The Ball that Rolled.
By Eric Philips
Published in Wild Magazine (Australia). Summer 1995
`So, exactly where is Ellesmere Island?' most people would ask after hearing of my proposed expedition. `Next door to Greenland, on Canadian soil, and as far north as you can go before stepping off into the Arctic Ocean', became my stock reply.
The island is the tenth largest in the world and a frozen sea almost permanently hems in its coast. In fact, as I write these words, I am peering out of the window of the DC10, which is returning us from Resolute Bay to Edmonton, and I can see an endless stretch of frozen sea ice.
Almost two years earlier, after completing an 80-kilometre ski tour with a friend, I'd sat down in front of an atlas and pored over the pages, dreaming of all places wild. Like a magnet, I was drawn to northern Canada and to Ellesmere Island. Over the ensuing 20 months I had set about organising the expedition. With no previous Arctic experience and an open mind to the logistic and financial difficulties that lay ahead, I wanted to see how far I could get the ball rolling. Through correspondence with the Canadian Parks Service, the Alpine Club of Canada and local guides, I realised that the expedition would achieve many firsts. Richard Smith, Nick Fairfax and myself would be the first Australians to climb Barbeau Peak (at 2606 metres, the highest in eastern North America) and our plan to `man'-haul across Ellesmere's largest, highest and most northerly ice cap would also be a world first.
A long series of flights eventually took us to Resolute - Canada's most northerly outpost - where we stayed with local outfitters, Terry and Besal Jesudason. After portaging our 70-kilogram loads to the foot of our unnamed access glacier, we spent our first night bivvying under the midnight sun.
The following morning I awoke excitedly stirred the others and begged that we be on our way. The lower reaches of the glacier were slushy and we had to contend with many gushing streams and melt pools. Richard stumbled chest-deep into a creek, soaking himself to the skin. We used a solar lens to dry his boots and clothing in a couple of hours, an early confirmation of the potential of this handy instrument.
For three days we climbed northward through a gateway of snowcapped peaks and vertical rock walls. On the second day large crevasses began to appear, some covered by thin snow bridges. We promptly roped up, taking no chances in such a remote and isolated place. After all, at $10 000 per flight, we couldn't afford a single-person evacuation. A debilitating injury would mean immediate cancellation of the expedition.
After 50 kilometres of upward grind we finally reached the ice cap proper. Soon the entire horizon became an unbroken line separating white from blue. All my life I'd been waiting for a view such as this, and here I was, an insignificant speck of dust on this massive carpet of white.
The first ten days had been good to us in many ways. Our access glacier, chosen in Australia from a 1:25 000 map, proved to be relatively smooth. The weather was faultless, blue skies prevailed and there was little wind. Navigation was interesting, but not too challenging. Though our maps showed little detail, we quickly adapted and found a sufficient number of features to pinpoint our location. Our compasses worked well ... just. Due to the proximity of the north magnetic pole, the needle took a long time to settle. As a back up we took a hand-held Global Positioning System receiver. This incredible little device could pinpoint our position on the earth's surface to within 30metres.
Having climbed some 2000 metres on the western part of the ice cap, we were now expecting a 15 kilometre downhill run to Yelverton Pass, a large valley dividing the western part of the ice cap from the Barbeau massif. We set off excitedly, our sleds trailing obediently behind. A panoramic vista unfolded before us glaciers spilling into the valley from majestic mountains on both sides of the pass. Small lakes dotted the valley floor and rivers cut through the bare ice. Our excitement was short-lived, however, as a large crevasse soon opened up directly underneath my sled. Thereafter we roped up and followed a smooth gully along the edge of the glacier until we reached solid ice.
It took a whole day to negotiate the pass itself as, once again; we had to contend with fast-flowing streams and deep water holes. At one point a 40-metre-deep ravine confronted us, and as we stood on its edge and watched the swirling waters rush through the spiralling holes in the ice, we were awe-struck by the immensity of `all things Ellesmere'.
We spent the next six days climbing onto the eastern ice cap via an unnamed glacier to our base camp below Barbeau Peak. This eastern ice cap, unlike the western, is studded with mountains, which poke up through the ice. Much of the island's surface is permanently covered in ice and snow; only the coastal fringe loses its winter coat of drift ice. Very little precipitation falls here less than 10 centimetres a year. It is, in fact, a desert, but a very cold one.
