Top of the World
by Galen Rowell
Outdoor Photographer, October 1998

Before joining a private expedition to the world's largest and least explored national park, I checked the archives of major American magazines and drew a blank. I wanted to see existing photographs and glean information about Northeast Greenland National Park, half again as big as Texas, as well as to strategize how to pitch a photo story of my own.

Colorado geologists John Jancik and Ken Zerbst, who had invited me, had been trying for seventeen years to obtain the necessary permits and funding to climb virgin peaks in an unexplored range and traverse sea ice with open leads to a tiny island. They said that my extensive polar experience would come in handy in the field and that my name might help cut through red tape. And, oh yes, they hoped to get their story published in National Geographic or Outside.

The island is the northernmost point of land in the world, located in 1978 by a Danish survey following up on discrepancies of more than ten miles between satellite imagery and existing maps. I explained that major American magazines are no longer interested in original exploration for its own sake. Entertainment value comes first. Celebrities, mummies, or the more recently deceased are better ways to getting modern adventure stories published. If some of us died or suffered terribly from our stupid mistakes, then we or our heirs might land a book contract or major magazine sale during the week our story was hot.

I further explained that I'm constantly being asked how to sell an adventure story in advance and I answer that I'm rarely able to do so myself these days. In this age of photographic and information overload, editors know that the more remote the adventure, the less likely that it will result in the kind of flashy, contrived imagery necessary to grab the short attention span of their similarly overloaded readership.

Nevertheless, I joined the roster and contacted National Geographic a year in advance. My proposal was declined. An editor I knew gave me inside information that it conflicted with a cultural Arctic story already in the works. Nunavut, a giant new Canadian territory to be ruled by the Inuit after 1999, was judged too similar to Greenland for their diverse readership.

Out of the blue, Universal Press Syndicate asked me to write and shoot a feature on Nunavut for hundreds of newspapers. That put me in a bind. The etiquette of free-lance journalism dictates not divulging inside knowledge of stories-in-progress to other publications. I tried to convince UPS to do Greenland, but they rightly felt that Nunavut was a more appropriate travel story for Sunday newspapers. When I told them that I was committed to Greenland-story or not- the summer 1996 Arctic weather window, they allowed me to wait until 1997 and shoot their assignment just after the Geographic article appeared.

I struck out more completely at Outside, where I am listed as a contributor on the masthead. The top editor failed to answer my calls and faxes. When we finally talked long after the expedition, he told me to take comfort in the fact that many of their best known contributors never get a reply. The moral here is that if you think you're being singled out by that editor who doesn't return your calls about a fantastic (but unsolicited) proposal, welcome to the turn of the twenty-first century.

At the turn of the last one, the legendary explorer Robert E. Peary arrived at the tip of Greenland by dog sled in 1900 and returned to tell the world he had discovered Cape Morris Jessup, the world's northernmost land. He named it after the President of the American Museum of Natural History, who had put up $50,000 toward his expedition.

Nine years later, Peary was celebrated as the first person to reach the North Pole. Today, both of these exploits are disputed, yet maps and reference books continue to credit him with the pole and to designate Cape Morris Jessup as the world's northernmost point of land. Our goals were the true northernmost point and the summits of unexplored mountains in the H.H. Benedict Range, named by Peary for another major contributor.

In 1921, the Danish explorer Lauge Koch traversed the northern shore of the Arctic Riviera, a long section of Greenland's northeast coast that has too little precipitation to breed glaciers. Contrary to the public conception of northern Greenland as a vast icecap second only to Antarctica, the snow-free summer tundra along the coast blooms with wildflowers each July. Koch spotted an obvious island that he suspected could be farther north than the cape and named it Kaffeklubben-Coffee Club Island—for his informal group of geologists.

A 1978 Danish survey landed a helicopter on Kaffeklubben and determined it was north of the cape. Just as they were celebrating, someone pointed to a tiny dark spot nearly a mile farther north. They flew out to a gravel bar about 25 feet wide by 50 feet long and named it Oodaaq after the faithful Greenland Eskimo who accompanied Peary toward the North Pole.

Our expedition began with a 1,200-mile flight in a Twin Otter that seemed to reverse geological time. From the green fields of Iceland we receded into the Pleistocene as icebergs dotted shipless seas, pack ice closed in against rocky shores, and an apparition appeared 10,000 feet above on the horizon: the great Greenland Icecap. It slowly vanished before we landed in North Pearyland.

A few days later we headed out for Oodaaq Island and failed because of deep slush and open leads. The next time we made it in a thirteen-hour marathon wearing snowshoes to keep from plunging through cracks in the ice.

When we reached Oodaaq, my feet were soaked and numb, despite double boots, gaiters, and two pairs of socks with plastic garbage bags over them, duct-taped to my thighs. Even so, I laughed heartily as I watched math professor Bob Palais try to balance on the single rock breaking the surface. This was our island? Our great goal? But here it was in just the right place at 83' 40'' north, 1360 meters off Kaffeklubben. Pack ice driven upward near shore had given off melt water that created a false sea level obscuring all but the island's highest point.

In the final months before departure, I had gotten a small Life magazine assignment. Knowing their penchant for the unusual, I preconceived creating the look of the top of the world as seen on a globe with a 16mm fish-eye lens. To solve the exposure problem of Bob smiling in stormy shadows surrounded by white ice, I manually set my flash for 70mm coverage to project a beam only onto Bob that would not over-light the closer water.

I was not surprised that Life ran the image that appears here as the major spread in a six-page story that did not include any of our first ascents, ski descents down unexplored glaciers, or encounters with wildlife, including a herd of musk oxen that spent the day eating wildflowers in base camp. My personal favorite image of the trip is a dead musk ox almost wholly receded into a barren area of soft tundra. The slowly vanishing creature returning nutrients to the earth that gave birth to the luxuriant blooms surrounding it is highly symbolic of the Arctic cycle of life.

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