The Moraine Pain
As we watched Levi and Boris (apparently a traditional Inuit name) drive off down the fjord, with our equipment & food to be dropped at the cache, we gradually took in our surroundings. Having slogged over 350miles to get there, it seemed madness to be so close to some of the worlds most remote and beautiful scenery only to ski within 40miles and miss it completely. So we changed the plan, hopped into the skidoo and three hours later found ourselves surrounded by towering walls & blue glaciers. Levi is a local outfitter who deals with expeditions & trips throughout the year - a local sage and thoroughly interesting guide. When asked if he sees lots of stupid people like us he said: "I think you're crazy but not stupid" - very diplomatic and good to hear from a man who had seen two European BASE jumpers smash themselves into the walls of the surrounding fjords in the previous season. He looked at us both taking in the epic surroundings and said: "this isn't even the good bit", giving us a wink and a warning to watch for the high winds.
When unpacking the skidoo he had pulled out a blanket that had been on the floor off the small plywood box we were wedged into with the dogs and exclaimed: "someone has shit on my sleeping bag!". We had both known Colin had let go during the journey but I winced hearing he'd poo'd on Levi's sleeping bag. We tried the old line "is there really?! We hadn't noticed..." only to see Levis face split into a large grin and laugh at our naivety. "I know all about dogs" he said. So many times on this trip, our path has been littered with individuals who have been incredibly good to us: sharing their experience & time, so it was excellent to put Levi on this list. Granted we were paying him, but he went above & beyond.
They headed off, and we headed on. We knew the next 200kms would involve over-land sections which despite our serious misgivings were inescapable. As we collided with the first chunk, our old hatred of the land came flooding back. My inner Turtle was livid as we humped our way back onto terra firma from our watery home; our paced slowing to a crawl. We'd got used to the sleds being light, bouncing along behind us, so it was a serious shock to have a full & heavy sled again. Even on the ice, the difference was significant. Now heading up a river valley with a foot of snow filling the lowest & easiest passing places, life got pretty tough. Our bodies had been softened by four days of central heating & access to a supermarket , so our bodies were protesting at the work load. Even at -35°C the sweat stung our eyes, whilst our thighs & backs ached with the strain. The false flat: it looks flat but it is a gradual incline, gradually taking its toll on our spirits. Even the incredible mountains flanking us on either side were no longer enough to direct our attention away from the pulks attached to us, consuming all our thoughts.
As we began to lose hope, the valley evened out and eventually began to fall away beneath us, leading slowly to a frozen steep sided river valley dotted with boulders & a floor of ice swept clear of snow. As we skittered down the river, Colin & Tala doing their best Bambi impressions, we could finally lift our heads and take in where we were: jagged peaks ran from us in all directions; deep glacial valleys furrowed through the mountains to distant spires or out towards the sea. Walls of glacial ice hung suspended on the upper reaches of the towering tops, remnants from departing ice sheets and yet still breathtaking in their scale & colour as they clung desperately to the unforgiving mountains.
As we headed further down the valley we could begin to see to the West and into the larger fjords. High, sheer walls sat above the flat frozen sea in a cross road of giants, hinting at what was to come. As we set up camp and shook off our harnesses, the sweat & toil all seemed worth it.
It struck me as an perfect example of Sod's law: having changed plans, trekked doggedly over land for 3 days and come all the way from the UK to catch a glimpse of this beautiful landscape, we awoke to a thick Victorian London Pea Soup fog. "Oh just fog off" I muttered as we packed up and made our way to the start of Sam fjord: reputedly one of the most perfect fjord cross junctions anywhere on Earth.
We trudged gamely through the mist, catching an occasional glimpse of an isolated rock stack poking through; the fog breaking suddenly against a vast flat rock wall and washing away, only to reform and shroud the mountain again. It reminded me of sailing in the Solent on a murky day: the bow of a car carrier or tanker suddenly becoming clear through the gloom. I half expected these silent granite giants to sound a fog horn across the water separating them, but the silence was absolute.
We rapidly decided that this would not do: bollocks to coming all this way just to head off into the mist. Instead we found an excellent camp spot, well sheltered from the gathering westerlies and shut ourself in for the night in the hope that our luck and the weather would change.
