It’s a common fact among travellers to realize fully what they got themselves into only when checking in for the outbound flight. I was no exception and few minutes after the counter glowed a nice 82 pounds for my backpack it dawned upon me the suspect that trouble might be at hand. I took some minutes not because I was slow in catching up with the true meaning of it, but because I was at the beginning distressed that 82 pounds did not make a nice round metric 40 kg figure. Then, in brief succession, I noticed the camera and a bag still around my neck, thus rounding numbers up nicely, and realized it was my body in charge of ferrying that huge mass across Baffin Island, where there should be indeed, or might not be, a track, for 150 kilometres and 13 days. Troubles shared are troubles halved, so they say, therefore, considering that also my partner in this idiocy had a 84-pound backpack, our brains just concluded the weight was going to be 20 kilos, and we checked in.
Again I take into account human tendencies, this time the one to blame others for one’s own mistakes. In my case two subjects could be easily blamed, two bipeds standing at opposite sides in my affection scale.
The first was the only chap I knew who could wear, on the same instant and without the help of alcohol, a square jacket, a striped shirt and a Kashmir tie. A few months before the airport check in he, the representative of a big auto manufacturer, was trying to convince me, a car dealer, that I had to buy plenty of expensive older models no one wanted and fewer newer things someone wanted. To tell the truth, he was not trying to convince me, but rather blackmailing me with the usual sentence ‘you know, you are either with us or against us, and your no will be noticed in higher circles’. Thus he blackened my already bleak day and sent me home for a de-stressing atlas browsing session. These in my case usually took place on the toilet seat, with the atlas on the bidet which I had conveniently placed close by. True, its positioning could have been bettered by placing it in front of the loo, but reasons of space forced me to make do with a 90 degrees angle. Still, the NG atlas fitted nicely and I could wander at ease. I was looking for the destination of my summer holidays. After two journeys through Africa and one in India I had decided to use the toilet paper model. This means that you place two stripes of toilet paper across the world map, one N and one S of the equator. One can wipe off, so to speak, anything under the paper and chose the destinations on the remaining latitudes. But mind the rules: the paper must be put on the seasonal equator, to take the season into account. Being the toilet paper around 38 degrees of latitude wide and the summer equator around the 22nd parallel (tropic of Capricorn), it means that a suitable destinations must be found N of the sixtieth parallel. These places are very often accessed with expense and difficulty, but the NGS wisely made things simpler by colouring certain areas, notably national parks, in green. It was then and there that I noticed Auyuittuq NP, in Baffin Island, Canada.
Canada introduces the second human to blame for the adventure, a Canadian girl whom I met few years before in Alaska when she was on the way back from a 3-month long environmental impact study in the bush, alone with a quad and some rifles. The day after the toilet session I called her, without taking the 9-hour jet lag and the simple fact she might have married and bred in the meantime.
‘Hi Dar it’s me, Marco’
‘Hi Marco, how are you?’
‘Not well, did you marry?
‘Not on my agenda’
‘Will you cross Baffin Island with me?’
‘Ok, I’ll send you the tickets’
Four months, three flights, a 5 minutes brief by the NP officer and a 14-hour long boat voyage among ice floes with a very silent Eskimo fisherman later, we found ourselves stranded on a beach along the NE shores of Baffin Island, blessed by the midnight sun and with two very heavy rucksacks. Happy to see a trail darting SW, we pitched the tent and went to sleep in a mixture of great expectations and distilled fear.
The morning brought a mixture of good and bad news. Among the first the presence of sun that, really, lasted for hours before vanishing for days. Bad was the fact that the rucksack appeared heavier than I though. I should have tried it at least once before leaving, I suppose. Still it contained nothing but the strict essentials: food for 2 weeks, fuel, stove, sleeping bag and tent. Two books, camera, walkman, 2 sips of whisky and 3 fags a day were the only luxury, counting for less than 5 pounds. True, Darlene was right when she loaded up in nuts, which have a fare better calories/weight ratio when compared to my Parma ham and cheese, but one cannot travel, especially in less civilized continents, without some basic and minimal features of European identity. Culture travelling means, after all, to astonish the natives with one’s own superior mores.
The second piece of bad news came from the track. What we saw the night before revealed itself to be just a short path down to the river, where he vanished. Optimism, another admirable feature of mankind, set in whispering that we should have probably found the track afterwards, and it was right this time. We found the trail after 5 days, while crossing the short and well travelled second half of the valley. According to the park ranger and the park map a trail was supposed to be there, but then the sympathetic officer admitted he never visited the eastern side, and he also invited Darlene to help him drawing a new map.
The sun of the first hours revealed a landscape that impressed us the way Salisbury Cathedral might impress an art loving bacterium. Pinnacles of rock, windows of ice, aisles and pillars departing from the main gallery, itself a straight ice-polished vale that looked as if created from a huge bowling roll that left half a mile high walls in the process.
The sun of the first hours left soon the scene and presently enters water, in it multiple forms. Swamps to cross, drizzle to wipe off and, last but not least, streams to ford. This latter activity proved exceedingly uncomfortable. One had to stop hiking and put the monster pack down – and this was the only good point – take shoes and pants off, wear a pair of snickers, reload the monster and wade through water at the temperature of a dry martini and equally deadly on the legs. The whole proceedings did not usually go unnoticed to the ubiquitous mosquitoes, that materialized on the bare skin. I suppose we had to thank them anyway, because without their assault we would not have been able to touch the water, let along wade through it for many and many yards. Swamps were no less inviting, and in one case the monster saved my ass when I just started falling in quick sands until the pack floated me. Mist repaid the H20 insult by painting memorable veils among the rocky walls in a style that would have much impressed the Japanese painters.
