Friday, December 5, 2008

Potrero Chico

Climbing is what brought me here to Potrero Chico, Mexico, but for me it only supplements the rich culture and dramatic landscape. This is not the "American" vision of Mexico, it's no "spring break Cabo San Lucas," or Puerto Vajarta couples resort though at the same time it is not the poor gunslinging Mexico fictionalized often enough in Movies. It is in fact one of Mexico's richest provinces and is home to many of the major corporations that have come out of Mexico. At the same time, there are still herb collectors that travel into the mountains by burro filling sacks with plants collected from high in the canyon. Finding those plants relies on knowledge passed down through generations and at the moment, the only practitioner in Hidalgo, the town nearest Potrero Chico is a 75 year old man, and he alone has the knowledge required to fill his bags with herbs, when his time comes, there will be nobody to take his place, and the art will be lost in this place. The divide in culture here extends beyond the Mexicans and foreigners, it's easy enough to see a generation gap in the local people on your average weekend, the Mexican Holidays and weekends bring an assortment of visitors. On weekends the quarter mile walk into the canyon from my campsite saw hardly a step because I was more often than not picked up by either techno thumping teenagers in nineties era sports cars, or a pickup truck with Jesus stickers and cowboy hats on the dash. The sounds from the canyon floor echo off the high walls and bring a constantly changing soundtrack to climbers a thousand feet up. From the ground sightseers look up to the peaks around them and though the climbers are nearly too small to see, the bright colors of Patagonia windbreakers and flashy helmets swing from hold to hold far above. The show goes on into the night, as the late summiters don headlamps, illuminating spots of the wall that seem to float in the dark. The thousands of feet of rock attracts different sorts of people but a mutual appreciation marks a commonality between everyone. Language is not a barrier as the sightseers ask to have their pictures taken with the rope and gear toting climbers.

My background in climbing is mostly traditional, setting my own protection in cracks and relying on my own abilities to get vertical. This has kept me modest as there is little room for error and climbing routes over ones head usually does just that, it gets you in over your head. Since that's not the best situation to be in when high on a rock wall, I've generally stayed in my grade and pushed my limits by learning how to be more efficient, and to place solid protection. In the soft limestone out here in Potrero Chico, traditional climbing placements are rarely "bomber" because of hidden air pockets hiding just below the surface of the rock, and weak rock that still can tumble from above on even the most frequented routes, as can be attested to by the new dent in my nose. Because of the brittle stone, the majority of the climbs here are by default all sport routes, and the hundreds of bolted routes stretching multiple pitches into the upper reaches of the walls offer a new sort of challenge for me. Now I can climb at my limit, 5 pitches off the ground or more, something usually reserved for the first hundred comfortable feet of rock. Here a 5.11 sport climber who's never trad climbed can feel the rush of a hanging belay, and he can put all that unused gear knowledge to good use. Most of the people I met in Potrero Chico's version of camp 4, a hotel and camping area called Pasada El Potrero Chico, had never been more than a single pitch off the ground before coming here.

Climbing at your limit 500 feet off the ground is actually more difficult than it is 50 feet off of the ground. The fall is the same, the rope is there, but as I experienced, even when the mind isn't afraid, the body's reactions are dulled by an instinctual fear of falling from a great hight. The rope seemingly gets thinner every pitch we climb.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Estarillo - 12 pitches






Potrero Chico is known for it's classic multipitch sport routes. Climbs that would be relatively impossible for all but the best, or craziest climbers are open to just about anybody willing to take a lead fall onto a bolt. Looking into the canyon, you can see parties spread out all over the limestone, hundreds of feet off the canyon floor. Meanwhile, herb collectors ride past on their donkeys, and stray dogs who've befriended climbers sleep at the base of routes waiting for the climbers to return with some goodies. It's hard not to become a better climber once you've come here. The majority of the fear experienced when doing a multipitch trad route disappears when there is an anchor already there waiting for you, so limits are easy to push, and consequences are low. Rockfall is the most dangerous part of climbing out here, a few days ago I was staring up into the sun belaying a climber on a seldom climbed route, and as I watched him, ready to catch a fall, I was nearly knocked cold by a pebble that he'd kicked off from over a hundred feet up. I didn't see it coming until it was only inches from my face. I swear my brain didn't even register that I'd seen it until I already felt the pain. It hit me square between the eyes. An inch left or right and I would have lost an eye. I barely held on to consiousness and managed to switch belays with another climber before I walked over and sat down, my face reeling with pain. I have a dent in my nose now, it's not visible, but ask me some time and I'll let you feel it.
Yesterday, Sean and I decided to give Estarillo a shot, it's a 12 pitch climb with many pitches as hard as 5.10 b and c. The truth is that I was pretty nervous, I've never been that far in the air without wings, and dangling from a thin yellow rope attached to bolts hooked into the rock feels less and less strong the higher you go. That said, Estarillo is now one of my all time favorite routes, it ascends a prominent dihedral on the right side of the ridge line. And even though at times you're insanely high off the ground, it's easy to keep your wits about you with the well placed anchors, and ledges that afford great rest spots. Still though, pitch 11 was the hardest I was going to lead, and it was also the most exposed. Moving from a perfectly good rest ledge, and climbing out to an overhang which suddenly pushes you out over the full 1100 feet of nearly overhanging rock below you isn't something that the body always takes lightly. I've found that I'm in fact afraid of heights. Not so much in my head, but in my body. I feel fine mentally, I feel stable, able to think, and at times Sean and I were even joking around. But then when it comes time to tell my body, "ok, lets climb that overhang" suddenly I end up feeling a little week, and my feet only move in small, tentative steps. The view from the summit though was one of the most rewarding places I've ever been. A palm tree shades a roomy ledge, The canyon is laid out before you, and the dessert of Nuevo Leon stretches out to the right. It's a climb that I highly recommend to anyone. Just watch out for the rattlesnakes, they like this line too.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Climbing in Potrero Chico, Mexico - Day 1

The moon was nearly full as I arrived in Potrero Chico, Mexico, but the rock walls were still only a shadow against the night sky. After a month of planning I knew little more about the place I was going than I did when I was first told about this place. Web searches yielded little information, and photos were scarce, but from the stories I was told the place was legendary. I pitched my tent, and a restless night left me dazed when I finally emerged from it in the late morning. Climbing out into the grass, my eyes where blurry, and I couldn't quite focus, the rock was still just a shape. As things came together and I rubbed my eyes to clear the night away, I was sure that I had still not seen correctly. But there it was, thousands of feet of Limestone stacked vertically, looming over us, a distinct skull shape peering out of the rock.

I am here to climb multipitch sport routes. I'm a trad climber, which is somone who climbs with the necessary equipment to create your own anchors and protection as you climb. Sport routes have been bolted already and all you need to do is clip in as you climb. On my first day, myself and my friend Sean joined two of the best climbers from Costa Rica, (aparently there are 10 of them) to ascend a route named, "Will the Wolf Survive." It was as I was leading the second pitch which was rated 5.9 that I realised that hights where scary regardless of wether or not you were placing your own gear or taking advantage of pre-placed anchors. Either way, falling is scary, but an easy grade like 5.9 allows for some relaxation since it's unlikely that you'll be falling anyways. We had climbed a few pitches to warm up before setting our teeth in to "Will the Wolf Survive" and already i'd climbed more on Day one than I'd climbed in a few weeks. By the top of pitch three, I was starting to feel "it" you know, that tired, I don't want to be 300 feet of the ground, feeling. Regardless of how I felt though I knew that I'd feel better once sumiting, so I swallowed my complaints and was the last of the four of us to start on the fourth pitch.
It would have been easy only two feet off the ground, but under no circumstances is it comfortable to move from a perfectly good ledge 320 feet off the ground out into an overhanging and technically demanding face, especially while wearing two backpacks.

