For some people, driving 2000km on a motorbike would be an adventure. For others, it wouldn’t be an adventure unless the 2000km journey took place in the depths of a Siberian winter. Then there are those for whom it wouldn’t be an adventure unless they tackled 2000km in the depths of a Siberian winter on one of the most unreliable motorbikes they could find. And then there’s Matt Prior.
Matt Prior, you see, went one better: he rode 2000km over two weeks on a crappy World War 2 motorbike in the middle of the Siberian winter. And he spent the whole trip, with a small group of others, riding around a frozen lake. That lake was Lake Baikal – the world’s deepest and largest, if you go by total water volume, and the trip was a world first.
Matt, who’s also the world record holder for the highest altitude reached by a taxi, eats adventures for breakfast. He served six years in the Royal Air Force before turning himself loose on the world. Since then, he’s become a pioneer for The Adventurists (purveyors of the Mongol Rally) and has set up his own Adventure Academy, through which he shows regular people the skills they need to tackle epic expeditions on their own. The best part? The course takes place on an actual real-life adventure, led by the man himself.
Red Bull jumped on the phone with Matt to discuss the insanity that was the Lake Baikal Ice Run.
Where did the idea for this expedition come from?
It all started from when I did the Mongol Rally [Matt was one of the first] more than a decade ago with The Adventurists. I’d been keeping an eye on them for a while because they were always coming up with new things. I saw they did one type of Ice Run, but it didn’t really appeal to me. In the end they decided to stop running it because it became too organised – the police would escort you everywhere and I think it lost that real sense of adventure.
But then they came up with another one and they needed some pioneers. So they contacted me and said “look, this has never been done before, we’re not sure what’s going to happen, what do you think about going and trying it for us?”
If you go riding down the street on [these bikes], all the locals just laugh at you. And they didn’t even know what we were planning on doing with them.
So I looked into it. I'd been to Siberia before but never in the winter. And this lake, you can see it on one of those globes, so you know it’s pretty bloody massive. I just thought: it’s extreme, it’s cold, it’s in the middle of nowhere, it’s not been done before…I’m keen. So I booked the dates off, and that was that.
Did you have any major concerns in terms of things that could potentially go wrong?
The biggest thing is the fact that if something did go wrong – say if someone broke their neck – that’s probably going to be it for them. To be rescued from there would take days, so that was always in the back of my head as a worst-case scenario. But you factor that in to your decision making, I guess. It was always in the back of my mind: "whatever you do - don't break your neck!" [laughs].
How do you plan a trip like that?
I mean, the idea was always simple: we just had to circumnavigate the lake on a really crap bike which The Adventurists would provide. They gave us two GPS fuel drops - because it would be quite the challenge to do without extra fuel - but that was essentially it. We turned up and were presented with these absolute shitbox bikes – they were in horrendous condition. Ours set on fire, we had no lights, no brakes…I was wondering if I’d bitten off more than I could chew!
So where did the bikes come from?
They were Urals, so you can get them all over Russia. They’re just really old bikes that no-one wants anymore. So much so that if you go riding down the street on one, all the locals just laugh at you. And they didn’t even know what we were planning on doing with them. These bikes are notorious for being extremely unreliable.
So it wasn’t just a case of circumnavigating one of the largest frozen lakes in the world on a bike, it was circumnavigating one of the largest frozen lakes in the world on the worst bike you could possibly imagine?
Yeah…and that obviously adds to the comedy and the challenge and all that, but these things were not ready at all.
Who did you end up doing the trip with?
Well, that was the first struggle. I went through three people who eventually pulled out for their own reasons. Then I went back to The Adventurists and told them I couldn’t find anyone else willing to go. They said they knew this colonel from the Australian army – Dennis Malone - who wanted to do it but couldn’t find anyone either. So I read up a bit of a bio about him, then met him for breakfast in Sydney, and the next time we met was out in Siberia.
There were other people from other places – with various levels of experience [laughs] - out with us too. There was this Indian team, and for one of the guys it was the first time he’d ever been on ‘holiday’. He’d never seen snow before, he’d never experienced the cold before, and somehow his mate roped him in and said: ‘this will be a good first holiday for you!’ They were mental. High speed every day, nothing went wrong with their bike…amazing.
