To the edge and back
Five friends risk it all ski touring for two weeks through the glaciers of Pond Inlet
After months of planning and a whirlwind of logistics this past May, four friends and I boarded a plane to Mittimatalik (Pond Inlet) to spend two weeks ski touring on and exploring the glaciers in the area.
From the air between Clyde River and Pond Inlet, I saw endless ribbons of white, which contrasted with the two neat braids running down the back of the woman sitting across the aisle. She wore a parka trimmed with fox, kamiit with fantastic flowered duffles, and quietly worked at a Sweet Marie bar she held in her beautiful weathered hands. Outside, the velvet icefields swept across the alpine and met soaring cliffs that plunged into the fjords.
The next morning we were on that ocean, bumping our way four hours east on a kamotiq to our drop-off point at Erik Harbour. After skiing across two lakes, and keeping our eyes out for signs of polar bears, we reached the moraines. These great ridges of rock and rubble mark the beginning of the glaciers and have been bulldozed to where they now sit by thousands of years of slow moving ice. We carried our gear and skis across a short stretch of exposed moraine boulders before hitting the ice — home for the next two weeks.
Reading the contours of a glacier’s snowy surface, and recognizing shadows and dips as subtle indicators of what lies what beneath, is a skill that comes with time. Below the gently rolling, beautiful blanket of white are many crevasses: slots that vary from a few inches wide to metres across and bottomless. To minimize risk we used harnesses while skiing, roping ourselves together for dicey sections, equipped with a satellite phone for emergencies and the tools and knowledge should a crevasse rescue be necessary.
On day four, leaving our tents behind and carrying the minimum to be safe, we headed for Qijjivik. It is the largest mountain in the region at just over 6,000 feet. The 4 a.m. wind we started out in settled and, under a cloudless blue sky, we climbed slowly up to the summit. From there we looked down over the North arm, out to the floe edge and across the endless ice and snow of the Oliver Glacier.
One of the best parts of being out on the land is watching the changing weather systems and the beautiful light. One moment there were high lenticular clouds worthy of a Doris McCarthy painting, soon dissipating into new shapes, and then met by fog seeping up from the valleys below.
And so many variations on snow! Sometimes it was crusty and windswept into mesmerizing fractal patterns, at others light and sparkling underfoot. On a few occasions while skiing there was a bizarre and unsettling sound, like the whir of a million miniature waterfowl taking off below my skis. It was the dynamic settling of thousands of pounds of snow that may have never been skied upon before.
The highest pass that we skied up and over demanded a good dose of balance and strength. It seemed a Herculean task as we slogged our way up and over pulling our sleds behind us. Falling was not an option as the momentum would have taken us hundreds of metres back down the slope.
Though most days were calm, powerful winds occasionally made the temperature plummet and travel more challenging. While the landscape was always beautiful and inspiring, it was very white and often had few features to help with navigation. Even without whiteout conditions, a hand-held global positioning system (GPS) was a necessity. Our high camp, at 4,500 feet, was one such spot. We woke the next morning in very limited visibility and, guided by the cell phone sized GPS, skied down and out of the wind and cloud.
When not actually skiing to crank up the internal fires, it was easy to chill off fast. On the gentle days when the wind was low, I needed three layers on top and bottom, plus a Goretex and down jacket, two pairs of socks, booties and their covers, a neck warmer and a big rabbit hat to stay comfortable around camp.
One of the most beautiful camps we had was on a thin tongue of glacier flanked by two alpine lakes. Frozen into the lakes were icebergs that had calved off the ice on which our two small tents perched. We slogged back up the long, gentle slope we had come down the day before (this time without our sleds) — all for the glory of a long telemark run on to the lake with the bergs.
I imagine people living in the high Arctic remain forever awed by these grand natural beauties. Their size and age, the green and blue strata of ice, and the deep streaks of bubbles are all magic. After skiing around one, and marveling redundantly at its majesty, we broke camp and moved down off the permanent ice. Nearing two weeks out, we were completing a loop that brought us back to the ocean.
Spaced sensibly to minimize risk as we moved down the center of the glacier, we were taken aback by the gaping maw of a wide crevasse about 10 metres away. Our lead skier was standing on a snow bridge across this abyss. Gabrielle moved safely on and we all gave the area a wide berth. With a racing heart, I trailed the other four down and to a safer area.
Looking back, there was a parallel series of large crevasses running through the steep pitch we had just come through. I felt a bit sick thinking about the objective hazards and wondered, why are we doing this? Thinking of the iceberg, the fields of white, the simplicity and challenge of living in remote places, and the feel of my palm against the deep, dry, and ancient blue ice — I had my answer.
Safely through this scariest bit of glacier travel, we returned to sea level and exchanged crevasse risk for bear risk. A long ski through thick white wind, and we arrived at the pack ice of Erik byte, where a man and his dog team were camped after a day hunting at the floe edge. He greeted us with a smile and an outstretched hand — a beautiful transition back to populated places. Next morning, on the back of a snow machine en route to Mittimatalik, I was grateful to have safely scratched the surface of the icefields. Content and dreaming of future plans, we looked longingly to the glaciers of Bylot Island.