2014 Polartec Challenge Winners!

We are extremely pleased to announce the recipients of its 23rd annual Polartec® Challenge Grant, an international grant program encouraging the spirit and practice of human-powered outdoor adventure. Four separate adventures will receive funding and support from Polartec in 2014: a ski mountaineering expedition on the largest glacier in the world outside of the polar regions, a solo journey from Bucharest to the summit of Khan Tengri in Kygyzstan, a traverse of the Southern Patagonia Ice Cap documenting glacial retreat, and a sail and ski trip in and around Iceland and Greenland.

“Since 1991, Polartec has assisted some of the world’s greatest athletes and explorers who rely on our products and put them to the ultimate test,” says Polartec Global Director of Marketing, Allon Cohne. “Polartec engineers fabrics designed for performance in all climates – from lightweight next-to-skin layers, to innovative insulation, and breathable waterproof protection. The 2014 Polartec Challenge Grant recipients exemplify Polartec’s commitment to expanding our perception of what’s possible, and we’re proud to support them.”


  • Holly Walker, Selena Raven Cordean, Emilie Stenberg, Zebulon Blais and Vince Shuley will follow the flow of the Fedchenko, the largest glacier in the world outside of the polar regions, on an unsupported six-week ski mountaineering expedition in Tajikistan


  • Diaconescu Radu will embark on a nine-month roundtrip human-powered solo journey from his home in Bucharest to the summit of Khan Tengri, a 7000-meter peak in the Tien Shan mountains in Kyrgyzstan


  • Jim Harris will cross the 350-mile length of the Southern Patagonia Ice Cap by ski, traction kite and packraft while documenting the remote landscape’s deteriorating glaciers.


  • Meghan Kelly, Pip Hunt, Nat Segal, McKenna Peterson, KT Miller, and Martha Hunt will attempt to ski first descents in Greenland via a sailboat from Iceland. (awarded in 2013)

In addition to the grant money, all of this year’s Polartec® Challenge winners will be fully outfitted with Polartec® garments, designed to keep them warm, dry and comfortable in the harshest of climates.

About the Polartec® Challenge Grant
The annual Polartec® Challenge Grant seeks to assist frugal, low impact teams who respect the local culture and environment and serve as role models to outdoor enthusiasts worldwide. Applications are evaluated on the basis of their vision, commitment and credibility. Past recipients of the Polartec® Challenge Grant include outdoor pioneers and adventurers such as Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin, Steve House, Jon Turk, Marko Prezelj, Andrew McLean, Greg Hill, Mike Libecki, Kyle Dempster, Hayden Kennedy, and John Shipton.

Introducing Polartec Power Wool

power wool

We are very excited to introduce Polartec® Power Wool™, a new fabric collection that optimizes the natural performance of wool with synthetic fibers in patented constructions that only Polartec can deliver.

Designed as a next-to-skin fabric to keep you dry and comfortable, Polartec® Power Wool™ delivers an engineered mix of fibers precisely placing wool and synthetic yarns to achieve fabric performance much greater than the sum of the parts, while solving some of the problems of pure wool garments.

Highly breathable Polartec Power Wool harnesses the power of naturally wicking, odor resistant, temperature-regulating high quality merino wool with hydrophobic synthetic fibers for shape retention, durability and improved dry-times. The resulting product more reliably manages the often-divergent demands of many environments – hot or cold, wet or dry – for superior comfort and durability.

Constructed as a bi-component knit with a polyester exterior and an itch-free merino wool interior, Polartec Power Wool keeps the skin dry through three complimentary mechanisms: higher breathability via wool’s movement of moisture in a vapor state, designed touch points on the interior to draw sweat away, and a broad surface area on the exterior for rapid drying. Polartec Power Wool is available in primary next-to-skin styles, form-fitting stretch styles, and patented High Efficiency grid styles which offer maximum breathability, compressibility and the highest warmth per fabric weight.

“Alone, wool and synthetics each have their own advantages and disadvantages, but together, with the right mix and construction, Polartec Power Wool maximizes the performance benefits of each,” says Allon Cohne, Polartec global marketing director.

Polartec® Power Wool™ will become available to consumers in the collections of some of the world’s leading apparel brands.

