Horizontal Everest: Extreme Journeys on Ellesmere Island, by Jerry Kobalenko

Reviewed by David Owen


"Home is not where you live, it’s where you belong. To me the cold of Ellesmere Island was invigorating, its solitude lyrical. Its historic tragedies had a reality that current events did not." So proclaims Jerry Kobalenko on the first page of his Horizontal Everest: Extreme Journeys on Ellesmere Island. Like the nineteenth-century explorer Charles Francis Hall who said that when he was in the Arctic he felt as though he were in heaven, Kobalenko’s quote is an effort to explain how a man can construct a life around an obsession with the extreme.He claims he has always possessed an abundance of what he calls ‘genetic energy’ an animal restlessness that requires the extreme as an outlet, like the long distance runner's pain giving way to the endorphin high or perhaps more like an Arctic Zen monk seeking satori by ski-poling his sled across Ellesmere.

Kobalenko is addicted to what he calls ‘hard travel’ - journeys through the harshest weather and terrain -two conditions abundantly met by the northernmost island in the Canadian Arctic archipelago. In the first few pages of his densely-packed book he explains how he came to find what has become both his profession and obsession. Kobalenko’s particular form of hard travel is sledding.

"A simple harness of seat belt webbing slips across my chest and attaches to a seven-foot fiberglass sled with plastic runners and a nylon cover. The sled holds up to two months of supplies."

That sledding is ‘hard travel’ comes as no surprise to those who have read accounts of Victorian British Arctic ‘sledging’ (as they called it then) expeditions. Accounts abound of teams of men tethered to massive sleds of wood and iron collapsing from exhaustion. Yet Kobalenko insists "Sledding is a lovely occupation, if you like walking."

Comparing modern and Victorian sledding experiences he notes that George Nares, a Victorian English Ellesmere pioneer, had a miserable sledging record which armchair analysts have concluded was because his sleds were overloaded. "However " says Kobalenko, "all the scholarly analysis of expeditions-gone-wrong, all the excuses and the crowing, fail to acknowledge the role of luck in Arctic sledding." There are no hard and fast rules about the load only the ever-changing condition of the snow when and where you happen to encounter it. It’s a refreshing insight for those who have come to accept man-hauled sledding as an example of Victorian working-class oppression. It’s the kind of insight this book is full of.

Yet Horizontal Everest is not just an account of his own prodigious adventures, as it turns out Kobalenko is a virtual Ellesmere scholar. It’s a rare that a seasoned Arctic traveler is also such a thorough Arctic historian, and rarer still when he is also an accomplished journalist and photographer. The result is that Kobalenko’s Horizontal Everest is an Ellesmere Omnibus, a slimmer, modern version of those all-encompassing compendiums of the 19th century. It is, as the subtitle says, a record of "extreme journeys on Ellesmere Island," but it is more than just Koblenko’s extreme adventures. Here is Ellesmere’s history and geography revealed through the focus of Kobalenko’s own thousands of miles of travels, replete with maps and photos

He has sorted through its history with as much energy as he brings to sledding its terrain. The result is a history of Ellesmere from the most ancient (Dorset culture Inuit) to the most recent (the crash of the Hercules aircraft called Boxtop 22 near Alert in 1991), the DEW line stations and scientific camps run up against ancient tent rings and notes in bottles found in cairns and even an discussion of the Arctic hare.

Arguably the two most famous denizens of Ellesmere’s history are Robert Peary, once supposed to be the first man to the North Pole, and Lieutenant Adolphus Greely one of the six survivors of the grisly expedition that bears his name. Kobalenko deals with both at length supplying his own first hand descriptions of many famous sites as they exist today.

All lovers of a good Arctic tale must give Kobalenko kudos for dragging several virtually unknown tales from obscurity into the cold clear light of Ellesmere day. One such is the tragic tale of Johan Alfred Björling, the twenty-one-year-old Swedish explorer who in 1892 led an expedition commemorated by an island off Ellesmere that bears his name.

After some fledgling trips to Northern Sweden and the Spitsburgen glacier young Björling set out to explore far northwest Greenland. He got to Upernavik on a Danish trade ship and hired four native oarsmen to conduct him on a mad sleepless dash through bad weather. When it was over he had covered 300 miles in just over two weeks.

This success led to the expedition that Björling hoped would make his name- nothing less than the crossing of Ellesmere Island. The western shore of the island had yet to be found and he hoped to be the one to find it. He went with his 24-year-old partner Evaded Kallstenius to Newfoundland to purchase a schooner with money he had raised from private sponsors and scientific societies. Then with a total crew of only five set out in their schooner The Ripple. They sailed to Greenland and provisioned for a possible overwintering but their lack of money led them to decide that they would recover some of the provisions from the Nares’ cache on the Carey Islands between Greenland and Ellesmere. They successfully crossed to the Carey Islands but there the Ripple was wrecked. Björling’s last note dated October 12, 1892, details a plan to "set out to the Eskimos at Clarence head or Cape Faraday" and reports "We are now five men. One of who is dying."

