Weber Powder Private - A journey through Axel Heiberg

Posted by Kaitlin Fulmore in Stories

Weber Powder Private - A journey through Axel Heiberg

As the ski season came to an end in British Columbia, Nansen Weber embarked on a journey with six clients to traverse Axel Heiberg Island crossing Strand Pass.  Axel Heiberg is located in the Arctic Archipelago in Canadas northernmost collection of islands, also known as the Queen Elizabeth Islands.  Only 1200KMs south of the North Pole, Axel Heiberg is uninhabited except for a seasonal research base operated by McGill University. 

Axel Heiberg Traverse Start and End
Axel Heiberg Traverse Overview - MARS to Müller Icecap.

The first recorded crossing through Strand Pass on Axel Heiberg Island was by the Geological Survey of Canada (GSC) expedition in 1959. This expedition was significant as it included a comprehensive geological and topographical survey of Axel Heiberg Island and contributed to the broader understanding of the Canadian Arctic’s geography and geology. Hans Weber, grandfather of Nansen Weber, was part of this expedition along with several other scientists. This route was also completed by Richard Weber in 1999 making the recent completed expedition 3 generations of Webers crossing Axel Heiberg via the Strand route. Outside of these expeditions, there have been no recorded crossings through Strand Pass.

The journey began as the group spent four days travelling to their starting location on Axel Heiberg - the McGill Arctic Research Station also known as MARS.  From their homes across Canada, the group met in Ottawa, the capital of Canada and flew to Iqaluit, the capital of Nunavut.  From Iqaluit the group then flew to Resolute, a small community on Cornwallis Island where they boarded the final flight on a private twin otter to MARS.  At MARS, they were welcomed by Dr. Laura Thompson from Queens University, Miles Ecclestone and a group of students conducting research on Axel Heiberg for the summer season.  The group was amazed to hear Miles was celebrating his 40th season at the MARS facility this year making him the closest person to a resident of Axel Heiberg. Dr. Laura spearheads the research station each season and hosts graduate students and scientists from universities all over the world conducting an array of impressive scientific work ranging from glaciology, astronomy, permafrost, hydrology, microbiology, permafrost and many more. Today, the station is only used in the spring and summer months. 

MARS Facility 2024
Photo at MARS with Dr. Laura Thompson, Miles Ecclestone and students holding a photo of the three generations of Webers that have traversed Axel Heiberg: Hans, Richard and Nansen. 

After enjoying a nice tour of the facilities and storytelling from the MARS team, Nansen and the expedition group said their goodbyes, gathered their sleds, and set out on their 14 day adventure. Each member of the team was equipped with a set of hybrid backcountry/nordic skis with a 80-100 lbs sled in tow carrying all the gear required for the 14 day expedition. Travel was slow and steady averaging 18KM to 20KM per day over 6 to 7 hours of moving time.  With no other humans in sight, and no connection with the outside world, the group was able to enjoy the mesmerizing, vast landscape of Axel Heiberg.  

Heard of Bull Muskoxen seen on day three of the traverse.
Heard of Bull Muskoxen seen on day two in the Strand Fjord.

On day two of the trip, the team had a welcome surprise as they spotted a heard of 6 bull Muskoxen. Muskox are known as the survivors of the Ice Age dating back to 150,000+ years ago and, after almost going extinct in the early 1900s, have been under Canadian Government Protection since 1917.  Amazed by their ability to survive with small grazing patches visible in the distance, the team took a moment to watch the heard and snap some photos.

Group traversing onto Strand Fjord.
Expedition team traversing onto Strand Fjord en route to Strand Glacier in the Princess Margaret Range. (Image by Angus Aitken) 

After three days traversing through the Princess Margaret Range on Strand Glacier, the team passed over land and headed towards Eureka Sound. By this stage of the expedition, everyone looked forward to setting up camp at the end of a long day and digging into the Weber prepared food and beverage.  Each day the team would enjoy apreś which included cheese, crackers and a variety of preserved specialty meats. Après was served with a famous Weber cocktail - the highlight of any Weber Expedition. After Après and cocktails, a hearty homemade dinner was prepared thanks to the amazing Joseé Auclair who is known for her backcountry cuisine. Needless to say, no one went to bed hungry as the food was delicious and plentiful. 

Day 7 traversing into Eureka Sound
Day 8 traversing into Eureka Sound. (Image by Angus Aitken)

Days 8 through 10 the team travelled over sea ice where they viewed several polar bear and arctic wolf tracks. On the morning of day 10, while the team was preparing breakfast in camp, they were visited by two curious arctic wolves.  The wolves came up to camp and stood a mere meter away from guide Nansen as he took photos of the curious animal.  This may have been the only time these wolves have encountered humans in their lifetime on the sparse island. 

Day 10 - Wolves in camp for breakfast
Day 10 - Wolves in camp for breakfast.

Nearing the end of the expedition, the team travelled through the fossil forest on Axel Heiberg towards their end location on Müller Icecap. The forest holds of 30+ million year old mummified wood (Dawn Redwood) which had been covered and preserved by fine sediment halting any rotting. To this day, the wood is so well preserved that it could be used to build a fire. It is near impossible to imagine Axel Heiberg, which sees complete darkness months out of the year, as a location for a thriving forest. 

Mummified Forest
Nansen holding a piece a 30+ million year old wood from the mummified forest.

The trip came to an end on Müller Ice Cap where the group was welcomed by the twin otter plane. The plane landed directly on the Icecap using skis and the group began their 4 day journeys back to civilization. 

Later that week, back home in mainland Canada, one of the expedition members was at a dinner party and the following conversation unfolded. 

Dinner Guest:  "So let me get this straight.  You did this not once, but twice!  Are you a masochist?  Would you do it again?"
Expedition Member: "I will not lie. It's addictive. The grind, pushing myself, the scenery, the tent camaraderie, the Weber cocktails.... so yeah, I would leave tomorrow."

We cannot think of a better way to summarize a Weber expedition than that! 

Quote from Nansen: "Axel Heiberg Island, with its towering peaks and vast ice cap, is a land of extremes. From the high, windswept plateaus, home to Ice Age muskoxen, to rugged canyons where hares shelter from windstorms, and smooth fjords dotted with enormous icebergs and the occasional polar bear tracks, this remote wilderness is a place where you can truly feel alone and as if you are the first to traverse its paths. There are no people here, only wind, snow, ice, and rock. It is not a forgiving landscape. I keeps you on your toes. The memories we make as a team, crossing these untamed landscapes, will be etched into our minds forever. These are not moments you forget. You come back a changed person after walking in the wilds of the High Arctic wilderness" 

If you would like to see more footage from the amazing expedition, watch the following recap created by expedition member Angus: