Following my first successful completion of the Yukon Arctic Ultra in 2009, I returned in 2011 with the intention of pushing myself harder and finishing better.  Considering nobody had finished the 450-miler prior to the 2009 race, I had focussed purely on finishing in that first year, whereas I permitted a greater level of recklessness when I returned in 2011.
 
 
 
The Yukon Arctic Ultra 2011

Returning to Whitehorse

By Mark Hines

 
 
"There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged
to find the ways in which you yourself have altered."
 
- Nelson Mandela
 
John was bringing two pulks with him from Dubai this year, which was fortunate, considering I had already destroyed one bought before Christmas, following a few enthusiastic days of training in the Brecon Beacons. Although the hills had been covered in snow, there was an abundance of rocks along the narrow footpaths, which had scratched away at the sled's base. The pulk I used in the Yukon in 2009 had been left with a friend who, as chance would have it, would not be in town before the start for me to retrieve it from. So, the transfer of my baggage through Vancouver airport was relatively smooth, and I soon met up with John in the pub, where we enjoyed a traditional clam chowder that was so magnificent I have entirely forgotten whatever I chose to follow it. In a change from the 2009 race, John, like me, had elected to bring a beard along with him.
   We arrived in Whitehorse shortly after midnight. We failed to be surprised when realisation came that John's pulks had been abandoned in Vancouver, as seemed to be the normal operating procedure of Air Canada's Jazz flights. The aircraft were small, the plane fairly filled, and the unusually bulky luggage too much to be sent along with its owner. A respectably tense couple of days followed before the pulks caught up with us, during which nobody had been able to confirm much about when their arrival was to be expected. Those racers in the know had left the services of Air Canada in Vancouver airport, from where they continued their journey with Air North, who were far more generous with baggage allowances and their efficiency at transporting pulks and the like.
   I had been elated at the airport, despite the lack of a pulk, when I noticed a television screen above the baggage conveyer relaying the local weather forecast. In the weeks prior to the race the temperature had soared from lows of minus fifty Celsius, to an ultra-balmy few degrees above freezing. Had such warm conditions remained we would have had a soft and mushy trail to travel, with feet sinking deeply into the snow and the pulks acting like ploughs. An increased risk of open water along the river and lake routes would also have presented serious concerns. And so it was that I read with glee, how the weather two days prior to the race would be enjoying a high of minus seven, the next day a high of minus twelve, and with the race due to commence with temperatures at a far more civilised minus seventeen. The predicted night-time lows of minus twenty-seven were also perfectly acceptable. With the Yukon Quest departing from Whitehorse the day before us, the trail could be expected to be compressed and hardened perfectly before we runners and so on were unleashed.
 
