A member of the prestigious Explorers Club, Vallely broke the world record for the fastest unsupported trek to the South Pole
Architect Kevin Vallely has made something of a habit of taking on mind-bending expeditions. After all, he’s skied Alaska’s daunting 1,860-kilometre Iditarod Trail, scampered through Vancouver Island’s West Coast Trail in record time, retraced a 2,000-kilometre, Klondike-era ice-bike route and broken the world record for the fastest unsupported trek to the South Pole.
But the North Vancouverite’s most memorable trip isn’t any of those. That honour belongs to a 45-day journey paddling the Mackenzie River (Canada’s longest) with his wife and two daughters (then aged 10 and 12).
“It was pretty hard,” Vallely recalls with a faint chuckle. “Had aggressive wolves come up to us, all sorts of stuff. And at the end of it, these little girls were so empowered in so many ways. That’s the most satisfying thing for me.”
Vallely’s introduction to finding his way in the wild came at an even younger age, in a very different environment. Born to a pair of non-outdoorsy Irish immigrants in Montreal, he and his younger brother once lost track of their parents when they were nine and five years old, respectively.
“We got separated from our folks in a department store and got kicked out onto the street by this overzealous security guard,” Vallely remembers. “I realized it was up to me to get us home somehow. I didn’t know where home was, didn’t have money; we weren’t even dressed for the cold because we’d come in from the bus. Over the course of several hours, I made our way home—found one street I recognized and followed it like a handrail until we finally got there.”
Fast-forward 35 years and the member of the prestigious Explorers Club, who came to Whistler to hang out with a friend and stayed in B.C. after hiking Black Tusk and falling in love with the province, was setting records.
His 2008-09 trip to the South Pole took “33 days, 23 hours and 55 minutes, to be exact,” says Vallely, whom the Globe and Mail named one of Canada’s leading adventurers in 2003. “The reason I remember it so well is that we were very much gunning for the world record.” The previous record was 40 days, so Vallely and his partners—expert explorers Richard Weber and Ray Zahab—more or less smashed their target time.
There was more to the journey than that, though. “My dream had been to ski to the South Pole, so [the record] was just gravy,” Vallely says. “It wouldn’t have mattered one iota personally; it just created a bit of a buzz for media. Other than that, who cares? You’re out in the middle of nowhere—it’s just a pole, and there’s an American base, and that’s that.”
Of course, Vallely isn’t out exploring the Arctic every weekend, but he tries to do something active each day to keep in shape. That’s often mountain biking, trail running, hiking or road cycling in the summer months, and it’s almost always cross-country skiing in the winter.
“I did 107 days of cross-country skiing this year, the most I’ve ever done,” he says. “At 56, I can’t just stop for a while and expect to go right back on.”
Vallely still has one more big trip left in the tank, but he’s coy on the details. “It’s going to be next February in the High Arctic, with myself and Ray, and it’s never been done before,” he explains. “It’s going to be arguably one of the coldest treks ever undertaken. But it’s a legacy thing for me, one last major expedition.”
Kevin Vallely runs his own firm, Vallely Architecture, of which he’s the only full-time employee. “I take on projects I want to do,” says Vallely, who has an architecture degree from McGill University. “I realized a while ago that if I can pick stuff I want to do and am inspired by, the product will be better.” He mostly does projects around B.C., including recent jobs in the Okanagan and Pemberton Heights. Vallely also works as a facilitator for U.S.-based talent development company AIP Group and recently co-wrote a book, Wild Success: 7 Key Lessons Business Leaders Can Learn From Extreme Adventurers.