When we first came up with the idea of the Arctic2Atacama expedition it seemed straightforward enough. We would attempt an unsupported crossing of the Arctic ice from Qikiqtarjuaq Island and across Baffin Island, Nunavut, in Canada’s Arctic winter, immediately followed by a 1,200-km traverse of the driest place on Earth: the Atacama Desert in Chile in South America’s summer.
Jen Segger, Stefano Gregoretti and I are more accustomed to running long distances than we are mountain biking a thousand miles but that would be the challenge. Fat bikes in the Arctic, and full suspension rides in the Atacama would replace trail running shoes. Taking schools along for the ride would be a primary goal of this expedition. We would upload daily content to both social media and a live website that would track our adventure.
In 2007, I finished a 7,500-km run across the Sahara Desert with two buddies and when the 111 days came to an end, I realized it would be life changing. In the run across the Sahara it became abundantly clear to me that we are all capable of doing amazing things in our lives, things that we might think we can’t do! As well, through this amazing adventure I had learned about a culture and experienced a place that otherwise I may not have ever had the opportunity to.
I wanted to recreate everything I learned about myself, about a faraway place and about learning new things with young people. I wanted to give them an opportunity to be empowered with the knowledge that they could do anything they set their minds to. And so impossible2Possible (i2P) was born, an organization that takes selected young adventurers on learning-based running expeditions all over the world. On these Expeditions, they challenge themselves and share daily their experiences with classrooms globally, using a combination of live satellite content uploads and video conferencing. There is absolutely no cost to the i2P Youth Ambassadors or the schools participating.
Every expedition I have been on since Running the Sahara has been in support of i2P, whether running 1,200-km across the Atacama, 2,000+ across the Gobi, trekking unsupported to the Geographic South Pole, or running 1,000 km across the Patagonian Desert. It’s all about connecting to students and gathering support for i2P Youth Expeditions!
The six months leading up to Arctic2Atacama seemed to be a frenzy of training, gear testing, planning logistics and gathering sponsorships, all while we continued working our day jobs, although they might be unconventional!
The goal of being in remote parts of two different continents, in their most extreme seasons, one right after the other, posed huge logistical challenges. Just getting to Qikiqtarjuaq without any weather delay and back to Ottawa can be its own expedition.
An old friend of mine in Qik, Billy Arnaquq, would be our main contact and provide logistical support for the Arctic leg. The months and days leading up to the expedition were a race against time to test and re-test every piece of gear possible for the unsupported crossing from Qik (a small island) across the frozen ocean and onto and over Baffin Island. Trying to get our Felt DD Fatbikes as light as possible, but not under packing gear was critical. We planned for a five-day traverse, and brought six days of fuel, food and other supplies. Our bikes were fitted with studded five-inch wide tires, custom pogies (think hand warmers on steroids) and frame bags. Every moving part on our bikes was greased with lube rated to -60.
The day of departure finally came and we loaded our gear into the back of a buddy’s pick-up for transfer to the airport. We’d be flying on First Air flights to the Arctic. They are the experts so of all our planning, this was the one piece I placed complete faith in the experience and reliability of First Air.
After connections in Iqaluit and Pangnirtung, we arrived early evening in Qik. They have to get the landing there just right. It can be windy and tricky, but the landing was as smooth as possible. Billy met us at the airport after we scrambled across the gravel runway with our Osprey Packs as carry-on. It was a balmy –30°C, compared to the –45°C the last time I was there. We loaded Billy’s truck and headed over to his place. It was a very short drive to Billy’s house in a town of 500 people on an island that is 50 square miles. I love visiting with Billy and staying with his family in Qik was brief but awesome.
