The club expedition to Baffin Island, from left: Dan Moe, Brad Humphrey, Mike Moe, and Sharon Kava
Dan Moe, group photo; alubalish/Getty, old frame; Laramie Daily Boomerang, newspaper clippings
The club expedition to Baffin Island, from left: Dan Moe, Brad Humphrey, Mike Moe, and Sharon Kava
The club expedition to Baffin Island, from left: Dan Moe, Brad Humphrey, Mike Moe, and Sharon Kava (Photo: Dan Moe, group photo; alubalish/Getty, old frame; Laramie Daily Boomerang, newspaper clippings)

Tragedy in Baffin Bay

Mark Jenkins chose to skip a risky adventure with his friends. Twenty-five years later, he’s still haunted by what happened in his absence.

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Mike Moe’s eldest son came by the house yesterday. He was just out of the psych ward, after serving time in prison. He looked the same—lean, strong, with a long red beard and a mess of dreads. Behind the hair he was quick to smile, like his dad had been. I had a box of outdoor books I’d saved for him, but he said he’d done so much reading in jail that he was taking a hiatus to get his farsightedness back, a metaphor he did not recognize.

His name is Justin, and the last time I’d seen him was in 2015, when he and I and his younger brother, Kevin, went backcountry skiing in the Snowy Range of southern Wyoming. This was before their sister, Carlie, died. At that time, all three of the Moe children—whose ages ranged from 21 to 24—were homeless. Carlie was living in a van in California, Justin had been aimlessly hitchhiking across the West, and Kevin’s house was a snow cave.

Kevin had dug his cave where his dad and I used to dig ours, at 10,000 feet on the eastern end of Wyoming’s Swastika Lake. All winter long at this spot, snow blasts across blue ice into a big stand of lodgepole pines. The trees slow the velocity of the snow, which settles on the leeward side of the trunks, forming drifts 20 feet deep. Kevin had decorated his cave with battery-powered Christmas lights. On the ice platform that served as a bed, he was using the same heavy down sleeping bag his dad had used when we went to Denali together in 1980.

During my backcountry trip with Kevin and Justin, they skied with total abandon and little technique. They would drop down through the trees, legs spread wide, whooping at the top of their lungs. Then, lacking the ability to turn on their skinny cross-country gear, they would inevitably face-plant. Laughing loudly, with snow in their beards, they got back on the boards and kept plowing downhill.

When the terrain eased into rolling hills, we skied in single file through widely spaced pines, and I asked them about their plans. Kevin had already circumnavigated all the islands of Hawaii by sea kayak, solo. Now he wanted to go to Alaska. He played bagpipes and thought he could busk his way up there and back. Justin didn’t have any idea what he wanted to do.

Over the next few years, Kevin actually got to Alaska with his bagpipes, and then he wrote a nonfiction book about the adventure. He became an itinerant carpenter and helped build a shop in my backyard in Laramie. He loved looking at my old slides of his dad.

Justin wandered back to California, became ever more mixed up, took a lot of acid. He was tripping nonstop. One night he heard voices in his head telling him his girlfriend was serving the devil and he tried to stab her, which earned him a sentence of two and a half years for assault with a deadly weapon. He spent some of it in jail, some of it in prison, and some of it in the psych ward.

When he came over yesterday, we hung out in the backyard. I suggested he could help me build a fence, and he seemed interested. I tried to ask him about prison, but he had trouble expressing himself.

“Being in a cell, man. No sunlight, no sky,” he said, throwing his head back and staring directly into the sun. With his eyes closed and the dreads out of his face, he looked ­exactly like Mike.

Mike and I became best friends at Laramie High School, where we were on the swim team together. He had shaggy red hair, a deep chest, and an uncommon fondness for mischief. He was a prankster, the kind of guy who would secretly spoon grape jelly into your goggles. At swim practice in winter, he would dash outside barefoot in nothing but his Speedo, pack snowballs, and then race indoors, hurling them at swimmers in the pool. When retribution arrived and he was dragged from the hot showers out to a snowbank, he was delighted.

Mike had a mouth on him. In PE, during swim class, he would taunt football players until they were frothing like Saint Bernards. “Maladroits! Miscreants!” he’d yell from the water, until one of them waded out to kill him. Mike would stay just out of reach, bouncing backwards, splashing the kid in the face until they were both in the deep end. He would then allow the enraged hulk to hold him under for as long as he could. After which, Mike would pop to the surface like a cork and crawl on top of the guy’s head.

For this and other infractions, our gym teacher and swimming coach, Layne Kopischka, made Mike tread water below the diving board with his arms over his head. Doing that is painfully hard, but it didn’t appear to bother Mike. He’d wave at everyone as though he were in a parade, having a great time. Coach would ignore him and go back to his office.

We reveled in the severe truth of climbing, the fact that you really did hold your partner’s life in your hands. Nothing else we tried seemed as serious.

