Yukon Arctic Ultra
Thursday 30 January 2020
At 10:32 am on Thursday 30 January 2020 63 runners set off from Whitehorse in the Yukon which is a wild, mountainous, frozen and sparsely populated Territory in north-west Canada. At the start there were relatively balmy temperatures of -8°C. Attempting a 100 mile ultra were 20 athletes (19 on foot and one on a fatbike) while 21 athletes (mostly on foot except for two on fatbikes and one on cross-country skis) were hoping to survive the 300 mile event. The rest were running the marathon distance. However, it wasn't long before temperatures plummeted below -30˚C and competitors battled to pull heavy pulks (sledges) through soft snow.
The Montane Yukon Arctic Ultra (YAU) starts in Whitehorse in Canada's frozen north-west in the Yukon. The route follows that of the Yukon Quest race in which mushers use teams of about 16 extremely fit and strong dogs to pull their sledges 1,000 miles to the finish. The dog race reverses direction each year - sometimes starting in Whitehorse and finishing in Fairbanks in Alaska and on alternate years the route goes the other way. When the Yukon Quest starts in Whitehorse the YAU offers a choice of 100, 300 and 430 mile options. In 2020 the Yukon Quest started in Fairbanks so to avoid a clash of events somewhere near the middle only 100 and 300 mile options were available for the YAU this year. Participants in the YAU can also choose three modes of transport: on foot pulling a pulk loaded with enough kit to last the race including food, fuel, extra clothing and camping kit, etc or pulling the same pulk wearing cross-country skis rather than walking or running or riding a fatbike with special wheels and tyres and fully laden with equipment stowed in bags around the bike. Whatever option is chosen all competitors have to be fully sufficient to survive in the wilderness. All are tracked with a SPOT device offering options to communicate to Race HQ. If the help button is pressed competitors have to wait and survive until rescued. This may take some time since the snowmobiles will not operate below -40°C or at night for safety reasons. There is also an emergency button for life threatening situations which will initiate search and rescue by the RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) and others and if the conditions are not too severe a helicopter rescue may be possible. All competitors have to have very comprehensive insurance cover to deal with such emergencies. Not only is it hard to find an insurer willing to take on such risks but the cost is quite high.
Steven Jones, Dark Peak Fell Runners, finished the 100 mile YAU in 5th place overall at Braeburn Lodge in a time of 51 hours and 8 minutes. The time limit for the 100 mile event was 72 hours. The winner completed the course in 29 hours and 50 minutes on a fatbike. Out of the 19 foot racers Steven Jones finished in 4th place.
Five athletes doing the 300 mile race had already reached Braeburn Lodge at that stage and out of the nine racers ahead of me five had been examined and found to have frostbite. Following a hearty finisher's meal I was examined by a medic to assess my condition and I knew that there would be some issues ... to be continued ... full report to be posted in due course.
Now done ...
Prior to signing up for the Yukon Arctic Ultra the organiser interviews each applicant by Skype to ensure that they are fully aware of the risks and what is involved. Thereafter there is a vast amount of organising to get to the start line including: arranging flights and transport; sorting out insurance (this task should not be underestimated and many insurers will not even provide a quote); acquiring or hiring specialist kit; enrolling on a suitable survival course and so on.
I arrived in Whitehorse in the Yukon on Tuesday 21.1.20 in time to unpack; collect some equipment ordered in England and put aside for collection there and sort things out. It also gave me chance to visit a local physiotherapist to have an injury assessed. I had sustained an adductor tendon/muscle injury the week before and walking was painful. I was advised that 3 or 4 weeks of rest should allow it to settle down. This would not be possible so I would try to take it as easy as I could in the week before the race.
