A failed expedition (and how not to choose an expedition partner)

A few weeks before leaving on my attempt to cross Ungava on skis, I was at the Wilderness & Canoe symposium in Toronto. A experienced Canadian canoeist talked about poorly chosen expedition partners, which she called lemons. I remember listening to her presentation and hoping with all my heart that I didn’t have my very own lemon in my upcoming trip. Here is the story of how it began…

Failed trips or expeditions tend to weigh on my mind more than successful ones do. It seems so easy, looking back, to identify all the mistakes and errors that resulted in failure. They are great learning opportunities. Maybe by writing about it I can help others avoid making the same mistakes I did.

In October of 2017 I got an e-mail through this website from someone who wanted to cross the Ungava peninsula on skis in the winter of 2018 and was looking for a partner. During my summer crossing of the same area just 2 months before, I had thought that I would like to do a similar trip but in winter. Having a trip proposal so soon after the end of my previous expedition seemed a little too quick, but my interest was sparked. We exchanged a few e-mails. I was definitely interested in doing such a trip and I did not feel ready to do it alone. We had a first call and he questioned me about my experience. I felt that I did not have that much but I did have a couple of solo winter camping trips under my belt. He had previously traveled to Baffin island and only spoke about that trip. That should have been the first warning sign not to accept his proposal. When the only experience you have is in an organized group (and 10 years ago…) and that you keep bragging about it, there is a problem. I should have asked more questions on his experience. I should have realized that it’s not because he came up with the trip proposition that he is necessarily qualified to make it through.

I then (stupidly) committed to the trip before even meeting him in person. However, during our next preparation calls, I started realizing that my choice of partner was not the wisest. He spoke so much and spent huge amounts of time discussing tiny details and telling me tales of his previous arctic travel experience in this organized group. Looking back, this also should have been a warning sign; I took it as bragging and it annoyed me when in fact I believe that it was mostly insecurity. At the same time, he was not including me in communications with the staff of the national park we would be crossing. Another big red flag. But then, not everyone is skilled with e-mails I told myself. The concept of cc’ing someone sometimes seems foreign to my own family!

I truly realized my mistake when we went on a first practice trip together in Mauricie national park. The bragging started in the parking lot, then at the reservation desk and then with everyone we met en route.
– “I don’t like to brag about what I am doing” I said, looking directly at him.
– “Me neither” he replied
– “Well, it does not look like it” I replied. I hoped with all my heart he understood.

How stupid had I been to agree to leave on a 4-week expedition with someone I had never met in person! I could not believe my stupidity. It was as if, at the time, I thought that only people I would get along with would plan such trips. I felt like it was too late to cancel the trip, plane tickets were already booked and paid for. Had I thought about it more thoroughly, I could have realized that the cost of a failed expedition would end up being greater than the cost of the original plane ticket. That weekend, after some weird behavior on his part, I decided that I would take my own tent. At least I would have my own space at night.

I had rarely met someone that I found so annoying. From comments like “I make much more money than you” (I don’t think so) to “I’m probably much taller and stronger than you” (Nope for both), I was finding it hard to keep my cool and be pleasant when meeting in person. How would I withstand his presence when tired and cold (and miserable)?
Yet I felt too committed and I wanted to visit Nunavik in the winter. At the time of the planning I did not want to do it solo. By the time we were ready to go, I was not sure how he would help me in anything, even if I still didn’t feel ready to do it alone. I was the only one who knew how to handle the shotgun and inReach. We each took our own gear for everything. He would most probably slow me down and annoy me beyond measure in the process.

Once up North, on the morning of the planned departure, he seemed super nervous. I didn’t want to admit it, but I knew from the beginning that this expedition would be a failure. He was not fit enough and we both did not have enough experience to go solo. A group of students accompanied us for half the way on the first day. Luckily for him, one of the students pulled his sled the whole way until it was time for goodbyes. We kept going for a couple kilometres after they left us. The terrain was flat so the distance between us did not become too great during the day.

