Barbeau Peak, 8,583 ft – Highest Mountain in Nunavut
Eric Gilbertson, Len Vanderstar, Serge Massad, Brian and Laura Friedrich
June 13-July 2, 2017
June 13 – Depart Seattle
June 14 – Arrive Resolute, camp outside airport
June 15 – Buffer day in Resolute, hike nearby hills
June 16 – Flight to Ellesmere canceled due to weather, hike nearby hills
June 17 – Flight to icecap south of Barbeau, setup camp, climb nearby unclimbed peaks
June 18 – 3am Eric and Brian summit Barbeau via North Ridge, 3pm entire team summits Barbeau
June 19 – Eric and Brian climb 10 unclimbed peaks near camp
June 20 – Move camp south, Eric and Brian climb unclimbed peak
June 21 – Move camp to intersection of Charybdis and Adams Glaciers
June 22 – Exit Adams Glacier above Atka Lake, camp near Lewis River
June 23 – Hike to Lewis Lake
June 24 – Hike up Very River
June 25 – Hike to near McDonald River
June 26 – Hike to Tanquary Fjord
June 27 – Eric, Len hike peaks east of camp
June 28 – Visit archaeological sites
June 29 – Eric, Brian, Len hike Mt Timmia and other peaks
June 30 – Flight to Resolute
July 1 – Flight back to Vancouver
July 2 – Drive to Seattle
Barbeau Peak is the highest peak in the Canadian territory of Nunavut, and is located in far northern Canada, just 550 miles from the North Pole. It is nestled deep in the seldom-visited British Empire Range of Ellesmere Island, where existing topographic maps are unreliable, navigation-quality satellite images are virtually nonexistent, and compass needles point southwest. Google Earth and most available maps actually still have the exact location of Barbeau Peak marked incorrectly, if at all.
Barbeau was first climbed in 1967, and has seen only about a dozen ascents since then. The peak itself is non-technical, basically a steep snow hike on glaciers, but access is challenging. The nearest permanent human settlements with commercial air access, Resolute Bay, Nunavut and Qaanaaq, Greenland, are hundreds of miles away, meaning the main access to the peak is by chartered aircraft. However, lack of competition from air carriers in the north has recently led to extremely high flight prices. Kenn Borek Air flies chartered Twin Otters out of Resolute Bay, and can land a ski-plane on the ice cap near Barbeau or a tundra-tire plane at one of several gravel landing strips in the surrounding Quttinirpaaq National Park. However, the price for pick up and drop off as of 2017 was $60,000 CAD. This is in addition to the price for a commercial flight to Resolute, which is around $8,000 CAD. Thus, without significant funding, the most difficult aspect of climbing Barbeau is the approach.
Len and I started planning our climb of Barbeau in the fall of 2016, looking at a range of different access options. Len was trying to be the first Canadian to climb all the Canadian province and territory highpoints, and was hoping to finish on Canada’s 150th anniversary. Len focused on approaching through Canada, while I researched approaching through Greenland. We came up with several possible strategies:
- Get on a military flight to Alert, a military outpost on the northern tip of Ellesmere Island, and do an overland expedition from there. This would avoid the expense of the commercial flight to Resolute and the charter flight with Kenn Borek Air, but would require sponsorship of a government agency for the military to let us board a flight. Unfortunately, we couldn’t get any government agency sponsorship, so this option wouldn’t work.
- Take a commercial flight to Qaanaaq, Greenland, and travel by boat from there to Chandler Fjord on the eastern shore of Ellesmere Island. Hike up to Lake Hazen, packraft across the lake, then climb the Henrietta Nesmith Glacier to Barbeau. Exit by paddling across Lake Hazen and down the Ruggles River back to the fjord and return to Qaanaaq by boat. I contacted a local fisherman in Qaanaaq who agreed to take us on a two-day boat ride to the dropoff point. I also extensively researched ice pack conditions and determined this option would be feasible from mid-August through mid-September. The local fisherman confirmed that he expected the ocean to be passable by this time of year. Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, the park would not issue us a permit for this approach.
- Take a commercial flight to Qaanaaq, then charter a plane from there to fly us to Ellesmere Island. The commercial flight to Qaanaaq is half the price of the commercial flight to Resolute, and Qaanaaq is a few hundred miles closer to Barbeau, so this could in theory be a cheaper option. I was in contact with HeliGreenland, who charter twin otters out of Qaanaaq, and said they’ve flown to Ellemsere Island in the past. However, they abruptly stopped responding to my calls/emails, and we abandoned this option.
- Use air miles to fly to Resolute, and coordinate with other expeditions in the area to split costs of charter flight to Ellesmere Island.
By March, after several months of research and negotiations, we settled on option 4. The park managers at Quttinirpaaq National Park were kind enough to help us coordinate with a park group flying out on June 16 (which would have an empty plane flying in) and a guided group flying in June 30 (which would have an empty plane flying out), thus significantly reducing the cost of the chartered flights. We would actually be flying into the ice cap near Barbeau, and flying out of Tanquary Fjord, giving us an excellent shot at summitting. Our next goal was to further reduce costs by recruiting a few more people to join.