We spent the next day assembling our bikes, strapping fuel containers to our forks, preparing our dehydrated meals, packing and repacking until we felt we had it right. The bikes had to be balanced for travel on ice and snow. In the weeks leading up to the expedition, we were told that the area was ‘wind-blown’ meaning there would be very little snow. Great for us on our bikes, but my good friend and genius photographer Jon Golden was concerned. He was with us to shoot photos on the first and second day on the ice, but he would be heading on his own adventure with Billy across Baffin on snowmobile, shooting photos of Canada’s awe-inspiring Arctic landscape.
The concern was actually being able to get across Baffin. If there was no snow…and only ice and rock, by snowmobile would not be possible. It turned out the weather would change dramatically and unexpectedly.
Our second morning in Qik was our departure. Around 9 am Stefano, Jen and I headed onto the frozen waters off the coast of Qikiqtarjuaq and started pedalling towards Baffin, around 100 km or so away. Our goal was 50 km on the first day and we achieved that, although the packed, bare ice gave way to deeper and deeper snow. The fjord leading into Baffin was like looking at a desert made of snow and ice. There are no trails here and navigating the best path meant being as direct as possible. We tried Billy and Jon’s snowmobile track but it was simply too soft to pedal in, so we pushed on “off track” with our 80 pounds each of gear, bikes and supplies creeping ahead slowly.
Day 1 ended with a camp about 40 km from the Baffin coast. To be honest we didn’t have a great sleep. This area is known to have a large population of polar bears. Enough said.
As the sun rose on Day 3, we packed our gear and headed into the Pass. There was snow. A lot more than we had heard was going to be here. Anyone that has ridden a fat bike in winter knows exactly what I’m talking about when I say the difference between a few inches of snow is dramatic. Each additional centimetre of snow makes it logarithmically more difficult to stay on your bike, especially when it’s loaded with tons of gear.
It was oddly warmer too. Like the weather was going through some crazy shift. We pedalled for hours, trying our best to navigate the frozen waters of the Owl River that snaked its way towards the Rundle Glacier area of Baffin. It got cloudier, and an ice mist filled the air, making for whiteout conditions. It’s a strange sensation. Balance becomes a huge challenge, and simply standing upright felt impossible. Our bikes felt unsteady with every pedal stroke, and our speed slowed with the combination of deeper snow and the grey haze. We stopped and camped before dark.
Day 4 started out just as grey but with a very clear goal: Get to the glacial moraine at Rundle and scramble to the top. We were roughly 20 km from camp to the emergency shelter at Glacier Lake, so we pushed as hard as we could to get there as early as possible. The “scramble” with our bikes would take the better part of an afternoon, with three of us working to get one bike at a time up the super steep and rocky wall that would lead us to Summit Lake. The snow was deep. Really deep.
After what seemed, and to my aching body, felt like forever, we reached the top. We were so sure that once we summited, and looked down to the lake below, we would see glaring ice. Perfectly swept from the wind…not exactly. We looked down from way up and to our disappointment we just saw snow and more snow. We knew it meant pushing, not riding. Riding the bikes in deep snow is very difficult, but when the snow gets too deep to ride, pushing seems to use infinitely more effort.
We started to make our way across the lake, our GPS set on making it to the Summit Lake shelter, approximately 8 km away. Winds began to pick up, and an eerie yellowish colour was cast across the sky. It became quite clear things were changing.
Temps dropped quickly as the winds picked up. It was getting darker. Winds jumped to 100 km per hour and it had to be close to –60°C with wind-chill. The sun had long set and we were being pounded by snow, both falling and being re whipped up by the howling winds. It wasn’t letting up, and our equipment was freezing. Our GPS and two backups froze. Our headlamp batteries froze. We had backup plan after backup plan, but it all seemed to be fragmenting in this moment. We crawled behind a huge boulder on the shore so we could hit the reset switch in our minds. We had spent the last hours doing our best to follow the shoreline so as not to get “too” disoriented in the bizarre weather and darkness.