The Survive to Race course started on the Thursday. The five day course covered things necessary to survive in that environment and it became apparent that staying alive is essential to finishing the race. Highlights included: temperature management (not only keeping warm to avoid frostbite and hypothermia but also to avoid sweating which can lead to a rapid drop in core temperature later on) so layering up and down and constantly monitoring how you are; making water out of snow and ice using liquid fuel stoves and cooking; camping in well below freezing temperatures; making a fire using wood found in forests; wading across a creek wearing base layers and getting warm again when on icy banks afterwards; practising pulling the heavy pulks (sledges) with supplies to last the race; tactics and procedures to get to the finish line and so on. It was also a good chance to get to know some of the other athletes on the event. It was certainly well worth attending the course.
The event registration process was dealt with on Tuesday 28.1.20 involving various bits of paperwork and a waiver of liability for the organisers. Everyone was to be self sufficient and entrants should not rely on rescue if the conditions were bad. The insurance cover of all entrants was checked again. After dealing with all of that I rushed off to see a doctor. I had had a troubling cough for the last week and it was not clearing up and I felt generally unwell. The doctor said it was not too bad but I was given anti-biotics. Then back to see the physiotherapist - things seemed to have improved a bit. I could walk without being in pain and there were two days before the start to give more scope for the injury to become less severe. The rest of the day was spent shopping for additional equipment and clothing, etc.
On the Wednesday there was a compulsory briefing for all racers. The medics had noticed my cough and examined me. There was some concern and they took readings but said I would be allowed to start tomorrow but they would keep an eye on me. The SPOT monitoring devices were also handed out. These provide tracking data enabling the organisers and followers to keep up to date with progress and mount rescue missions as appropriate. There are also buttons to press to advise the organiser that a racer is bivvying (to avoid a panic at HQ if there is no movement for some time); a help button to request assistance ASAP and an emergency button for life threatening situations. In the evening there was a pre-race buffet along with a medical briefing by Dr Poole of Whitehorse Hospital who specialises in cold injuries. A series of photos were displayed on the large screen to illustrate various stages of frostbite. He encouragingly noted that with prompt and expert treatment most cases of frostbite can be resolved satisfactorily.
It was clear that the margins for error were very narrow and that if things start to go wrong things can unravel quickly and matters escalate beyond control. With the most extreme cold plastic goes brittle and snaps; snowmobiles fail to function and problem solving becomes critical. In previous editions of the event temperatures have fallen to -57°C and life changing situations have developed.
There followed some frenzied packing trying to get the super large sleeping bag and other camping items; stoves, fuel and food; several flasks for water; lots of spare clothes and so on into the pulk. It weighed more than the luggage that I brought with me on the flight over and was perhaps in the range of 25 kg to 30 kg although I did not take an accurate reading. Lifting it out of my room and along the corridor was a challenge in itself and I was wondering how I was going to pull it along for about 100 miles.
The course is advertised as 100 miles but the actual length varies from year to year. This is because the route follows frozen rivers and lakes and the condition of the ice dictates that a route that was good one year may not be suitable the next. So guides on snowmobiles amend the route accordingly. Indeed, just the day before the race was due to start unseasonally warm weather (-10°C) meant that some ice was being over-run with overflow which is a particularly dangerous phenomenon striking fear into locals and runners alike.
At 10:32 am on Thursday 30.1.20 the race started from Shipyards Park in Whitehorse with a temperature of -8°C. A procession of racers snaked north out of town following the frozen Yukon River. I found it to be hard work pulling the heavy pulk through the soft snow. It was a bit like running on sand with feet sinking but also sliding around. I was able to imagine how a shire horse would feel ploughing a muddy field. However, things were going well and the scenery was superb. Before long I had to remove outer layers since I was getting warm. Camera crews and photographers were out and about. A documentary was being made featuring an American hoping to make it to the finish line to banish some demons from last year's race. A whirring noise and a speck in the sky ahead drew my attention to a drone ahead probably filming. The American was in front of me and he had picked up his pace. The competitive instinct in me took over and I broke into a run and pulled alongside him then increased my speed further to surge past him. Maybe they will edit that bit out of the film.
A safety team recorded runners passing under the Takhini Bridge where we left the Yukon River to follow the Takhini River meandering west and later north. This was about ten miles from the start and conditions were still mild for the time of year in those parts. However, the wind was picking up and there was a bit of snow as the temperatures steadily got colder.
After a while I seemed to be all alone. I could not see anyone in front or behind. My feet were now wet from the snow. As I stopped to have a hot drink from my flasks a couple of others overtook me and disappeared into the swirling snow ahead of me. I was keen to remain on the trail and avoid straying onto thin ice on the river and trusting that the guides had picked a route over firm ice. To the north of the river steep rocky cliffs hemmed the river in just beyond a narrow and flat flood plain. The fascinating scenery helped take my mind off thoughts of thin ice; the trail being obscured by the snow now coming down thicker than before and what it might be like if the temperatures plummeted.
The first checkpoint at Muktuk Adventures provided hot stew and hot drinks. Medics carefully examined everyone for the first signs of frostbite or other issues. So sitting outside (none of the racers was allowed indoors) each competitor had to remove headgear, gloves, shoes and socks for inspection before hurriedly putting them back on again. After stopping for about 30 minutes I set off again as dusk approached.
Shortly after leaving there was some shallow overflow with solid ice beneath it. Since I already had wet feet I went straight through it rather than gingerly finding a way around it. We had been warned about this at the checkpoint and I had planned to sort my feet out after this.
Shortly afterwards I hauled my pulk to the side of the trail. I found dry socks while having hot drinks and food. I dried my feet with a t-shirt and put plastic bags over my new dry socks and this tactic seemed to be effective for several hours. The route followed a river valley with steep rocky sides and later a trail led upwards through woods. There was a section across a flat seemingly featureless area with trail marker poles at intervals. I felt a bit like a pioneer crossing the Atlantic hoping to make it safely to the new lands across the sea but not knowing for sure whether I was on route or not. With each sighting of a marker pole I was able to breath a sigh of relief. Going off route and wandering around aimlessly in the night was undesirable.
I was getting increasingly tired and the trail was narrow not offering much scope to pull over and set up camp. Suddenly I was in a small clearing and others had already set up tents and another pair were in the process of finalising the erection of their tent. It seemed like a good opportunity to rest so I set up my sleeping bag inside my bivvy bag and went to sleep for a few hours.
When I woke up I decided to get up and leave quickly before I got too cold. Reluctantly I crawled out of the sleeping bag but found that my shoes had frozen solid!! They were not quite as malleable as sheet steel and it would have taken a long time to de-frost them and would have been an unwelcome delay. I was reluctant to use my spare shoes just yet and then risk having no spares should they be needed later. So I dug out the large overboots from my pulk to wear without shoes. The overboots normally fit over shoes and are waterproof and provide an extra layer of insulation. However, by doing up the straps as tight as possible I was able to move off albeit with the overboots flapping around on my feet a bit. Nevertheless I was able to finish packing up and leave to start warming up. A few miles later I was warm enough to stop and put the spare shoes on with the overboots on top keeping the new shoes and socks dry with the snow still being a bit loose and wet.
It had been a cold night and dawn was extremely welcome. The rising sun was reflected on a mountain ahead of me and to the right giving the snow a warm orange and pink glow. It looked beautiful. Shortly after that I saw two pulks being pulled away from a clearing where a fire was burning. Turning off the trail to investigate I noticed a musher had got a fire going and was in the process of cooking coffee and breakfast for his clients who were experiencing dog mushing. They seemed to have spent the night in luxury walled and heated tents and were now being looked after by the musher. His fire was impressive with large logs heating up a variety of cooking pots and vessels resting on a large iron grid. I gratefully accepted the hot coffee and food offered to me and chatted with the curious clients there eager to hear about the adventures to be had on the ultra that I was running. After a while I reluctantly dragged myself away from the fire to press on. Heading downhill the pulk wanted to race against me but being clipped to my waist it was unable to overtake me. As if in anger it tried to mow me down. I ran as fast as I could but this only encouraged the pulk to push harder against my back until the slope levelled off. The sunny mountain remained to my right but over the course of the day I drew level with it before it was behind me. It had a distinctive and majestic shape and it was fascinating seeing it from different angles.
The snow was now firmer and no longer wet. I decided to pull over to the side of the trail to eat and drink and remove the overboots. Upon checking my feet I was horrified to see the skin splitting; we had been warned about this possibility on the course. The cold and dry conditions apparently dries skin out and it is not uncommon for feet to split open. Despite using moisturiser as advised things seemed to be deteriorating. I taped my feet up hoping that they would hold out until the end. Despite the pain I now made faster progress wearing just running shoes without the overboots and the pulk was running more smoothly over the harder trail. A gradual incline meant bracing forward to haul the pulk up as the slope became steeper. At least there would be some downhill to compensate in due course? However, it just went up and up as the trail weaved and snaked up the hills. I found out later that the ascent here had been about 2,300 feet. It was never very steep but certainly relentless and I was now just wearing long sleeved base layers without a coat or jumper. The pulk seemed to get heavier and the snow softer but the next checkpoint could not have been more than a few miles ahead now. A sustained effort might enable it to be reached before nightfall.
As I came round another bend there was a glow of a fire in the dark signifying that I had made it to the Dog Grave Lake checkpoint. It had been constructed from walled tents brought in by snowmobile and erected by volunteers for the race. It must have involved a lot of logistical effort to construct it all in the wilderness miles from the nearest roads. As inviting as the tents were we were not allowed inside since they were solely for race staff. We were allowed to sit near the open fire nearby but there was a risk of getting too comfortable making departure that much harder. An inspection by a medic confirmed that I would be okay to continue. After hot drinks, stew and having my flasks filled up with boiling water I washed my bowl and spoon (we had to supply our own bowls, mugs and utensils) while finishing off a hot chocolate. When I turned around to rinse out the bowl the water had frozen; this saved drying it since the block of ice could just be tipped out. Then I was off again. The night was getting colder and my coat was back on. Partly to generate heat and partly to catch a pair of other racers ahead of me I set off at a brisk pace using my poles to gain traction against the hard-packed snow and propel myself and pulk up the gentle slope of the trail. I seemed to speed past three racers ahead of me all on the 300 mile version of the event and resolved to keep up this pace. Things were now going really well after the brief rest and the superb stew. I was now all alone with just the narrow beam of light from my headtorch to light up the way. It was as if the world just consisted of the small area illuminated by the headtorch and beyond the beam was just deep blackness. From time to time I glanced either side of the trail and to the right were flat, featureless lakes and to the left a wall of trees obscuring the view to just a few yards. Beyond the reach of the torchlight there could have been steep mountains rising up or deep valleys or just miles of forests and lakes. I could only imagine what was there so took to gazing at the tracks on the trail. To pass the time I tried to work out who might be ahead; there were occasional marks of cross-country skis, snowmobile tracks and various footprints. Maybe I was gaining on someone or perhaps someone would catch me up. I remained isolated on the trail with not even a hint of a torch in front or behind. After several brief rest stops for food and hot water it was apparent that the boiling water was now just lukewarm rather than boiling despite the top of the range flasks. A Mars bar kept handy in my pocket had frozen solid and was like concrete. I was unable to dent it let alone bite into it and put it inside an inner pocket to eat later.
