Newfoundland; Journey to climb Mt. Gros Morne, caving, diving, kayakingThe 1999 Iceberg Alley Expedition: The Journey to Mount Gros Morne.
No expedition is without its last minute problems; ours was no different. For days we packed our 14 duffel bags and countless stuff sacks with slightly less than 1000 pounds of equipment, clothing, food and fuel. These were then packed tightly into our SUV Ford Explorer, that we called, the "LEM" (short for Lunar Excursion Module, named after the more famous LEM that transported the Apollo 13 astronauts back to Earth after an explosion that almost cost them their lives.) When we strapped our Walden Paddler Vision Expedition Sea kayaks to the Thule roof racks, the LEM died. With only hours to go before expedition we were pre-disastered. Serenity, my wife headed down to our local garage for repairs and a new battery; later we were off...
“The Ship That God Himself Could Not Sink?”
Section 1. The story of the Titanic & our near road trip highway disaster: Section 2. Caving 3. Extreme Sea Kayaking 4. Wreck Diving 5. Climbing Mount Gros Mourne...
(Please skip to the appropriate section where most interested; or join us for the whole tale, we promise our lives come into jeopardy several times for your continued entertainment, and our own sick desire for adrenaline!
If the Andrea Doria were the Mount Everest of wreck diving, the Titanic would be like stacking K2 (the hardest 8000-meter peak in the world) on top of Everest and trying to climb it without rope. Sitting at a depth of 12,500, the Titanic can only be reached with the assistance of a sub. On our way to Newfoundland, we had a 24-hour layover in Halifax, Nova Scotia so we took this opportunity to learn more about Iceberg Alley’s most famous shipwreck. For us, there was really no way we could eventually climb in Newfoundland, SCUBA dive and sea kayak in Iceberg Alley; which lay very near 'Titanic Canyon,' without being personally touched by this disaster, so the tale begins...
The Arctic Winter of 1911-1912 was exceptionally mild. Break-off from glaciers jutting into the sea along Greenland’s West Coast was accelerated. Enormous icebergs were born, surviving for a longer period of time as they drifted down toward the waters off Newfoundland known as Iceberg Alley. In the early spring of 1912, there were more icebergs further south then ever recorded before. The RMS Titanic made her ill-fated voyage in the lanes of travel specifically routed for the avoidance of icebergs; lanes that have since been moved even further south.
The Titanic was the largest and most luxurious ocean liner of its time. Its double-bottomed hull was divided into 16 watertight compartments. Since 4 of these compartments could be flooded without endangering the liner’s buoyancy, it was arrogantly considered “unsinkable”. Shortly before midnight on the 14th of April 1912, while steaming at 22 knots (too fast for existing conditions), the ship collided with an iceberg. Many small gashes ripped into the port side of the ship, and 5 of the watertight compartments were ruptured. In two hours, she sank, at 2:20 on the morning of April 15, 1912. Passengers scrambled to get into lifeboats, women and children were sent first. In the end only 18 of the 20 boats were launched all of which could hold 70 men, but four were launched with 28 women and children while one only had 12. Confusion and panic then took over.
For the next few hours all the people in the lifeboats, 705 total, had nothing to do but wait and watch as 1500 souls; loved ones and crew, froze and drown. The survivors in the lifeboats were instructed by the crew aboard not to go back and save their dying husbands or freezing brothers for fear, their life boats would be swamped with water as the drowning people panicked. Only two lifeboats chose to risk going back but where too late, picking up only 4 passengers total, all the others were dead.
Of all the ships that heard the distress call, the first on the scene was the Carpathia. The Carpathia raced over 59 miles through the night at 17 knots, threading at high speeds though the ice in the pre-dawn. Her passengers lined the rails as the survivors of the RMS Titanic climbed aboard. Captain Rostron chose to return the ship and its passengers to New York instead of the closer port of Halifax for fear of more ice.
Every April 15th, a wreath is placed at 41 degrees 46 minutes North and 50 degrees 14 minutes West, the position of where the Titanic lies. It is dropped by either a ship or plane of the International Ice Patrol. The International Ice Patrol (run by the United States Coast Guard) was created in January 1914 in response to the sinking of the RMS Titanic. Even today, they still send out ships and airplanes to document the location of thousands of icebergs. These reports are then distributed to all ships sailing through Iceberg Alley.
