Ellesmere Island Article and Pictures

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Dave Green

Aug 15, 2010, 2:37:17 AM8/15/10
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Greetings Fellow Arctic Adventures,

I finally got around to writing an article and loading my pictures from our trip on the web.  It’s just in the nick of time, because I leave Tuesday for another 3 weeks of hiking the John Muir Trail and High Sierra Route from Yosemite to Whitney.

The following article is long, but nothing compared to the 75 pages of half spaced notes I took on the trip.  I also haven’t had time to filter or label the 576 pictures I have uploaded at http://picasaweb.google.com/dkgreenva/EllesmereIsland2010# .  Hope I haven’t offended anyone in the article and please let me know if you see any glaring errors. 

I’m also copying some family and friends with this.  Sorry if you were looking for the abridged version. 


I got involved in this trip when I met Jack Bennett at the 2009 Highpointer Convention in New Jersey.  He was in search of a team to join him and his son, Tom, on an ascent of Barbeau Peak, the highest mountain in the Canadian province of Nunavut.  Jack climbed Barbeau Peak in 1998 and is the first person to reach the highest point in each of the 13 Canadian provinces. Now he wanted to assist Tom in becoming the second person to accomplish that feat.  Jack penned the book, Not Won in a Day, a detailed account of his Canadian climbing adventures and, after reading it, I recognized that Jack and I share that same quest for adventure.  I signed on. 

Barbeau Peak was first climbed in 1967 by a Canadian Research Board – Royal Air Force team.  It has various published heights in the range of 8,500 feet, give or take 300 feet, and is the highest peak in eastern North America and the highest peak in proximity to the North Pole. Though not a technically difficult peak, its location 3000 miles north of Washington, DC and only 500 miles from the North Pole makes it a logistical nightmare to get to.  It is located in Quttinirpaaq National Park on Ellesmere Island and has been climbed only a handful of times.  The park itself is only visited by a couple of groups and one cruise ship per year.  Jack spent endless hours recruiting team members and arranging transportation.  In the end we had a diverse, but very compatible team of eight:  Jack, a corrosion researcher from Ohio; Tom, an animal keeper from Georgia; Rich, a computer trouble shooter and Colorado Mountain Club member from Colorado; Donna, a mathematician with the French nuclear industry; Billie, an educator, poet, and Mountaineer from Washington State; Mitch, a builder from Maine; and Sue, a teacher from Maine.   

My trip north started in Ottawa on June 16th where Billie, Mitch, Sue and I spent a rainy afternoon touring the seat of Canada’s national government.  Early the next morning, we boarded a plane to Iqualit, the provincial capital of Nunavut on Baffin Island. Instead of cabs at the airport there were sled dogs outside.  We proceeded north by First Air prop plane to the Inuit villages of Hall Beach, Nanisivtk, and Resolute.  The sea ice and snow that provide the residents with mobility in the winter months was melting, confining them to the town for the duration of summer.  We were delayed in Resolute for a day due to high winds on Ellesmere Island and walked the three miles to town to find children frolicking in 24-hour sunlight, hitting golf balls and gawking at the strangers in town. I guess they thought we were crazy too. Here we also stumbled across the only polar bears that we would encounter on our expedition.  Their hides were hung up to dry in the backyards and their meat was being eaten by dogs in the front yards.  We camped outside the airport and were greeted the next morning by kids on bikes looking very much like American kids in baggy shorts and baseball caps.

In 1998, Jack landed on the ice cap north of Barbeau Peak, climbed the peak, and trekked the 50 miles out to the Tanquary Fiord airstrip.  This time we had a more extensive trip planned, and on June 19th we flew north on a Ken Borek chartered Twin Otter to Tanquary Fiord with a refueling stop in Grise Fiord, the northern-most permanently inhabited village in Canada.  At Tanquary Fiord we were enthusiastically greeted by Head Ranger Ross Glenfield and his staff.  It was evident that the arrival of park visitors was a rare event, particularly visitors planning to climb Barbeau Peak.  Our plan was to carry eight days worth of supplies up the Air Force River and Glacier and air drop an additional 14 days worth of suppliers on the ice cap.  We had hoped to ride with the air drop to scout out the route, but Ken Borek no longer allows passengers on their planes with the doors removed.  Apparently a passenger committed suicide the last time they did this by jumping out of the plane.  We were left with a set of GPS coordinates and the hope that the wildlife would not find our airdrop before we did.  After a detailed orientation with Ranger Ross, we ventured out to get a closer look at some musk oxen and Arctic hares that were  hanging around Tanquary Fiord.

