My good friend Kevin Vallely is a true renaissance man. A highly touted architect, author, public speaker, athlete, husband and father, Kevin excels at everything he does. On top of all these things, he’s also a world-class adventurer. Among his notable achievements are a record-setting ski to the South Pole, rowing the Northwest Passage, running across Russia’s frozen Lake Baikal in record time, and paddling the Mackenzie River with his family.
Kevin and I go way back. I first met him when I was completely dehydrated and crawling along the trail as he passed me near the finish of the legendary Knee Knacker 30-mile trail race through the mountains of North Vancouver. He took pity on me and we became good friends after that and trained for the same race again the next year, where I exacted my revenge as we finished first and second. Later that summer we ran the West Coast Trail in a then-record time of 10 hours and 13 minutes. Our trail running adventures evolved into proper expeditions, and Kevin and I went on to a cycle across the Island of Java in Indonesia and climb all its 10,000-foot volcanoes. That excursion started the day after September 11, 2001 and, being seemingly the only westerners in the largest Muslim country on Earth, led to some interesting times. We settled for a cooler climate a couple of years later, cycling 2,000 kilometres from Dawson to Nome on the frozen Yukon River and Bering Sea, following the route of a pair of miners who’d cycled the same section in the hunt for gold a century earlier.
As time went on, Kevin and I continued with a myriad of our own journeys with different expedition partners but remained close, living as we do in North Vancouver, still running, mountain biking and skiing together on the fabulous trails we have here. Our most recent expedition was in 2013, when we attempted to row the Northwest Passage along with a couple of Irish lads (Denis Barnett and Paul Gleeson). Kevin recounted that expedition in his fabulous book Rowing the Northwest Passage. Going on an expedition is transformative, and forms a bond between the participants, forged by the undertaking of a unique and challenging mission. These bonds are unbreakable and last your entire life.
On May 6th, in association with the Vancouver International Mountain Film Festival, Kevin will be running an online Adventure workshop called Lessons from the Edge to let you in on the some of his secrets to planning and executing your own expedition. Filled with stories, examples and information, Kevin’s engaging talk will inspire you to put together your own grand adventure. In advance of the workshop, I had a chat with Kevin about his adventurous life.
When did you first realize you had a lust for adventure?
When I was young boy. I attribute it all to a scary experience I had growing up in Montreal. It was winter escapade when I was nine. I had to lead my five-year-old brother home through a snowstorm when we got separated from our parents. He and I became separated from them in a downtown department store at closing time and an overzealous security guard decided to kick us out onto the downtown street instead of helping us find our parents. I was lucky. Somehow I got us home. The only luckier person that night was that security guard. My father was eager to have a heart-to-heart with him but had to be physically restrained from doing so. We managed to get home on foot. We lived miles away from town and it took hours to get home, but somehow we did it. I remember that my little brother trusted me completely through the ordeal. I had to keep my cool to maintain his confidence and I did what I had to do. When we finally made it home, I remember feeling like I had done something wrong. I expected to be in really big trouble but, much to my surprise, it was the opposite. My folks told me how thrilled they were and how proud of me they were. It was one of the scariest moments in my life, but it was also one of the most empowering. It wasn’t long after this that I had this crazy yearning to go on a ski adventure, to ski to the pole! Go figure?! I suspect this is where my taste for adventure came from.
What was your first big adventure, and how did it influence the rest of your adventures going forward?
My first really big adventure, other than the one in Montreal of course, was in 2000 when I crossed Alaska on ski. You and I were already good friends at this point, and I remember you telling me all about your epic canoe across Canada. It inspired me and lit a flame in me to do something epic myself. Ultimately that came in the way of a ski adventure across Alaska.
There was a race series in Alaska at the time called The Iditasport. It saw racers traversing sections of the Iditarod Trail by fat bike, cross country ski or by foot. There were two distances being offered, a 160-kilometre course called the Iditasport and a 350-mile course called the Iditasport Extreme. In 2000, the race organizer, a fellow named Dan Bull, decided to go big and offered a course category across the entire 1,124-mile Iditarod Trail. This had never been done before and was considered a bit crazy. The shorter courses were hardcore enough, travelling fully unsupported across the barrens of an Alaskan wilderness in the middle of winter, but this new category—called, of all things, the Iditasport Impossible—ratcheted things up to the next level. My friend Dave Norona had raced a shorter course before and asked me if I’d join him in attempting this new longer one. I jumped at the idea. Looking back on it know, we were completely over our heads but our enthusiasm to do it kept the blinders tightly on, oblivious to any sober-minded realism.
