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The mountains are calling and I must go, and I will work on while I can, studying incessantly.

- John Muir

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Adventurers & Explorers

Jun 29, 2018

Engagés: Upon Reflection. Calm, Patience, Humility.

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WRITTEN BY

Sean Verity

During May of 2018, The Outdoor Journal reported on five French explorers who were traversing Greenland’s toughest terrain.

Their goal was to complete 700km in 30 days. In the face of much adversity, the expedition finally made it home to Paris, having being trapped at the finish line without food, and unable to extract themselves due to bad weather.

You can read about those final few days here, and a review of the Nixon Regulus, used during the Expedition here.

In this article, written one month after the expedition, Maxime Lainé reflects upon this period in his life, and what it meant to him.

As an entrepreneur I’ve learnt to fail, sometimes to succeed, but overall, I’ve learnt to get the most out of each experience I face, and eventually share those experiences with anyone who is interested.

I wanted to share what I’ve learnt from the most enlightening experience of my life, and how it triggered something deep inside of me.

I’m not a journalist nor a story teller, but simply someone with a story to tell. I might not be able to articulate my complex feelings perfectly, so I will just be myself, and be honest.

In May 2018, I crossed Greenland by foot from East to West along the Polar Circle, with 4 other entrepreneurs, in total autonomy. It took us 31 days to cover more than 550km. We faced extreme conditions, with absolutely no form of any life, under temperatures reaching -40C.

Our daily routine.

We woke up every morning at 5am or 6am. It took us 2 and a half hours to melt the snow, so that we had water for breakfast. We also needed additional 2 litres each for the day. We got left the tent at 8:15am, we packed them up, and we could start walking at around 8:45am or 9am. At first we had to walk at least 8 hours a day, up to 10 hours towards the end, occasionally up to 13 when the weather permitted us. When we stopped walking, it took us 1 hour to set up the camp, and then 3 additional hours to melt the snow so that we could cook, fix things and take care of our feet, before we could finally go to sleep. And then repeat, again, and again, no matter what, because we had to make it to the other side.

Calm, patient, humble.

I remember how I felt on the first day, excited, impatient and ready (at least that’s what I thought) to face Greenland. Like a kid that can’t wait to play outside. However, Greenland had other ideas, the terrain and weather taught us in its own way, that…

our success would depend on our capacity to remain calm, patient and humble. 

The first days of the expedition were “easy”. The snow was firm, it was quite sunny, and even if our pulkas were at their heaviest, weighting 90kg per person, we were expecting more of a mental challenge. At that point, it was just another physical challenge. 

For the first part of the expedition, we had to walk up to the highest point of the crossing. 2600m, almost half way, albeit a little bit closer to the east coast. After that, there was a flat plateau, continuing at the same altitude for about 100km. Finally, we had to walk down towards the coast, to reach our extraction point on the eastern side at 900m altitude.

We expected the first part to be the hardest. We were climbing up, and then, as we would walk down, it would get easier and we would be able to cover more kilometres per day.

We were fools, but we didn’t know it yet. 

When the first storm hit us on the night of the 11th day, we were almost relieved to spend 60 hours in the tents to get some rest. Even if it was physically intense, we all thought we would be able to get to the other side without any trouble. On the following day, we walked 28 km in 11 hours to reach our first objective, Dye military base located at 66.4934N – 46.3204W. However, at the end of that day 14th, we all started to realize that things were getting more critical. One of us felt pain in his back and knees, so we volunteered to carry some of his weights, in addition to the 90kg we already had to carry per person. As for me, I felt such a pain in my right ankle, that I could barely walk when I took my skis off at the camp. 

Fortunately, over the next 2 days, we were very limited as to how much we could walk, since there was another storm coming. That 16th day, we just walked 10km for 5 hours. The wind was coming in at more than 70km/h from the south, and caused our pulkas to flip over.

We were definitely going beyond our limits, this was the time to set up the camp, and be safe.

