Every now and then you come across an expedition that, in the truest sense of the word, is an adventure. Chris Bray and Clark Carter crossed Victoria Island in the Arctic on foot and unsupported. Their film, The Crossing, is part of the European Outdoor Film Tour and we’ve managed to get hold of theinterview they did with Clark about their epic journey.
The parallels of the drudgery, grind, team dynamics, amazing highs and relief on crossing the “line” are obvious to adventure racing and ultra-running and I can’t wait to see the full length film.
EOFT: What was your first impression of Victoria Island?
CC: It’s one of those landscapes that doesn’t have any large sweeping distances, fjords or something exquisitely beautiful. It’s a really intriguing island. Although it’s quite flat, plain and boring at first glance. It’s like a desert. The beauty is in all the small little things, for example the animals and little rivers here and there. Once you get down on the ground and you spend a bit of time there it’s actually quite a beautiful area.
EOFT: You had to haul your cart over the whole island. What was the best and what was the worst terrain?
CC: (Laughing) It was all bad! But worst was probably the mud. It was very sticky. Progress was very slow and difficult and generally unpleasant. It hap- pened a few times that we couldn’t move at all and were stuck.
EOFT: And then what?
CC: What we had to do was unload all of our equipment one bag at a time and walk it a hundred meters or so away where it was less muddy... back and forth several times before the cart was light enough to wheel through. That made progress very very slow. But then other things like really sharp rock which is quite easy to roll over, turned to tear our tyres apart. And that wasn’t a lot of fun. Going down a large river for about 200 kilometers was the best part of the journey. We got 50 or 60 kilometers every single day, just sitting on top of the raft enjoying the ride.
EOFT: How far would you get on a normal day?
CC: Normally on any given day we might get 5 or 6 kilometers. Not much at all!
EOFT: What were you thinking about all day long?
CC: There are lots of tricks you can play in your mind. The aim is to separate yourself from the physical journey so that your brain can wander and you can think of much more pleasant things that you’re actually doing. A good thing was listening to music or to audio books. I got the entiry Harry Potter series on audio book. That helped a lot.
EOFT: Did music have an effect on walking?
CC: Yes! And it was quite funny to see what kind of effect music can have on how fast you are. When we had our iPods on shuffle and Chris was listening to some hardcore dance song, for example, he would suddenly be walking very quickly. And if I had Bob Marley and Reggae then I would slow right down.
EOFT: But could you have heard wild animals?
CC: We made some precautions. Sometimes we would turn it off. Especially when we had to communicate a lot. But there were days when it was just open plains, where nothing could sneak up on you from anywhere. It was just hours and hours of the same thing... then you can listen to some music.
EOFT: How did you get to know each other?
CC: We didn’t know each other before the first trip. Originally I wanted to go on the trip with one of my friends and everybody was interested in doing that until I said. “All right, let’s go” and suddenly everybody didn’t have the money or couldn’t get time off work. So I Googled something like “Australian adventurer from Sydney“ and Chris’s name came up because he had done a big trip in Tasmania before. I contacted him, and nine month after that we were walking across Victoria Island. We didn‘t know each other that well before we left.
EOFT: Did you ever argue?
CC: If you’re spending 24 hours a day 7 hours a week for weeks you tend to get on each others nerves. And that’s normal. There were times when we were stressed... but no we never had any arguments at all.Team dynamics play such a great role in success or failure of many trips. I was quite lucky that we got along. Our skills comple- mented each other and our personali- ties didn’t clash too much.
EOFT: How can you prepare for such a trip?
CC: You can research everything you might expect. You can get yourself prepared physically. You need to know what kind of equipment you need to bring and prepare yourself mentally as much. But obviously, as soon as you get there most of those plans go out the window and things change very quickly. The more you prepare the easier it is when you’re out there. It’s one of those things where you jump in and try not to sink.
EOFT: Can you give us an example?
CC: There were those eskers*... At the time when we discussed what route to take through Victoria Island we saw the eskers on the map and we thought they were cliffs. And we didn‘t want to make our way through cliffs. When we were flying to our start point our pilot looked on our map and said “Oh, see those things there? You should try to use it as much as you can.“ so we quickly recalculated our route and started from scratch again.
EOFT: And the people on the island? What were they like?
CC: They were so welcoming and helpful. They were offering us to stay in their cabin and letting us borrow their gear, to use their tools for some last minute repairs. They took us out for a couple of days at the time and showed us a whole bunch of really important skills to survive in the wild. Just generally really friendly people. It was really touching for Chris and I. We really couldn’t have done it without the help of all the people.
EOFT: One word to describe them?
CC: The are certainly more relaxed. It‘s a very remote community. And time just slows down there. Arctic time. If you say: “We need something done in the next hour“ they say: “Yeah yeah yeah...“ and then it take two or three days. There’s just no sense of urgency.
EOFT: Did you adapt to that mood?
CC: I think we did eventually. But it took a long time. We had to accept the fact that‘s that what it was and deal with it. After spending some weeks out there you tend to get in that sort of time frame: you get up when it’s light, you go to bed at the end of the day, you sleep when you’re tired. It’s quite nice.
EOFT: Can you tell us a little about the vehicle that you‘ve built for the trip, especially the second one with the big wheels?
CC: The second PAC worked really well except for a couple of small things. The wheels were great because they let us roll over the really hard terrain with a lot of rocks, mud. And when we got to one of the many many lakes you could just get on top and float down there. The problem was, they were tractor innertubes of quite thin rubber. They could get damaged really easily. So we sawed together with Chris’ Moms sewing machine some kevlar fabric to wrap around the outside which is really strong and resi- stant. But we found for some reason that it started to tear apart early on the trip. We were convinced that they weren’t gonna survive the trip and that we had to fail again. Long story short: they did not. But afterwards they did not look as glamorous than as we started. By the end of the trip we spent more time carefully maintaining the wheels than walking. It took a lot of care and thought to make them last. I really felt like it was the third team member.
EOFT: Did you expect the axle to break?
CC: That was the last thing that we thought. It was quite a surprise. We were going up and down all these hills and came to this one hill that was just a tiny slope so that we could get on top and ride all the way down to the bottom. But unfortunately with all the weight and us and the tires which were not quite round any more meant that we snapped the axel. That was a pretty bad moment for us. We thought the trip was over then and there. But then you sit down and have a good think about it... we decided to make the axle narrower. We spent about 12 hours with a tiny little hacksaw blade trying to cut down the lenght of the whole cart. It wasn’t fun. But it worked.
EOFT: Did you have any encounters with wild animals?
CC: We saw wild animals every single day. Most places in the Arctic is mostly covered in ice and snow with very few animals. But during the summer when we went there it just explodes with wildlife. Muskox and caribous and all the wild birds, arctic foxes and wolves, polar bears. And all these animals are really curious. You could see them run back and forth between curiousity and fear “What the hell is this?“ They would run away, come back and run away again. That was really entertaining.
EOFT: Did you ever put an animal on the menu?
CC: We did with a ptarmigan. They’re like pigeons. We made ptarmigan burritos. Normally we would eat frozen food. And we caught some fish as well, which was delicious. We were really lucky. Chris and I are probably the worst fishermen in Australia. But the river had not being fished before, so the fish would swim right up to you between your legs. It was really easy.
EOFT: What did it feel like reaching the end point?
CC: Relief, to be honest. Because after a while you start to question if the end point exists. Chris and I were convinced that something would go wrong on the last hundred meters. And when we finally got there that was such a good feeling. It had been about four years in the making when we first thought of doing it, failed, came back three years later. Really, an overwhelming feeling of joy!
*An esker is a long winding ridge of stratified sand and gravel, examples of which occur in glaciated and formerly glaciated regions of Europe and North America. Eskers are frequently several kilometres long and, because of their peculiar uniform shape, are somewhat like railway embankments. (Source: www.wikipedia.com)
The tour has four UK dates
Manchester Dancehouse, 8pm 25th November
Glasgow Film Theatre, 8pm 26th November
St George's Bristol, 8pm 27th November
Royal Geographic Society London, 8pm 28th November
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