- It’s not a good photo. It doesn’t show the wind howling over the summit, forcing us to take what shelter we could among the rocks. It doesn’t show the midnight sun scuttling along the horizon. You can’t tell that we are many miles across a glacier from our tent, which is miles down a lake from base camp, which is miles of barren terrain from the nearest small village and farther still from any hope of rescue in case of injury. It’s as close to the middle of nowhere as I have ever been. And it’s one of the most glorious moments of my life, one of those times when I ask, “What can I ever do to top this?”
- Ayr Lake on Baffin Island was the site of an Alpine Club of Canada camp in 1979. We flew into Clyde River, then had the local Inuit take us by snowmobiles and sleds to the lake, a gruelling trip in total whiteout. I remember at one point in the fog our driver said, “We turn left here.” As far as I could tell, “here” was no different from anything we had seen for the past few hours.
- I have a list of favourite campsites in my head: Floe Lake in Kootenay National Park, Nunalik Spit on the Beaufort Sea, high camp on Huascaran, etc. None of them equal our site on Ayr Lake.
From our tents below a magnificent icefall we looked across the lake to sheer granite walls capped with snow and glaciers spilling down every gully.
The camp was very much a do-it-yourself venture. We had a camp manager but no guide or cook. If we wanted to eat we went to the large food tent, took anything we liked and cooked it. With 24 hour daylight people might be eating breakfast at 1400 and dinner at 0500, depending on when they got in from climbing and slept.
I think the manager was a little baffled as to what to do with the three women on the trip, but we quickly put his mind at ease by organizing our own climbs. The only comment he made was to ask the cause of all the giggles and loud laughter that reverberated through the mountains.
Our packs loaded with food for three meals, plus all our down gear, Ursula, Fran and I set out on our first tour, not knowing what we would find; the maps we had were sketchy at best and not to scale.
We didn’t find anything climbable for quite a while.
Undaunted, we mounted a small hill for a hero shot as the sun was setting.
Later we caught the haunting sight of this mountain in the distance, aglow in the light of a full moon and a barely visible sun. “Let’s climb it!” And we did. There was a freedom here that I had never experienced before. What will we find over the next pass? There’s no need to hurry – the light will always be with us. So we wandered, pushed by curiosity, drawn by wonder until, exhausted, we made our way back to camp.
Our next venture was more ambitious: there was an unclimbed peak far down the lake that seemed to suit our abilities. We would have to use a snowmobile and make a high camp on our own. Of course, none of us knew how to drive a snowmobile, let alone pull a sled, but Ursula was game to try.
We loaded up, Fran sitting behind Ursula, me on the sled. On the lake surface the sled had an alarming tendency to swing back and forth until it swung in front of the snow machine and sent me tumbling across the ice like a silly puffball. Nevertheless, we made it to the right valley and hiked in to the foot of the glacier that led to our mountain.
We felt very alone in our tent. Every noise made us think of polar bears and the fact that the only gun for the group was back at base camp. But next morning dawned bright blue, and we set off on skis. Our first task was to find a way onto the glacier, as the toe offered no access. We eventually found a side gully where crampons and a bit of struggle got us up.
The glacier was so flat and tame that we didn’t bother to rope up; indeed, we never did see signs of a crevasse .
Who knows from what distant mountain the glacier had carried this boulder over the centuries? It made a great lunch stop. Despite the sun the air was cool and we needed our down parkas. Hours pass and we round a corner to see our objective, a large white bulge with a small circle of rock on top. “Looks just like a breast,” chuckles Ursula.
As the sun sinks to the south, we encounter sastruggi, snow whipped by wind into ice hard waves. It’s time to trade skis for crampons.
In the red glow of the setting sun we bend our bodies into a fierce wind and gain the summit. It’s no place to linger. We stuff a summit register under a boulder, pause for a photo and begin the long trek back to our tent.
We made one more excursion from base camp – a traverse to Sam Ford Fjord, one valley over, down the fjord and back to Ayr Lake (which is an ancient fjord whose access to the sea has been blocked).
We again used snowmobiles to go down the lake. In the background (centre right) you can see the glacier we ascended days earlier on our climb. The traverse involved some gnarly thrashing through deep snow in a boulder field and a tricky climb through water over ice to get back to Ayr Lake, but was otherwise simply a pleasant ski tour.
Our camp manager thought that we could return to Clyde River on our own, but the Inuit said firmly that we would get lost. They came to get us, an exhausted but happy group of climbers and skiers.
When we transferred planes in Frobisher Bay (now Iqualuit), the airline announced on the loud speaker, “We’re loading the Alpine Club first. They haven’t had a bath in two weeks.”
Our dog teams wait impatiently as sleds are taken one at a time into our camping site in the Tombstones.