Polartec Challenge Winners – Zander Martin and Bria Schurke


Today’s tasks seem simple: cleaning, editing photos, rinsing tent stakes of flakes of Siberian soil. The complicated immediacies of wilderness travel have been left behind. Three days ago, I was in Moscow, wandering across Red Square after a ten-hour flight from the Russian Far East. I wandered among tourists, amazed at the breadth of the former Soviet Union, and the difference between the lands I had inhabited this year, and that monumental human landscape of brick and stone.

asia rivers blog

Then, I was consumed by travel. Today, I move through simple tasks in a mellow kind of shock. The journey is done, and I am putting the tools and mental structures of this project away for the last time. I wrote, in ending:

“No one was waiting for us, save a startled old man and his silent, flower-print wife. The lights of smokestacks and cranes blinked in the darkness. Twelve hours on the water told in tight legs and swollen fingers, but stepping into shallow water washed equally from the great Amur and the incoming tide of the Pacific, I felt light. The thing was done.

asia rivers blog 4

At midnight the night before, a bear had walked into camp amid staccato heat lightning. The forest drone of mosquitoes gave way to the sprayed stones of his retreat. A tropical night led to a tropical day, and a steady push past floating fishing villages and the boats of Russian and Native hauling nets. At 10PM, the industrial outpost of Nikolayevsk, and Pacific tidewater.”


This journey across Asia took six months to complete, and traced a 6,900 kilometer human-powered arc through both deep wilderness and human settlement on the edge of the known. In winter, my expedition partner and I cycled 4,000 kilometers from Turkey to Kazakhstan, and in summer, a new partner and I paddled 2,900 kilometers from central Mongolia to the Pacific Ocean.  On roads and rivers we explored the Asian hinterlands, hugging borders of steppe and taiga, mountain and oasis, through nine countries.

asia rivers blog 2

The Polartec Challenge Grant fueled this exploration of Asia, allowing it to not just be completed in good style, but to be completed at all. After hustling across North America and Europe by canoe, the mass of Asia beckoned despite an empty bank account. Expeditions are expensive, even two person, bare bones, shoe-string affairs like what I had in mind. The hills of baklava, mountains of khinkali, rivers of visa forms, and wide open endless steppes of penniless anxiety could be conquered only through the generosity, in this case, of Polartec. In the role of enabler, the Grant succeeded. With the funds to eat, cross borders, and not worry about emergencies, we moved east. And, with the durable, high-tech Polartec garments overnighted to us, we braved everything from baking continental heat to mid-summer frosts in Buryatia, constant, sanity-draining steppe winds in Mongolia and Kazakhstan, the deluge of Turkey’s Black Sea coast, and the polar cold of winter in the high ranges of the Caucasus and Tien Shan.

Garments worn on this expedition:

MEC Charge Hat  (Polartec Wind Pro)

Patagonia Alpine Guide Pants  (Polartec Power  Shield)

Patagonia Alpine Guide Jacket  (Polartec Power Shield)

Patagonia Piton Hybrid Vest  (Polartec Wind Pro and Polartec Power Dry)

Patagonia R2 Regulator Fleece Jacket  (Polartec Thermal Pro and Power Dry)

In Turkey, the Caucasus, and Central Asia, John, my expedition partner, and I cycled east along the multivarious twisted arms of the ancient Silk Road, dashing through a schizophrenic landscape, both timeless and in millennial flux.  Cycling in winter brought new challenges, from frozen derailleurs to wet-slab avalanches burying the road in front of us in fifty feet of cement-like snow.  Winter is a clarifying season, and it brought the people, politics, and landscape into sharper focus.

In Mongolia, Siberia, and the Russian Far East, Bria, my expedition partner, and I paddled north through the basalt canyons and open steppes of Outer Mongolia, navigating whitewater gorges and the hospitality rituals of nomads. The Chuluut River fed the Selenge, and Buryatia followed Mongolia. This Buddhist enclave in southern Russia brought us to Baikal, the largest lake on Earth, and thence to the Muya, Vitim, and Lena Rivers. Finally, we traveled to the Amur River, a contested borderland somehow forgotten by the powers that posture over it.

We drank tea with forest rangers and babushkas, fishermen, horse traders and clothing smugglers, all willing, in their way, to share their story and their stake in these harsh homelands. I am transfixed by these stories, of people, politics, and landscape, and their simultaneous familiarity and otherness. In Soviet hinterlands, from Serbia to Siberia, there is consistency in tone and topic – just as there was in past journeys from Montana to Germany, Quebec to Uzbekistan.


In trying to give meaning to this last setting-out, I wrote in a previous post:

“Success has been in doubt since the beginning. Indeed, the project itself- paddling around the world – began as the far-fetched, damn-fool idea of a just-out-of-college and jobless person – me – without the resources or the skills to bring it about. I started with a paddle home, from Portland, OR to Portland, ME, leading expeditions for NOLS to save up enough to paddle east for another month or two, failing and struggling and making my way across the continent. Europe followed, and Central Asia. Bikes were thrown in for sanity and rational movement across endorheic basins, deserts, and mountain ranges.

asia rivers blog 3

As each leg materialized out of the mist of what is possible, I cast about for structure and for ending. Siberia was the keyhole through which could barely be discerned the great ocean where I began, years ago and as a different person. The maps of Siberia told of capillaries of blue etched amidst mountains and wedged between the steppe and the sea, and with false starts and the dizzy soar of Google Earth, I sketched a route through the difficult and the unknown, as I had done in successive pushes across three continents. Still, it was all a sort of a dream.”

