By Kerry Hale
He has run thousands of kilometres across the Sahara, Gobi and Atacama deserts, as well as across Siberia and Patagonia, plus he’s embarked on several Arctic adventures and even an expedition into the Antarctic.
In February of this year, Canadian ultra-adventurer Ray Zahab and expedition teammate Stefano Gregoretti from Italy set out to cross three regions of the Canadian Arctic in back-to-back stages. Their goal: to cross the Torngat Mountains from Saglek Fjord on foot and unsupported, ski unsupported across Baffin Island, then finish by fat-biking the Mackenzie Valley Winter Road in the Northwest Territories.
During stage one, after breaking through the ice and nearly freezing to death during the attempt to cross Labrador’s Torngats on foot, Zahab seriously considered bringing the expedition to a premature halt. “Mentally it was very difficult to get my head past wondering, how, after we were so prepared, it could go so wrong,” says Zahab. “I tried to grasp how we could rally back, but my body was beat up and weakened from the cold and exposure after going through the ice.”
But the sheer magnificence of the landscape and the positive energy of the people they met along the way lifted their spirits.
After arriving on Baffin Island, Nunavut, to start stage two, they spent the next five days fighting tremendous headwinds. “The -60-degree winds were strong enough to blow through the tiny holes in our goggles and face masks, leaving us frostbitten,” said Zahab. The pair reached Pangnirtung absolutely depleted, but elated.
Stage three of the expedition—riding 500 kilometres on fat bikes from Wrigley to Fort Good Hope, Northwest Territories, on heavily iced winter roads—began in Yellowknife and led through the treacherous Mackenzie Mountains. “Each day we pushed ourselves in the cold for as long as we could, or until our legs were baked,” said Zahab. “Trucks would zip past waving and people from the few local communities would stop their vehicles to get pictures with us.” Attempting to complete stage three in five days, they rode 101 kilometres and 90 kilometres on the final two days to finish on schedule in Fort Good Hope.
“Stage three left my legs feeling like you beat them with a bag of hammers, but the people we met, from truckers to families on the go, made it an unforgettable leg of our adventure and worth every pedal stroke,” said Zahab.
Zahab claims this was his most logistically challenging expedition to date. But overriding any personal accomplishments, Zahab maintains that his primary motivation was much broader: “To deliver the world to the classroom and the classroom to the world.” During this adventure, he used satellite technology to share the three regions of the Canadian Arctic with as many people as possible.
The idea of sharing his adventures developed several years prior, after he completed a crossing of the Sahara in 2007—which involved a run of 7,500 kilometres. Zahab and his wife discussed the profound change in perspective he had gleaned from the expedition. They hoped to do something to offer young people a chance to see, experience and learn in a way that only outdoor adventure could provide. Together, they conceptualized impossible2Possible (i2P), a non-profit organization that now takes young people on running expeditions all over the world, in mostly remote but always spectacular locations.
These expeditions are connected live to classrooms around the planet through satellite technology. A curriculum rounds out the expedition and is taught in real-time to the i2P Youth Team as they run up to a marathon per day. In turn, the i2P Youth Team teaches these same lessons to thousands of students in remote classrooms around the globe.
Zahab believes that witnessing young people on expeditions—surpassing their perceived limits, reaching new goals and using their experiences as a way to educate and empower their audience of peers—is an excellent model and one that provides a truly inspiring experience for all. He says, “Seeing students from around the world communicate with our i2P Youth Ambassadors on a whole range of subjects has made learning both fun and experiential.”
Up next for Ray Zahab: later this year he will move by human-power over 2,000 kilometres from Angola to South Africa through the Namib Desert alongside teammate Stefano Gregoretti.
“Every expedition, I learn something new,” says Zahab. “I’ve always said we are all capable of the extraordinary in our lives. Adventure has so many unexpected and unanticipated rewards. You just have to convince yourself to go for it.”