I tried reaching out to MIT Outing Club members, US State Highpoint members, and Washington Alpine Club members, while Len reached out to friends in British Columbia. Eventually we had three more team members come on board – Brian, Laura, and Serge.
The trip was suddenly affordable, with the cost-sharing for the air charter and the use of air miles to help get to Resolute.
I left Seattle on the afternoon of June 13, and met Len at the Vancouver airport. After a night layover in Edmonton, we met up with Serge in Ottawa and started flying north. We stopped in Iqaluit to switch planes, and officially stepped foot in Nunavut for the first time on the trip. This would technically be my second time in Nunavut, after an epic weekend packrafting trip to a Nunavut-owned island in Hudson Bay a few years earlier (link to trip report/pics).
From Iqaluit northward, we did not need to pass through security before boarding the plane. This felt kind of strange, given that basically any other domestic flight I’d ever been on required standard security screening. Perhaps the Canadian government has decided there is such a small risk of a problem in the remote regions of Nunavut that it is not worth investing money in checkpoints in every remote village.
We flew north across the entire length of Baffin Island, seeing towering mountains and deep fjords through the clouds along the way. Our first stop was in Pond Inlet, on the northern tip of Baffin Island, and we had enough time for a short walk outside of town as a few passengers got off. The sea ice was still firmly frozen, as it probably would be for at least another month.
The plane next stopped briefly at Arctic Bay, and then made it to Resolute in the evening. Brian and Laura greeted us at the airport, having arrived a few days earlier (on the only other flight available with air miles). We repacked gear next to a huge stuffed polar bear in the terminal, and then walked outside to set up camp.
Resolute is a small hamlet of about 200 year-round Inuit residents, and acts as a jumping-off point for polar expeditions, polar continental shelf research operations, and mining exploration operations. The hamlet is on the coast of Cornwallis Island, with the airport a few miles away. There are lots of buildings around the airport, including one operating hotel, one abandoned hotel, the Polar Continental Shelf research buildings, and other maintenance facilities. One night in a hotel in Resolute costs at least 250 CAD, so we all opted to camp outside. As long as we were off the airport grounds, we could camp anywhere we wanted.
It still looked and felt like winter up on Cornwallis Island, even though it was the middle of June. Snow covered most of the ground, and old trucks and bulldozers were half buried in snow on the side of the road. A persistent wind, sub-freezing temperatures, and cloudy skies made it cold enough that I wore my big down jacket most of the time outside.
Brian and Laura had scoped out a good spot nearby and we brought all our stuff over there. There had been a polar bear sighting a few days earlier near town, but we were told as long as we stayed close to the airport building and the noisy generators, the bears probably wouldn’t get close. The airport staff still jokingly referred to us as “the bear food”, though.
We cooked dinner that evening using hot water from the kitchen of the hotel nearby, and went to sleep under the midnight sun. I’d experienced 24-hour daylight before in northern Alaska, but it was still a novelty. The sun was almost the same height above the horizon in the middle of the night as the middle of the day!
The next morning was a buffer day, to account for any unplanned delays getting to Resolute. We’d been
told that sometimes bags can be delayed by a day on First Air flying north, if the plane needs to take on extra cargo, but luckily all of our bags had arrived on time.
In the morning Brian, Laura, and I hiked out to the frozen Arctic Ocean and found a small breakup in the ice. We each stuck our hand through the crack and got a brief taste of ocean water. We then hiked up the nearby Cape Martyr Headland Hill, and got an excellent view of the surrounding ocean to the south. It looked there was open water in the distance, past Resolute, and we suspected it might be a polynya, a section of ocean that stays ice-free year-round due to wind and ocean currents.
We hiked back down to camp for lunch, and then the whole team assembled in the airport terminal to practice crevasse rescue and go over gear to take or leave behind. The airport became our default location to get out of the wind, and since there were only one or two flights a day, nobody cared that we were in there. (Though, we were unfortunately not allowed to sleep there).
We woke up early the next morning ready for our flight north, but unfortunately it had started snowing in Resolute, and visibility had dropped. George, the man in charge of Kenn Borek Air operations in Resolute, was in contact with some rangers on Ellesmere Island and the weather sounded just as bad there. The team of park personnel on the ice cap said it was a whiteout and snowing there too, which meant we couldn’t fly.
This was surprising, given that everything I’d read made it sound like the region around Barbeau was a polar desert! Tanquary Fjord, on the coast, receives only 6cm of precipitation a year, though there is probably more up on the icecap. George said that, given that it’s an 8-hr round trip flight for the pilot, and he can’t fly after around 9:30pm, the latest we could take off would be 1:30pm.
We waited around the airport, hoping for an improvement in the weather, but by 1:30pm George said they’d called off the flight for the day. This was a bigger problem than we’d thought, though. Apparently Kenn Borek Air (KBA) was booked up with flights every day until August, so it wasn’t clear when we’d get to fly, even if the weather cleared! KBA also provides flights for Polar Shelf researchers, and passenger flights to Grise Fjord, so it must get pretty busy in the summer. George later said that they’d had a cancellation of a charter on June 22, but unfortunately this would be cutting it pretty close for us to climb Barbeau and hike out to Tanquary Fjord in just 1 week instead of two. If the plane could only land at Tanquary, it definitely wouldn’t be enough time to get to Barbeau.