As I stepped out onto the climb, I couldn't see the other three of my team sitting above me, but I could hear their laughter and joy that comes from having reached the summit. It was right about then that my hands cramped up so bad, that I couldn't even let go of the holds I was on. I yelped in pain, and warned them that I was about to fall, which I of course couldn't do because of my hands. Eventually I pushed myself off of the rock with my feet, and began biting at my fingers to try to pry them open, hopeing that it would stop the pain. Letting go of the rock 320 feet above the ground is never easy. Eventually I stretched my hands untill the pain left, but I was sure that nobody would believe me about the cramps. If I were them I would assume that I had simply had a tough time on the rock...
We made it down just in time to set our feet on the ground before dark, and walked back to town with dinner on our minds. I'm anxious to get on more of these climbs where you can climb higher and harder because of the extra security of bolts, hopefully the nervousness that comes with distrust of trad gear will go away, and I can get as comfortable as my friends who have already been here for a week. For now though, I'm just happy to have the option to spend 10 days in Potrero Chico, Mexico!


Saturday, October 25, 2008

A Good Week


This last week I've been in DC at the National Geographic Headquarters with some of my teammates from my Arctic Expedition to Ellesmere Island. We're here lecturing on the expedition and showing photos from the trip. I'll have a copy of the lecture uploaded soon.

While in DC I found out that my Wild Chronicles episode had aired already on PBS, and managed to grab a copy of it for myself.
video

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The Crestones

Only two and a half hours drive from my photography studio in Denver, are the Sangro de Christo range of mountains. When I showed people the photos most people assumed these peaks couldn't possibly be in United States, much less Colorado. Here are a few pictures from my solo hike in. I was there to do an outdoor lifestyle and adventure photoshoot for clients, but found working difficult while my eyes darted up and down potential climbs.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Stress


Everybody deals with stress in their own way. Believe it or not, I have to deal with it too, I know everybody thinks I have the perfect job and all, but hey, there is a reason I get paid to do it, and it’s not because I’m just that cool. Stressed out, and overworked, I tend to lose my focus. I start trying to Multi-task, and I’m no good at multi-tasking. So what can I do that will force me to focus? I tried going bouldering, but there wasn’t nearly enough in the realm of consequences to push me into that focused attentive state. I’m looking for something that could almost be called meditation, when all external thoughts are flushed out, and the task at hand is all consuming.

I’ve always turned to adventure to get me through those scattered moments. Snowboarding a hidden couloir far into the mountains and hiking into the woods with no trail to guide me have always been friendly to me, but today I needed something new. I’ve been climbing a lot lately, and though I climbed a lot when I was younger, I took a 4 year break and have only started pulling down on rock again recently.

Today, to find my focus, I soloed Cob Rock. Cob Rock is a two hundred foot tall granite monolith attached on only one side to the mountain, and it’s fairly easy. Only rated at 5.8 plus or minus depending on the route that you take. I decided to try to rope solo the route, and began around 1:00. The trick with Rope soloing is that if you fall, you will be caught by the rope, but you are alone, and there is nobody there to share your fear with.
It’s exponentially more exciting. Soloing has it’s downfalls too. After you make it to the top of each pitch, you have to rappel back down and take all the pieces of protection that you used back out of the rock, and climb back up again, only this time with the rope above you.

I managed to do the route in three pitches, but time was running short and the shadows crept up the valley faster than I had expected. So I decided to free solo the middle pitch which is only 5.6 yet starts 100 feet off the ground. No Ropes, no protection, just my hands and feet. It’s times like these that the mind really has to focus. Even though the amount of work is far less than if I were placing Cams into the rock, or trying to communicate with a lazy belayer, the consequences are drastically higher, and when you’re really in the moment, you feel less like a climber and more like you are weaving in and out of the rock. This was the focus I came for. And for some reason now that I’m home again, safe, I can breathe so much deeper.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The Last Days of Ellesmere



5/30/08
Tomorrow: Hot food, Drink, Warmth, buildings, showers... You get the Idea, and yet, life out here is by no means bad. Hard at worst. I do look forward to sleeping in the dark though. What will the City hold for me after this adventure? What Changes?
Today I took a few minutes to go for a ski by myself across the sound. I took my time and managed to cross in an hour or so, passage to land was barred by open water that had appeared overnight from the river. So I followed the coast for a bit before cutting back across the bay for camp. I eventually crossed my own tracks and there alongside them, two fresh sets of wolf tracks. They had followed me and must have snuck past while I was eating lunch. I followed the tracks as they went directly to camp, the prints of one of the wolves were quite large. I certainly wanted a to get a look at the beast but he never did show himself.

I’m both relieved to be out of here and quite sad, there will be more trips to come, of that I’m sure.

05/31/08
A bottle of red wine signifies the end. I drink to Howls and midnight sun for the last time. Perhaps there have been many lasts on this Journey and as well many firsts.

Wolves are circling me now as I write, should I fear? There are 4...5...Now 6! Perhaps I should stand up. Should I be afraid or should I stay still and possibly have the experience of a lifetime? The others are watching from camp which is quite far away. Now I see why sharks are called the wolves of the sea... Now I see 7 wolves! They are so much like sharks, their curiosity matched with their fear, though at once they could tear me apart. I want so bad to photograph them but my camera is in camp, to rise would scare them off. Perhaps I should keep this for myself?

They came quite close just then, 10 feet away perhaps, enough to look into their eyes and see that they were not here for violence but for simple curiosity.

Alone, on the Ice, In the land of wolves.

Patience, patience, another approaches. Even the Alternating rhythms of my breath scare it. So much fear and yet so much calm, it is only 5 feet from me. I do not turn to face it this time but allow it to approach from behind, always in the corner of my eye.. It certainly prefers my blind spot.

Wow, truly an experience of a lifetime. Who gets so close to such wild creatures, so magnificent they are, so powerful! A perfect way to say goodbye to the arctic. I’m anxious to say goodbye and hello to a lifestyle though, and New York will be welcome with all of it’s eccentricities.

After the Wolf Experience:
It sniffed the air from behind me. I force my muscles not to turn my neck, the slightest motion scares it away and each time our play of trust begins anew. I risk it all to simply be near, and the only reference I have to the approaching wolf is is it’s breath on my neck. This is enough, for my senses flood with the desire to run. I remind myself that the reputation of the wolf is made by men who fear and I take the body-language as a sign of it’s intentions instead of the stories. So I sit and when it is over I return to camp. Tobias watched it happen and waits with shared elation. As it turns out, there were people watching the whole time, the entire experience is on film, what Luck! My last night on Ellesmere...



June 3rd
Two days ago we stood on the wild Ice of Eureka Sound, and here we stand now, in New York City wearing fancy shirts, eating fancy dinners, and trying our best to act normal. It’s these contrasts that make life interesting, and at least for me, the sudden immersion into an entirely different culture just highlights the best memories of our adventure. As we left Eureka, our egos had been whittled down to the bone as we were transformed into a team of people with a common goal. The effect was amplified by the physical stresses that confronted us, and the little amount of time we had to actually reflect upon ourselves while faced with the wonders of the North, and the many tasks that faced us each day. We all find ourselves striving to make New York as much like the arctic as we can, Sam opens the windows to his hotel room trying to get fresh air, I turn up the AC to make it as cold as possible in my room, and all of us are faced with our various sleep issues, I can’t sleep because of the lack of exercise, and Toby cannot sleep enough. We are all adjusting though, and will soon be back into whatever life we have waiting for us. For me, I have many months of travel coming up, and a few conservation projects in the works, but the Arctic has left to strong an impression to be ignored. I plan on pursuing some of the stories that are common to the Arctic but unheard of in the bustling southern world, for now though, my priority list is short, to go home, see my family, my friends, and celebrate the opportunity that I have been given to inspire people to take action and make the world a better place.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Ellesmere Island Journal Days 15-17



5/25/08
For days we’ve seen no sign of man. In the first weeks there was nothing but stories that showed man had ever traveled here. Then a single plane flew overhead at 30,000 feet, I assume full of dozing passengers, bad food, and crying babies. As they rocketed through the sky, probably barely noticing Ellesmere below them, we plodded along on the sea ice, watching it’s trailing ribbon. From then on, the occasional fuel barrel would pop into view where planes had landed and dropped the excess weight or refueled, thinking of course that these were parts where no man visited for fun. 6000 year old ruins dug through again and again by scientists were another sign of man, yet they seemed to fit into the land, because in truth, there was nothing about them that was not of the land. Stones piled high, discarded bones cut clean through. Now though we sit in Eureka Harbor and have left Axel Heigburg Island for good. Soon we will be setting foot on Ellesmere Island itself, the namesake of our expedition


Here in Eureka a few scientists have gathered under satellite dishes, radar, and the 24 hour sun, to us they are the furthest thing from normal.



