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.”

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  • 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

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  • 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

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  • 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.

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  • 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.

Polartec Challenge Winners – Zander Martin and Bria Schurke

Home

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.

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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.

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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.”

Journey

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.

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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.

Dream

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.

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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

Cycling Silk Reaches Nepal

Our favorite gals from Cycling Silk just made it into Kathmandu after a rugged crossing over the Tibetan Plateau. We want to wish them a huge congratulations!

Take a look at their most recent blog post highlighting this leg of the journey below or click to see the post on the Cycling Silk Blog here. Check it out-their photos are incredible!

After nearly two glorious months in Tajikistan, biking the Tajik-Afghan border and exploring the potential for transboundary cooperation in the Pamir mountain borderlands, we spent roughly 36 hours transiting through Kyrgyzstan before riding into Xinjiang in western China, where all our mad Silk Road biking adventures began five years ago. Originally we intended to ride from Kashgar into western Tibet, retracing our route from 2006, and exploring the Mount Kailash transboundary protected area – our fourth case study of the expedition. But then we learned the western road into Tibet was closed for construction. Bummer.

So instead we opted to ride the Qinghai-Tibet highway, which runs from Golmud to Lhasa, and then bike to Nepal from there. Because of limited time on our Chinese visa, and the gaping distance between Kashgar and Golmud, we had to take a series of trains and buses to get to our starting point. We couldn’t afford a Chinese guide or a permit, since a single day with a guide would’ve cost more than our entire budget for Tibet, so sneaking was the only option. We figured we’d see how far we could ride into Tibet without getting stopped, and by taking some precautions – namely posing as androgynous Chinese cyclists, carrying all our food so we didn’t have to resupply in towns, and stealth camping to avoid hotels. With a lot of luck on our side, we managed to make it all the way to the border, and then crossed into Nepal without a hitch.

Now we’re setting off on the final leg of the trip, from Kathmandu, Nepal to Leh, the capital city of Ladakh in northern India. The Himalayan passes on the road to Leh tend to close by mid-October, so we’re gambling on good weather to make it in time. From Leh, we’ll explore our final transboundary case study of the expedition: the Siachen glacier, which straddles the disputed Indo-Pak border in Kashmir. After spending some time interviewing folks in India about the conflict, and about possibilities for its resolution through environmental cooperation, we’ll pack our bikes – Marco and Polo – in boxes and catch flights home to Canada in November. Hard to believe the end of the Cycling Silk road is practically in sight, though there are still some epic mountains blocking the way.

So, more to come on our adventures in transboundary conservation these past few months, and in the meanwhile, wish us luck racing the snows to Leh!

Polartec Challenge Grant Trip Report: Karakoram First Ascent

Courtesy of Kirsten Kremer

Kirsten Kremer, Emilie Drinkwater and Janet Bergman, supported by a Polartec Challenge Grant, traveled to the Eastern Indian Karakoram in July and August. Their objective was an unclimbed 6,135 meter peak that alpinist Mark Richey had previously photographed. The south facing aspect with several beautiful looking rock buttresses appealed to the women for alpine rock climbing.

Courtesy of Kirsten Kremer

The team met in Delhi on July 3, along with Mark Richey, Steve Swenson and Freddie Wilkinson, who were attempting a first ascent of nearby Saser Kangri II, and with whom they shared base camp and climbing permits. The team flew from Delhi to Leh, Ladakh, and drove over the Khardung La, the “highest motorable pass in the world”, to the Nubra Valley where they commenced the three day trek to base camp, a grassy meadow at 5,000 meters. From there the two teams split up, with advanced camps and objective peaks on separate glaciers.

“Kirsten, Emilie and I made two attempts on ‘6135’,” said Bergman. “The walls were good quality crack climbing, but the melted-out ledges and the summit ridgeline were constantly bombarding us with rock and ice whenever the sun was out”.

The team made the decision that the conditions were too dangerous to attempt it again. “That mountain really illustrated the paradox of alpine rock climbing,” Bergman said. “We wanted it to be warm and sunny enough to use tight rock climbing shoes and bare fingers instead of boots, crampons and ice tools, but some mountains, like this one, can start to ‘come unglued’ and become very unsafe in conditions like that. I think we made a good call.”

Courtesy of Emilie Drinkwater

Fortunately, the area around Saser Kangri II where the guys had their advanced camp had several promising looking unclimbed peaks so, with the help of their Indian Sherpa staff, the women were able to clean out their advanced camp at ‘6135’ and move over to the Saser Kangri II camp for the remainder of their time.

“As seems to often be the case, all of our activity happened in the final week of the trip,” continued Bergman.

On August 5-6, Kirsten and Emilie (Janet was in the throes of a violent 24-hour stomach bug) climbed Pumo Kangri, PD/AD 6440 meters, a striking ice and snow peak just outside of camp,soloing all but the final pitches, and rappelling through the night with a single rope

Saser Linga and Pumo Kangri- Courtesy of Janet Bergman

(they’d anticipated more snow than ice and got just the opposite). Freddie and Janet high-fived with them on their final rappels the next morning as they climbed the same initial ice slope to approach Saser Linga, IV 5.9+ ~6,200 meters, a beautiful 7 pitch rock pinnacle. Finally, on August 8-9, the four of them plus Mark Richey skied across the glacier to a high bivy and simul-climbed Stegosaurus, PD/AD 6,640 meters, a dinosaur-esque peak with a 150 meter corniced ridge traverse to the summit.

