All winter, snug at home in Rockville, I had been dreaming of Canada's Pangnirtung Pass. Even the summer terrain there, I remembered, was an Olympian obstacle course worse than anything a Maryland winter could dish out: steep boulder-ridden moraines, glacial tongues, icy rivers, quicksand, spongy muskeg, tussock fields, rock deserts, avalanches-and perhaps worst of all, totally unpredictable weather.
A trek across this pass in Baffin Island's Auyuittuq National Park would take me through a never-ending procession of such conditions for 60 miles as the tern flies-the ground distance is more like 100 miles-along a mountain-shadowed corridor that branches across the Cumberland Peninsula at the Arctic Circle and links Davis Strait to Cumberland Sound.
Pangnirtung Pass is so forbidding that it is traditionally avoided by the Inuit (as the Eskimos call themselves) who prefer using the less hazardous, less difficult Kingnait Pass to the east.
"Our life has always been a constant struggle for existence," my Inuit friend Elijah Nowdlak had reminded me. "Hiking difficult routes is not something we enjoy or go out of our way to do."
Only suburbanites like myself, weary of sidewalk trails, asphalt fiords and concrete mountains go looking for exotic adventures of this sort. And apparently there are not that many of us. Since Auyuittuq opened in 1972, only 30 people have completed the trek, which is considered one of the world's greatest hiking challenges.
Mingled with my anticipation was caution, learned from J. Dewey Soper, a Smithsonian naturalist and arctic explorer, one of the first outsiders to cross the pass and the first to report on its geography. Soper's trip was made by dogsled during the winter of 1925. Entries in his logbook read: "This monster of a pass has some torment in store for us every day in the way of difficulties, hardship and suffering. . . . Despite many years of travel and exploration in Baffin Island, the Pangnirtung Pass journey was the most harsh and harrowing that I ever experienced."
My plan was to fly to Broughton Island on Davis Strait, and from there to travel 60 miles by canoe to where the pass begins, reasoning that it was easier to start with Broughton's chronic bad weather than to end with it.
Hiking with me would be Herb Bleur, Swiss-born mountaineer, professional skier and experienced Canadian mountain guide. Herb had hiked the southern half of the pass several times the previous summer but never the entire route. We hoped to make the walk quickly in four days so we would have to carry a minimum of food. We also planned to reach one of the park's emergency shelters each night.
It happened that when we finally got to Broughton, we met two young women who were also planning to hike at the same time and who hoped to be among the first women to hike the pass: Marilyn Walker, an anthropologist and archeologist, and Kim Tyler, a glaciologist. Both the women were living in the settlement while they worked on scientific projects in and around the park. Kim had been studying the glacial and climatic history of Baffin for the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research at the University of Colorado. Marilyn, as a member of the Canadian government's Thule Archaeology Conservation Project, surveyed and excavated ancient sites-dating to 1000 A.D.-around Broughton and conducted on-the-job training in field archeology for her Inuit students assistants.
On Sunday, Aug. 8, the four of us left a cold and ice-clogged Broughton Island, cruising by motor canoe to the head of North Pangnirtung Fiord. It was slow going through the waters of Davis Strait, which were still filled with broken ice, and our guide Jacobee Alilkatuktuk searched carefully for a way through the floating maze. Once into the fiord's channel, we left the ice behind. On both sides mile-high and mile-wide mountains lined the shores as if ancient guardians. Gulls soared in the wide space of sky between the dark rock walls.
"You feel so small in here, so unnoticed," Marilyn said. "We seem as big as the birds."
Early Monday morning we were on our way, not so much walking as battling the ground for balance and forward progress. First came acres of ankle-deep muskeg, spongy bogs that pull on human feet like suction cups. That gave way to rocklands, seas of scattered stones and boulders as numerous as the stars. There we stumbled, teetered and tottered, balancing on rocks and stepping over them, hoping that a misstep would not break an ankle or cause a headlong crash.
When the wind let up, thousands of stinging mosquitoes swarmed around us. Stumble flats and soggy bottoms continued for 10 hours; 20 miles on a flat map, we discovered, included an uncalculated vertical distance of endless stepping up and down.
Something totally unexpected began to happen to my legs after about five hours. Severe pain hit my knees, then my legs, and made each step a conscious, painful effort. For hours at a time I had to literally grab my trousers and pull my leg up to a rock or out of the muskeg. (Later the condition was diagnosed as chondromalacia, a minute misalignment of bone and joint aggravated by the terrain. No hint of the condition had ever surfaced before and very little has occurred since.)
Like it or not, I had to keep going; the nearest radio was 40 miles away at Summit Lake cabin. To go back to Broughton was out of the question, the distance being greater and ice conditions getting worse on Davis Strait. When we reached the cabin on the Owl River, I was limping badly; the pain was excruciating. I was not the only one in pain; Kim had bleeding blisters and one of Marilyn's ankles had begun to swell.
