The eighth day he was out on the ice, Scott Gilmour’s eyes started to feel like jelly. They wobbled around in his sockets, and when he looked out, the world seemed like it was smeared with goo. Gilmour and his two companions had been facing headwinds for hours, walking on ice as hard as steel. They needed to find a campsite, to get out of the gale, but if they didn’t encounter deep enough snow they would have to waste hours trying to twist screws into the ice to hold their tent down. Gilmour’s legs ached from the unforgiving terrain and from switching between boots and skis. The weight of dragging the pulk with their supplies tugged at his waist, and his eyes, straining against the arrival of evening, were now so cold that it was becoming difficult to focus.
Temperatures on Lake Baikal, in southern Siberia, consistently dipped to negative-20 Celsius. The ice beneath them was around three feet thick, the frozen wintry crust of the lake that stretched to the horizon. Though they kept close to the northern shore, the trio hadn’t set foot on land in eight days. This was part of their plan, to be the first team to cross the length of the lake from southwest to northeast in a record-breaking 12 days during the winter season. For more than a week they had walked or skied for hours at a time, taking few breaks and sleeping only after days that were often 16 hours long. Fighting winds to try to find a place to pitch their tent, they were still hundreds of kilometers away from the endpoint of their trek: a pier at the northern end of the lake that would mark the completion of their expedition route.
From the beginning, the men knew that the last part of their race would be the most grueling. By day eight, when Gilmour saw through smeared vision, the final push was about to begin. After rounding a 114-kilometer-long island in the middle of the lake, one of Gilmour’s companions, Mike Stevenson, starting worrying about the pace the men were keeping. Short nights of sleep and the crushing monotony of the endless expanse of ice gave him time to run the numbers over and over. If they logged 50 kilometers a day, they would be within striking distance of their target. But he knew they had already missed their goals during the first few days, and how easy it was to fall behind the pace. As the three men trekked across open lake after leaving the coastline of Olkhon Island, freshly fallen snow had crunched underfoot, dragging at their shoe soles.
Once they reached headlands and set up camp, they went through the arithmetic together. It had been a tough day, and between the snow and the stinging cold, they had only managed to log 40 kilometers. It wasn’t good enough. Not that they were in real peril if they didn’t make it; this wasn’t a race against dwindling rations or changing seasons. They were prepared to spend more than two weeks on the ice if they needed to. Besides, they could have walked off the lake and into a nearby town at nearly any time. But this was about something other than survival. They were after the world record, and they didn’t merely want to set it. They wanted to set it spectacularly. They wanted to shave off 24 hours from the previous best time. Because they had a plan. First, they would demolish the Baikal record. Then on to Greenland. Then, eventually, Antarctica.
Each step depended on the one before it. Because Antarctica was a distant dream, difficult to obtain; one of the remotest places on earth, and the birthplace of explorers’ legacies. Scott Gilmour, Mike Stevenson, and Rob Trigwell wanted a shot at it. But first, they had to cross the lake. Spectacularly.
It’s not clear whose idea this was. Stevenson remembered talking to Trigwell about a trip to Baikal while they shared a tent during an expedition in northern Sweden. It could have been Trigwell’s, since he had a fondness for research and a scholar’s interest in adventure. Gilmour, as the most experienced of the group, with his own expedition training company and a trip North Pole under his belt, may have been the first to mention it. But Stevenson, who thought of himself as the muscle of the British trio, knew immediately that he was game. Expeditions are expensive, and a trip to Antarctica can cost tens of thousands of dollars. Unless there is private financing, getting sponsors is the best bet for reaching the remote continent or undertaking other kinds of ambitious expeditions. Lake Baikal, on the other hand, is only a commercial flight of a few hundred dollars from Europe. And breaking Baikal records could set them up to pursue support for bigger trips.
Baikal is also very inhospitable. The previous record-setters for the traverse, Kevin Vallely and Ray Zahab, wrote of their crossing in 2010 that “for two men who’ve previously run across the Sahara, biked the Iditarod trail, and trekked to the South Pole, this expedition has proved to be one of our toughest.” In a series of dispatches for Outside magazine, Vallely and Zahab described facing raging gales and snowstorms so savage that they were kept awake at night. The humidity can leave gear soaking wet, and there is the constant danger of cracking through the ice—especially near the mouths of Baikal’s tributaries, where rushing currents keep the water from freezing even during the coldest months of the year. In the winter, Baikal is visited by a wind fierce enough to have been given its own name: the Sarma, a katabatic wind that sweeps down from the ridges along the western shores and blasts across the icy surface.