Coach Kopischka—handsome, dark-haired, tight-lipped—led the Laramie High School swim team to 18 championship seasons, with a meet total of 418 wins, 18 losses, and two ties. Every afternoon, walking up and down the pool, he relentlessly, almost wordlessly, drove us to swim faster, try harder. We swam until we were so spent that we sank—300, 400 laps. It was outrageous, but we did it for Coach. He steadfastly believed in us, so we believed in ourselves. He was the only adult I met as a teenager who was willing to do himself whatever he ordered you to do.

It was Coach who taught Mike and me how to climb, changing our lives. Before dawn, in the chilly months of September and October, he drove a busload of us up to Vedauwoo, an outcropping of granite domes about 20 miles east of Laramie. The first day of class, as we shivered and waited for the sun to warm the rock, he laid it out.

“Rock climbing is not a game,” he said. “Ball sports are games. Football, basketball, volleyball. If you do something stupid and sprain an ankle or twist a knee, you’re carried off to applause and patched up. Mistakes are inconsequential in games.” He looked at us without expression and we nodded.

“Do something stupid climbing, make a mistake, and you can kill yourself that fast!” He snapped his fingers for effect. “Worse, you can kill somebody else. Your partner. Your best friend.”

Coach was tolerant of joking around in the pool, but he was all business on the rock. He forced us to practice basic skills—belaying, knots, body position, edging, hand jams, footwork—over and over. As I struggled halfway up some stone cliff, he would shout, “It’s balance, not brawn, Jenkins!”

During those early lessons, we didn’t have harnesses or rock shoes or chalk—we climbed in stiff leather hiking boots and used a hip belay. Whining was forbidden. If you allowed your fear to show, Coach would shout “Courtesy slack!”—like a referee calling a foul—and the belayer would feed out extra rope, which meant you could take a longer fall. This taught us to suck it up, no matter if your knees were trembling uncontrollably, a condition we called Elvis Leg.

Mike and I took to rock climbing fast. We were fit and fearless. We reveled in the severe truth of the sport, the fact that you really did hold your partner’s life in your hands. Nothing else we tried seemed as serious.

Within weeks, we pooled our money and bought a rope, climbing gear, and rigid-soled climbing shoes. We drove out to Vedauwoo every weekend in a mint green Rambler that belonged to Mike’s grandpa. We had no guidebook, no limits. We were adolescents set free in the world, zealously committed to climbing as only adolescents can be.

I tried to climb like Coach—calm and methodical—but inevitably defaulted to muscling everything. Mike was wild and swashbuckling; he was not afraid of falling or getting bloody. He talked like a pirate and mocked his own fear, even when he was high off the deck, clinging to a featureless wall.

At this time in our lives, climbing was not just an opportunity to use our bodies and minds, but an act of rebellion. On Saturdays and Sundays, when most American males were stuffing their faces and watching football, Mike and I were up in Vedauwoo, sunshine or snowstorm, giving each other shit, verbally pushing and physically pulling each other up harder and harder climbs. We often got home long after dark.

Members of the club during adventures in Alaska, Wyoming, Niger, and on Baffin Island (Clockwise from top left: Mark Jenkins, 4; Dan Moe, 1; Mark Jenkins, 1; FingerMedium/Getty, polaroids)

In the winter of 1977, after we’d graduated from high school, Mike and I went abroad. The plan was to climb in the Alps, but we ended up hitchhiking across North Africa. Several months later, back in Europe, we ran out of money but kept vagabonding, eating leftovers off the trays in university cafeterias. During a foray into the Soviet Union, we were detained for selling our Levi’s right off our asses and handing out bootleg copies of 1984.

Eventually, we made our way back home and started college at the University of Wyoming. I majored in philosophy, Mike in recreation. We were long-haired, bearded, budding existentialists. We wore Salvation Army sweaters, debated Nietzsche and Sartre, and stood back-to-back defending atheism, using radical responsibility as a rapier to skewer our Christian attackers.

Back in the lee of the Snowy Range, we also began intensively honing our climbing skills. Yvon Chouinard’s Climbing Ice had just been published, and it became our bible. We gradually mastered the snow-climbing techniques he described, learning terms like pied á plat (climbing on high-angle ice with your feet flat on the surface) and pied en canard (walking duck-footed on less challenging ice). To practice self-arrest, we regularly threw ourselves down couloirs, slid for hundreds of feet, dug our ice axes into the snow, and somehow managed to stop before crashing into talus.

We became connoisseurs of snow. We knew which snowbank would work best for making caves, how different types of snow would feel under skis, and how well an ice ax would sink into various transmutations of the granular ice called névé. We became inured to cold and wind, celebrating our self-chosen suffering. We might have made good soldiers if it weren’t for the fact that we couldn’t stand anyone telling us what to do. This was the end of the 1970s. We’d read All the President’s Men and the Pentagon Papers. Our favorite movies were Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Apocalypse Now. For us, Vietnam had poisoned all notions about the nobility of military service; the fellowship of the rope was all we had left.

