Horizontal Everest: A Memoir of an Obsession with Ellesmere Islandby Jerry Kobalenko
Both the heaven and hell of the High Arctic, Ellesmere Island lies a mere 450 miles from the North Pole. This mountainous jewel has the highest peaks in the Western Hemisphere east of the Rockies and is full of breathtaking scenery and enchanting wildlife. It
Both the heaven and hell of the High Arctic, Ellesmere Island lies a mere 450 miles from the North Pole. This mountainous jewel has the highest peaks in the Western Hemisphere east of the Rockies and is full of breathtaking scenery and enchanting wildlife. It also has the highest misery-per-visitor ratio in the world, according to The New York Times. What possesses people to go there, often repeatedly, sometimes to suffer and die? Jerry Kobalenko has made more visits to and walked more miles on Ellesmere island than anyone, past or present.
Kobalenko investigates the motives and mistakes of the island's first explorers; recounts the disastrous 1881-84 expedition of Adolphus Greely in vivid detail; searches for clues to the mysterious disappearance of scientist-explore Hans Kruger and the murder of an Inuit guide; recreates some of the explorer's island_s most difficult journeys; has an almost deadly encounter with a polar bear; and reflects upon the meaning of extreme adventure and his own complicated relationship with a place that, like revenge, is best served cold. Part travelogue, part historical research, part natural science, part adventure mystery, The Horizontal Everest brings to life one man's total involvement with a forbidding but romantic island.
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Into the Void
One day, years earlier, I had come home with a new backpack, the largest I could find. "What's that for?" my girlfriend of the time had asked.
"Not sure," I replied. But its size made it look serious, which seemed important.
My one previous attempt at winter camping had been in high school, when four of us shivered all night in cheap sleeping bags lined with Space Blankets. As soon as dawn broke, we hurried back to the car with a new-found understanding of Napoleon's retreat from Moscow.
This time I decided that if I were going to do something crazy, I would do it intelligently. I stopped reading fiction and began to study outdoor equipment catalogs, how-to books and naturalists' musings. The writing was unintentionally entertaining: Bjorn Kjellstrom's Be Expert With Map and Compass, with its illustrations of smiling figures in beanie caps finding their way hither and thither with the aid of their trusty compass and Kjellstrom's pointers; John Rowland's Cache Lake Country, with its thumbs-in-the-suspenders prose: "Sam was plumb scared to death ... he was in a fix and no mistake"; Backpacking, by R. C. Rethmel, with its appendix on winter camping provided by the author's "good friend," James (Gil) Phillips, who used polyurethane foam to the absolute exclusion of all other insulation. Snapshots of Gil in full regalia showed him looking warm enough, but he was standing in what was evidently a sunny yard in New Mexico. A dog in the background panted from heat.
Only rarely did a kindred spirit appear in this wasteland. Calvin Rutstrum first won my heart as the only winter guru not to solemnly intone, "If your feet are cold, put on your hat." Although his way of the wilderness was more traditional than what I envisioned following, his workable ideas were timeless. Rutstrum also had a love of solitude rather than a dislike of mankind. He was didactic, like most self-educated men, but his noble character tempered the pontificating. He wrote into old age, long after he should have put the pen down, but this octogenarian's last words, in his last book, were a touching thanks for the life he had lived.
I took to naturalists for whiffs of the good writing I missed in how-to manuals. The early Edwin Way Teale was distinguished by some of his fine lyric passages; Aldo Leopold by his tang; Jean Henri Fabre by his sense of wonder; Rachel Carson by her passionate use of facts; and Thoreau by the depth of his reflections, and by his eyeballs. His eyes had that mixture of sadness and purity that is sometimes found in the faces of the truly great. They were as magnificent as August Strindberg's forehead. One would never find those eyes in the sockets of a clod.
Gradually, I became aware that I wanted to do an extreme wilderness trip, which seemed to include winter camping. I worked from three principles. First, since gear "used on Everest" was readily available, while gear "used at the North Pole" was not, I assumed that high-altitude mountaineering and extreme arctic travel required similar equipmentbombproof tents, five-pound down bags, offset-baffled parkas. Second, traditional equipment was for those who had mastered field repair and general woodsmanship; ignoramuses such as myself were safer with modern stuff. Third, I chose the best of everythinglightest, warmest, toughest, biggestand only from what I perceived to be A-list companies. When you get to know equipment, you can make item-by-item judgments, but from the armchair it's impossible to tell the necessary from the overkill. So I erred on the side of caution, reducing the cost of these Rolls Royce packs and Lamborghini bags by presenting myself to companies as an outdoor writer. Most were happy to offer me wholesale prices which, in this industry, usually meant forty percent off. Soon I was equipped for the Worst Journey in the World.