5/26/08

They Would be shadows were they not snow white,
These wolves running through the arctic night.

Just as we were setting up camp, 11 wolves came out of nowhere and rushed into camp. Some were more than simply curious, and came right at the dogs. It was a strange balance between chasing them off and taking photos of them coming close.
It was a cool interaction, we didn’t have to be afraid of them except for our dogs.

I think the hardest part of the trip is leaving the dogs behind, K2 the loner, Pitarak the cocky teen, Denali the caring mother of most of the dogs here, Kapi the giant Teddy who would be top dog if he cared about anything but laying next to his brother Amurak. Augustus the friendly and playful... So many dogs with such personality, it’s hard not to think of them as people. They have far more intelligence than we generally attribute to them.

The Greatest comforts out here are these things that you have to conserve. If you don’t have to worry about running out and can indulge every day there is no sense being excited. Even toilet paper turns into a valuable item. 2 caramels a week are pure gold, and could sell at the same price, though not for cash perhaps for powdered milk.

I just realized that I’ve been Imagining the end of our expedition party taking place in the dark, as it’s al supposed to happen at night. Strange, I wonder what a Psych would say about that.

5/27/08
There is no better taste than the last of ones water

No sight nor sound betrays the pounding paws of the wolf pack. Once they’ve come, they’ve gone, leaving only melting prints in their place.

It is more than likely true that this will be the last time I’ll be alone on this expedition, sitting in the failing sun that will not ever fail entirely, the blue hue of this landscape rolls out before me. Even the slightest hint of man pulls me back to a world of cars, women, and selfishness. I’m sure I learned a great deal here, but I won’t be able to grasp it for some time. All I can do now is sit and take it all in. What continuation of this experience will I see next? How will I be able to make this time truly my own? Questions without answers are not ones that should be asked. When all of this is but a memory how will I feel upon reflection? Only time will tell, and time is not something I have enough of. All I know is that it stands still until it’s gone. I am still in the beginning of the expedition, landing on the ice of Axel Heigburg Island both afraid and determined.

...A memory
Crossing a great sound mountains rise on both sides. The old ice we cross was once jagged blocks crushed against each-other with glass sharp edges. Now it has melted into rolling mounds of blue and white, cloud-like yet firm, leaving the impression that we sled across the sky in low lying clouds that cover all but the highest peaks.

These are the things that bring me Joy:

Warmth in the Cold
Shelter in a Storm
Passion in the Moment
Moments in a second
Stillness in Violence
Stillness
Comfort in catastrophe


And here above the sea,
Alone I stand to take it in,
To my left and to my right,
No sign of man at hand for 14 days and a night,
And so I stand to take it in and lo,
There I stand,
The sign of man.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Ellesmere Island Journal Entries 10 - 14


5/20/08
Yesterday was a rest day. I spent it skiing solo in the mountains tracking muskox. I went up alone and finally felt like I was truly out on my own. A good feeling when wolves and bear abound. I even saw wolf tracks that had followed my ski tracks. The strange thing is that we’ve switched our schedules around so much so we can travel in the cooler part of the day, getting to bed around 2:00 am and rising at 10:am. Our day now ends around 9:00pm. When I went for my solo hike I left at 7:30 pm and was out till late at night. I kept on observing the sun and the changing color temperature and fought the urge to return to camp before nightfall. I had to remind myself that there is no nightfall up here. I found a point where I could sit high above an alpine lake and look out over the exposed meadows. In the distance a herd of muskox roamed below a jagged mountain range. I left a cache on the peak with a note and my contact information so someone who might find it could send it back to me in the future. Hopefully the distant future, perhaps even with their own stories.

The distance we manage to cover day after day up here is incredible, sometimes 25-30k per day. It's not so big of a deal except that it’s a daily event, through rough ice, and over mt. Passes. The feeling is that you are constantly chasing the horizon, pushing into the distance with every horizon that you reach giving way to a new horizon and a new goal. I’ve never been much of a distance person but I’ve managed to get myself to travel along side the more practiced members of the team. My body has hardened and become lean, and I have the ability to set to climbing a mountain and not rest until I get to the summit. It’s hard to decide how to maintain this hard earned shape once I get home... (Mt. Biking in Santa Cruz?)

I’m listening to Metallica - Turn the Page... Good song for the moment.

5/21/08
As difficult as days can be there is always something that balances out the experience. The dogs and their antics can be both frustrating and at the same time entertaining. Today as we made camp, I saw a pack of animals moving through a mirage. Their white bodies contorted in the vibrating air. The way they circled camp made me immediately think ...Wolf! And a whole pack at that. Soon, we had cameras in Hand, and sam caught a few frames before they disappeared over a rise. We trudged up the hill to track them down but couldn’t even seem to find their tracks! Rabbit tracks abounded though. Good feeding grounds for the wolves I suppose. Tension was high when we heard a chuckle coming from Sam, camera in hand. He had zoomed in on a photo of the animals and, there stalking us in the photo, were some of the largest rabbits I’ve ever seen... They moved so much like I would imagine a pack of wolves moving, circling the camp, staying on ridge-lines, and stopping behind hills to peek over at us. They had even fooled Sigrid, our wolf expert who has raised wolves from pups. To our own credit, the arctic hare in this area are known to be excessively large, and it’s one of the only places they have been observed moving in Packs. Other single Hare I’ve seen here were easily three feel in length. The mirage most likely made them appear even larger.

5/22/08
It’s days like today that make me admire people who do this in the most real tough situations, when you just don’t want to continue, and you’re cold, wet, and hungry.
I felt no groove today whatsoever, the snow stuck to my skis in 10 pound clumps and the sun refused to let up until a cold wet system moved in to make things worse. I even fell through the snow into a river that had caused a nasty slush under the hard looking upper crust. Oh well, I search for Balance.

5/23/08
With the exciting portion of the trip drawing to a close, I find my energy levels have decreased. What do I have to worry about? I know we’ve made it. That and the fact that my portion of the trip was so ridiculously easy makes me hesitant to feel much in the way of Accomplishment. Though I have averaged 25k a day in the arctic, far from home, friends, and family. I guess I still have some claim to pride. Most people would never put themselves here in the first place. I need to let the ego do it’s thing, and just let me be me for a while as it squirms inside.

The sun here is so Strong you can walk around with no shirt on, warmed by its rays as they are bounced from every angle off of snow and ice. Yet the slightest wind will remind you that you are still in the arctic as it strips away the suns warmth. All that is left is the suns power to burn you.