Evenings were memorable. The gas stove was on as soon as we stopped, usually after 10 or 12 kilometres of toiling in 8 hours. To say that we stopped is incorrect actually, because Darlene, the girl, was usually at the appointed camp a couple of long teas ahead of me, the guy. The stove was than put on drying duty. The shoes got wet on the second hour of the hike and dried at the end, but at least we could keep then warmish to avoid the worst feeling of all, the wearing a pair of sodden shoes in the morning.
Towards the end of the third day we were awarded a spectacular glimpse, through the mist, of our target, Mount Asgard, one of the most beautiful mountains of the planet, its unique shape and vertical walls making up for the low height. 007 fans might remember Roger Moore skiing off a mountain and saved by a Union Jack parachute. That mountain was not in St. Moritz, but was Mt. Asgard. Patrick de Gaillardon, the famous French stunt and jumper, used to say that for 15 grand he was ready to jump off anything. When he saw Asgard he asked twice the money. Indeed its walls are high and straight, and an experience wall climber takes a minimum of 10 days to toil to its flat top. But Asgard walls are nothing when compared to Mt. Thor, itself nicely ducked along the same valley we were hiking through. Thor offers the highest perfectly vertical wall in the world, with 1100 metres, more than 20 % higher than El Captain in Yosemite. The Guinness book of records, under the pressure of the Canadian government, still reports the latter as the highest, to avoid the invasion of climbers that would be difficult to rescue.
On the fourth day we reached the splendid lake on the pass in the middle of the valley. Its SW end, which we reached after an eventful night of wind and rain, is the jumping point to visit the base of Asgard and Freya, king and queen of the Island. In this place the park authorities shrewdly cleared some land and built a white bear proof hut with a battery operated radio inside, thus actually building the main camp of the area. How happy of the radio were the 6 members of a group that a year before had to stay inside while a white bear feasted on their camps. For some strange reasons hikers are forbidden to carry firearms into the park, thus are deprived of their only defence against the polar bear. This on the assumption that very few, if any, had been sighted in the boundaries. Bears, of course, have their own ideas and do not read park brochures. This rule did not change much my point of view, considering I never touched a trigger in my life, but Dar was seriously distressed. Anyway, we were half a way over and could take a deserved rest in the camp, and a pale sun even allowed some basic hygiene in the lake. The monsters were also lighter, because we dug in voraciously, and in our immediate future were two days of hiking to the base of Asgard without the packs on. The area was reached after some serious boulder hopping up a newish moraine, then after some crevasse crossing along a couple of minor glaciers. The place proved simply astounding, the real reward of such a long effort. Mount Asgard and Mt. Freya were linked by a narrow ridge at the approximate height of 1200 metres.
This ridge was basically the rim of the biggest bowl I had ever seen, with two wide sectors made up by the walls, one by the ridge and the other open by the glacier. A wide snowfield lay at the base of the bowl. A tiny yellow speck in the middle of this field proved to be the base camp of a Japanese expedition. One of the members was indeed on the Freya wall, and had been there for a week with mixed results. The scale of size was impressive indeed. I had been in the Himalayas and hiked through Kali Gandaki, a deep valley between Dhaulagiri and Annapurna, two peaks nearly four times higher that Asgard. Still the effect was less majestic. There one feels to be along an impressive mountain chain and distances are simply geographic, so the hiker cannot embrace the full show and digest it properly. Here the walls were so high and so close, with glaciers meandering around, that one felt inside the show, part of it. While the Annapurna looked like St. Peter viewed form one of the cols of Rome, here it was like actually walking in Reims’ cathedral. To be sure we were not dreaming, we thought well to hike there the second day, boulder hopping notwithstanding.
Thus we reaped our reward and started our outward bound through the western half of the valley. This section, definitely crowded, considering we met other three or four hikers in three days, was shorter than its eastern counterpart, but by no means less spectacular. On the contrary, Mt. Thor proved to be just a primus inter pares, and its smaller brothers were racing along one after the other to create a magnificent effect. Even Darlene, who considers herself a peak person, was impressed by the place and did not even think to be ogled into an act of folly such as climbing a peak.
Asgard, Freya and Thor are names from the Scandinavian mythology and not even the sharpest critic can raise doubts as to the use of their names. And these gods won’t certainly complain for blasphemy from their realms. For years afterwards I toyed with a tale of pilgrimage, or romantic search in a land of gods. Sadly I did not, and like Romanticism left a mark in history then time rolled on, the romantic phase of my life, even deserving the unique merit to put me on the way, like a river ended up in the ocean. To escape humans and embrace Nature is certainly romantic and surely rewarding, but not before one’s duties towards mankind are fulfilled, and of these duties we have many. Both of us had this somewhere in our minds when a boat took us away from Baffin. Only I could not realize it, but Darlene could. Still it was tough to leave, like being ferried again from a personal and, again, romantic form of paradise back to the secular world. The body probably claimed its part, for dehydrated foods are always fulfilling, never rewarding and very seldom palatable. We both needed a real dinner and certainly a lot of wine. Again one cannot cheat and escape society saving the treats. The backpack was light, but the parmesan was gone.
Still Asgard left a huge mark, and not only on my camera film. I had decided it was high time to start a second life.