I had no idea how much food to bring on this theoretical trek, but I had recently trained as a marathon swimmer, logging six miles a day in the pool. That much exercise leaves you free to eat as much as you can, and I discovered that I simply could not hoover in more than 7,000 calories a day. My jaw ached from chewing, I got hemorrhoids from all the activity of a supercharged metabolism, and I ran out of things I wanted to eat. Even a whole strawberry shortcake every day palls after a while.
By default then, 7,000 calories seemed like a good dietary target for an extreme cold-weather expedition. Hard spring sledding, I learned later, only burns about 5,000 calories, but during the midwinter cold of my first expeditions I needed the extra 2,000 calories to stay warm. In the end, making the most extreme choices in food and equipment worked.
* * *
Although I originally fixated on Labrador as my wilderness ideal, a chance trip to Ellesmere Island turned my world upside-down. This was the most extreme place in North America. It drew extreme people, nurtured extreme plants, harbored extreme animals, and showcased extreme phenomena. It was everything I wanted. I forgot about Labrador.
I soon learned that the difficulty of traveling on Ellesmere is nothing compared with the difficulty of getting there. There are no roads, no boats and only one scheduled flight, twice weekly, to the lone village of Grise Fiord on the south coast.
The quest to reach Ellesmere begins two hundred and fifty miles to the south, in Resolute Bay on Cornwallis Island, "perhaps the most dreary and desolate place that can well be conceived," according to one early description. The town of Resolute lies two thousand miles due north of Winnipeg, in a part of the Arctic known as the Barren Wedge. Northern plants can endure almost anything, as long as they get one month of decent weather in which to grow. But summer in the Barren Wedge is typically windy, dank, and foggy, so Cornwallis Island has the lushness of a gravel pit. First-time visitors are astonished when they fly another five hundred miles north and step into Ellesmere's alpine meadows and warm sunshine.
Resolute is actually two villages: an "unlovely huddle" of interconnected government buildings near the airport, and the Inuit village. The two are connected by a four-mile gravel road of excruciating dullness that the truly desperate sometimes hike to kill time.
As the last stop of jets and the staging area for science and adventure in the High Arctic, Resolute has a certain character. Visitors have plenty of time to explore this when bad weather grounds all aircraft for days. Six days is my record, but this is by no means exceptional. One weatherman in the Barren Wedge was stranded for a month and lost his entire vacation.
A passion for Ellesmere is like an addiction to heroin: You have to subsidize the craving through humiliating pursuits. Hitchhiking on half-empty planes used to be a respectable means of northern travel, and early arctic obsesseesincluding such notables as photographer Fred Bruemmerrarely paid their own way. Communities put them up until they found a charter flight to hop on. Today it is sometimes possible to hitchhike back from Ellesmere, but planes to the island are usually full, and to show up in Resolute without firm plans is to risk never getting out.
In recent years, travel has become a little easier for me because I can barter my knowledge about the island. But just how does someone, for whom two thousand dollars is a lot of money, accumulate twenty journeys to the most expensive wilderness destination in North America?
My first trip was a magazine assignment, covered partly by an outfitter and partly by tourism agencies. More wealthy magazines, to ensure objective coverage, send their writers as paying clients, but smaller publications rely on outfitters to cover the cost, which is negligible if the tour is already going and there is space. Smart outfitters also give photographers the occasional freebie, because good photos are vital for trade show exhibits where they find new customers and for brochures which tantalize repeat clientele. My love of photography, which was born and developed on Ellesmere, is partly to credit for four of those twenty trips.
Another Ellesmere stratagem is to buy a piece of someone else's charter. Sometimes there is enough space left over for one or two people and their gear. In the spring, adventurers attempting the North Pole need periodic resupplies, and their expedition managers in Resolute are always open to recouping part of their costs. The difficulty is that you never know the dates of the resupply flights ahead of time or whether they will have room. You show up in Resolute and take your chances.
