Arctic to Atacama: Part 1
Posted on March 10 2017
An overly excited Ray Zahab called me up last August, and began explaining the details of an expedition spanning the ultimate extremes of temperature and environment. He proposed an itinerary that would first cross the Arctic, then immediately head south to Chile to traverse the Atacama desert. When he finally and asked if I’d be keen to join him, it wasn’t hard to say yes. We immediately delved deep into logistics and spent the next 6 months planning and making preparations.
The trip began in Canada’s Arctic in mid February when temperatures regularly plummet to -50 degrees centigrade. On fat tire bikes, myself, Ray and Steffano Gregoretti attempted the first unsupported crossing from the remote Inuit community of Qikiqtarjuaq, through the Akshayuk Pass and into the town of Pangritung. Here are some photos and stories from our adventure.
Our team assembled in Ottawa to pack up gear and do final preparations. I had flown out to train with Ray a month earlier and to familiarize myself with my new fat bike (FELTS DD) and all the equipment that we’d be using. From setting up our new tentipi, to lighting stoves, sorting out systems to load all our gear onto our bikes and most importantly, deciding what we’d be eating and what we’d be wearing, the to-do list had been long. When I arrived in Ottawa, it was finally time for all the excitement to set in. Bikes had been disassembled and were ready for travel in our BikeND cases. Dressed in my Baffin boots, layered in Icebreaker and wrapped warmly in Canada Goose we boarded a First Air flight bound for the Arctic. We had two nights in Qikiqtarjuaq to take care of final preparations. Rays good friend and Arctic guide, Billy Arnaquq opened up his home to us and helped with logistics. I won’t forget the initial breath of that cold Arctic air that I took as Ray, Steffano and I walked around the village buying last minute supplies, obtaining park permits and testing our fully loaded bikes. From “wet coast” to “freezing Arctic”, it was more than a shock to the body.
On the morning we set out, it was clear skies and freezing. The sun overhead had never felt so good as we made our way along the ice road and out onto the open fjord. The ice road was an unexpected pleasant surprise. The people of Qik had built a solid road out to their Winter fishing camps which we happily took for as long as we could. With some luck on our side it was nicely windswept. Our bikes though, weighed over 80lbs and it was tough going, especially when we had to deviate away from the road and up the fjord leading to the start of the Akshayuk pass. We passed loads of icebergs along the way, a major highlight for me! I’d never seen such large chunks of ice before and I’d never experienced the cold Arctic winds either. My brain told me to embrace the cold rather than fight it. In the Arctic, The immense highs are usually paired with challenging times. We covered approximately 50km our first day and I got to experience my first night sleeping on ice in our tentipi. It was a restless night…. we were also in polar bear territory! With ice cracking below us, morning couldn’t come fast enough!
It took us two days to reach the head of the Akshayuk Pass. Our final push down the fjord was extremely challenging. With no ice road to follow, the snow was deep in many places and following the snowmobile track of Billy who was taking photographer Jon Golden across the pass, was out of the question. So, it was a mix of pushing and riding. I was very thankful at this point that we had equipped our fat bikes with studded tires. The final few kilometers to where we’d camp for the night was sheer ice and the extra traction was appreciated. The winds still managed to push me over though and all I could do was get up, laugh and race to catch up with Ray and Steffano.
Mornings were early. We were up at 5am and our way by 8am or so. Three hours seems to be the standard for eating and breaking camp. Boiling water to both warm up and to add to our meals was a process each morning and each night. We had kept our meal plan simple yet extremely nutritious. Breakfast consisted of oatmeal mixed with Manitoba Harvest hemp hearts and Garden of Life’s chocolate raw meal. Calorie dense and warm, it was a great way to start the day. We needed to eat a lot at breakfast time because during the day, stops to eat would be limited due to freezing. We stored Fruit5 bars and Manitoba’s hemp heart bites in our pogies for quick eating. Great choices because neither of them froze and both were extremely palatable. My bike, due to the frame size, was packed differently then Ray and Seffano’s. I wore my Osprey pack on my back and then attached stuff sacks to a front racking system. Each day I rigged it slightly different, always trying to find the best balance point for efficient movement as food weight decreased and gas canisters were drained. Day 3 we broke camp and watched as Billy’s snowmobile disappeared into the pass with Jon on the back. They were off on a photography mission and the three of us had a major day of biking ahead using the gentle grade of the Owl River for as long as we could. Our hope was that following the river would be faster going then trying to move through snow on the land. It was tricky navigating through all the braids in the river and there was a lot more snow that we had anticipated. Fog set in and the going was anything but fast. A highlight though was seeing a black Arctic fox that was extremely intrigued by us. I suppose seeing fat bikers in the Arctic is not an everyday occurrence. We didn’t make it to the Rundle Glacier as hoped for on day 3. Fog set in and everyone was pretty wiped. Snow started falling and we were dreading what the next day would bring and how that would affect our pace. We had a monster of a climb to go up and bikes were heavy. We set up camp and rested just as it started snowing. Little did we know at that point just how important that rest would be.
