The Yukon Arctic Ultra

 

The following is an extract from my book on the Yukon Arctic Ultra.  This is a 450-ish mile race across the Yukon Territory in northern Canada, during their sub-Arctic winter.  The race was my first single-stage (i.e., continuous) multi-day race, during which I would sleep knowing that other racers might be closing in or getting further ahead.  When I first competed, in 2009, the race had only be held once before, and then nobody had finished when temperatures dropped below minus 60 Celsius and racers were held at checkpoints for safety.  In 2009 I was one of a handful of competitors to make it to the finish, in the toughest physical challenge of my life, having faced blizzards and temperatures down to -50C.

 

To Indian River

 

I sat there upon my pulk and atop the plateau, glad that I had chosen to make the effort to get here rather than take the break near the base. I looked back over the ground I had just passed, at the river running alongside the flat ground, with its relics of the industry that once thrived here. I was not sure if it was the air that had become less chilled, or I that had become warm from the day's efforts, but I found myself sitting there enjoying the sun immensely. The willow trees were short over to my left, and there was no white snow supported atop their branches, but rather ice hung instead like large clear baubles underneath. As I sat there, fuelling up for the mountain ahead, I enjoyed another perfect break in bliss. 

   I finished up and continued on my way, with a sense of anticipation and impatience to get stuck into the most demanding scramble of the race. Following one steep climb Greg (snowmobile driver) found me, and I was duly informed that I still had a short way to go before I got onto the mountain proper, and he hoped he would see me at the summit for some photographs as the sun set. 

   The climb was certainly gentle enough at first.  I had not even noticed I was gaining elevation but for when I gazed down to my left and saw the river falling away beneath me. Then the trail began leading up. It became steep and for the first time at walking pace I was puffing and beginning to work hard. Resting was not as easy as I might have liked, as the weight of the pulk behind me would pull me back whenever I paused for breath. The best I could manage was to take a few breaths as I lent forwards onto my poles. 

   The trail would work its way up, steeply, and then curve off to one side and then back again, always obscuring a view of the top.  All I could see was one short section at a time, which saved me from the potentially overbearing realisation of the full beast from early on, whilst simultaneously betraying promises of a summit after each turn. 

   Someone, either Greg or Klaus or Joachim, had written the names of various peaks, such as K2, in the snow at various points on the way up. I was not ready to surrender to any such likeness just yet, but this was nevertheless an entirely new experience for me. I had climbed mountains before, and I now had some experience of hauling a pulk about, but lugging the thing up a mountain was an exclusively new adventure. The time to grin and bear it - to grit ones teeth and fire up the eyes - had most certainly arrived. 

   I was feeling hot, on the brink of sweating, and with a quickened heart rate and greater depth of breathing. I was managing well though, and without any doubts of my imminent success upon the mountain. However, despite being only a day and a half from Dawson City, I was calling upon my body to muster efforts greater than ever. 

   The last mountains I had climbed were in the Lake District and Snowdonia, about a year earlier, and I was of a sufficiently sensible mind not to have been dragging a pulk when I had climbed them.  Here, my legs were becoming warm and I was growing hot, but I did not welcome the idea of stepping from the trail and getting the pulk perpendicular to it for a good rest, only to then have to negotiate it back out to get going again. I kept Helvellyn in mind, considering that this was of a similar height, and I knew I would reach the top soon. Eventually, and not before time, I could see a point where the end of the visible trail presented a plateau, and only a paltry fifty metres further up.  It had to be the end of the climb. 

   To my left there was an opening in the trees, revealing the Black Hills and the valley all round, with the sun setting upon it.  I staggered left, hauling my pulk off the trail, bringing it to a secure rest in the deep snow at right angles to the incline. The harness came off and I retrieved my camera from the pulk bag. Just because I had managed an enormously tough climb, I could find no excuses to miss a sterling photo opportunity, along with an astonishing view and realisation of how far I had travelled from Pelly Farm. The sun was setting directly ahead of me now, the louding sky aglow with dark orange tones and magnificent reds. 

   The climb so far had been justified by this view alone. The elevation seemed incredible, as I looked out at all the shorter hills around me, for I could see none higher than this. The hills out from Pelly similarly held no candles to this one, and yet those had been harder than anything that had come before them. I could taste success in the air now; a dangerous thought indeed, but I was relishing the challenge and knew that soon I would have only King Solomon's Dome ahead of me, a far easier climb according to the maps. 

   Greg had advised me that when I reached the summit there would be a short descent and then another climb before I would commence the main descent proper. I arrived at the summit and the trail led me clockwise from the south around to the north side and then due east. I searched ahead along an adjoining ridge to the peaks out in front of me, but there was not one I could identify as being on the logical route of the trail. A long and shallow descent would be followed by a gradual climb, but where could the climb be? 

   I seemed to remain moving along the top of the ridge for hours. The views in the failing light were beautiful but alluded to this being a dangerous time to be so exposed. The cold, the night and the winds would all be threatening my safety soon, and I needed and craved the protection of the valley of Indian River. 