 
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In difference to our initial visit in 2009, this year John and I had elected the High Country Inn as our home base. The rooms at the River View had been more spacious and less expensive, but the High Country was the central hub of all things Arctic Ultra-related. Another difference was that this year John and I would not be able to enjoy Chantal's company prior to the race, as she was at the time travelling back from Ontario by road, and would not reach Whitehorse until after the race had begun.
   Not only did this leave us a friend short, but during our first visit Chantal had been kind enough to take us everywhere by car, to help us obtain all the last minute kit we had not been able to obtain in the U.K. This time we were on foot, although fortunately we were far better prepared and better organised, and aside from a pair of Neos overboots and a few food items, there was not really anything that I needed. Well, except for a serviceable sled of course.
   The sleds, or 'pulks' - depending on preference - had yet to arrive. Not only that, but the rigid hauling shaft to secure my pulk to my harness had not been received prior to my leaving home, and so I only had a rope instead. A rope is fine for very flat surfaces, but over bumps, lumps, hills and mountains it is a nightmarish and even dangerous. More energy is required as the bungee-like rope extends away as the body drives upwards, but over bumps in the trail it jolts and jars the lower back every time. My anxieties had been calmed by news that I could rent a pulk once in Whitehorse, but with all the local shops out of stock I now only had the organiser left to save me. As it turned out, my rental pulk would only be available from the hundred-mile checkpoint, so I would be doing just shy of a quarter of the race with ropes. Still, such things come to try us and to test our mettle, and all we can do is smile and embrace the challenge. Far from ideal it might have been, but the struggle is the glory and all that.
   In 2009, John and I had been accompanied by a third, Sophie, and all three of us had failed spectacularly in getting ourselves organised for the final part of the YAU's survival training course. The course had culminated in a walk to Whitehorse's Hidden Lakes, during which competitors dragged their sleds and kit for a couple of hours to these frozen lakes, upon which they then set about getting their stoves going, preparing themselves a hot meal, and trying out their sleeping kit. We had been late. Our pulks that year arrived on the same day as the training course, and by the time we had thrown into our pulk bags all the kit we felt we required, the others had already left. We had, however, been triumphant in what followed.
   That year, not knowing the location of the Hidden Lakes, we had managed ourselves like bloodhounds, and deployed ourselves eagerly from the hotel in red hot pursuit. We spent a useful couple of hours following the others' tracks, and eventually came close to the lakes just as they were returning. It had been a useful opportunity for us to test our kit when sled-hauling, as the various stop-starts - as things came apart or dropped off - hopefully meant we would undergo no such inconveniences during the race. For 2011, however, John and I could not have been better prepared. Boy scouts, had such things been lurking in the area, could have taken lessons from us.
   This year we left the hotel in the middle of the afternoon, whilst it was still light, and took a fairly direct route to the Hidden Lakes. There was no pulk-testing this time, chiefly because they were yet to arrive, and so we had simply bunged a few essentials into rucksacks and made haste whilst the sun still shone.  From the lakes we headed up onto terra firma, and located a flattish area where a fallen tree presented itself at perfect bench height, and neighbouring standing trees were far enough apart to offer protection from any breeze, but not so close as to compromise the safety of having a fire on the go.
   John and I set about collecting dry firewood, most of which came from fallen trees. The air was dry, so although cold the dead branches would burn well. When John asked how best to insulate our bench, I tasked myself with gathering up a good collection of spruce branches, which not only insulated but cushioned luxuriously as well. We had a roaring fire going, and by the time we came to stamping it out and ensuring no signs remained, we had enjoyed some delicious clam chowder soup, a freshly prepared and filling pork balti with rice, and a refreshing herbal tea. It was our only regret that we had not thought to bring steamable puddings or the like. We departed just as the horde arrived for their survival training, and we were satisfied that our efforts had done us proud. We were feeling a little more at home in a wild land.
 
 
* * * * * * *
 
 
In the morning we graced the nine o'clock trail briefing with our presence. The conflab had been anticipated to finish in good time for us to attend the start of the Yukon Quest. Trail conditions were said to be good throughout, after various teams from Quest support and local rangers had broken trail all the way between Whitehorse and Dawson City. The Arctic Ultra snowmobile team advised us that provided we remained on the trail then we would be just fine. Take a step off it, we were told, and due to the overflow we would get wet. We were also reminded that although all trap lines should have been removed or made safe, it would be in our best interests to check the ground with our trekking poles, before leaving the safety of the trail to bivi. We needed to keep our feet for transport.
   The Yukon Quest was as thrilling as ever, and it was wonderful to see just how excited the dogs were as they lurched, bounded, ran, yapped and barked their way across the line and down onto the Yukon River. There was something in the way we all cheered and supported the mushers, as they rode off on their way, which resonated in me: it would be our turn next. We would have nowhere near as many supporters to see us off, but nevertheless I believe there was a common ground which we and the mushers shared, probably unthinkingly on their part, for they had enough to think about, and their journey would be more than twice as far or ours.
   We were heading off into new adventures, in an environment that was both stunning and potentially dangerous to us all. The greatest risk to the sled dog teams was probably open water; to have the dogs fall beneath the surface with the sled following, as the strong currents and thick, silt-dense, icy water carried them away. In John Balzar's book on the race, he begins with what might be a common nightmare amongst the mushers; to be dragged down by momentum, weight of equipment and strong currents, down into the depths and far, far away from the hole through which they fell, which would almost immediately be disappearing from the extent of their vision.
   It would be highly unlikely that we Arctic Ultra racers could share such a fate, but the risks of severe frostbite and/or hypothermia were very real. Most of us who live far from the equator have at one time or another had hands so cold that the fingers were numb, perhaps to the point where it became difficult to fasten a zip or turn a key in a lock. Imagine the same feeling or worse at minus fifty degrees Celsius, where exposure for seconds could lead to fingers freezing.
   How would you look after yourself? How would you start a fire if you lacked the strength and dexterity to strike a match? How many times would you try before giving up and resigning yourself to suffer a slow death in the cold, or, despite the temptation to panic or otherwise lose control, would you rewarm your hands under your armpits or by your groin, or insert hand warmer pads into your mitts, and focus on improving circulation until normal function had been restored, and then trying again with that fire, using your teeth if you had to. Time is precious at fifty below. It is about three times colder than my freezer, and fingers lose their strength in seconds.
   In reality, most of us racers required only the strength and dexterity to send a help signal on our SPOT devices, but even so that help could take several hours to arrive, and in the worst conditions even days. If we lacked the basic knowledge and skills to take care of ourselves, then we should have chosen a less demanding race, somewhere warmer where personal safety is not such an ever-present and serious concern. I could not have predicted this before the start, but 2011 would be one hell of a year for frostbite. I would be one of the only competitors not to succumb to frostbite proper, but even my superficial frostnip was sufficient to ensure I type this with two fingertips partially desensitised, and the thick blisters only now coming away from the healed skin beneath. This would be a cold year for the YAU, and an entirely different beast to that of my first experience here in 2009.
 