5/24/08
Today was an awesome long day, I started out thoroughly demoralized, so I forced myself to push harder. We hiked up to the mummified forrest which was pretty much the same as what we’d already seen inland, but it was still amazing to think that we stood in a 45 million year old forrest and were dwarfed by the age of our surroundings. It gave me more appreciation even for the stones and sand that I stood on. We walked with a more delicate demeanor for a while. Once we reached camp again, we set off with the dogs for another day of travel. Almost immediately we were confronted with the challenge of crossing a a river which had opened up literally overnight. Spring has arrived all at once. Fording the river was more a mental obstacle than a physical one, and we were across in moments. Though some of us walked in the river all day due to our mukluks flooding. After the fording, we had a pleasant trip through fast snow that allowed for plenty of time to chat and more time to think, which has actually been hard to do. Mostly I find I end up in a near meditative state where the kicking forward on my skis, encouraging the dogs, and taking in the softly rolling hills fully captivates my mind.
It’s so pleasant to be separated from the world, yet when there is someone you care about and every moment can bring change, and every moment matters, it’s hard to think of what changes may have come about while I’ve been away.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

A month of Firsts!


Check out my first published writing on the National Geographic Adventure website!
http://ngadventure.typepad.com/blog/ellesmere-ben-horton.html

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

National Geographic Adventure Magazine

Here's a cool double page spread that National Geographic Adventure published. It was a fast photo shoot, set up and done in about 10 minutes!

Monday, June 9, 2008

Ellesmere Island Journal Entries 7-9


5/17/08
There is no lens that will ever be able to take this in. There is no means of recording or describing this place that will ever do it justice. I sit atop an iceberg facing Mt. White with Ellesmere Island stretching off to my left. Wolves howl in the distance spurring the dogs on into a great salutation to their wild cousins. Blinding white forces the eyes all but closed even with sunglasses on, and the deep black of the earth is beginning to show through, causing a contrast that makes distance impossible to understand. Even in the shade, sunglasses are a comfort. Unlike the Serengetti, I do not feel like I’ve been here before. I do not feel that I was made to survive here. This place of dirt, Ice, and stone. A place where darkness and light do not balance but swing wildly from one to the other. This is not a place for passion or romance, but a place for struggle.

5/18/08
Yesterday we climbed into the hills and came across a herd of muskox with 14 members. I managed to get within about 100 feet of them and they formed up in their circular ranks. They had a number of young, perhaps even newborn calves with them. Now we have another short day ahead of us and have been traveling mostly over land.

5/19/08
It’s strange, I’ve been here nine days now, and yet it feels like I’ve been here forever. Time stands still, here, you feel both it’s rapid passing and it’s molasses like oozing slowness.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Ellesmere Island Expedition Journal Days 4-6

5/13/08
Today was travel day two for me. My body is tired, but my resolve is stronger, this time upon reaching camp I didn’t simply collapse into bed as I did yesterday. The number one thing that I notice out here is the power of light, the way it is so overbearing during the middle of the day, and how when the clouds roll in and the sunlight is scattered among the mountains, it softens to just the most pleasant hues, producing a million shades of blue. I would liken it to a moonlit night except that the sun shines with the same power for the full 24 hours.

My body is making the adjustments to a life of arctic travel, but much of the weight that I put on in order to combat the cold is superfluous and I anxiously await the day when I don’t have to carry it anymore. Still I’ve managed to ski over 50 k in two days so I’m not doing so bad.

(Note: After this point I realized nobody else was skiing the entire time and people were holding onto the sled getting pulled along a bit, still one pushed with the legs, but the sled helps carry your momentum)

Lets not watch our dreams drift by,
Clouds just rolling by,
Let’s not waste our time,
It’s all we have this time.

5/15/08
For two days we’ve been traveling along the coast of Nanson sound, the icebergs run aground here and massive chunks littler the shore. It’s a sight like I've never seen before. We cover perhaps 25K a day now and have sen wolf tracks littered with dripping blood, and caribou tracks, yet only a lemming has shown itself.

5/16/08
Although I currently feel more like bear bait than an author, photographer, or explorer, I could not pass up the opportunity to sit alone among the wind drifts and ice chunks we’ve set up camp in.
As we pulled up to one of the few flat spots on Nanson Sound, a crystalline haze descended on upon us, like the ceiling of clouds and sky decided to come down for a closer look at the beauties of the land. I would cal it a fog were it not for the fact that the clouds shine and glitter. Certainly not the gray and hollow fog that rolls off of an ocean. This is much different, tiny flecks of ice spin through the air reflecting by chance the midnight sun so that all things shimmer like the turning schools of fish you see in oceans. With camp barely visible, sound mostly muffled, I could very well be the most alone person on the planet right now, though I doubt it.

We made it a long way through the rough ice today, and along the way made a friend. Miles to sea we came across a confused lemming, obviously searching for a new land to populate, so we gave the little hitchhiker a ride, a meal and a warm water bottle cover to sleep in.

(Just now I turn to take another look into the fog and find instead a clear view of camp. I then turn back and see before me a mirage, stretching the horizon vertically so it looks like we face a massive wall of ice tomorrow. In seconds the vision passes.

We also heard the sweet chirp of a snow bunting today, a sparrow-like bird which ducked in to give us a closer look.


One of my favorite features of this land is the way the old icebergs stand above the new crumbling ice. At times, the way the fog covers the bottom of the bergs, and the tops stand alone, a peak above the clouds, or like it should look in a fog covered sea. It only takes a few minutes in this land to understand the sereneness of the inuit. Like the way visiting china left me more understanding of the chinese arts. Mirages come and go, yet never before your eyes, leaving the onlooker astounded and mystified

Ellesmere Island Journal days 1-3


5/10/08
Yesterday I finally Joined the team, they’ve been pushing through the rough Ice now for 40 days and only just reached smooth traveling where the plane landed. On the the flight in I manned the controls for a couple of hours and flew the Twin Otter over sections of the Arctic Ocean. I brought plenty of gifts with me to try to get on everyones good side, but it seems I didn’t particularly have to worry about it as they were just happy to see a new face. It’s extremely warm right now, and with the sun shining as it does 24 hours a day, everything feels extremely comfortable. We celebrated a bit last night and drug the sled to the top of a nearby peak and 6 of us rode straight down the hill in a mad dash, I have to say, it was one of the most fun days I’ve had to date.

5/11/08
This may be my only chance to be alone. I’m sitting on top of a small mountain overlooking our camp, and the broken arctic ocean. From here I can see the shadows of clouds as they move across confused jumbles of Ice far out to sea. The shadows shimmer as they move. This place has not been conquered by man, we simply can make quick dashes in and out of it. As I sit here and take in a full 360 degree view the only elusion to man that I can see are my own tracks, and our tents. Not even a man made sound penetrates the stillness, such powerful stillness. Yet, it holds such violence. Only a mountain away the Cache of Otto Sverdrup sits, a treasure lost that has been found by Toby after many years.

5/12/08
It was our first day moving since I arrived. We packed up early and set about moving camp. The sleds are heavy because of the amount of food that we now cary, and as hard as I trained, it was not near enough. As we finally pulled into camp, my motivation collapsed and merely setting up the tent was an act not performed so much as automated. I stand now ready to collapse. We covered about 23 Kilometers and I sat down only once all day. The General Outline of our day is as follows. Wake at 6:00, eat breakfast by 7:00 pack gear by 7:30 load the sleds by 8:00. From here Will usually treks ahead to find a route and we travel at a jogging pace for 2 hours at a time taking 15 minute breaks in between. We continue like this for 8 hours or so until we set up camp again. This is a very loose schedule, on easy days, the breaks extend to almost 45 minutes, and some days we quit a few minutes early or late.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Muskox!