This combination of extreme conditions and accessibility made Baikal appealing to the three men as a staging ground for the launch of their grand crusade. “That’s why Baikal is great, because it’s not one of the big three, but it’s like, the fourth,” Trigwell told me, sitting in a cafe in the Siberian city of Irkutsk the night before the trio’s departure. “You’ve got the North Pole and the South Pole and Greenland, and then to a lesser extent you’ve got Baikal, because of the scale of the challenge.”
Trigwell had just flown in from Addis Ababa, in Ethiopia, where he worked as an aid worker for the UN. His work had taken him to Syria, Iraq, and Myanmar, but he found time to train for tests of endurance, winning, for instance, the first triathlon to be held in Jordan. Ever since he was a child, he had been obsessed with the classic Heroic Age explorers, and his bookcases had been filled with tales recounting the feats of Ernest Shackleton and Robert Falcon Scott.
Another adventurer was Trigwell’s personal hero, though, and it was this man, Tom Crean, whom Trigwell thought of when trying to explain his fascination with challenges like Baikal. A year before setting off on the Lake Baikal excursion, Trigwell had traveled to southwest Ireland to pay homage to the little-known explorer. In a tiny Irish village named Annascaul on the Dingle Peninsula in Kerry, there was a small pub set up in Crean’s former home. The pub acted as a kind of museum, since its walls were plastered with Crean’s equipment and newspaper clippings from his journeys. Born on a farm in 1877, Crean joined the British Navy and sailed to the South Pole on three expeditions with both Scott and Shackleton. Crean was only semi-literate, and never became an officer. But his reputation earned him a place in the annals of adventure lore. One of Crean’s recent biographers wrote he was, “a simple, straightforward man with extraordinary depths of courage and self-belief who repeatedly performed the most incredible deeds in the world’s most inhospitable, physically and mentally demanding climate. He was a serial hero.”
This was a man Trigwell admired. But it wasn’t just Crean’s quiet heroics that captured Trigwell’s imagination. “In the Victorian era, the class system gave access to some people and didn’t give access to a lot of people,” Trigwell told me. “For a working-class guy who couldn’t read or write to become so respected in an environment that his background didn’t really give him access to … that means he was seriously good.”
In a way, Trigwell’s expedition to Baikal with Gilmour and Stevenson was a modern retelling of Crean’s unusual career: a bid to enter the world of exploring on their fortitude alone. Adventure travel has changed dramatically in the last century, and each year seems to bring more extreme feats of pure athleticism. Trigwell, Stevenson and Gilmour knew that even if they could beat the record time with their semi-expedition-style approach, it would be challenged by an ultramarathoner who was already training to run the length of Baikal in under 10 days in 2019. So they took a light-hearted approach to the pressure; records, they kept saying, were made to be broken. But if they could hold the record for crossing the length of frozen water, even just for a short while, they would begin closing the distance to the end of the earth.
Baikal is the largest freshwater lake in the world by volume. Its surface area is larger than the country of Slovenia. It is the deepest and oldest lake in the world, lying in a fissure of the Earth’s crust created by shifting tectonic plates. At least part of the movement that led to the formation of the lake can likely be traced to the collision of Eurasian and Indian continental plates that produced the Himalaya mountain range and the plateau of Tibet. The lake, at least 25 million years old, is the pride of Russia.
Trigwell, Gilmour, and Stevenson left Irkutsk in the middle of the night, arriving at the lakeshore shortly before dawn on Feb. 28. When they set foot on the ice, it was still dark, but the sun came up clear and dazzling that day. None of them had slept the night before, too buzzed with adrenaline and excitement, and the blinding snow-covered surface stretched straight as a knife to the horizon. They made good time, though by the end of the day they were exhausted and in dire need of sleep.
The second day was cold and clear with bright blue skies overhead; strong winds began blowing in the morning, twisting up spindrift that screamed across the lake. The men walked in a straight line, and Trigwell was behind the others by about 50 meters when he stepped forward onto his right foot and suddenly sunk down to his groin. His foot had gone through a hole the size of a basketball, where two ice sheets had come apart, thrusting his entire leg into the frigid Baikal waters. Trigwell was wearing gaiters and salopettes, though, and the water didn’t reach his foot. Just a couple of hours later, as the men were nearing the tributary of the Angara river near the town of Listvyanka, Stevenson’s left foot went through a crack, dragging his right leg into the water. He didn’t have gaiters on, only vapor socks, which made sure his feet didn’t get wet. But as the three continued to walk, the fabric around Stevenson’s lower legs froze solid and his boots became blocks of ice. He said it felt like he was walking with his feet encased in concrete.