 
* * * * * * *
 
 
During the banquet, my pre-race nerves were as nothing compared to their position in 2009. I was feeling confident, and pleased that the weather forecast was looking so promising. The conditions seemed good, and all I had to do was keep putting one foot in front of the other, until I reached the finish line in Dawson City.
   The only matter that had been concerning me was the start. In 2009 I had begun at the back, facing the wrong way, and was by no means fully prepared for that which lay before me. The fact that I made it to the end at all was one of the reasons for my present confidence. But I had begun at the back and stayed there for the race. Well, I had made some solid progress but then everyone I passed dropped out, which kept me unfairly at the back, tantamount to some sort of cruel conspiracy, but nevertheless at the back I had remained.
   This time I had promised myself I would do better. I had inconsiderately even published such intentions in my book on the race, stating I would be going for the win this time round, content though I would be with second, third, fifth or whatever, just so long as progress and efforts had been superior to those of my first visit. What had I been thinking? Yes I wanted to do better, but to actually publish that so everyone around me knew I had such a goal? Every person I had ever heard state they wanted to get a good time or place ended up being scratched early on, often through poor personal management and the frostbite that followed. Now I was setting myself up along the exact same lines. I could only rely on my previous experiences to give me some confidence I really could do better,
   The consideration that had been dwelling most on my mind, was how much I ought to run in the beginning. I could not bare to be caught in a line of competitors as in 2009, as that would mean being restricted to the pace of the slowest person in front, and then losing ground if I needed to take a break. Overtaking would be challenging, because as soon as one leaves the trail the world tends to become filled with incredibly deep snow. As Klaus had so eloquently put it following a day on snow-swept lakes in 2009, "Yes, whenever I was standing up to my balls in snow, then I knew I had stepped off the trail."
   This time we had the added risk of getting wet too. Hence, overtaking competitors was a difficult activity, and typically required squeezing passed along the narrow trail, with the person in front doing what they could to give way. For the sake of convenience I wanted to get ahead in the first couple of hundred yards, before the trail descended onto the Yukon River and narrowed.
   John and I did not remain at the banquet long, but showed our thanks to the support staff who were introduced to us all, ate only a little of the food available (for we had an abundance to get through in our rooms, purchased in the days following our arrival), and we desired to check and re-check all our kit before the morning's start. Such we did, and soon enough settled in for our last night in a hotel bed, before the commencement of our respective journeys towards Dawson City.
 
 
 
Although I have now completed the Yukon Arctic Ultra on three occasions (and plan to return in 2015 for a 1000-mile journey along the full Yukon Quest route), my 2009 race was the most important.  My book on that race reflects the psychological and philosophical journey that it was, as I became a more well-rounded endurance athlete, and was able to observe the similarities amongst those who finished, and what appeared to be common reasons for others to drop out.
 
 

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