Setting up the camp under those conditions was crazy, but vital, and we managed to do it as a team. Once in the tents, we realised that we had pushed it to far, it had started to become very dangerous. If we could not set up the camp, then we would have just died from the cold. From that very moment, every day was going to be more critical than the day before. We were not even half way through the expedition yet, but we didn’t know it. We did know that our lives depend on our actions, our choices, and on our team. We realised that our bodies are amazing but fragile machines, that nature can break at anytime. 

However, the humility that we had already been taught, apparently wasn’t enough. The next few days were the coldest, with temperatures between -20C to -40C, and winds reaching 35km/h. We had lost too much time, stuck in the storms, we had to move forward. We were relieved to reach the highest point of the expedition. Finally, we had made it, but at a price. The cold froze my toe, and broke Antoine’s ski plugs. Fortunately we had a spare pair, but from now on, another equipment issue could risk the whole expedition.

From this point, we we headed downhill and the expectation was that it would get easier. We started to make some calculations and tell ourselves; “if we could walk 10 hours a day at 2.5km/h, then we could reach our objective in x days. On top of that, we’re going downhill, we should actually be able to walk 30km to 35km a day, without any additional effort, since we would not feel the weight of our pulkas”… However, Greenland decided to teach us humility one more time. 

It started to snow, day after day, after day.

It was physically so intense to walk that deep in the snow, pulling our pulkas was a burden that we had to accept. Each step challenged our body, and our mind. We started to walk 9 to 10 hours a day, but despite our expectations, barely managed to walk the same distance than when we covered when walking uphill.

Being tired was not a reason to stop. We told ourselves, tired is just information.

We had to push our limits forward. We had to find energy we didn’t know that we had, deep down inside us, or we wouldn’t make it. 

At the end of every day, we kept on making the same time vs distance calculations. However, there was always more and more snow every day. Every day the visibility worsened, until we could not see our skis. On the 28th day, we wanted to make 30km, it was important for us to do so. We made it, in 13 hours. We were so tired that when we set up the camp, we were in some sort of zombie state, too tired to even think. On the 29th day, the snow continued to play with our nerves, and we barely walked 6 km in 5 hours. One of us was injured, and could just not push forward.

That was it, our limit was reached. 

We were at 20 km from the extraction point, but just 5 km from the coast. We had to make a critical decision. We just had 1 day left of food. At our current pace, we would reach the extraction point within 3 days. We could kept on walking, or set up the camp here, and wait for the helicopter to pick us up tomorrow. We decided to set up the camp, and wait for a clear weather window for the helicopter to come in and get us… The next day arrived, and no one could get to us because of the weather. It was the 30th day, and we were completely out of food. The next clear weather window was in 4 days. 

At that very moment, something triggered in our minds.

We were not making any sort of calculations anymore, we were not expecting anything from anyone. We just accepted it. Nature always win. Period.

We just had to smile and face it. Finally, Greenland taught us humility, and we knew it. In the tent, we were just talking, peacefully, calmly. We had to call the pilot every hour to give him some updates about the weather, and every hour he would tell us that we had to wait one more hour. Until the 31st day, in the afternoon, we finally saw the chopper. Accepting our fate felt like the obliged path we had to take, to unlock the door to make our way home.

Reflection

It was unexpected that one of the hardest parts of the adventure, was to keeping our minds busy for 10 to 13 hours a day. I realised that I had so much time to think about things I had never considered before.

I would think of my girlfriend, my friends, my family, my startup Weesurf. Then I started to think about myself. I asked, why am I doing this? What kind of life do I want? What makes me truly happy? Why do I do the job that I do? Why do I love this or that? What can I change about myself? And for every question, I kept asking myself, why? For example, why do you want to make money? To buy stuff? But why? To travel? But why? To get a flat? But why? And I finally figured out what kind of life I wanted to follow, and what makes me happy…

Discover, Learn and Share.

