Saturday, January 23, 2010

Long Day Hike


Two days ago, on August 9, several of us here at Alexandra Fjord hiked nearly the full north-south length of the ridge that borders the lowlands to the east. That was also the day the Canadian Coast Guard paid us a visit, but I did not talk about our long hike.

Katherine had work to do all day – she works very hard – so she could not join us, but the rest of us here left camp shortly before 10:00am. Myself, Ann, Sarah, Erin, and Knut quickly reached and crossed the larger, more distant river that flows near the eastern side of the valley and drains the Twin Glacier.

The northern end of the ridge, viewed from near the southern edge of the Dome. The first leg of our route is shown in red.

The ascent up to the first saddle-ridge on the lowest hill was about half-covered in arctic blueberry bushes (Vaccinium uliginosum), with a mix of granite and dolomite on the steeper slopes. The rocks were similar for the ascent to the ridge-back, and the slope was never particularly steep and formed a series of shallowly-pitched and gently rounded benches.

Once up on the spine of the ridge, a broad and nearly flat boulder garden of granite, we could not see the valley nor the ocean to the east unless we wandered close to the edge. This terrain was quite different from anything I’ve walked any distance over before, a continuous expanse of large piled boulders, with occassional low dune-like ridges or bedrock outcrops.

Part of the ridge-back, a field of boulders stretching to a near horizon. Patches were pink, others were grey, and every once in a while would be a large block of white quartz.

On top of the tallest bedrock outcrop around, a few blocks of white quartz. Were they placed here by someone, or did they previously cap this block of granite, and crumbled under the onslaught of countless Arctic winters?

The mouth of Alexandra Fjord where it opens to Buchanan bay.

The weather started quite good and got better during the day. It would have been difficult to choose better weather for our excursion. Lunch was had near the top of the ascent to the ridge, and we stopped occassionally while walking south for short breaks. It was during this stage that the differences in walking speeds in the group became apparent – Knut moved much faster than the rest of us, speeding ahead out of sight frequently, while Ann and Erin fell behind. I waffled between accompanying the slower walkers and and walking at my faster speed to explore. The speed of the group as whole, of course, was the speed of the slowest members, so moving very quickly was simply tiring.

Ann and Erin on the ridge-back.

There were occassional patches of surprisingly lush vegetation scattered on the ridge-back, with incredibly bright-green willows and tall sedges growing among brilliant red, green, and black mosses.

We gauged our progress by our apparent position relative to the glaciers and ridges on the opposite side of the valley. After a few hours of fairly easy hiking, we realized we were well south of the toe of the Twin glacier, and that a proglacial lake described to us by other people and on a few maps must be nearby.

Knut (I think) on a low wall of boulders on the ridge-back, with the Twin glacier’s parent icefield in the background.

We decided the lake must be close when we encountered this road-like meadow running down to the west from the ridge-back.

An undoctored photo I took of myself using the timer function on my camera. The rock I placed it on looked more level than it really was.

Knut and I pushed a little ways further to the south and west, and Sarah explored a bit to the west down the road-like meadow. After a bit of wandering, Knut declared he could see the described lake, and we congregated near the rocky point he had scrambled up.

The upper reaches of the Twin glacier, showing the east lobe (nearer) and west lobe just above where they converge.

What may or may not be the proglacial lake described to us previously. Certainly not reachable on this trip, it lies on the other side of a glacier flowing east to the sea (not visible in this picture) and is at least one kilometre from the furthest-south point we reached.

My companions enjoying the spectacular views.

After fretting about the time for a bit (it was after 4:00pm by this point) we finally got moving again, descending and curving to the north below the road-like meadow. Our highest altitude achieved at our southern limit was about 750m. At around 450m there is a cluster of boulder piles that I marked in my GPS as “lumpy”.

Just above the lumpy region.

The lumpy region narrowed into a series of canyons between towering piles of granite and dolomite. It was somewhat maze-like, but we managed to keep reasonably close together. This winding path descends steeper as we continued down and northward, approaching the flank of the Twin glacier below its convergence.

Sarah and Knut admiring the view from atop a near-vertical rocky slope. The toe of the Twin glacier is imediately below and to their right. Not pictured: the very sketchy and difficult descent we made just below them.

The steepest descent was as we got quite near the flank of the glacier, and terrain that must have been covered by the glacier very recently. Based on comments made by people who have been at Alexandra fjord years ago, and by glaciologists, I would not be surprised to learn our route was glacier-covered only a few decades ago.

Ann and Erin carefully descending the very steep and very loose boulder slope below the previous picture.

Ann and Erin picking their way around a salt-encrusted bedrock outcrop that I had foolishly descended nearly straight down. The rocks are all very loose, such that actually secure foot- and handholds are nearly non-existent in this area. I came close to tumbling down a couple of times, and slid on my butt more than once to negotiate particular spots.

At the bottom of the really quite scary descent, close to the flank of the glacier, we entered a tiny canyon not unlike the tiny canyon Katherine and I found on the other side of the river below the Twin glacier. Sarah and Knut had descended first, and Knut had gone ahead to return to camp. The idea was that he would be able to return to camp in time to prevent too much worry on Katherine’s part, and to get dinner started.

Ann and Erin in the tiny canyon.

Ann and Erin at the mouth of the tiny canyon, just above where its tiny stream joins the main river draining the Twin glacier.

With Knut well on his way ahead of us, we rested for a time below the canyon, on a small meadow of moss and Cassiope heather beside the river. Everyone was tired, and we all needed a bit of a break after the sketchy steep descent we’d just gotten past.

After our rest, we proceeded north down the east side of the river, on a narrow strip of valley-bottom between the ridge and the river. We had left our chest waders near the river at its delta just above where it reaches the fjord.

Walking down beside the river.

We reached camp just after 9:00pm, much later than had been planned. I was unaware, but plans had apparently been made to check-in by satellite telephone with Katherine at 6:00pm, and had included a belief that we’d be back by then in any case. Katherine had become quite concerned when we did not check in, and had not appeared some 2 hours after our supposed return time. Knut arrived and described our location and progress about 10 minutes before Katherine was thinking of heading out to look for us. Sorry, Katherine, that was a stupid mistake on our parts. While I can claim ignorance of the plans that led to this situation, I cannot claim a lack of responsibility, and I think I should have made my own plans regarding return and contact times. Sorry.

Overall, it was a spectacular day trip, and we covered around 15 kilometres of rough ground, with the gain and then loss of about 750m of altitude. The proglacial lake we saw may or may not have been the lake described to us previously, I’ve seen maps showing a lake near that position but I don’t know how much has changed with the retreating glaciers since those maps were made. If anyone else would like to try this hike, I recommend the following:
1. Make a better, firmer plan before departure. This is not extremely dangerous terrain, but medical or SAR assistance is normally very, very far away. We happened to have a Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker and its helicopter in our neighborhood, but even so this was by no means a totally safe trip.
2. Stick to the plan. One of the problems we had, fundamentally, was a lack of communication. Don’t say you “might” or “will try” to call at a certain time, say exactly what you will do and when, and make sure your safety person back at camp knows exactly what these details are.
3. Leave earlier. Much earlier. Without the distraction of the Coast Guard’s visit, we might have left at 9:00am. A 7:30 or 8:00 departure would have been far superior, and might have prevented some of the rushed feeling we had during the last couple of hours when we were at our most tired and moving slowly.
4. Bring spare camera memory and batteries. The views are truly amazing. You’ll take more pictures than you think.

No comments: