Yukon Arctic Ultra
The YAU is a 320 mile non-stop footrace that starts in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Alaska, and finishes at Pelly Crossing in the north of the region.
The race route follows the famous Yukon Quest dog-sled race trail across frozen rivers, lakes, hills and forests.
Each competitor must be self sufficient and pull a sled that contains food, water, clothing, cooking equipment and emergency items. They must also have a sleeping system that consists of a small tent or bivi bag, with a thick sleeping bag and mattress.
At 10:30 Sat Feb 11th, 2006, I found myself on the starting line of this gruelling race, at down-town Whitehorse, along with 38 other international competitors.
Each competitor had a fully loaded sled and there are plenty of nervous smiles as we think of the daunting task ahead to cover 320 miles within the 8 day time limit, in temperatures that can drop as low as -40C.
Although it was still very cold at the start, it was fairly mild for Yukon standards, but we are all still aware of the problems that this can cause by means of overflow (breaking through to freezing water), and soft snow that can be energy sapping to trudge through.
The starting gun was fired, and we set off across a makeshift starting line and headed off north along the frozen river edge out of Whitehorse, following a skidoo trail set into the snow.
Once moving, I found it easy to generate heat and I found that I only needed to wear a few layers of clothing. I also found that the sled moved pretty smoothly, but I could still feel its weight focussed on my hips and I was hoping that the long tyre pulling training sessions I had done back at home would now prove useful.
It seemed like temperature management would be the key to this race, as it would certainly get much, much colder, but sweating was something that could cause you to end the race due to hypothermia. I decided that running small sections, but walking most would be my tactic, while adding and removing clothes as required.
I was finding it tough going pulling the sled through the soft snow, sinking and sliding up the trail and I needed to wear my huge Neoprene over-boots, to give me a bigger footprint and grip, which also protected me from any dangerous overflow.
After several hours, it became easier underfoot, as we veered left up the frozen Takhini River towards the 26 mile checkpoint at Sir North Ranch.
Here we were subjected to a mandatory four hour stop, which included a kit inspection, a test of your sleeping system and your ability to light your gas stove.
I arrived with my friend Paul Mortimer and Scottish runner Hugh Hunter, who had hoped to race in his kilt, but soon changed his mind!
We all set off from checkpoint one around 9:20 pm and headed north, still following the frozen river.
It was much colder during the night, and we had a long 40 mile stretch ahead of us to take us to checkpoint two, at Dog Grave Lake.
I found it frustrating that we were only going approximately 3 miles per hour, due to the sled weight, and trying not to sweat.
I could see that each checkpoint distance would require almost a full day of trekking, mixed in with an occasional bit of running on the flat icy sections.
But, the trail was anything but flat, as we headed into dense undulating wooded sections, with some very steep inclines that required the use of trekking poles that I jammed into the ice to help pull me up.
After hours and hours of doing this, the novelty of pulling a sled soon wore off as my hips were being jerked back and forth from going up and down.
It was tough going, and at around 4am, we decided to get into our bivi bags for an hour rest.
Once we stopped moving it was easy to get cold fast, and I quickly got my big down jacket and mitts on and flattened down a spot in the snow to roll out my bivi bag, getting inside of it as quick as possible.
Sleeping was virtually impossible though, as we knew we had to be moving on in a few hours, but the short rest was good, and it was a real struggle to get back out of the bivi bag, into the cold night. After all, we had only just completed about 40 miles of the 320!
We headed on down the trail and we were soon joined by Irish runner Ken Byrne, who had won the 100 mile race last year.
The four of us made good progress during the night, until we realised we were totally lost, and we were following the wrong tracks. In fact we were going in circles.
Somehow, we had taken the wrong trail and we had ended up on what looked like quite thin ice.
After an hour or so trudging around in the dark and getting colder and colder, much to our relief, we eventually managed to re-trace our footsteps back to the main trail and continue on through some pretty dangerous overflow areas, and we all needed to wear our over-boots for protection. It was very slow progress.
Morning was breaking on day two, and we continued our long haul through some very hilly wooded areas, which was energy sapping, and I made sure that I kept eating as much food as possible to keep my strength up.
Paul had a much longer stride than the rest of us, and he soon moved off into the distance on his own, while the remaining three of us just kept chipping away at the miles, trying not to be intimidated by the overall distance ahead.
The scenery was amazing, through pine forests with mountainous backgrounds, up and down hills, it was like a slow rollercoaster ride, until we eventually reached checkpoint two at Dog Grave Lake, where we re-filled our water canisters. I carried two litres on the sled and two litres on my back.