I also realised that I used to consider money as something to value things and to set barriers. Something we all have to live for, and to live by, but I ask myself how I lived so many experiences over the last 2 years, and at that time I didn’t get paid by Weesurf. I went to Greenland to pursue my dream with almost no money on my bank account. I put in all my strength and effort, to make it all possible, because that would make me happy. I would discover, learn and share an adventure. No matter what, I would do my best to realise it. Whilst I was walking on the ice, I imagined if everyone would have a passion for his or her project, if everyone would put all of his or her faith and efforts to realise his or her dream, people would probably be happier. 

I’m very thankful that Thomas changed my life when he offered me on the Station F’s Slack, to set up a team to cross Greenland. He has made me an happier person. I told myself that I’ll do my best to do the same for everyone else.

So ask I you this. What is your dream? What prevents you from making it real? What are you doing to make it happen? If you’re not struggling enough, maybe it’s not your dream. What is your dream?

Remember, calm, patience, humility.

You can discover your own ice sheets in Greenland here with the Outdoor Voyage.

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Focus

Oct 01, 2018

The Forbidden Zone: Mongols, to Your Horses

The rolling green hills, rocky passes, flower-laden meadows and clear streams of Gorkhi Terelj National Park in northern Mongolia is the birthplace of the Mongols. The Outdoor Journal spent a week on horseback with Stone Horse Expeditions in the heart of this country’s vast wilderness.

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WRITTEN BY

Apoorva Prasad

Tdrihe Khan Khentii mountains stretched before us, from one end of the azure sky to the other. Tegri, the Great Sky God, watched us with his infinite panorama. From here, I could see miles and miles into the distance. This was the “Forbidden Zone”, that unknown wilderness where Genghis Khan was born. As a child and then again much later on, he hunted here, his true home, on a horse, sheltered in a ger or under the blue sky. When he was a boy, exiled with his family into the cold and harsh wilderness of the northern Mongolian hills, his only friends were what these lands contained. After he built an empire and died, it became a sacred and taboo zone, left to the deer and wolves. For decades the area had been closed off. The Soviets enforced it as a Highly Restricted Area to allow them to do what they wished with it – from logging and military exercises, to also countering any potential rise of Mongolian nationalism around the great Khan. Despite those years, the Area remained wild.

No wonder the Mongols worshipped it.

A day before, we had crossed fresh bear tracks. There were no signs of human presence apart from our train of horses and riders. And now, this vista lay in front of us, green and yellow grassy hills, long valleys, meadows of flowers stretching to higher mountains all the way to Siberia, some still snow-dusted despite the summer sun. Burkhan Khaldun stood further behind higher peaks. And that incredible sky. No wonder the Mongols worshipped it. We all lived once under this blue infinity. As we’d ridden northwards away from Ulan Bator, the city’s pollution had faded away long ago, the gray curse had lifted and my eyes had once again accustomed themselves to what they had evolved to do – see long distances, look for hares, deer, bears, navigate passes and ford streams, climb rocks, and watch falcons circle on thermals above. And over the last few days, we had done all these things.

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The weary horseriders arrive in the ger to refresh themselves.

We had left our last camp around mid-morning, some hours ago. One half of the party broke away to ride into another valley out west, while Keith and I wanted to ride up and to the pass in the range of hills that separated the Gorkhi Terelj from the Khan Khentii. We skirted the granite mounds which punctuated the ends of this valley, forded a marshy grassland below the campsite, fought off the bloodsucking horseflies that made our horses’ lives miserable for a little while, eventually entering a tall forest of larch and birch. The ground began to rise as we entered a narrow rocky trail that started to wind uphill. Jerry, my sturdy, stubborn little Mongolian horse plodded on. This easy gait was infinitely more comfortable than the long trots of our previous days in the saddle. Keith Swenson, a taciturn, the 64 year-old owner of Stone Horse Expeditions along with his wife Sabine Schmidt, showed none of the wear I felt – my skin of my thighs were quite literally raw after 50 kilometers of riding and trotting in the wilderness. After a few days Keith opened up with wisecracks. “People ask what do you do, and I say I’m a rider”, says Keith, punning on his American accent. “They think I mean ‘writer’, “and they ask, what have you written?” “So I say, Blackie, Brownie, Ol Dirty Face…”, naming his horses.

These lands, however remote, are important.

Halfway up the trail was a shaman’s totem, poles placed on the ground to make a conical structure, wrapped with bits of fabric and ribbons. But at the base, and near a tree, we also found broken shards of glass, vodka bottles drunk and thrown by unknown travelers who no longer respected their old ways. We’d been riding for an hour or so and we stopped for a short break in the little opening in the forest. It was quite warm in the strong sun, perhaps 30C like every day of the summer, but cold at nights, often dipping below freezing.

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These Mongolian horses play a huge role in making a trip across the steppe easy and fun for riders. Each horse has a unique personality. Big Dirty Face pictured here loves coffee and will drink it straight from your cup if you let him.

The Mongols invented the modern world*

The old ways are important. These lands, however remote, are important. The Mongols invented the modern world*. When, at the age of 55, Genghis Khan rode out into Asia and Europe, he created the largest empire known to humanity, as well as its first international postal system, and the largest free-flowing network of ideas, trade and culture. But today, Mongolia feels relatively isolated and far away, landlocked in the Eurasian continent. And getting there turned out to be a greater adventure than we’d expected. Instead of flying, we took the famous Trans-Mongolian from Beijing to Ulan Bator. At 11pm, the train pulled into the last station on the China-Mongolia border to change the undercarriage (the railway gauge is different in Mongolia). Three hours later we got back on the train and waited patiently for the Chinese guards to hand us all our passports back. Our intern’s passport was returned ripped from its cover. Before anyone could make a move, the train entered Mongolia… where the Mongolian border guard insisted that the 18-year old girl get off the train because she wasn’t allowed to enter on an invalid passport. Twenty minutes of arguing later, at nearly three am, we got off and watched the train leave without us.

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Mongolian cuisine is typically meat and dairy products. Vegans beware.

Fifteen hours later, after many phone calls and emails to various embassies and important officials, she was finally allowed to enter the country. The Trans-Mongolian having long gone, we finagled an eight-hour taxi ride across the great steppes (on a second-hand car coming off a goods train) for $45. Welcome to Mongolia.

REAL MEN TROT

I did not have much riding experience, but I usually don’t let a little thing like that deter me from a trip. Keith, once also a climber, agreed that anyone up for adventure would be perfectly fine on a Mongolian horse. They were sturdy and forgiving. We all gathered at their staging camp an hour’s drive from Ulan Bator – a Singaporean couple on their second trip with Stone Horse, their friend from Hong Kong, a French diplomat from Swaziland, our team of three, Keith, Sabine and their crew – Nyamaa, Buyana and Jackson, the American intern. Soon, our team of 16 horses and Stinky the Mongolian Dog, a most genuine companion if there ever was one, were off towards the north. Day one went reasonably well, with a short four hour ride to our first campsite inside the Gorkhi Terelj National Park. The other experienced riders asked me various questions about how I felt and whether my horse had cantered or galloped, and I said I didn’t know, but the horse seemed to know what it was doing. Apparently, they have many gaits.

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Nomads Yadmaa and Tavaasurn inside their summer ger, just outside Gorkhi Terelj.

I learned what that meant the next day.