Expedition Day: 49Position: N 80° 32' W 89° 35'

It seems impossible to really capture this place with a camera, or even with words for that matter. No matter how sophisticated the equipment we carry is, it cannot capture the feeling of sitting alone atop an iceberg in the frozen sea listening to the distant howls of wolves. The howls set our dogs into their own symphany and the silence of the sea ice is broken. We decided to make today a short travel day, not for lack of energy or difficulties, but simply because the region we just entered is by far the best environment to see wildlife. In the shadow of an iceberg we made camp, and set to getting ready for a day in the mountains. We abandoned the skis because the snow on the land is sparse, and we are soon satisfying our urge to explore this land in more detail. Until now I have seen little wildlife and I had no opportunities to get any worthwhile photos of what I did see. That far I've seen a few lemmings and a snow bunting, a sparrow sized arctic bird. Only 45 minutes of hiking into the steeper hills and we found a herd of muskox with 14 members, a number of those being calves. The muskox seem to have been transported straight from the ice age with their curled horns and powerfull bodies. It seems strange to me that they are close relatives of the common mountain goats I see often in the Colorado Rockies because their character is so foreign to me.A quick look around makes me really wonder about how these animals manage to survive here, as specialized as they are. Even lichens seem to have trouble growing on the rocks, and grass is nowhere to be found. The muskox prefer a type of willow that stays close to the ground, but I didn't even see this anywhere. This only deepened my respect for these animals, then i think of how they manage to survive through the dark arctic winters with -40°F temperatures and their past issues with over hunting and dwindling populations. How then will these creatures manage when global warming takes its toll? Just today Will who has been coming to the Arctic for years mentioned that he'd never seen the oncoming spring take hold so early. We are experiencing June weather in May! With the early snowmelt, the black cliffs of Ellesmere Island are exposed and reflect even more sun, speeding the thaw. All around us patches of black dust blown in by the wind have absorbed the sun's heat and sunk deep into the snow and ice. We are forced now to travel on the rough sea ice because the land holds so little snow. This cycle has continued to escalate over the years, and we now can hardly argue that we are not causing drastic changes to this environment, and to those majestic creatures that inhabit this harsh landscape and nowhere else.
Ben
Addition Info:
MuskoxThe Muskox (Ovibos moschatus) is an arctic mammal of the Bovidae family, noted for its thick coat and for the strong odor emitted by males, from which its name derives.
Muskoxen are more closely related to sheep and goats than to oxen, but are in their own genus, Ovibos. Both sexes have long curved horns. Muskoxen are usually around 2.5 m (8.2 ft) long and 1.4 m (4.6 feet) high at the shoulder. Adults usually weigh at least 200 kg (440 lb) and can exceed 400 kg (880 lb). Their coat, a mix of black, gray, and brown, includes long guard hairs that reach almost to the ground.
During the summer, musk oxen live in wet areas, such as river valleys, moving to higher elevations in the winter to avoid deep snow. They graze on grasses, reeds, sedges, and other ground plants, digging through snow in the winter to reach their food.
Muskoxen are social and live in herds, usually of around 10–20 animals, but sometimes over 400.
Muskoxen have a distinctive defensive behavior: when the herd is threatened, the bulls and cows will face outward to form a stationary ring around the calves. This is an effective defense against predators such as wolves, but makes them an easy target for human hunters.
View the Global Warming 101 Ellesmere Island Expedition map and follow their progress.
Map updated daily with new position.
View Map

Friday, May 16, 2008

Ben's Arrival - Trail Dispatch - 2008 Ellesmere Island Expedition

Expedition Day: 42 Distance traveled: rest dayFlying into Axel Heiberg to join the rest of the team, I could finally grasp the difficulties that they had been through over the last forty days. From the sky the ocean below looked impossibly confused and cluttered. Even from 5000 feet, the eye could not find the end of the rough ice. It was only as I aproached the rendezvous point that the ice finally seemed to relax. Finally joining the team, my fear that I would be an outsider was quickly disspelled as everyone welcomed me to camp with open arms and enormous smiles. Stories of polar bear encounters and hellish fields of rough ice and pressure ridges poured out of everyone, all while they dug into the snacks and treats I had brought in. The reunion was magnificent and could not have come at a better time, ahead of us the terrain is smooth, and a renewed sense of vigor permeates the weathered team members that I've been following for so long on the website. While I followed their progress, I also have been training so I wouldn't be left exhausted in the wake of these now thin and efficient people that have been running for nine hours a day for so many days on end. Of course what training could I possibly do that could prepare me for arctic travel at this level. I imagine the next few days will be hard on my body and my ego, but I'm also excited to get into the swing of things and finally feel like a full team member.
Ben
View the Global Warming 101 Ellesmere Island Expedition map and follow their progress.
Map updated daily with new position.
View Map

Sunday, May 4, 2008

My First time Published in National Geographic


Only the soup image is mine, the Cover is put there to show which issue.

Monday, April 14, 2008

The Next Exploration


In my previous expeditions to Cocos Island National Park I’ve seen the hardships and the obstacles that the park rangers have to overcome on a daily basis in order to protect the area. It seems an impossible task with what little resources they have available, and with such great numbers of illegal fishermen pitted against them. Day by day, the battle continues, and little by little the fishermen wear away at the parks fragile ecosystem. It won’t be long now until the fishermen have fished beyond the sustainable limit, and the marine sanctuary will collapse. This is not an endless pot of gold, and there is a limit to how much we can take out before it cannot refill itself. The species that the Marine Reserve was established to protect are mostly of the Pelagic kind, and their time on Cocos Island is limited to only brief visits. As soon as the great schools of hammerhead shark, bluefin and yellowfin tuna, and swordfish depart for their feeding grounds they can no longer be protected, and as you can imagine, fishermen descend on their schools like flocks of gulls on a forgotten lunch. There are a myriad of unknowns about the pelagic species and we still can’t follow their open ocean migrations because they travel to deep and too far, making protecting them next to impossible. No amount of money can solve this problem, because the technology simply doesn’t exist.

What we do have however is a few key pieces of knowledge that we can use until our habitation of the ocean improves. Recently it has come to light that there is a sea mount just 30 miles off the coast of Cocos Island that the pelagic species and fishermen alike use on a daily basis. This seamount has never before been seen by human eyes, and it’s depth is known only by the fishermen who drop their lines approximately 300 feet to hunt for the gigantic grouper that also call this place home. One of these fishermen has provided us with the approximate GPS coordinates to find the seamount.

As the location of the seamount is as yet only an approximation, and it’s existence only a rumor until recently, it was not included in the original boundaries of Cocos Island. It hasn’t been considered even by agencies such as the French Fund for the Environment and the UNDP when they have been researching on Cocos Island in an effort to expand the borders of Cocos Island National Park, this work has been led by Kifah Sasa, and Kifah is also going to be a part of this expedition so he can have a first hand view of the events as they unfold. Nobody has had the equipment, the knowhow, or the ability to pull together a team capable of exploring the seamount to make it’s vital role in the Cocos Island Ecosystem anything more than speculation. We now have the capability, we have the team, and we are readying to dive into a sea of unknowns with one inspiration, to gain ground on the illegal fishermen. The question is how.

How will visiting the seamount do all this? While exploring the seamount we will be placing a receiving unit that will ping every time a tagged animal passes through the region. With the Unit in place over the next year or so, information will be gathered from years of tagging work that scientist Randall Arauz has been doing on Cocos Island. Every tagged animal that passes will have come from Cocos Island at some point in the past, because every animal was tagged on Cocos Island. Once Randall processes the information, he will know what animal it was that has passed the seamount, how long it stayed, and wether or not the animal makes frequent visits. We can make a strong hypotheses that we will not be disappointed with our findings. That hard data will then be provided to the agencies that are making the petition to expand the park boundaries and will be used to show that the seamount is not separated from Cocos Island, but is a major portion of the Cocos Island ecosystem.

It won’t be a simple task to place the receiving unit on the Seamount, at a depth of 300 feet and 30 miles from Cocos Islands protected bays, a whole new realm of difficulties present themselves. The main reason that the seamount hasn’t already been dove by the Seahunter group, a dive company that operates a deep water submarine on Cocos Island is that until now they haven’t had the ability to launch the sub in the rough pacific swells that rhythmically crash into the rock walls of Cocos Island. A new boat, specially outfitted to launch the sub in the open ocean has been outfitted and this will be its maiden voyage. The depth of the seamount is easily reachable by the three person submarine once it has passed below the surface, but is beyond the normal limits of even an advanced deep water diver. The normal limits of a deep water diver are at 135 feet, I’ve dove to nearly 200, and very few people have passed 200 feet without very specialized equipment. It’s unlikely that we will attempt a subless dive to the seamount, but if the opportunity presents itself and all safety measures are taken, we are specially outfitted with Rebreather units that recycle the air that has already passed through our bodies, enabling us to breath our own air again. With these units, it may be possible to reach the seamount and install the Receiver unit ourselves. If not, we will rely on the arm of the submarine to do the work.