The cemetery where many of the victims of the Titanic disaster came to their final rest is in Halifax Nova Scotia: Our team on our way to Newfoundland to climb got a chance to visit this Gravesite. Several of the stones are lined in such a way as to create a bow of a ship. Jack Dawson’s site, from the famous movie, is the most visited but one of the smallest. Inscriptions written on the stones give testimony to the bravery and self-sacrifice that the men who stayed behind showed.
As one of our goals is to dive the wreck of the PLM 27, beginning our trip by visiting a grave gave me a cold feeling because it started sinking in what wreck diving is all about. The time had come to leave for the most northern point in Nova Scotia, North Sydney and the ferry that will take us to the Far East of the Western World, Newfoundland!
While driving up and down the rolling hills of Nova Scotia, The LEM gave us one more scare. While accelerating on the crest of a hill the accelerator pedal got stuck all the way to the floor. I tapped it repeatedly in an attempt to free it without luck. I then hit my brakes but they seemed to be malfunctioning as well: The LEM gained speed as we flew down the side of the hill at over 100 miles an hour, and accelerating. I radioed Mike Daly & Fred Birchenough, the other Expedition Outreach team members in the truck directly in front of us, who I was sure were wondering why we were heading toward them at ramming speed pulled out of the way before we collided... Realizing that this was the time for drastic decisions, I grabbed the steering wheel and pressed on my brakes as hard as possible. Smoke streamed out from the rear of the vehicle and we started slowing down but not fast enough. With the down side of the hill rapidly approaching I ran the LEM off the road, hit the parking brake and slammed the transmission into park. Surprisingly enough the LEM stopped and other than massive amounts of deterioration to the brake pads she was ok. We all felt that the expedition was now officially underway!
Without further disaster, we reached the Newfoundland ferry & the shores of Port aux Basque, just before dark we could see that the terrain differed greatly from Nova Scotia. The island had a feel between Alaska and the Arctic Circle with sharp rock outcroppings everywhere, a boulderers paradise! The fog rolled in heavily as the sun dropped over the horizon and the temperature dropped with it. We found the Saint Christopher Hotel sitting like a sentinel guarding the gateway of Newfoundland upon the craggy rocks, and called it a night.
2. Caving the reverse aid climb! Newfoundland's limestone sinkholes.
Exploring Beneath the Far East of the Western World: Caving, or reverse climbing, us climbing bums would rather call it...
We located an extensive cave system in Corner Brook, Newfoundland. We arrived at Marble Mountain Cabins to meet up with our new friend, Ed English of the Newfoundland Department of Tourism. Ed played guide as he led us to the entrance of the cave system. Ed pointed out some of the cave's passages that he believed to be seldom visited, if ever, and then, after some fancy rock climbing along the walls of the cave, bid us a good night and left us to our dark world.
These local caves have always been shrouded in mystique. Legend has it that they are the entrances to the underworld, home to great lizards. The Corner Brook cave system is made from limestone created about 450 million years ago when the area was part of a larger continent that included what is today North America, Greenland, part of Russia and the British Isles.
This cave system that we have stumbled upon is the largest in all of Newfoundland. Running to the Bay of Islands, Corner Brook Stream cuts deep into the limestone, subjecting it to flash flooding, which is the aspect of descending into this cave that we feared the most. The internal temperature is constant staying in the mid forty degree area with ice hanging from deep colder cracks that line the ceiling. The temperature and icy river flowing through the main cavern of the cave create a condition where hypothermia was our prime concern.
Any human damage done to the cave may heal in time, but it will happen slowly, over eons, rather than years. For this reason, caves and the formations they contain are viewed as a non-renewable resource. Formations that have been painted, broken, or in some cases simply handled, cease to grow. They will not return in our lifetimes or in our children's lifetimes.
We talked about our plan, as we stood in the dark ready to explore the bowels of Newfoundland. We would squeeze through small cracks above the main cavern hoping to again emerge from the total darkness at another entrance thus linking an uncharted passage. Remembering that psychiatrists believe a person could go completely insane if left in the dark caverns too long made me remember the last time I descended into a hole.
We entered a large cavern and followed an underground river until we came to very small passageway. We squeezed through it barely fitting. Awaiting us on the other side was an amazing waterfall. We were so caught up in the chamber’s beauty, that we were startled when several bats flew into the chamber. Bats were more than I cared to deal with at this point in my career of exploration so we decided to leave.
Retracing our steps, we followed the river back upstream until we came to a fork. Realizing that we did not know which way we came. We choose the time old method of guessing and trusted our luck. Even though this foolhardy approach to cave navigation worked out for us, we weren’t out of the glue yet. With just one passageway to go to the surface, we found twelve different openings coming off the first chamber. All except one led back down into a maze of rocky caverns deep beneath the Earth. Only one led to light and the world we knew. it sunk in right there how a cave could become your coffin. We patiently used the process of elimination exploring each opening hoping to find the right one. Several hours of exploring dead ends found us exhausted and disbelieving when we finally saw a light.
