Will Gow and Henry Worsley flew out to the Yukon on February 10th to take part in the 3rd Arctic Ultra Race.
The race is a 300-mile non-stop self supported human powered race over a maximum of 8 days. It is across some of the world's most remote and inhospitable terrain, following the trail of the Yukon Quest Dog-Sled race. From Will's journal:
Feb 11th 2005
Eventually arrived in Whitehorse, the capital of the Yukon, after 24 hours of travelling. 21,000 of the 30,000 people that live in the Yukon live in Whitehorse. That leaves 9,000 people in 482,000 km2.
Henry and I had no idea what to expect: it was like a provincial town with an air of excitement as the start of the Yukon Quest only 2 days away.
Day spent exploring Whitehorse, buying last minute things (a very good way of expending nervous energy!) and meeting the other competitors. Today was polar survival training day - where we had the opportunity to test all our kit and ask all our questions before heading out onto the trail.
Sunday, February 13th
The start of the 21st Yukon Quest on a beautiful and sunny day with temperatures at -30c, a perfect day for the dogs.
This epic event takes place every year, covering a 1000 miles between Whitehorse, Yukon Territory and Fairbanks, Alaska during the depths of the Arctic winter, the Yukon Quest is the "Toughest Sled Dog Race in the World."
The Yukon Quest Trail follows historic Gold Rush and Mail Delivery routes from the turn of the 20th Century. Once a travel highway of the Northern frontier, the trail comes alive each February with the breath of hundreds of sled dogs. Teams of one human 'musher' and 14 dogs, travel for two weeks, racing through some of the last pristine wilderness remaining in North America.
The Yukon Quest is dedicated to excellence in canine care. Quest mushers are coaches, cooks, cheerleaders, and companions to their dogs. The dogs are bred from stock that survived and thrived during the Klondike Gold Rush, no animal on earth can match them for endurance, dedication and their ability to perform in the extreme conditions of the North.
The Spirit of the Quest is still true to its northern soul. Mushers carry mandatory equipment, food and supplies at all times. They cannot replace their sleds, and are not permitted to accept any help, except in Dawson City (the home of the Klondike Gold Rush) the half-way point along the race route. Ten checkpoints lie along the trail, some more than 200 miles apart. Teams are truly on their own, relying on a combination of toughness and skill, the commitment and endurance of the dogs, and sometimes luck.
The race route runs on frozen rivers, climbs four mountain ranges, and passes through isolated, northern villages. With temperatures hitting 40 below, 100 mile-an-hour winds, open water and bad ice all working against the teams, the Yukon Quest is a true test of the capacity of humans and canines, and a tribute to the strength of the ancient bond that unites them.
The start of our race, the 3rd Yukon Arctic Ultra. The course follows the first 300 miles of the Yukon Quest and follows a very similar format, with the major exception that our race is all human powered: foot, bike or ski.
The majority of competitors participate on foot. There was one mountain biker who completed the course, and also a skier who had withdraw at 100 miles due to the terrain.
It was a great relief to be underway. Our first day was the marathon entrants race day so we were joined by many other competitors, mostly locals intrigued by such a race. There was a 4 hour mandatory stop over when we reached SIR North Country Ranch, where our sleeping systems and stoves were tested. This was a frustrating stopover, as I was keen to get on and start chipping away at this huge distance.
Our next checkpoint was 37 miles away, over some very hilly terrain. I left the mandatory stop at around 10pm with the plan to travel for about 6 hours before bivying out for 3 hours rest. The first night out was an exhilerating experience, walking through the snow covered trees; however that was shortlived as the difficult terrain began to physically take its toll. By the following afternoon I was begging for the next checkpoint but it never seemed to come. Eventually Henry and I summited a steep hill and around the corner were a couple of orange tents - the Dog Grave Lake checkpoint.
We rested our very sore feet and ate some very good stew, but after 4 hours I had to move on - I couldn't sleep at this checkpoint and knew I was better off on the trail, at least making some progress. I continued into the early hours of the morning until I needed to rest my feet - it was a very cold night at -26C and I didn't want to sleep for too long. After 4 hours rest I was on the trail again and what a beautiful morning it was. Henry caught me up and we took a few photos and did some filming which was a pleasant diversion.
The scenery was quite beautiful as we travelled through forest trails and undulating hills; however it was physically brutal and Braeburn, the next checkpoint, could not have come sooner enough. By around 2pm I arrived exhausted but delighted as this was the first significant marker. I had completed a third of the race: could I really carry on like this for another 200 miles? This thought kept going through my head - 200 miles was an unknown distance to me.