The personalities of these dogs are as individual as their looks. My wheel dogs (nearest the sled) are brothers, Whiskey and Mac, who are totally devoted to each other and are very calm, serious pullers. My swing dogs (behind the leaders) are Ali and Hudson. Ali is the mother of many of the dogs on our trip – sort of a queen bee, she goes about her business without fuss and doesn’t tolerate any nonsense. Hudson is a goof ball, always barking and looking around, not the brightest bulb in the sky but good natured and hard working. The two lead dogs are responsible for obeying my commands and getting the other dogs to follow them. Blue, unfortunately, is a space cadet; gazing around, wandering off trail, she shows only occasional interest in working, leaving Strider very much on his own.
Since we will spend 3 nights here, we have to dig good tent pads. My back is too sore to shovel snow, so Paul generously takes over the job.
This is a magical camp site, surrounded by mountains and animal tracks.
Whoa! Where did that cold snap come from? When we woke up this morning the thermometer registered -28 C. I had begged Susan before we went to sleep to wake me if she was cold. She didn’t and consequently shivered all night while I was comfy in my bag (rated to –30). I remember thinking at one point that the night seemed unusually cold, but I just snugged up the bag around my nose and went back to sleep. By morning my 3 fellow campers were thoroughly traumatized.
Today the dogs have to rest, so we get up late and do little. For breakfast, Chris cooks hash browns with bacon, cheese and salsa, and we drink coffee for a couple of hours.
Paul takes the lads snowshoeing, an outing which seems to exhaust them. They are now talking mostly about multiple hot showers and flush toilets.
Susan and I walk along the trail for a while looking for tracks, laughing a bit about the New York city guys.
The afternoon is spend reading…
When we go to bed I give Susan my down parka to wear in her bag. Not wanting to have to breathe through a tiny opening to keep warm, I put on extra clothing. Of course, the night is not very cold, and I wake up in a sweat at midnight.
Saturday is a halcyon day: sun, blue sky, a firm trail and the joy of driving 6 happy dogs through paradise. Well, 6 happy dogs eventually. Blue the day dreamer has been traded to another sled for Esker, a young but very competent animal, well able to take over a lead role. Unfortunately Strider doesn’t like her, snapping and snarling at every stop, and finally just lying down in the snow and refusing to move. So he is demoted to swing and goofy Hudson gets to partner with Esker. Surprisingly he does quite well; at last I have 6 dogs working together!
We run for 11 miles, turn around with some confusion and stuck sleds, have a long stop for lunch and return to camp in a state of bliss. There are few pleasures to rival this historic form of transportation when conditions are good and the feeling of wilderness is profound. I know that I have left a part of myself in this valley.
We have daiquiris and snacks before dinner. Chris asks us what we have missed most on the trip. The 3 Americans speak of soft beds, hot showers and flush toilets. I say simply, “my dog”. I belong in this wilderness – the others are visitors.
“But you don’t know how to ride!” So said my friends when I announced last year that I was going to do a two-week horse trek in Mongolia in 2011. Little details like that seldom stop me, but at 73 a little caution is warranted: I had to learn to ride. With almost a year to go before the trip I figured I had plenty of time, but my optimism didn’t quite match the reality. When I left for Mongolia I could barely control a horse at a trot and had managed to canter only once on a lead rope. Did I survive? Of course! (Blog on this trip to follow.)
My adventure resume is pretty impressive. What it doesn’t show is the fact that I have never been very good at any of the wild activities I’ve engaged in. Serious climbers observe that the famous mountains I have climbed have been technically easy and usually professionally guided. Good skiers wonder how someone whose skill set included only a snowplough, kick turn and sideslip could tackle ski mountaineering. As a hiker and backpacker I’m always the slowest one in the party, a failing that eventually led me to do mostly solo trips. As a dog musher I’ve spent a lot of time wallowing in snow as my team disappears in the distance. My point is that you don’t have to be good – just good enough to pursue your goal without endangering others or putting yourself in too much jeopardy.
A willingness to try new things and go well beyond my comfort zone has defined my approach to life: in my career, in marriage to a much younger man, and most of all, in adventure. When I took up mountain climbing I was a couch potato with a paralyzing fear of heights. When I took up skiing I was terrified of speed. Yet those two activities brought me joy over the years that more than repaid the effort required to face my fears. Even failure was quite acceptable because the reward came from the attempt. I never mastered bicycle riding or powder skiing, but I’m glad I gave them a try. Now that age and accumulated injuries have forced me to give up both climbing and skiing, I find that selecting new challenges, like horseback riding and dog mushing, is not difficult. The key is to set a goal and then determine how I can achieve it.
The featured image on this post illustrates the cliche that the highest mountain is climbed one step at a time. At the age of 72 I made a painfully slow ascent of Mt Kilimanjaro followed by what is probably the slowest descent on record. The smile on my face says it all.
I’m new to blogging and expect that my site and posts will change considerably as I figure out what I want to do. My intent is to focus on adventure: why I pursue it, what it means to me, how it has enriched my life, why even now that I’m 74, I spend a lot of time sorting photos from my last trip (horse trekking in Mongolia) and planning and preparing for the next ones: touring Patagonia (January), horse trekking in Mexico (February), snowshoeing in the Canadian Rockies (March) and perhaps dogsledding in Greenland (March or April). I hope that I can inspire others, young or old, to try something new, something exciting, something they may fear.