Nature has a way of tricking you into giving up hope. A mountain can present so many false summits that you will not believe that you have reached the top even when you cannot climb any higher and a cave can make you loose all hope of seeing daylight even when your eyes are stinging with its glow. After a while we realized that we had found the way out. Our patience had won us our freedom.
In an attempt to make our caving campsite more comfortable, we moved some wet stones around and nested ourselves into the cracks to sleep. Despite our best efforts, there was no way to escape the moisture completely it was going to be a long wet night. During the evening the dark played tricks on our minds. Serenity heard music coming from the caverns below, while I heard what seemed to be a jet roaring toward us through the cavern. The sound grew louder and louder until I was sure that I was hearing the cavern flooding. I snapped my headlamp back on and saw that I was wrong. I now realized we could no longer trust our senses under the ground in the same way as above it. Then, smiling at ourselves, we shut down our lights one final time and stared into the darkness watching and wondering at the flickering lights that played before our eyes.
The river of white water pouring through the cave just a few feet from where we lay gave a thrumming pulse that lulled us to sleep. The whole abyss that was our basecamp became an extension of our minds and we dreamed heavily. For ten hours the darkness held us captive in its slumbering embrace.
After awakening and breaking our hobbit like camp, we made our way for the surface. The sun was warm and comforting. We took a slow walk through the forest, awash in the smell of balsam. At the trucks, we spread our gear out upon the ground and let the sunlight bake it "clean". After re-packing our trucks we continued our journey east. Each step brought us closer to our final destination, ICEBERG ALLEY, the most treacherous stretch of the North Atlantic.
3. Sea Kayaking Sea's of White Water, our Journey to the Mountain continues...
The North Atlantic is the most dangerous ocean in the world. Hulls of all ocean-going vessels carry a painted symbol called a load line, indicating permissible displacements of water for the various seasons. The lowest level bears the terse abbreviation “WNA – Winter North Atlantic”. No other ocean has this specific billing. The North Atlantic is famous for year round fog. Off the Grand Banks, a part of Iceberg Alley where the Labrador Current chills the vapor-laden air above the Gulf Stream, it is almost perpetual, an opaque mist that can shroud the sea for days. We set our kayaks into the ocean just a few hundred miles of where the Titanic sank, a stones throw when considering its vastness.
The icebergs that float down to Newfoundland's Iceberg Alley originate off of Greenland's West Coast. As the glacier breaks apart, called calving, it releases some 10,000 icebergs into the ocean each year. They crash into the ocean with a thunderous roar, creating their own wind. Of the 10,000 icebergs that leave Greenland, roughly 466 make it to the coast of Newfoundland. The warm waters and eroding waves of the south can wreck havoc on an iceberg, reducing it to only 10% of its former mass by the time it reaches Iceberg Alley. As the iceberg melts, it lets off an unnerving hissing sound. There are other smaller chunks of ice that float in the ocean called "growlers" or "bergy bits". They range in size from a small car to a large house and sit low in the water. The average age of one of these icebergs is 5000 years old! Only one-eighth of an iceberg floats on the ocean's surface, the rest lurks beneath the sea. On a good year, they catch the current and drift southward toward Newfoundland but this year we saw none.
To reach our put in we traveled through Saint John's, a fair sized city skirted by cliffs rounding the coast to the eastern most point on the North American continent, Cape Spear. We turned south to reach Cape Broyle. Traveling through rolling hills and evergreen forests, we eventually met up with team members Jim and Jamie Price of Eastern Edge Outfitters. We put in at the dock of a small deserted fishing village. Many such villages once thrived here, but the waters have been over fished, their stocks now protected by the government in a last desperate effort to save these fish.
We had dressed for the cold and rough seas of Iceberg Alley, which can be cold enough to kill a person in minutes. Outfitted with top of the line paddling uniforms, neoprene one piece suits and dry tops we had a fighting chance. Since our Eskimo rolls were not bombproof we brought along a device called a Roll Aid, which essentially is a balloon that creates lift, that you can automatically inflate with a built in CO2 cartridge when you capsize, they worked flawlessly.