“I don’t have too much to say regarding my Polartec pieces because they performed exactly how they should,” said Drinkwater (The team was outfitted with a variety of Polartec fabrics by different manufacturers for the expedition).

Stegosaurus- Courtesy of Janet Bergman

“The obvious advantages of the Polartec fabrics are how light, soft, and comfortable they are, in addition to being durable.”

Emilie did have one clear favorite piece of clothing though. “I wore that pink Patagonia jacket every day for six weeks. I also used it as a pillow and, on one occasion, as a blanket to wrap around my very cold feet. This was my favorite piece because, aside from being pink and comfortable, it worked well under a large variety of temperatures. I would have worn it on the plane ride home but it was starting to smell gross.”

The team extends sincere gratitude to Polartec for providing the Polartec Challenge Grant program that makes this and so many other great adventures possible.

Courtesy Janet Bergman

There’s a New Sheriff In Town-NeoShell Beats Gore-Tex

We have been updating you on all of the awards that NeoShell has won this year and we are proud to say that the hits just keep on comin’. In the May issue of Popular Science magazine, the top breathable fabrics from both brands were put to the test and Polartec came out on top.

And it goes a little somethin’ like this- “For 35 years, Gore-Tex has dominated the market for waterproof, breathable fabrics, but this spring it has some competition. Textile maker, Polartec, has developed its own waterproof, breathable fabric that threatens to trump Gore-Tex’s latest. We put both through the wringer to see which stands out.”

The Rab Stretch Neo Jacket with Polartec NeoShell went head to head with Millet’s Trilogy Limited GTX with Gore-Tex Active Shell.

The Results: (drum roll please)-”All four testers consistently felt more comfortable in the 17oz Polartec shell, despite the Gore-Tex jacket being 3oz heavier. Testers had to physically air out the Gore-Tex jacket by unzipping its armit vents, whereas sweat evaporated quickly out of the ventless Polartec.”

Needless to say, we are thrilled at the review and it’s a great Monday at Polartec.


Mountains to Molehills

One of last year’s Polartec Challenge Grant winners, Greg Hill has been featured on this blog many times. For those of you who haven’t seen previous posts, Greg is trying to ski 2 million vertical feet this year- a pretty aggressive goal. Greg is featured in the December issue of Powder magazine and since the edition is not available online quite yet, here is a quick summary of the story written by Mitchell Scott.

“He has become the poster goat of the backcountry world: a seemingly uncrackable, unquenchable, undeniable ascender for the ages. His one million vertical feet of self-propelled ascending back in the winter of 2006-2007 put him on the ski mountaineering map, and now, as a sponsored athlete, with his own signature AT setup, and currently eight months into a goal of logging two million vertical feet (5,000 ft a day on average), in a single year, the Revelstoke, B.C., guide and father of two will undoubtably crack the stratosphere as one of the most interestingly committed backcountry skiers of our day…..

“If all the year were playing holidays…to sport would be as tedious as to work,” to quote Shakespeare. So of course, at times, it is tedious but when the tedium ends with a summit and a steep and deep descent, then I have to count myself as one of the lucky ones. Over 60 different mountaintops, many, many adventures, days exploring new terrain. North America, South America, not a lot of boredom doing on. Plus, I have been tree planting for 15 years and learned how to distance myself from the harshness of the situation to find my happy place.”

To read the entire article, pick up this month’s Powder magazine.


Check out a video of Greg hitting his half way point earlier this year. Currently he has skied 1,666, 2204ft.

Soldiers to the Summit Team Reaches Kathmandu and Heads Up Khumbu

Our Soldiers to the Summit Team reached Kathmandu on Monday, and this morning they began their trek to Monju for the night. Besides some typical lost luggage and forgotten boots, the team is doing great and looking forward to continuing their seven day trek through the spectacular Khumbu region to reach Advance Base Camp at 18,212 feet early next week.

In a recent post on the Soldiers to the Summit blog, Support Team member, Erik Weihenmayer commented on navigating the busy city without sight–”Walking down these crazy, narrow streets with taxis, tuk-tuks and rickshaws flying by is probably the most dangerous part of the expedition. I grab a teammate’s arm and weave, bob and jump around trying to follow my guide’s cue. When I feel a bumper or hot tailpipe against my calf I know it’s time to jump. A tuk-tuk cracked me in the elbow early today. I’ll be psyched to get up to the Khumbu tomorrow–having survived Kathmandu. The diesel fumes and pollution are rough here, as well, so I think the whole team is pretty excited to get up into the clean mountain air where, at least for the first few days, stepping in yak dung will be our only real danger.

Climber Chad Butrick also commented in a recent blog post about his trek through Namche Bazaar and the members of the team-”The mountains are so big. We were able to see Mt. Everest for the first time today on our trek to Namche. As one of our guides described this place we are “crossing the threshold” above the tree line.”

This team is excellent. There are a lot of very capable guides and soldiers. It is AWESOME getting to know these incredible people. As we continue our push up the mountain I know that we are all going to stand on top of something and I cannot wait to share those experiences with this group.”

Take at look at the group’s most recent video-Soldiers Nicolette Maroulis, Justin Moore, Katherine Ragazzino and Cody Miranda look inside to talk about their motivations for coming on the expedition.