The dream, long distant, has come true. I’m home, washing thin Siberian dirt from a clutch of battered tent pegs. The dream was possible in large part because of the Challenge Grant. Joy, then, that there are enablers like Polartec, that stand with explorers of backyards and borderlands. After 408 days and 20,000 kilometers through twenty countries, I am done. This last journey was the just out of reach conclusion of a larger puzzle of exploration, and you brought  within reach.

I am done, then, with the easy part. Now comes the telling of the story, and a journey of a different kind.

Thank you.

Zand B. Martin

Media from Mongolia, Siberia, and the Russian Far East is available on our website at www.facebook.com/asiariversexpedition, and more will become available as photos are edited and journals proofread. To see more from Zand Martin or hear about previous legs of this around-the-world exploration, check out his website at www.zandmartin.com

Text and photos by Zander Martin

What’s Your Everest Climb with Soldiers to Summits

Soldiers to Summits and No Barriers kicked off their What’s Your Everest fundraising events in Colorado last weekend.  Polartec is a proud sponsor and was on hand for an inspiring journey up the 14,065 ft peak of Mount Bierstadt.

Mounting up

The weekend began with a group dinner where past participants shared their experiences with the organization.  Various veterans discussed their time spent serving the US overseas and what hardships they endured both during their tours as well as upon their return to the states.  Teenagers who had taken part in the Global Explorers Program talked about the impact the program had on them.  Their trip to South America with disadvantaged teens has changed and shaped their lives.  Afterwards, participants, friends and sponsors were encouraged to discuss how the No Barriers philosophy resonates with them and make a pledge to overcome a specific barrier that is holding them back.

Beginning the trek

The wake up call came at 4am the next morning when all the would-be hikers and mountain guides (over 60 people) assembled at the trailhead of Mount Bierstadt.  The guides had all been a part of Erik Weinhenmayer’s original Everest team.  Weinhenmayer is the first (and only) blind person to ever summit Mount Everest  and serves as the VP of the Board of the No Barriers organization.  With the sun just peeking over the mountains, we set off on our journey.  The sky was blue and the air was crisp as we made our ascent to the summit.  After a short break at the mid-way point for some much needed hot cocoa and snacks, the group continued onward and upward through the  snow-laden mountainside.

Mid-way break

The gathering at the summit was a raucous affair complete with hooting, hollering and of course, picture taking.  After spending some time admiring the view and our accomplishment, we reluctantly began our descent.

Last push

A keg and a slew of energetic No Barriers reps awaited us at the bottom… no better way to finish what, for most of us, was our very first 14-er.


Check out this video slideshow of the day’s climb: http://nobarriersusa.org/wye_co/


Polartec Challenge Team Visits Queen Maud Land, Antarctica

Antarctica: The Frozen Frontier

Queen Maud Land: the adventure starts in sun-soaked South Africa, in late spring.

On the evening of November 11, 2012, a little after dinner hours, a group of men steadily forms in the back corner of the departures terminal of the Cape Town International Airport. Most are clad casually, in blue jeans and windbreakers, work pants and ski jackets. Some might be oil riggers flying home after a two week work stint, others lawyers, off on a ski holiday. If you were rushing by to make boarding call, you wouldn’t give them a second glance…

…but if you looked twice, you might notice the backpacks and pelican cases — and the high-topped, over-sized duck boots tucked conspicuously under everyone’s arms. So it was that our four-man team of Mike Libecki, Cory Richards, Keith Ladzinski, and I joined them and checked in for flight # YRY9173, or “D1”, shorthand for Dromlan 1, the first jet plane of the season to land on the blue ice runway near Schirmacher Oasis, Novolazarevskaya Station, Antarctica.

The rough estheticism of frontier life has always attracted strong personalities. Over the next six weeks, I came to know my companions very well. We laughed like billy-goats and swore like sailors as we explored a range of razor summits in the Wolthat Mountains of Queen Maud Land. At each turn in our journey, the latent physical power of the landscape dictated every aspect of our lives.

We returned to Cape Town on December 21st, having consumed approximately 200 kilograms in food weight, destroyed three tents, climbed two new routes to likely unclimbed summits, and made a ski circumnavigation of the range to further explore.

This was team leader Mike Libecki’s third trip to the mountains of East Antarctica, and it did not disappoint.

“The rock we climbed on seemed to be created by Dr. Seuss himself,” Libecki writes. “My previous trips there were simply stepping stones that led to this incredible challenge of wind, cold, and the wildest rock features and formations I have climbed on.”

