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Don’t Leave Us To Die

Ross Hewitt

I’d once heard it called ‘otherworldly’, a description I wholeheartedly agreed with, and I knew I would one day return to this beautiful wilderness.

From the moment a polar bear ran alongside our snow mobile at forty kilometres per hour on the way in, I knew this trip was going to be different. Yet, it wasn’t until much later that everything would change.

Our time in Baffin island had been going well. It was late May and the weather was beginning to warm up. The sea ice that had been our home for the last few weeks would soon be breaking up. It wasn’t my first time here – it was back in 2014 that my passion for skiing this mythical and unforgiving Arctic island had been ignited. I’d once heard it called ‘otherworldly’, a description I wholeheartedly agreed with, and I knew I would one day return to this beautiful wilderness and the unskied lines we had seen on that first trip two years ago.

We had arranged a pick up day with the Inuit back in Clyde River, our entry and exit points to the Baffin Fjords. We had packed away our final camp, leaving only the tents we would use as shelters while we waited for our rides back to civilisation. The foul weather during the day had kept us inside our tents, wrapped in our sleeping bags for warmth. By evening we had given up hope of our locals arriving that day. Inuit time scales differ greatly from the slavish devotion to punctuality of western cultures. All we could do was settle down to sleep and continue our wait until the next day.

The first thing I remember was hearing a distant voice: ‘They’re here’. It was one in the morning and I was being shaken from a deep, unconscious sleep. We had been expecting the same two Inuit guides and snow mobiles who had brought us out onto the ice at the beginning of the trip. I was relieved that they had finally arrived. I pulled on my down suit and went outside into a blinding, howling snowstorm, to find only one snow mobile and a single Inuit we didn’t recognise. After a fractured exchange broken by the storm and the growling wind, we were reassured that the Inuit, Kevin, was the brother of one of the guides we had been expecting. But there was still only one snow mobile and that was not going to be enough to get the team out together. The other machine had apparently broken down and Kevin had been forced to tow it back to Clyde River. He had then turned around and headed back out on to the ice alone in order to come for us. Coming out solo was brave, even for an Inuit. Perhaps it was a sense of duty, doing what he had agreed and not leaving us stranded, but covering two hundred kilometres alone on broken sea ice with drifting snow was above the call of duty. By the time he reached us he had already been driving for 24 hours. We suggested he get a few hours sleep and leave later in the morning, but he had a young family and was anxious to get going. The storm seemed to grow angrier as we spoke.

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In the freezing darkness of polar night we drew straws to determine who would leave with Kevin and who would stay behind on the ice to wait for the second snow mobile. Traveling with one machine was risky in itself, but leaving half the team behind in such a violent storm also didn’t sit well with me. I could hardly believe the situation unfolding around me. I considered pinching myself to make sure I was awake. Sadly, this was no dream.

Evan and Chipie were the unfortunate pair to pick the short straws. The whole horrible exercise offered me a tiny sense of relief: My future career as a mountain guide hinged on me making it to a training course back in the UK the following week. I reassured them, perhaps more for my own benefit, that the other snow mobile would soon be on its way. Even as I spoke them, my words rang false. I tried to rationalise that it was better I be back in Clyde to ensure a second pick up was happening, but guilt suffused me like a virus.

We made sure Evan and Chipie had all the equipment they needed to survive for as long as possible – just in case the snow mobile was late. We had two gallons of fuel that could be made to last 10 days if they restricted their water ration to a pint a day. Rifles and ammo were checked and left behind. The satphone, batteries, stoves, food, and lighters were all passed over. We had survived a month on the ice – we told ourselves the guys had enough to last another week at least.

We waited until we couldn’t delay the departure any longer and said our goodbyes. Evan went off but to bed, but as I shook Chipie’s hand he kept hold of me, his grip firm, and said, ‘make sure someone comes for us’. We left them, solemn and dejected, and were soon out of sight in the low cloud funnelling down the fiord.

Six hours into our ride back to Clyde, Kevin called on his satphone and learnt that the other snow mobile had left Clyde River at four that morning. The guys would only be 12 hours behind us. However, whatever relief I felt at that evaporated as we travelled: the journey was hellish. Now only a single team, we had become completely reliant on not breaking down or getting stuck in the ice. No one would come for us if anything happened. Navigation in the storm’s swirling, blinding fog set against the monotone white landscape was brutal. We got lost repeatedly, having to backtrack until we were certain of our path and start again. Frequently, we found ourselves stuck in deep snow and without another snow mobile to pull it out we had to physically push and pull the machine to safety. All the while, the storm robbed us of heat and sapped our energy. Fear gnawed away at us and I knew Evan and Chipie still had this to come.

Navigation in the storm’s swirling, blinding fog set against the monotone white landscape was brutal. We got lost repeatedly, having to backtrack until we were certain of our path and start again.

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We finally arrived back in Clyde frozen and exhausted – emotionally as well as physically. By this point Kevin had been driving for over 36 hours. His focus never wavered, and throughout he exuded a calm, forceful resolve and stubborn fortitude I’ve only ever seen in these local hunters. After so long camping on the ice, and after the bone-shattering ride back, the simple shack Clyde River offered us now felt luxurious. We sorted and dried kit while waiting for news of Evan and Chipie. When none came, still exhausted, we began to settle into the idea of getting some sleep. Outside, the storm mocked us.

