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In 2005 Will Gow and Henry Worsley took part in the brutal Yukon Arctic Ultra Race.
Here's Will's explanation of what happened in a letter to his sponsors.
I cannot begin to thank you enough for the incredibly generous sponsorship you gave me. The 3rd Yukon Arctic Ultra Race in February 2005 was by far the most challenging event I have participated in, and I am delighted to report that on completing the race your sponsorship raised a sum just shy of the £10,000 target - however there are still cheques to come in which I hope will take the total above that figure.
The money is going to fund a groundbreaking research programme that could relieve symptoms and prevent the progression of disability in multiple sclerosis. This will have a massive impact on MS sufferers as it will enable them to lead relatively normal lives.
I have been in the country for a couple of months now and the swelling in my feet has gone and the weight is back on. For those looking for new dieting methods I can recommend this race - I lost ¾ stone in 7 days! The pain has long gone and there are just memories. However, I look back at the race in awe: words like brutal and relentless spring to mind.
Not only was it extremely physical, traveling 300 miles within 8 days across the Yukon wilderness it was also very psychologically challenging with sleep and sensory deprivation being a constant companion. To make matters worse this year was comparatively warm, with temperatures averaging -20C, which caused softer than usual snow conditions so that sinking into the snow became a real problem.
It was, however, a real privilege to experience the Yukon in the midst of winter. The size of the place is awesome: just a fraction smaller than Spain it contains many huge mountain ranges and is the source of the great Yukon River. Of a population of 30,000 inhabitants, 21,000 live in Whitehorse, the largest town, leaving the rest of the Province virtually uninhabited. The race started in Whitehorse; however it only takes a couple of miles until you are away from it all. Solitude and boredom are two themes competitors learn to deal with early on. When the mind has little to focus on the smallest niggle becomes a huge issue which can rapidly affect your mental outlook.
The major pre-race concerns were predominantly the distance - the whole concept of 300 miles in 8 days was a complete unknown - how was I to pace myself? I had never raced more than 150 miles (7 days) before - how would my body cope with another 150 miles in the equivalent of 1 more day?
Other concerns included the prospect of encountering hungry bears that had come out of hibernation - how was I to deal with such an encounter and was it likely to happen?
Also, I experienced the very real fear of what would I do if I broke through the ice whilst traveling over the frozen rivers and lakes.
It is generally accepted that, if you make it out of the water, you have about 5 minutes, to set up a tent, light a fire and change your clothing before you get severe hypothermia. Fortunately, I came no closer to danger than getting my feet wet in overflow.
The race itself follows the trail of the Yukon Quest, the famous 1000 mile dog-sledding race from Whitehorse to Fairbanks in Alaska. About 25 dog teams take on this trail every year in February which is the coldest month. It is a grueling event for these teams and many fail to complete the course. This is a similar story to 108 years ago when thousands of prospectors first broke this trail in their quest for gold in the Klondike. Hundreds perished in the brutal Arctic winter as they were ill-prepared for such an environment. Little has changed in this wilderness since then and it still remains a mighty challenge. It was along 300 miles of this trail that 17 of us were to race on foot pulling all our own equipment in sledges.
We set out from Whitehorse on February 14th 2005, the day after the start of the Yukon Quest. This was useful as the dog teams had blazed a trail for us; however it didn't take long until the monotony of the trail began to eat away at our spirits. The race soon became a psychological game whereby we paced ourselves around the various checkpoints strategically placed every 50-60 miles.
We would travel for hours without seeing anyone nor hearing anything except the pull of the sledge and the crisp crunch of our feet leaving their impressions in the snow. It wasn't uncommon to travel continually for 12 hours and more which became particularly difficult at night. As tiredness overcame us it was quite usual for hallucinations to occur and I certainly remember one occasion when I realized it was time to rest as I found myself having a conversation with a tree!
The constant pressure to keep moving, to complete the course within the 8 days, made resting very difficult. I found myself working to a system whereby I would try and complete half of a section between 2 checkpoints before stopping for a few hours. Here I would get into my sleeping bag and relax in the snow for 4 or 5 hours. Fortunately I took a loud alarm clock with me which I would purposely hide in my bag so that I had to get up to turn the damn thing off.
