Adventures to the Edge of the Earth

Words and photos courtesy of Alison Criscitiello

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2016 has been an icy whirlwind thus far, and my favorite kind – ping ponging between polar ice core projects and oxygen-depleted climbing objectives. In the spring, I headed alone to the northernmost reaches of Ellesmere Island, where the Agassiz Ice Cap spills into Baffin Bay. I am leading a project on Ellesmere, investigating climate and sea ice histories by looking at the chemistry of ice cores I have drilled there, and on other small islands in the Canadian high Arctic. Back in May of 2015, I flew solo up to the Devon Ice Cap. In exchange for assisting another research group with some of their polar fieldwork, their team assisted me with drilling an ice core on the summit of Devon Ice Cap (Devon Island) and the summit of Prince of Wales Icefield (Ellesmere Island).

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This past spring when I returned to Ellesmere, I went farther north to Agassiz Ice Cap now giving me a suite of three ice cores to compare, which offered a powerful tool for spatial analyses. This work builds directly on my doctorate work; I developed new methods for reconstructing sea ice variability from ice cores along the Amundsen Sea sector of West Antarctica. My recent work utilizes these new Canadian high Arctic ice cores to similarly try to reconstruct sea ice variability, but in the Arctic instead of the Antarctic. These new ice core records also allow us to investigate how global atmospheric dynamics affect local marine conditions and ice cap behavior.

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Brooks-Range tools of choice in the Arctic: Scientist 35 folding snow saw and Hauler shark-tooth shovel, Drift -23C sleeping bag, Invasion tent.

I made the long journey from the Arctic back to Canmore, Alberta, where I defrosted (sort of) during more moderate adventures with friends in the Bow Valley – a place that has quickly become my heart’s home. By the first week of May, I was off with my repaired gear, showered self, and laundered down layers to assist with a colleague’s glacier field season, this time in the Donjek Range of the St. Elias Mountains in Kluane National Park, Yukon Territory. We worked on three different glaciers on the Kluane icefields; long ski days, thin snow bridges, mostly probing and digging snow pits, in some beautiful and some awful weather. Spectacular country.

My Brooks-Range clothing of choice in the St. Elias: Azara Hoody and Hybrid LT Wool Jacket. Perhaps to the dismay of my teammates, these layers never come off! I can work, ski, cook and live in them.

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After a very short respite from the Kluane icefields, I flew back into the white, this time headed to Mt. Logan. As a guide on Denali, I hadn’t previously given much thought to what lies across that invisible Alaska border. I have spent all my time on the Alaska side. This time, on the Canadian side of the range (and with Canadian permanent residency pending), the sharp peaks seemed even more continuous than before. I flew into Logan, and though we started our expedition with a guided group of 8 guys behind us, they soon turned around leaving the entire mountain to my friend Vincent and me.

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It is something to be on such a vast, daunting, consuming chunk of rock and ice and know you are very much alone. It was, in a way, the Denali experience I always yearned for: the mountain in its exact and entire state, and none of the crowds. Logan was challenging in a new way that is somehow hard to articulate. Navigating through one of the icefalls was complex and demanding. The altitude is felt strongly. The storms are horrific. The sustained -40 temperatures and high winds wear on you. But none of these things are unique in their own right or capture the peak wholly. It is, perhaps, the feeling of being infinitesimally small. More so than any other mountain has made me feel, with the exception of Pinnacle Peak in the Indian Himalaya.

Views from our better icefall route, move to C3 with Vincent Larochelle
Views from our better icefall route, move to C3 with Vincent Larochelle.

Lucky with weather at the start, we carried to C1 the day we flew into Base Camp and continuously carried and moved up to C3 in 6 days, when a storm stopped us. The two of us got pummeled and buried for a week, when it finally broke. The guided team of 8 took the opportunity to get off the mountain; we took the opportunity to go up to Prospector Col and see if avalanche conditions would allow us to reach the summit plateau. Pleasantly surprised, we did a massive single carry up and over Prospector Col, and made our high camp beneath Russell Mountain. Because of the snow conditions after the storm, we cached our sleds and risked taking minimal food over the col. The priceless help of my friend who sent stellar weather forecasts while we were on the summit plateau allowed us to pick an ideal summit day (and saved us from gratuitous suffering). We waited one day and one night in high winds at our high camp, and left in the wee frigid hours for the summit. We took a high route, up and over West Peak, which was fun and relatively straightforward to navigate. We descended West Peak to the saddle with the true summit, and I took a fairly steep line up the northwest face to the top. With a bluebird day on the summit, we were able to see the Pacific Ocean, Denali, and the swirling Malaspina Glacier.

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We descended to Base Camp directly from the summit (this comes highly not recommended), another storm on our heels. I would have ideally stopped back at our high camp to eat and rest, but prioritized getting down and off the mountain before the next storm hit. This was a tough decision, weighing risks that were hard to measure against one another. The descent offered as much of a test as the ascent. We were running on nothing through the night in temperatures unsuitable for our -40 boots and equipment.

 Brooks-Range essentials on Logan: Cirro Pants, Azara Hoody, LT Armor Jacket and Pants.
Brooks-Range essentials on Logan: Cirro Pants, Azara Hoody, LT Armor Jacket and Pants.

Since getting off Logan, I’ve gloriously done nothing (except submit manuscripts and review science papers) for two weeks. Perhaps overdoing it on the recovery, I’m psyched for the next trip ahead.

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