Osprey Packs was the proud partner of a recent expedition led by Ray Zahab. Adventurer, long distance runner and founder of the Impossible2possible foundation (i2p), Ray Zahab decided to ride across the frozen landscapes of Baffin Island and the hot trails of the Atacama Desert. We are glad that Ray offered to share his amazing adventure on our blog. Here is the story of the first leg in Baffin Island.
When we first came up with the idea of the Arctic2Atacama expedition it seemed straightforward enough…or so we thought! We would attempt an unsupported crossing of the Arctic ice from Qikiqtarjuaq (island) and across Baffin Island, Nunavut in the Canadian Arctic winter, immediately followed by a 1200km traverse of the driest place on Earth- the Atacama Desert in Chile…in South American summer!
I say “straightforward” because we had all been to Baffin before, I myself had done four unsupported crossings. I had previously run the length of the Atacama Desert as well, in Summer 2011, with limited daily resupply. But this expedition would be much, much different than anything we had done before!
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 use satellite for the Atacama leg, and upload daily content to both social media and a live webs item that would track our adventure daily.
In 2007 I finished a 7500km run across the Sahara Desert with two buddies of mine, and when the 111 days came to an end I came to realize 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! Not only that, but that through this amazing adventure I had learned about a culture, experienced a place that otherwise I may not have ever had the opportunity to. A former pack a day smoker and college dropout who less than ten years later found themselves crossing the Sahara on foot had proved to me that we can pretty much do anything we set our minds to.
I remembered being 16 years old, sitting in class, completely disengaged and resolved in self-doubt that nothing would ever happen in my life of any positive consequence. But I discovered the outdoors, then ultra-running, then the Sahara. And post expedition, I knew I wanted to share what I learned with young people everywhere- and recreating in some way the Running the Sahara experience for young people seemed to be the answer!
I wanted to recreate everything I learned about myself, about a faraway place, about learning new things with young people. Give them an opportunity in their younger years to know and 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. Expeditions where they challenge themselves, and share daily their experiences with classrooms globally, using a combination of live satellite content uploads and video conferencing…everything is free, absolutely no cost to the i2P Youth Ambassadors or schools participating!
Every expedition I have been on since Running the Sahara has been in support of i2P, whether running 1200km across the Atacama, 2000+ across the Gobi, trekking unsupported to the Geographic South Pole, or running 1000km across the Patagonian Desert- it’s all about connecting to students, and gathering support for i2P Youth Expeditions! Arctic2Atacama would follow suit, and Jen and Stefano are equally passionate about i2P.
The six months leading up to Arctic2Atacama seemed to be a frenzy of training, gear testing, planning logistics, gathering sponsorship and all three of us are parents, and have 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 retest 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 5 day traverse, and brought six days of fuel, food and other supplies. Our bikes were fitted with studded 5 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. On our backs would be our Osprey Escapist packs (Escapist 32), in which we would fill every available space.
The day of departure finally came, and ready or not we loaded our gear into the back of a buddies pick up for transfer to the airport. We’d be flying on First Air flights to the Arctic- thank goodness they are used to seeing people hauling all sorts of gear and containers up north- so we didn’t get any strange looks when checking in! They are the experts, so of all of our planning, this was the one piece that 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 -30c, compared to the -45c the last time I was there. All of our gear showed up, 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 the awe inspiring Canadian Arctic landscape.
The concern was actually being able to get across Baffin. If there was no snow…and only ice and rock, snowmobile would not be possible. Turns out the weather would change dramatically and unexpectedly.
Our second morning in Qik was our departure. Around 9am Stefano, Jen and I headed onto the frozen waters off the coast of Qikiqtarjuaq and started pedaling towards Baffin, around 100km or so away. Our goal was 50km 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.
Our Osprey packs traded places from our backs to our back wheel racks, depending on how much weight we needed to throw over the back wheel for more traction. Amazing the pack was so versatile. On long expeditions you find yourself taking about random things, and the three of us decided we would rank gear…the top 5 items on each leg. Our Escapist packs were quickly heading up the charts! So were our down sleeping mats, and the container of coconut oil.
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.
Day 2 began on high spirits, with our goal of reaching Baffin. Jon was shooting pictures like crazy, and we would see them every few hours….dots on the horizon that would take hours to ride to. It got colder, and eventually windier as we approached the coast. We were pumped to be here. It was tough going at the end, but more or less the same physical output as the first day. Desert style landscape of the North Pangnirtung Fjord gave way to mountains that we could see grew and grew the further we peered down the Akshayuk Pass- the canyon like slice across Baffin Island that would be our route.
As the sun rose on day 3 we barely had a chance to say bye to Jon and Billy- they were gone like a shot, 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 centimeter 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 pedaled 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, one that I experienced when on a 33 day unsupported trek to the South Pole as part of a 3 person team in 2009. When it got cloudy on Antarctica, you simply couldn’t see a thing. There was no contrast with rocks or trees, or anything at all. Just snow and ice. 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 20km 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. Up to our knees in some places, with windiest areas ankle deep at best! UGH! It was supposed to be clear! Windblown! It’s NOT!
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 be infinitely more effort. We started to make our way across the lake, our GPS set on making it to the Summit Lake shelter, an emergency shelter approximately 8km away. Winds began to pick up, and an eerie yellowish color was cast across the sky. It became quite clear things were changing. Temps dropped quickly as the winds picked up. It was getting darker, than all hell broke loose. Winds jumped to 100km per hour, and it had to be close to -60c 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. The shit was hitting the fan quickly. We had back up plan after backup plan, but it all seemed to be fragmenting in this moment. There was a huge boulder on the shore that we crawled behind 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, in order to change batteries or dig for equipment became a very risky task of removing our mittens. We had frostbite on our faces, and fingers were going white. We pulled our map, and pulled 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 kilometers to the emergency shelter. It took us hours to finally get there, with Stefano and I stopping every 50 meters 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. It was the reflection off the tiny window on the shelter that my headlamp caught that identified its final 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 a roles which enabled us to set up tent, camp and have stoves lit in short time. Up here on Baffin we operated a as unit. One person gathered snow blocks for water, while the other 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, pushing our bikes. The last time I was on a winter expedition on Baffin, it was completely windswept. Stefano and I were together on that trip in 2014, and we were sure that it would be the same this time. Not so. 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 50km away from Pang, in probably the flattest area, and snowmobile trips to this end of Baffin are quite common, so we didn’t have to wait long for him to come. We needed 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 1200km crossing of the Atacama Desert. Here we are, freezing, and we are discussing the crazy fact that in a matter of a few days we would be in a desert at +50c (120f)!
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.
Stay tuned for the next leg of Ray’s journey