– “I can’t believe how fit you are” he said at the end of the first day
I didn’t reply anything. I knew I was far from my best shape. “It’s not me that is in such a good shape, it’s you that is in a poor shape” I thought, but didn’t say anything. There was nothing I could do at that point.

Day two was another gorgeous day. I started skiing first and was ahead for a while until he caught up while I was switching from skis to snowshoes for the steep part. That’s good I thought, he can keep up! After that I got ahead of him but would wait at intervals until I could see him in the distance. I lost sight of him in mid-afternoon after trying to wait for him a few times but getting too cold. I decided that I could wait for him next to the first hut. Winds started blowing stronger in the afternoon and visibility declined. I quickly made sure my whole face was protected under clothing and ski goggles and kept going.

I got to the first hut around 5.30pm quite happy with the progress for the day. I set up camp and cooked dinner while watching for my partner’s arrival in the distance. When it started getting dark around 7pm I got very worried and set out to look for him. After walking a couple hundred meters I saw him in the distance, walking very slowly. As I approached him I saw that his nose looked frozen, it was white and two icicles were hanging from it. I did not wonder why, his nose and mouth were not protected at all! I could not believe he had been so careless. I was too worried to be mad so I pulled his sled all the way to the hut. He seemed a little confused which made me worry for the rest of the trip.
During the evening my worries transformed into anger. His nose frostbite was the result of poor judgement and not of lack of gear or difficult conditions. He had not been able to recognize basic conditions where you should cover yourself and had spent most of the day traveling by walking in his ski boots instead of using the snowshoes he had in his sled. He clearly did not have good judgement and was not fit enough. On top of that he had taken a bunch of unnecessary gear in his sled which added to the weight he had to pull (ex: hiking boots and a cooler?!?). He had not updated the shared gear list we had resulting in us carrying a lot of stuff in double. Before leaving, I knew he annoyed me but I still thought he would be able to do the expedition. I realized at that first hut that he would not be capable of making it to the end.

The next day was a windbound day. The winds were blowing too strong for us to make any progress. We retracted to the hut and requested weather updates from the village on my InReach device. I kept chatter to a minimum.

The fourth day, the winds were still blowing strong but we decided to head out anyways. We agreed that we could not stay put on all windy days. The visibility was super low so I tied our sleds together so that we would not lose sight of each other. I would walk a couple steps and then have to wait for him. After 30 minutes of this it was already driving me crazy. I confronted him. “What do you want to do?”. He admitted he was not fit enough to carry on. He decided to quit and we went back to the hut.

It was hard for me to manage my anger back at he hut. He called the park on the radio to enquire about a potential pick-up by snowmobile. He gave his frostbite as the reason for giving up. I wanted to yell at him but did my best to keep my cool.

In the next days I kept going solo and decided on a ski tour to the park and back instead of a crossing. I had long hours of ski travel each day and it was hard not to think about my anger towards him. He had not apologized for not being prepared and that aggravated me. I did my best to think about other things and channel my anger in skiing. The tour ended up being very enjoyable even though I encountered difficult conditions on many days (blizzard and heavy snowfall). My mood lightened up over the duration of the trip. Unfortunately for me, after getting back to the village 14 days after he quit, he was still there and we were booked on the same flight out. I managed not to talk to him while traveling back except to calmly share my disappointment regarding his lack of preparation. “I hope you realize what you are costing me in both money and reputation” I said. “I don’t think autonomous expeditions are for you” I added. He agreed and I wished him luck.

It would be easy to put all blame on him but the truth is I have a huge part of responsibility towards this failed expedition. I did not do a proper assessment of my partner’s experience and did not ensure we were compatible before leaving. For a trip where we would have to rely on each other so much it’s a huge mistake.

I already feel sorry for the next person who will come up with an expedition proposal to me as they will go through a thorough screening process 😉

I did end up making a very nice tour of the Pingualuit access corridor and park, details of which can be found here.