In summer, tour operators may also sell a place on their flights. This is a better arrangement because their dates are fixed. However, most tours are full or almost full, and it's hard to confirm your spot until shortly before the trip leaves. Outfitters understandably prefer to fill their planes with customers paying five thousand dollars for the full service rather than with independents tagging along for a few hundred bucks.
If flights don't go exactly where you want to go, you may sometimes side charter. Most travelers aren't aware of this option. It's as if, flying from New York to Chicago, you paid an additional small amount to be dropped in Detroit, just off the flight path. Twice I've side chartered the "sked" to Grise Fiord. The regularly scheduled flight to Grise is cheap, and it's not far from there to interesting places. Once, a charter to Eureka made a ten-minute detour to drop us on western Axel Heiberg Island, a remote destination that would have cost four thousand dollars to reach on our own. Cost, including detour and our share of the charter, eight hundred dollars.
These little finesses, when they work, make Ellesmere accessible. But sometimes all options fall through. You sit in Resolute for a week, camping behind the airport or watching your dollars fly away at one of the local hotels. The charms of Resolute wear thin. You have worn thin on Resolute's citizens. The airline managers stop looking up when you walk into their office for news. The Polar Continental Shelf Project, with its many Ellesmere charters, will not accept your offers of good coin, leading you to be somewhat cynical about that science agency's well-publicized financial straits. The resupply flights of the North Pole adventurers are full with sponsors and friends. "There's another resupply in two weeks, though." A promising flight falls through: Weather delays have allowed two groups to combine their charters, so instead of two half-empty planes, there is now one full one. Steel doors clang shut. At least two more days in Resolute before the next ray of hope.
You accept the ancient wilderness principletravelers need either lots of time or lots of money. You have come prepared to serve time, but once in a while, time is not enough. The only way out is with a credit card.
When I first went to Resolute hoping to extend the north's hitchhiking tradition by another few years, it was understandable that I should feel like a moocher. I was. My partners in crime likewise commented on how they felt like "stray cats" or "bag ladies" in Resolute. Sometimes we came prepared to spend substantial amounts of money and still felt like second-class citizens. Resolute's icy heart had seen too much. Too many foreign polar bear hunters willing to drop $20,000 in four days, leaving thousand-dollar tips in their wake. Too many North Pole expeditions with half-million dollar budgets. Too many planeloads of doctors and stockbrokers. Too many cruise ships disgorging ladies in furs (mink, not caribou) and men with glaring, corporate eyes who plunk down two thousand dollars for a narwhal tusk during their one hour on shore. Resolute is like Las Vegas: impossible to impress, no matter how much money you throw away.
Once, using airline frequent-flyer points and hooking rides, I traveled from Toronto to Ellesmere and back for two hundred dollars. But, at worst, Resolute could be so disheartening and humiliating that I would return home never wanting to go north again. Yet, like cold, fatigue, soft snow, high winds, and partners from hell, I soon forgot Resolute and remembered only Ellesmere.
* * *
Ellesmere's most extreme time of the year begins in September, when the sun sets after four thousand consecutive hours of daylight. By late October, Ellesmere is locked "in the black coffin of the Polar Night." Of all ordeals, explorers most dreaded the next three months. "A world without sun is like a life without love," wrote Nansen.
During these months, expeditions continued their skeleton scientific programs, but mainly everyone read, smoked, played cards, argued, and slept twelve hours a night. The length of journal entries typically plummeted from one or two pages a day to three or four lines. At Christmas and New Year's, much ado was made of the special menus, usually written in mock French, with such delicacies as Salmon à la Paleocrystic or Muskox Tongue in Arctic Sauce.
Lectures, singalongs, and weekly theater helped break up the monotony; the reason that prospective arctic volunteers were asked at their interviews, "Can you sing or play an instrument?" Officers tried to teach some of the illiterate men to read. Short walks, half a mile to a mile a day along a trampled route, prevented total physical decrepitude. Most groups put out a weekly newspaper, full of gossip, line drawings and bad inside jokes. Usually, these newspapers died quickly. "We, the editors, found it interesting," reported one.
Snow magnified the reflected starlight so that even without a moon, it was possible to see a little. "The line below will give an idea of the size of type
LEGIBLE AT MID-DAY
"wrote one explorer. Another claimed that the full moon equaled the light of a candle at forty-nine inches. Reducing the darkness to numbers was one way to cope with it.
