It has been an interesting 72 hours. A mix of incredible sunsets over soaring frozen fjords, high morale over making good progress and a bone chilling skidoo ride back to Qikiqtarjuaq after a tense evening following Alex falling and hitting his head.
Following a good day’s skiing and having left a cold hunter’s hut at Kivitoo in a gradually warming and brightening morning, we set off perfectly by the setting yellow moon falling behind the jagged peaks to the North. We had made 16km and traversed over land for the first time in order to reach the frozen ocean on the other side of a small spit of land. As we approached our final campsite for the day, the daylight was fading and the high fjords on either side of the bay were glowing in a wonderful deep arctic blue and orange. Despite the cold and the increasing wind, everyone was in high spirits.
Once the Tentipi was pitched, the stoves fired up and the dogs were secured and fed, Benno, Alex and I were inside defrosting a piece of rope to secure Tala for the night whilst preparing for the evening’s cooking. Alex went outside to stake out Tala whilst Benno and I continued to prep for dinner and the obligatory, long-anticipated hot chocolate. A strange growling from Colin several minutes later alerted us both that something was not as it should be. Colin is not a quiet dog, he makes noise on a near constant basis with a quite incredible range and variety of pitches but this noise was one we had not heard before and had both of us reaching for the shotguns. Having shouted to Alex several times asking if he needed any help or if he could see a bear, our first thought, we gradually became more concerned as we heard no reply or noise at all apart from Colin’s increasingly agitated growls. Benno booted up and went outside – immediately shouting urgently that he needed help. Alex had tripped, fallen and had been knocked unconscious on the corner of one of the kevlar sleds and had been lying on the floor at -32deg for at least two minutes. After getting him into to the tent and managing to wake him we treated him as a hypothermia victim, as that was our initial diagnosis but it soon became clear that Alex had sustained a substantial head injury. Having spoken to our expedition medics, our thanks go to Benno’s mother and Dr Alex Kumar for their excellent advice and assistance, and having checked Alex throughout the night, we made the decision to ask for assistance as his feelings of nausea and dry retching had not abated. As with any head injury, they are not a condition you want to underestimate, especially in a small tent on the frozen Arctic sea 75kms from the nearest settlement, so heading back to get Alex properly checked out was a no-brainer (sorry).
As in most situations in Canada, when you need assistance, who you gonna call??? The RCMP. Having already discussed the situation with Chris back in Qiki earlier in the day to warn him that we may need assistance if Alex’s condition didn’t improve, it was time to make a call. Within an hour of making the decision that we needed to head back to Qik, Chris had donned his Red Serge and fired up his snowmobile – with the help of two locals the team were on their way to pick us up. As we watched the lights of the skidoo’s cut through the frigid night air we all felt relief as we began to dismantle the Tentipi and ensure the hot chocolate we had made for Chris and the team was ready for them. Making decisions such as this and the impacts it has upon a trip you all have so much invested in are incredibly emotive and difficult to call especially when there is no obvious bone protruding from the skin or blood pouring from a wound. However as we watched the skidoos close on our location I felt and as we all did, that this was the correct decision and in the words of a eloquent medical expert I know, you don’t f#*k about with head injuries.
It goes without saying that it’s cold up here and we have had some pretty “parky” days especially with the wind blowing strongly, but nothing has come close to how cold I felt on that skidoo heading back south to Qik. Having dressed Alex in our one pair of down trousers, Benno and I quickly found out that the trousers we have been using to haul in did not provide the kind of protection we needed as the skidoos fluctuated between speeds of 20-60kph. I challenge anyone to try curling and uncurling their toes for over two hours as the sensations in the lower part of your body deaden, it’ a unique and not to be repeated experience.
As we pushed through the night, passing towering dark-faced features and uniquely-shaped icebergs that we had previously spent many hours staring at whilst making our way painfully towards, I was both impressed with the distance we had covered and increasing worried at the loss of feeling in my legs. As we pulled up outside the RCMP detachment in Qikiqtarjuaq, chilled to the bone is a literal description of how Benno and I felt. The only solution was to run. We burst off the skidoos and began running aimlessly and without direction even before turning our thoughts to the kind Inuit drivers and Chris who had been so good to help us, for our kit on the back of the komatik sleds or even for Colin and Tala strapped to a sled. The bone aching cold that had penetrated us to the core and reached into our joints was all consuming and we both ran and ran and ran without a thought for anything else until our nerve endings had stopped screaming and subsequently burnt our tongues on the cup of tea we were kindly bought by Halie.
Arriving back in Qik and once again being so warmly greeted by Halie, Chris, Glenn and Cayle, Alex headed to the health center and we all started to try and process what had happened. After a week out on our journey, we had all fallen into the pattern of ski,sleep, eat, repeat – all of our energies and focus were on pushing forward and keeping ourselves and our equipment in a suitable state to allow us to continue trying to meet our objectives. To suddenly be back in the warm and familiar surroundings of the RCMP detachment takes some mental adjustment, especially considering the hard fought-for kilometers we had battled to make to take us north and into the frozen beyond.
Alex is now in the process of heading to Iqaluit, the regional capital, to get a CT scan to make sure that everything is as it should be and he has no after effects from his bump. The concern is now to get a full assessment on the severity of the impact on his head and the potential for a slow pressure build. Once we get these results we can make some decisions regarding the expedition. Currently we are all of the opinion that barring any major medical after effects for Alex, we will head back out to the location that we last camped, continuing from where we left off. We have all of our depots laid and no significant time pressures and to rush back into a cold and unforgiving landscape without being completely ready once more. Thoughts of getting to the far west of our route have understandably evaporated and once Alex is back to his best we can make some decisions about what we want to achieve, especially having been given a glimpse into a few of Baffin Islands secret corners, we are all ready for more.
In other news Colin managed to make a bid for freedom and has disappeared. Qik being a small town and with the wind and temperature as it is, we are confident he will come back for his dinner once he is bored of being foot-loose and fancy. Failing that we will track him down and bring him back twisting, turning, howling and growling.
Life in the North continues to prove that adaptability is the most valuable skill to posess past the Arctic Circle. Despite the repeated ice blocks that keep falling in front of us, we have continued to deal with the ever-shifting nature of this expedition in the same way we would an area of difficult sea ice. Get through it as best you can and if it isn’t going your way then don’t be afraid to look for an alternative route to meet your aims.
Jamie, Benno and Alex