"That was a bad one," said Herb, "probably the roughest hike we'll have. Getting to Summit Lake tomorrow will take a little longer, but it shouldn't be much worse." Exhausted, we ate and fell to sleep.
At 4 a.m. we agreed to move on. Before us lay the Owl River, covered by a gray mist that hung above the entire landscape. I could hear the muffled and distant roar of waterfalls crashing down the mountain walls; a light rain began to fall.
The river was a mile wide with a hundred small channels separated by thin sand bars. At its deepest the water was not expected to exceed three feet, and generally to be no deeper than around the knees. If we stepped into quicksand, which was likely, Herb advised that we should step out "quickly."
Although we changed to dry clothing afterward, condensation, sweat and constant water crossings kept us wet for the entire trek. Waterproof bags on our feet proved worthless. The temperature stayed in the 30-to 50-degree range, but because we kept moving most of the time, we stayed warm.
We followed Herb into the icy water. The long wades across the Owl were numbing, even though woolens, and if it hadn't been for sand bars, I don't think we could have made it. Quicksand pockets and tumbling rocks plagued us, and we slipped into the water many times. It took an hour to cross the Owl, the beginning of a day I would remember as a walk through hell.
We hiked apart most of the time, silent and withdrawn, hypnotized by the constant attention we had to give to the obstacles beneath our feet.The outer silence of the walls and our inner woe made unspoken point and counterpoint. I was conscious of little more than moving with pain through space.
"Lift, damn you!" I would growl to my legs. But they barely responded.
The miles inched by as the hours passed. Moraine after rocky moraine stood in our way in their never-ending hateful diversity of size and shape, color and texture. Inventive nature left me cold.
We rested every hour and ate and drank a little. Our progress was slow but even so I began to fall behind. We had all given up complaining long ago. Another crossing of the Owl lay ahead as I limped about 30 minutes behind the others. I pushed myself out of fear of being left behind.
I groaned or snarled or cursed aloud with each step and somehow felt better for it. It was as if I were living out a curse. Somewhere was the me I wanted to be, but he hid in another time and place. I slouched along like a wounded animal. Coming to the water I realized that I would have to cross alone; the others had gone over a distant moraine and were out of sight.
Carelessly, I waded into the swift current and was immediately knocked down. The weight of my waterlogged clothing and pack kept me from getting my balance. Revived and thoroughly drenched by the freezing water, I got to my feet and hurriedly pushed on; a half-mile of river channels were ahead.
Suddenly I found myself going deeper; the water had risen to my belt, and I tried to back away. Then, as if in a nightmare, I sank, sucked down into quicksand! In a frenzy, I threw off my pack and camera; water was at my chest. I struggled for my life-pulling, flailing, swimming; I went under and pulled at my mired legs. Again I went under, pulling violently. Suddenly I was free, swimming-pushed by the current to a sand bar. I pulled myself onto it, numb and exhausted.
I had to get moving to warm up. I retrieved my pack from a sand bar nearby and carried it over one shoulder, ready to drop it quickly. My camera was lost.
The others had just climbed back down from the high moraine when I caught up with them. It had been a bad route. Without any words we moved on.
Snow began to fall; lightly at first, then a blinding white-out with driving, freezing wind. Trudging into the storm, unable to see any part of the mountains, we stopped and studied our map. Herb took off for a reconnaissance and we waited, walking around to keep warm; we had been going for 10 hours.
Herb returned to say we were off course; we would have to backtrack across a huge moraine-a particularly difficult sidehill climb along the outside edge of large, sharp, slippery boulders. I had barely made the moraine on the first crossing, and I felt utterly defeated; my legs were in pain and barely operating.
Kim and Marilyn, exhausted and hurting, said they would continue. The snow-storm beat down on us.
My pack was too great a burden, and I tossed it aside. Herb, without a word, picked it up and strapped it on top of his. We moved on. He must have been carrying a hundred pounds, yet he carried both packs for several hours across the moraine until he could no longer catch his breath.
A tongue of high glacier stretched before us. We moved single-file across the ice field. Slowly, carefully, with deftness, Herb led us across slush ice, around crevasses, up and down the slippery ice hills. A deep river of melt water roared beneath the glacier, gouging deep ice canyons 15 feet beneath us.
Too soon the moraines again. We pushed our bodies to the limits of endurance, punishing ourselves further by believing the torture would end over the next moraine.
I stopped to drink water from a tundra rivulet and a shocking crack, sounding like the earth had just split open, pulled my head up. Avalanche! My heart froze. Could one of those 10-story boulders bound this far? I had lost all sense of distance and could only wonder. Perhaps a mile away, the rocks came crashing down; I watched fascinated, immobile with fear. Then silence and rock dust rose like steam along the trail of the avalanche. I was shaking, thinking the mountain had spoken to me.
