Shackleton Centenary Expedition

Northern Exposure July 09 2007

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!

William Gow
May 9th, 2005

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