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skiing the fjords

83°

A polar adventure: „83° Ski The North“

Watching this Austrian-made Arctic odyssey is like seeing a Jack London story updated to age of the freeskier.

By Chris Cummins

Austrian skier and documentary maker Matthias Mayr’s new film - „83 degrees – Ski the North“ follows his expedition to the Challenger Mountains. The most northerly mountain chain in world, these Fjord-lined peaks that make up part of the Arctic Cordillera are located just 800km below the north pole and the frozen tip of Canada’s Ellesmere Island.

As in his previous films, which have taken the Salzburg-based skier to such wild places as frozen tundra of Siberia and the wind-lashed Pacific Island of Onekotan, Mayr is joined by his phlegmatic Tyrolean ski buddy Matthias Haunholder. But this time the show is stolen by a new cast member, a strong-willed Northern Inuit Dog called Kujju – a strong-willed alpha-male with an endearing disdain for mountain-slopes.

Kujju

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The idea of skiing the far north was born during Mayr and Haunholder’s last adventure in the very opposite side of the earth. They were filming No Man’s Land – Expedition Antarctica on the frozen emptiness of the southern continent when an adventurer there waxed lyrical about northern mountains of Ellesmere Island which are roamed by polar bears and wolves.

That, decided the peripatetic skiing duo, would be more interesting terrain for a ski adventure; and a perfect sequel to their south pole adventure.

Tips from the Experts

18 months of planning later, we see the duo arriving on the most populated island of the Canadian arctic, Baffin Island, to get some last-minute survival tips from Erik Boomer, an expedition kayaker with huge experience of the northlands, and his girlfriend, Polar explorer Sarah McNair-Landry. In 2004. she became the youngest person ever to ski unsupported to the South Pole, at the age of 18.

Learning the ropes

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Mayr and Haunholder are encouraged on their mission (“I think you’ll find some good snow up there” predicts Boomer) but advised not the roam in the wilds of Ellesmere without on of the locally-bred dogs which not only help pull equipment warn off polar bears. That’s where Kujju comes in.

These Inuit dogs, which have wolves in their near ancestry, are extremely precious. They can get a hunter out of life-threatening danger with their endurance and bravery and, as Mayr points out, unlike snow-mobiles they don’t break down. Therefore, in terms of sacrifice, lending one a pair of wandering Austrians would be much more generous than lending them the brand-new family car.

A Changing Climate

But they are in luck. A local Inuit woman called Mica Mika warms to the skiers and, as well as showing off some remarkable polar bear skin trousers, sends Mayr and Haunholder off for the next chapter of their adventure with Kujju, her strongest dog.

Inuit woman

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She also tells them how climate change is impacting the lives of the Inuit. The sea-ice has provided their roads of communication for generations, but now the ocean is freezing late and melting early, making journeys ever more precarious. And by destroying their natural hunting grounds, global warming is sending starving bears ever closer to human settlements causing a dangerous conflict.

Freedom and Frostbite

Mayr and Haunholder pack him in a crate and, with the rest of their equipment, fly to Ellesmere Island, a frozen, blizzard-ridden land the size of Germany with a human population of just 500. What follows is a story of exploration and adaptation. The skiers must learn to hack frozen elk meat to feed Kujju, to deal with the strong winds that threaten to blow away their tent, freezing temperatures that threaten them with frost-bite and snow that is so powdery the duos skis cut right through to the rock.

The glory of the north

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You will find, of course, some stunning ski footage, in 83 Degrees. It’s filmed by drone, with the wide Fjord landscape of the Arctic exuding an extraordinary sense of freedom and space. But more than a shot of adrenaline, this contemplative, slow-paced film is a celebration of the glory of nature and a questioning of our place in it.

As the skiers strive to make first descents down these isolated mountains, watched over by the mercurial Kujju, whose sleepy eyes suggest a distaining bafflement about the human folly of ascending any mountain unless there’s something to eat at the top. As he lies, perched on a snowy peak, you realize he’s in command of his realm where skiers from Austria are just lucky visitors.

All hail, the King of the North!

Premiere on Wednesday

„83° Ski The North“ can be seen at its Salzburg-Premiere in the Oval Salzburg this Wednesday!

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