It was during this time that Mike and I, along with a dozen male and female heretics deeply devoted to the outdoors, founded the Wyoming Alpine Club (WAC). There were no dues, except to cover the cost of a newsletter called The Alpine Epic, and no obligations, other than to give a slideshow when you got back from your latest adventure. The newsletter contained tongue-in-cheek stories about our latest bad ideas. “Hallett Peak: A Courageous and Dramatic Attempt (from Which Angus and McTavish Retreat Like Drowned Rats).” “Mount Moran: Drink Plenty of Fluids, Always Listen to Sharon, and Never Climb Drizzelpuss in the Dark.” In every issue, there were grainy snapshots of us climbing rock walls or icefalls.

Because most of the reports in The Alpine Epic involved high risk, club member Tim Banks (nicknamed McTavish), felt compelled to publish a disclaimer.

The Wyoming Alpine Club is not so much an organization as it is a group of friends … we encourage newcomers …

We do not, however, guarantee a damned thing regarding safety—it’s a risky world out there … you can fall down from high places or heavy things can fall on your head, you can be covered up with snow, frozen like a popsicle, boiled alive in a hot spring, trampled by buffalo or eaten by bears. You may also suffer from heartburn, hangover, tiresome belay jokes or foul smelling tentmates. …

The Wyoming Alpine Club in no way takes responsibility for broken bones, pulled muscles, frayed nerves, sprained ankles, the contraction of social diseases, the acquisition of traffic tickets, the conception of illegitimate offspring or the general deterioration of members’ moral fiber.

The next winter, some of us started scaring ourselves on short, frozen waterfalls in Boulder Canyon, just west of Boulder, Colorado. The climbs were terrifying because of our antique equipment: ten-pound leather boots, strap-on crampons, and toothless, wood-shafted ice axes.

Better gear existed, but we were broke. We lived on PB&Js and $6 cases of beer. We had $400 cars. Mike’s was the nicest, a faux-wood-paneled Bobcat, the station wagon version of a Pinto. Once, in Fort Collins, rolling down from the snow-plastered Rockies, we ran out of gas, and we didn’t have a dollar between us. There was a basketball game at Colorado State that evening, so we pretended to be parking attendants, charging $2 a car. We made $20 before beating it, pushing the Bobcat to a gas station and buying burritos for the ride home.

Ultimately, we upgraded to modern tools and started climbing bigger ice in Rocky Mountain National Park. We would hump into someplace like Black Lake when it was 40 below, camp, ice-climb for three or four days, ski out. It was brutal, although we didn’t recognize it then. To us it was fun and good training for our first expedition: a 1980 attempt to climb Denali, the tallest and meanest mountain in North America.

To prepare for Alaska, we sewed our own winter clothing, ran hills with heavy packs, and spent every weekend that winter ice climbing and camping. Originally, we planned to go as a four-member WAC team, but two of our guys—Mark Cupps and Steve Gall—decided to climb with an actual guide. That left Mike and me on our own.

We arrived at Denali in April. We had planned to attempt the Cassin Ridge, a long, technical line, but en route to the base of the mountain, we ran into none other than Yvon Chouinard and another famous American alpinist, Rick Ridgeway. They had just been blown off the Cassin. We knew that if they couldn’t do it, we couldn’t either.

Over the next few days, we hammered up the standard West Buttress route. A storm hit us on the aptly named Windy Corner, at 13,000 feet. We hacked a shallow shelf into the slope, hastily surrounded it with blocks of snow, and threw up our A-frame tent. By the time we crawled inside, we both had frostnip on our fingers and faces. We hunkered down for two days in what felt like a ceaseless tornado. At one point, gripping the poles of the tent so they wouldn’t snap, I suggested that it was rather breezy out. Mike gleefully said, “Almost as windy as Wyoming!”

The next day, when we reached camp at 14,200 feet, Mike was moving slowly and breathing hard.

“You OK?” I asked as we set up the tent.

“A mere flesh wound,” he said. Then he started coughing and couldn’t stop.


“Can’t seem to take a deep breath.”

The next morning he was worse, so we decided he should take a rest day while I carried a load up to 17,200 feet. When I got back, I expected to find Mike cooking mac and cheese with Spam, our favorite, but he was still in his sleeping bag. He sat up when I unzipped the tent. His face was round and puffy like a pumpkin.

“Fuck, Mike!” He tried to speak but started hacking, catching bubbly red sputum in his swollen hands. I listened to his chest and heard gurgling. “We gotta go down, now,” I said, forcing him to take two Diamox, a drug used to treat altitude sickness.

