Learn to Fly
Its 12h45, the sleds are ready and the police is here to say goodbye: its departure time! Last coffee, greetings and pictures. Lets hurry up, sun is already down: got only an hour and a half left of light… Will the +160kg sledges move ? I have no idea, this is a stressful moment, I never had such a heavy load to pull. 1-2-3 meters: they are horribly heavy but at least they move !
This is Wednesday January the 15th, I’m facing the Arctic Ocean, and after two years of preparation I’m finally making my first steps. These meters feel unreal and i can’t realize it has started yet. In 30 months I should be facing the Southern Ocean: from a polar Ocean to the Other.
I skied a very short distance and put the tent up for the very first time of the trip. Kugaaruk is still in sight, but I’m happy: I finally left! The last 10 days were very intense, tiring and stressful. The pressure in Kugaaruk has been overwhelming and it was time to leave. Everyone was very nice and helpful, especially the RCMP officers Serge and Nancy, but I could feel people constant concerns for my safety or being convinced I’ll fail. These negative energies started to harm my motivation and the project. Only hundreds meters after leaving an Inuit reacts: “You’re gonna fail and I’ll have to rescue you!” He probably doesn’t know I’ll keep his sentence in mind as a mojo, an everyday reminder and motivation to prove he’s wrong: I’m not gonna fail and You’re not gonna rescue me!
I didn’t take it personally, it’s just his way to express concerns regarding the polar environment. And he’s right: it is extremely cold, dangerous, and intense. But that’s why I trained, came for. I don’t know if I’m gonna succeed, but one thing is certain: I don’t feel insecure. Indeed, I have plenty of food, high quality equipment and first grade Berghaus outfits to face any conditions. On the other hand, I’m uncertain regarding my performances: the sleds are too heavy, I’m not physically trained enough, and heavy workloads led me to underestimated the hills difficulties between Kugaaruk and Rankin Inlet. But who cares : one meter at the time !
However, the sleds are definitely too heavy, and only 2 days and 5 km later I decide to ship no less than 35 kg/day of food to Rankin Inlet, keeping a very safe margin to reach any village facing any troubles. Food is the main burden, I eat no less than 5000 Kcal or 1 kg of food per day, becoming slowly lighter. These super high fat meals are essential to survive the cold. Once unloaded, I directly feel better. If very slow, my body doesn’t feel on the edge of breaking anymore. The first days are the harshest! I have to adapt to my new environment and permanent below -30C temperatures. I need to find my rhythm!
Despite certain believes, days and nights aren’t so hard since you’re either on the move or tucked away from the cold in a warm cozy sleeping bag. The hardest time of the day is the one spent preparing stuff in the tent, trying to keep your extremities warm. Small repetitive gestures requiring light gloves might become pretty challenging and lead to sever pain. Each item you touch is below -30C and steals your hands heat instantly away. The only solution is to get good reflexes, be energy savy and smart: train to use your mitts the best you can, uncover feet at last , etc. This routine is frustrating at first, when your body cries for mercy, evolving in serenity later. Mistakes remains a daily danger and can be of severe consequences.
The 10 first days were constant learning and adaptation, my body transforming slowly as I engaged on the Kellet River. Kugaaruk people fish on this river and I still had the pleasure to talk a few minutes a day to local people. My progress was however chaotic, averaging between 5 and 10 km, much less than the 20km planned. I dreamed only of smow-kite, which wasn’t possible due to unfavorable winds and topography.
When the conditions where finally united I jumped on my skis full of excitement: the day had come ! During two days I covered as much distance as the last 13 days of back-country skiing. 50 km later I set up camp on the Arctic Ocean again, discovering a new environment full of surprises. Indeed, the sea-ice obeys to different rules. I learned it the hard way by making harmless but tiring mistakes. Sea-ice isn’t always flat, it can be very chaotic, full of blocks or compression ridges. It evolves quickly and you need either to know the land or to study satellite image to get the best out of the ice situations.
My biggest mistake happened the same day as my first kiting day. While I kept my feet pretty warm during the first 10 days I decided unreasonably to add a pair of socks. This resulted in reduced blood flow and without realizing the extent of it I ended up with half frozen toes om my left foot at the end of the day. I kept this system for a few days before changing definitely back to my first efficient dressing! Better late than never… but a frostbite + high continuous pressure resulted in a damaged big toe that’s still awaiting to heal.
Reaching land again, meant getting rid of the ice anarchy and increased my motivation again. I had 100km left to reach Naujat’s hot showers, 20 kg less of food load and finally a trained body! The distance was covered in 7 days, my performance is constantly increasing. If I couldn’t wait to rest 3-4 for days, I finally felt adapted and ready to cover larger distance at a faster pace. However, this was without accounting for the feet damage…
11 days later I’m finally ready to go again. My toe isn’t fully healed, but i believe that with extra care it can manage the next step.The extreme cold were equally harmful to my gear, and the extra days were precious to manage repairs. This last month has been very challenging, a constant learning and a delight. I didn’t failed and I wasn’t rescued. I’ll still be learning every day ahead, and that’s my upmost pleasure. I will certainly make new mistakes, but i guess that’s how you learn to fly!