Arctic Roundup: Not So Fast

After signs that arctic expeditions were set to resume after a two-year, COVID-induced hiatus, it now appears that global turmoil, poor planning, and climate change may kill the season prematurely.

Barneo

First, construction of the Russian ice station that goes up each spring 100km from the North Pole to host Last-Degree skiers and other adventurers was, not surprisingly, canceled. Barneo hasn’t operated since 2018. Many wonder if it will ever run again.

Lena River

Photo: Charlie Walker

 

No word from Charlie Walker of the UK since February 24, when he started his 1,600km northward trek along the frozen Lena River from Yakutsk, Russia. His starting date couldn’t have been worse, as it coincided with Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Presumably, he is continuing his trek but considers it unsuitable to post about it. We’ll update as soon as we hear anything.

Greenland to Baffin Island

 

Marceau and company: dogsledding for now. Photo: Pascale Marceau

 

Conditions do not look suitable for Pascale Marceau, Scott Cocks, and Jayme Dittmar to cross from Greenland to Ellesmere Island. Their plan was then to continue south along Ellesmere’s east coast and eventually to Baffin Island. But the ice bridge between Greenland and Canada has not formed this year. Open water and swiftly moving pack ice fill the channel all the way north to the Arctic Ocean. The satellite photo below shows the state of the crossing area, marked in red, as of Saturday, March 12.

 

“The bridge doesn’t look promising,” Marceau admitted in her most recent post four days ago. “Our timing is landing us on high tide (full moon) too, which is not optimal.”

They are currently dogsledding over the Greenland ice cap toward the crossing area, from which they would start skiing and hauling sleds. If the ice bridge doesn’t allow a crossing, they will move to plan B, C, or D in Greenland, she says.

The ice bridge, which formed most years for centuries, allowed Greenland Inuit to cross to Canada to hunt muskoxen and return home in late spring. Since 2007, the bridge has been intermittent.

Ellesmere Island

Ray Zahab and Kevin Vallely set off from Grise Fiord last week. Photo: Ray Zahab

 

On March 2, Ray Zahab and Kevin Vallely left the hamlet of Grise Fiord, on the south coast of Ellesmere Island, to manhaul 1,100km to Alert, a military base on the island’s north coast.

Barely 10 days later, the pair were back in Grise Fiord, humbled by the cold and hauling conditions. They had chosen to leave in early March, at the coldest time of year, perhaps to claim a winter start: The two previous expeditions to cover the length of this 10th largest island in the world began after the spring equinox.

The early launch meant consistently cold temperatures of -30 to -35˚C. Snow at those temperatures is extremely abrasive and hard to pull over. The duo were making 10km a day — actually a reasonable distance at that time of year, with short days and fully laden sleds over sandpapery snow. But they had expected to make 25 to 30kpd in order to finish their expedition in 40 to 50 days.

I’ve written a couple of books about Ellesmere Island, and I’ve covered much of their route. To me, their approach was flawed in several ways. Apart from guaranteeing themselves slow going for the first two or three weeks by leaving so early, their inland route — while perfectly feasible — is a lot slower than sticking to the sea ice.

Some years ago, then 65-year-old Jon Turk and his partner, Eric Boomer, averaged 25kpd by keeping to the sea ice during their circumnavigation of Ellesmere. If you need to make big distances, as Zahab and Vallely did, inland is not the way to go.

Their projected route, in red. The sea ice route, in green, is longer but much faster.

 

Why is the sea ice so much faster? First, even low inland routes, like the one they chose, involve slight uphills. Second, the twists and turns of those narrow valleys lead to patches of soft snow, because the wind does not rake it as consistently as in the more open areas, especially the sea ice. Third, Ellesmere is a polar desert, and the little snow that does fall — while it can impede progress — does not always cover the rocks and gravel in those windswept passes.

Photo: Jerry Kobalenko

 

This leads to some slow and picky maneuvering, if you want to preserve your sled by not dragging it over rocks.

Other times, there is no escape: You just have to drag it over bare sections. The heavy sled screams as if in agony as it scrapes over sharp gravel. Gelcoat and runners will never be the same. Two hundred metres of gravel will ruin a sled, though it will still serve adequately for the remainder of an expedition. But you do not want to bring a $7,000 Acapulka carbon sled on an overland Ellesmere journey.

Photo: Jerry Kobalenko

 

At the same time, too flimsy a sled is also a mistake, especially at that cold time of year. On my first sledding expedition on Ellesmere, I had the bright idea to use a high-density polyethylene sled: It was lighter, cheaper, held all the gear, and flew north more easily and economically than a two-metre long fiberglass sled.

Unfortunately, sharp nubs of windblown sea ice and bits of gravel in the passes quickly sliced open the bottom of our sleds. It was early April, still fairly cold, and the plastic was brittle.

We had to spend hours each evening stitching the slits together with the snare wire in our repair kit. My partner’s sled had so many stitches (about 75) that he eventually bolted his skis to the bottom of his sled as runners so the stitches wouldn’t drag as much. He then had no skis to wear and had to posthole.