I started packing while he labored to get dressed. He was almost unconscious. When we began descending, he was so stumbly that I short-roped him. We got around Windy Corner and down to 11,000 feet before another storm swept in. We found a collapsed igloo and burrowed inside.

The storm pinned us for four days. It was so savage that we couldn’t even crawl outside to relieve ourselves. I kept forcing Diamox on Mike, and his condition seemed to stabilize. Trapped in a sunken igloo, trying to out-howl the roar of the storm, we killed time by singing every song we knew.

A few days later, when we finally made it out, I took Mike to an emergency room in Talkeetna. A doctor diagnosed him with severe cerebral and pulmonary edema.

Scrapbook items from the club, including a group photo taken in Wyoming’s Snowy Range in the early 1990s
Scrapbook items from the club, including a group photo taken in Wyoming’s Snowy Range in the early 1990s (Laramie Daily Boomerang, newspaper clippings; Mark Jenkins, WAC sales sheet, letter, and group photo; alubalish/Getty, old frame)

After tough apprenticeships like this, members of the WAC decided the world was just waiting for us to take on its dangers and delights. We had already endured many close calls, but we didn’t see them as warnings. Life-or-death epics were turned into campfire tales.

In the spring of 1981, I partnered with Skip Mancini, a fellow philosophy major at the University of Wyoming, on a monthlong ski trip around Yellowstone National Park. We pulled sleds and were stalked by a grizzly. In 1982, Mike and his brother, Dan, along with WAC members Keith Spencer and Bill Kuestner, hiked the length of the Continental Divide Trail, a 3,000-mile, six-month backpacking epic. In 1983, I teamed up with Sue Ibarra—who I would marry in 1992—to bike 1,500 miles across the Eastern Bloc nations of Yugoslavia, Romania, and Hungary. In 1984, Mike and Dan mountain-biked a new route that covered the entire Continental Divide Trail. That year, I went on my first Himalayan expedition, joining a team that made the second American ascent of Shishapangma, a clean, oxygenless trip to the top of the 8,000-meter peak.

In 1986, half the club—Mike and Dan, Brad Humphrey, Richard Walle, and Mark Cupps—set out to climb Argentina’s Aconcagua, at 22,837 feet the highest peak in the Western Hemisphere. Mike got seriously ill again. Cuppie had to abandon his shot at the summit and drag him off the mountain.

That year, I returned to the Himalayas as a member of the 1986 U.S. Everest North Face Expedition. The winter of ’86 had been dry on Mount Everest, and the 9,000-foot North Face was armored in blue ice. We spent 70 days up there, using our heavy 11-millimeter ropes to climb pitch after stone-hard pitch. We had no Sherpas, porters, or cooks. We did everything ourselves and never used supplemental oxygen. Unfortunately, we were stopped short of the summit by the early arrival of avalanche season.

In 1987, Mike and I moved to Africa. I went to Kenya, while he went to Swaziland. I lived in a brothel in Nairobi, five bucks a night for a soiled bed. I kept my ice ax within reach and ate on the street for $3 a day. I was stringing for the Associated Press and Time. Sue flew over, and we climbed Mount Kenya and Kilimanjaro together.

Mike worked in Mbabane for CARE, a humanitarian NGO, teaching impoverished Swazis how to obtain small-business loans. He helped start a day care center and fell in love with Diana Kocornik, a Christian aid worker. Dan came over, and the brothers went on an expedition through South Africa’s Drakensberg Mountains—a trip that almost ended in tragedy because they were attacked at night by bandits. Not long after that, making a decision I found incomprehensible, Mike started going to church.

By 1990, Mike and I were both back in Wyoming, but he had changed. An avowed atheist when we were in high school, he now fully identified as a Christian, which to me was off-putting. He revered Nelson Mandela, who had recently been released after 27 years of imprisonment. Mike sincerely believed in the transcendence of the human spirit, and he saw Mandela’s liberation as proof of the power and kindness of God.

In 1989, I was part of a team that crossed the entire Soviet Union by bicycle—a five-month, 7,500-mile journey. My experiences there made me feel very different about the human spirit. What Khrushchev started, Gorbachev had finished—pulling back the curtain to reveal the depraved, murderous nature of the Communist regime. I saw blown-up cathedrals all across the country. I visited former prison camps in Siberia and met families who’d lost siblings, fathers, mothers, and children to the gulags. I interviewed people who were tortured horribly. The Soviet Union is where I finally realized that the human spirit was not indomitable. It could be killed as easily as a dog hit by a truck. To me, belief in God—any God—seemed almost immoral.

In the Spring of 1991, Mike and I were doing a lot of paddling on the Laramie River in preparation for our next big adventure together: attempting the first complete descent of the mighty Niger River, in West Africa. The trip would cover 2,600 miles, from the river’s highland source in Guinea to the coastal region in Nigeria, where it discharges into the Atlantic.

