An Arctic Expedition to Ellesmere Island
Story by Ben Horton
The happiest I’ve ever been, was in one of the most improbable places you can imagine. For two months, home was in a single-wall tent where the temperatures dropped to as low as -40 degrees. To stay warm during the day, we had to constantly move. We ran or cross-country ski’d 25 kilometers a day along 1000 pound sleds being pulled by 10 mighty huskies. At night, we curled up inside of four layers of sleeping bags with only our mouths outside of the insulation.
Our breath would freeze to the tent walls in layers of frost, and the slightest breeze would shake it loose. It was like it was snowing inside the tent as we slept. In the morning, 3-4 inches of breath snow would surround us, and whoever woke up first swept out the ice before starting the stove.
Happiness seems impossible on a journey like this, but in truth I was happier than ever. It makes me wonder if perhaps we really don’t understand what it is that brings us joy. We look for happiness in comfort, warmth, and by surrounding ourselves with friendship and love, but we can find it with only a well defined goal and trusted companions.
The goal on our expedition was simple, to cross 1400 miles of arctic ice as the 24 hour nights turned to 24 hour days and bring back first hand accounts of global warming to the world. I came on the trip as the photographer, sent by National Geographic, with arctic explorers Sarah and Eric McNair-Landry, Iditarod racer Sigrid Ekran, Arctic Sailer Tobias Thorleifson, Adventurer Sam Branson, and our mentor, Arctic legend Will Steiger.
The toughest part of the trip by far was the training. The training alone caused me to question whether I should be on this expedition. It was in no small part because I wasn’t in shape to ski 25 kilometers a day, but to add to it, my body was not ready to deal with -40 degree temperatures. It took some time for my metabolism to kick in, and for me to figure out exactly how many layers I needed to wear. Too many layers, and you sweat, sweat leads to ice in your clothes and they no longer insultate you at all. Too few, and well, too few just leaves you cold and miserable as well.
Toward the end of training in Baffin Island, we decided to test our efficiency on a race from Iqaluit to a small town called Kimmirut 150 miles away. The race was there and back, over a mountain range, against 5 teams. We’d been training for a month and felt we were ready, our dogs were getting better at heeding our commands, and we were getting comfortable with the environment.
On race day, we showed up with our dogs, sleds, and bags packed. We had our ski’s on our feet when we found that the they were not allowed. Most of the racers were traveling solo, and could ride the dogsled most of the time, so we saw this as a fair compromise. Since we were in teams of two, and our dogs were still not ready to pull such heavy loads, the confiscation of the ski’s meant we would be running along beside the sled for 300 miles. I don’t run, in fact I’m not sure if I’ve ever run a mile in my life.
The first 150 miles were testing, but manageable. Some days were better than others, but at the halfway point I was certain that we’d be able to make the return trip with style. The most treacherous portions of the trip were over, we’d managed to descend from the mountain tops into the valley below via a steep and dangerous trail without killing ourselves or our dogs, and the return though strenuous was not dangerous.
It was on the return trip that everything began to fall apart. One of the Inuit safety crew went missing and we waited for three days while a search and rescue operation attempted to find him. He was eventually found alive, his femur was broken from taking his snowmobile off of a cliff, but otherwise was in good condition, only suffering from mild frostbite and some dehydration. I truly believe only the Inuit could have survived as he did, laying in the snow for 3 days in -40 degrees. During that time though, we had run low on food for ourselves and for the dogs, and a massive storm had begun to build against the mountains.
The storm would end up being the worst blizzard they had experienced in 16 years, dropping 2 meters of fresh powder snow on the arctic ice. The arctic rarely sees such deep snow, the cold generally keeps the moisture from condensing into flakes with enough weight to fall as snow. Now our hard packed trail of ice was a waist deep on the humans, and the dogs were essentially swimming.
Halfway home, we ran out of dog food. We decided that a push for home was the best choice since the storm made no sign of letting up, and the closer we were to Iqaluit the better our chances of rescue if it came to that. This meant covering 120 miles in a single push, luckily trending downhill with only a few mountains left to climb.
For the most part, the day is a blur. I can remember only a few moments. I was the only person who took a GPS track, so when the whiteout was at it’s worse and we could barely see our own dogs in front of the sled, I remember taking the lead with my nose buried in the GPS. I tried to stay as close as possible to the original track to avoid falling into ravines or off of the side of the mountains. After that, my first memory is of when we reached a bay which was the last leg of the journey.
This crossing, although 32 kilometers long, felt like we were almost home. The ice we hoped would be flat with hard, wind packed snow for us to glide across with ease.
It was not so simple. The snow had piled up into drifts like sand dunes across the entire bay. By now it was night, and our only hint that we were almost home was the occasional light of the city as the storm fluctuated. For hours we pushed the sled over drift after drift, and at one point, I collapsed behind the sled from exhaustion, hanging on as it drug me through the snow.
The dogs had no motivation left, they were exhausted, pushed to their limit just as we were. The slightest thing would set them off, and if we took a break they would collapse into deep sleep rather than engage in their usual banter. Once they were close enough to home to sense it, a new energy took hold of them and we cruised through the last hours of the 18 hour push.
The town was there to welcome us, standing out in the cold with camera crews and hot drinks, but we were too exhausted to take part. We quickly separated from the mass and put the dogs to bed, wandering back to our beds alone without many words.
One Month Later in the High Arctic
A few hundred miles from the North Pole, on the edge of Ellesmere Island, I was alone, skiing along a mountain ridge. I had covered nearly 40 miles already that day, and it was one of our rest days. The dogs tied up in camp were restless, but we were ahead of schedule so we’d all gone our separate ways for the day. I’d been following wolf tracks in hopes of capturing a photo of the rare white arcitc wolves. Thinking back to the stress of the race, this was a breeze. The sun was now shining 24 hours a day, my body was tuned to be able to cover massive distances, and the “warmer” -20 degrees was sweatshirt weather compared to earlier in the month.
Up here, there was nothing really to worry about, no taxes, jobs, drama, no need to look cool, no reputation. It’s easy now to understand why I was so happy. My need for “adventure” in the form of sports was replaced by survival. Our only goal was to chase the horizon, to cover ground and bring home a story.
It’s been years since I traveled across the arctic. In that time I’ve had many new experiences and adventures. But, I’ve never found that peace again. Maybe it’s time for a new challenge, something else that I don’t think I can do to push me to my breaking point. Maybe, my happiness came from overcoming a challenge that even I didn’t believe I could.