On a recent ski/hike tour through Baffin Island’s majestic Auyuittuq National Park, one of TLH’s senior heli-ski guides explores a place few humans have ever ventured.
After leading clients on epic runs through spectacular South Chilcotin backcountry for most of the winter, it would be understandable if veteran TLH guide Matt Valade wanted to simply relax in his Squamish home during the offseason. And maybe get in some kayaking and hiking. Or a few rounds of golf.
But the call of the wild is never quiet in Valade’s soul. So when it recently called him to seize a unique opportunity to lead a group of French clients on a traverse of Baffin Island’s Penny Ice Cap, this seasoned adventurer didn't hesitate to answer 'mais oui'!
The people I guided are crazy about the arctic,” says Valade. "They love going up there, and they make a trip every couple of years. Two years ago they were on an island between Baffin and Ellesmere Island called Devon Island."
This time, their high arctic odyssey began in late May with a flight from Ottawa to Iqaluit, where they caught a twin otter that would deposit them, their sleds and hundreds of pounds of gear – enough to sustain them during their 9-day ski trek across part of the Penny Icecap. Their adventure began at the southern end of the ice cap close to Mount Asgard and ended at Coronation Fjord.
“Our first challenge was finding a suitable landing spot for the twin otter, which would have been close enough to the intended route but outside of the National Park,” says Valade, explaining that landing a twin otter inside of a National Park is prohibited.
“The pilot tried landing at the GPS landing point we gave her, but due to a combination of inclement weather, crevasses and snow conditions she ended up dropping us further south, which extended our proposed route plan by 30 to 40 kilometres. So due to that and the fact that we were south of a major drainage area we had to come out the North Pang Fjord instead, which is just south of Coronation Fjord", recalls Valade.
Taking an unexpected hike
The detour’s comparative shortage of snow also meant hiking out of North Pang Fjord. Luckily, this incredibly scenic section of the trip from North Pang to the South Pang Fjord, bookended by the towns of Pangnirtung and Qikiqtarjuaq, is a classic summer hiking route. “I didn’t want to leave anything behind so I had my skis and everything on my back,” recalls Valade. We had very heavy packs. It was an adventure, a true adventure.”
Their improvised route took them northeast to North Pang Fjord, where they would normally be picked up. But with helicopter service not yet available so early in the season and a twin otter pickup within the park prohibited, they improvised a plan B: they found Inuit at North Pang Fjord with a license to transport people in the park across the pack ice in winter by snowmobile, and in summer by boat. “He towed us on a small sled that holds three to four passengers behind his snowmobile for about 80 km on the sea ice all the way back to the town of Qikiqtarjuaq,” recalls Valade.
Land of the Midnight Sun
During their 9-day trek, Valade and his companions had plenty of time to appreciate their magical environment, with its expansive tundra, massive granite walls, steep, deep fjords and huge icebergs that had floated to Qikiqtarjuaq all the way from Greenland. But it was the opportunity to snowmobile across ocean pack ice and the allure of travelling beneath the midnight sun that particularly fascinated this seasoned mountain man who has guided all over the world.
“We aren’t used to seeing the sun for 24 hours. The sun goes due north and comes back up in the east and goes around - that’s pretty cool. I’ve never seen that before.”
The Middle of Nowhere
Reflecting on his true northern expedition experience, Valade emphasizes that you have to be prepared for the unexpected. "It’s so remote and there are so many things out of your control."
It can also be quite physically demanding, he adds, but the rewards are huge. “We traversed places, like glaciers, that likely no one else ever walked before. It’s a really hard place to access but once you are there it’s really spectacular. And it’s probably one of the times that I felt most remote in my life. You feel like you are in the middle of nowhere.”
About Matt Valade
A certified IFMGA/ACMG mountain and ski guide, Matt Valade is one of TLH Heli-skiing’s most popular guides. During the off-season he guides climbing and hiking trips throughout western Canada and operates multi-day sea kayaking tours near Tofino, on Vancouver Island. He also enjoys mountain biking, climbing, surfing and kiteboarding.
Posted: Monday, July 28, 2014