The darkness was not nearly as trying as the social friction of this confined life. Once, even two members of the fabled Royal Canadian Mounted Police lost their poise. "I told him to pay attention to his own affairs," reported one. "Immediately he invited me to take off my hat and fight. I refrained from this method as long as possible, but in December he carried it into personal affairs and it came to blows."
Intense pastel colors wash the frigid February sky, making this the most beautiful time of year. For the Inuit in neighboring Greenland, this is the end of the winter depression called perlerorneq, literally, "to feel the weight of life." Custom dictates that the first time the Inuit see the sun, they take off one mitt and hold their bare hand in the air. The more devout also smile with half their face. Traditionally, all lamps in the community are put out and relit with fresh oil and new wicks. The world is reborn, and for Inuit and explorers alike, the exciting sledding season is about to begin.
* * *
I didn't know exactly how cold it was that night, but I knew it was cold. It was as if the thermometer were in freefall. Sleep was impossible. I couldn't stop shivering inside my sleeping bag. My breath formed delicate catkins of frost on the tent ceiling over my head. These fairy chandeliers, indicators of at least -30°F, can't be touched, however gently, without disintegrating. Sometimes I marveled at their loveliness, but now I just tried to blow them off before they became so heavy that they dropped by themselves and hit some small uncovered part of my face like a spritz of frozen carbon dioxide. Because moisture from breathing gums up insulation, I couldn't bury my face in the sleeping bag.
It was a long night. As soon as the dark purpled, I got up. Movement was the only antidote for this cold. I stomped around outside to warm up, then checked the thermometer. Fifty-eight below. A surge of pride overcame the fatigue. I'd had plenty of minus forty nights, and except for the periodic frost spritzes, I had slept pretty well. But -58°F was another dimension. The experience was so alien, so extreme, that I enjoyed it despite my misery, and it awakened a curiosity about the cold.
By arctic standards, most of my trips have not been particularly cold. Minus thirty sounds bad, but it isn't really, except in a stiff wind. A good sleeping bag can handle -30°F, just like a good backpack can handle eighty pounds but not a hundred and twenty pounds. Life only becomes difficult after about -44°F. Thanks to the moderating influence of the sea, mostly frozen though it is, -44°F is sometimes the winter minimum on Ellesmere.
Extreme cold has occurred. In 1963, scientists at Tanquary Fiord experienced -77°F, just 4 degrees shy of the North American record set at Snag, Yukon. On March 4, 1876, explorer George Nares reported -74°F on Ellesmere's northeast coast. Whisky placed outside froze after a few minutes, "so a few of us had the rare opportunity of eating it in a solid state." No doubt there were many quips that night about hard liquor.
Sledding below -30°F is difficult because of the friction on such cold snow. At -77°F, it would be like trying to drag a Volkswagen with no wheels down the street. During the day, perpetual movement, four layers of clothing and 7,000 calories can overcome most any cold. But sleep would be hard.
On their winter quest for emperor penguin eggs in Antarctica, Apsley Cherry-Gerrard and his two companions survived -76°F, the record low for camping. "Dante was right when he placed circles of ice below circles of fire," Cherry-Gerrard commented in his Antarctic classic, The Worst Journey in the World. On Ellesmere, North Pole adventurers occasionally experience -72°F at Ward Hunt Island in early March, but they usually linger in the camp's heated weatherhavens until it warms up.
I've done two trips where the evening temperature was -40°F or less about half of the time. Strange things happen then. Beard growth on my exposed face slowed to a crawl, while hair under my turtleneck grew at a normal rate. Once I couldn't feel my left foot for several days, but it was not frostbitten. I eventually discovered that my sock had slipped down and was subtly restricting circulation. I pulled the sock up and feeling returned to the foot a few hours later. As the weeks wore on, however, my perpetually cold toes went numb and the nerves didn't reawaken for a month after I'd returned home.
But the real quirks of cold cannot compare to its imagined powers. Cowley Abraham, whose ship was blown south of Cape Horn into the subantarctic in 1683, found "so extreme cold that we could bear drinking three quarts of Brandy in twenty-four hours each man, and be not at all the worse for it." You have to wonder what drinking records they'd have set had they continued into the Antarctic itself!