Koblenko adds to the Björling story his own helicopter ride in to find the site. After some circling around Koblenko finds the gully "where Borling and his four companions had huddled after the sinking of the Ripple. Hand-blown bottles, hemp ropes, broken crockery and the remains of a linen shirt lay amid the lichen-coated rocks." Even though with the Nares supplies they might have successfully overwintered the lack of skeletons and the intentions of the final note leads Kobalenko to conclude that they did set out and were ultimately swamped in the icy waters between the Carey Islands and Clarence Head. "While other disastrous expeditions have gone on to receive a twenty-one gun salute in the Encyclopedia Britannica, Björling earned little more than a brief obituary in a Swedish Polar journal."

Here’s a truth well known to readers of English exploration literature. The Brits love a good tragedy, even though fueled by incompetence. Scott’s death of starvation a few miles from his supply depot is celebrated, while Amundsen, who succeeded with seeming ease where Scott failed, seems generally resented. Kobalenko’s candor is bracing. Consider his summary of Robert Bryce’s 1,133 page book Cook and Peary, The Polar Controversy Resolved: "Cook was a nice guy, Peary was insufferable, both were lying," or, on another occasion

"It’s hard to know which of Ellesmere’s prominent explorers was the poorest writer, Greely, Nares or Sverdrup." Or the following description of the February cold: "Butter shatters. Plastic bags snap like potato chips. Dental fillings drop out. On the coldest days, pee crackles as it arcs through the air and freezes before it hits the ground."

His honesty is evident from his unblinking review of the murder of the Inuit guide Peeawahto by Fitzhugh Green on the The Crocker Land Expedition in 1914 or his brief account of the legendary Qitlaq. Kobalenko revises the standard white Arctic history that regularly pushes to the background the very people who made the white explorer’s accomplishments possible — the Inuit.

Kobalenko has a true appreciation of the great Inuit guides of Ellesmere’s history and rightfully gives credit where credit is long overdue. He provides a brief biography of Nukapingquag, one of the most celebrated of all Greenland guides, engaged by almost every expedition between 1913 and 1938. In doing this research Kobalenko departs from the paper trail and goes and interviews Inuit elders and living descendants.

Another example of this is his story (as obscure to most readers as Björling's) of Qitdlaq an Inuit shaman (or angekok) who in the 1850’s led a quixotic migration of his people from Devon Island to Ellesmere. The reclamation of the stories of the ancient people of the land he describes is only right and to Kobalenko’s credit.

While my Victorian Arctic reading is far wider than my modern I have read enough modern Arctic adventure narratives to recognize how far above most of these Horizontal Everest is. The simple adventure narratives are straightforward chronological accounts by people whose knowledge of Arctic history is general and quite often full of errors. I constantly marveled at Kobalenko’s wide-ranging reading on the Arctic, from archeological histories to the annual blue book reports of the Mounties, he exhibits a tremendous scope not seen outside of the work of some mighty scholar of Arctic history like William Barr. (who Kobalenko mentions, and rightfully praises)

If the book has any failing it is that there is no organizing principle, no chronology, no narrative structure imposed on the mountains of recollections and recountings, just a swirling collection of masses of facts and anecdotes. But the facts thus presented are as engaging as any Ellesmere blizzard and I find no fault with it. And while the computer-generated maps are simple to the point of crude, they are numerous enough to allow the reader to locate the place under discussion by flipping a few pages either way. Maps are essential in books of this sort and yet publishers regularly scrimp on them, better crude and abundant than insufficient. There is also a wealth of black and white photographs throughout the book. Many are taken by Kobalenko and appear at the start of the chapter they illustrate but many are historic gems that he has discovered like the portrait of Peeawahto shortly before his death, or the wreck of Bjorling’s The Ripple.

In the middle of the book there is a group of Kobalenko’s gorgeous glossy colour photos of the high Arctic and him in it. In this section there are two photos of Fram Haven "Of the three different Ellesmere harbors where Sverdrup wintered, Fram Haven is the most evocative, but few go there." Of course Kobalenko is one of those few. He took "three frustrating days to sled the eighteen miles from Alexandra Fiord to Fram Haven… I wasted half a day battling forward at a hundred yards an hour over what resembled a large field of overturned furniture." But he arrives and after setting up camp he uses one of Sverdrup’s photos which he has brought with him to compose the same shot a hundred years later. Both photos are reproduced in the center section of the book. The first is the black and white from 1899. There’s the Fram frozen in, her crew on the ice, behind them a small rocky hill largely covered by a glacier.

Then there’s Kobalenko’s colour photograph from 1999 of his own tent and sled surrounded by the same rocky hill. His tent pitched where once the Fram harboured, the photo a clear echo of the first, the most noticeable change is the extent of the glaciers receding the only real difference in a landscape where humans are only ever brief incursions.