Charlie Walker in the Russian Arctic
© Charlie Walker
Exploration

How 2 explorers survived the world’s deadliest triathlon

Skiing, kayaking and cycling their way from the Arctic Circle right down to Istanbul, read how two plucky explorers overcame an incredible 5,000 mile (8,047km) journey.
Written by Joe Ellison
11 min readPublished on
Picture, if you can, a windswept landscape formed of snow, rocks and little else. No cars. No buildings. No people. No Starbucks. Not a single man-made obstacle in sight – just a frozen abyss where daylight barely lasts six hours and temperatures register among the lowest on the planet. Now imagine covering this wildly inhospitable terrain on skis for weeks at a time, every single hour requiring an unbelievable amount of mental and physical strength just to survive.
“If you went home and cleared all the food from your shelves in your deep freezer and climbed inside, it would be only half as cold as the temperatures we faced,” says British explorer Charlie Walker, 31, who between February and October last year, and accompanied by American Callie Morgigno, 31, traversed the Russian wilderness as part of a scarcely believable adventure.
Charlie Walker walking in the Russian arctic.
Temperatures can reach minus 40 degrees Celsius
The plan was to travel the length of the European and Asian border – all 5,000 miles (8,047km) of it – skiing, kayaking and cycling from the Arctic Circle right down to Istanbul. Dubbing it the world’s longest triathlon, the pair would begin on the Arctic coast of Russia, moving through the Ural Mountains across the centre of Russia, and then into the Ural River – which itself is 1,500 miles (2,414km) – before heading across the Caucasus Mountains of Georgia and eventually onto the Bosporus in Istanbul, Turkey.
Charlie, who'd previously completed a 4,400-mile (7,081km) bicycle trip through Europe, Asia and Africa; a 1,000-mile (1,609km) hike across the Gobi Desert and a 600-mile (967km) horse ride across Mongolia, was no stranger to schlepping over hazardous terrain – but this was different. To reach the Ural River would mean cross-country skiing in the frozen Russian wilderness for months at a time. “I hadn’t stood on a pair of planks for 10 years,” admits Charlie. “Luckily, I knew my American friend Callie ski toured a lot in Alaska, and she leapt at the chance to join me. I relied on her to keep me alive on skis.”
Callie Morgigno on the snow in the Russian artctic.
Callie Morgigno
Even with Callie’s expertise, skiing 700 miles (1,127km) as the crow flies, and nearer 900 miles (1,448km) when factoring in a zigzagging mountain range, the conditions were treacherous: whiteouts six days in seven, strong southerly winds nine days in 10, poor visibility. Charlie clasps one of his palms to remind him of the numbing sensation he suffered for two months following the trip, remembering the toll those temperatures took: “The going was unpleasant, I still occasionally have problems warming my fingers up even now."