To complicate matters, the gravel landing strip at Tanquary was still too soft to land on with the wheel-skis, and it would be non-trivial to switch the plane over to tundra tires if it needed to land at Tanquary.
For better or worse, though, we did have one fact working in our favor. There was still a team of park personnel on the ice cap that were now nearly out of food and needed to be flown out. One way or another a plane had to go in and get them soon, and hopefully we would be on that flight.
With no further reason to wait around at the airport, Brian, Laura, and I went on another hike. We walked along a road north of the airport and up into the hills northeast of the airport. We’d heard there was a family of muskoxen out there, but didn’t see any. The ground was mostly snow covered with intermittent deep mud, and we eventually descended into town.
The hamlet looked like it was just melting out of winter, and still in the phase were all the garbage and debris that had previously been buried in snow was now coming to the surface. Resolute is not like your typical US town. Three of the houses we passed had polar bear skins out drying on the porches. One had a dead seal carcass in the front yard, next to a chained-up husky that just barely couldn’t reach it. Another had a collection of muskox and caribou skulls lined up on a railing.
We stopped in the Coop, the only store in town, and I was amazed to see pineapples, watermelons, and all the food one would normally find in a grocery store in the US. They weren’t even very expensive! There must be a lot of government subsidy for the residents of Resolute, since it is not cheap to get supplies up that far north. I also noticed a big selection of wide-screen TVs, which must be pretty popular in the winter months there.
On the way back to the airport we stopped by a brand new hockey rink, which we heard was really popular with the kids.
That night we went to bed early, hoping for a chance to fly out the next morning.
At 7:30am we went over to George’s apartment, where the pilot, Shane, was also staying, and got some
good news. A decision had been made to delay a scheduled 3-day maintenance job on the plane, so that it would be available for us today. Also, the weather had improved on Ellesmere Island, enough that we would try to fly up there.
We quickly jogged back to our tents and packed everything up. Back in the airport we stored everything we didn’t need in a back room, weighed our gear, and brought it out to the plane. After suiting up in our harnesses and glacier gear, we got on the plane and were off.
The scenery was spectacular, flying over frozen ocean and countless unexplored mountain ranges on Cornwallis Island, Devon Island, and southern Ellesmere Island. We passed close to the North Magnetic Pole on Bathurst Island, and continued flying north.
After 2.5 hours we made a brief refueling stop at Eureka. I’d looked at Eureka on maps countless times, never thinking I’d ever make it there, and not sure exactly why such a place would exist on a map. It turns out Eureka is essentially a gas-station for northern Canada, operating as a year-round manned fuel cache with landing strip. There are hundreds of fuel drums lined up along the landing strip, with labels like “Coast Guard”, “Kenn Borek Air”, and “Polar Shelf”.
I helped the pilots roll some fuel drums over to refuel, and talked a bit with one of the meteorologists at Eureka. He said he works 3 months on and 3 months off, commuting between Winnipeg and Eureka. The coldest it’s ever gotten there is -54.6C (-66F), and if it gets above -30C in the winter time people go outside in shorts!
After refueling we headed north again, and after about 90 minutes were directly over Tanquary Fjord. From here we got our first view of the British Empire range, and it was perfectly sunny! It looked like we would be able to land after all.
The pilot said he’d gotten a message from the park personnel on the ice cap that they’d marked out a landing zone on the glacier south of Barbeau, since the weather had been less cloudy there in the morning. This would unfortunately put us on the wrong side of the mountain as our intended ascent route (the north ridge), but we were happy to have even made it this close to the peak.
After flying a few circles around the landing zone, and one small test pass, we landed smoothly on the glacier. The pilot ferried back and forth a few times to smooth it out for the next takeoff, and then finally stopped.
We excitedly offloaded our gear and started taking pictures. Barbeau peak looked so close! I recognized the distinctive rocky west and south ridges from a picture I’d seen, but we wanted to make certain which one was Barbeau. I talked to one of the park personnel loading her gear onto the plane, and she confirmed it was indeed Barbeau. She was with a group of four other skiers, and they’d climbed Barbeau via the north ridge, as well as a few nearby peaks during their week on the glacier. She also said it had snowed a few inches the previous day, and that was why we couldn’t fly onto the glacier.
We waved goodbye as the plane took off, and discussed our options. It was about 2pm now, with essentially unlimited daylight left. The south ridge looked doable, but we decided to stick with our original plan to climb the north ridge, which we knew for certain was easy and non-technical. We were too far away, though, on the wrong side of the mountain to do an ascent with a camp right where we landed, so we decided to move camp closer to our route.
Len, Serge, and I roped up on one team, with Brian and Laura on another, and we soon started moving. We each towed sleds to make travel easier on the glacier. I had created a topo map of the region by concatenating 16 small topo maps from an environment Canada website into a single larger map and printing on waterproof poster paper, and my map indicated a gradual pass just east of Barbeau. The skiers’ tracks headed toward this pass, so we started following their tracks.
Distances on the ice cap were very deceptive. All the peaks look extremely close, but after an hour of walking, the pass we were aiming for looked just about as far away as when we started. In every direction we saw rounded snowy peaks, often with a few sharp rocky ridges. Sometimes the faces of mountains glimmered in the sun, revealing that they were actually smooth ice, not snow. We would have to be careful about this later.
