We love supporting our hemp fuelled athletes and hearing all about the amazing things they have accomplished. Keep reading to find out how endurance athlete Jen Segger made it through Arctic 2 Atacama, a unique and challenging expedition that spanned 100 degrees celsius on the thermometer!
How do you resist an invitation to join two of the world’s top adventure athletes on a challenging endurance project? Well naturally, you don’t. When an overly excited Ray Zahab called me on the phone and explained the concept of doing an expedition that would span 100 degrees in temperature difference and asked if I’d be keen to join him, it wasn’t hard to say yes. That was back in August. But first, just a few hundred logistics had to be worked out between then and our departure in February. It would be six months of preparations to bring it all together!
The adventure was set to begin in Canada’s Arctic mid-February when temperatures plummeted to -50°C. On fat tire bikes, Ray, Steffano Gregoretti, and myself would attempt a first-ever unsupported crossing from the remote Inuit community of Qikiqtarjuaq, through the Akshayuk Pass, and end in the town of Pangritung. From there, we would head directly down to Chile. Switching fat bikes for full-suspension mountain bikes, we would then bike the entire Atacama Desert, 1,200 km in length and 50°C in temperature. A test of endurance as much as a mental challenge, we would without a doubt be testing our limits to the max, while all the while, school groups around the globe would be able to follow along and be a part of the expedition through impossible2Possible’s education program.
And so, I spent all winter training and trying to get myself as strong as possible. Ray and I talked often about our training prep, what was working and what wasn’t. There were so many factors to consider on this expedition, especially for the Arctic leg. Our gear had to be light but efficient and able to withstand the harsh environment of the Arctic. We needed to be warm but still be able to move and not sweat. Then there was the timing of everything… flights, weather windows, snowfall, temperatures, and mechanicals. Pair all that with smooth transitions to Chile and being ready and able to handle heat and days in the saddle, it was a complex trip to say the least.
Ray had crossed the Akshayuk Pass several times before on foot. Steffano had also been there once, and I had done a summer crossing back in 2009 when I’d been apart of i2P’s first youth expedition. It was a trip that I will never forget as Canada’s North is truly one of the world’s most amazing gems. I felt blessed to be able to return again, this time for a winter adventure as Ray’s relationships with so many wonderful people in the North was critical in bringing the Arctic section to life.
THE ADVENTURE – Part 1 – The Arctic
Mid-February and it’s go time! 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. Ray’s 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 80 lbs 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 50 km 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 5:00 a.m. and our way by 8:00 a.m. 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 Harvest Hemp Heart Bites in our pogies for quick eating. They were great choices because neither of them froze and both were extremely palatable.
My bike, due to the frame size, was packed differently than Ray and Steffano’s. I wore my Osprey pack on my back and then attached stuffed 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 three 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 than 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 than 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 three. 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 four 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 the majority of the way. Then, as if things couldn’t get worse, THEY DID!!! The fog returned, the wind 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 and 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, and developed a new plan for navigating. Luckily, Ray had a bit of battery left in his wrist Garmin that helped us to sort out exactly where we were. As he and Steffano navigated us forward in 50 m increments, I kept my eyes peeled on the shoreline for the emergency hut. Hours later, and only covering about 3 or 4 km, 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 evacuation out. Gutted to have him not complete this leg, a frostbitten extremity must be taken seriously. Steffano wanted to be able to come to the Atacama with all five 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 re-join 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 number two in Chile. We said goodbye to the Arctic and hello to the upcoming heat.
THE ADVENTURE – Part 2 – Chile’s Atacama
We flew back through Ottawa for a gear change out and a crew addition. It was Atacama GO TIME and we had a lot of gear and a greatly welcomed support team to assist us with this next leg. By the time we landed in Arica, Chile with over 16 bags of luggage, we were now a team of nine. Photographer Jon Golden remained with us along with the incredibly talented videographer Chris Tran. Co-founder of i2P Bob Cox was heading up the crew team and we had Javier Aguilera and Christian Sieveking from Chile both on board. We knew that our bikes would need constant attention if we were to survive the 1,200+ km crazy terrain awaiting us so we brought along bike mechanic Brian to take on this role.
We flew Air Canada down on a direct flight from Ottawa to Santiago and then onto Chile’s most Northern city, Arica, right on the Peruvian-Chilean border. Seaside for two nights, we rested, fuelled, and put our full suspension mountain bikes together. For this leg of the adventure, we had opted to ride the Felt Decree as we knew that it was a stellar 27.5 bike that would stand up in a harsh desert. Thankfully, all our bags and bikes arrived and before we knew it, Ray, Steffano, and I were back in the saddle and heading South. 1,200 km of incredibly hot and ever changing terrain awaited us.
Now, try as I might, I can’t actually recall the day-by-day mileage and terrain. For an epic of this length, days and timeframes blur together. There is only one focus of the day… take care of yourself, take care of your teammates, bike many kilometers, beat the winds, and of course, have fun! You quickly find yourself very much living in the moment and just settling into the routine of expedition life. The Atacama is a long, narrow desert that spans a good part of Chile. To the left was the Andes and to the right was the coastal range that separated the desert from the ocean. What lies in between is an ever-changing, challenging desert.
The first few days of the expedition was mostly on pavement. There was only one way to cross the Northern part of Chile via bike and it was on the Panamerican Highway. While it did allow us to put some distance down, we were eager to get off-road and find some dirt. Contrary to the Arctic, it was really nice to have crew on this leg. Water bottles were always filled and snacks never too far. We made our way through some larger towns over the first few days as we tackled some massive climbs lasting several hours and some insane descents of 20+ km. The views of deep canyons below us were insane.
