Routes that gave you PTSD
David Harris last edited by David Harris
@FritzRay What "adventure" is all about.
David Harris last edited by
Forty years ago I spent a fair amount of time on Baffin Island, at first just as a climber/skier, but the second trip partly as a hired gun for the Canadian equivalent of the Park Service, employed to “find out if certain routes were suitable for ski traverses.”
Yeah, eat your hearts out. It was the ultimate ski-mountaineering wet dream made real. Except for the part that turned into the ultimate ski-mountaineering nightmare made real.
Paring it down for this PTSD Thread, part of the deal involved the first traverse of the Penny Ice Cap (where the last Ice Age started). To get us to the starting point, at the head of the Coronation Glacier, a couple of the Auyuituq Park staff put our gear on komituks and towed us behind their snowmobiles from Pangnirtung, up the fjord, up Weasel Valley to Summit Lake (where we dropped a month’s supplies), then down Owl Valley, back onto the ocean, around the headland, and up Coronation Fjord.
Crossing the Arctic Circle in Weasel Valley, 7,000 feet of granite in the background.
And some Owl Valley granite
The idea was that they’d drop us at the fjordhead, where it looked like there was a relatively low-angle moraine we could use to access the glacier. And once up on the glacier, well, theoretically at least, we’d be able to get to the icecap, and from the ice cap eventually back south to our cache at Summit Lake.
Things went relatively smoothly until we started up Coronation Fjord. It was early May, and the snow/ice situation was weird. Melt-out up there starts from the ice/snow boundary and works its way upward. Which is fine, because it doesn't snow all that much. But Coronation is what they call a "wind fjord," and a lot of snow gets blown onto it. At this early stage of the melt, we encountered about a meter of powder on top of about 20 cm of slush on top of the ice. The snow machines couldn’t deal with it. Their tails would plow down, sending a rooster-tail of freezing salt slush into our faces (we were riding the komituks), then up, then dig in again, then up, ad infinitum.
Which would have been fine anywhere else. We’d just have said: “park these beasts, and we’ll get off and ski from here.” But while Ryan and I were as brave as any two of you, we weren’t stupid. Who wants to get off and ski up a glacier that is thick with polar bear tracks? Our drivers were armed, and we were on noisy machines, so better to continue right to the fjord head before dismounting.
Alas, it was not to be. The machines simply couldn’t make way as the powder/slush mix got deeper, and there was no choice but to start the non-motorized part of the expedition from about two-thirds of the way up the fjord. But no problem, right? We’ll just borrow one of our drivers’ rifles, and if there are still any bears coming down from their winter sleep (which the drivers said there certainly wouldn’t be), we’ll be ready to deal with them.
That met with a polite “No f*#king way we’re letting these rifles out of our hands.” Accompanied by “But no worries. These tracks are old. No way any more bears are coming down at this time of year.”
One of our drivers, scoping out dinner (a seal that he shot and collected on the way home) with a rifle that we really, REALLY, wanted to borrow.
So we packed our loads, and skied off toward the ice-cliff that marked the point where the glacier ended and the ocean began. Too far to go without a camp, and we set up the tent in the midst of a zillion bear tracks, chanting over and over “The tracks are old. The bears are long gone” until eventually we fell asleep.
Waking up alive seemed to offer some proof that yes, the bears were indeed long gone, and we packed up and skied in much better spirits toward the point where the moraine came down the side of the ice cliff. It was a fine morning, and it looked like our guess that the moraine would be a straightforward avenue up onto the glacier was going to be proved right.
We skied right up to the ice cliff where the glacier fell into the ocean. Hundreds of feet high, and obviously impassible, but the moraine at its side looked relatively low angle.
But as we headed toward the moraine, we saw a pair of tracks leading down from somewhere up above, and ending just out of our sight at about the point we were headed for. “Hmmmm. Well, yeah, the bears are long gone, so these ones probably just wandered a little further seaward along the moraine, in a hollow out of our sight.”
Right. Onward. And then, when we were about 25 meters from the moraine, the cutest little polar bear cub imaginable stuck its head up and looked at us.