The weather on Ellesmere Island is surprisingly warm and clear.  The island is an Arctic desert and for some unexplained reason is much warmer than the Arctic islands to the south.  After flying over sea ice and land based ice caps, Tanquary Fiord was a spring oasis with wild flowers and bare ground.  The temperature never dipped below freezing and, with the sun beating down on our tents all night, a sleeping bag was often unnecessary.  Apparently our time on Ellesmere Island was unusually warm, which caused problems described here in.

In the morning, Ranger Ross accompanied us to the Macdonald River where we ignored his recommendation to link arms for river crossings and individually set out crossing the numerous river braids.  I wore neoprene socks and Teva sandals for the crossing and had even figured out how to use crampons with my Tevas for increased traction if we encountered ice-covered river bottoms.

Though most of our team was more technically competent than me, it quickly became evident that they were not Tuesday Vigorous Hikers.  Jack, who is definitely old school, wore a cotton t-shirt and Merrill Radius low top shoes -- the same shoes I wear for summer AT hiking.  He also carried a sled, skis, a fry pan and an abundance of canned goods.  Fortunately, he had Tom along to help with his load.  Rich carried a backpack on his back and a drag bag on his front.  Billie, who is a slight 5-feet tall, and Donna, who I think was along as Billie’s mule, couldn’t get their packs on without help.  I started with 65 pounds in my 7000-cubic inch Dana Austraplane carrying snowshoes, but no sled.  My theory was to spend as little time as possible with the pack on my back, and since I moved so much faster than the rest of the group, I spent most my time sitting on my backpack waiting for them to catch up.

It took us 2 and a half days to traverse the 20 miles up the Air Force River to the Air Force Glacier, sporting 100-foot vertical ice walls and melt-water streams that presented an insurmountable obstacle.  Jack specializes in overcoming such difficulties and a renewed vigor comes over him whenever he is faced with one.  While I checked out a recommend route on steep slopes down to another glacier, Jack led another party across an ice shelf to access the glacier’s delta and across some rock ledges to frozen Ekblaw Lake. 

It is interesting to note that the glaciers in this area are now spitting out wood from trees that grew on the Ellesmere Island before the last ice age.  The only species of tree that grows on Ellesmere Island today is a willow ground cover.  The Arctic is now experiencing another re-warming and the receding ice caps and glaciers bare witness to the conditions that existed in the northern US at the end of the last ice age.

The next day, we followed Jack’s route.  I fell in the oily muck covering Jack’s ice shelf.  Despite an immediate bath in the river, I left oil stains everywhere I went for the remainder of the trip.  We were suspect of the ice on Ekblaw Lake and roped up for the first time.  We had to ride ice bergs to shore on the other side only to find that we still couldn’t access the glacier and ice cap.  So again Jack set off to find another route.  Despite falling into the lake three times, he was able to find a workable route.

It took us another day and a half of glacier and ice cap travel to reach the air drop.  The ice was usually covered with a few inches of snow, but the presence of a few unseen crevasses required that we travel with a rope.  I was roped with Rich and Donna, who was pulling a sled in addition to carrying a heavy pack, which greatly inhibited my ability to take breaks.  In my mind, snowshoes, with their built in crampons, were ideal for this mostly uphill and rough terrain.  The skiers did not fare so well.  We only had 1:250,000 maps of the ice cap and with magnetic north south or beneath us, a compass was of no use.  I bought a GPS and needed it to navigate on this trip.  We found our undisturbed air drop scattered over a 100-foot line right on the coordinates the pilot had given us.

