ExWeb interview with Sarah McNair-Landry, it was odd to have to worry about finding water

Posted: Jul 17, 2009 03:47 pm EDT

Brother and sister Sarah and Eric McNair Landry of polar fame recently did a kiting expedition across the Gobi Desert for a change; swapping sleds for custom buggies.

ExWebs Correne Coetzer caught up with Sarah in Toronto for a chat.

Explorersweb: What was your initial aim with the endeavor and how did it change or stay the same?

Our expedition to Mongolia was a follow up to our Pittarak Greenland expedition two years ago. We knew we wanted to do another expedition using kites, but also wanted a new challenge.

One night the three of us sat around a world map, scanning the different counties when we came across Mongolia. There is a desert in Mongolia right? We should try to cross it!

Explorersweb: How did your group dynamics change when Curtis left?

Curtis was a great friend and an amazing team member, we had shared so many great experiences together and it was sad to see him leave.

When he left, the expedition became redefined. With just the two of us, we felt it was a bit less safe, which meant we had to work together even more, and keep an eye out for each other.

We also realized to make it to our end point we had to change the way we had been traveling the last 10 days. We leant a lot during the first week, which made us more comfortable with traveling with less water, and we started pushing harder, putting in longer days, and hauling more.

Explorersweb: Was it the first time that the two of you were on our own in an unknown wilderness? How did you get along?

When we were young, I was probable 8 and Eric was 10, we decided that we wanted to do an overnight hiking trip by ourselves. I remember my patents made us practice camping on the back porch, putting up the tent, and lighting stoves before we were able to head out on our own. From then on, Eric and I and usually some friends would head out on camping trips.

Its great traveling with Eric, because we know each other so well. We both know each others strengths and weaknesses so there are no surprises during the expedition. We also both have very similar travel styles and goals, to travel light and efficient, have fun, and document the trip thought pictures and video.

Explorersweb: What specific tasks did each one have?

Most duties, such as the cooking, navigating and blog updates were shared. However we each of us had our field of expertise. Curtis, being a photographer had the duty of taking the pictures, and also as pharmacist he dealt with first aid.

Eric took charge of the electronics and keeping everything recharged, and built our webpage.

I was the team cinematographer and during pre-expedition planning was in charge of sponsorship, gear, and equipment.

Explorersweb: What was your biggest surprise?

When we first came up with the idea of crossing the Gobi desert, none of us knew anything about Mongolia. We researched and read up on the country, but I still only acquired a vague notion of what to expect, everything was a surprise.

The biggest unexpected challenges were the winds and the terrain. The winds and weather were unpredictable. They were not only gusty, but would switch direction within seconds. We encountered a lot of dust devils; small tornadoes of sand blowing across the desert. When they hit you, within in seconds you would be lifted out of your buggy and crash down on the ground.

The terrain was always challenging. Between the steep hills, the salt marches, and the thorn bushes we never knew what to expect ahead.

But there were also welcomed surprises. The people were so incredibly friendly, and would go out of their way to welcome us into their homes. And we never had any trouble finding wells and water along the way.

Explorersweb: What would you do differently if you were to do it again?

We both learnt so much about desert travel from accomplishing this trip. If I did it again I would spend more time experimenting with a system that would clip the kite strait to the buggy (to avoid us being lifted out). I would also bring smaller kites (2-3 M storm kite), and leave the larger ones behind (14 M).

Explorersweb: How was this different and the same as a South Pole expedition?

Antarctica and the Gobi are both harsh desert landscape, but beyond that the two expeditions were completely different. Coming from a background of polar travel, it was odd to have to worry about finding water, enduring the heat, and dealing with sand storms. Local Interactions were another obvious difference.

Explorersweb: How did you handle the sand storms?

Our first sand storm hit minutes after we waved goodbye to Curtis. With no visibility, we took shelter in our tent. The winds were howling, so we carefully pegged down the tent and waited till it cleared. By morning it had died down enough to kite.

The smaller sand storms we would either travel thought, completely covering up our faces and wearing our goggles, or curl up in the seat of our buggies and wait for them to pass.

Explorersweb: And the temperature? Was it very warm? Day and night temps?

When we first arrived in Mongolia in early May, there was a big snowstorm. The temperatures varied, the overcast and windy days were often cold. But when the sun came out and the winds stopped blowing, the temperature would increase up to 35°C.

With no shade and limited water the heat was unbearable, especially for two people who grew up in Northern Canada! Later in the June, it was too hot to haul through the mid afternoon, forcing us to haul early in the morning or late at night.

Explorersweb: How do you feel at the end?

From day 1 we were behind schedule, which is mentally challenging. Even though as a team we stayed optimistic, our end point always seemed just out of reach. The last week we were extremely unlucky with the winds, and we were pushing hard. Reaching the town of Saynshand, our planned end point, was such a huge relief.

But instead of stopping there, we continued 15 km past the busy town and ended at a peaceful tourist ger camp. It was a perfect end spot, we were able to relax and eat good food. And when the winds picked up, we headed back out for a final kite ride.

Unfortunately there was not much time to relax after the expedition. I had just enough time to repack by bags and catch a plane to Toronto were I am now, working on editing a short documentary on waste management in the north.

Sarah McNair-Landry was born on May 9, 1986 and lives most of the time in her Hilleberg tent. She works as an adventure/polar guide and in the film industry. Her hobbies are dog sledding, kite surfing and kite skiing. The latest book Sarah read is, Untamed adventures in Mongolia. As for food preference, At this moment in time, anything fresh! she said. Her music choice right now is, Kings of Leon.

During the Spring of 2009 sister and brother, Sarah and Eric McNair-Landry and their friend Curtis Jones, all from Canada, attempted a kiting expedition across the Gobi Desert, Mongolia. They started their adventure on 16 May, but Curtis had to leave the expedition 10 days later due to family reasons. Sarah and Eric carried on. The team used three-wheeled buggies powered by their kites or pulled by themselves in no winds. The expedition ended on 17 June.

Previously, in 2007, Sarah, Eric and Curtis kited together along a vertical route on Greenland and pulled sleds.

Sarah and Eric undertook several polar expeditions with their father and mother, the polar guides, Paul Landry and Matty McNair, on Antarctica and in the Arctic. In the 2008-09 Antarctic season Sarah guided an ALE team from Hercules Inlet to the South Pole and kited back to Patriot Hills.


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Sarah kiting in her buggie (click to enlarge)
Greener fields (click to enlarge)
Pulling during windless times (click to enlarge)
The team of three (click to enlarge)
Mongolian children. All images courtesy of Eric and Sarah McNair-Landry (click to enlarge)