Kind of like lions. Or grizzlies. Or whatever deathdealers – if there’s a cub, then mama is somewhere nearby.
Up the moraine was out – that was straight into the jaws of death. Back down the fjord was out – that was straight into midst of about five million bears who clearly were not “long gone.” All that was left was to start skiing across the fjord, hoping that there would be a way up on the other side, and that mama wouldn’t show up until we were far enough away to be safe. A little over two km, on powder over slush, with 30 kg on our backs, and a top speed that wouldn’t scare a snail.
Still, since there wasn’t any choice, we turned and started slogging parallel to the ice cliff.
We made maybe 100 meters before mama popped up beside the cub, scoped us out, and started down the moraine.
Think about it. It had been months since she’d eaten, and not only was she ravenously hungry, but she probably saw us as a threat to her baby. If either of us had been religious, we’d probably just have knelt down right there and tried to become one with god, hoping that if we did that, being torn apart and eaten might not hurt too much. But since faith was in short supply, the only option was to keep on trucking and…
…and what? Postpone death by a minute or two?
I’d like to say that there is some useful material in this story that might help someone else in a polar bear confrontation, but I can’t. We didn’t decide to run, or to stand our ground, or to shout and wave our ski poles. We did the only thing we could, which was to slowly trudge through the slop toward the far shore as the bear quickly gained on us.
Fragile humans, about to enter the food chain from the very top.
But I’m here, writing this, and Ryan made it out with me. Why? Because, with mama bear only about twenty meters behind us, we passed a small berg, probably calved off the previous summer, and now frozen in the sea ice right at the base of the glacier. When we rounded it, we saw an opening in the glacier, guarded by a bunch of lumpy ice cubes – a crevasse, approached end-on rather than from above.
So we scrambled over the cubes, and into the crevasse, and then along its floor. Not thinking, just reacting. Same as you, or anyone would do. If you are being chased by a tiger, and see a door, you don’t ask what horror might lurk behind the door, do you?
Still on skis, we shuffled along a twisting path between walls of ice that grew higher and higher. Would the bear follow us? Had she lost interest when we turned out of sight behind the berg? We had no idea. All we knew was that there was no turning back, so we kept ski-trudging along the flat bottom of the crevasse.
Which may have some of you calling BS. Why kind of shit is this guy talking? Crevasses don’t have flat bottoms. How can he say they skied along a nice snow sidewalk two to three meters wide at the bottom of a crevasse?
Well, if we’d had functioning brains, we’d probably have asked the same question. But, believe me, being stalked by the greatest predator on earth turns off the analytical part of your mind.
At least for a while. Until, about ten or fifteen minutes past certain death, your ski pole punches a hole in the snow in front of you and you stare down through that hole into the great blue forever, and realize that you are on a sunken snow bridge, which is no doubt about to collapse under you and send you plummeting to your death.
Can’t go back. That way is guarded by a zillion hungry polar bears. Can’t stay here, cuz after the food is gone we'll die. So… onward.
“Should we rope up?”
“Fucked if I know.”
We roped up, and trudged onward. Ice tools and crampons were in the cache at Summit Lake, so we couldn’t climb up out of the crevasse, but only go forward, and hope… Twice our hope seemed to shine, and we ascended low-angle ramps to the surface, but both times we found ourselves on a small isolated point, and had to head back down. But the third ramp led to the main glacier, and we…
It would be nice to say we bent down, kissed the snow and lived happily ever after, but the glacier was covered with bear tracks, and instead of worrying about dying when the snow beneath us collapsed, we were back to worrying about being eaten.
Fortunately, by this time we were both so physically and emotionally wasted that we didn’t care. We just set up the tent, hit the first aid kit for a couple of valiums, and passed out.
About ten hours later we woke up to a total whiteout. Fucking wonderful. We won’t even see the bear that kills us.
A brief break in the whiteout gave us a hint of the peaks and walls lining the Coronation Glacier.
