Yann Couillard, mountain leader (Azimut Rando) is known in Courchevel for his snowshoe outings and igloo evenings in winter. You can also meet him in spring observing marmots and in summer, he organizes survival camps. What is actually less known is that this wilderness enthusiast has carried out three incredible expeditions to the Arctic. Let's take a look into these polar adventures.
Where does this thirst for adventure come from?
Everything begins with a dream, then is becomes real, step by step. For me, everything was triggered about 18 years ago, global warming was beginning to become a legitimate topic, the areas which I was attracted to were already facing this reality. I wanted to explore those fragile environments.
Tell us about your first expedition in 2008, Greenland
It was not necessarily on my list of destinations, but during a stay in Iceland that I loved, Icelanders told me "You liked our country? Greenland is its XXL version!". That made me want to make this discovery. I left Ittoqqortoormiit, on the north-east coast. The local policeman helped me to find a place where I can put my tent (where I wanted to camp, a bear had been seen two days before!) This month-long expedition, I did it in a kayak because it has the advantage of being able to store up to 150 kg of equipment.
What were the highlights of this adventure?
I was alone, without GPS or satellite phone. Every day, I was amazed, even when the weather was bad. Because of big waves along the shores, I have been thrown into the water twice! I met some seals, one even followed me for two days, musk oxes (whose charge can be deadly), many birds, hares… In the Scoresbysund, I found myself in an iceberg factory, navigating on the ice, I had to break it to move forward.
Then you traded your kayak for a pulka during your second adventure in March 2010 in the Nunavut area...
The idea was to do a 600km travel in the tundra and taiga, following the steps of Samuel Hearne, an 18th century explorer. I took off from Yellowknife with two Parisians who are passionate about Inuit culture to arrive in Kugluktuk.
What struck you the most in the Nunavut area?
We walked (rather skied) in the footsteps of the First Nations, the Dene, to the Inuit. The Dene were very happy to see people moving forward on their own, without snowmobiles. We offered them coffee in the middle of a frozen lake, it was quite incredible because the Great Slave Lake or the Great Bear Lake are almost inland seas! We advanced in straight line on it. Where it was more difficult was in the forest. In the powder snow with the pulka, it was more complicated! We crossed some animals: wolves (by far), hares, ptarmigan, etc.
Last expedition, but not least, the Svalbard, a bear-inhabited area...
Yes, they are estimated at 5000, more than the number of inhabitants! The preparation was full of twists and turns because the Norwegians are very strict about the laws. You have to show your credentials, prove that you are autonomous and aware of the dangers, that you can set up a procedure against the bear, that you have the financial means to pay for the rescue, etc.
I left by kayak from Longyearbyen on June 4th, 2012 for a 400 km journey to go up to the north of the island of Spitzbergen, 1000 km from the North Pole. After two days of sailing, I took a break in a Russian settlement where I was invited to sleep. Russian dancers had just arrived to give a performance the same evening, it was completely unexpected!
Were there other encounters?
In Ny-Alesund, there is the most northern polar base in the world where the Paul-Emile Victor Polar Institute is located. Scientists work there permanently, they are not very fond of explorers but they did not chase me away and I even managed to get a shower!
Did you see any bears?
No bear, a regret but a relief at the same time because it is hard to manage. I had a fright once because, around 3.00am, a sandpiper got caught in my anti-bear fence which surrounded my tent and triggered the explosives: I went out quickly with the rifle! The advantage over there is that it was always daylight, so it is less scary, it takes away a lot of stress.
No bears, but Svalbard reindeers, a short-legged species, which can support violent winds, often kept me company. I also met geese, petrels, terns and very curious ringed seals. I think a whale came around me at some point because I saw its fin!
A new expedition is planned, where will it take you?
In Russia, the goal is to ride a van from the North Cape in Norway and to reach the Bering Strait while trying to stay as close as possible from the Arctic circle.
To conclude, which adventure would you recommend to go on in Courchevel?
A hike to the Rateau lake, the path is not marked, you need a map. It is pristine, you can see ibexes. I also recommend the Rocher de Plassa for its breathtaking views : a beautiful hike with a 1000-metre elevation gain and ropes to hold at the end, when you are at the top, in the middle of a majestic rock cathedral.
To know more about Yann's adventures and see more pictures : www.odyssee-arctique.com