An epic tale of frostbite, amputation, and near death appeared in 1894 in The Strand, a fashionable London magazine. Written by one G. H. Lees, it was entitled "Lost in a Blizzard" and was introduced by the editors as "an absolutely true narrative of actual facts ... written down from Mr. Lees' dictation, the loss of both his hands, of course, precluding him from writing."
The incident took place one wintry day near Indian Head, Manitoba, temperature a balmy -30°F. Riding his sleigh along a lonely trail, the narrator "began to feel very sleepy, through the intense cold," and got out to walk a bit. The horses bolted; he had left his gloves momentarily in the sleigh and his hands were bare. Apparently he never thought of putting them inside his coat.
He first "ran some distance, when the cold seemed to make me faint; I lay down an hour before I could recover myself." When he got up, his hands were frozen. He then wandered for hours, tired, but "dared not sleep, knowing it would mean death." It was believed that extreme cold induced a hypnotic drowsiness, and that to fall asleep was to never wake up. However, as any camper knows, to fall asleep without enough insulation is to wake up cold, or not to sleep at all.
Frostbite was also thought to make fingers as brittle as icicles, and Lees next writes, "I crawled on my elbows, for I was now afraid of breaking my hands to pieces." At length, "being famished, I had to bite the snow off trees, though it pulled the skin from my lips." Passing over the fact that snow does not stick to the mouth like cold metal, another common misbelief is that if a civilized person misses a meal or two, he becomes starvation-maddened. This narrator had gone all of twenty hours without food.
Such myths may sound quaint now, but the bogeyman of cold remains a good excuse for dismissing the Arctic as a land of Cain rather than an Eden.
* * *
When we think of arctic sledding, we usually think of dog teams, but a person can haul too, and that's what I do. A simple harness of seat belt webbing slips across my chest and attaches to a seven-foot fiberglass sled with plastic runners and a nylon cover. The sled holds up to two months of supplies. When towing a sled, walking is faster than skiing, so I only ski in deep snow. Like a dog, I haul with four legs: the two I was born with and a pair of ski poles.
Manhauling has been described as "about the hardest work to which free men have been put in modern times." Victorian geographical societies rightly saw arctic exploration as less dangerous but more arduous than the tropical variety. Arctic travelers didn't die from malaria or native spears but they often had to haul their own gear on foot. This is no more dangerous than walking on a sidewalk. Less so, in fact. The one injury of my Ellesmere career happened when I was bitten by a dog while strolling to the National Archives in Ottawa.
Sledding is a lovely occupation, if you like walking. Coleridge considered a twenty-mile hike in the mountains nothing special. Beethoven composed while trekking in the Alps. Nietzsche wrote that only thoughts reached by walking have value. Bertrand Russell claimed that war would end if every young man walked twenty miles a day.
But not all cultured Europeans understood activity. In Journey to the Center of the Earth, Jules Verne's heroes endured "three hours of terrible fatigue, walking incessantly." Jean Malaurie, author of The Last Kings of Thule, a wonderful study of the Polar Inuit, makes much of walking six miles per day and "penetrating inland to a depth of nineteen miles." Even Mark Twain, that vigorous traveler from the vigorous New World, believed that walking was "merely a lubricant" for good conversation.
In his essay on walking, Thoreau writes that the origin of the word "saunter" may derive from the medieval peripatetics who claimed to be going to the Holy Land, "la Sainte Terre." Sledding is, in this sense, a lot like sauntering. An imitation of Christ whose Golgotha is healthy exhaustion. For the Western soul, exertion may do what fasting does for the Eastern one.
Of nineteenth-century explorers, only John Rae had the walking gene. This first polar athlete snowshoed a total of 6,500 miles in the Central Arctic. Those who met him described him as "full of animal spirits" or "active as a squirrel." As for the Ellesmere pioneers, American Adolphus Greely disliked exercise so much that he couldn't bring himself to order a fitness routine for others. George Nares was typical of British leaders. Rather than a swashbuckling star ship captain who was always first in line for dangerous missions, Nares remained in the stateroom, pushing his miniature battalions across the field of war with a shuffleboard cue.
Excerpted from THE HORIZONTAL EVEREST by Jerry Kobalenko. Copyright © 2002 by Jerry Kobalenko. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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