Baikal 2020 Solo

Solo Desires

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2018 -Full crossing and a new record for an unassisted and unsupported crossing of frozen Lake Baikal.

2019 -Withdrawal at circa 350km, my team mate continued and set a new fastest crossing. 

2020 -The desire to go back……Solo

“I will come back to Baikal, but just to explore. One successful speed attempt and one unsuccessful is enough on this beast.”

 I not only uttered these words but I posted them publicly within hours of withdrawing from my last expedition on Siberia’s frozen Lake Baikal due to an infected foot.

Well, first and foremost, don’t ever listen for at least the first week to anything that spills from the mouth of someone who has been forced to withdraw from any test of endurance. Be it a race, an expedition or other challenge, first let the raw emotion subside, give them time to gather their thoughts and then still question them!

Before I even began my long trip back in the UK, I had already started to plan and contemplate my return. I could never leave things as they were! Despair, heart ache, failure and tears is not what my lasting memories of Baikal will be. It isn’t just the pure desire to exorcise the 2019 expedition (which we will dissect at a later date exploring how it fell apart) it’s the ambition, the will to succeed, the edge that drives the competitive, the need to chase the elation of 2018 like an addict chasing their first high. It’s to hold true to my beliefs that I stated going into the 2019 trip, again on social media:

“The education, the show of resilience, this will be the true achievement here!”

On my return to the UK 24hrs hadn’t passed and my partner had given me the green light to return, in fact she told me to go back!! 

Things were falling into place. After all, family play a huge part in these big trips both in the preparation and in support whilst out there, then there are the toddlers and teenagers that need looking after. Life still goes on whilst wannabe explorers are gallivanting. This isn’t just a test for me, it is a true test of endurance for Lauren too. In all honesty they hold the fort whilst you’re away.

Watching from the UK as my team mate, and expedition partner reached Nizhneangarsk,  a new record was a surreal and relatively numb feeling for me. There  was the obvious elation I felt for Scott, he was safe and after being in regular contact with his wife during the last few days that Scott was alone on the ice, I knew what this safe return meant to her. He had succeeded in reaching the small town on the most northern part of the lake for a second time, something I had failed to do.  A true show of steely resolve, self-discipline and raw determination from Scott.I wanted to be a part of his success, but like an over privileged brat I felt like I should have been part of it, not through entitlement but due to the fact I hadn’t contemplated having to withdraw and certainly not in the circumstances I did.

It was during a video call with Scott in the first hours after his finish, listening to him describe the Northern part of the lake, his experiences and the conditions he encountered on the part I didn’t get to see this time that my resolve started to harden. The hunger for me was building, in my head my decision was made. 

The was just one thing I wanted more, I wanted to add to it, after all I did already have one successful crossing (2018) under my belt. I wanted crazily to push the bar higher, to have a new experience.

It was simple, after 5 trips into the extreme cold I wanted a solo one, I wanted a solo crossing of the frozen Lake Baikal!

It was on a call with Scott in late March when we first discussed the trip in detail that I declared my intent to go back the following season. After dissecting the trip more it became apparent we were both of the same mind, we both agreed with some more refinements and a little bit of good fortune a sub 10 day crossing was possible. But, what did this mean? What was happening to my solo trip?It was disappearing into the clag! After all, Scott is my team mate, we started our Baikal adventure together in 2018. I’m also grateful for all he and his business partner Phil have taught me about the cold and how to travel in it, both being the experienced polar travellers they are. Yet, I was torn, torn between loyalty to Scott (a friend and a mentor) and my desire and motivation to really test myself in an environment few have even encountered, let alone survived truly unsupported.

I confided in Lauren that it was the solo trip I sought. I want the solitude, to feel the true remoteness of the vast lake, to embrace the loneliness and the fear ahead. This is what excites and motivates me.

As summer approached Scott began to speak of other possibilities for the following year like the Kungsleden in Sweden. I was adamant, Baikal had my full attention and I was going back the following year. I wasn’t leaving it how it was. Scott had always spoken with a cautionary tone about a return due to the niggling injuries from the rigours and demand of two crossings in subsequent years. All the time I had been planning for what I craved whilst knowing, out of loyalty, it may well be a partnership should Scott choose to return.

To myself though, I began to question Scott’s motivation and the realisation came that a solo crossing may be on the cards. After all, he had already completed two successful crossings. Would he want to put himself through the torture and pain again? The long drawn out pain in your knees from ice so hard, every step resonating through your joints, the agony that you learn to accept. The sleepless nights lay listening to Baikal living, as it cracks and shudders beneath your tent, then the subsequent days marching on like a zombie possessed by your goal to reach the little town over the horizon. The horizon you can’t see as you struggle to see your hand holding your GPS as it fails in the denseness of the white out.  Or if it’s clear and Baikal is offering one of its mesmerising days, the horizon is forever in the distance never getting closer before darkness comes once again. These trips are only for the committed and Scott knows this, he was also right, there are plenty other enchanting places to visit and explore. Would I harbour the desire to return if that was me? If I had two successful back to back crossings would I even consider to go back for a third?

I began to think Baikal solo might happen after all. 

It was late September that Scott contacted me to say he wouldn’t be going back to Baikal and his plans lay closer to home and Scandinavia for 2020. 

Baikal solo, 2020 is on.

Tent, stoves, fuel….what are my choices to be on a solo trip?

What are my goals?

The desire……

(Posted on social media travelling to the start of the 2018 expedition.)

 “Now on route to Kultuk at the south end of Lake Baikal, should be there to start 0200hrs local time. 

No matter if I’m running a marathon, a 50 miler or on a multi-day, the adventure nears, the anticipation builds and I feel the same apprehension, excitement, and nerves for what lies in wait.

For what this one holds for me, as yet I don’t know, there are some certainties, aches, pains and sores for sure. Definitely sleep deprivation, probably hallucinations, there’ll be some dark times ahead, yet all countered with incredible highs I can’t begin to describe!! Some, always ask why? and I struggle to answer.... I guess if you have to ask you may never understand.

The sights, the views, the bubble, solitude. To explore, witness magical places, to endure hardship, test my desire and capability, to continually build on experience and a skill set.

It all adds to the elation on completion or despair at failure, and to the highs I still can’t describe. After that comes the withdrawal, the hang over, the emptiness, from knowing it’s over. The only recourse, to plan the next. Bigger, bolder, tougher it doesn’t matter. Just plan the next.

 '“Record or no record, the education, the show of resilience and completion of the challenge ahead, will be the true achievement here!!”

 This still stands

To be continued………

 

Mike Stevenson