In 2006 I set myself the goal of traversing the Brooks Range solo. At this point in my life I had never used a map and compass, never camped in the wilderness, never been by myself for an extended period of time and knew nothing about expedition planning.
Only four people were documented to have traversed the range solo and all of them were American. Spanning the entire width of Alaska deep inside the Arctic Circle, this expedition is considered one of the toughest solo expeditions on earth. During the entire trip only one road is crossed and only two small native villages, with the second village being right near the end. My route would involve 1,000km of hiking and 600km of paddling an inflatable kayak down the Noatak River.
The planning and research for this expedition was a massive endeavour from Australia. Information on the Brooks Range is difficult to come by and there are no established routes across the range. It is only accessible via bush planes and even with those, there are few landing sites.
Between 2008-2010 I had three failed attempts at traversing the range. I didn’t even come close to success with the first attempt lasting 4-days being the longest time I spent out there. Realising I was banging my head against a wall, I took 2011 off and adopted a completely different approach to the expedition. I broke the expedition down into little battles and worked on perfecting each element.
In 2012 I returned to the Brooks Range and achieved my six-year dream. For the first four days of the expedition I had no confidence I was going to succeed and there was a voice in my head constantly telling me to quit. I took it one day at a time and got myself through by knowing that for this attempt, my planning and preparation had been so much better than before.
On the fifth day of the expedition I developed bad Achilles tendonitis and from that point on every step was like a knife in my heels. I found that if I moved fast without taking breaks, after a few hours the pain would largely subside. When I took breaks the pain would flare up again. Because of this, I abandoned most of my nuts and snacks that involved chewing. During the day I drank around 200ml of olive oil, five serves of Scandi shake (weight-gain powder mixed with water) and 2 chocolate bars. At night I would indulge with a Backcountry Cuisine meal.
This way I was able to hike all day without stopping aside from once or twice a day for five minutes to purify water. I was still in a huge amount of pain, but the years of hard work and dedication to my dream kept me going.
The expedition was supposed to take me two months but I was moving a lot faster than planned. I finished the hiking section having averaged 52km/day not including the rest days. I started the river section of the expedition expecting it to be relatively easy but I was in for a shock.
On the Noatak River I continually encountered severe head winds and at times it took all my effort paddling to cover virtually no ground. On the sixth day on the river, less than a day’s paddle (in good conditions) from the end, I didn’t even know if I would finish the trip. I had been fighting the wind for days and the forecast was for the wind to get worse.
I had been paddling for two days with only four hours sleep and finally reached breaking point, having my first meltdown of the trip. Letting out all of this emotion proved to have a great effect on me and after this I felt a lot calmer and focused. At 6pm that night I set up camp clinging to the hope that the forecast was wrong and that the wind give me a window of opportunity. At 10pm, not having slept, I was back on the river engaged in a desperate race against the weather. In perfect conditions I paddled like my life depended on it. Delirious from a lack of sleep, I made it to the end of the river at 4am on the 16th July. At 6am, the wind started up stronger than ever and lasted for six days at an intensity that made river travel impossible.
On the Noatak I averaged 93km/day, paddling for around 16 hours a day over just under seven days. I finished the 1,600km Brooks Range traverse in 31.5 days setting a speed record. Now having achieved my dream, my next project is to return the Brooks Range to attempt the traverse in winter.