circle en route. A whole year in the planning, ours was to be a self-supported journey at the end of winter in March, completed on foot and by ski when the landscape would be utterly frozen. We had allowed ourselves up to 9 days to complete our 140km north-to-south journey, including provision for bad weather days should we be unable to travel.

Having hoovered up stories of Scott, Shackleton, Franklin and company since my early teens, I had signed up to the expedition eager to see some of the polar landscapes I had read so much about. Being an enthusiastic but admittedly generally fairweather camper and hiker meant I was also keen to attempt a physical challenge the likes of which I had not experienced before. My enthusiasm prior to the trip was tempered only by fear of the polar bears that populate the region. A Zoology student in my Pembroke days, I would have been delighted to see one, but strictly once we had safely completed our journey. My desire to avoid them as we made our way on foot was made all the more acute by the fact that, since we would be in a National Park, we would not be permitted to carry any firearms to deter them.

Rhian Jones - Baffin ArticleOur transport from Qikitarjuraq to the head of the Ashayuk Pass

Rhian Jones - Baffin Article1After our first night on the ice

From Qikitarjuraq, we skidooed for several hours across the sea ice to reach our start point at the head of the Pass. This was in order to avoid the coastal areas where bears were known to be most active. It was a magical afternoon; as the hours and miles went by the coastline became wilder and more impressive. We stopped just after lunch to explore an iceberg - massive to us yet really just a tiny fragment of an ice sheet. It was a beautiful thing, starkly framed against the intense blue of the sky. Once we had arrived at our start point, we disentangled ourselves from the sleeping bags and blankets in which we had been buried in the boxes towed by the skidoos, and took a deep breath. The skidoo drivers finished their cigarettes and started their long cold journey home in the last of the daylight and, oddly enough, I felt quite calm. We were kept occupied with unpacking the sleds we would be hauling (known as ‘pulks’), putting up the tent and cutting blocks of polystyrene-like snow to melt for cooking; it felt good to be busy until it was time to crawl into our sleeping bags for the first night. However, when we woke in the morning I gazed at the layer of ice crystals coating the inside of tent, felt the unfamiliar crackle of a frozen sleeping bag, and realised that, despite all my preparations, I had probably underestimated the realities of the trip.

As it turned out, simply knowing that the temperature would be minus 25°C on a good day was very, very different to living in such conditions 24/7. The effort needed to cope with the temperature was never-ending and quite draining. Even simple tasks like undoing zips or tightening crampon straps in gloved hands required practice over the first couple of days. Hands chilled dangerously within just a few moments of exposure, whilst standing still for even a minute or two required a subsequent session of energetic activity to get the blood moving again. Action was needed the moment that a creeping chill was felt in a finger, toe or exposed part of the face: frequent and highly energetic whirling of the arms to encourage blood to warm the extremities left me with the sensation that each fingertip had been repeatedly banged in a door.

The cold consistently occupied much of one’s mind yet the jaw-dropping nature of the scenery still managed to drag our attention away from basic corporeal matters like numb hands. Unlike a North Pole attempt, where the whole journey is made on the generally featureless ice cap, the valley we traversed contained remarkable sights every moment of the day. At the beginning of our journey on the coast of the Davis Strait, spectacular icebergs trapped as the sea had frozen the previous autumn were silently waiting out the winter like boats in a harbour, until the spring thaw would allow them to drift back out to sea. The bright and open vista we saw as we looked north over the sea ice was countered by the dark and brooding edges of the steeply-sided valley we were walking into.

We left the coast and began our journey following the winding river and lake system up the valley. As we did, the pulks we were pulling made their presence felt. On the flat ice of rivers and lakes they felt weightless and the gentlest pull on the harness set them moving behind you. When wind-packed snow creaked beneath us, it gave a lovely cushioned surface for them to glide along. In the windiest parts of the valley, where the snow had been blown away and the ground beneath exposed, we fought our way over gravel that bit into the bottom of our pulks, grating away the surface and sapping our strength until we reached more forgiving ground.

Due to the scale of the landscape we were in distances on our journey were stretched out to seemingly impossible proportions, sometimes giving us the uncomfortable feeling of making little progress, even after several hours (there was one iceberg in particular it seemed we simply could not leave behind even after a morning’s hard slog). But when the mind-blowing nature of the wider landscape became too much to take in, there was always the option of looking at the sights closer to hand. Looking down at, and through, the lake ice was a mesmerising activity. Perhaps it was the purity of the water or the pressure the ice was under but, in parts, the deep lakes were absolutely flawless and glass-like. It was like walking over the roof of a cathedral and, with the light disappearing down into the deep blue depths, it gave quite the sense of vertigo. In other places, layers and layers of bubbles were stacked into dense columns, adding chandeliers to the strange indoor rooms that the frozen lake had created. These bubble arrangements were truly beautiful – the degree of variety in colour, shape and size kept one’s eyes occupied for hours and hours. A number of times we even saw fairly sizeable rocks, fully suspended in the ice. Where the lakes got shallower, the ice butted up against hidden underwater boulders and burst upwards into large fractured hummocks. We discussed what these shapes reminded us of: surfacing whales coming up for air and enormous hatching dinosaur eggs were two of what I felt were the more accurate descriptions. Regardless of whether we agreed on their appearance, the whole group enjoyed unhitching our pulks to clamber up and slide down their steep sides on our fronts and backs. These moments of enjoying such a harsh landscape in quite a child-like way were, frankly, completely surreal.