As far as I had researched, almost every mountain we could see, except the ones immediately next to Barbeau, were unclimbed. This wasn’t too surprising, given how difficult it was to access these mountains.
After three hours we finally made it to a small pass just east of Barbeau, and dropped down to a flat bowl
on the other side. This seemed like an excellent, sheltered place to set up camp, so we dropped our gear and started pitching tents.
Serge melted snow for dinner, while I constructed a solid snow wall around the camp, and a big U-shaped wall for the privy. After a few hours we were done constructing camp and eating, but it was still sunny outside at 10pm.
A prominent hill (Peak 2258) very close to camp was unclimbed, so Brian, Laura, Serge, and I decided to do a short hike before bed time. The ascent only took 30 minutes on snow, then hard ice, and we got an excellent view on the summit of even more enticing, unclimbed peaks. We were just northwest of Mt Woodmont, climbed in 1996 (AAJ 1997), and started planning out a big circuit to hit all the other nearby mountains on a future day.
We returned to camp around 11pm, but Brian and I were still energized to do more hikes. We’d been stuck in Resolute so long in bad weather, and now it was sunny all night and we were surrounded by unclimbed mountains!
We decided to hit one more mountain before bed, an unclimbed peak on the southeast ridge from Griper peak (the one northeast of Barbeau). The rest of the crew stayed in camp and got ready for bed, while we roped up and started climbing. We planned to be back at camp within an hour or so, so didn’t bring any food, water, backpacks, or any extra gear. Just our rope, cameras, delorme, hiking poles, and the snowshoes on our feet.
Brian led the way, and after navigating around some crevasses we soon crested the narrow knife-edge summit overlooking camp. It was 11:30pm, and we saw another small rocky hill farther along the ridge that looked easy to tag, so we continued a little farther. This time we built a small cairn on the summit, and ate some snow.
The ridge continued up to Griper Peak (named and climbed by Allan Errington, AAJ 1983), and it was hard to resist continuing just a little bit farther. It was so sunny out, and we were so excited to be out in the mountains that we continued along the ridge.
The ridge got steeper, but with the heel-risers on our snowshoes we had no problem cresting the east
edge of the ridge. An amazing view opened up for us to the west of innumerable snowy mountains of the British Empire Range. We picked out the parks personnel camp way down on the icecap below, and saw their tracks going through a gradual pass all the way to our camp.
To the southwest we spied Barbeau Peak, which was tantalizingly close now. We could have turned back and retreated to camp at this point, and perhaps we should have, but the ridge continuing to the summit of Griper Peak looked more fun than anything we’d done yet. It was a knife-edge snow ridge with terrific exposure of 1500+ft on both sides, with amazing rock gendarmes sticking up intermittently along the ridge.
We decided to continue, with me leading carefully along the ridge in my snowshoes. If either of us fell, the other would have to jump off the opposite side of the ridge to let the rope stop the fall. We were careful enough, though, that this wasn’t an issue.
The ridge continued for nearly half a kilometer of amazing hiking, requiring an interesting scramble around a set of gendarmes before a final steep climb to the summit of Griper Peak. We noticed a small cairn on top, and the remains of footprints in the snow, presumably from the park personnel a few days earlier.
At this point the fastest way back to camp was to descend down to the icecap west of the peak, and follow the ski tracks back. This route went directly beneath Barbeau Peak in the Barbeau-Griper col, though, and it didn’t really make sense to keep descending without tagging Barbeau on the way.
I led the way to the col, then we started gradually ascending the north ridge of Barbeau Peak. For some reason I wasn’t really tired yet, even though it was 2:30am and I hadn’t eaten or drunk anything since leaving camp. Undoubtedly the blazing midnight sun helped me think it was still daytime and not yet time for bed.
The gradual slope soon narrowed to another sharp snow ridge, where snowshoes weren’t really the
appropriate footwear. We hadn’t brought anything else, though, so I carefully kicked out steps with the snowshoes until we reached the summit. It was 3am, June 18, and we were finally on the highest point in Nunavut. It was pretty breathtaking looking around at the snowy mountains in all directions, and realizing how truly remote we were. The wind was calm, and the high sun made it almost feel warm out.
The true top was actually quite exposed, with a large icy dropoff to the west, so we descended to a more level spot on the south ridge on a rock outcrop with a small cairn. Here we found the tobacco-tin summit register left by the first ascent team in 1967. Amazingly, the 1967 paper with pencil-written sign-in looked in perfect condition, even though it wasn’t in a plastic bag, just in the tobacco tin. There were a few other sign-ins I recognized, like one from Jack Bennett’s team in 2010, but there was unfortunately no writing implement to sign our names.
I had a pen back in camp I’d brought for this purpose, but since we hadn’t planned on summitting tonight, I hadn’t brought it. We planned to summit again later with the whole team anyways, so we’d just sign in the next time.
We took pictures of all the papers in the register, then started our descent back to camp. This time we dropped down to the northwest, then traversed around Griper peak, passed through the col, and staggered back into camp at 6am.
I got a few hours of sleep, but by 10am the rest of the team was itching to get moving, so we roped back up for another ascent. I roped up with Serge and Len, while Brian and Laura slept in a bit more and planned to join later.