Immediately, the sea tossed our tiny boats about. Strong winds were at our backs but the current ran into our bow. We fought to keep our kayaks going in the right direction, pushed by the current further and further from the intended course. Serenity, thankfully, had a bit more luck as the sea beat the rocky cliffs, white foam spewed from the crevasses. The salt water washing back into the sea met the next determined wave in a violent churning that threatened to toss us into the air and then draw us in under its foaming fists. The water temperature sat around 26 degrees Farenheight, six degrees below freezing, kept liquid only by its salt and surge. The thought of getting flipped by a wave was on everyone's mind and for some time the tension remained high. Jim and Jamie paddle these waters with almost unbelievable ease and have perfected the art of pulling people out of the water and then helping them back in their boats, all in under sixty seconds. Grateful for the company, we soon worked into a rhythm, rocking and rolling with the swells.
Along this coast we explored the many sea caves as best we could but the waves crashed against them creating a condition too dangerous for entering. The main danger of exploring sea caves is that the powerful surf tosses the boats up into the cave's roof and onto the cliff's walls with enough force to crush you. We paddled past a remarkable sea stack and finally onto shore. The trip reminded me more of a class two or three white-water river descent than of sea-kayaking trip. This shore is called, the weather shore, the coast protected from storms. It is so named because of a ship's perspective. The shore facing the protected side of the ship is the lee shore, and the shore facing the storm side of the ship is the weather shore.
After some lunch we had to paddle across our longest stretch of open water to reach the lee shore and our campsite. During the crossing we encountered a confused sea. A storm system from a couple days earlier brought waves into the channel, and strong winds whipped up waves to meet them heading out. The result was a confusion of chaotic surf and surge four to six feet above our boats. We topped the crest of each wave and found nothing but air to meet us on the other side. We dropped into its trough and lost sight of our teammates. We each reacted to this naturally occurring phenomenon in our own way. I paddled hard but felt a sense of insecurity. The ocean had me in check and it was clear that it was much more powerful than I. I kept from capsizing by submitting to its power. Staying loose at the hips and riding each wave the way it wanted to go.
After a few hours it became trying on my nerves to feel so little control. Jim and Jamie played in the swells and it was then that I learned that our new teammates were also expert white water paddlers. White water river running seemed like the proper training for paddling Iceberg Alley as nothing we had paddled in New England even came close.
We eventually found the cliffs on the other side, and now paddled along the rocky arm of shore. Some time later, we reached a site on a bluff that overlooked the ocean. We paddled to shore timing our landing with the surf. Setting our camp high on the bluff over a cliff face, we ate steak and potatoes, spoke of the day, and settled down for the night.
The next morning, we woke up from our Oceanside camp and watched snow squalls hit the rough seas. With visibility only a few yards, we wouldn't know if there were any icebergs out there. Due to the storm there was nothing to do but sleep in. We warmed our tent with a Suunto gas lantern and waited for the storm to let up but it never did completely.
Without much of a choice we set off in our boats into the wind and once more the ballet of being tossed with the sea began. Our turning point from our original destination came when Mike Daly caught a wave so big that his boat was actually airborne for a moment. Mike landed upright and was able to prevent his boat from capsizing but only by a quick high brace with his paddle. Serenity not only paddled but shot video. Fred and I were having the same difficulties primarily brought on by the nervous tension of being better at climbing than sea kayaking these conditions. Jim and Jamie said that the seas were rough, but they had paddled these conditions before and would have kept going if we decided to, we decided to call it quits and head for shore. What was gripping for us was fun to them, extreme is a relative term!
4. Diving the Wreck of the PLM 27
The morning had come and we set off once more into the Alley. This time to SCUBA dive the wreck of the PLM. The boat dive master said that the seas had calmed down with underwater visibility at about 30-40 feet. The boat picked us up on time and the sun once hidden behind dark clouds has now made its appearance. The temperature was 36 degrees and windy as we set out toward Bell Island, a large island with a small population of fishermen & women. During World War Two this island was the only point of land in the North American continent that came under direct attack by the Nazi's, the German U-boat; U-518. One sunny afternoon in 1945, the U-518 torpedoed the shore resulting in several civilian casualties. This U-boat was also the submarine that sunk the PLM 27. We met up with our fellow team members, JB and Mike from Rock Water Adventures; the best dive shop in Newfoundland will be diving with us.
We anchored to the line that was attached to the mid section of the PLM. We suited up in our Dacor dry suits and Oceanic equipment with the usual complications. Donning a dry suit with a full pack of equipment is a lot like putting on a space suit to do an extra vehicular activity (space walk or EVA) outside the space shuttle. We put layers upon layers of clothing, dressed for conditions similar to the North Pole: Hoods, gloves, fins, masks, watches and computers. We hooked up hoses to redundant air supplies in case we ran out: Hoses to our dry suits, buoyancy compensators, spare air, safe seconds, pony bottles and gauges. The water today is warmer than usual.