This ensured I would continue, as you can imagine getting up at -20/30 is not easy. I would then continue onto the next checkpoint which would take another 10 or so hours. These stations were log cabins or tents, occasionally a school building in one of the few towns or a roadhouse, as at Braeburn. However, they all provided us with a brief sanctuary where we would 'put our feet up' to try and minimize the swelling in our feet; and also get some hot food inside us. Ironically I found these stations too hot to sleep at and so I would move on after a couple of hours.
The course of the trail itself varied enormously. The first 100 miles was very much through forests and up and down hills, which proved physically very demanding. Then the trail changed dramatically as we traveled down onto the frozen lakes. The temperature dropped several degrees and the flat expanse of the lakes become mentally draining as we appeared to make no progress. This for me was the hardest part of the race and I had to give myself a good talking to; however having got beyond this half way point my spirits began to improve.
The trail conditions seemed to get better as well, as the further we went into the interior, with the snow pack being much firmer. By this stage in the race the field was spread very thin with only 7 of us still competing so we very rarely ever saw anyone during this part of the trail. Mentally this was much easier as I was now on the way home; however the trail still had its challenges particularly the last 60 miles. The penultimate 30 miles was over the Yukon River through the rubble ice and overflow. It was here that I broke through the ice but fortunately only sustained wet feet. The final 30 miles was unbearable: I was so near the end but there was still 10 hours of traveling to go and time seemed to come to a standstill.
Eventually, after 177 hours out on the trail I crossed the finish at Pelly Crossing on February 21st at 7:50 pm. I was delighted to be 4th overall but there was more a feeling of sheer relief at having completed the distance and at last I could relax and enjoy a cold beer, which I had been dreaming about for the last few hours!
Thank you to all my sponsors, your pledges on completion certainly helped me focus!
May 9th, 2005
As most people know, keeping the noggin warm is critical for being warm generally. If you favour balaclavas as I do, you'll need to bring a variety to cater for different conditions and so you can replace the one you're wearing when it's iced up.
Outdoor Research's Gorilla balaclava (below) is brilliant, with a detachable velcro mouth cover that hinges off when iced up, allowing you to scoff and refuel without exposing your head to the elements. It's also made from slightly stretchy windproof material, which is critical in order to avoid frostbite. I've cut out the mouth cover on mine to be able to breathe better, and to look ever so slightly more human.
Another original design of balaclava is made by a company called Psolar. It features a simple heat exchanger which uses the air you breathe out to heat and moisturise the air you breathe in. I've not yet worn it in anger (well I have, but only for the inevitable Darth Vader impressions) but if its makers' claims are true, it could be a real find.
Neither the OR Gorilla nor the Psolar balaclava are sold in the UK and had to be ordered from the USA.
If you prefer hats to balaclavas, you'll need something to protect your nose and mouth from frostbite. One solution is to sew a windproof fleece flap beneath your goggles, which seems to work well.
Whichever system you use, a fur ruff sewn/zipped to your hood is indispensable. It deflects the wind and keeps the blizzard away from your face. Wintergreen Designs can supply these.
Finally, goggles, or occasionally very strong sunglasses, must be worn pretty much all the time, to protect against both the cold and the sun. Henry suffered from snow blindness after not protecting his eyes whilst training one day in Baffin Island and was in serious discomfort. And that was during an overcast day!
Click here for the next installment.
It is critical that we get our nutrition right. We will be working extremely hard day in day out for 80 days, pulling twice our bodyweight behind us in extremely low temperatures over variable terrain. This requires massive amounts of energy.
On average, people consume around 2000 calories per day. We will need in excess of 5000 calories as a bare minimum and even then, we stand to expend more energy than we take on. This leads inevitably to weight loss as your body slowly starts to consume its fat supplies and, in extremis, your muscles.
So why not take more food? Weight is of course the key here. Fat provides the greatest amount of energy for its weight, however it is difficult and slow to digest, which is not much help when you need to replenish your energy supplies immediately to put in another two hour stint. So, we will consume a very high quantity of carbohydrates during the day, in the form of energy bars and drinks, together with nuts, alongside more fatty foods such as cheese and salami (both of which we all crave when training). At night, we will feast on freeze-dried meals of various sorts.
All our drinking water and the water we use to make up the freeze-dried meals comes from boiling snow, which is one resource which we won't have a problem finding! We'll be taking two 4 litre titanium Evernew pans with us for boiling snow (see above for a rather uninspiring picture of an empty pot). These took ages to source and ultimately we bought them from REI in the United States. Titanium is much lighter than stainless steel and just as hard-wearing for items such as pots and pans.