As Ray, Steffano, and I put hundreds of kilometers behind us, we had transitioned to an amazing part of Chile that very few people ever get to experience. Rich in history, we marvelled at the old ruins, ancient villages, petroglyphs, and abandoned mines that we biked through. There was also an intricate network of current, functioning mines throughout the Atacama that took careful planning to avoid. The heart of the Atacama Desert was amazing. Some days we rode old railway tracks as their lines proved to be the most direct. Other days we were completely off-road, picking our way through dirt, soft sand, and sometimes when got lucky, hard clay-like mud that looked like chocolate. One thing is for certain, there are no two parts of the desert that are the same. As such, everyday was completely unique. I felt like we were a three-person team in an adventure race except for this was not a race at all. It was purely an adventure and it felt awesome to have it be just that!
As we biked along, Ray would tell us about the highlights that we’d see and he’d share his stories from his run across various deserts over the years. We’d talk about random races and epics that we’d all done. I’d talk about how much I missed my son Kiel back home. We’d debate nutrition and training topics. Steffano would talk about Italy and the mountains and Ray and I decided that we needed to go to his home area soon to play. And lots of the time, we’d just say nothing at all. Hours could pass and we’d all be lost in our own thoughts or cursing at the wind if it was head on. We did have our share of tail winds though and when the speed picked up, we were flying!
The goal each day was to be biking by 8:00 or 8:30 am and to get as far as we could before the afternoon winds kicked in. We could almost put money on it that by 3:00 p.m. each day, the winds would turn on. This made setting up camp a challenge for the crew each day. While Ray, Steffano, and I recovered and re-fuelled under the pop-up tent, our amazing team worked hard to set tents and prepare dinner. Brian worked on the bikes and us riders would try to scrub all the dirt off our legs from the day’s terrain. The deeper we got into the desert, the hotter the temperatures were, so hydration and proper nutrition at the end of long bike hours was essential.
Of the 1,200 km’s we covered, one of the highlights for myself was sleeping under the Atacama sky at night. We’d go to bed with the setting sun. While Jon and Chris typically stayed up to mess around with cameras and time lapses that captured the amazing night time desert, I’d snuggle into my sleeping bag and try to keep my eyes open until I saw five shooting starts. This was not a hard task mind you, the milky way delivers hundreds of shooting stars constantly. Interestingly enough, the desert gets very chilly at night. I was grateful for my Icebreaker base layer and thermal X-ped sleeping mat below me. Oh, and for this trip I even had a travel pillow, something I’ve never owned until now. Good sleep was essential to having good energy the next day.
I found that expedition life quickly became a simple way of living. Everyone found their groove and role very fast. The nine of us became a very efficient team and I’m extremely grateful for our crew who gave their time and energy so that Ray, Steffano, and I could achieve our goal. Crewing is not easy and I will be forever thankful to our amazing team. In total, we were out in the Atacama for 12 days before we arrived at the most Southern point of the desert, the town of Copiopo.
I’m still trying to process this once in a lifetime adventure. How did I get so lucky to experience two drastically different places in one unforgettable adventure. I was challenged, humbled, and inspired. Arctic2Atacama truly was the trip of a lifetime! As with all major challenges in life, we learn a little more about ourselves each time. Hours on the bike and nights under the stars enable me to step back from daily patterns, reflect, think, re-energize, and set new goals. I returned home excited for the next chapter in life and eager to start planning the next adventure.
ONWARDS… thanks to all who followed along, gave their support, and of course to my partner Norm who held the fort while I was away.
We’ve already gotten loads of questions on what specific gear we used and what we ate. I hope the below helps. A lot of time went into planning for this expedition, as we knew that our equipment choices would be critical to success!
Bike: Felt DD
Tires: 45NRTH (studded dillinger 5)
Sleeping: Tentipi, -50 Mountain Hardwear sleeping bag, Xped down sleeping mat
Food: approx 1800 calories a day (approx)
B: coffee, dense oatmeal (with Garden on Life chocolate raw meal, Manitoba Harvest Hemp Hearts and coconut oil).
S: Manitoba Harvest Hemp Heart Bites, Fruit 3 bars, PODS gum, almonds.
D: tea, hot chocolate, instant noodle soup, mashed potatoes with coconut oil.
Footwear: Baffin boots
Baselayer: Icebreaker (zone long sleeve and bottoms 200w, ski sock)
Outerlayers: Canada Goose (hybridge lite jacket, tundra jacket, brookvale jacket, parka, puffy pants)
Goggles: Rudy Project goggles (with face mask sewn on)
Other Key Items: satellite phone (Iridium Go), -50 sleeping bag, Exped down sleeping mat, Lupine headlamp, MSR stove x 3, bike racking system, pogies
Bike: Felt Decree
Sleeping: Tentipi, -40 MEC sleeping bag (I sleep cold).
Fuel: Coffee! Manitoba Harvest Hemp Heart Bites, Carpo-pro, Agisko, Fruit 3 bars, chips, rice & beans, eggs.
Hydration System: Osprey Raven 10
Eyewear & Helmet: Rudy Project
Appreciated Key Items: comfy camp clothes for post ride R&R (Shredly shorts, thermal icebreaker) pillow, aloe cream for skin, toothbrush, a crew, wipes to get the dust off!!!