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Table of Contents "On the road to Kabul and other short stories of treks"

Treacherous glacier stream crossings on Ellesmere Island, July 1989

What to do

Matt, Jeff and the Steve  crossed a stream in the morning at waist level. On returning at night the water level of the fast flowing stream came to their shoulders. Luckily they fixed a rope but crossing the deep stream to get back to the camp did not look inviting. What to do, wait 12 hours for the nightly water level to drop, or try it?


Crossing a glacier stream with hip-waders, Eastern Axel Heiberg Island, July 1982.

Crossing a glacier stream, using a pole for support. Western Axel Heiberg Island, July 1983.

Glacier Streams

Glacier streams in Northern Canada are fed by melt water and the thawing tundra and the water temperature is always close to freezing. Crossing bare-feed is impossible as your feet get numb instantly and without any feeling you would cut your feet on the rocks. Rubber hip waders are essential to cross. Often, you also need a pole for stability and the radio mast tube or tent pole are  ideal.

It is not recommended to wear a pack-sack in case you trip as landing on your back would make you as helpless as a turtle on its back. In the morning the water level is the lowest and at night higher. Some are so large you cannot cross them unless during sudden cold weather and you need a camp move by helicopter.

Season of snow

The 1989 expedition on Northern Ellesmere Island was the year of snow, snow and even more snow.[1][2][3]


Camp on Ellesmere Island, during yet another snow storm, July 1989.

Freak weather systems kept on rolling in from the South and covered the mountains in a near permanent layer of up to two meters of snow. Only close to sea level the snow would melt.


This is very unusual for this area, as it is know to be a dry Arctic desert by the prevailing Northern wind caused by the polar high pressure system. Average yearly precipitation is only 50 mm.

Warm day

 Mid July, after several days of snow the temperature suddenly rose to 18 degrees Celsius at sea level, presumably by freak warm weather moving in from the South. This started a massive run-off of water in the lower snow-covered areas.


I was camping higher up in the mountains surrounded by  glaciers with a French Professor and his son. It was still fine to cross the glacier streams as the weather is colder, around 10 Celsius, although the water level was relatively high. Luckily, this time we did not cross one of the major streams coming down from the glaciers in the morning, see below.



Typical jump across the largest glacier stream in the high camp near the glaciers, July 1988.

Deep Stream

Further North, Matt, Jeff and Steve were camping near a major stream almost at sea level. They crossed the stream in the morning at waist level using the hip-waders. This is tricky as the water level is higher at night by the warmer sun during the day, rising from 20 degrees at midnight to 30 degrees at noon.


When they returned back to the camp in the evening, the fast flowing stream reached their shoulders. Luckily they fixed a rope in the morning for safety in the morning and was not very cold as it was mostly melted snow by the warm weather. Jeff and Mat crossed safely.


Steve, as always, was wearing a heavy packsack and the shotgun when crossing. When he got half way, the rope snapped and the fast current dragged  him along. Luckily he drifted to the camp side while desperately clinging on to the rope. He is pretty strong and holding on to the rope saved his life. Wearing a packsack in a fast flowing stream makes you as helpless as a tortoise on its back and you drown,


The same night I tried to talk  to them on the radio as we do every night. There was little response, a bit of mumbling and they kept it very short.  They did not tell me what happened and I though they were playing a joke, being tired after six weeks of field work in the snowy weather. This did not change in the next few days and I got the feeling they went on a passive strike being fed up with the work.

A week later

Typical weather in the high camp near glaciers and mountains in July 1989. To the right one of the glacier tongues. Somebody sitting in the foreground feeling cold.

Moving to Eureka was difficult. First the French professor and his son were moved to another camp nearby. I kept only minimal gear like food for a few days, a radio, a shotgun, a sleeping bag and a tent. Jeff would be picked up in the other camp and together we would fly to Eureka, a distance of 100 km. When I was waiting for the helicopter, the clouds suddenly came down and it started snowing. This is tricky as the camp in a deep valley of a rugged mountain and glacier area and the helicopter had to cross the mountain range with white glaciers difficult to see in the clouds. The helicopter pilot was not happy after he finally found me in the snowy clouds in the mountainous stream valley after flyuing down from the mountain range. I should have radioed him not to try it and be prepared to spend the night alone in the field, highly unusual and tricky with so little equipment.

Once the helicopter landed, flying to Eureka was easy as we only had to follow the down stream valley South.

Typical weather in the high camp near glaciers and mountains. Down-stream valley South for flying to Eureka. Glacier tongue left covered in snow. July, 1989.

Jeff told me the full story of the near fatal stream crossing. They were unable to work since the incident, being in a state of chock and were only recovering. This was the closest call in loosing a life on one of the expeditions I participated in Canada. 10 years later in the Himalaya it did happen, on Island Peak at 6000 m when a German died of high altitude sickness.

When to cross a glacier stream

 The golden rule I tried to tell my students in crossing streams was not to cross above knee level in the morning as it would be much higher at night. Inexperience combined with freak weather caused this incident.


Another rule was to never wear a packsack when crossing a deep stream but to throw is across as it makes you totally immobile when falling in a stream but to throw it over the stream. The shot gun you should always leave home as it is to heavy and could be damaged. There are no polar bears in the mountains and only rarely along the coast. Wolves are always very shy and keep a large distance.



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