Words and photos by Frank Wolf.
Methuselah sidles up beside me on the frozen dirt streets of Pond Inlet. It’s almost midnight and I’ve been strolling around this Inuit town trying to shake off jet-lag from a milk-run of flights I took to get here from Vancouver. I snug up my down jacket in the chill May air while this wiry, craggy fellow looks relaxed and warm in his cotton, one-piece orange jumpsuit.
“Comme en sa va?” he asks me, thinking I‘m one of the many Quebec contractors who work in town.
“You speak French?” I ask back.
“Only a little,” he grins, and then sticks out his hand, ”My name is Methuselah.”
We exchange greetings and I comment, “Methuselah? That’s a unique name…very Biblical.”
“Yup, from the bible, that’s me…” He pauses for a moment, as if stuck on that thought, then continues, “Where you from?”
“Have you been to Bylot Island?” I point at the jagged, snowcapped peaks jumping from the horizon 25 km away across Eclipse Sound. Everything on this side is gently rolling terrain, but Bylot resembles a huge chunk of the Alps torn out by a giant and dropped into the Arctic Ocean.
“Nope…but I grew up looking at it.”
“How come you’ve never been?”
“No seals or caribou there, nothing to hunt…but I did go around it once in a snow machine…took a week.”
“You heading out on the land this weekend?”
“Nope, I’m a builder- gotta work.” He grins again and points at his chest, to the orange jumpsuit with safety reflection that he wears.
“Have a good weekend anyways Methuselah.”
“Ya, you too.” Methuselah gives me a happy nod and walks on.
Methuselah of the Old Testament is reputed to be the oldest person of all time- reaching the ripe age of 969 years. Methuselah of Pond Inlet is perhaps 50, but his Inuit ancestors have occupied the land here for millennia. The Byam Martin Mountains across the way are also truly Methuselah-esque, made up of 3 billion year old stone thrust up over eons as part of the greater Arctic Cordillera.
Like most everyone in ‘Pond’, Methuselah sees the mountains of Bylot everyday but has never actually seen them, and that’s perfectly fine with him. The Inuit are very practical- why venture somewhere if the hunting’s no good? My perspective is different. We’re hunting- but our hunt is for adventure, not prey.
Bylot is fully within Nunavut’s Sirmilik National Park, a 22,000 square kilometre wilderness area situated above the 73rd latitude that is rarely visited any time of year. My partner Dave Garrow and I will be the only skiers to journey into the range there this year, spending 12 days exploring the area.
Park Manager Carey Elverum tells us he hasn’t had many skiers venture in during the 17 years he’s spent at the helm of Sirmilik since it was established in the year 2000. “We get skiers in there about every other year or so.”
“Thunk, thunk.” The points of my crampons bite into the icy slope of the south ridge of Angilaaq Mountain. Breathing steadily I work my way up a narrow strip of white that winds through broken rock. Dave follows behind as we kick our way to the top of the ridge. We pause for a break at a distinct menhir and look back from where we came. Our tent is not even discernible from up here, lost 7 km away in the vast plain of a seemingly endless glacier. It’s warm today…the thermometer says -3 C but it feels like it’s +10 C. There’s not a puff of wind as we toil under the beating, ever-circling sun.
We rope up for the final section along a snowy ridge that leads to the summit. Both sides fall away steeply for 1000 feet. If one of us stumbles and begins to careen down either slope, the other has to dive down the opposite side to arrest a careening tumble to the bottom.
Angilaaq means ‘the highest’ in Inuktitut, and the mountain lies in the geographical heart of Bylot. As motorized vehicles aren’t allowed in the park, there’s no easy way to get here. It took 4 days of dragging sleds up the length of Sirmilik Glacier and then over 3 passes to get to our camp at the base of Malik Mountain- the 2nd highest peak in the park. Our skis are great for travel, but we switched over to crampons to ascend and descent the wind blasted snow and ice that predominates all the vertical slopes around here.
We rose at 5 this morning, with our plan to nab both Malik and Angilaaq in a day, then head back down one of the passes to set up a lower camp before forecasted bad weather sets in. Malik was a straightforward snow slope with a bit of rock. From the summit, we could clearly see Angilaaq, it’s classic diamond shape with prominent snow ridge seducing us like a snow-cloaked siren.
Cresting the summit of Angilaaq, we look north over an army of peaks to Lancaster Sound- the entrance to the Northwest Passage where Sir John Franklin and other noble failures repeatedly sailed to their doom like proverbial lemmings over a cliff.
