When Whistler ski mountaineer Holly Walker was first approached with the idea of traversing the longest glacier outside of the Earth's polar region, she realized she had a lot to learn about the site of her latest expedition, the Central Asian country of Tajikistan.
"To be honest, I did not even know the country existed," she said.
But the 33-year-old Walker, and the team of four fellow outdoor adventurers joining her, should be especially familiar with one particular landmark of the former Soviet nation by the time their four-week expedition concludes next month: the Fedchenko, a long and narrow glacier in the Pamir Mountains that stretches 77 kilometres northward towards the Kyrgyzstan border.
Walker and fellow Whistlerite, photojournalist (and regular Pique contributor) Vince Shuley, Swedish-born, Revelstoke-based skier Emelie Stenberg, Yukon adventurer Selena Cordeau and Mount Rainier mountain guide Zebulon Blais make up Team Flow. They departed on April 26 for what will surely be the trip of a lifetime, with the goal of crossing the mammoth glacier with upwards of 150 pounds of gear each in just 28 days.
The seed for this journey was planted by Stenberg, who had initially planned to join an international team to cross the Fedchenko in 2012 before dropping out due to the trip's steep price tag. Eventually, a mutual friend introduced Walker to Stenberg, who explained her vision for the trek.
Walker's reaction: "Your trip sounds horrible, let's do it."
Soon enough, the crew expanded to three, with Shuley coming onboard as the expedition's official documentarian. The trio, who have been planning the trip off and on for the better part of two years, began training in earnest this fall, and soon realized that they needed more than three people to rely on in the event of an injury or other setback. That's where Cordeau and Blais come in, both experienced mountaineers and explorers in their own right — they joined the team in February.
The group has been able to attract considerable attention from sponsors, receiving approximately $13,000 in grants, mostly from PolarTec, the Alpine Club of Canada and Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC). Shuley put the total cost of the expedition at between $20,000 and $30,000.
"One thing I think was a huge advantage for us as far as getting funding and support was the fact that we started off as two females and a male photojournalist, and that's how we got our first grant (the Alpine Club of Canada's Jen Higgins grant supporting young women in exploration)," Walker said.
And although the group has amassed over 350 pounds of clothing from Whistler Blackcomb, MEC and friends to distribute in the Tajik towns leading up to the Fedchenko, Shuley was adamant that, unlike many other expeditions before them, they are embarking on this trip for nobody but themselves.
"We've been very transparent about the fact that we're not doing this for charity, we're not doing this for cancer research, we're doing it for ourselves because we want to do something big, and we want to do something cool," he said.
And while they would be the first to admit that crossing the 6,200-metre high ice sheet will be the biggest challenge of their young lives, fear — or at least the fear of death — hasn't really factored into the equation for either Shuley or Walker.
"I think the biggest fear is that moment we may have to resign ourselves to turn around, because we don't want to do that," said Shuley. "It's not going to make the story I'm envisioning or the experience that everyone on the team is envisioning."
But that doesn't mean the group intends to throw caution to the wind in order to finish the trek. All avid skiers, the hope is that they'll have the chance to ride a few peaks before their trip is over, but, as Walker explained, "I don't want our group to get halfway, then all of a sudden people are willing to take the risks because they travelled so far and put the work in.
"It might make us fail, but we'll still be able to ski next year."
Walker of all people knows what it's like to take risks. At the age of 28 she suffered a stroke that left her partially paralyzed. She spent a year in recovery, learning how to read, write and use the right side of her body again — but it wouldn't keep her away from the slopes she loved for long.
Since her stroke, Walker has summited Mount Baker, Mount Rainier and a handful of Mexican volcanoes. She even made a bid for Mount Denali in 2012, although weather conditions kept her from reaching the summit on the same day an avalanche killed four Japanese climbers.
But, before you assume the Fedchenko expedition is Walker's way of proving she can endure such a monumental physical feat after her stroke, she had a different take on it.
"This trip is definitely not stroke-related, it just sounded friggin' amazing," she said.
"What's your excuse?"
You can follow the team on their expedition at www.fedchenkoflow.blogspot.ca.
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