There are inherent difficulties when it comes to tagging a pelagic species as well. William Bebe was one of the first naturalists to visit cocos island, and in his book the Arcturus Adventure, he wrote of the difficulties of observing the fish. Hooked fish were found to die following their struggles, and even the great bluefin tuna are timid creatures. Bebe did however have plenty of encounters with shark while diving with his primitive compressor and helmet. The shark, though timid, can be curious. Species such as the hammerhead shark are frightened easily by the bubbles that the commonly used scuba regulator makes. The bubbles are thought to register as a impenetrable wall to the senses of a hammerhead. Marine biologist Peter Klimley writes in his book the Secret Lives of Sharks about suddenly realizing that the sharks all but ignored him while he freedove among the vast schools, sans tank and regulator. It was Peter Klimley who began tagging and tracking the sharks with great success, and scientists like Randall Arauz followed suit. The personality of the hammerhead shark has made it the most viable option for our expedition, and once the receiver has successfully been placed on the Seamount, we will move on to dive Cocos Island with the goal of tagging three more sharks. With three recently tagged sharks, and numerous sharks having been tagged over the last number of years, we will have an exceptionally detailed view of the role that the seamount plays on Cocos Island. The data will also be referenced to other receiver units that Randall already has stationed inside the park boundaries on known hammerhead cleaning stations and schooling areas. What’s more the tags are harmless to the shark, and will optimally be placed in the cartilaginous dorsal fin to minimize harm to the animal. Equal in difficulty to tagging the shark is covering the story.

I’ve teamed up with my brother Jesse Horton to capture the events as they take place, Jesse is a superb underwater videographer and has extensive experience on Cocos Island due to the fact that he has been working on Cocos as a the pilot of Deepsee, the submarine that we will be using. Jesse has also had footage included in a National Geographic special on Sharks along with the work of world renowned underwater videographers like Howard Hall.

For literary coverage, Kelly Hearn has agreed to join the expedition. Kelly is a National Geographic correspondent and has been working as an independent journalist in Latin America since 2004. Kelly wrote the National Geographic News Article for my first Cocos Island expedition and has done extensive research on the problem of Shark Poaching in Cocos Island.

Besides putting this expedition together, and aiding in gathering the scientific data, my role will be to gather the photographs that will be used to tell the story visually. Photography has been of great importance on other expeditions with goals such as ours like Micheal Fay’s legendary Mega Transect. It was the photography of Nick Nichols that put what science had found into perspective. Once the boat has left port, the photography will be my primary job, and I’ll be working to capture the value of the seamount through images.

The Urgency of the expedition cannot be stressed enough. Already over 90 percent of the pelagic species have been lost (appendix 1) and fisheries are advancing technology to make up for the difficulties of having less fish to catch. That they can maintain their quotas even with so few fish just goes to show that marine sanctuaries like Cocos Island are more precious than we think. Soon, they may be all that we have left.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Blog of Note

Check out my good friend Bill Carrol's blog, at http://www.opensignals.com/

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Protesting the Torch?


We all know that China has been the center of much controversy over the last number of years, from the oppression of Tibet, to the Chinese involvement in Sudan. I have personally been guilty of pointing the finger with some of my shark finning research and journalism over the last few years. Although I'm not entirely sure that China was the best choice for the location of the upcoming Olympic Games there are a number of important factors that need to be considered before we stand in the way of the Olympic torch.

First and foremost, we should think about what the Olympics are, without the location that they are taking place being a factor. The Olympics are the only venue that the world currently has that can bring together nations from around the world and celebrate our individuality in the spirit of competition. Where else can so many cultures and nations come together under one figurative roof? This is not to say that all of the contestants and observers will abandon their prejudices. It is however an opportunity to bypass them, even if only for a short while.

Throwing the Javelin, running the fastest or the furthest, and wrestling are not just pointless exercises to determine the strongest contestant, but are designed to push people to develop their skills in arts applicable to warfare. In ancient Greece, these were more than just metaphorical challenges, they were highly specialized skill sets. Although the games now include sports that really don't apply to warfare, the basic tenants are the same. Even seemingly unrelated sports like the bobsled race still develop skills like teamwork, and communication.

When Beijing was chosen, it wasn't because China was the most logical place on the planet to hold the games. It also wasn't to bring China needed income that the games would doubtlessly bring from the attendees. It was an acknowledgment that China now stands as a key nation relative to the rest of the world. It was also a statement about the future of China, they stand now at a crossroads, and the choices that they make in the years leading up to 2012 will establish their world role in the near future. In my travels to China over the last year, I saw first hand the mass gentrification that was within eyesight of every major roadway and railway that foreigners regularly travel. As soon as we passed beyond the road well traveled, the long history of China seemed to unfold before our eyes. China isn't just the strict, industrial age competitor that most Westerners see it as. In the mountains of Guanzou, ancient peoples still live lives governed by tradition and necessity. The Yao peoples still only cut their hair 3 times in their lives, and will work in terraced rice paddies that have been susstaining them since before the United States was even a thought, and in Yuangshou people ride bamboo rafts down the Li river, just as they did thousands of years ago. Some have adapted their rafts to incorperate gas powered motors, but the lifestyle remains inherently the same.

At first glance, it seems like China has invested all it has in the social progress and status that it will gain from the hosting the Olympic Games, but a deeper assesment will reveal a Country that is thousands of years old, and has not merely survived civil wars, genocides, colapsed empires and social spurning. If all of Chinas efforts are in vain, they have 6000 years of experiance in surviving to fall back on. Were the world to abandon China, and the economy collapes, the Yao will still be working in their rice paddies.

To impede the progress of the olympic torch is not just showing our disaproval for the way that China has handled its domination of Tibet. It is to stand in the way of what progress China stands to make on the world scene. Would not China be easier to negotiate with once it stands to lose something it has already gained? Not only do those protesting stand against China, they stand before an ancient tradition that has recognized our differences and has allowed us to put them asside, although not in all cases, in many.

Even so, what better way to make a stand right now for the atrocity that is Chinas rule of Tibet. The whole world is watching and this may be one of the few instances where protesting can make a difference. I bring it up, because I just want to make sure that those who protest are doing it fully aware of what they are doing, and why. They will certainly hurt the pockets of the political figures, and perhaps Tibet will gain something from the world being made aware of its plight. We also need to consider the other people who are befitting from the gentrification of China. Perhaps the gentrification that is taking place in China, the empty office buildings that are being built in hopes that they will be filled as their country makes the necessary changes to host the Olympics, will soon hold people who not long ago were working in sweat shops making cigarettes or sneakers.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Mika


“Unusual things are not meant to last.” Said Mika, a deceptively humble and sedate Inuit woman. She had said some form of the same statement many times over the last few weeks. This time she was referring to a team of dogs that she said could pull her Dogsled at a sustained speed of 17 kilometers per hour. Sadly most of those dogs had perished from the disease parvo, the year before. She sat across the room from me sowing a pair of beaver skin mitts speaking in a quiet monotone voice, occasionally punctuating words by raising her eyebrows. Inuit people are not all as quiet as Mika, but those who were raised mostly on the land understand the value of quiet. “We are taught to be quiet so as not to disturb the animals.” Mika said. I’m sure I had a quizzical look on my face. Who cares I thought. The more I learned from Mika about their traditions, the more I realized just how valuable their laws are. She remembers a time years ago when the Canadian Government tried to teach the Inuit to be herders, so they could make a living herding Caribou. The Inuit tried the techniques, but in the end the Caribou were just to hard to manage, so they went back to their old ways. What the Canadian Government didn’t understand, was that the Inuit had been managing the Caribou already for thousands of years. By our standards, the Inuit were a nomadic people, moving from place to place depending on the seasons. Nomads are roamers though, and they knew exactly where they were going, and it was the same as the year before. They didn’t move only to follow herds of Caribou, or to stay within hunting distance of the Flow Edge. They moved to allow their homes to air out, and to let the scent of man leave for a time, thus allowing nature to follow it’s course uninterrupted by man.