On this particular day, the Laramie was still choked with ice, but Mike didn’t care. We dragged our kayaks across the snow and onto the white skirt of ice along the bank, got in, snapped on our spray skirts, and shoved ourselves into the swirling current.

“Don’t get yourself stuck beneath one of these,” Mike shouted, pushing the blade of his paddle against a thick slab of river ice.

We headed downstream, maneuvering left and right around frozen obstacles. I didn’t feel comfortable but kept quiet. I focused on not getting pressed sideways against pack ice and being sucked under. Soon we found an eddy on river right and pulled in.

“Perfect,” Mike said, spinning around to face me. He dropped his paddle alongside his cockpit, grinned, and leaned sideways, flipping his kayak. In a second, he popped back up, still giddy.

“Brain freeze, brother! Your turn.”

I rolled over and executed several failed underwater sweeps before frantically righting myself. “Gawd, that’s cold,” I sputtered.

Mike rolled again. “We need the practice,” he said when he snapped back up, his thick red beard dripping water. He rolled again but didn’t reappear. His boat stayed upside down; the scratched hull looked like the belly of a dead walrus.

Mike loved biting off more than he could chew. He still believed that with the right spirit and an unfaltering faith in your mission, you could overcome anything.

I knew he was testing whether he could stand the cold and how long he could hold his breath. (Mike, a very good high school swimmer, could do three pool lengths underwater without coming up for air.) And he was testing me, of course, knowing I would be alarmed if he didn’t surface soon.

He didn’t. He stayed down until his hull made a full circle in the eddy. Finally, he popped up, choking and smiling.

That fall, Mike and I, along with novice Laramie boaters Rick Smith and John Haines, flew to Guinea. Putting in at the Niger’s source near the border with Sierra Leone, we managed to make it through the headwaters. In the following weeks, we kayaked over waterfalls, through massive strainers, around bloats of angry hippos—surviving only by some unknown sorcery.

About halfway through the trip, deep in the deserts of Mali—where the river was a flat, brown highway for ferries—Mike and I decided we’d had enough. Our wives were pregnant with our first children, and we flew home just in time for the births of Justin Moe and Addi Jenkins. Rick and John kept paddling for another three months, valiantly claiming the first complete descent.

The next summer, Coach Kopischka died of hemochromatosis—a blood disease—and I adapted to fatherhood. One night when I was rocking Addi at around 3 A.M., I realized that the Niger expedition had been a mistake. Worse, actually. It had been an act of profound arrogance. None of us possessed the paddling skills to do what we’d done, especially Rick and John. The river was thick with crocodiles and hippos. And though we’d smuggled in nine-millimeter Ruger handguns to protect ourselves, those massive creatures could have pulled us under even after they’d been shot. I swore I would never do another expedition unless I had mastered the requisite skills.

Mike giving a local kid a ride before the start of the expedition to Baffin Island
Mike giving a local kid a ride before the start of the expedition to Baffin Island (Dan Moe, photo; alubalish/Getty, old frame)

Mike disagreed. He loved biting off more than he could chew. He still believed that technical prowess—progression, muscle memory, skills practiced to mastery—was a distant second to joie de vivre. With the right spirit and an unfaltering faith in your mission, you could overcome anything.

This posed a bigger problem for our friendship than religion had. Mike’s world, and the world of the Wyoming Alpine Club, remained wide open, 360 degrees of potential, while mine had narrowed. I knew we might never do another expedition together. But we did. One more.

In October of 1993, Mike and I, plus WAC stalwart Keith Spencer and Lander sport climber Steve Babits, flew to Lhasa, Tibet. Our goal was to ascend the unclimbed Hkakabo Razi, which at 19,295 feet is the highest peak in Myanmar (then known as Burma). The nation was closed to foreigners, so we would have to sneak across 500 miles of militarily restricted eastern Tibet, slip over the heavily guarded Burma border, then climb Razi. How we would get back was TBD.

As things turned out, we ended up reaching the peak but failed to summit, and Mike wasn’t even with us. He developed pulmonary edema again, on our first night in Lhasa, at 12,000 feet. He was coughing so hard he woke me up.

“Sorry. Didn’t mean to rouse you from your beauty sleep,” he croaked. “God knows you need it.”

“You all right?”

“Can’t seem to take a full breath.”

I got up and put my ear to his chest.

“What, no foreplay?”

In the morning, we went to a clinic, where they X-rayed Mike’s chest.

“I see fluid in lungs,” a Chinese doctor said in broken English. “Much, much fluid. This hospital nothing. You fly right now back.” He gave Mike an Army green balloon filled with oxygen, which Mike was supposed to inhale from as needed. The earliest flight wasn’t until the next day. By midafternoon, Mike was noticeably worse.

I had brought along a copy of Tom Patey’s One Man’s Mountains. Patey and Mike had the same sense of humor: they both believed that life, at its core, was a comic opera. But what each of us knew, and never discussed, was that Patey died at 38, on a climb in northern Scotland, leaving behind a wife and three young children.