But realism started to chip away at the edges of our zeal when, at the start line, we discovered that there was only one other skier attempting the full traverse and it eroded further still when we noticed the race banner above our heads proclaiming “Iditasport: Where Cowards Won’t Show and the Weak Will Die.” The blinders began to loosen then.
All the racecourse distances started at the same spot at the same time. The shorter distance racers had light sleds or packs and were not encumbered by a massive expedition sled needed for the full course. They were out of sight in no time and soon it was me, Dave and this other skier named Andy Sterns from Fairbanks, Alaska, labouring along together. We quickly discovered that Andy had mushed the Iditarod race twice and knew the trail well. He’d be a great help to us, and he proved to be a super nice guy as well. Travelling across the wilds of Alaska was intimidating enough but doing it alone seemed a bit ridiculous, so we made a pact that evening while camped out together in the middle of nowhere that we’d stick together to the end. We weren’t even sure if we could finish the course in the first place. It had never been done before!
In the end, we completed it. It was the hardest thing I had ever done. It took us 33 days averaging around 60km/day hauling a 125lb sled! The journey changed me. It was like hitting a reboot button on my life. The day-to-day routine of my previous regular existence was less appealing to me now. I was going to embrace what was important to me and toss what was not. It was incredibly liberating, and I was hooked.
I’m a bit of a bum with no kids or real job so adventure for me is relatively easy to come by. However, most people who have careers and are raising families don’t understand how someone like you can still pull off your amazing journeys. How do you balance your life as an adventurer with your own career and family?
Well Frank, carrying on where I left off in the last question will answer this. I knew what I wanted, and I lost interest in what I didn’t. I wasn’t going to work crazy hours as an architect anymore. I was going to undertake more expeditions because I had found something I found incredibly fulfilling. I would give my architectural bosses plenty of notice of my intentions. If they didn’t accept it, I planned to quit my job and find a new one when I returned but interestingly it never came to that. I suspect when people see you’re trying to do something out of the ordinary, something interesting, something that will challenge you, they too get inspired, and they tend to back you. I had one employer actually sponsor me! I was committed though. I was willing to make the sacrifice of quitting my job if I needed to.
I wanted a family and started one. We were ice biking on the melting sea ice on the Bering Sea on our Bikes on Ice expedition when I let you know Nicky (my wife) was pregnant with our first daughter Caitlin. Our family didn’t even know yet because it was so early on in the pregnancy. Man, that’s a long time ago… 2003!
I suspect I’m a good juggler though. When I want something, I’m super focused and pursue it with enthusiasm be it adventure, family, architecture or whatever. If it’s important to you, make it happen. It’s as simple as that!
What is your favourite adventure and why? What is your least favourite? What did you learn from each?
It’s tough to pick a favourite. I really enjoyed our Bikes on Ice expedition and found the Sandakan Death March in Borneo that we did together profoundly meaningful. Hiking through the jungles of the Leuser EcoSystem with ex-Free Aceh Movement Guerillas hunting poachers and illegal loggers was exhilarating and trekking across the frozen ice of Lake Baikal in Siberia was one of the most unique things I’ve ever done but I suppose my favourite expedition would have to be the South Pole in 2009 with Ray Zahab and Richard Weber. The reason? Because it was the fulfilment of my dream since I was that nine-year-old boy in Montreal. I learned that dreams could come true!
