When it’s -45℃ out and the wind is howling at 80 kilometres per hour, the call of nature is something of an existential crisis. Kevin Vallely knows.
When he pulled his glove off, he could see the frostbite creeping up his hand, before his eyes.
The North Vancouver adventurer is recently home from Ellesmere Island, the northernmost part of Canada and the most hostile environment he’s ever experienced.
“It’s desperate cold. You’ve got to understand it's another level of cold. I've been to the South Pole. I’ve been to Siberia in winter. I’ve been across Baffin Island. I’ve done the Iditarod Trail twice,” he said. “They pale in comparison to the absolute, unimaginable cold that Ellesmere Island dishes up.”
Vallely and Ray Zahab were attempting to ski 1,000 kilometres from Grise Fiord to Alert, dragging almost two months of supplies on sleds behind them. It’s been done before in the spring and summer on sea ice, but not typically overland and never in winter.
“We were going there when it's at its least hospitable, when it really has its guard up, and getting a sense of that environment,”
Indigenous knowledge is always critical not just to success but to survival in those conditions, Vallely said.
Local Inuit residents taught them to read the body language of polar bears and how to contend with cold they’ve lived in for thousands of years.
“It's amazing that people can survive and thrive, frankly, in that environment, and we learned from them,” he said. “We found that deeply meaningful, and we really want to involve them more moving forward – not as a peripheral element to our journey, but very much an educational one.”
It was also a lesson in the lasting impacts of colonialism in Canada. In the 1950s, in order to assert sovereignty over the North, the federal government encouraged and even forced traditionally nomadic Inuit people to stay in permanent settlements.
“It really altered their existence in many ways,” Vallely said. “I learned a lot listening to the Elders up there telling me stories of what has happened and how they have been profoundly affected.”
To the bone
They made the conservative guess they could cover 20 kilometres per day, meaning they would need about 1,000 kilograms of food and supplies to keep them going for 50 days.
While travelling in Antarctica, Vallely had already acquired a condition called “caribou lung” where the lining of your lungs becomes scorched by cold. It flared up so bad on the first day, he wondered if they’d have to stop even before they even really started. They had to wear special respirators that warm the air before they inhale it.
When they got outside of Grise Fiord, they found the snow to have the same consistency as sand or broken glass, Vallely said.
“We discovered pretty quick that we weren’t going to do more than five to 10 (kilometres) a day,” he said. “We were at this crisis point. We were going to need 100 to 200 days of food and fuel to do this, and we didn't have it.”
It would be impossible for any one person to pull a sled carrying enough supplies to trek for 1,000 kilometres, Vallely said.
But adapting plans as you go is a hallmark of successful explorers. A film crew that had been following them on snowmobiles were called on to help carry the supplies. It lightened the load but it meant, should Vallely and Zahab be successful, they would have to sacrifice the bragging rights of it being an “unsupported” expedition.
“So be it,” Vallely said.
They pressed on. After nine days, they’d made it about 150 kilometres but now, even the snowmobiles were starting to break down in the cold. One morning, Vallely and Zahab forged ahead while the rest of the team stayed behind to strip apart and reassemble a snowmobile’s engine. The pair made it another 25 kilometres but there was no sign of the support crew until late that night.
They were in “heady” polar bear territory and a small pack of Arctic wolves had been following them.
“Some are friendly but the vast majority will hunt you and eat you,” Vallely said with a laugh. “You're out among the most hostile environments on the planet without everything, and you start to feel very vulnerable.”
In the morning, it took hours to get the snowmobiles to sputter to life. Losing the machines inland would most certainly mean having to call for a rescue. There wasn’t a lot of debate about what had to be done, Vallely said.
“We said ‘No, this is the right time and the right place to pull the plug and pause the trip,” he said.
They turned back to Grise Fiord. On the way back, one of the snowmobiles blew a piston and had to be abandoned.
It’s not for everyone, Vallely will be the first to admit, but there’s a drive in him to see what’s over the next horizon that many of our ancestors have had and some of us still do today.
“On one level, it's utter nonsense, right? It's kind of madness,” he conceded. “But this is one of those last places on the planet where really no one goes. … This is truly like going to Mars, and I’m intrigued by that. We don't get these many opportunities.”
And it’s not like they have nothing to show for it. The film crew has valuable footage for their documentary. Through a partnership with the Royal Canadian Geographic Society, Vallely and Zahab's trip updates were shared in 25,000 Canadian school classrooms. They also collected data for Environment and Climate Change Canada.
And, though it may sound like something from a motivational poster, everyone can draw a teachable moment from their attempt.
“Failure is part of success, right? It’s not independent of it,” he said. “Do we just throw up our hands in the air and say ‘screw it’ and move on to something else? Or do you learn from it, and go back and readjust and rethink? I think that's the lesson that I can teach to my daughters.”
If it sounds like Vallely is hinting at another winter expedition across Ellesmere, it’s because he is. He and his team are already taking what they learned in the broken glass-like snow and applying it to a new strategy.
“We’re going back,” he said. “We're determined to do this. We're determined to get across that just utterly unique environment.”