I read out loud from Patey’s “The Art of Climbing Down Gracefully,” a story about the many ways you can turn back on an expedition and still save face. It made Mike laugh so hard that he started choking.

That night I lay on my bunk listening to Mike try to breathe. At one point he said, “Justin’s such a great kid. He and Addi will be best friends.”

We took a taxi to the airport at dawn. I’d been worried all night. “You look worse than I do,” Mike said. To cheer me up, he whispered the lyrics to a song we both loved from Monty Python’s Life of Brian. It’s the ultimate moment in black humor: a group of men being crucified by the Romans cheerfully start singing together in harmony, reminding each other to “always look on the bright side of life.”

Mike’s sangfroid was not an act. It was his self-taught response to danger, but I knew not to trust it. Just because you’re brave doesn’t mean risk is diminished. Even Mike’s limitless willpower could not defeat a force majeure.

The next day, Mike flew to Chengdu, China, and went straight to a hospital. We never went on another expedition together.

Members of the Wyoming Alpine Club—which at the time numbered around 15—had a full slate of expeditions planned for 1995, including one that struck me as alarming: Mike had talked Dan, Sharon Kava, and Brad Humphrey into heading for the Arctic. Their plan was to mountain-bike over the Barnes Ice Cap in the center of Canada’s Baffin Island, and then sail Hobie Cats through the icebergs of Baffin Bay, ending the journey at an Inuit village called Clyde River. To me, this plan was even more absurd than Burma. Mountain bikes of that era weren’t likely to work well on snow, and they’d be sailing in dangerously cold water.

It was no surprise that Dan was part of the team. He was Mike’s main sidekick, and he was an excellent outdoor photographer. The other two were certainly capable. Brad was physically and mentally solid, as was Sharon, a slight, cheerful woman who worked in the psych ward at Ivinson Memorial Hospital, in Laramie. Still, I wondered why they wanted to take such a risk.

Mike tried hard to recruit me and Tim Banks, who was now a University of Wyoming police officer. At one of the regular WAC potlucks, he talked about how cool it would be to take Hobie Cats across Baffin Bay. “Hey, maybe we’ll even meet Moby Dick!” he laughed.

“The water will freeze your testicles,” grumbled Tim.

Undeterred, and using his lengthy adventure résumé and photographs Dan had taken on previous missions, Mike set to work getting sponsorship. His powers of persuasion were legendary, and in short order, he’d lined up all the gear they’d need: mountain bikes, boats, Gore-Tex drysuits, expedition tents, sleeping bags, food, you name it.

When the gear arrived, Mike, Dan, Sharon, and Brad set about learning to sail on Lake Marie, an alpine tarn at 11,000 feet in the Snowy Range. They also experimented with snow biking, quickly discovering that, on any surface other than ice, the wheels sank to the axles. I didn’t like anything about this expedition and said so many times. I was particularly worried about the sailing.

“Sharon, the water will be lethally cold,” I said.

“We will have drysuits,” she answered.

“This isn’t an expedition for anyone without an ounce of body fat.”

In fact, Sharon had doubts and expressed them to Tim in confidence. Tim and Sharon were close; they had done all kinds of trips together. He assured her that she was a competent outdoorswoman but said the plan was madness. He tried to convince her to go on his upcoming adventure to Kamchatka, Russia, but Mike’s magnetism was too strong.

Scenes from the WAC’s Baffin Island Expedition
Scenes from the WAC’s Baffin Island Expedition (Dan Moe, 6; imagestock/Getty, contact sheet)

In mid-August, the Wyoming Alpine Club Baffin Island Expedition flew north to Iqaluit, the capital of Nunavut, on the southern coast of Baffin Island. From there a Twin Otter dropped them off on the southwestern edge of the Barnes Ice Cap.

Even with studded tires, the bikes didn’t work well, and the team ended up pushing them while carrying 100-pound packs. The ice cap was riven with supraglacial rivers, so stream crossings were treacherous, often requiring ropes and ice screws. They did a dozen of these fords every day, and after each they were chilled to the bone. At one point, in a crevassed region near the ice cap, they managed to ride the bikes, pulling sleds while roped together for safety. But the rope got wound up in the wheels and tangled beneath the sleds. They tried carrying the bikes atop their packs, but the extra weight was crushing. After crossing the Barnes Ice Cap, at a spot they called Camp 9 (out of a total of 14 camps), they ditched the bikes and kept going on foot.

Two days later, at Camp 11, they spotted a polar bear. From that night on they slept in two-hour shifts, each person on watch staring out across the ice, shotgun in hand. The trip was taking longer than they’d anticipated, and they were running out of food.