We had covered around 60 miles, and the next section would take us further north and higher up on the hills towards Braeburn – the 100 mile point.
This was going to be a long 14-15 hour section of relentless pulling through the evening and night.
I decided to introduce a system for Hugh, Ken and I to work to, where we each took it in turn to lead for an hour, then take a minute or so rest, before swapping to a different front man. This helped to keep us focussed on one hour at a time, and kept us together, as you can only go as fast as the lead man.
This also gave us a chance to keep an even pace, and help to keep us awake, as we had only had a few hours rest in the last 40 hours, and the temperatures were dropping steadily as we headed north. Wind speed was also increasing as we climbed to a higher altitude, and this made it even colder. The chill went straight through your body, but this only made us more determined to keep moving, to generate heat to keep warm. Eventually, our pace had slowed so much that we decided to try and get some rest under the cover of some trees, to try and shelter us from the wind. It was very cold here, at least -20C, and preventing my water from freezing was priority, so I took it inside my sleeping bag with me, along with my trail shoes.
I had to be really careful that my water containers didn’t burst, as this could put me out of the race, or at worse, be fatal.
An hour or so later my alarm went off, and it was time to squeeze my feet into my freezing shoes, pack up and move off down the trail. It was around 2am, and nobody had slept due to the cold winds penetrating our bivi bags. We ran for a while to warm up, but eventually reached more hills and dropped back to a pace of around 3 miles per hour.
Ken had been suffering with an ankle strain for the last few hours, and began trailing at the back, but it wasn’t long before we were all going just as slow, and we were making limited progress, and we decided to bivi yet again.
We were only a few miles from the 100 mile checkpoint at Braeburn and we decided that we would rest until daylight, before arriving at the checkpoint around breakfast time.
We got into Braeburn in just under 48 hours, and we were told that we were positioned in the top end of the race field, which lifted our spirits. This was good progress, as my plan was to eat into as much distance as possible early in the race, as it would be much colder and slower going as we headed further north.
The Braeburn checkpoint was located at a small hut, and the owner, a Grizzly Adams looking bloke, gave us some stew, and one of the largest cinnamon buns in the world, that was like a football. I used the shelter of the hut to change socks, inspect my blisters, and sort my kit out.
We then left the comfort of the hut, after eating as much stew as possible and each of us took a cinnamon bun for the journey.
220 miles left to go, but we had to try and put this to the back of our minds and head off onto the next section. Quite a few racers had not got past this 100 mile point, and several had decided to pull out there, but our little team of three was still strong, if a little tired.
Several hours of steep hills were to follow, and we needed to use our trekking poles most of the time to pull the sleds upwards, until we started to access a chain of vast frozen lakes, each connected to the next by hilly wooded sections.
The lakes were much easier to cross, but we were more exposed to the cold here and the temperatures were dropping fast.
After a full day of trekking, we stumbled upon a small hut overlooking the lake, and decided to see if we could get inside to set up our gas stoves. No one was around, so we assumed it was ok and boiled up some water inside the little cabin to add to our freeze dried food. Apparently it is customary to leave these kind of shelters unlocked, to help weary travellers, and also to allow a bear to enter and exit the hut if it wants to, without it destroying a window or door!
We didn’t stay too long in the hut as it was acting a bit like a fridge, and we decided to pack up and get moving again quickly to keep warm.
We pushed on through the afternoon and in to the evening using our ‘lead man’ system, and made good progress across lake, after lake.
Then, when nightfall came, the temperature plummeted, and my hands and face were freezing. I tried warming my hands by wearing two pairs of gloves, but I was constantly getting frost nip in my fingers, which was very painful once I got my circulation back again. I could also feel the end of my nose freezing, and I had to keep twitching it to break the ice. I had to put my big down mitts on over my other two layers of gloves to try and warm up my hands, but even then, they were still really cold, so I added a chemical hand warmer to each mitt, and kept moving my fingers until they slowly warmed up.
I also noticed my trail shoes freezing on me, my laces had frozen solid, and ice had formed over the top of the shoes, which was cutting into the material itself.
It was quite shocking just how cold it had become in such a short space of time.
Fine crystal formations, like diamonds were on the trees, on the snow and in the air.
I had to wear almost everything I had with me to try and keep warm, and to keep moving was essential to generate heat.
We walked for as long as possible through the night, but eventually we were just too cold and tired to continue any further.
We all felt freezing. It was dangerously cold, and we decided to build a fire to keep warm. This wasn’t easy, as it was hard to do anything with the huge mitts on, but as soon as I removed them to do a task, I got frost nip within a few minutes.