Our bowls and spoons are made of lexan, which is a very light and nigh-on indestructible form of plastic. Titanium is out of the question here. In the extreme cold, a titanium spoon will stick to your tongue, which is highly entertaining for everyone else but less so for the poor soul rendered speechless.
The stoves we'll be using are MSR's time-honoured XGK EX afterburners (below). The XGKs have practically no adjustment in flame size, are difficult to ignite and aren't that light. However, they are probably the most reliable expedition stoves ever made, which makes them indispensable.
It was as I was leaving school that I first became intrigued and gripped by stories of the Heroic Age of polar exploration. Amundsen's meticulous planning and Scott's tragic death were great and noble stories but it was Shackleton's extraordinary Endurance escape and the journey of the James Caird that enthralled me most. But as time moved on I needed to feed an appetite that wanted to learn more about the man, his leadership skills, his triumph over adversity, what drove him on and his other passions.
So I then started collecting anything about him and his expeditions I could lay my hands on. Books were of course not hard to find but I searched out signed copies, first editions and other artefacts that had any connection to Ernest Shackleton. My collection continues to grow and now includes the copy of South that he gave his parents, inscribed 'To Mother and Father for Christmas, with love from Ernest Xmas 1919'.
In 2004 I had a rare opportunity to visit South Georgia which enabled me to get as close as possible to tread the same ground that he would have done on the Endurance and Quest expeditions as they lay over in Grytviken. And although it may seem rather odd I camped out for a night in the whalers graveyard and lay my sleeping bag down beside his grave and the granite headstone which inscribes his name.
To lead the expedition with descendants of the original team to celebrate the centenary of the Nimrod is a massive undertaking for me and to follow the route he took will fulfil a lifelong ambition to connect in a major way with what he achieved. But setting out to close the last 97 miles will be a huge prize and I hope will prove to be a fitting legacy to the original expedition in the centenary year.
But it is the Shackleton Foundation that will endure over time and that is what is most important to me. I want people of any age group and background to come forward with a bold, innovative and useful idea that embodies Shackleton's spirit - and I want to be able to make their dreams become a reality and enable them to step into the arena and take forward their daring idea for the betterment of others.
Our house is filled with worn-out Shackleton memorabilia and paraphernalia: rich in sentimental value, much less so in actual economic value. Above the stairs hangs a four feet by four feet sepia-toned picture of Frank Wild attending to a couple of his dogs. A carved box taken from The Discovery containing a variety of medals and a small walrus tusk sits next to the computer monitor. I could go on here and talk about the wealth of Antarctic literature taking up our living room, or the well-worn wooden skis hanging in our garage.
It seems that having an ancestor that traversed the Antarctic leaves you a rich legacy of knick-knacks and jew-jaws. There is another more important legacy however, and that is the lessons that you can take from the experiences that members of your own family have undergone.
Frank Wild was my great great Uncle: the Uncle of my Gran. Growing up learning what members of your own family have tried to achieve, and where they have succeeded and failed gives you a greater sense of history and purpose. This is magnified when you look at the scale of what Shackleton and his men tried to achieve, bearing in mind the technology at their disposal at the time.
To be the first to reach the South Pole, to have a dream and to go about trying to achieve that dream is inspiring. What is more inspiring is not being afraid of failure. It is this point which strikes me as the most important legacy of Shackleton and the brave men that accompanied him on his missions. To have the strength of character to turn back from the geographic Pole 97 miles away from a place in the history books, after all the cajoling, organisation, money-raising and effort that had gone into getting there in the first place shows a recurrent theme in Shackleton's thinking: that of the welfare of his men above all else.
His man-management is something that countless people have talked about, written books about, and delivered lectures on. In my own humble opinion, it seems that by taking his ego out of the equation, Shackleton was able to both lead and be one of the men, thus ensuring a greater sense of community within his group. This sense of community was crucial to the setbacks that both he and his men endured, and made them stronger as a unit.
The legacy of Shackleton is something that should be both studied and celebrated. It should be both studied and celebrated as it offers the valuable lesson that anything is possible if you set your mind to it. This is the lesson that I have personally taken from the achievements of Shackleton and his men. This has helped to drive me onto bigger and better things, as I realise that even if I fail, I end up further than if I had not tried at all: something which is not encouraged enough today.
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