That afternoon, a deep fog descended, and eventually the men found themselves in a whiteout. They tried to follow the headlands, but ending up charting a curving route that veered north to the tributary and then south into the exposure of the middle lake. Every step became a fight to keep from slipping, and snow dragged at the pulks that were weighed down with 132 pounds of material. By the time the three had set up camp near an ice road, they had only managed to cover a little more than 30 kilometers. It was the second day of their expedition, and they were already falling behind.
They knew they could make up time if they had good days, and they tried to keep in mind the immediate goal, which was simply to trek the length of the lake without intervention or assistance, world record be damned. “We’re going to do it in the time we’re going to do it, and if we can beat our target, fantastic,” Gilmour said before departing. “But if we can’t, we’re not going to cry about it. We’re going to finish the expedition under our own power.”
On the third day, Stevenson, Trigwell and Gilmour finally crossed from sticky snow onto a seemingly seamless sheen of glassy blue and black ice. Ribs of white laced through the frozen lake like crystal lattices. The surface was harder than concrete, but it offered no resistance and the pulks suddenly seemed weightless. These were the kind of conditions the men were committed to taking advantage of, and they sped across the lake. Met with good weather and keeping up an unrelenting pace for days, the men slowly started to claw back the time they had lost. When they reached an island near the middle of the lake, the three men managed to cover 60 kilometers in one day. They were back on schedule.
Walking on Lake Baikal, in the winter, is strange. In one direction, if it’s clear enough, there is a soft outline of distant ridges, visible only as shadowy hummocks. Along the nearer coastline the hills slope down dramatically, dotted with spindly little barren trees that give the landscape relief from its endless paleness. Anywhere else is simply vast distance rendered in shades of delicate color—or, usually, a lack of it. The time of day can be told by the hues of white, which give the place a sense of boundlessness countenanced by the faintest hint of, where the sky touches down in the distance, the horizon.
On a bright day in early March, while the three men were in the midst of their trek, I went out onto Baikal to see a little bit of what Trigwell, Gilmour and Stevenson were experiencing. The lake seemed like nothing so much as a high, infinite plain. Underneath a thin blanket of snow, webbed ice stretched down into darkness. Every so often the ice would shift, making hollow, electric moans. Trigwell told me that, at a point where the ice didn’t have cracks in it, every step became like a suspension of instinct. “It’s good having the cracks because then you actually see that there is ice there,” he said. “Sometimes it’s so clear that you just have to trust it, and every step you take on the lake is like a leap of faith.”
When I walked out into the middle of the lake, skirting crystalline ice ridges, I turned my face away from the forested hills. In front of me, nothing punctured the open vista. The robin’s egg blue of the sky dissipated down to the soft white contour of the earth, and for an instant I could imagine what it might be like to chase the skyline forever.
As the three men rounded the tip of Olkhon Island and made their way back to the coastline, after battling through another whiteout late at night, they woke up to see the lake covered in snow, and their pace faltered again. By the time they set up camp that night, they had only covered 40 kilometers and Stevenson started to wonder if they would make it. He talked to Gilmour. They went over the numbers. The men agreed that their shot at the record would rely on covering a significant amount of distance within the last days, probably close to 150 kilometers, but that it was still within grasp. Much depended on the weather and the conditions they would face. But Gilmour also realized that complacency was the enemy. If they cut days short now in order to make up distance later, eventually they would be left with too many kilometers to cover and not enough time. As soon they started relaxing into the prospect of taking the record, it would slip from their grasp.
They decided to do away with the tent for the last 42 hours, switching into a more aggressive approach and just using a bivy for a short rest. Usually, when night fell, at least one of them would start to flag. But now, no one faltered. The record was in sight, and this kept them going. They walked until midnight, built a wall out of snow and a small trench for cooking, slept two hours, and roused themselves to continue onward.
As the sun came up in a pastel haze, the men found it difficult to focus. They staggered through the morning. By evening, it became an effort to summon thoughts, as the effects of sleep deprivation wore them down. Night fell as a surreal twilight. Gilmour opened his jacket to let the freezing winds keep him awake. He became fixated on getting a hot tea, some scrambled eggs.
Finally, the pier appeared. When they reached it, in the middle of the night, the three men looked at their watches and paused. As one, they stepped off the lake. Twelve days, 21 hours, 13 minutes from when they departed. They had broken the world record and taken 18 hours off the best time. Spectacularly.
For Gilmour, Trigwell, and Stevenson, it may have been the scale of the feat itself that enabled its fulfillment. “I mean, these are big dreams,” Gilmour said about their Greenland and Antarctica plans. “But if I sit around going, ‘What can I do?’ and it isn’t grand, and it doesn’t have ambition behind it, then I’m never going to get to do it.”