We finally managed to get a small fire going, and the three of us circled around it in our bivi bags, shivering. It was near -30C according to Hugh’s thermometer!
We rested a few hours until daylight, and then woke to find all our shoes had frozen solid, along with our water.
Luckily the fire was still glowing and we soon managed to defrost our shoes enough to allow them to flex and slide our feet inside.
We were all suffering from blisters now, and sore hips, but our moods lifted as it became light again.
All through the morning we crossed more and more frozen lakes that were miles long, until we eventually reached checkpoint four at Ken Lake, where we were treated to a plate of semi warm stew inside a makeshift tent.
We stayed here just long enough to dry out some of our kit on the fire they had, before moving off back onto the chain of frozen lakes.
Irish Ken was now suffering badly with his ankle injury, and started lagging behind, until eventually there was no sign of him. We waited for him for a while, but eventually we had to get moving, as we were getting cold. We later learned that Ken had gone back to the checkpoint and had unfortunately dropped out of the race.
Hugh and I were struggling hard to stay awake with the lack of sleep and the blinding glare of the snow, so we ate lots sugary foods, and tried to keep chatting to each other.
Luckily the ground was flat here along a frozen river, and we covered quite a lot of distance in several hours, but then it was back into long dense wooded sections again. Hours passed by, and we were becoming more and more exhausted.
Then, Paul Howells, another racer from the UK caught up with us, and we continued on as a group of three.
Carmacks would be the next checkpoint, at mile 170, but as night fell, this section became very draining, as we twisted and turned, up and over hill after hill in the dark thick woods, my mind was now playing tricks on me, and I was hallucinating with the various shapes of the heavy clumps of snow on the trees around me.
At sometime around midnight, we eventually broke through the trees into a clearing and we followed another frozen river down to the small town of Carmacks and the checkpoint at the community centre.
It had been another full day on our feet, and the accumulative mileage and cold was taking its toll on our bodies.
We decided to bed down for a few hours, and we could see that racers ahead of us were also resting here in their sleeping bags.
I also took the opportunity to change socks again here, and tried to patch up my blisters the best that I could.
I also noticed that my trail shoes were torn right open with the ice that had formed on them, and I had to gaffer tape them back together again, ready for the next 35 mile stretch to McCabe.
It was extremely cold as we set off again in the middle of the night, and I again needed to wear almost every piece of clothing I had, including my big down jacket.
Hugh’s moustache was frozen solid yet again and my nose was crunching with ice!
Several hours of long straight sections followed, until the sun started to rise to give the most amazing ‘arctic red’ glow across the frozen valley.
Paul started to move off ahead, but Hugh and I just kept plugging away on yet another endless wooded section.
Another whole day of familiar looking twists and turns through forests, and the novelty had long worn off! It wouldn’t be long before dark yet again, and we stopped for a quick food rest. It was then that I noticed that my bivi bag and sleeping bag were missing! I had strapped them on the top of my sled, but they must have been dragged off while we had trampled through the forest bushes and fallen trees.
I had no choice, but to run back along the trail to try and find them, as loosing them could be fatal!
To my relief, I found my gear just a few miles back up the trail and it wasn’t long before I had caught up with Hugh again, who had been waiting for me.
We were now crossing huge jagged frozen slabs of ice that had been formed by the river that was flowing deep underneath us.
It was hard pulling the sleds over these frozen obstacles, and difficult to keep balanced and move safely without twisting an ankle or falling.
It was pitch black as we approached the last few miles towards the McCabe checkpoint, and only our head torch beams pointed the way for us across the frozen river. We had lost the main trail because of the jagged ice and we were soon precariously moving round in circles hoping that the ice underfoot was strong enough to hold us, as we tested it with our trekking poles before taking each step. Several hours passed by and we became more and more tired and frustrated, looking for any sign of tracks that would help us to pick up the trail again.
Eventually, we found a series of footprints, and about half a mile later, we could just make out a shack that had a small sign reading ‘checkpoint five’.
Inside, we found Paul Mortimer, who was in a bad way, lying down in his sleeping bag.
He told us he had been coughing up blood because he had been breathing too deeply in the ice cold air and had hurt his lungs.
We ate some soup, then noticed that we were actually in 4th place at this point as some other racers including Paul Howell’s had not arrived yet, which didn’t surprise me since we had been so lost ourselves.
We rested here for a few hours on the hut floor, and eventually two racers Stephen Caldwell and Paul Howell’s turned up admitting that they had also been lost.
We told Paul Mortimer that he should tag along with us when we leave, and eventually all of us left together.