I was now very tired and finding it hard to keep moving forward. I had passed a few racers who had parked up and set up tents to rest for the night. I would need to do the same soon but pressed on for a bit longer looking for a good place to stop. However, the trail was narrow and I needed to find enough space to get off it to avoid blocking the way. Finally I was able to find somewhere to drag the pulk off the trail and wade around in the knee deep snow to set things up for the night. The inflation valve on the down air mattress had frozen shut and despite my best efforts I was not able to open it. Sleeping directly on the snow would promote rapid heat loss which was to be avoided at all costs. A solution was needed quickly since I could feel myself getting colder and colder all the time despite having put my thick down jacket on while sorting things out. I was able to attach the hand pump to the mattress via the deflation valve and get it ready. As I was settling down to sleep it suddenly dawned on me that I had forgotten to press the button on the SPOT device to let Race HQ know that I was stopping for more than half an hour. Failure to notify Race HQ accordingly could lead to panic there and rescue efforts and for that reason failure to adhere to the procedures could lead to a heavy time penalty or disqualification. So I wriggled out of the sleeping bag and bivvy bag to press the button despite having nearly warmed up. By the time I got back in I was chilled but at least I could rest.
I awoke shivering violently two or three hours later and knew that I had to get warm soon to avert a serious situation. After a few seconds of thought weighing up the options I sprang out of the bivvy bag and sleeping back and put my headtorch on to pack up and leave as quickly as possible. The torch started blinking which signified that the batteries were nearly dead and would cease to work completely within a few minutes. I worked frenetically to try and get moving to generate some heat before having to stop to swap over to my spare headtorch. Most things were now packed up by cramming them into the pulk but the air mattress could not be deflated. Both the inflation and deflation valves had frozen closed solidly. I removed my down mitts to try and pull the valves open but could not get sufficient grip. I had to remove my inner gloves too but the valves refused to yield. I pulled with all my might and the fingers on my left hand were getting numb from grabbing the frozen valve. There was no way to deflate the mattress and it was far too large to fit inside the pulk bag. In a flash of inspiration I tied it to the top of the pulk bag ready to move off. To attach the pulk harness around my waist involved removing gloves again but my fingers struggled to get the clip done up. After much effort I was successful and I was able to move off. Down mitts offer great insulation but with all that padding they reduce dexterity enormously. Getting the first mitt on is relatively straightforward since the hand without a mitt on can grip the cuff to pull the mitt on. However, when trying to get the other glove on it can be quite a struggle with cold, weakened fingers trying to get a numb hand into the other mitt and over the layers of clothing on the wrist. I now had several layers on including a warm coat and my large down jacket but was still cold and my hands were hurting with the cold. At least there was pain in my fingers; the medical briefing before the start of the event had noted that before frostbite occurs fingers go cold and then pain starts but the real problem is when the pain stops and the fingers go numb. When the feeling is lost the situation has already become serious.
After a while I was sufficiently warm enough (or rather less cold than before) to stop to swap headtorches before the one I was wearing stopped working. The last of the water was now frozen in the last flask but I had some fruit juice sachets in my pocket. These were frozen solid so I transferred them to an inner pocket to thaw. I was getting tired again having woken up sooner than I had wanted to due to the cold but I didn't fancy trying to set up another bivvy for a short while. Indeed, stopping to attend to my increasingly sore feet didn't seem like a viable prospect either. With probably only fifteen miles to go I may be able to get to the finish before blisters, etc became unbearable. Only a few more hours of pain and suffering and I would be at the finish and could rest. Meanwhile, the creatures in the forest were there to keep me company - the wolf might well have been a clump of snow but in the shadows of the headtorch it was hard to tell. A series of other shapes and shadows lurking in the gloom on the periphery of the beam from my headtorch conjured up a variety of images in my mind inspired by the variety of shapes in the snow. Beyond the reach of the headtorch many hungry eyes might have been watching me or maybe there was nothing there at all in the wilderness.
Daylight came and I was now entering the Tunnel of Doom which is a part of the trail with trees densely packed on each side of the trail for more than ten miles. Once in that tunnel there is no escape to either side. It seemed to go on for a long way with little variety in the scenery. It was just a matter of keeping moving forward. Crossing the final lake I knew that the finish was not far away.