Abruptly, Kevin’s brother Trevor burst through the door followed by frigid flurries of snow. The second driver, on his way to pick up Evan and Chipie, had set off his personal locator beacon 12 hours out of town. Awake now, instantly alert, my heart pounded in my chest as I tried to work out quickly what this might mean for the driver, assumed to be on his own, and the boys still out on the ice.

After so long camping on the ice, and after the bone-shattering ride back, the simple shack Clyde River offered us now felt luxurious.

I tried making a call to the satphone with Evan and Chipie. The phone didn’t connect, and went straight to voicemail. Only later would I learn later that our satphone had stopped connecting to satellites and we would never be able to contact them using it. All I knew right then was that if we couldn’t get word to them soon, they would wonder if anyone was coming or if they had been left to die. For a horrible moment, I feared they might leave their camp and try to make it back alone in the storm.

Like an unfolding nightmare the situation went from bad to unimaginable. Weather reports predicted the storm would last at least four days. Not only were our guys not going to get out any time soon, but with no food or stove, the driver’s chances of survival were looking even worse. A search-and-rescue team was assembling in Clyde and it was clear their focus was on the Inuit driver as the critical priority. Getting Evan and Chipie out was an additional complication. Of the remaining Inuit we knew, all had major mechanical issues with their snow mobiles and everyone else in town was heading south for a fishing festival offering a staggering $11,800 fortune for first prize. We could not compete with that with what we could afford to pay. I had been awake about 36 hours by now, too long to see a way through this alone. I went back to talk to my companion, Si.

The leader of the search-and-rescue team was also an expedition outfitter and the only option to collect our guys. Frustratingly, all we could do was wait for a weather window. We sat out the storm, spending long, anxious days sitting with the search-and-rescue team in the emergency response room, waiting for news from the field.

For two long, nervous days the search-and-rescue team struggled to move up the coast in whatever short lulls came in the storm and used hunters’ huts for shelter and to dry their kit. From the furthest hut it was only a few hours to the breakdown site and the lone Inuit guide. Even though I knew Evan and Chipie had everything they needed to survive for up to 10 days, my nerves were frayed and adrenaline burned through me constantly. As the days passed, my hope for a positive outcome for the driver’s survival was fading.

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Out on the ice, and at the time unknown to us, two Inuit had actually managed to pick up Evan and Chipie from their camp that same day we had made it out. Maybe if the sat phone had worked, we could have got through to them, but we just didn’t know. Worse still, on the way back they had run critically low of fuel. In a moment of desperation, one of the Inuit decided to pour the remaining white gas into the machine hoping fumes would get them to a hut fifty kilometres away. With no fuel to melt snow for food and water and now a machine that was not going anywhere, what might have seemed like good fortune for Evan and Chipie now put them in a situation almost as dire as the driver’s. Four of them stranded. We realised there was a new problem when their driver activated his personal locator beacon.

Chipie, faced with few other options, decided he and one of the Inuit would trudge through the snow, hunkered low against the storm, to try to cover that fifty kilometres on foot and reach the hunters’ hut. Maybe there would be a radio and fuel. Evan and the younger Inuit would remain at the break down site.

The walk to the hut proved almost lethally perilous. Wind-blown snow concealed dangerous breaks in the ice and visibility limited every step to a nervous shuffle. Some way in, the Inuit leading the way fell through one of the snow covered leads into freezing water. Chipie hauled him out, then led the way himself using his ski pole to test for leads under the driven snow. In the blizzard he had difficulty keeping his goggles from icing and after taking them off, ended up suffering severe snow blindness.

After 16 hours of painfully slow progress they made it to the hut, snow blind, cold and wet, but relieved to encounter the rescue team from Clyde. With a quick exchange of information the other two were picked up from the ice and reunited back at the hut. Everyone had made it relatively unscathed.

Back in Clyde the message was translated from Inuktituk, the local language, that everyone was cold but otherwise well. The serious faces of the rescue team turned to smiles as the relief flooded through us all. I will be forever grateful to the Inuit for the friendship extended to us while we shouldered the burden of worry waiting for news, and for the selfless acts in coming to get us despite the storm.

When the guys got back to Clyde the following day, the first few moments were tense and difficult. Chipie was still blind and there was a lot to talk about. Without satphone communication the guys had no idea a rescue effort had been initiated, and had assumed we had just left them out there on their own. It was enough to test even the strongest relationships. They say it takes time to get over a traumatic event. After this experience I know that to be true. Yet sometimes, challenges like this only bring people closer together.

Ross grew up in the North East of Scotland and started skiing at the age of 7. Since then his skiing has morphed somewhat from resort skiing and slalom racing into ski mountaineering where an impressive list of achievements sees Ross at the forefront of the steep skiing today. Ross’s passion has him regularly exploring the big mountain ski lines in and around his home of Chamonix, France as well as adventuring the world most interesting mountain ranges around the world.

Website: rosshewitt.net |
Twitter: @ross_hewitt74

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