The morning brought bright skies and clear views. A fresh breeze had whisked away the fog, chilling the air but well worth it for the view. Scale is something that constantly confuses anyone on Baffin Island, especially for Brits who think that 987m is a pretty good sized mountain and a long car journey is anything over 4 hours. Even Canadians, used to having to for fly for 5 hours and still be in their own airspace, struggle with the scale of Baffin Island, so in reality what chance do we have. The cliffs on either side of the fjord rocketed vertically over 2000m, and walls that looked to be close enough to touch were actually over 5km distance: nearly 2 hours of travelling at pulk pulling speed. This was hammered home a few days later when deciding it was time to camp. We began heading towards the shelter of a cliff edge and were shocked when it took us over an hour to reach it. It honestly looked like a 10minute stroll!
Having broken camp that morning we headed back to the cross roads without the pulls, marvelling at this symmetrical wonder of nature and feeling truly privileged to have witnessed. We then turned into the wind and headed up the icy tunnel of towering rock.
Feeling dwarfed, isolated & exhilarated in the vastness of this landscape we pushed on through deep snow buoyed by the incredible scenery. Around halfway through the day we realised we hadn't seen Colin for a couple of hours. It always autocorrects to Colon which makes me smile. His disappearance made us both apprehensive. Due to recent good behaviour, Colin had been given bail two nights ago and let off with his leash still attached to make him easier to catch. It had (almost) been worth it to see him go silently loopy for around three hours, galloping around at a sprint and literally kicking his heels whilst playing with Tala. This had been fine during the day but as evening approached we tried to catch him by giving him some food. Having fallen for this before Colin was obviously happy to go hungry that night and had chosen a rock face separated by some broken ice as his refuge in case we tried a fiendish midnight recapture. We really weren't that bothered knowing that Colin's hunger pangs would kick in before he found a dustbin to raid.
The next morning the ice had shifted and Colin got himself a little stuck which was hilarious. I am sure he will tell you all about it in his blog. That evening he refused to come back again and midway through the next day we realised he was gone again. Although happy to flaunt his new found freedom by running around us to within arms length then dashing away again, he never went more than 300m before heading back. We began to worry. Firstly he had two very good expensive climbing carabiners attached to him and despite his randomness, drooling & odd behaviour, he was part of the team so we worried for him. For the first time the scenario really hit home at just how far away from everything we are and how normal rule don't apply. If Colin had got stuck or hurt himself, there was really nothing we could do apart from offer him the end of a shotgun. Finding him was practically out of the question, since to leave our gear to search for him would put us in jeopardy and the vastness of this landscape would make this a near impossible task. Likewise calling the Clyde River SAR team to come and collect an injured dog was not an option. We would be laughed at for even suggesting they would risk team members for a mutt. Just as my imagination began to run wild with thoughts of Colin trapped & starving in the distance there was a little ginger & blonde blot making its way towards us. As Colin approached at full speed, eyes bulging with the thought of his pack deserting him and whatever mischief he had got up to, he ran straight up to us for a cuddle. I grabbed the leash and attached it back on to the sled whilst he was distracted. Panic over and patting finished, Colin started to saunter off again so as the rope grew taught and the realisation crossed his face that he was back behind bars he turned and looked at me as if to say: "you bastard". "Welcome back inmate Colon" I said and on we trudged again.
As we reached the end of the first set of fjords we met our old enemy once again: dirt & rock. We knew this was coming. The maps gave us a pretty good clue and the Inuit hunters has told us there was a small moraine to cross into Stewart Valley. However, had we have known what was coming we might never have come the scenic route. Thankfully we had no idea.
With our friends Sarah and Boomer, dog sledding lunatics, we had been chatting about fun and the real nature of what it is and how it's different for some people. They had said that they measured it as type 1 or type 2 fun:
- Type 1 is when you are bombing down a ski slope or cycling down a hill or sitting drinking in the sun with good friends thinking "this is fun". It's immediate and you can actively think I am really enjoying this.
- Type 2 is the type of fun that is great in reflection when sat with a drink regaling friends of your brave deeds looking at fun photos. Often at the time this type can be fairly unpleasant and at points seem utterly stupid. Although not bad enough for ban doing it again, you usually aren't thinking how marvellous this is at the time and perhaps want to be somewhere else. Arctic expeditions or wet Brutish winter walks are good examples.
