Matthias Mayr: Northern exposure

How far is North? The question has many answers. One of them is Ellesmere Island in Canada. Or in other figures and letters: 83° north.

Where do we go next? What is it all about?

These are the two main questions everyone asks themselves. Answering the second question is probably the most difficult task in the world. I would say it is about being happy. But do I feel happiness when I stand on a mountain peak in the Antarctica ready to ski down? Yes I do, both in that moment and even more so 30 seconds later halfway through my descent. Happiness is not a constant emotion, it´s a feeling that we reach again and again, but never keep for good. The thrill would be lost if we felt it all the time. Of course, it‘s hard to feel happy while pulling a 100 kg sled through an icy desert, but I do feel happiness while planning the adventure and happy after the haul is over. This is what keeps me energized and eager to seek unique journeys to super remote places around the globe.

The next adventure

Where do we go next? The answer to that question usually appears by accident. It was in late 2017 while walking around a base camp on the continent of Antarctica when I figured out that the experience was not the ultimate adventure I wanted to experience. A well furnished base camp with 60 other adventurers just didn‘t feel remote enough, even if it is 3000 km from civilization. Later, I got to talking with another adventurer who told me about an expedition he did on Ellesmere Island. He talked about polar bears, wolves and absolute remoteness. The conversation had me thinking about the next adventure already.

So just where the hell is this Ellesmere Island?

Like most people I had no idea where the place was, so I started googling the location. Ellesmere Island is in a remote part of Canada and is home to the world’s northernmost mountain range. Jackpot! Freeride skiing as close to the North Pole as possible! The next goal was set!

Here we are

Two years later it is mid April. We - Matthias Haunholder, a skier and producer like me, Johannes Aitzetmüller, a filmmaker, and Jonas Blum , a photographer - are on a plane from Ottawa to Iqaluit. When we arrive to the capital of Nunavut, 63 degrees north, on Baffin Island, we are welcomed by a balmy - 12 degrees Celsius and the friendly faces of famous adventurers Sarah McNair-Landry (youngest human to ever reach the South and North Pole) and Erik Boomer, pro kayaker and winner of the Adventurer of the Year award.

They both spend half of the year there and are set to help us complete our mission. Our destination is the mountains of the north coast and Erik is one of the few people to ever see the North Shore of Ellesmere Island during his circumnavigation on foot and by kayak. He tells us that he could never imagine skiing woud be possible where we are going, but also admits he would not put his money on his assessment. His talk of the area motivated us even more. Missions with a very low probability of success are our speciality.

Sarah is providing us with special equipment like sleds and bear flares. We also need another piece of gear, a dog. Why? It´s polar bear country where we are going and if a bear shows up the chances of staying alive without a gun and a watch dog are pretty slim.

"Happiness is a feeling that we reach again and again but never keep for good."

Flying further north

A week later all four of us are on another plane heading further north, with the addition of Meeka - our strong, alpha sled dog that was on loan to us from an Inuit woman in Iqaluit. It was the first time she has given her dog to complete strangers. It seems we looked trustworthy enough and passionate about our plans. One of the greatest things that happens on our expeditions is meeting people from different cultures and building long lasting friendships.

We step out of the plane at 74 degrees north, Resolute Bay. –28 degrees Celsius welcomes us when we step off the plane, but no luggage, not even Meeka‘s dog food. Time to get flexible! Within minutes we meet a very nice young man from Resolute. Devon is 18 years old and as open minded as someone who travelled the world for 4 decades. He is a hunter, owns a team of sled dogs and has just shot a polar bear recently. People in the north sometimes shoot bears and seals, but never for fun. They use the meat for food and fur for clothing. In Resolute, temperatures are below zero for ten or eleven months of the year so animals are the only food. No plants would ever grow there. Devon took us with him to his sled dogs, showed us the polar bear and seal meat and gave us several kilos for Qujju, our dog. Having a wolf-like husky by your side is something most boys dream about, I sure did. He is wild, independent and restless, a force of nature.

Even further north

Two days later we are loading a small Twin Otter plane with almost 400 kg of equipment. Every single piece of which we will be hauling on our sleds once we get there. The flight takes almost 5 hours. After 3 hours we have to land at Eureka, the northernmost civil weather station in the world, permanently staffed with 9 people. Then 2 more hours due north. We still don´t know where to land. We agreed with the pilot, a veteran of 30 years and 20.000 flight hours, that we will decide on where to land while we are in the air. He has never flown out to the north shore of Ellesmere either, so we will have to figure out the possibilities once we get there. We are flying down a huge fjord, 10 kilometres wide and more than 80 kilometres long, frozen over with icebergs everywhere below us. The pilot is trying to land the plane among the icebergs on the snow covered sea of ice. My heart is thumping… If something goes wrong, there is no help within thousands of kilometres.

Three hours later Qujju, the dog, is no longer wild and restless, just active and efficient. He likes to pull and run, but as soon as we stop he lies down, covers his nose in his thick fur and the wind starts slowly covering him up with snow. We are heading north very slowly. The snow is deep, up to 70 cm on the sea ice, which slows our progress. I decide to take out the kite and pull some luggage with it, which works out great for about 2km. Then the wind stops and the kite falls down. We decide to make camp. The -25 Celsius is tolerable when there is no wind. While I pack the kite the others start putting up the tent. In a second the storm comes back. All of a sudden, the tent flies up in the air. I run after it but I have no chance to catch it. The others rally and try to catch it on their skis. Meanwhile, I try to get the kite back out. Fortunately after 800 meters the tent stops. If we would have lost it, we would have had serious problems. Surviving out here without a tent is tough. It takes us several hours to build our camp and secure it.

Meanwhile Qujju is completely covered with snow, sleeping at -25 degres Celsius and 60 km/h wind.

Nature is awesome.

Our noses and toes are already frostbitten due to the harsh conditions in our very first hours here. Never before we have faced such serious problems with our skin and toes. Fingers become white within seconds. It looks like Sarah, a veteran of both Poles, was right. It’s way harder up here in the north than in Antarctica. We will see if we can make it to any skiing up here, only 740 km away from North Pole at almost 83 degrees north.

If you want to know if skiing is possible so far north, watch out for the premiere of 83° - SKI THE NORTH.

Photos: Jonas Blum