Len led the way, following our tracks up to the col and traversing around Griper peak. We avoided an icy steep section Brian and I had encountered earlier, then reached the gradual slopes leading up to the Barbeau-Griper col. The weather was a little colder and windier than it had been at 3am, but still sunny.
When we reached the sharp ridge 50m from the summit we stopped to switch into crampons, the most
appropriate footwear for the summit ridge. Len led the way, and we all reached the summit at 3pm. Len officially became the first Canadian to reach the highpoints of all 13 provinces and territories of Canada, ending an amazing decades-long endeavor. He followed in the footsteps of the only other two completers of the Canada highpoints, Jack and Tom Bennett.
We snapped all kinds of photos on different cameras, with Len holding Canadian and Summits of Canada flags. I’d brought the pen this time, and a piece of paper, and wrote down everyone’s name for the summit register.
The summit was pretty cold and windy, so after about 30 minutes we started descending. We soon passed Brian and Laura on their way up at the Barbeau-Griper col, and
continued back to camp, arriving in the evening. That night I put in a solid 12-hours of sleeping, to make up for the shortfall the previous day.
We now had roughly 10 days to get back to Tanquary Fjord for our flight out, but weren’t in a huge hurry because we only expected the trek to take 5 or 6 days. Brian and I were excited to climb some of the unclimbed peaks in the area, and it was decided that everyone would take a layover day. This had the added advantage that we could keep the same camp, and not have to build new snow walls or a new privy.
After a leisurely morning, Brian and I suited up and left camp at 11am. Since it would be light all day and all night, there was no particular need for an alpine start at this latitude. Our plan was to complete a circuit to hit the handful of mountains we had scoped out from the peak near camp two days earlier. The rest of the crew would either take a rest day in camp, or hike up some of the closer mountains.
Brian and I started with the huge pyramidal summit to the northeast of camp, unclimbed Peak 2359. Brian led the way, and after crossing a flat snowy basin in snowshoes, we started ascending the south ridge, and soon switched over to crampons. We passed numerous small crevasses, not big enough to swallow a person but enough to stick a leg in, and were glad to be roped up.
The ridge was another knife edge, but this time icier and steeper than the one on Griper Peak. We would later find that almost all the mountains up here have steep snowy knife-edge ridges, which is unusual compared to the mountains I’m used to climbing in the Cascades of Washington. Perhaps because the British Empire Range is an arctic desert, there isn’t enough snow for cornices to form, or for the sharpness to get smoothed over.
We took a short detour to construct a cairn on the highest rock outcrop below the summit, and then made it to the top. The summit was the convergence of three knife-edge ridges, and was quite exposed. From here we got an excellent view of the rest of our circuit. We would cross a broad glacier valley, then hit a ridge on the other side and hike over all the peaks along the ridge back to camp. One peak was particularly impressive, with a huge rock cliff facing us, straddled by a hanging glacier. Steep cliffs were rare on the ice cap, given all the sedimentary rock, and this peak was definitely an outlier.
I led the way down, carefully downclimbing the sharp ridge until it leveled out. We descended to a col, then climbed up to Peak 2131 for a brief lunch break. From here we descended steeply to an unnamed glacier, and on the way I poked through a few crevasses, but quickly rolled out with no problems.
Crossing the glacier took quite a while, as peaks tended to be deceptively far away. Eventually we started climbing again, and reached the far ridge on the summit of Peak 2016. We noticed more enticing peaks farther to the north, but unfortunately didn’t have time to keep moving farther from camp.
We turned back toward camp now, and started following the ridge. This time we got to follow several kilometers of fun snowy knife-edge ridges, with occasional rock bands to scramble over. This was probably my favorite stretch of terrain on the whole expedition, and I highly recommend it for anyone else in the area.
We passed over many minor peaks along the ridge, before climbing steeply up to Peak 2254. This was the one flanked by the huge rock cliff and hanging glacier, and made for a fitting dinner break. It was 9pm by now and we were both out of water and low on food, but we made due by eating snow.
Shortly after descending I noticed a critical failure in my snowshoe, and decided to switch to crampons
to avoid slipping on the steep ridges. We passed over Peak 2235 and Peak 2176, before descending down into a deep bowl.
It had been cloudy all day, and we had very little depth perception in the snow. It was unclear if we could just cross the bowl, or would have to descend a few thousand feet. The sky and snow just kind of blended together. We decided to stay high, and traversed over Peak 2125, to finally reach the summit of our last new mountain of the day, Peak 2246.
All of the mountains were previously unclimbed and unnamed, which made them extra fun to summit. From here we thought we would have an easy stroll back to camp, only a few kilometers away, but unfortunately we were in for a surprise.
All the descent options off Peak 2246 turned out to be hard blue ice. The snow must have melted in the constant sun and refrozen when it clouded over. Brian tried traversing what looked like snow, only to start slipping on what was actually dust-covered ice. I instantly dove into self-arrest position on a snowbank, but Brian caught his fall in time so my maneuver was unnecessary.
Unfortunately, though, Brian was in snowshoes and really needed to be traversing this ice in crampons. He put in an ice screw and carefully switched over to crampons. Meanwhile, I lengthened the rope to the full 30m, and clipped my ice screw on to the rope and shimmied it over to Brian. This way he could lead out another full ropelength and put another screw in.
