Lessons in solitude
– with adventure filmmaker and endurance athlete Caroline Côté
Caroline Côté is a polar explorer, endurance athlete and filmmaker. Allured by the diversity, power and beauty of nature, she’s created a number of documentaries connected to the topic of outdoor exploration and connection – and in doing so, has spent a great deal of time in some of the most stunning outdoor locations herself. Based between Canada and Norway, not only is she drawn to telling the stories of others in the outdoors, nature is also one of the primary inspirations behind her own expeditions.
Most recently, in November 2022, Caroline kicked off a solo expedition in Antarctica, skiing solo, non-assisted 1130km to the South Pole from Hercules Inlet. And she broke the record – becoming the fastest woman to reach the South Pole unassisted, in just 33 days, 2 hours and 53 minutes.
A longtime dream of hers, the expedition was about pushing herself beyond her mental and physical limits in one of the most remote and potentially treacherous parts of the world. But more than that, it was about breaking down stereotypes around women exploring such places and paving a way for more women to follow in her footsteps. And since the journey ended, she has certainly inspired the outdoor community around her, and plans to support another female explorer friend undertake a similar solo journey in the near future.
She is also a beautiful storyteller and an incredibly warm person who has reminded me of the power of stories and sharing our experiences. In contrast to the harsh environments she's used to immersing herself in, Caroline is softly spoken and gentle – but there is a clear sense of purpose and decisiveness in her words and actions. Whether it be an expedition like Antarctica that she commits to, or the choice to create a documentary on a particular topic of environmental conservation she believes in.
In search of more
Caroline believes everyone should adventure outdoors, and perhaps even better, into the unknown. Siting the healing powers of nature as another key inspiration for her explorations. Stepping into the unknown is a familiar experience for Caroline at this point. Well before this expedition, she took a leap of another sort – leaving the corporate world behind her to pursue what she felt deep down was the right path for her. The path she now walks.
“Go in search of silence, shiver in a gust of wind, soak up the scent of lichen and the wet earth beneath your feet, accept solitude, be lulled by the evening breeze, brush the morning dew on the stalk of a fern…it is for these reasons that we [leave to explore]. To encounter the extraordinary in every detail of our existence on this planet and to become better people than we dare, to face loneliness in distant lands…”
When did you decide to leave your corporate job, and why?
I was quite young, 23. I was working in a publicity and comms agency at the time, and one day I broke down as I felt there was no meaning in what I was doing. I wanted to work with people who inspired me – people who had more openness about the environment and more adventure in them. I was not really in a good place in Montreal to meet those people.
I felt lost, and this is when I decided to quit. It was like a fire inside me that kept growing and growing, and my goal was to initially start spending time around people I found more inspiring. I met three guys and we set off to go on a canoe adventure and this is where it all kind of started.
This canoe trip, and a trip I had done back in Antarctica in 2013, these two experiences had really emboldened me, and during, I also felt I found my way of sharing stories with the camera.
In many ways, it was sharing these stories that gave me the courage to quit. Because I wanted to speak to people with my images, and communicate with people in that way about my experiences.
Were you afraid to quit? What were peoples' reactions to you changing careers and chasing your dream?
I was afraid. Because my dad was a chemist and biologist. He was more focused on “traditional” forms of work and for my parents, they never saw someone doing my job …it was quite new. Being an adventure filmmaker isn’t something you were doing 15 or 20 years ago so much. So I was confused and scared when I told them, but also because there was some risk in the choice, so they worried if I could do it and make a living.
But in the end, I was really happy about my decision. All my friends at the time were also going on lots of adventures and I started going with them. It was so fun to change my week into a 7 day week or 5 day week, you choose, you know? I love that about being an entrepreneur. You can work with who you want and when you want. And others around me, they saw that I had more energy for them, for myself, and so they were happy.
For others that have that desire to step out on a personal quest of their own, do you have any words of encouragement or advice?
If someone wants to do the same, and change up their way of living or their 9 to 5, one thing I want to say is…always be close and listen to this voice inside you that says you should do it. Because it relieves a big pressure when you don’t feel you’re being true to yourself – when you listen to that voice.
It can be so difficult sometimes to change our way of living, but if it means something to you and it feels natural to you, it is the only way.
Tell me more about the drive behind your latest expedition? Why was it important to you to break down unfavourable stereotypes around being a woman in the outdoors? At first I didn’t think it was important to break the record, but now I am super happy about that because I know it helps to give me a voice to speak to other women. And that is important, as I wanted to speak about women in adventure through my experience, stories and film – about what we can do. I wanted to speak about strong women in the adventure world and encourage more collaboration between women, and I wanted to share the idea that anything is possible.
I wanted to accomplish this dream because I wanted to also show a path for women in the future to do it. To open a way for more women to do polar adventure. It is a small world, and there are many men, but women can do it too.
How did you prepare for the expedition?
So I prepared for the expedition with my husband Vincent (fellow polar explorer Vincent Colliard) and the Norwegian Community of Polar Adventure. Norwegian people have a lot of experience in cold regions, and I am intrigued by this unique mentality and relationship they have with nature. They’re good with technical stuff – camping outside, skiing, finding food out there, compared to Canada. In Canada we have another way of doing these sorts of things. So I prepared a lot with them.
But I also prepared to suffer mentally each day. To experience difficult situations outside, and I was ready to be alone out there. Also with navigation with the compass. And fitness wise, I ran a lot, which I enjoyed as I already trail run.
What was the experience like? What lessons did you learn?
Each day I had highs and lows. My lesson about that was that everything can change in a minute. I could be super sad because it was so difficult, and then in the next minute I would experience one of the best moments of my life.
This is something I’ve never experienced before. And I find it hard to find the words to describe it. It was just super intense. I learnt that whether it was a high or low, you have to let both pass. I love that.
This is what adventure allows for you when you’re alone, and traveling in these conditions and polar situations. It is so pure, it is pristine emotion. It is…super condensed.
What did it mean to you to complete the expedition and to have done so in a record-breaking time?
It showed me that I was able to manage my life and I was more than fine to be alone. Being alone is something I look for more now. We are in a world where everything is going so fast, and now, I prefer the way I was living in simplicity out there, in the elements. Without my phone, without my email and social media.
My vision was clearer, so clear, after. And this is why I’d want to go again.
Who are your biggest inspirations?
I would say Swiss explorer Sarah Marquis. She has done some incredible things. In my eyes, she is a proper adventurer. She walks a lot, long distances. And she’s an author and writer. I like the way she creates – really good books and stories that inspire me. More than just an adventurer, she is a thinker and is really creative.
Also Liv Arnesen. She was the first woman to ski solo and unsupported to the South Pole in 1994, and one of the first people to take on the expedition.
I know Norway has really impacted you deeply. Do you have plans to spend more time here?
Norway is a place where I can be myself surrounded by nature. In Canada, you have so many restrictions to accessing nature – even a simple walk in the forest. Parks and natural places near my home are often crowded and difficult to access, with a price to pay. I feel it's the wrong way to proceed if you want to bring more people outside.
Norway is a magical place where I feel free to explore. Its people know how to camp in wintertime – they will always be happy, whether it's raining or snowing or blue skies, they just wear the right clothes. I feel this way of embracing nature is the best way, it aligns with how I like to be in nature. So in the future, we’ll be living partly in Norway, in Nordskot. So I need to learn more Norwegian! I would love to relocate full time and grow kale and carrots!
All images by Caroline.