   As I progressed away from the summit, around the horseshoe and along the ridge, the maddening truth of reality settled in.  The ridge was wide but the winds were being funnelled up to me on both sides; the night had descended upon me and in the darkness the invisible winds were buffeting my clothing hard. 

   I felt entirely exposed, mostly because I was, but there was nothing for it but to rely on my kit and stay focussed on making good progress. The ridge was far sharper and more aggressive than its mere outline suggested. The going was daunting, for I knew that I was generating warmth by motion now, but would soon be forced to stop for food and fluids, before being able to descend into the security and relative warmth a little lower down. I would not be riled by the knowledge of the dangers of this; I knew what I was doing was absurd, but then it was never supposed to be easy. Without conscious intervention I soon realised that I had gathered speed. 

   Small ups and downs and plenty of flat sections abounded. It was cold now and clouds obscured the starlight. I was still continuing along the high mountain ridge between peaks, fatigue searching for a way in, but adrenaline was focussing my mind on swift progress from these heights. I would not have wanted to be on Helvellyn after dark in the winter, let alone a high exposed mountain ridge in the sub-Arctic. 

   I told myself it was madness. I was not in a normal situation, but then if I took each of the factors in turn - the ground conditions, the temperature, the gentle yet threatening wind and my own fatigue - then I knew I could deal with each potential cause of danger with whatever I had about my person. I had the best kit, and had not been really cold once. I had protection, I had warmth and I had food and water. No, what I was doing was not normal, but it did not have to be because I could deal with it regardless. And that was all that mattered. I kept pressing on, forcing a strong pace and looking ahead across the ridge and the peaks for where I might be led down into the valley. 

   An hour after reaching the summit I was still exposed to the strong cold winds that were being funnelled up to me. How could I ever justify that this was not pure recklessness? Would the reality that this was all in the nature of the race make everything all right and entirely excusable? Hardly. In what world would I consider it a reasonable thing to be this high, and this exposed after dark in an environment such as this? 

   During the winter months in Britain I would ensure that I was making my way off a mountain long before the sun had set.  What made my current situation fine and acceptable? It was a question I had no answer for. My whole focus was on what was required to begin the main descent and reach relative safety. Perhaps even more questionable then, was my decision to stop and take a break up there. 

   Ideally, I would have been off the top off the ridge, but as I could not perceive for how long I would be up there, I had to assume that my current predicament would continue unabated. I was at risk of dehydration so I needed water, and some food would help to fuel me to Indian River and keep me warm along the way.   When I came to sit down, though, the relief was immense. I melted into the pulk bag and all of the tension that had built-up during the climb and rush around the mountaintops was released into the earth, causing me to feel instantly refreshed and peaceful again. I felt the cold attacking my clothing too, as it searched and probed for a way through. 

   I maintained focus on timings during the break; I had to be on the move again before I cooled down. I also needed to reach Indian River before I became too dehydrated. The water was beginning to freeze within the thermos flasks now; the caps had been frozen in place and had taken some effort to crack free. 

   It was not that I had an insufficient capacity to carry water; it was that the spreading ice within the flasks threatened to steal my water away from me. I did not want the delays of melting snow for water, particularly if I had nothing serviceable to pour the water into. Were I to attempt to drink directly from the metal pot, I would then have the excitement of working out how to detach the pot from my lips to manage. 

   On the move again and I found it was not merely the elements that were trying to test me. Fatigue now wanted to join in the fun too. Once more the sleepmonsters were coming out to play. As I headed down one short descent I spied a beast stood by the side of the trail. Frozen in time the ten-foot giant leered across the trail, awaiting the moment that I would pass along directly in front of him. 

   A part of me still knew that it was just a tree; its top metre or so bent forward over the trail due to the weight of snow; snow which had built up on that rounded top to give the appearance of a head, with a large dark eye created by a circular area devoid of snow in just the right place. I knew it was a tree with snow on it, but my eyes were fixed on it during the approach and as I passed. As I moved in front and beyond I stared over my right shoulder; waiting for him to pounce out after me. He let me pass; perhaps he had already laid a trap for me further along. I remained vigilant to this as my encroaching tiredness clawed after my pace and attempted to freeze my momentum. 

   By the time I began my descent into the valley I was feeling exhausted. Where oh where was the checkpoint? How much further could it be? I descended into another mining area, the trail snaking its way through. The associated machinery and buildings gave me something to stare at and focus upon. An old dormitory building looked appealing as a safe shelter. But I did not wish to stray so many metres through deep snow for the sake of a break, and I expected to arrive at the checkpoint in good time to sleep for the remainder of the night. To the front, the hills on the other side of the valley were silhouetted by the starlight, and wisps of what at first appeared to be cloud betrayed the subtle movements of the Aurora borealis, its green tinge the irrefutable confirmation. 

   As the trail led around a right turn I came across the five-kilometre marker for the checkpoint. I did not believe it. I did not think that I was close enough yet, and the sign had only rarely been used during the race thus far. I stopped and looked around, half expecting someone to jump out and declare that they were just kidding, and that this was all a part of some absolutely hilarious ruse. I even made the point of tapping the sign a few times with my trekking pole, rather firmly to be entirely honest, just to check if it was, as far as my senses could discern, really there. 

 

 

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