We carefully belayed each other across the ice, and eventually made it back down onto snow. From here the hiking was easy, as we traversed around the side of Mt Woodmont, and descended back into camp. It was 2:30am by the time we stopped moving, and we soon went to bed.
With no more unclimbed peaks in the immediate vicinity, we decided to move camp the next day and
start our descent to Tanquary Fjord. We loaded up the sleds, roped up, and started moving. I joined a team with Len and Serge, and Brian and Laura were on the other team.
Today the sun returned, though clouds still enveloped the high peaks around Barbeau. We descended down our tracks on the south side of Barbeau, and reached the landing zone for lunch time. From here we continued heading roughly south, aiming for the divergence area between the Adams and Charybdis Glaciers for our exit.
The travelling was as easy as could be hoped for, with mostly level to slightly descending terrain, which made the sled pulling no problem. By evening we reached a small sheltered area next to a cluster of four peaks and set up camp for the night.
After eating dinner we started discussing our plans for the next few days. I observed that these four peaks were probably the last unclimbed ones we’d likely encounter on our exit route, and wanted to stay another layover day to climb them. How often does one get the chance to climb a mountain nobody has ever climbed before? It certainly never happens in the continental US. This option had the added advantage of letting us eat down some extra food to lighten our loads when we left the glacier and wouldn’t be able to tow sleds. We still had plenty of time to get to Tanquary Fjord, and would easily get there with three or four days to spare.
However, a majority of the group voted to continue pushing on to Tanquary Fjord, so the mountains would remain unclimbed. Brian agreed to join, though, to climb one of the closer ones after dinner, even if we didn’t have time to climb them all.
After a few hours of hiking in snowshoes, and cramponing up an icy ridge, we reached the summit of Peak 1893. The view was amazing, with Barbeau to the north, the barren landscape of Lake Hazen to the east, and a glimpse of the Arctic Ocean at Tanquary Fjord to the south. We were at the edge of the icecap, and it looked like we would soon be off of it.
We returned to camp around midnight and soon went to sleep.
The next day was our last full day on the ice cap. We continued heading south, passing over minor crevasses, and saw our first signs of animal life. Weasel and fox tracks crossed the glacier, and a few bugs flew around the air. We knew we were nearing the edge of the glacier.
I’d been hiking thus far on my broken snowshoes, and several fixes didn’t seem to last long. Finally the foot attachment completely broke off, and the whole group had to stop while I frantically tried for a more permanent solution. In the end I lashed my foot to the snowshoe with several elastic bands, and that solution held out for the rest of the trip.
We debated for a bit whether to descend the Charybdis Glacier (pronounced ka-rib-dis) or the Adams Glacier, and in the end decided to try for the Adams exit. This was the route Jack Bennett told us he took in 2010, and we figured it would work for us as well. We established camp that night near the head of the Adams Glacier.
In the morning we descended the Adams Glacier and started hugging the right side, looking for an exit. As we crested a ridge above a small lake we got a good view of the lower part of the glacier, where an exit looked difficult. The glacier looked very icy, and the edges were small cliffs that would probably require rappelling.
However, up high the edge of the glacier was still snowy, with no cliffs. We traversed right until we found an easy exit just at our level, and were soon off the glacier. For future reference, we exited just below the small hill separating the Charybdis and Adams glaciers, but it would have been even easier to simply climb this hill and descend it directly.
Back on solid rock, it was a relief to be freed from the constraints of the ropes, but we all realized that all the weight from our sleds would now have to be on our backs. Thus commenced a long repacking and reorganizing process.
My system was relatively easy. All my gear was already in my large pack, which was already strapped to the sled. So I really just had to put my snowshoes on the pack and was ready to go. The rest of the team had a combination of a pack they were wearing, plus a duffle bag or second pack in the sled, and these needed to somehow be combined.
We had a lot more fuel than we needed, since we wouldn’t need to melt snow anymore, so burned off a bit on the rocks before packing up. All of our packs were extremely heavy and awkward with sleds on the back, but we eventually got packed and started moving. Len actually towed some of his gear in his sled across the rocks, though the going looked pretty rough.
We traversed across the rocky terrain, and eventually reached a high pass above Atka Lake for a lunch break. I noticed what appeared to be an old boot print in some mud, and this would be consistent with a map we saw earlier that the Blackfeather guiding group sometimes leads hikes near Atka Lake.
From the pass we descended directly down to the Lewis River Valley, and soon saw our first real wildlife of the trip – muskoxen. Fields of lush green grass grew along the sides of the Lewis River, and we saw three muskoxen grazing in the distance. As we reached a good place to camp, one of them started approaching us curiously, then stopped, snorted, and bolted away in the other direction.
It was amazing to see so much plant life here, given that Resolute, much farther south, was all rocks and still covered in snow. For some reason this area of Ellesmere Island gets a lot less precipitation than the regions farther south, and this, along with nutrient-rich glacial silt, allows plant and wildlife to flourish.
It was easy setting up camp that night, with no need for snow walls, and no need to melt snow. After dinner Brian, Laura, and I went for a hike over to the toe of the Charybdis Glacier, getting close enough to touch the ice cliffs at its edge. We were glad we’d descended the Adams, though I’m sure we would have figured out a way down the Charybdis if necessary.