Into the Arctic madness

Arriving in Vorkuta, a small town once built by gulag labourers some 150 miles (241km) north of the Arctic Circle, the duo quickly had to adjust to five hours of daylight and minus 35 degrees Celsius temperatures. However, it was the combination of the icy climate with mountainous terrain that proved the real test for the pair during the three-month ski leg.
“Early on we were dragging very heavy sleds up a sixty-degree slope”, says Callie. “If you don't know what that means, you are basically climbing vertically; when you kick your feet in the snow, your knees touch the slope as well. We were both a bit freaked out because we didn’t have any protective equipment for a steep climb like that. You really need an ice axe for that kind of slope, and an injury out in the middle of nowhere would have been hell for the uninjured partner to deal with.”
Barely a week into the trip, Callie almost tested this theory first-hand when she fell over and hit her head on one of her skis, leaving her with a mild concussion. The blank canvas that was the Russian wilderness only complicated matters: “When I fell and hit my head, the visibility was really poor, and the light completely flat, so it was impossible to tell if the terrain went up or down, and we were trying to ski down it. That day, I lagged behind Charlie quite a bit, and I kept kind of stopping and staring off into space.”
Charlie Walker walks up a climb in the Russian arctic
The biting cold made everything harder
Indeed, even the smallest of tasks proved problematic in the biting cold. “Anything involving the digits was painful," explains Charlie. "It’s not just putting a tent up, it’s keeping it up.” And this is no understatement. When a 70mph (113kph) windstorm left Charlie and Callie bound to their tent one afternoon, howling gusts snapped one of the tentpoles. Charlie crawled out of the tent to recover it but was instantly swept across a 100m slope of ice and deposited in a snowbank. With poor visiblity and the weather worsening, it was fight or flight:
“The ice was sheer and slippery, I had no way of getting back to the tent until I spotted two snapped halves of the pole next to me. I used them as rudimentary ice axes to stab my way back up the ice with. God knows what the temperature was. If I hadn’t had found my way back, I would have been trapped in the cold and I don’t know how long it would have been until Callie would have come to find me, and the tent could have blown away. From any angle it was a perilous situation. We spent the night half-awake, bracing our knees against the windward side of the tent to keep it together. Fortunately, the next morning was completely clear.”
I had no way of getting back to the tent until I found two snapped halves of the pole next to me, which I used as rudimentary ice axes to stab my way back up the ice with.
Charlie Walker
MacGyvering out of life-threatening situations aside, simply summoning the strength to leave the tent each day could often feel like a giant step, as Callie recalls: “Every evening we'd stuffed our boot liners, wet with sweat, into our sleeping bags so they wouldn’t freeze. They were usually still wet in the mornings. Putting on sock liners and stuffing them into stiff, freezing boots, was the hardest part of the ski leg, as we then had to crawl out of the wind-shelter of our tent and face a usually howling windy morning.”
On top of this, the pair had to carry food and were entirely self-sufficient for all meals. If anything, the wildlife was more likely to eat them than the other way around: “There were bears around so we had to be cautious,” says Charlie. “We were warned about bears and wolverines, and we occasionally saw wolverine tracks, and brown bear tracks beside our tent, but thankfully we had no dangerous encounters.”
Charlie Walker walks into untouched snow in the Russian arctic.
The pair didn't see buildings or people for a month at a time

A pilgrimage of pain

Europe and Asia may not share a clear border in physical terms (Russia and Turkey are transcontinental nations), but they've been divided by geographers for more than two millennia.
"During the past 1,000 years, the border has increasingly become painted as a cultural and a political divide, a way of separating enlightenment from barbarism, us from them, East from West, and Christianity from Islam," says Charlie. "It's merely perception though, and has often been used as the basis of European prejudices. We weren’t sure what actually constituted the border, and wanted to find out more. By journey's end, we found that nobody knew or cared much about the border. To those living along the line, it is either arbitrary or simply a novelty."
Blustery conditions for Charlie Walker in the Russian arctic.
Winds could reach up to 70mph (113kph) in the Arctic
His other major reason for the trip was to push the human body to its limits across different terrain, varying wildly from the frozen danger of the Arctic to the searing heat of Kazakstan and Georgia all the way into Turkey. "We called the trip a Eurasia triathlon, in the sense that there were three disciplines: skiing, cycling, kayaking. I do enjoy the challenge and personal growth, but it’s a way to get out to these remote parts.
“I wasn’t phenomenally fit to start off with and I didn’t train. I looked at it like a bleep test. We would start slowly and build up. It doesn’t take long to become inured to that sort of exercise. Skiing was a good one, as I used muscles I didn’t normally use, especially with the heavy weight on my legs and feet. Even more so as I never use cleats when cycling. By the end of the first month I had gone from 80kg to 68kg, and then I lost a little more after that.
“The first leg of the ski was the most physically demanding and burned the most calories. Callie arranged the food for that first month the first leg, and she weighs 60 percent of what I weigh, and we hadn’t countered that in, so I lost a lot of weight on the first leg!"
Charlie and Callie during the arctic walking part of their unique triathlon.
Charlie and Callie in snowier times
Callie, too, was taken aback by the sudden weight loss: “Charlie and I both were quite skinny after skiing over 1,000km. He was often left hungrier after meals than I was – or maybe I was just less of a whiner! But I did gradually feel stronger. I think that fitness on a long expedition is something that just sneaks up on you.”