Rhian Jones - Baffin Article2A halo surrounding the sun, formed by ice crystals in the air

Rhian Jones - Baffin Article3A view of Mt Thor during our waterfall descent

One day we climbed high above the valley floor to circumnavigate glacial moraine that effectively blocked our paths and led us to the high point of the whole valley. This significant upward effort through heavy snow afforded us the incredible treat of an afternoon spent descending a frozen waterfall that flowed down from so-called Summit Lake towards the sheer face of Mount Thor, the world’s greatest vertical drop of 1,250 m. It was here on this steeply sloping ice that our faithful pulks transformed into wildly untameable weights, hell-bent on sweeping or knocking us off our feet. This demanded a careful descent: lowering our pulks in front of us and bracing with our crampons in the ice to prevent what could be a potentially disastrous twisted knee, ankle or worse. After some slightly tense moments, the angle of the slope shallowed and we were able to clamber astride our pulks, lift our legs from the ice and sledge the final couple of hundred metres down towards the valley floor using our ski poles to try and steer. Having swung around backwards, forwards and then sideways, I came to a stop and collapsed into a fit of giggles. I think it may have been my favourite moment of the whole trip. That afternoon, we edged further into the shadow of Thor and were afforded an incredible camping spot at the foot of the towering peak that evening.

Despite my fears, we didn’t see a polar bear, though sightings of several sets of tracks were enough to set pulses racing at one point. Aside from the never-ending cold, the most significant danger thrown at us was the extreme weather we experienced on a couple of occasions. Headwinds found tiny chinks in our head-to-toe layers, sapping any residual warmth trapped in clothing, making frostbite even more of a threat. Our breath froze the moment it left our nose or mouth, freezing our balaclava masks into rock solid muzzles which, combined with the noise of wind, made communicating difficult. The strength of the headwind and the weight of the pulks we pulled resulted in us being blown backwards on our skis as forward progress on occasion became impossible. We had to admit defeat on one day, sitting out the wind for the rest of the day and night. When we woke the next morning, our pulks had been buried by spindrift in the night but the glorious blue skies and still weather of previous days had thankfully returned.

When the wind didn’t blow I was aware that we were in a truly noiseless landscape; frozen and still, it was unnervingly quiet. However, these contemplative periods were few and far between as we kept up our steady pace throughout the day. This meant that we were always accompanied by the strange squeaks, hisses and creaks that came with moving across heavily compacted snow and ice. We stopped for only a few minutes mid-morning, lunchtime and mid-afternoon for the sole purpose of cramming as many pieces of chocolate, dried fruit, nuts and (most prized of all) frozen pork scratchings into our mouth as we could, until we couldn’t physically bear the cold of being stationary any longer.

I am tremendously proud that our intrepid team of amateurs completed the whole journey over 8 days without injury or major incident. A number of teams attempt the route during a short period at the end of winter each year and three groups who were in the valley at the same time as us were rescued, due either to injury, frostbite or bad weather. Once we had safely arrived at our destination of the village of Pangnirtung, we learned that we were in fact the first team to successfully cross the Pass this year. Ironically, we were then unable to leave Pangnirtung for several days as we waited for a clearing in the bad weather to allow our small plane from the south to land. This delay to our plans actually afforded us an unexpected addition to our trip by allowing us to experience everyday life in such an isolated and unique community. We became (very) minor celebrities about town with our exploits even being mentioned on the local radio!

Aside from traversing the Pass, our expedition’s twin aim was to raise awareness and funds for the work of the Youth Adventure Trust, a Wiltshire-based charity working with vulnerable teenagers with whom I volunteer. The Trust does fantastic work in providing a structured programme to allow disadvantaged young people to challenge themselves in new and unfamiliar situations and push their expectations of their own capability. The Trust achieves great success on a comparatively tiny budget which means that, as a result of our team’s efforts in raising almost £32,000 so far, many more young people will be given the opportunity to develop themselves and learn about their own strengths.

I have found writing about the experience and trying to accurately document what I saw and
felt extremely hard. I have never been anywhere so beautiful, wild or frightening as Baffin Island; the landscape and weather left me in no doubt of just how vulnerable we were, yet everyday was a fantastic experience that challenged us, educated us and generally made us feel extremely lucky to be there, even on the days where we battled -45°C headwinds. I was genuinely humbled by the whole experience. I’m looking forward to drawing on the experience I gained as part of this trip to help me work with the young people on the Youth Adventure Trust programme in achieving more than they might otherwise consider possible.

www.justgiving.com/RhianEllie-YAT

Rhian Jones - Baffin Article4Rhian Jones in front of Mt Asgard (the chimney peak in the background)

 

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