The morning begins easily and we move along a gentle valley. At a stream, the horses bend to drink. They’re herd animals, comfortable only in their own numbers. Suddenly, there’s a commotion as one of the pack horses spooks and bolts. We’re unprepared, and good old Jerry decides to follow the bolting horse too, suddenly turning 180 degrees and galloping wildly. I have to pull firmly on the reins to stop him, while the teamsters have to get the other fella back. He’s bucking around wildly, his unshod feet stamping, his grass-eating brain telling him that that bee sting he felt on his hind was a wolf’s nip. Stinky ignores the commotion, running ahead happily back in his favorite hunting grounds, chasing ground squirrels to their holes. We continue, entering a forest and then riding uphill to a pass. On the other side, a wide open valley, and our first real gallop. Now I feel the sensation, riding with the animal as one, gently cycling my feet in the stirrups and gripping with my knees, all of it coming naturally to me and I urge Jerry on, on, on. Chhoo, Jerry, Chhoo! We stop at a babbling brook in the valley below where we wash our faces. Are we in paradise?

And then the long trot begins. For a horse, it’s the most comfortable way to move. But it’s bouncy. I try to “post” like all the real riders. Watching me grimace in agony, Keith smiled and said, “real men trot,” as he rode along comfortably with that rolling ankle movement to compensate for the horse’s bumpy ride. “Trotting is how the Mongols moved such vast distances. If you make him gallop, you won’t get very far, you’ll kill the horse”.

a melting pot of humanity and ethnicities

But Mongolia changed the course of human history since long before the great Khan and his riders, the ultimate, self-sufficient soldiers. Apart from the Mongols, it is also the original homeland of the Huns and the Turks. It is a melting pot of humanity and ethnicities, where thousands of years ago two language families met and separated – the Indo-Europeans and the Altaics – and possibly where the wild horse was first tamed, thereby changing the course of history. When men on horses first raced out of Central Asia, first ancient Mesopotamia, then Egypt fell. Europe’s original ‘mother culture’ and India’s Harappan civilization disappeared. Humans, moving incredible distances on horses, spread across Asia, from the western end of Europe to Korea, all the way down to Arabia and India, creating nearly all the cultures we know today. Some of the languages they spoke evolved today into English, and others evolved into Japanese, but some of their words have become so intermingled that it’s hard to distinguish which came from which. Hindi is an Indo-European language, but today the common Hindi word for “home” is “ghar” (from the Sanskrit “grhá”) which is nearly identical to the Altaic Mongolian’s word for home, ger.

When the Hunnu (“Huns”) fought the Chinese Hans, the clans that lost fled towards Europe, creating Hungary, as well as leading to the downfall of the Western Roman Empire. Centuries later, the Turkics originally from the Mongolian steppes came hurtling into Constantinople, wiping out the Eastern Roman Empire.

We ride through rocky hills and rock formations, up and down defiles, over passes and across shallow streams, through meadows of flowers and knee-high grass. We ride all day, and every evening set up our traveling camp like the Mongols of old. We sleep in modern-day lightweight tents, under trees or under the stars, breathing cold clear air, drinking from fresh rain-fed streams, eating atop rocks while falcons circle above and the horses graze.

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The Stone Horse team from left to right – Jackson, Keith, Buyana, Nyamaa and Sabine.

The world has continued to change, but horses and men will forever ride together.

One day we stretched out the ride to reach a farther campsite, a Hunnu gravesite. We set up our tents atop 2000-year old graves, low mounds of stones marking the places where men, women, children and horses were laid to rest. “I believe that these people would have loved us to be here, living like they did,” said Keith. When they hear our horses, they’ll feel alive”. The next morning, I pulled my horse off to a side and to a vantage point to shoot the group riding further down the valley. Jerry stomped and neighed angrily as the herd passed him by, but I held him back. When the group disappeared into the distance, I quickly packed my camera gear back into the saddlebags. Then jumping back on, I let the horse fly as he wished, back to his herd. Jerry, the funny but tough little horse, galloped madly a mile north over the gently rising slope. Our hooves rang out in the valley, as two large round mounds, Hun graves, emerged in front on the mountainside. Neither Jerry nor I needed to veer, and we galloped directly over the centre of the mounds, the sound of our hoofbeats gladdening passed Hunnu souls. Their ancestors, our ancestors, had once tamed wild horses, and together changed the world. The world has continued to change, but horses and men will forever ride together.

Images by Madhuri chowdhury.

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