After 12 days on the ice, they reached Gibbs Fjord, on the northeast coast of Baffin Island, having completed the first self-supported traverse of the Barnes Ice Cap. They celebrated by splitting an energy bar four ways and sleeping for 15 hours.

The original plan had been for an Inuit outfitter, Jushua Illauq, to deliver four Hobie Cats and four drysuits to the team. But this gear, shipped from the U.S., hadn’t arrived in Clyde River yet, so the dream of sailing across Baffin Bay would not happen. The team was so whipped and hungry at this point that they didn’t really care. They radioed for Jushua to pick them up, but Jushua had gone fishing.

They went on one-third rations, splitting chocolate bars and dehydrated cheesecake four ways. To supplement their dwindling stores, they foraged in the tundra, finding small patches of blueberries and black currants and mixing them with ice, sugar, and powdered milk. Even so, they were beginning to starve. All they could think about was food. Without calories, they shivered intensely, even in their sleeping bags.

By the time Jushua arrived, a full seven days later, the team had run out of fuel, so they were using driftwood to boil water for a primitive tea. They called him into the inlet with flares. Then, for two days, they feasted on the provisions he’d brought: Spam, bread, peanut butter, canned pineapple slices, canned stew, chicken noodle soup.

They left Gibbs Fjord, heading east for Clyde River, in an aluminum motorboat with a plywood steering shelter mounted in the middle. Jushua was wearing a survival suit—heavily insulated coveralls—but everyone else was wearing life jackets over fleece and Gore-Tex shells.

The whole group was jubilant, chattering about crossing the ice cap. Jushua guided the boat along the coast, at one point stopping at a rocky promontory where the team rested for about six hours because the waves were too high.

At three that afternoon, the waves calmed and Jushua steered the craft back out into open water. After they’d covered 25 nautical miles, Sharon brewed tea. The expedition was over. They expected to be home in just a few days. They could finally relax.

Later that afternoon, they spotted a pod of about a dozen bowhead whales roughly 200 yards away. Bowheads, which were hunted almost to extinction until being granted international protection, can grow to more than 50 feet. They’re the only baleen whales native to the Arctic and are named for their gigantic triangular heads, which they use to break through sea ice. Inuit hunters have seen bowheads crash through two feet of ice to reach the surface.

The water was calm, and the team urged Jushua to get closer so they could take pictures. As he closed in on the pod, the whales disappeared. Everyone on board stared into the black water, searching for the whales.

Suddenly, the tiny aluminum boat was lifted out of the ocean: a bowhead was breaching directly beneath it. The boat rose into the air, then fell sideways, pitching everyone into the water. Sharon landed on the head of the whale, and Dan grabbed her before she got carried off.

“Don’t panic,” Mike shouted as he treaded water in the freezing waves. “We are going to be OK.”

The boat capsized. It could not be righted due to the heavy plywood steering house. The team clasped hands over the aluminum hull and hung on.

At first they tried to joke about it.

“Always did want to see a bowhead whale,” Sharon said. To which Brad replied: “Well, you saw one, all right!”

Mike laughed, but he was looking toward the shore, calculating. It was too far to swim—it looked like several miles.

Jushua urged everyone to pull themselves as far up on the boat’s hull as they could, to get as much of their bodies out of the water as possible.

“We just have to hold on together,” Mike said. “Just hold on.”

Dan suggested they pray, and they did.

The Sangfroid was not an act. It was Mike’s self-taught response to danger, but I knew not to trust it. Just because you’re brave doesn’t mean risk is diminished.

They had no way to contact anyone. No one knew where they were. They were alone in the freezing vastness of Baffin Bay. Mike tried to tell them that everything was going to be fine, but they all must have known. The surface water temperature in Baffin Bay in August ranges between 28.2 and 30.6 degrees Fahrenheit. The expected survival time in such temperatures is 45 minutes or less. For the next three hours, half submerged, they encouraged each other to hang on, but there was really no hope.

“I can’t take it any longer,” Sharon finally said, her voice weak from hypothermia.

“You can make it, Sharon!” Mike said. “You are the first woman to traverse the Barnes Ice Cap! You can make it!”

Sharon didn’t respond. It was as if she’d fallen asleep. Then she spoke again. “Tell my friends I am not scared. Give my family a big hug from me.”

“Stay strong, Sharon!” Mike yelled. “Stay strong!”

A few minutes later, she whispered, “God take my spirit.” She stopped breathing. Jushua, more functional because he was wearing a survival suit, tied her to the boat so she wouldn’t float away.

The four men were quiet. They had stopped shivering by now, and could feel nothing from the waist down. They slipped in and out of consciousness.

“I’m afraid I have to go now, too,” Brad said.

“Keep strong!” Jushua said.

“Brad! You’ve passed through so much hard stuff,” Dan said. “You’re going to pass through this, too!”

Brad slurred something about tasting winter, then added: “Tell our friends what happened to us. This will be another story for them.”