My pace had been picking up and I had been warming up. It was perhaps only a mile or so to the finish so I stripped off most of my layers to finish wearing a base layer and hoodie without a coat. Leaving the lake there were embankments to scale. Although only a few metres high they were steep and not easy to get to the top of. When nearly at the top there was a sense that one false step would lead to being pulled back down again to land in a heap at the bottom. So I braced myself against the slope leaning forward and pushing hard with both walking poles. A photographer taking photos and shooting video signified the end was very close so I broke into a sprint to finish in style and eased off back to a walk on passing the photographer. However, he ran forward to take up position further along the trail and I had to start sprinting again. This happened several times and I had begun to think that the end might never come into sight after all. Then I rounded the corner to the finish line at the Braeburn Lodge where I arrived 51 hours and 8 minutes after the start. The sprinting at the end made absolutely no difference to the result for the 100 mile race since I was more than five hours behind the person in front and more than five hours in front of the person behind me.
I was treated to a substantial finishers meal before being inspected by Gavin the medic. I had mild frostbite on the tip of a finger on my left hand and a bit of frostnip on the others on that hand. However, it was not too serious and within a month would be perfectly okay and back to normal. The foot problems were not blisters but drying out in the cold Yukon conditions and the skin was red raw in parts - particularly on my heels. The skin had started to split in places and I would not have been able to continue much further.
After being transported back to Whitehorse I was able to compare stories with other competitors. We compared frostbite injuries and some fingers looked quite black and blistered but the experts at Whitehorse Hospital were able to sort people out. It would appear that about half the entrants had frostbite to some extent or other.
With the 100 mile race over the 300 mile version continued. Watching the tracking on-line the number of competitors gradually dwindled. Ten athletes had made it to the 100 mile checkpoint at Braeburn (the finish for the 100 mile event) while eleven did not make it that far. Eight made it to the checkpoint at Ken Lake as frostbite continued to take a toll on the entrants. It looked as if there might be eight finishers and then just six. Five made it to the Carmacks checkpoint but only four continued onwards. With this rate of attrition would any of the four remaining 300 mile racers be able to persevere to the finish? They all made it to the McCabe Creek checkpoint but only three continued onwards with one having to retire shortly after leaving. Then there were just two. Each day seemed to bring in news of athletes being forced to retire; frostbite and sheet exhaustion were the main culprits for that. The last two made it to Pelly Crossing and out to the Pelly Farm checkpoint. They both finished at Pelly Crossing after their out and back loop. Over the last few days it looked as if there may be tactical finish with someone pushing on without sleep. However, the margin was maintained and both aiming to finish without a visit to the hospital at the end rather than pushing themselves for first place. The one coming second had very minor frostbite starting but was okay. Both the finishers failed to finish the event last year due to frostbite but had recovered and had returned to have another go. The 300 mile race seemed to have been an exercise in survival and preservation rather than trying to go as fast as possible.
After the event news from the organiser noted that the coldest night of the event had been on the second night when temperatures fell to around -40°C. Although pretty cold on the first night when I bivvied it certainly felt colder on the second night when I woke up shivering.
Entries are now open for 2021 when the event runs from 7 February 2021 to 20 February 2021 with a choice of distances (100, 300 and 430 mile ultras along with a marathon distance). After deliberating long and hard for nearly an hour I was the first to sign up for the 430 mile distance next year and have been rewarded by being assigned Bib Number 401.
100 mile ultra results:
Starters: 20 (19 on foot and one on MTB (fatbike))
First Man: John Berryman; MTB; 29:50
First Man on foot: Kevin Leahy; 1st on foot and 2nd overall; 32:04
First Lady: Virginia Sarrazin; 3rd overall and 2nd on foot; 34:02
Steven Jones: 5th overall and 4th on foot; Dark Peak Fell Runners; 51:08
300 mile ultra:
Starters: 21 (18 on foot; 2 on MTB's and 1 on cross-country skis)
First Man: Fabian Imfeld; on foot; 162:42
Second: Tiberiu Useriu; on foot; 169:21
© Dark Peak Fell Runners 2020
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