Even though we had the best mitts and porgies you could ask for, to change batteries or dig for equipment became a very risky task of removing our mittens. We had frostbite on our faces and our fingers were going white. We pulled our map and our emergency headlamp, the last one working. Luckily I had my Garmin Epix on my wrist, covered in down mitts all day, and under my Canada Goose down jacket, so it was still functioning. We used it to determine our exact location and then began the task of navigating the last few kilometres to the emergency shelter.
It took us hours to finally get there, with Stefano and I stopping every 50 metres to check in with each other and double verify our direction. Any huge navigational error up here in the Arctic can result in a serious conclusion. Combine that with this wicked storm we were in, and the result could be fatal. The reflection off the tiny window on the shelter caught my headlamp and identified its location up the side of a rocky hill. Jen noticed it first, and took the lead up to the shelter, Stefano and I hauling the bikes and gear up behind.
Immediately we used whatever energy we had left to get warm. On any Arctic or winter expedition team, everyone has a specific role. No time can be wasted once you stop moving, as the bitter cold will set in. Setting up a tent even has specific roles. When I was in Siberia on expedition with Kevin Vallely in 2010, we each had roles that enabled us to set up tent, camp and have stoves lit in short time. Up here on Baffin we operated as a unit. One person gathered snow blocks for water, while one lit the stoves, while the other pulled down sleeping bags out to cover up in. Once we settled into a cup of salty noodles mixed with coconut oil, we were able to take that sigh of relief and assess the frostbite situation.
It was cold the next morning. Really cold. Day 5 started out on Summit Lake heading down the Weasel River. We pushed our bikes through snow that felt like wet concrete, even though it couldn’t be more frozen. As we approached the steeper parts of the Weasel, it became a little barer. But with that steepness, the river was covered in overflow. You can never be sure how deep the overflow is, so precarious steps and careful navigation became key. We took our time, but even in these freezing conditions, we broke through the thin layer of ice covering the pocket of water that is “overflow”. It was deep enough to wet our boots; trust me, a soaker at -45 really sucks! We stayed warm by keeping moving and when the pitch of the river flattened slightly we did our best to stay on our bikes and ride down as far as possible. We passed Thor, one of the most visually stunning mountains in Canada, if not the entire world! It reminded me of why I keep coming back to this place. I just love it here so much! We reached our goal of making it to Windy Lake and called it a day.
Hopefully we would be done tomorrow. Stefano’s hand was looking really bad. Jen and I set up our IridiumGo and rang a buddy in the community of Pangnirtung, asking him if he’d ride out on his snow machine and grab Stef. The reality was he had no choice but to get to at least here. We were now about 50 km away from Pang in probably the flattest area. Snowmobile trips to this end of Baffin are quite common, so we didn’t have to wait long for him to come. We bedded down for the night and reminded Stef to eat a huge meal on our behalf when he got to Pang!
Day 6 Jen and I woke up early, packed our bikes, ate a huge portion of oatmeal, olive and coconut oil, Manitoba Harvest Hemp Seeds and Garden of Life Raw Meal. Mucho calories for what felt like the coldest day. Maybe we were just getting weaker; maybe it was both.
With awesome fuel in our bellies and fruit bars in our pogies, we headed towards the Pangnirtung Fjord. We pushed for hours through the snow, but we knew we could make it to the finish. We definitely were not moving at the speed we had anticipated — the windblown ice was non-existent — but we were moving.
We talked for hours about missing Stefano on this last leg, but also the fact that by pulling out when he did, he probably would be ready for what was up next, a 1,200-km crossing of the Atacama Desert. Here we are, freezing, and we are discussing that in a matter of a few days we would be in a desert at +50°C (120°F)!
We arrived at the finish and anticipated our own huge meal! Stef was feeling better, and we spent a night in Pangnirtung at the Auyuittuq Lodge, operated by one of the most interesting cats you’ll ever meet, and an amazing chef, Louis. It felt good to be here, in warmth and with coffee flowing!
Now, we just had to scramble to get our gear packed and head south.