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Toil and Trouble on Mount Thor
September 13, 2004
An attempt to set a world-record rappel down a fearsome rock face near the Arctic Circle plunged an ambitious team into a struggle against nature--and each other
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September 13, 2004

Toil And Trouble On Mount Thor

An attempt to set a world-record rappel down a fearsome rock face near the Arctic Circle plunged an ambitious team into a struggle against nature--and each other

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Here's a dirty little secret about mountaineering expeditions: They're like marriages. First-timers go in thrilled, bursting with faith in their new partners, shoving aside misgivings. Those who have been around the block tend to be more realistic. They openly entertain fears that it might not work. And an expedition planned by leaders who barely know one another is like an arranged marriage: Anything can happen, but chances are it won't be good. When relationships sour, little is left but a few uncontested facts and the bitter tang of regret and recrimination. Some uncontested facts:

In 1982 Dan Twilley, then 34, and his friend Steve Holmes--both experienced cavers--led an expedition to Baffin Island, right on the Arctic Circle, where they and 15 others set a rappelling world record by descending (and then climbing back up) a single rope 3,280 feet from the overhung face of Mount Thor. It was a big, no-holds-barred sort of trip, funded by the now-defunct magazine Geo. Participants included the noted outdoor photographer Michael (Nick) Nichols, professional photo assistants and an advance team to haul in food, gear and supplies for a comfy base camp amid the stark, breathtaking scenery of Canada's Auyuittuq National Park.

Twilley and Holmes had helped develop the pursuit of "big wall" rappelling and climbing in the 1970s, when they used a new type of static caving rope to descend the 2,650-foot overhung cliff of El Capitan in Yosemite. The two acquired an affection for the controlled thrill of stepping off a ledge into a thousand feet of space. Rigging, rappelling and climbing back up such lengths of rope demanded skill, physical conditioning and an analytical mind. Even minor rigging errors, amplified by the weight and sawing action of thousands of feet of rope, could prove fatal. To find walls offering more than the 1,400 or so feet provided by the deepest caves, Twilley and Holmes began scouting canyons and mountain cliffs.

Mount Thor offered the world's longest known "free" drop, where a hanging rope would barely kiss granite. To take on that face, Twilley and Holmes employed a new type of descender, called the Thor Rack--a yard of U-shaped steel rod, bridged by aluminum break bars. With it, they could control the friction and steadily increasing speed created by the physics of lowering a human body down a half mile of nylon kernmantle no thicker than your index finger.

Ever after that 1982 trip, Twilley talked about the view from halfway down the face of Thor in a hushed whisper suggestive of a deeply religious experience.

About five years ago a caver and big-wall aficionado named James Englett, now 42, approached Twilley with the idea of organizing a return to Mount Thor. Sitting around campfires at caving functions in and around his native state of Tennessee, Twilley and Englett speculated that it would be possible to rappel farther than the 1982 expedition did. A team rigging at a slightly different spot on the summit, dropping the rope farther down the scree slope at Thor's base, might achieve a rappel of as long as 4,000 feet.

It's common among cavers to start a conversation at a social event, continue it a year later at the base of a pit and then develop it through phone calls, e-mails and caving conventions until an expedition blossoms. This happened between Twilley and Englett. Last winter they agreed to spend July 2004 climbing, rappelling and derigging Mount Thor, using a small team that would be the antithesis of the big '82 expedition. No gear sponsors, no media, no professional photographers, just "seven guys going for a world record," as Englett put it. Although Englett would select the team, the two agreed to jointly lead the expedition.

Nunavut, Canada's newest territory, was created in 1999. It covers 772,000 square miles--fully one fifth of Canada's land mass--yet holds only 29,000 inhabitants, spread among a few hamlets and villages. The vast majority of the population is Inuit, and the semi-autonomous territory governs itself according to Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit, a set of traditional principles. The mountains that guard Pangnirtung Fiord, Thor among them, are sacred in native religion.

On his 1982 trip Twilley learned that the Inuit depend on good rope for harnessing dogsleds, fishing, hunting and many other daily tasks. He realized that even old caving rope is far stronger than most that the natives were using. In February 2004 Twilley e-mailed U.S. caving organizations saying that the new Thor team had decided to donate old caving ropes to the Inuit. Their goal was to amass up to 300 feet for every man, woman and child in Nunavut.

In late June Twilley squeezed into a van bursting with donated rope and drove from Chattanooga to Ottawa. On July 1 the seven men--Twilley and Englett, plus Chuck Constable, Ben Holley, Ben Kim, Dick Siron and Kenneth Waite--arrived in Pangnirtung, the gateway to the national park. Each member had spent between $3,000 and $4,000 on gear and travel, and each had spent much of the previous year training at caves and canyons throughout the U.S. They had made it to the expedition of their dreams, and to the point where the uncontested facts become fewer and fewer.

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