Expeditions supported by the SFAR
Canadian/Swiss Baffin Island Expeditions,
1950 and 1953
Excerpt from: Swiss Foundation for Alpine Research, 1939 to 1970. Published in Zurich in 1972
These scientific expeditions were led by the Canadian Colonel P.D. Baird and organised and implemented by the Arctic Institute of North America, Montreal, in collaboration with our Foundation. The aim and task of the enterprises was primarily to carry out glaciological investigations. However, meteorological, geological, botanical and zoological observations were also gathered, and topographical and cartographical records were taken. Although the primary purpose of the expeditions was for scientific research, mountaineering results were also obtained.
Baffin Island is known as Baffinland in German, and is one of the largest islands on Earth. It measures 540,000 square kilometres, and is easily 13 times as large as Switzerland. It is wholly enclosed within the polar zone. Politically, it has formed part of Canada since 1896. Its entire population comprises an estimated 200 Eskimos, who live in small groups by hunting seals by the coast. They also hunt the white fox for its fur. In the past, only very few white people visited the island. There are now between 100 and 200 white people living in some coastal settlements.
About 20 people took part in this expedition. As well as Canadians, citizens of the USA, Britons, Norwegians and Finns, they included three Swiss men: Hans Röthlisberger, Franz Elmiger and Hans Rudolf Mülli. All three were excellent mountaineers and young scientists, attached to the ETH and the University of Zurich. They were primarily engaged as mountaineers, but they also undertook scientific tasks.
All the participants in the expedition met in Montreal in May 1950, and travelled together from there to Baffin Island.
The heavier items of equipment had already been despatched by sea during the summer of the previous year. The Royal Canadian Air Force transported the participants and their equipment as far as the Clyde settlement by air, in a special plane made available by the Arctic Institute of North America. This plane could take off and land on wheels, skis or floats, depending on the conditions, and transferred the different groups of participants to their research areas, which were located in the Clyde Fjord region and in the interior, on the Barnes Ice Cap.
The original report contributed by the three Swiss participants to Berge der Welt (Mountains of the World) Vol. VI, 1951, also included an appendix, giving a summary of no fewer than 15 first ascents and traverses undertaken between 24th May and 28th August, mostly by all three climbers together. Two «Guests», the American Ritchie and the Scottish scholar Wynne-Edwards, also joined them on some occasions. Some of these ascents were beset by difficulties; though they may not seem very high, we must bear in mind that their point of departure lay barely above sea level. The most significant are: Walrus Head (1450 m), Three Sisters (1480 m), Lake Peak (1800 m), Crystal Peak (1550 m), Wave Crest (1750 m), Broad Peak (1820 m), Cracked Peak (1650 m) and Cock's Comb (1620 m).
Our Swiss team brought back a haul of rocks, plants and animals, the scientific assessment of which kept them busy for a long time. They also brought back a rich quantity of documentary photographic material, part of which was in colour.
Seven Canadians and four Swiss participants were included in this second Baffinland expedition. Once again, the expedition was led by Colonel P. D. Baird, and the Swiss members were: Hans Röthlisberger, Jürg Marmet, F. H. Schwarzenbach and Jean Weber.
The aim and tasks of the expedition were more or less the same as in 1950, but the working area this time was the Cumberland peninsula in the east of Baffin Island. This is a mountainous area with boldly-formed rock peaks and plateau glaciers, at an average height of 2000 metres. Once again, the expedition was mainly mounted for scientific purposes, but it also presented some wonderful mountaineering opportunities.
According to the strategy worked out by Colonel Baird, an investigation would be undertaken to establish whether a corn snow area existed on the top of the Penny Ice Cap. The thickness of the ice and the speed of flow were to be measured here and at various points on the typical Highway glacier that flowed to the coast. A geomorphologic investigation of the Pangnirtung Pass region was also to be undertaken, as was a geological, botanical and zoological study of the area, in line with the particular skills and interests of the scientists involved. The months of May to August were available for this programme to be carried out.
The tasks demanded of our four Swiss men involved laborious work in difficult terrain, within an unexplored mountain area under polar (i.e. unusually hard) weather conditions. A programme of seismic measurements of the ice thickness was carried out under the experienced leadership of Hans Röthlisberger of the Institute of Geophysics at the ETH, and this was supplemented by geological and glaciological observations. F. H. Schwarzenbach from the Botanical Institute at the University of Zurich attended to botanical, zoological and morphological questions, while Jürg Marmet from the Institute of Hygiene and Employment Physiology at the ETH carried out physiological observations. All four of these participants were also experienced mountaineers, and whenever their primary scientific duties allowed, they enjoyed the particularly exciting task of exploring and ascending completely new terrain.