“You’re going to tell them yourself, Brad,” Mike said.

Brad did not respond for a long time. Then he said, “I was always happy,” and died.

Jushua, Mike, and Dan floated in their minds. Cold beneath the skein of unconsciousness. Cold inside each of them like a frozen sword. Ice and emptiness swirled. God and blackness became one.

Jushua heard Dan say, “If you go up the stairs, you go to a warm place.”

Dan reached down and took Jushua’s hand. Jushua tried to climb on top of the boat, imagining that he had risen from the water and had put his foot on a step. He was going to a warmer place. He would not have to suffer anymore.

“Jushua! What are you doing?” Mike shouted. “Hang on, Jushua.”

Jushua moved back down into the water.

“You have a family,” Mike said. “Hang on!”

Jushua came back into his body. He tried to touch Dan, but Dan was no longer breathing. Jushua tied Dan’s body to the boat.

“It’s my fault,” said Jushua.

“It’s nobody’s fault,” said Mike.

“You have to live to tell your family,” said Jushua.

Mike and Jushua passed out of time together. They were blinded by horror, then released from their frozen minds and frozen bodies. As Mike called out for Dan, Jushua put Mike’s hand on his brother, floating facedown in the water.

What will I say to mom and dad
Look Mike the shore is closer
I can’t stay because my brother is gone
You are strong you have kids think only about that
Tell my kids I am not scared it is only the end of life
Make yourself strong Mike
Dan Dan Dan
We’re going to make it Mike
I can’t stay my brother is gone I cannot live Jushua I’m going to leave you now
No no no
God be with you

Justin Moe, in 2010, beside a mountaintop plaque honoring members of the WAC
Justin Moe, in 2010, beside a mountaintop plaque honoring members of the WAC (Mark Jenkins, photo; FingerMedium/Getty, polaroid)
Justin Moe after his release from prison
Justin Moe after his release from prison (Mark Jenkins, photo; alubalish/Getty, old frame)

Joshua survived and was eventually washed ashore by waves and tide. His legs were bloated and he couldn’t walk. He said he heard Mike’s voice and Sharon’s voice encouraging him onward. “They stayed with me,” he said later. “They kept me alive.” He crawled into the heath and made a fire. My account of what happened relies largely on an interview he did soon after with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

Mike Moe, 37, Dan Moe, 36, Sharon Kava, 37, and Brad Humphrey, 32, died of hypothermia in Baffin Bay on September 1, 1995. It was senseless.

We held four funerals in Laramie, one after the other, the churches full, everyone sobbing quietly. I know I spoke, but I don’t remember what I said. That period is swirling, fathomless darkness for me. I was insane with grief. We all were. What Diana, Mike’s wife, felt is unimaginable. She was left alone to raise Justin, who was three, and the twins, Carlie and Kevin, who were one. Diana eventually remarried and went to work for a solar power company. A devout Christian, she homeschooled the children and did all that she could do, but the three of them grew up lost in the world.

Sharon’s family never understood why she was there in the first place. Mike and Dan’s dad, Perry, died heartbroken two years later. I don’t know how their mom, Greta, endured. I would see her walking alone in a Laramie park and go out to her, but all we could do was hold hands and weep. Terry and Trudy, Mike and Dan’s younger sisters, had holes torn in their hearts that would never heal. None of us really recovered from the loss. The Wyoming Alpine Club died with its four lost members.

I don’t dream of Mike much anymore. For years my subconscious refused to acknowledge his death. We would be joyfully rock climbing together or arguing religion or politics or playing in the yard with our kids… and then I would wake up. Or I would come to with some kind of mad scheme or dream that I wanted to share with Mike, only to remember that he’d been dead for five years. And yet, to this day, when I’m alone in the mountains, I still call his name.

Justin and I did end up building that fence together. As I had done with his dad, we debated religion and politics for hours while screwing in the planks. He is a committed Christian, believes the Bible is the word of God and quotes from it often, but thinks most Christians in America are selfish and psychologically sick.

I bought him a book about the Stoics, but he never took it. He had been homeless for almost a decade before he went to prison, and he knew a lot about living on the margins of society. He was brutally candid about his drug abuse and mistakes. Since he was on parole, he had to get drug-tested frequently and attend counseling, both of which he disliked. He was back living with his mom, and he wanted to start a landscaping business.

I knew Justin loved to hear stories about his dad and the Wyoming Alpine Club, but I could barely talk about it during the hours we spent working on the fence. The sorrow and emptiness, for all of us, are still so immense, so unspeakable. For too long in life, some of us, myself included, willfully believe that we have the right to risk our lives, that our lives are ours and ours alone to lose. But watching Justin grow up without his father has taught me that this is a self-serving lie.

From January/February 2022 Lead Photo: Dan Moe, group photo; alubalish/Getty, old frame; Laramie Daily Boomerang, newspaper clippings

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