On March 19, Roulx, Guillaume Moreau and Jacob Racine made it — just barely — to their start point in Eureka, one of the most northern permanently inhabited research stations in the world. They unloaded their gear from a small plane, readied the 135-kilogram loaded sleds each man would pull behind them, popped their ski boots into their bindings, and took off on the first 1,450-kilometre, 64-day leg of their epic journey south. After the first five weeks, Nicolas had lost almost eight kilograms (17 pounds), despite eating 7,500 calories a day, and all the men experienced extreme polar rash, a skin irritation that couldn’t heal on its own in the Arctic’s relatively humid conditions. The crew made it to their resupply point at Resolute Bay just in time — they required urgent medical attention. Little did they know, however, they faced a bigger problem further south.
“We encountered about 15 bears [in total]… we were basically crossing a polar bear highway,” says Roulx. “One night, we had to do shifts in the night to keep an eye on them. At one point, we had four polar bears in our view from the campsite. It was a pretty scary moment.”
When they skidded into Gjoa Haven (Uqsuqtuuq), on the southeast coast of King William Island in the Northwest Passage, the sea ice had already started to break up. Lake-sized turquoise puddles formed on top of the sea ice, making some areas dangerously unstable, while other sections heaved up onto each other, making traversing them more like bouldering than skiing. The team shuffled; Jacob left as planned while Philippe Voghel-Robert and Étienne Desbois joined.