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Two Adventure Athletes Go Crossing Ellesmere Island » Explorersweb

Canadian adventure athletes Ray Zahab and Kevin Vallely depart today for the far north of Canada for an unassisted south-north crossing of Ellesmere Island. They start in Grise Fiord, the Inuit hamlet of over 100 people on the south coast, and end at the military base of Alert on the north coast. The 1,100km ski across Canada’s northernmost island is expected to take 40-50 days.

Grise Fiord, Ellesmere Island: their starting point. Photo: Jerry Kobalenko

Zahab has already run more than 17,000 km across the deserts of the world and transported to Baffin Island, Lake Baikal and Antarctica. Vallely is a long-time partner of Zahab. The duo snowshoeed in 2009 from Hercules Inlet to the South Pole with Richard Weber. They also teamed up in Siberia.

Zahab’s plan to cross Ellesmere was delayed for a few years due to COVID. Non-essential Southerners could not travel to Nunavut Territory during this time. But from his home outside of Ottawa, the restless Zahab continued to train by running, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing every day.

Vallely, who runs an architecture business, has previously skied the 1,860km Iditarod Trail in Alaska, hiked the West Coast Trail on Vancouver Island in record time, and retraced an ice-biking trip from 2,000 km in the Klondike era during the Alaskan winter.

Vallely prepares 50 days of food at Zahab. Photo: Ray Zahab

Previous Ellesmere crossings

Two teams have already skied the full length of Ellesmere Island. In 1990, John Dunn led a team of four on a 96-day, 1,250 km crossing from Cape Aldrich, the northernmost point in Canada, to King Edward Point, the southernmost point in Ellesmere. Dunn and company dropped two supply caches on their flight north. They then skied a route that snaked largely through the ice caps and pack ice of eastern Ellesmere.

Two years later, Canadian Bernard Voyer and two others skied 1,000km north of Ellesmere to Grise Fiord for 65 days, but they too relied on supply caches.

The route of the 1990 Ellesmere Island Expedition. Photo: John Dunn

Zahab and Vallely take a more earthly route than Dunn’s. They will avoid the mountainous east coast, with its ice caps and fjords, in favor of low passes in the western and central part of the island.

Hard snow and headwind

Their route should provide good hard snow for fast sledding. In the polar regions, the wind and the cold transform the powder snow into a hard surface on which a sled slides without sinking. Yet they are skiing against the prevailing wind. They also depart earlier than previous expeditions, and the friction of the cold snow will make pulling the sleds more difficult.

Greely Fiord, Ellesmere Island, along the duo route. Photo: Jerry Kobalenko

For the first two weeks, a film crew, including Arctic traveler Caroline Cote and Grise Fiord outfitter Terry Noah, will follow the two Canadians. The crew will then return to town. In keeping with the expedition’s self-contained status, Zahab and Vallely will not receive any support from the film crew or resupply along the way.

The approximately 1,100 km route from Grise Fjord in the south to Alert in the north. Picture: Ray Zahab

Rather than a more common fiberglass or carbon/Kevlar pulka, the pair will use a bespoke ultralight polyethylene sled. They will carry around 80-85kg each, including large portable power stations to charge their camera gear and communication devices.

Polar Bear Precautions

Although encounters with polar bears are still possible in the Far North, much of their journey is inland, where an encounter is less likely. Nevertheless, Zahab and Valley will take the usual precautions – a bear alarm fence and firearms.

Traveling mainly on skis and on foot when the hard snow permits, the duo will strive to cover 30 km a day.

Zahab with a smaller version of his lightweight custom sled, on Baffin Island. Photo: Natalia Gubareva

About the Author

Ash Routine

Ash Routine

Ash is an outdoor and adventure writer from the UK. His lyrics have featured in global media such as The Guardian, Outside Magazine and Red Bull. He works as a public health scientist by day and writes about the outdoors in his spare time. Ash’s areas of expertise are polar expeditions, mountaineering and adventure travel. For vacations, Ash enjoys doing independent sledding expeditions.

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