Many of the Inuit ways are confusing to us. They fight for rights to lands rich in mineral deposits, and yet do not mine them. They are a people backed by oral tradition, with knowledge passed down from the Elders. Those who lived solely off of the land are older now, mostly in their 80s, and it’s they who understand the reasons behind the laws. As with many oral traditions, they are passed on only when they are of use to those who keep them, and they are intimately connected with the language they were created in, changing the language changes the meaning of the story. Mika is fighting now to preserve not only her people, but their ancient ways. It isn’t easy, she is bending the rules by recording what has been an oral tradition for so long, and it’s considered rude to tell the Elders what to talk about. On the cusp that binds the generations, Mika is fighting to hold together her culture.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Part 2

Not all struggles can be described in full just by recounting the events. This last day was one of those days. Iʼve deliberated at how to complete this story over the last few days, and have had a great deal of trouble figuring it out. Iʼm still not sure that Iʼve
found the best way to convey the feeling of both desperation and determination that all
of us were going through that morning as we left the last camp amid waist deep snow.
At a certain point, I was acting outside myself, with my self consciousness confined to
the hood of my parka. As nice as it was to be on autopilot, at the same time the danger
of falling into a complacent pace was more than just possible, it was our greatest
enemy. Breaks dragged on, snow still fell. Finally as darkness began to fall, we passed
the final descent to the sea ice and made it to open sea ice. Only 21 miles stood before
us, and for a moment we almost felt we were home. The Sea Ice was slow, and the
blizzard obstructed our view of the city lights. Flickering in the distance, just barely in
visible range, a single light occasionally broke through the storm to guide us home. All
it takes sometimes is a single light to remind you that you arenʼt alone. That there is
someone out there waiting for your arrival, standing and looking into the windswept
darkness waiting for you, silently rooting you on. As hard as those final miles were, they
were impossible to give up on. Our beacon in the dark led us to the waiting friends and
families. They stood in the bitter cold, in the whipping wind and welcomed us home. At
midnight, on the final day, we had finally overcome our greatest challengers, ourselves.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

New Photos From the Race




Qamaluaniq Challenge ~ Part 1


I hate competing. I loathe it. I was convinced by my teammates for an upcoming Ellesemere Island Expedition that it would be good training though. It was only going to be 7 days, and it would be fun. Besides, we weren’t actually “racing,” it was all in the name of fun. I can’t say I was in the least bit excited about covering 320 kilometers without cross country skis, and the mandatory 120 pounds of flower that we were to deliver to Kimmirut. The weight of our gear, the flower, the heavy wooden sleds, and my team mate and I was to much even for the 9 bearlike inuit sled dogs we had fan hitched to the pulling end of the sled. Fan hitch is how the Inuit used to run their dogs. In the Arctic, and near arctic, there aren’t to many trees for the dogs to get tangled up in, so having each dog separately tied to the sled allows them to pick their own path through tide tossed sea ice, and the boulders that roll down from the stone walled canyons broken off by the intense cold. All dogsledding is descendant from the Inuit. It has even been argued that the Inuit could not have survived in the Arctic without dogs. Pieces of dogsleds made from baleen, whales jaw, have been found alongside bones of dogs in archaeological sites 5000 years old, the oldest of the arctic ruins. Not to much has changed in the designs, better wood is brought in and carved into shape. It used to be the only source of wood was driftwood that washed up from the south. Imagine what you might think of driftwood if you have never seen a tree. Imagine what you might have thought of a ship sailing north full of Southlanders were you Inuit. Inuit people imagined ships carved from single gigantic trees. It seems silly to us, but try to fathom a home built from snow warm enough to wear a t-shirt in.

Arguably things have changed more quickly for the Inuit than any other culture. Just 30 years ago, people where still living in Igloos out on the land and traveling by dogsled. A friend, and a great source of knowledge in the wild is a small unassuming woman named Mika. She was number 9 in a family with 12 children, and offers a great perspective on the changes that the Inuit have been through. She sees her siblings as covering three generations, the first children where born out on the land, to a family that moved with the seasons and followed the hunting grounds throughout the year. The middle children were sent to town to go to school, while the family still lived on the land. The last generation of which Mika was a part grew up in a town, close to a school and in a world constantly in touch with what we would call the “Western World” and what they would call the “South.”

On day one of the race, I wrote in my journal that I had just been through the hardest day of my life. Even when the dogs are fresh, and the the trail flat, the dogs had trouble carrying our weight, so one of us was constantly running the flats, climbing the hills, or skating, a technique kind of like riding a giant skate board on your knees. 75 kilometers later, and 2000 vertical feet climbed. We stood atop a plateau that represented (at least to me) five more days of struggle. This same night, the temperature dropped to about -40 degrees. It doesn’t matter if you want it in Fahrenheit or Celsius, at -40 it’s the same. It’s the point where both parties can agree that it’s freezing out. We set up our tents and retreated into our many layers of sleeping bags to sleep out the night.

Do you know that feeling, when you are in your nice warm bed, and the floor around you has cooled in the early hours of the morning but you still can’t sleep because nature has been calling. Eventually you have to throw off the duvet and roll out of bed, your feet cringe as they first touch the floor. Now imagine the same feeling except in a tent at -40. Earlier that night, I had watched water freeze as we poured it into a pot, building a rough stalagmite of ice before our eyes.

Day two was far, far harder. We were already exhausted and sore from the first day, and the dogs must have realized they weren’t going home. According to my GPS we actually did more climbing on day two than on day one, but we didn’t get the satisfaction of standing on top of a peak and looking out over the bay ice to see what our efforts had added up to. The climbing was all done in long slow climbing sections quickly followed by short descents that nullified any gains we felt we had made. A rolling and mostly featureless landscape that offered no short term goals to reach for us or the dogs. Dogs love the rough ice that forms where the frozen ocean has been pushed by tides and winds against the shore into a cracked and broken accordion of Ice. To them it’s the equivalent of a racetrack, they yip and bark and growl each vying for the front position in the pack, another reason why having different length ropes tethering the dogs to the sled is so effective. The Plateau had none of that thrill. Yet, standing on the edge of the plateau at the end of the daylight hours and watching the sunset stands out as one of the most beautiful sights I’ve been privileged enough to see. After descending into that valley during the twilight hours, we lead the dogs for 4 more hours into the night and that stands out as one of the most difficult nights i’ve ever experienced.

The halfway point, Kimmirut, welcomed us on the third evening with a feast and a warm place to lay our sleeping bags. The locals were more than willing to lend a hand with any of our tasks. Even the dogs were treated as royalty, dining on the same fresh meat as the people instead of hard packed and frozen dogfood. Seeing the blend of cultures that have created Kimmirut and the way in which the people live their day to day lives in the far North forces reflection on our own cultural development. After a lengthy prayer by one of the village elders, locals descended upon raw caribou laid out on a sheet of Tyveck. To the side, a table waited with cooked caribou for those that didn’t find the raw caribou appetizing. The inuit culture like many other native peoples has found a blend of religion and tradition with those of the foreigners that have shown up over the years, this blend has paralleled the peoples adaptation to life in houses and villages, as well as having replaced dogsledding with snow-machines. As we found on our return trip to Iqaluit, the changes have their downfalls to survival in the North.