The five of us set off into the freezing cold night, wearing everything we had to keep us warm. It was below -30C!
We had completed just over two hundred miles now, and we used each other’s company to keep motivated. We had been going for nearly five days, with only a few hours sleep, and adrenaline and coffee was the only thing keeping me awake. I knew though, that once we had completed the next leg of around 40 miles to Pelly Crossing, we would have broken the back of the race.
I was confident that I would make it. It was just a case of mentally hanging on as the hours and distance passed by.
Stephen decided to bivi after a few hours, and the four of us that remained kept moving on over more hills and forests until daylight, then we moved onto another long chain of frozen lakes.
We travelled all day, and made good progress until we eventually dropped down the valley to the small community of Pelly Crossing, which was just two or three streets of houses in the middle of this vast wilderness.
We bundled into the checkpoint at mile 270 and flaked out on the floor to take the weight off our feet and get some rest, before the last big push. This would be a 60 mile out and back loop to Pelly farms, and we estimated that this should take us around 24 hours to complete.
We all looked a total mess. My face and eyes were swollen with the cold, and my lips were chapped and my nose blistered. My shoes had now totally torn to pieces, and my blisters were terrible, but luckily I could now change into a spare pair of shoes that I had put in a drop-bag for the checkpoint.
We patched ourselves up as best we could and soon we were as ready as we would ever be, as we hobbled away from the checkpoint at around 7pm.
My sled was now like a dead weight, jarring my hips with every step.
It seemed never ending, and at around 5am we were sure that we should have reached the farm.
We were cold and tired, and some of the group were starting to question whether or not we had missed, or past the farm checkpoint and maybe we should turn back.
It was easy to become confused in the cold, as mild hypothermia was affecting us all.
But, in reality our pace had just slowed so much that we still needed to keep going for a few more hours until we could eventually make out some farm buildings on our right. We had reached mile 300!
We were told that the Bradley family lives there and would make us welcome, but we decided not to wake them in the early hours and bedded down in one of the frozen barns until daylight.
In the morning, we all went over to the farmhouse to be greeted by smiling faces, and we were given a warm welcome from the whole family. They invited us into their warm kitchen, where we were supplied with coffee and freshly made pancakes.
We used the opportunity to defrost our shoes and dry out our gloves.
The family was so friendly and helpful, and nothing was a problem for them. They genuinely enjoyed being part of the race, and it wasn’t long before they were showing us pictures of the previous year’s racers. The father even showed us his Grizzly bear photo album and stuffed claw collection!
We knew we couldn’t stay long though, as the clock was still ticking, so we thanked them for their hospitality and started to get ready for the last 30 miles towards the finish, back again to Pelly Crossing.
Just as we were leaving the farm a trapper appeared with his catch of the day, which consisted of a lynx, a wolverine and a few arctic foxes! I could see this was a totally different way of life.
We waved goodbye to the Bradley’s, as we headed off down the long winding road that would see us finish the race in around 12 hours time.
Our legs were shattered and feet blistered badly, and we all knew that this last stretch would be slow and painful.
In fact Paul Howell’s feet were skinned so bad that he was leaving red blood prints in the snow!
This was the last section though, and our spirits were high, and after a few hours the two Paul’s moved off ahead, but Hugh and I just concentrated on keeping a steady trudge.
This was a hilly leg, with a couple of little hills that we even managed to traditionally sledge down!
As night fell, so did the temperature again, and our bodies were starting to shut down and we knew that we had to try to pick up the pace and shuffle forward as fast as possible to get it over with.
We were so tired that we started hallucinating at almost everything we saw, but this didn’t bother us, and we speeded up our as much as possible to keep warm, until we eventually saw the orange glow of streetlights in the distance at Pelly Crossing!
Boosted by the thought of nearing the end, we attempted to run a little, but we soon settled back into a desperate hobble. Our legs and feet were totally useless.
Hugh and I shuffled forward using every last drop of strength and stubbornness to take us into town and after a few wrong turns in the dark, we eventually spotted the finish and we shuffled together across the finish line, where we were greeted with a low key reception from the race film crew and volunteers.
We had made it! What an adventure.
We were presented with our finishers medals, and we collapsed exhausted in a heap on the floor inside.
It had taken me 6 days and 12 hours to cover the 320 miles, finishing in 6th place overall out of 38 starters and 16 finishers.
This was certainly one of the hardest races I’ve ever completed. Not only because of the distance and lack of sleep, but because of the extreme cold and slow pace due to the sled and terrain.
I would certainly think twice about doing another ‘cold’ race again!
Thanks to the support of my family and my sponsors at Kiehl’s.