We were expecting below freezing but it warmed up to almost 30 degrees. I jumped into the water holding my mask onto my face and felt the cold sting of the ocean on my exposed lips and parts of my face. After a few minutes we began our descent. Expecting a descent into a dark abyss, the type of deep diving New England is famous for. We had amazing visibility, about 40 feet. The ship quickly came into view and this was the last that I thought of the cold water. It was hard to think of anything but the ship. The sheer size of this boat dwarfed us by comparison: Sitting upright and in excellent condition. The wrecks of Newfoundland are less shipwreck and more ships resting underwater. I adjusted my buoyancy so I was able to glide over the wreck effortlessly. The sensation of scuba diving is as close to flying in outer space as one could come while still being on the planet Earth.
We dropped right down onto a railing on the deck. The PLM was a 5000-ton iron ore carrier sunk by the U-518 because the Iron Ore was used to make weapons of war. The ship was loaded with this precious mineral of war. Sea life has covered the deck and we saw spider crabs, sea mushrooms called anemones, six and seven legged starfish, scallops and assorted fish. We swam fast to reach the stern of the ship, the most distant and deepest point of our dive at roughly 95 feet. I struggled to keep up and used a lot more air than I should of due to the water temperature and my being nervous. We swam through a gapping hole in the ship caused by the torpedo that sank her. Finally we reached the rear of the ship, the water was much colder here due to thermo clines (cold winds of water at varying depths.) I swam through the ships massive propeller and around to the starboard side to head back to the up line (line that is attached to the ship to descend and ascend on.)
About half way around, JB swam over to Mike and gave the signal that he needed to share air. At the time I was not sure what was wrong but what was obvious was that all of his air was flowing at an uncontrolled rate. JB decided to abort the dive and return to the surface before he was out of air. I glanced at my gauge and noticed that I only had about 600 PSI of air left. I returned to the surface with JB figuring that staying in a team of two was safer than heading off alone. The rest of the team surfaced shortly after.
We waited on Bell Island while our bodies off gassed the stored nitrogen accumulated by breathing compressed air at depth. We went to the memorial of the PLM dedicated to the brave souls who sunk with her. We returned to the sea for another dive, this time to explore the bow or front end of the ship. We carefully penetrated the wreck through opened doors and windows called portholes. We dove down into the guts of the ship and saw the piles of iron ore, the precious mineral that caused twelve crewmembers to loose their lives. I managed to slow my breathing down quite a bit and the team stayed together until the last few moments. I glided alongside the deck and reached the front of the ship. In a reminiscent of the movie Titanic I stood at the very front and climbed upon the railing and imagined the wind hitting my face as the ship cruised along the open water. A glance at my gauge revealed that my time here is over. I surfaced to find myself about 500 yards away from our boat. I inflated my buoyancy jacket and swam on my back until I reached the ship. After boarding the ship a warm feeling over came me as I realized that the thing that scared me the most; diving the PLM in Iceberg Alley had been successfully accomplished.
5. Mount Gros Mourne.
By the time we reached Mount Gros Mourne, my secret quest to ice climb an iceberg was foiled by lack of seeing any icebergs in the Alley to climb upon. That, and I totally under-estimated how scary sea kayaking is in relation to climbing, when one is mostly a climber and not a paddler...
I ended up getting a major cold, or the flu or something, so I am afraid that I still had to climb the mountain sick as a dog, or how could I end a story on a climbing website without making the summit?
The mountain was the most spectacular hike I have ever done, wild Caribou roamed freely, our teammate Fred climbed it twice running up the same route just for fun: I clambered along barely making it up this hill of magnificent proportions, relative to the surrounding terrain.
When we made the summit by the standard route we bare witness to thousands of feet of untouched rock beneath us, first ascent potential like I have never seen witnessed before through all my travels in South America & Alaska.
Aid climbs, big wall climbs and I was so sick I had to descend via the hiking route. So if you are so inclined; do yourself a favor, if you are ready to put up a first ascent on some seldom climbed big rock, climb Gros Mourne.. When feeling stronger than I, bring a pair of strong binoculars, and see this rock!
Then, and I have no idea what beta to offer, descend down into the Fiord below, and become a first ascentionist on what could only bring a tear to my eye as a climber as sheer beauty!