From here, it looks peaceful and calm- an albescent blanket stretched over a sleeping sea, with Devon Island visible beyond it. I spin slowly on the spot to take it all in, on top of a frozen world. Thousands of other summits and ridges jut from glaciers that extend like petrified serpents through every valley until they bleed into the ocean. It’s hard to believe that only a handful of people have ever stood here before us, but that’s what remoteness and a two month ski season between the dark, bitter cold of winter and quick melt of summer will do.
Standing here is far more interesting than being, say, on Everest or Denali- two peaks of great height that have been bludgeoned into bucket lists. Truly adventurous objectives should be obscure, remote and off the radar. There’s nothing adventurous about the well known- there is difficulty and challenge, but not adventure. I take a height measurement with my GPS and find that the summit is actually 6480 feet (1975 metres) high- 79 feet more than stated on official maps or other research materials we’ve seen.
Over the course of the following few days, we return the same way we came, taking excursions up a few side basins to explore peaks at their terminus. So few people have been here that these places have no names. For all we know, no one has ever travelled up these summits- and why would they? As Methuselah said, there’s little good hunting here for the Inuit.
About halfway down Sirmilik Glacier, we set up our camp and then ski due east, climbing steadily to the back of a crescent bowl. The scale here is so vast we’re rendered into two insignificant specks of dust in the porcelain of the landscape.
We choose an appealing peak with a steep, rocky ridge line in the northeast corner of the bowl. Though the summit is 1400 feet less than Angilaaq, the actual climb up its face is twice as high since we started much lower on the glacier. Back at camp it was -20 celsius in the chill of the north wind, but the climb is sheltered and quite pleasant. Snow begins to ball up our crampons as we work our way up the south facing slope, forcing us to pause and clear them from time to time by tapping them with the shaft of our ice axes. It’s the most vigorous summit of the trip and we’re rewarded at the top with a spectacular view of Sirmilik Glacier on one side and an expanse of peaks that extend to the oceans’ floe edge on the other.
There are so many unclimbed peaks in this park that it’s likely our unnamed summit just had its first ascent. There aren’t many places on earth where humans haven’t set foot, where a beautiful view hasn’t been gazed upon by someone else. It makes it more special to me even than Angilaaq, a wonderful combination of adventure and obscurity.
At camp, Dave probes the radius of our site to ensure we don’t set up on a crevasse and awake plummeting into the inky depths of a man-eater. We melt snow for water, have our freeze dried meal, sip some whiskey, and adjourn to our tent. Inside, Dave attends to his blistered feet while I dig into a foreboding book called “In the Land of White Death”, about the crew of an early 20th century Siberian hunting ship trapped in pack ice for two years who attempt to escape their fate through a perilous journey across the arctic sea. It puts any difficulties we experience on our trip into stark perspective.
I wear an eye mask to convince my body it’s nighttime, but still awake every couple of hours from twitchy, dream-filled sleeps. I have vivid adventures with just about everyone I’ve ever known during eleven nights of mystical light-injected visions. I awake one eve from a sailing trip in the South Pacific with my now-dead father and it takes me a minute to realize where I am. The dream seems so real, I feel suddenly sad knowing he’s still gone, and quickly fall back asleep, hoping to find him again on the other side.
On our second-last day we ski up to a small knoll and notice arctic fox tracks leading to bare patches on the slope. Scat from fox, pika, and jackrabbit lie among the broken rock, grasses, and heather. A couple of ravens circle overhead. A lone snow bunting sings its shrill song as it swoops across the sky. The first signs of spring have come to Bylot. Ski season is over in Methuselah’s ancient land, with a grand total of two members of the 2017 Club.
Frank Wolf is a Canadian adventurer, writer, photographer, and environmentalist. He is known for feature magazine articles and films that document wilderness expeditions around the world, with a focus on the Canadian North. His expeditions include being the first to canoe across Canada in one season and cycling 2,000 km in winter on the Yukon River from Dawson to Nome. In 2015 he was named One of Canada’s Top 100 Explorers by Canadian Geographic Magazine and in 2012 he was named one of Canada’s Top Ten Adventurers by Explore Magazine.
“My adventures are really just another way of travelling. I’m drawn by curiosity to blank spaces on maps in wilderness areas- places with no guidebooks telling me what to do or where to go …skiing, canoeing, kayaking, hiking, cycling, pack rafting …I use whatever self-propelled means of transport works best for the mission. The personal reward of experience always exceeds what I can imagine in the planning stages. Haiku poet Matsuo Basho said ‘Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise. Seek what they sought.’ In life and in adventure, that pretty much sums it up.”