The moraines rolled on. I decided they would keep on forever. But then there was muskeg. Then flats of a million awkward stones. Muskeg again. Quicksand! More stones. Stones, stones, stones, stones.
At midnight, in the cold shine of a beacon moon, we reached the cabin at Summit Lake. We were numb in mind and body, soaking wet. It had been 20 hours since we had stepped into the Owl River that morning.
"It's over!" said Kim. "All damn day I've been waiting to say that." Then she grinned. "You know, it really wasn't so bad." Kim, whose bloody feet looked like they had been hit by mortar shrapnel, who had not complained once, who for the last hellish miles walked so slowly that she seemed to stand and sleep at the same time.
After two days' rest, we all had healed somewhat. Marilyn was hobbling on her taped ankle; Kim's blisters were covered with rubber pads and bandaged; I limped with only slight pain. I limped with only slight pain. Herb made us walking sticks from and old board and insisted on taking everyone's heavy gear in his pack.
"These last two hikes are a piece of cake," he said. We were ready for a little sweetness.
A rare, beautiful day brightened our spirits for the entire 10 hours 10 Windy Lake. It was a time to savor the exquisite tundra carpet and its unstable crust of life. White and yellow mountain avens, purple saxifrage, pink willow herb, and white tufts of cotton grass swayed in the breeze. Delicate lichen lay like a covering of lace over the summer plains and hills. The sweet, piney aroma of Labrador tea rose as we walked on it and crushed its leaves. Clumps of sorrel offered delicious tangy greens to eat as we walked. Edible mushrooms were a temptation we passed. Dwarf willow spread its gnarled branches into inch-hiigh thickets.
All the plants hug and mantle the moss of the tundra-which is frozen a few feet down-and, of course, there are no recognizable trees. Life is not an apparent part of this landscape until you are right on top of it. Looking closely at the plants, I began to see spiders, large bumblebees, butterflies, even a few flies. Fresh scat from geese lay everywhere. A few ravens, a few snow geese, glaucous gulls, snow buntings, and a single lemming were the only animals I observed. Some antlers from long-gone caribou occasionally protruded from the ground. The mosquitoes took the calm and warm day as an invitation to resume their assaults, but somehow even they were not so bad.
The mountains were so huge that often they faded as featureless masses into the background of themselves, but this day they were perfect in their grandeur, etching their contours into the perfect blue sky. Old friend Thor changed his face a thousand times as we altered our angle of vision, approaching and passing and looking back-a sight which took several hours to see.
Now we were enjoying the trails that Herb and Inuit wardens had made the previous summer. Rocke cairns-called innukshuks by the Inuit-marked the easiest way. The Weasel River, deep and torrential at our crossing, had a cable spanning it thanks again to Herb; in great contrast to our crossing of the Owl, we whizzed across harnessed to carabiners, oval snap rings. Kim had so much fun that she did it twice.
After a night at Windy Lake, we set out for the last part of our journey. Four hours later we sighted the warden's cabin at Overlord Mountain and the dark green waters of the fiord stretching out before us. It began to rain hard, drenching us for an hour before we were sheltered in the cabin. We smiled and nodded to each other; somehow we had crossed Pangnirtung Pass.
We sat in the cabin, our heads still swimming in the airy spaces of Auyuittuq, and waves, huddled and sprawled waited for the motor canoe like newborns cast out from which finally took us-in the the birth canal-20 silent lashing rain, over mauling miles back to Pangnirtung. CAPTION: Picture 1, At left, hikers prepare to leave from Broughton Island through the ice of Davis Strait. Seen from left are Tyler, Walker and Bleur. By Fred Kline; Picture 2, Above, Tyler uses a carabiner to cross part of the Owl River. By Marilyn Walker; Picture 3, Above, Tyler and Bleur hiking the first section of the six-day trip. By Fred Kline; Picture 4, Below Tyler, Bleur and Kline stop for a food and water break while on their way to a cabin beside the mile-wide Owl River, which they crossed the following day. By Fred Kline;
Picture 5, Above, author Kline and another hiker who was camped nearby rest and relax after Kline's group had made an exhausting 20-hour, day-and-night trek to this rest area at Summit Lake. The hikers spent two days recuperating at the shelter before starting off on another two days of hiking. By Marilyn Walker; Picture 6, Above, an aerial view of Pangnirtung Pass in April, bordered by mile-high and mile-wide mountains still iced over. Since Canada's Auyuittuq National Park was opened in 1972, only about 30 people have made the trek. Local Eskimos find the pass so difficult to cross that they rarely use it. By Fred Kline.