One interesting feature of all the glaciers I noticed was that they had huge water runnels carved through them like canyons. I’d never seen runnels this large on glaciers before, and it must happen when snow melts in the summer, causing small rivers on top of the glacier. The glaciers up here must move really slowly, with such small amounts of snow falling, so perhaps this gives more time for the runnels to form deep chasms.
On the way back to camp we saw all kinds of arctic hare, even one group of 17 of them! Arctic hare are a lot bigger than most rabbits in the continental US, and were completely white, so stood out pretty well against the surrounding terrain. They also have the curious habit of standing upright on their back legs to get a view of the surrounding terrain. When they run, they often hop just on their hind legs, like kangaroos!
We returned to camp by 2am for bed, still under sunny skies.
Our planned exit route was to follow the Lewis River down to Lewis Lake, then hike up the Very River,
and down the McDonald River back to Tanquary Fjord. Since we would eventually need to cross the Lewis River, we decided to cross as high as possible, before more tributaries could enter and make the water deeper.
I scouted out a wide, braided area near camp that was only knee-deep, and we all crossed here. The hiking was easy all day, on flat grassy meadows. We even encountered a few groups of muskoxen along the way, one of which had two calves.
By evening we reached a sheltered campsite on the shore of Lewis Lake and stopped to pitch tents. As we were setting up camp a curious arctic wolf ambled by, and we would later discover that it was a mother wolf with a den and pups hidden in the hills above us. This made sense,
given the high number of muskox skeletons and other bones we found near our tent site.
That evening Brian, Laura, Serge, and I did a reconnaissance hike around the lake, hitting a few hills along the way back.
The next few days of the trip were rainy and snowy, which made me question how much of a desert it actually is up on Ellesmere Island. It was a cold, windy hike around Lewis Lake and up the Very River, and eventually started lightly raining. The valley itself was flat and wide, and we had no problem crossing the minor river channels.
By midday the rain changed to snow, and we reached what appeared to be a height of land. The valley still looked completely flat, but I noticed the small stream ahead of me was now flowing the opposite direction as it had been 5 minutes earlier. From here on out we would be descending all the way to the
Before long we found a flat grassy area and pitched camp for the night. I couldn’t resist doing another hike after dinner, and made it up to the summit of Peak 845. From the summit I got an excellent view of our route the next day. A huge glacier emptied into the valley, but it looked like an easy enough crossing around it.
The light snow and wind continued in the morning, and we soon skirted the glacier coming in from the right. Below the glacier, though, our easy flat valley turned into a boulder-filled canyon, and progress was more difficult. We had to do a few river crossings, and scramble over some tricky sections, but eventually the valley widened back and became better-behaved.
We pitched camp just before the confluence with the McDonald River, below a curious muskox. I noticed an interesting rocky pinnacle above us, and decided to go for another hike after dinner to check it out. The pinnacle turned out to be made of extremely crumbly rock, and unfortunately was too unsafe to climb. I continued hiking above it, though, and made it to the summit of Peak 925 in increasing wind and snow. On the descent I bumped into Brian on his way up, and he assured me he would double the mass of whatever cairn I’d built on the summit.
I saw another peak nearby, and crossed a few slushy snowfields to the summit, Peak 835. Surprisingly, there was already a cairn on this one! It appeared on my map that we were within about 15 km of Tanquary Fjord, and I bet somebody had done a long day trip to come tag this peak.
On my way down I caught up with Brian, and after taking pictures of a few muskoxen I made it back to camp for bed.
We’d heard our biggest obstacle on the trip would likely be crossing the McDonald River, and today was
the day to cross it. We carefully planned our route to make a crossing as high as possible, and a few hours later we reached the crossing point. However, the river wasn’t class IV whitewater as we’d feared, but instead an easy shin-deep stream.
We easily crossed without even needing to take our shoes off, and we knew the rest of the trip would be easy all the way to Tanquary Fjord. Soon after the crossing we scrambled up to a grassy plateau on the left side of the river, and had an easy stroll all the way to fjord.
By 5pm we walked into camp, and were greeted by a few rangers working outside. The camp at Tanquary Fjord was established in the 1960s, and is a collection of a handful of half-cylinder tent structures providing park staff living quarters, a small visitor center, bunkhouse for visitors, kitchen, and hangar for heavy machinery. The park staff maintain the gravel landing strip, which is a regularly-used refueling stop in the summer months for planes assisting research and exploration on the island.
It felt pretty luxurious sleeping on the bunk beds, and we could even cook dinner on a regular stove in the kitchen tent. At dinner time a plane landed with a group of guys working for Northern Affairs, and we had an interesting dinner conversation with them. They fly all over Ellesmere Island in Twin Otters and helicopters checking on fuel caches and making sure everyone complies with environmental regulations of Nunavut. It sounds like a fun job!
We had three days before our flight would arrive, and Len and I decided to explore some hills near camp, while the rest of the crew took a rest day. We hiked up a fossil-filled creek southeast of camp, and climbed over a few hills with great views (Tanquary Camp Peak, and Tanquary Camp Peak Southwest).