The sky was overcast on the day of our ascent of Barbeau Peak, obscuring our view of its summit. We skied northeast over flat ground to the base of a steep, narrow ridge, which led directly to the summit. We changed to crampons and soon found ourselves climbing a knife-edge ridge under a blackening sky. We were in our element - enjoying the isolation, the exposure and the exhilaration of moving unroped over steep ground. After a couple of hours the ridge flattened out, then stopped abruptly against a 300-metre vertical face of rock and ice. We decided to stop for lunch and rug up against the frosty minus 25-degree wind chill. After a welcome hot drink we set off on a traverse of a large cwm to the southeast. Shortly after this, disaster struck.
Plodding along a little way ahead of me, Richard put his foot through a hidden bergschrund, twisting his ankle badly. He lay sprawled across the crack in intense pain and unable to move. After hasty consultation, Richard decided to slide and self-arrest his way to the bottom of the cwm and wait there for our return. We took his Australian flag and camera, commiserated with him on his misfortune, bade him a safe descent and continued unroped on our steep traverse.
Our route was littered with wind-scoured ice, old avalanche debris and that elusive bergschrund that remained so well hidden. At one point my foot broke through a thin snow bridge and I stumbled, teetering on the lip of yet another huge crevasse. The bottom was jet black and I grinned at my good
Keeping an eye on Richard's descent, we noticed him continue on after reaching the base of the cwm - not towards base camp, but across a snow-bowl to an alternative spur that led up on to the Barbeau ridge. His ankle seemed to be holding his weight and two hours later, after a horrific walk along a narrow, precipitous ridge, he met us on a peak just below the summit.
By this time the weather had miraculously cleared and we set off on the last and steepest part of the climb under a blue, still sky. The ridge narrowed until we were able to straddle it, each boot pointing to a separate valley floor 1000 metres below. Finally, at 7 p.m. on the 7th day of the 7th month (pure coincidence), we stood on the summit of Barbeau Peak, the highest people on the island in both senses of the word! It was a tiny summit, the apex of three identical ridges and three near vertical ice faces. We had climbed a classic peak. We locked the moment into our minds, took photos and footage, then set off on an incident-free return to base camp. We arrived at 10.30 p.m. in bright sunshine, having traversed 15 kilometres in just under 13 hours.
The following day we awoke at midday to find a blizzard raging outside the tent. Inside it was a cosy haven - warm and dry - and we spent the day snoozing, reading, writing and generally bathing in self-indulgent euphoria over the previous day's climb. After all the stresses, doubts and disappointments, we had achieved one of our major aims. We also paid a fair amount of attention to Richard's badly swollen ankle. With more than 100 kilometres to go, and no success in making radio contact, we were all worried. Fortunately, there was no shortage of ice and we began a routine of icing and strapping Richard's injured joint over the next few days, with considerable effect.
Day 15 was overcast, but we covered a record distance that day - 21 kilometres - despite Richard's injury. That night we were finally able to make radio contact with our charter plane company and confirm our pick-up on the 17th.
Overnight, however, dark, billowing clouds and a rapid drop in barometric pressure confirmed we were in for some nasty weather. All the next day we watched the worsening sky as we negotiated the descent of the heavily crevassed Charybdis Glacier. As soon as we pitched camp at the terminus of the glacier, the storm hit like a steam train. Ironically, we slept soundly despite the violent shaking of the tent and awoke to a gray, lifeless sky and only one split tent pole.
After a quick portage across 20 metres of terminal moraine, we climbed the very steep Scylla Glacier on to the Viking Ice Cap. Over the next four days we navigated in whiteout conditions, negotiating crevasses, cornices and steep traverses that left our sleds skewing perilously, threatening to take us on a one-way ride to oblivion.
On the 19th day we set off in thick fog to traverse around Mt Reeds, but after only 10 minutes we were stopped in our tracks by a gaping crevasse. We had no idea what lay beyond this point so, mentally unprepared to continue in such conditions, we decided to turn back, set up camp and wait for better weather.
The following day, after considerable debate and planning, we set off with a taught rope between us - navigating as a team through the pea souper for seven hours. In the late afternoon, we topped a rise and suddenly, Cleaves Glacier - our exit from the ice cap - was there before us. Our joy was indescribable
And we felt a unique pride in our teamwork and perseverance.
The next day, after 240 kilometres of sledding over this remote and beautiful ice cap, we were once again on terra firma. Intoxicated by emotion, we shook hands, captured the moment on celluloid, then began the 45-kilometre portage to our pick-up point at Tanquary Fjord.
As I sat on a rocky knoll overlooking the fjord, I began to reflect on our journey and the 20 months preceding it. My dream of completing an expedition on a remote polar ice cap had become reality. We had proven to ourselves - and to others - that lifelong ambitions can be achieved.
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