One key difference: the Wolthat Mountains are located approximately 150 km east of the more popularly visited Fenris area around Ulvetanna, and subject to frequent blasts of katabatic winds. “For some reason, this region of the Wolthats serves as a major tunnel for winds coming off the polar plateau. It set the tone for an entire expedition of hard work and surreal beauty.”

Libecki continues: “I would like to send bow-down, ultimate appreciation and thanks to the team, all of our family, friends, supporters, including The National Geographic Society and the NG Expeditions Council, as well as the Polartec Challenge Grant and the Copp-Dash Inspire Award. It was not just our team of four that succeeded and climbed these towers, it was also hundreds of other people that made this possible, and I appreciate this with all of my heart and soul.  We would not have stepped out the door without countless people and their time and energy.”

Route Info:

Bertha’s Tower: 5.11R A3+ Grade VI

(Libecki, Wilkinson [Richards, Ladzinski])

Grammie Hannah’s Tower: 5.6 2000+ feet.

(Libecki, Richards, Wilkinson)

The full story will launch in September 2013.



Text by Freddie Wilkinson, photos by Mike Libecki

(This piece is also featured on National Geographic’s Adventure Blog)

Biking and Paddling Across Asia-Polartec Challenge Style

“I found out I was being awarded the Grant in Zonguldak.  It is a grim, coal-stained port on the Black Sea coast of Turkey, and I was in a shabby concrete room overlooking the slate sea, searching desperately for a bike shop over a 56k modem.  My partner was outside, fixing a flat and cursing our pump as it failed to build pressure.  I passed by the note from Polartec, hurrying to the mission at hand.  Eventually, that problem was put to bed, as where many others, and on the road with a cleared mind hours later, I realized the impact of what had happened.  After 16,000 kilometers of paddling and cycling, I now had the backing to reach the Pacific.  I knew without the Grant I would never be able to afford the final link- 4,000 kilometers of lakes and rivers in Mongolia and Siberia- and so had set winning it as the pivot on which the decision to attempt the last leg would be made.

Success has been in doubt since the beginning.  Indeed, the project itself- paddling around the world – began as the far-fetched, damn-fool idea of a just-out-of-college and jobless person – me - without the resources or the skills to bring it about.  I started with a paddle home, from Portland, OR to Portland, ME, leading expeditions for NOLS to save up enough to paddle east for another month or two, failing and struggling and eking my way across the continent.  Europe followed, and Central Asia.  Bikes were thrown in for sanity and rational movement across endorheic basins, deserts, and mountain ranges.  As each leg materialized out of the mist of what is possible, I cast about for structure and for ending.  Siberia was the keyhole through which could barely be discerned the great ocean where I began, years ago and as a different person.  The maps of Siberia told of capillaries of blue etched amidst mountains and wedged between the steppe and the sea, and with false starts and the dizzy soar of Google Earth, I sketched a route through the difficult and the unknown, as I had done in successive pushes across three continents.  Still, it was all a sort of a dream.  Only on the last day- reaching the Atlantic, the Black Sea, and the heart of Asia- did I really believe it had ever been possible.  Now, though, with the grandest exploration on the horizon due to the support of the Challenge Grant, I at least have a bit chance of putting my hands in the Pacific.  I’ll need help, a team, and probably a heap of new tricks, and like each step along the way it will have to be earned, with success far from certain.

Our route begins in central Mongolia, on the edge of the vast endorheic basin of Central Asia, where rivers disappear into deserts and dying seas.  We will travel by canoe through the canyons of the Chuluut into the rushing waters of the Ider, to the major flow of the Selenge, to Baikal, the biggest lake by volume on Earth.  From there, we will move into the Amur watershed, moving east towards the Sea of Okhotsk.  Human-powered expedition travel is our means, canoes are our craft, and our goal is to move across the land in the best style possible, gathering stories as we go to share with those unable to visit this last, best place, and perhaps inspire them to further river conservation there and at home.

Shots and visas are on the immediate time horizon, boats and maps in the middle, and camping gear way off.  I’ve become a bit casual in preparations, seeing how it always works out from country to country and river to river, perhaps forgetting that 1500 days on the ground in six years has built a few neural pathways I’m not aware of.  We train for expeditions as we always do, by going on expeditions.  Bria Schurke, my expedition partner for Mongolia and Siberia, will be mountaineering in Nepal and volunteering in Somalia before joining me in in Ulaanbaatar.  I’ll be leading two whitewater expeditions for NOLS in the Utah river canyons, and nailing down details from maps to sat phones during time off.  It’ll come together, as it always does: piece-by-piece, with quality, details a bit fuzzy, planning (invaluable) and plans (useless), thoroughly, and probably at the last minute.

Stay tuned.”

(Text and photos by Zander Martin)