The wind was fierce and unrelenting that whole day, and I actually did the whole hike in my huge down jacket, it was so cold. We got hit with a few snow showers, and it certainly didn’t feel like summer.
That evening Len and I decided to clean off in the Arctic Ocean. The fjord was frozen over, but the ice
was breaking up and melting along the edges, and the water was just deep enough to get submerged on the beach near camp. We knew it would be cold, though.
So, while wearing down jackets we did pushups and jumping jacks inside the warmth of the bunkhouse to get nice and hot, then ran out to the ocean and quickly jumped in. I furiously scrubbed myself clean, but then noticed that my skin started feeling warm, not cold. I think this is a sign of the body trying to fight back against cold, and it is probably not a good sign. I soon got out and dried off, feeling much cleaner than the previous two weeks. My theory is that the colder the water is, the faster it makes you clean.
(For the record, Brian did eventually swim in the Arctic Ocean as well, though two poulets did not).
The next morning we did a tour of some nearby archaeological sites with Jennifer, and saw some interesting fox traps and tent rings that were several thousand years old. I went back to camp afterward and hiked a bit along the beach, while Brian and Laura hiked up Tanquary Camp Peak.
The fierce wind finally relented on our last full day at Tanquary, and Brian and I headed off to climb Mount Timmia, a neat-looking mountain just north of camp. We scrambled to the top in a few hours, and found what looked like an old repeater station. There were boards of wood, an ancient battery, and an orange tarp.
Serge was on a mission to recover a shirt and ipod he had dropped 15km back up the McDonald River, and we tried (unsuccessfully) to spot him from the summit. After a snack we hiked over to another peak just northwest of Timmia, then descended back to camp. It turned out Len decided to hike up Timmia soon after us, though somehow we didn’t see him on the mountain.
Back at the fjord there was a lot of activity going on. A DC3 plane and a twin otter had landed and people were busy refueling and transferring gear. We heard a big group of geologists was establishing a camp on the western part of Ellesmere Island. They used the DC3 to fly their supplies up to Tanquary Fjord, then the twin otter on tundra tires was making trips all day ferrying the gear over to their camp. (With tundra tires, the twin otter could land on rougher terrain and didn’t need an official landing strip).
We saw a cute set of four baby arctic hares near the landing strip, and the mother even came over and suckled them.
That evening I went for another dip in the ocean, which didn’t seem as cold now that the wind had died down.
Our final morning dawned sunny, and luckily we heard that the plane was coming as scheduled. It was cold that morning – 18F – and the ocean had a fresh layer of thin ice on top. I still broke through the ice, though, for one final dip before the flight.
By 2pm the plane arrived, and a guided Blackfeather group got out. We quickly loaded up the plane and were off. This time, with a strong tailwind, we were able to skip Eureka and fly directly to Resolute, arriving a few hours later.
We pitched camp in the same location outside the airport, and planned to get up early for our 6:30am flight down south the next morning.
Everything worked perfectly for our flights. Len, Serge, and I flew back down to Arctic Bay, Pond Inlet, and Iqaluit. Brian and Laura got to spend a few extra days in Resolute, since their flight out on air miles was a few days later. In Iqaluit we had enough time to walk outside the airport briefly, and I was amazed by the warmth. I actually had to take my jacket off for the first time in weeks, and could even walk around in a T-shirt.
In Ottawa we parted ways with Serge, who would drive back to Montreal, and Len and I continued to Toronto and Vancouver, arriving around 11pm.
Katie drove up to pick me up and the airport, and I arrived back in Seattle at 4:30am the next morning, ready for a few days of resting.
Overview of route and summary of peaks climbed
Summary of Peaks Climbed (letters refer to maps above):
A (Peak 2258): June 17, Eric, Brian, Laura, Serge
B (Peak 2183): June 17, Eric, Brian
Griper Peak: June 18, Eric, Brian via East Ridge, Brian and Laura via west face
Barbeau Peak: June 18, Eric and Brian via North Ridge (3am), Eric, Brian, Laura, Len Serge via North Ridge (~3pm)
C (Peak 2359): June 19, Eric and Brian via SW ridge
D (Peak 2131): June 19, Eric and Brian via W face
E (Peak 2016): June 19, Eric and Brian via W face
F (Peak 1925): June 19, Eric and Brian via NE ridge
G (Peak 1931): June 19, Eric and Brian via NE ridge
H (Peak 2087): June 19, Eric and Brian via NE ridge
I (Peak 2254): June 19, Eric and Brian via NE ridge
J (Peak 2235): June 19, Eric and Brian via NE ridge
K (Peak 2176): June 19, Eric and Brian via NE ridge
L (Peak 2125): June 19, Eric and Brian via E ridge
M (Peak 2246): June 19, Eric and Brian via E ridge
N (Peak 1893): June 20, Eric and Brian via NW ridge
O (Peak 432): June 23, Eric, Brian, Laura, Serge
P (Peak 845): June 24, Eric via NE ridge
Q (Peak 925): June 25, Eric and Brian via W ridge
R (Peak 835): June 25, Eric via E ridge
S: June 27, Eric and Len
T: June 27, Eric
Mt Timmia: June 29, Eric, Brian, and Len
U: June 29, Eric and Brian