In mid-March 2023, a group of old friends set out from the UK, France and New Zealand to traverse the amazing Akshayuk Pass in the Auyuittuq National Park, Baffin Island.
Words by Thom Reilly
Photos by Toby Gee and Expedition members
We were on an unsupported expedition, so all our gear (tent, good, stove, fuels, sleeping bag and mat etc) was in our pulks, which weighed up to 45 kgs each fully laden. Progress was at times effortless as the pulks glided uncomplaining behind us as we skied across the smooth snow or stomped on crampons across the unruffled ice. Progress was not so smooth (or so much fun) when we were pulling across undulating tundra or wind-scored sand, but overall the trek was neither physically, nor technically demanding. The big threat - and what made this trek so challenging - was the cold.
When we said we were setting off on 23 March, wiser heads were appalled “Why on earth are you going so early? It will be freezing”. They were right: it was. We recorded minus 36 one night and as far as we are aware, during the 11 days we were on the Pass, the temperature did not climb above minus 23.
Living in such brutal cold is attritional. The cold finds every chink, every gap in your clothing. If your feet sweat in the boots, the liners freeze to the outers, meaning a colossal struggle at the end of each day to extract the inners and try to thaw them over night. If we over-exerted ourselves pulling the pulks and got a bit hot, as soon as we stopped, we were instantly cold - there is no transition from hot, to warm, to cold.
We were confident that even had the wind blown at full-tilt, our tents would have stood the test. On the final few nights, we camped on the sea ice, with little snow for the valances - instead, we used the weight of the pulks and the tent pegs hammered into the five-foot thick ice.
But even tents as good as those could not keep the brutal cold out. We tried to always stop with a few hours of daylight left to get the tents up and dig the snow for melting for our evening’s food and drink. When the tents were up, there was a scramble to get arms, feet, legs into the sleeping bags. I was incredibly grateful for my thick, Mountain Equipment bag - even though the condensation inside the tent penetrated the Drilite covering after eight days, it kept me warm and toasty and I felt rather uncharitably smug when friends in other bags complained of being cold overnight!
The stoves started burning almost before the gear was unloaded from the pulks. Drinking plenty and staying well-hydrated helps protect the body from the cold and of course there is no water – melting snow is your only life line on this trip. Once camp was set up, the high point of the day – FOOD! Then melting drinking water was the next job on for the following day.
We were blessed with near-perfect weather - clear skies and very little wind. On the occasions the wind did blow, we realised that walking into a gale would have been a very different proposition from the carefree progress we made as we walked and talked across the Island.
I went with Mountain Equipment GORE-TEX jacket and trousers, which were fantastic. The venting system gave just the right amount of flexibility to respond to the needs of the day and the faux-fur we were advised to modify them with and sew onto the hood was a godsend when the wind did blow and we were forced to draw in the hoods.
The Akshayuk Pass is stunning - every day brought variety and more beauty. The first day we were drawn behind two skidoos in wooden boxes to avoid the worst of the polar bear zones but after that, we were on our own.
The most glorious sense of isolation - the apocalypse could have occurred and we would have been none the wiser! The perfect, unbroken sound of silence. The sense of camaraderie amongst the group (it helped that most of had known each other for more than 20 years). The astounding night skies, the northern lights.
When we left the sea-ice, the scenery became even more amazing as we climbed up the terminal moraine to camp in front of the flat-headed Asgard. And then slipped and slid down the frozen river the next day to camp opposite the imposing majesty of Thor, bending his back to stare down into the valley, his 1,250 metre face frowning down at us, as we plotted impossible routes up it.
When the trip ended in Pangnirtung, I for one felt bereft. It was truly memorable and the quality of the kit we took with us meant that even had the weather turned bad, I was at all times confident of our ability to face it and survive. We are already planning our next adventure!