- The moraine we were about to cross was type 3 fun: how I imagine childbirth to be. You simply cannot express how grateful you are it's over and you will never forget just how bad it truly was, regardless of the scenario or alcohol consumption. If you have to do it again it will only be because you forgot to take your contraceptive and certainly not out of choice.
Sadly we had no caesarian option and the only way over this moraine was up and out.
A moraine is a really horrible pile of rocks, sand, dirt and ice all spat out at the front of a glacier as it bulldozes it's way down a valley crunching & crushing everything in front & underneath it. When the glacier retreats, as this one sadly was, it had left behind 5km of debris of varying heights but topping out at around 200m. Due to the nature of a glaciers retreat they won't just leave one single hill - as the temperature fluctuates over the millennia, they crawl back & forth, up & down the valley leaving seemingly endless ridges of debris for unsuspecting Brits to haul themselves across. As we headed into the littered terrain we were gratefully following Levi's skidoo tracks picking a delicate path between the boulders and rocks on the thin layer of snow covering the rocky heap. After 2 hours of hard hauling which had included several sections of shuttling both sleds up steep rocky sections I suddenly noticed a second skidoo track curving artfully away across the moraine. As we got closer we realised with some well placed misgivings that this was actually Levi's track and he had obviously decided that this was not feasible so buggered off. I was pretty impressed that he had got as far as he did, but having seen the Inuit performing minor miracles on their skidoos, semi wrecking them in the process, I had assumed Levi would find a route. Annoyingly Levi was diligent & careful with his equipment so had obviously decided to head back up the fjord and north towards the open sea ice. This was out of the question for us - it meant a 7 day detour which we did not have the supplies for and having come specifically to see the fjords we couldn't turn round because of small ant hill.
We struggled on without tracks to follow, and very much alone we eventually stumbled over the top of the fourth ridge spying a tongue of ice winding its way down the valley from the peak where it started its journey 10-11km away. This was great news. Ice always made us happy. We travel in a friction free zone wherever we can and despite a reasonable gradient the ice was flatish and smooth.
We headed up the glacier that had made such a mess of the lower valley and began to feel brighter as we made some reasonable distance for the first time that day. Accustomed as we are now to disappointment when traveling on land with Inuit directions we decided a quick recce was a good idea so dumped the sleds to walk up the valley and check the lie of the land: uncomfortably as it turned out. The fork of ice we were on took a meandering course gradually heading due south exactly 180 degrees in the wrong direction to where we were hoping to get to. Between us and the valley we were aiming for, a mere 4km away, were two further strips of glacier each a kilometre wide separated by six or seven large ridges of moraine of impassable steepness and with little or no snow cover. The gap between each moraine and the glacier on either side was a crevasse of 30-40m of often sheer ice walls interspersed with large boulders & broken ice that had fallen down the gap. This rendered the route completely impassable with the weight we were carrying and the equipment we had at our disposal.
We could see that with a couple of hours work and a lot of shuttling we could reach the second glacier and if we were able to climb it, we might just be able to cross onto the third tongue that headed down into the valley. We wearily retraced our footsteps occasionally getting a pulk in the back of the knees as they slid enthusiastically on the ice and began to make our way over to the next piece of ice. I could go on but I am sure you get the picture: it was a rather shite day all in all. At the end of it we were shaking with tiredness, perched on the middle of the second glacier delighted to see a route down on the following day and grateful to have such an elevated spot to gaze down the Sam Fjord system to the East and Stewart Valley to the North - a privileged position and one which few others have probably shared. Primarily because there is a much easier route lower down and you would only go this way if trying to cross the moraine without enough snow cover. As I fixed our nightly camp spot as I do every evening on my GPS I was dismayed to see we had only covered 3.4km since setting off that morning - a cool average of 377m per hour, a record beater of our slowest day yet. Beckoning to us in the valley we had a gradual descent down onto a frozen lake sitting beneath even more impressive mountain walls than the ones we had already passed. We had been told in Clyde that due to the suspended Caribou hunt, and if Levi didn't beat us to it, we would be the first that season to get there! Less than 50 people travel through the area in an entire year and none of them skiing, but tired as we were, we both smiled when Benno remarked "well I suppose we really have been exploring today". The thought of being the first to lay tracks through the next valley and beyond gave us both a little thrill...or maybe it was the thought of our sacred bedtime eccles cake - either way we were excited.