Ten Hours. That’s how long it takes to get to the nearest hospital when you’re 750 miles from the North Pole on an uninhabited island in the Canadian Arctic.
Darren Berrecloth, Cam Zink, Carson Storch, Tom van Steenbergen, photographer Blake Jorgenson and the Red Bull Media House/Freeride Entertainment crew spent three weeks on Axel Heiberg Island, Canada’s second northernmost island to the North Pole, with a landmass the size of Switzerland. They were at 80 degrees of latitude north of the equator. Here in San Diego County, we sit at a measly 33 degrees. Up near the North Pole this past summer, the sun truly never went down.
It averaged 0 degrees Celsius (32 degrees Fahrenheit) during their stay. June and July are the only two months the ground is visible. During winter, it’s -50 degrees Celsius. Berrecloth and Zink had scouted the location along with the Red Bull production crew during the brief snow-free window in 2016. For 2017, it was on.
Axel Heiberg’s glaciated mountains dwarf southern Utah’s red Rampage cliffs–the same hucks and slopes we’re now accustomed to thinking of as ‘big mountain.’ Each rider’s Arctic line averaged three times the vertical of a typical Virgin, Utah, run and was anything but ordinary.
“Thirty-five-hundred feet of sustained vertical–the steepest you could ride–turned out to be dinner plates of shale,” Berrecloth emphatically stated. “Zink was absolutely convinced he could ride it but I had to tell him, ‘Look, I love you, you can’t ride this.'”
The unknown allure of a larger-than-life landscape can also be its downfall. “We’re looking for the steepest terrain and the most open terrain,” explained Berrecloth. “But it often means softer dirt.” Beyond uncertain terrain, medical attention can be hours–or days–away and questionable if found.
Hunting for unridden freeride lines is nothing new for Berrecloth, who’s known for unrelentingly pushing the limits. In 2012, Berrecloth mapped out locations for “Where the Trail Ends,” traveling in search of big, alpine-desert terrain in Argentina, the Gobi Desert of China, Nepal and British Columbia’s Fraser Valley with Kurt Sorge, Andreu Lacondeguy, James Doerfling and other prominent freeriders. Axel Heiberg Island had been kicking around on the potentials list but proved too big and expensive for a multi-stop, best-hits list. It needed its own trip, its own film.
“It’s an eye-opener,” stated Jorgenson. “Once you’re there, it’s a big sense of self-reliance.”
It proved to be a combination of on-the-spot thinking and a respect for power of environment. “When you put yourself in a vulnerable state, you’re much more aware,” explained Jorgenson.
Berrecloth witnessed this firsthand, as soon as the DH-6 Twin Otter whined its way beyond the island’s reaches for good, as he and van Steenbergen stood atop a surrounding peak, ready for their inaugural descent. Van Steenbergen, they quickly realized, had forgotten his pedals down at camp while hurriedly assembling his bike and jumping aboard the helicopter. They reboarded and then from camp below, Berrecloth watched a blast of wind heft his helmet off the upper ridge–his one and only helmet on the trip. It soared and bounced its way back toward basecamp smacking its way through the rocky landscape, battered but very thankfully not broken. Not how one hopes to start a three-week trip. Berrecloth immediately felt small within the sheer power of the Arctic’s indifferent enormity.
“You’re problem solving nonstop,” elaborated Jorgenson when asked about day-to-day challenges. “You can do as much logistical planning ahead–a full year’s worth–but you have to persevere through challenges.”
They certainly did. Early on, the camp witnessed a pack of a pure white Arctic wolves kill a juvenile muskox nearby. Later, while line scouting from the helicopter–what the group primarily used it for–they found their den. For prudent safety purposes, everything operated as an Arctic expedition: Surrounding camp was a polar bear fence and an Inuit guide holstered a rifle, on alert at all times. As riders trudged up unending slopes in search of lines, the helicopter waited paitently if needed in the event of an evacuation. They even had an ER doctor from Whistler on hand but thankfully, neither the doctor, nor the rifle was necessary.
This is a photo essay from Jorgenson capturing the hauntingly huge, dynamic landscape the crew and riders endured for three weeks, subsisting solely off of freeze-dried meals and an appetite for true adventure.
“North of Nightfall” premiered in Bend, Oregon, on May 30 with a dozen more showings following throughout the summer. It is also now available for download from you preferred movie provider. Find out more at northofnightfall.com.
All Photos by Blake Jorgenson.
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