Already by day two, plastic sleds began to show major damage. Photo: Jerry Kobalenko

 

Zahab and Vallely didn’t mention whether they had problems with the similar plastic models they chose, but such delicate sleds might well have caused issues on a largely inland route.

The adventure athletes’ Instagram post back in Grise Fiord:

 

Jerry Kobalenko is the editor of ExplorersWeb. Canada's premier arctic traveler, he is the author of The Horizontal Everest and Arctic Eden, and is currently working on a book about adventures in Labrador. In 2018, he was awarded the Polar Medal by the Governor General of Canada.


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Mac
Mac
1 month ago

Hello Jerry, I have a question – you’re writing “But you do not want to bring a $7,000 Acapulka carbon sled on an overland Ellesmere journey.” – could you explain why? I heard that these expensive sleds are developed to easily withstand that type of abrasion, while being lightweight – why not take them? Or are you saying that these sleds will also in the end experience some wear&tear, and thus it’s just better to keep them for some more important expeditions?

Thanks for any insights!

Alex Hibbert
1 month ago

I think the sledges in their photos are UHMWPE, kept in shape using cords and specially located slices and bends. These, like most modern runners, are fairly impervious to cold, and it takes a lot to scratch or gouge them. It’s about the only material that’ll have a hope in hell of gliding on sub -35 snow.

Mac
Mac
1 month ago

> I know that hauling at -30˚ is easier than -35˚ is easier than -40˚ is easier than -45˚ is easier than -50˚ is easier than -55˚C — but why?

The general reason is known, right? I mean, the colder it gets, the harder it becomes for the snow under the sledge to melt when interacting with moving sled, and create a gliding layer.

Mac
Mac
1 month ago

Thanks!

Mac
Mac
1 month ago

I see, thanks a lot 🙂 These 3-5 kgs of more weight is always some saving, but yes, spending multiple thousands of dollars for it, is a very tough decision. I was asking because I’ve been considering getting one for such conditions (possible stone and gravel fields). But then, if the runners are just from HDPE, then it’ll probably not hold for very long anyway 🙁

Last edited 1 month ago by Mac
Alex Hibbert
1 month ago
Reply to  Mac

If you make your own mould, you can then make unlimited numbers of sledges, with different heights and weights from unlimited composite material mixes, for a few hundred pounds. And you can have a professional do the infusion for a few hundred more (and save some more grams in waste resin).

HDPE isn’t used as runners for most serious modern sledges.

Last edited 1 month ago by ahlon
Ray and Kevin
Ray and Kevin
1 month ago

Hey Jerry! Thank you for your synopsis. Kevin and I both have learned so much from this expedition, and will be back in early 2023 to complete our expedition, with this amazing community of friends in Grise Fjord. We have both completed multiple unsupported expeditions in Canadian Arctic in winter, plus winter expeditions to Siberia, etc and an unsupported expedition to South Pole, so we had a plan in mind. Although our approach may have been ‘flawed’, we are excited about the way we plan to do our south to north next winter, and the way we will implement Inuit… Read more »

Greg L.
Greg L.
1 month ago
Reply to  Ray and Kevin

Goof luck guys i will be waiting to follow you again on a next attempt

Greg L.
Greg L.
1 month ago

Interesting discussion on the sleds ! I met Borge and Vincent on Baffin and they were using the sled from Thomas Ulrich saying they could pull those on the sand no problem. Ulrich also claims high gliding in cold weather. Hard to fact check.

Erik Boomer
Erik Boomer
1 month ago

I prefer 25$ paris pulk sleds. 🙂 Looking forward to seeing you guys do that route, it is a nice line! cheers.

And Ray and Kevin, if you want to have a beer or Coffee when you are in Iqaluit hit up Sarah and I at Northwinds!

Last edited 1 month ago by Erik Boomer
Erik Boomer
Erik Boomer
1 month ago

Jerry, By my rough math the route is just shy of 900km. Divided by 50 days equals 18km per day to do it in 50 days. So to be starting at 10km per day at the coldest heaviest, slowest, darkest time of the expedition is pretty darn good, and in the comments below it sounds like they still even achieved a few 25km days?! I am confused. As it warms and they consume food and fuel that average travel should really increase by the end of the trip too.

Kevin and Ray
Kevin and Ray
1 month ago
Reply to  Erik Boomer

Erik, Jerry, Nice to e-meet you both!! Our detailed calculations put the journey at roughly 1000km. Just a touch over 1000km actually with all the anticipated zig-zags overland. It’s a tough one guys. We had to make a call out there and we really felt the numbers didn’t add up. We really wanted to traverse Ellesmere Island on land as much as possible at the coldest time of year and are still committed to doing that. You both have done epic journeys on Ellesmere Island that frankly both Ray and I have marveled at and our hope was to try… Read more »

Erik Boomer
Erik Boomer
1 month ago
Reply to  Kevin and Ray

First of all, you three are all really kind! It is hard to have to bail on a mission and even harder to have it picked apart in the public eye. I feel bad I made that comment in public and not with a map and a beer with you two. The truth is we were all sitting at home reading this report on a computer or phone and can never know exactly what was happening out there, and whatever you decide is definitely the best call. Its always fun to armchair quarterback/adventure but actually doing something for yourselves like… Read more »