There are numerous rock peaks jutting out of the ice cap, and some of us climbed a few.  For all we knew, we were the first humans to set foot on these peaks.  As for Barbeau Peak, we spent one night at the air drop and then set off with four days worth of supplies to find and climb it.  The 1:250,000 map was of little help, and Jack’s memory was sketchy, since he had climbed it from the opposite direction last time.  We had a couple conflicting GPS coordinates for Barbeau Peak and established a base camp on the ice cap about 5 miles south of the peak.

There was no need for an alpine start for our June 27th summit bid.  The sun never goes down and we left base camp at 9:00 AM.  Even as we approached the peak, there was confusion as to which peak was Barbeau.  The GPS coordinates cleared up the confusion, but a direct assault did not look prudent.  We traversed around the base to a headwall on the east side of peak.   We were able to climb the headwall on snowshoes to reach an east ridge.  From there, the slope gradually grew steeper.  Jack remembered an easy snow walk to the summit from here, but this time it was icy.  Tom had the honor of leading the final pitch, which was the only time we really needed the ice axes and crampons that we hauled with us on the trip.  The peak is actually a snow cone with precipitous drop-offs on all sides.   However, just below the peak there was a rock outcropping that contains a cairn with a tin containing a summit register. My GPS recorded the summit register at N81 54.890’ / W75 00.526 and 8,769 feet, although the top of the snow is about 15 feet higher. 

With this climb, Tom became the second person to set foot on each of the 13 Canadian provincial highpoints.  Jack presented Tom with a number 13 Canadian hockey jersey.  We took lots of pictures and videos including some with the PATC Mountaineering Section pennant.  Donna tore off a piece of her map and left our names in the register tin.  Then it was back down the way we had ascended and back to our base camp – a 15-mile roundtrip in 12 hours.

On our way back to the air drop site the next day, we noted that conditions on the ice cap were deteriorating quickly.  An area that was a slush runoff stream two days ago had transformed into a lake.  From the air drop site, our plan was to traverse the ice cap to the southeast and exit via the Adam’s Glacier.  However, travel on ice cap became difficult.  Mitch fell into a crevasse and needed help getting out.  Everyone but me had wet feet from falling into slush holes and streams.  At one point Donna fell into her crouch, but joke was that I could walk on water.  So the next day I got to lead.  Everything was going fine until we came to a slush channel that I probed to find three feet deep.  We diverted course and headed for higher ice, but the slush never dried up and we are all forced to wade through a wide area of 1-foot deep slush.  This was the only day I got my well greased Vasque Sundowners wet.

At this point, Jack had another one of his inspirations and rushed ahead up a snow slope in his low top Merrill Radius’ to see if we could exit the ice cap on the top of the hill.  It proved to be great plan that saved us days of wet travel on the deteriorating ice cap and Adams Glacier.

We still had 10 days left and I wanted to do an excursion over to Lake Hazen, the largest inland lake in the Arctic.  The Park Service has a camp there and it is reported to have an abundance of wildlife including an occasional polar bear.  However, no one else felt up to the challenge and it was certainly nothing I wanted to try on my own.  Instead, it was decided that we would slowly make our way over the 50 miles to Tanquary Fiord via the Very and Macdonald River Valleys.  We fell into a routine of 4 or 5 miles per day with numerous rest stops and long leisurely lunches.  We’d get into camp in early afternoon for at least a 2-hour nap.  Then in the evening some of us would climb a peak or wonder around viewing the vast array of wildflowers, mosses, Arctic hares, and musk ox.  We saw signs of Perry caribou, wolves, and foxes, but never actually caught a glimpse of the animals.  On my first sighting of an Arctic hare, I thought it was a wolf.  The adult hares are huge and often run on their hind legs like kangaroos.  The musk ox appear to be huge bulky animals, but apparently they are mostly hair.  Though some may disagree, I found it to be very relaxing and enjoyable trip.