My least favorite expedition was my run across South America in 2012 with Ray Zahab. I like to trail run and have done a number of ultrarunning races over the years. As you mentioned in the opening, you and I charged across the West Coast Trail in a day back in the 90’s and we did the same on the Juan de Fuca Trail and the Stein Valley trail too. I enjoyed those one-day efforts (Stein turned into two days as you no doubt remember but that epic can be left for another conversation) that but that’s the limit for me. South America proved just not fun. Ray and I were attempting run the breadth of South America from Valparaiso, Chile to Buenos Aires, Argentina running over a marathon a day. I joined along on the journey but, in hindsight, it was not my thing. It was all on paved roads or highways with traffic everywhere. It was brutal. On day two or three (I can’t remember) I badly hurt my plantar fascia (the arch of my foot) and was stopped cold. It was frustrating and disheartening. The run was a fully supported effort (with a physician, a support crew, cars, etc.—not something I had ever done or ever will do again) so I was able to step out and still continue along. I was determined not to stop altogether and started running shorter stretches almost immediately as much as my injury would allow—10 kilometres the first day, 15 kilometres the next and so on—and before long I was up to near a marathon a day. But the journey was bleak and boring running across endless stretches of pavement in temperatures reaching 45C! I can’t imagine anything more unenjoyable. I swore I’d never do anything like that again and I haven’t. I learned I hate the circus of a supported journey and I hate running on pavement for long periods of time.
Oftentimes the dynamic within a team on an expedition can make or break it. How do you handle conflict in the course of these challenging journeys? Do you have any examples?
I wouldn’t say I’ve ever had conflict on a journey. Certainly, there have been times when I didn’t see eye-to-eye with someone but never have I had a conflict. As you know (we’ve done our share of long arduous journeys together), it all comes down to respect for your teammates. You go into it knowing that small things will gnaw at you over time and that you have to recognize it and adjust to it. You need to respect your teammates and they you. Little things can start to piss you off and you need to recognize this before it builds into something.
Interesting fact: studies confirm that teammates at the end of polar journeys (North Pole, South Pole, etc.) treat one another more like inmates in prison than teammates. Crazy considering that to get to the end of a brutally arduous journey like a polar journey you have managed to achieve something extraordinary together. More often than not these people hate one another and never speak to one another again. That’s not my experience. I travel with people I want to travel with. Case in point, yourself. We’ve done a number of very challenging journeys together yet we’re still best of friends. That’s how it’s done I figure.
You’re still fit and strong but will always be six years older than me. As you get older, how do you find you’ve adapted your adventuring, or have you?
I really don’t care about speed anymore. I shouldn’t have ever cared, I suppose, but I came from a racing background and I naturally took that mentality to the wilderness. I would guess it all started when I did the Grouse Grind trail race and broke the record. It really surprised me as an ex-road cyclist. I could actually move quickly underfoot on a trail. Then came our West Coast Trail run. That was a real eye-opener for me, and I discovered I liked pushing myself further and harder in the wilderness. A few years later it culminated with record traverse to the South Pole. It took breaking the record for me to realize how unimportant the record really was. At the time we were only the 75th, 76th and 77th person ever to have traversed to the South Pole from the edge continent, going right back to Amundsen and Scott as the first. That’s pretty darn cool and it was that experience that mattered most. Hammering there quickly captured media attention but ultimately that’s not why I was doing it. Since the South Pole, I haven’t cared about time anymore. I now undertake expeditions that resonate with me for other reasons.
Why do you think it’s important for people to have adventure as part of their life?
The moment we were born we’ve been on an adventure. An adventure by definition is an undertaking usually involving danger and unknown risks. It’s life. It’s best to embrace it rather than fear it. Take this COVID situation. It’s a classic adventure. I think that once they embrace the fact that they don’t have control of everything they do and that sometimes they need to be fully in the moment to make a decision, they’ll realize how incredibly freeing it can be. A healthy dose of adventure will not only inspire you but will open your eyes to new opportunity.
Perhaps related to the above question, but in a general sense, what is the greatest lesson adventure has taught you?
The greatest lesson adventure has taught me is to live life in the now. Adventure has a way of distilling everything to its essence. It’s not about what you did or what you want to do, it’s about being in the moment and living life now.
Participate in Kevin’s amazing live Adventure workshop "Lessons from the Edge" on May 6th from 6 to 7:30 pm PDT via Zoom through the link here: Kevin Vallely | Workshop: Lessons from the Edge | VIMFF 2021 | Vancouver International Mountain Film Festival