Day 4 was HARD. Plain and simple. Up early and on our way to the base of the moraine, we stopped for a quick snack before beginning the extremely slow push-a-bike-slog up to Summit Lake. As a team, we moved one bike at a time. Time ticked by. Once we finally reached the top and set foot on Summit Lake, it was anything but perfect. The snowstorm the night before had made the lake impossible to ride on. It was slow going as we pushed our bikes majority of the way. Then, as if things couldn’t get worse, THEY DID!!! The fog returned, the winds increased to extreme and the snow started falling again. Conditions went from really bad to a terrible blizzard extremely fast. It started to get dark and the team realized quickly that tonight, we NEEDED To make it to the safety shelter at Windy Lake. However, all our navigation equipment started to die, batteries were empty. We wasted some serious time moving in one big circle on top of the lake and not in the direction that we should have been going. This turned into a critical moment for everyone. We found a massive boulder on the side of the lake, re-collected ourselves, developed a new plan for navigating. Ray luckily had a bit of battery left in his wrist garmin which helped us to sort out exactly where we were. As he and Steffano navigated us forward in 50m increments, I kept my eyes peeled on the shoreline for the emergency hut. Hours later, and only covering about 3 or 4km, I caught glimpse of the hut. Never had I been so happy to escape the blizzard. We huddled inside the shelter and realized that each of us had frostbite on our faces and hands. However, Steffano had it the worst and by morning, it was of much more concern. His entire pinkie finger and side of the hand was frost bitten and we were not sure how bad. It would have to be monitored closely.
The next day was downhill. We left Windy Lake and began the steep descent down the Weasel River. Bikes had to be walked as it was so steep that we couldn’t ride it with all the weight. We pushed our bikes over and around boulders and the entire time I was in complete awe as to how Billy had just passed through there days before on his snowmobile! The terrain was incredibly complex. Many parts of the river had accumulated deep overflow and Ray forged ahead, taking soakers for the team. What would have been funny in any other condition, a freezing cold wet boot in the Arctic is no laughing matter. Ray would later pay the price for that and suffer from frostbite that never returned to normal until near the end of the Atacama section. The descent down the Weasel River was extremely cool. Massive mountains and peaks towered above us and as the river’s grade eased, we got to ride more and more. It was a stunning day overall. However, by the time we arrived at camp that night. Steffano’s hand was in bad shape. I gave Ray my back up pair of Icebreaker socks to wear so he could try to re-warm as best as possible. We set up the sat phone (Iridium Go) and called into Pang to see about getting Steffano an evac out. Gutted to have him not complete this leg, a frostbitten extremity must be taken seriously. Stef wanted to be able to come to the Atacama with all 5 fingers intact so he thought it was best to get into Pang and have a medical team look at it. Luckily, just before dark, Billy arrived by sled and took Steffano back to Pang. Ray and I stayed out, eager to finish things up in the morning.
Our final day out was an incredible challenge of mental toughness. Driven to get to the end of the pass but plagued by the snow that had fallen, Ray and I did anything but ride our bikes. On the contrary, we pushed and pushed and pushed our bikes FOR HOURS, all morning in fact. We had to keep moving just to stay warm. The accumulation of so many days taxing our body was catching up. The sun was out but it was epically freezing. Head down though, there was no time for complaining. We were eager to make it to the head of the Pangritung Fjord and make our way to Pang to rejoin Steffano.
Late lunch and a warm bed at the Auyuittuq Lodge never felt so good. It was time to start the recovery process and switch gears. The Atacama was waiting and so was 50 degree heat! Steffano had good news to share, his hand would be ok and he would be good to continue on for adventure #2 in Chile. We said goodbye to the Arctic and hello to the upcoming heat.