But what can you do? What we did was ski gently uphill for another two days of fear. Or, rather, about a day-and-a-half of fear, because at that point we realized we hadn’t seen any tracks for a couple of hours, and that we would probably live. And not only that, the clouds had gone and we set up camp in a granite paradise.
So, there's a polar bear story, from someone who, even forty years later, has no idea why he survived.
Oh, right, the PTSD... Here's Ryan just before we pitched the camp in the above photo, and below that, me. I think our facial expressions -- or our lack of facial expressions -- pretty much tell the story.
FritzRay last edited by FritzRay
David! Of course that story more than qualifies you! I know you have seen the long ago late 1970's Mountain Magazine, climbing news, story about an Austrian group of climbers doing first ascents on the Norwegian island of, Spitzbergan?
One night, the group woke up to screams from one of their team. Lights revealed a polar bear with their fellow climber in its jaws, as it slowly killed & ate him. Without guns, they screamed at it & tossed snowballs, some tried attacking it with ice axes, & then another lit a stove with too much white gas & tossed the flaming bundle onto the bear.
At that point, the bear gave up & ambled down to open water with the climber, still in its mouth, & took the still screaming climber out to sea.
David Harris last edited by
@NickG Yeah. "HOLY SHIT!" to both Ray's post and mine.
An adult male polar bear can weigh as much as 1,500 pounds, and they have no fear of anything. They will attack helicopters. Tiny humans are maybe less interesting than seals, but...
The females, especially after a winter in the den, weigh a lot less, but that just makes them hungry.
She could have had us in about 30 seconds if that had been her goal. Why she chose to follow us, getting slowly closer instead of just running us down for dinner, I have no idea.
I remember years ago seeing a film clip of some town in Alaska that gets invaded by polar bears every year. likely they built the town right smack in the middle of a migration route. very clear footage in B&W of a polar bear busting right through the front door of a small house. Lady inside let rip with a vintage .303 British dropped the bear right in her foyer..
NickG last edited by NickG
I think I recognize those skis.. haven't needed the white wax yet this year.. Looks like it gets warm again sat..
David Harris last edited by David Harris
I think I recognize those skis
Damn! You still have 40-yr-old shitty x-c track skis? And actually use them?
They might have been great for groomed tracks at some NE ski resort back then, but they were total pieces of shit for what we were doing.
So why was I on them? Because it was part of our deal with Parks Canada. Not only did we have to "find out if certain routes were suitable for ski traverses", but we also had to determine what sort of ski equipment was best suited to the terrain. Needless to say, we told them what sort of equipment was suitable long before we left home -- either heavy-duty metal-edged X-C touring skis or a full-on randonee setup.
Which met with no sympathy. If we wanted the gig, we had to test out not only the rigs we'd said we already knew were right, but also some lighter stuff.
Hence, the first traverse of the Penny Ice Cap on Baffin Island was done by two guys on totally inappropriate equipment. Or at least by one guy on totally inappropriate equipment. Ryan was a much better skier, and coped reasonably well with the medium-weight skis and boots he had to use.
The one thing that was surprisingly good about my ultra-ridiculous ski gear was that, on top of the... how to describe them... pretty much dishrag-soft running shoes with binding attachments I had to wear as ski boots, I added a then-new overboot thing made of Gore-tex with a puffy synthetic-fiber lining. This didn't help me make a turn, or keep me from repeated head-plants, but it did keep my feet warm, dry, and comfortable.
Once we were back at our cache at Summit Lake I ditched the useless track skis for my usual mountaineering setup.
Anyway, here's a shot (shitty B&W scan) that shows you were right on the money with your guess.
Isa gave me those last year because she got them for free at the goodby store. I used them a half a dozen times and decided that I like my silver rosies better ($10.00 @ goodby store)
even though they are in rougher shape. I can't stand staying in the tracks. too confining. I do my own thing which is half skate and half classic.. So Isa gives me those shitty rosies but look what she is on.. probably just trying to solidify her reputation as the faster skier
johntp last edited by
I think I recognize those skis.
I had a pair First XC skis. 210. Way too long.
JD43 last edited by