Back at camp 2, with dogs and racers well rested and inspired from an easy day traveling up a frozen river from Kimmirut. They sky held signs of a coming storm, but the racers readied for another day. The race organizer Muni held us back against our will, even though we trust him and his unparalleled knowledge of the trail implicitly. It wasn’t until waiting a full day in the tent that we found out we had been held for a search and rescue operation. Suddenly we didn’t mind waiting so much, the head Ranger, Jameson, was missing. He had left in the early afternoon the day before to pick up spark plugs for the snowmobiles and hadn’t returned. In a landscape as vast and dangerous as this, anything could have happened. Theories on his disappearance verged from the catastrophic to the mundane, but when a man like Jameson disappears without a trace something must have gone horribly wrong. After spending the night in two sleeping bags, a bivy sack, a vapor barrier and a tent, I couldn’t imagine anyone surviving a night out in such bitter cold. Mika was more optimistic, and in her way quietly gave us all hope. The wind had swept away most of the snowmobile tracks, the snow in the sky blended with the snow on the ground, and only the occasional rock added depth or contrast to the scene. In this weather, the Canadian Rangers had combed the land for two days and hadn’t turned up a sign of Jameson. It wasn’t until the next morning, after his second night out that he was found. He had veered off the trail, and had fallen over 20 feet into a ravine breaking his pelvis. He hadn’t moved in two days, and he was alive. Chills sent shock-waves up and down my spine when I heard that he had kept his willpower to live. According to Mika, your will is your strongest force against the cold, and Jameson had little else to protect him.

We had to feed the dogs their emergency food which had previously weighed down the sled even more, along with some of our extra fuel, and without the weight of the flower, climbing back up onto the plateau was tough but quick and manageable, the weather was holding, and the dogs had had plenty of rest. Throughout the day, the weather slowly started to lean towards storming, the wind began to build, and oddly enough the temperature began to rise. Dogs run slow in the warm weather. I watched my altimeter all day, and the barometric pressure was dropping faster than we were climbing indicating the onset of a low pressure system. By nightfall, we were in a blizzard, winds buffeted the tents at 60 miles an hour and our dogs had curled up into themselves letting the snow cover them for more insulation. Again, we had no choice but to wait it out in our tents.

Two mornings later, I stepped out of the tent to find our sleds buried, our tents in self created wind wells, and the dogs still sleeping under the snow. It was late in the morning, and according to the locals, it was the most snow to have dropped in over 15 years. Snowmobiles where bogging down before they even began to move, tents had been ravaged, the storm was in a lull and would begin anew at any moment. We had 50 miles to go, and not enough food to wait out the storm.

Friday, March 14, 2008

The Northern Lights


Tonight I went outside to catch some fresh air, I'd spent the majority of my day inside packing food for the expedition, and the fresh air was a great way to unwind. Looking up into the starry sky, a faint green ribbon, almost smoky in appearance began to unravel across the sky. Within seconds, the most beautiful Northern Lights I've ever seen burst into the atmosphere and unfurled in hues of green and purple. The green is common, but the purple is a rare treat. The lights are caused when Light from the sun enters the atmosphere at an angle that ionizes certain atoms in the upper atmosphere giving off the light that can range from soft and lazy, to a rapid fire kaleidoscope reminiscent of a lazer show from the 90's. When we are in Ellesmere Island, we won't be able to see the Northern lights, because there will be no night, and the sun will not set while we are are above the arctic circle. The lights were feared in ancient times by the Inuit, but now that it is understood that they do not bring harm, they serve only to inspire.

Iqaluit to Kimmirut and Back

So tomorrow the team and I are leaving for a 7 day dogsled race to Kimmirut and back. The round trip will be 320 Kilometers, most of those miles will be run by at least one team member. Tomorrow will be our hardest day, and I'm glad that we are getting it out of the way right off the bat. We will sled for about three hours to cross the bay, then we'll hit rough sea ice that has pressed into shore all winter, creating massive folds in ice many meters thick. Just behind the sea ice, our trail heads for the sky, and a very poorly covered slope strewn with boulders marks the beginning of 700 meters of climbing. The dogs are not going to be very happy about this, and I probably won't be either. To do a race of this distance is intimidating, but to do it in the frigid temperatures that we will be in is downright terrifying. It's so cold out here, that cargo holds and transport trucks called "refrigerators" are actually heated to keep food from freezing to much.

There are six teams in the race, one of them has already said that he will only be along for half of the race, he already had to do the first part of the course just to get to town, and the tough 70 year old Inuit man is running with puppies, as all of his dogs died from disease last year. It's guys like this that make me reevaluate myself. What I call adventure, and what I prepare for many months to do, this guy has done his whole life. I listened very carefully to his words of advice through an interpreter last night as he advised the teams on the condition of the trail, the speed of the snow, and the dangers that we will be encountering. I am certain that his words will echo in my mind as all that he warned us of comes to pass.

Training




With most of the team here finally, and the expedition coming up quickly, we have been working overtime trying to get everything ready. Food needs to be packed so that in two months when we pull it out of the box, we aren’t missing anything, and gear needs to be tested and readied for the expedition. Even with all of the things we have to do, the dogs need to be run every day.

Time is running short. But every day, when we get out on the ice with the dogs, everything seems worth while. Passing kilometer after kilometer in the silence, with the beautiful and surreal landscape stretching out around us, our stresses disappear. Training in Iqaluit is not just getting our body ready for the physical stresses of skiing all day every day, or staying warm in the cold. Training is also getting our minds ready for the solitude that we will find on the ice. Ellesmere Island offers some of the most remote landscapes in the world.

For me, training also involves figuring out what camera equipment I should be taking with me, and how my equipment will handle the cold. I’ve already learned so much about taking pictures in the cold, but in training, I always have a warm place to come home to. Hopefully, we will all be able to learn as we go, and adapt to our environment well enough to get our job done. The pictures from Ellesmere Island will be used to show the world the effects that global warming has on our planet, and because of that the pictures are one of the most important aspects of this trip.

In a couple of days, we will have our best training run yet. We are doing the 6 day race from Iqaluit to Kimmirut and back. We will get to test our gear, our food, and our stamina in another beautiful landscape. For us, the race is about figuring out our systems, and having fun. Winning would be a great bonus though!

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Friluftsliv

Friluftsliv (frí-loofts-live)

Toby taught me a new word in Norwegian today. We were having a conversation about languages and how you can express certain things more precisely in one language verses another. Toby speaking more than 4 languages was more than understanding of what I meant by that. I gave the example of one of my favorite spanish words, ‘tranquilo’ which translates directly to ‘tranquil’ but it’s meaning is so much deeper. It’s a way of being, a mood, and is a way of life in sleepy little beach towns in Central America.

Friluftsliv. It means literally: Free-Air-Life but again, the real meaning is so much deeper. Like any of these words, they loose meaning when they are forced into another language. Toby helped me understand the meaning by changing the words around to “open air life,” We can get a general understanding of the meaning right off the bat, just as we know the “meaning” of the word tranquil. But in Norway, it goes deeper.

It means living in the open air, but living ‘for’ the open air. You may be stuck in an office all week, but you look forward to spending your weekend outdoors. You could drive your car, but you walk. It means that your heart is in the fresh air, and you will do whatever you can to be there. I guess in a way, it combines a few of our american words. Like the over used and bastardized environmental word ‘Green’ and the personality trait ‘outdoorsy.’ You could probably even throw in a little bit of ‘inspired.’

We may not be able to pronounce ‘fruluftsliv’ with any sort of accuracy, but we can certainly make an effort to live by it. I’ve seen the effect of the word, even before I knew it existed. When at 53 years old, my dad suddenly decided to become a surfer and get in shape, or in the way my 83 year old grandmother still goes hiking after a recent hip surgery.

There is a power that language holds that is revealed to those people like Toby who speak a number of them. Like my friend Wade taught me, Language is not just a code that is designed to explain the world, it is a way of seeing your world.