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An icy trek warms students to the possibilities

A duo hiking across Russia's frozen Lake Baikal aim to inspire and educate about sustainability.

March 05, 2010|By Nicole Santa Cruz
  • Students at Millikan Middle School in Sherman Oaks watch Ray Zahab in Siberia.
Students at Millikan Middle School in Sherman Oaks watch Ray Zahab in Siberia. (Gary Friedman / Los Angeles…)

It's 40 degrees below zero on Russia's Lake Baikal and the cold is debilitating.

Ray Zahab and Kevin Vallely are traveling 26 miles every day, sleeping four to five hours a night, battling snowstorms and consuming freeze-dried meals of spaghetti and chicken tikka.

Though the duo, who started out with 110-pound sleds, are attempting to cross the length of the frozen lake in 10 days, this isn't another extreme sports feat.

Instead, it's an attempt to educate and inspire more than 8,000 students in 37 schools across the country and Canada, as the explorers communicate via satellite from halfway across the world. A school in Germany and one in Russia are also participating.

"It's about showing young people that you apply yourself no matter what," Zahab said Friday by telephone from the world's largest freshwater lake.

In 2007, Zahab and two others ran across the entire Sahara Desert in 111 days to raise awareness for clean water in Africa. The trip was documented in the film "Running the Sahara," narrated by Matt Damon.

But for Zahab, 41, that wasn't enough.

So the former pack-a-day smoker founded impossible2Possible, a Canadian nonprofit that uses adventures to inspire and educate students about sustainability. The organization joins with educators to bring experiential learning to elementary, middle and high school students.

In 2008, Zahab and Vallely trekked 700 miles to the South Pole in nearly 34 days, blogging and shooting video along the way. Students could interact with the duo via their website.

This year, the organization added high-tech satellite equipment so students can chat live with the explorers through Elluminate, a program that's similar to Skype. The students can also track the men's progress. In addition, all participating schools are raising money for water projects in Africa.

On Tuesday, about 40 students at Robert A. Millikan Middle School in Sherman Oaks sat eagerly at their silver iMacs, awaiting a call from Zahab from Siberia.

The students had spent weeks communicating with the explorers for their trip and were ready to see Zahab and Vallely in action.

The night before, the men had been in an intense storm during which 4 inches of snow blew inside their tent.

Mark Dohn, a science teacher, fiddled with a laptop as he tried to coordinate the call from Siberia.

As is sometimes the case with technology, the video satellite didn't work, but students nonetheless got to ask the explorers questions, including "Do you dream?" (no) and "How do you use the bathroom?" (in a bottle).

Shea Sahm, a sixth-grader with shaggy brown hair, said he was skeptical of the adventure at first. But now, he said, this morning science class has become his favorite.

"It's like a social service project," he said.

Days later, Melissa Meeker, an eighth-grader, clutched an iPhone hooked to a speaker to ask Zahab if he sometimes can't sleep because of the cold.

Melissa said learning from Zahab and Vallely had inspired her to use less water. Her once 40-minute showers have been reduced to 15 minutes.

"It's making me more grateful for the things I have here," she said.

Erik Denning, the math and science chair at Temple Israel of Hollywood, another participating school, said the energy between the sixth-graders in the class and the men on the expedition is "palpable."

"It's just a whole other world," he said. "They might as well be on Mars."

But the Siberia expedition won't be the end for the duo. In April, Zahab and other explorers will join five students on a 10-day, 200-mile trek across Tunisia.

"I don't even have a college degree," Zahab said.

Zahab said the changes he's experienced since starting the expeditions are surprising.

"If you told me then that I would be doing what I'm doing right now, I'd say you're bananas."

nicole.santacruz @latimes.com

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