It’s a big bloody lake – it’s more like an ocean. So we were just trying to stay on the thickest ice possible.
His mate should work in sales. How long did it take all up? How many kilometres did you cover?
It took just under two weeks and it was just short of 2000km. It was an unusually warm winter and though that might sound like a good thing…it’s not when you’re on a frozen lake. We couldn’t cross the southern tip because it was a bit like an ocean, so we had to come off the lake and on to a forest track for that bit. All told, we did the circumference.
How long would you be driving for on any given day?
It was an all-day affair. We’d drive from when the sun comes up to when it was approaching dark. That was the plan anyway - we had to do a bit of night riding on some days to keep on schedule. Very interesting when you don’t have any lights and just head torches...
Did you camp on the shore every night?
Not at all, no. If you look at the geography of the lake, it’s the world’s deepest, which means it goes straight down and straight up. There were days and days where we couldn’t get off the lake even if we wanted to – it was sheer mountains all around. So we camped as close to the lake side as we could – the closer to the middle you get, the weaker the ice gets. It’s a big bloody lake – it’s more like an ocean. So we were just trying to stay on the thickest ice possible.
But the lake would move like tectonic plates, so there’d be huge cracks – some bigger than cars – so a lot of it was guesswork to be honest.
Did not being able to get off the lake give you a kind of reverse cabin fever?
No – I absolutely loved it! It almost channels you to keep going. You know you don’t have an option. You can’t go left and you can’t go right, it’s longer to turn round, so we may as well keep going. I was in awe most of the days. We swapped between driving and sitting in the sidecar. And if you’re in the sidecar you just get to watch it all go by.
It must have been such a surreal experience.
Yeah – very surreal. I genuinely felt like we were on a different planet. It’s how I imagine people who visit different planets feel like – it was just totally alien to anything I’d ever seen before.
What kind of food and gear did you take with you?
Just high energy dried food – stuff that was easy to prepare. We always had water around, obviously, so it was just a case of boiling it up and adding it to the food. We crammed the sidecar full of these food sachets and you’d just fit in as best you could!
A lot of [the jumps] ended in crashes…so the whole broken neck fear was very real.
We had a good four Hilleberg season tent, a -40 sleeping bag and enough firestarting and basic survival gear to keep us going for months. We wore snowmobile gear provided to us by Kilm and had a few tools, as well as some remote power chargers for GoPros and camera gear and the rest of it. But that’s it. There wasn’t much else kit that we needed.
I can’t imagine the trip was all smooth sailing – what were some of your hairiest moments?
Well…we had an earthquake one night. That was…um…interesting when you’re sitting on a frozen lake. There were enough cracks already, and when the whole area shook...when you see mountains shake…that’s quite an experience. We all looked at each other and realised we couldn’t do anything. We couldn’t get off the lake, we were as safe as we could be, so we just had to ride it out. We tried to laugh it off and pretend it wasn’t as dangerous as it was. Whiskey helped with that!
Then there were these things we called ‘ride ups’ – that’s not a technical term. When the plates collide and separate, they cause big gaps in the ice and massive ‘jumps’. Sometimes there’d be a jump, a gap, and then a downslope on the other side, so you’d just have to check it all out, make it as safe as you could, then just open her up and hold on. A lot of those ended in crashes…so the whole broken neck fear was very real.
When you camped at night…you just hoped things wouldn’t change too much while you slept. You could choose a camping spot and by morning be on your own piece of ice totally separate from everyone else. But there’s not much you can do about it!
Well you lived to tell the tale, so you must’ve done something right. What do you think your favourite thing about this trip was?
The biggest thing for me – and I’ll never forget this moment – I was in the sidecar and Dennis was driving. We were full throttle over open ice, the weather was pretty bad but you could see some light on the horizon, and Dennis was just screaming at the top of his lungs: “NO-ONE HAS EVER DONE THIS BEFORE!” It was such an amazing feeling. Now, in 2016, you can Google these crazy ideas and most things have been done before. To do something that you know no other human has ever done, in terms of a feeling of achievement, that was the best thing for me.
So the Ice Run is up there with your best adventures?
Oh yeah – especially in terms of genuine danger, this one tops it for me, I think. I missed the people aspect – I love meeting interesting people and the locals – but it’s definitely one of the best things I’ve ever done in my life.