Braeburn was the finish for the 100 milers and there was definitely an air of relief, for those who had finished. I decided after eating the largest burger I have ever seen and catching some rest that it was time to push on. There is nothing worse than hanging around those who are celebrating and relaxing when you know you have hardly scratched the surface of your challenge.
February 16th, 20:10
I plunged into the darkness of night, on what was to be the most challenging section of the course for me. The terrain of the course changed dramatically from miles of forest trail to traversing miles and miles of flat frozen lake. It was considerably colder on the lakes, and although physically the going was easier, physcologically it pushed me to the edge. I seemed to make no progress on these lakes - the trees in the far off distance never got any closer and time seemed to have come to a standstill. My brain needed some stimulation, I felt as I was being starved of my senses.
By midday, I had had enough: I could not understand what I was doing traipsing across the Yukon and thought of all the other places I would rather be; time had stopped, I wasn't making any progress - this was all a nightmare.
A 20 minute rest, some food and after I had given myself a serious talking to, I was in a better frame of mind - I knew I must be near the Ken Lakes log cabin checkpoint - if I made there I would be okay. I started counting down the marker posts: anything to get the mind away from the negative thoughts I had been experiencing.
Eventually I stumbled into the cabin, only to find someone snoring there! This could not be: all I wanted to do was sleep.
I stayed there for 3 hours to let me feet rest and had some food. It was then time to push on and amazingly life improved. It was another very cold night and sleep deprivation was kicking in: the trees were making some interesting shapes and with them covered in snow it was like entering a dream world. Suddenly, as I stumbled out of the forest onto the lakes I was greeted with the most spectacular northern lights and an incredible halo glowing around the moon. This was an awesome sight and I felt if I made Carmacks, the next checkpoint, with time to spare before the cut-off time I would complete the race. This was a great boost and with a wonderful sunrise over the Yukon River I felt as if the gods were smiling down on me.
I boldly strode into Carmacks around lunchtime on Feb 18th, having been spotted by the camera crew that morning. I was definitely feeling more positive and had a good chat with Henry who had arrived about an hour before me. He showed me the blister on his little toe - it looked very painful - but gave me some confidence as my feet were still holding out. After several hours in the local community centre I headed out for McCabe Creek.
The next few hours were uphill as the trail weaved up an old mining track, running parallel to the Yukon River. Soon the trail levelled out and the rest of this section was very fast. As usual I bivvied out for a few hours at around the halfway mark. By now, I was getting accustomed to the monotony of the polar plod but had started to count down the remaining number of occasions I would have to bivy down.
McCabe Creek was another remote checkpoint, a woodshed used as one of the Quest stops. However it was comfortable and I found it increasingly difficult to drag myself out into the cold. I left at around 7pm on February 19th, heading north off the Yukon River towards Pelly Crossing, a First Nations community.
It was a cold night, around -30c, and to my surprise I passed the halfway mark in very good time. I continued across another huge series of lakes for several hours until about 2am when I bedded down beside the trail, for what I hoped would be the last time! I heard Henry pass me by as I drifted off to sleep and to my amusement I discovered a few hours later that he had camped down about 6 kms from Pelly Crossing. I knew he would be slightly irritated that he had not continued on, but it provided us with some amusement at the checkpoint.
Although, it felt as if we were home and dry the reality was there was another 60 miles to cover before the finish. These last 2 sections were the sting in the tail: a very challenging 30 miles along the frozen Pelly River, where I went through the overflow and soaked my feet, followed by the return journey along the farm trail. The conditions were relatively mild which created real problems - I kept on going through the snow pack and it felt like travelling over soft sand - the feet took a real battering and for the first time my ankles started swelling.
After a very hard 10 hours I arrived at Pelly Farms, a wonderfully hospitable outpost. Now I start to relax which is a fatal mistake as it becomes a real problem trying to focus for the final 30 miles. I am so close to the end but yet there is still about 12 hours of travelling to go. I find some diversion during this last leg: I toboggan down the steep hills which is exhilerating and helps me start concentrating. Eventually I arrive back at Pelly Crossing at the finish line at 7.50pm on the evening of the 21st.
What a weight off my shoulders, to relax and know I can rest probably. It was an incredibly brutal race, partially due to its relentlessness but also due to the terrain and the cold. From the psychological aspect this was a very good training race having to get used to a vast wilderness with no mental stimulation. You have to get into the zone.
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