However, given all the melting that was taking place on the ice caps and glaciers, this exit route was not without its difficulties.  River crossings became a major concern, especially for Billie.  We would look to cross the most braided parts of the river to avoid crossing the entire flow at once.  Many in the group resorted to crossing with their hiking boots on, but I was doing fine with my neoprene socks and Tevas.  When we crossed the junction of the Very and Macdonald Rivers the braids were flowing in two directions.  The braids flowing into the Very were flowing west toward Lake Hazen and the braids flowing into the Macdonald were flowing east toward Tanquary Fiord.

On July 5th, we were camped at particularly beautiful spot overlooking the Lupus Glacier.  Our maps showed a large lake on the Macdonald River.  However, the glacier had receded to the point that the lake had drained.  Ranger Ross had warned us that we needed to go high on the opposite slope here, but this meant traversing very steep scree slopes with full packs.   For our evening excursion, Tom and I scouted out a canyon along the river that we could use to avoid the steep scree.

As we worked our way down the Macdonald, the flow increased with each crossing, causing a few close calls.  We started teaming up for crossings and Billie took to hanging onto my arm.  This worked fine until our final crossing.  We got to a point where the fast-moving water was nearly up to her waist and she couldn’t go on.  I was also having trouble too.  Maybe I should have had my hiking boots on.  Tom saw the difficultly we were in and rushed out to help.  But Billie lost her grip on Tom and took off with the flow down stream.  It was all I could do be make it back to shore without suffering a similar fate, but Tom who is a former river guide went running and swimming down the river after Billie.  It was a terrible feeling, seeing Billie washing away, but her pack and sled provided some buoyancy.  Tom caught up with her on a shallow sand bar.  He took her pack and they tried to cross again, but again Billie lost her footing and went sailing downstream.  Tom finally got her across, but she was mentally shaken and physically shivering.  When we got her into dry clothes and wrapped in a sleeping bag, her good humor quickly returned.  Although most everything in her pack was wet, she was proud of the fact that her trash was still dry inside a waterproof bag.   

We made it back to Tanquary Fiord on July 9th, a day early. For the first time in our three-week trip, it rained during the day.  When the sun is hidden by clouds, the damp winds can be biting, but we had the park’s emergency kitchen tent to provide us with shelter and some of the group slept in the visitor center tent.  Ranger Ross was at Lake Hazen but he radioed in to find out how we did.  Adam Ferguson, a park guard, ably filled in answering our 1001 questions about the park, Ellesmere Island and the Arctic.  He also gave as a tour of the park museum, which is a large quansit hut that has not been disturbed, since the military left Tanquary Fiord in the 1960’s.

On our last full day on Ellesmere Island, we went on a day hike around Tanquary Fiord to view ancient campsites of people who lived in the area in 2000 BC.  Conditions there are such that these ancient signs of human habitation are still visible today.  There are rock mounds that were used as fox traps and camp circles where they pitched their animal skin tents.  I extended the hike to include Green Valley, which is aptly named, and had my last close encounter with a musk ox as I followed the Tanquary Fiord shoreline back to the park headquarters.

On July 11th, we returned to Resolute on a Twin Otter that Jack had arranged as a cost share with the Whitney Smith adventure company that runs commercial trips to Ellesmere Island.  In Resolute, we were greeted by the enterprising Ozzy, who sold us fuel for our stoves, fuels planes, greets visitors and puts them up in one of his two hotels in town.  He gave us a special deal in his brand-new airport hotel.  The hot shower and fresh food was greatly appreciated after 23 days away from civilization, but the town of Resolute is dry.  We could only afford this pampering for one night and were back in our tents at the airport the following night.

On July 13th, it was a long series of plane flights that took me from Resolute, to Nanisivtk, to Hall Beach, to Iqaluit, to Ottawa, and finally home to Washington, DC.  This adventure was a unique opportunity to experience the Arctic first hand and to share it with a great group on individuals.  Jack, at age 66, says this was his last big adventure, but my Tuesday Vigorous Hiker friends in their 70s and 80s, think he has plenty of time for more.  Sign me up!

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