From Russia with love

Following the three-month ski slog, the pair bought a cheap, inflatable kayak from a Russian market town and set about making their way down the border once again. Where once it had been about avoiding hypothermia, their task was now to avoid sunstroke and severe sunburn as they slalomed down rivers in the baking sun and continued their quest south.
So unprecedented was their challenge in fact that Callie and Charlie would be detained no less than three times by Russian authorities. “In the Arctic, our bright Gore Tex got us noticed and we were cordially invited into a local police station for a cup of tea, and it was soon apparent that it was more than a tea,” says Charlie.
Callie Morgigno on a kayak in Mongolia.
Unlike the cold of the Arctic, the kayaking leg was uncomfortably hot
It was a similar story on the Ural river, where the FSB, Russia’s modern-day KGB, were in full pursuit on speedboats. After a quick chat and payment of a small fine, they were allowed to carry on in the kayak. “It probably didn’t help that we were British and American," says Charlie, “but the Soviet era engendered a sense of suspicion across the country and many are still by-the-book and wary of everyone else. People were baffled by us, as nobody travels this way, especially foreigners. They don’t see any outsiders in these parts at all.”
However, the hairiest moment with authorities was still to come. After finishing the kayaking leg and moving onto bikes for the final part of the journey, the pair found themselves in Georgia, crossing a river to avoid a roadblock in the belief it would shave some time off their trip. In actual fact the pair had unwittingly strayed into South Ossetia, a newly declared state taken in conflict from Georgia by Russia in 2008.
Not even Siri could get them out of this one: “We’d followed Google Maps on a smartphone but, because America didn’t recognise the breakaway state as an independent nation, the border wasn’t marked down,” says Charlie.
“Thirty seconds after wading through the river a military jeep roared up behind us and out jumped a soldier. The first thing I noticed was that he had a Russian armband, which I thought was strange because the Russian border was about 50 miles north. It turns out South Ossetia is only recognised as a nation by a handful of countries. We were handed over to the South Ossetians, who banged us in a cell for the night. As far as they were concerned, we were potential spies.”
Map of Charlie Walker's route with Callie Morgigno on their unqiue triathlon.
The pair's route took nine months to complete
Handed some not-so-subtle reading material, which included a book on the history of the CIA and KGB, the pair shared a cell with big bars and no windows, waiting a whole night to use the toilet. The following day they were taken to court and fined about £10 each, taken to the border, marched through some big concrete defences and past a minefield, then handed over to Georgian authorities. A waiting delegation of 15 people included representatives from the UK embassy, the US embassy, Georgian Ministry of the Interior, the Georgian Minister for Tourism and Police. Despite a testing 24 hours, Charlie and Callie continued on their quest.

The final push-bike

Back in the saddle and geared up for their final two-month stretch, Charlie and Callie pedalled over 70 miles (113km) per day on the cheapest bikes they had been able to buy. What's more, following some serious heat in Kazakhstan, by the time they approached Turkey, they were finally starting to enjoy it: “After the gruelling and freezing ski and then the gruelling and boiling kayaking, cycling every day felt like a holiday, mad as it might sound," says Charlie. "We gave ourselves two months to cycle from Kazakstan and finish in Istanbul, so we didn’t have to push too hard relatively speaking."
Callie Morgigno poses with her bike up in the mountains during a unique triathlon trip.
The pair rode bikes across Georgia, Kazakstan and into Turkey
As they inched closer to the finish, with eight months behind them, it almost didn’t feel real for the duo. “The finish line started looming when we were still six weeks away," says Callie. "So, in a way, arriving in Istanbul felt somewhat anti-climactic.” Nonetheless, the pair shared an embrace: “When we got to our finish line, we had a sweet little moment, where we held hands and scrambled down some rocks to dip our hands together into the Bosporus, and deep down I was actually sad – sad that it was all over."
Life in the freezer may have taken its toll, but it would appear this was one journey that proved a heart-warming success.
Catch up with Charlie Walker's forthcoming adventures at Cwexplore.com