Earlier this year I returned to the Canadian Yukon to work on the Montane Yukon Artic Ultra race. I had been out to this northern Canadian territory before, back in 2019 with the British Exploring Society, and I had heard tales of what this remote landscape could be like in the winter.
The chance to return came about following a chat I had with another medic in the bar at Plas Y Brenin in Snowdonia a year or so earlier. Fast forward to February 2023 and I was on a plane heading to Whitehorse, via Vancouver.
Montane describe the race on their website as follows:
202360.7197° N, 135.0523° W
"Welcome to the world’s coldest and toughest ultra race. 430 miles of snow, ice, temperatures as low as -40°C and relentless wilderness… the MYAU is an incredible undertaking.
Based in Yukon, north west Canada, the race route follows the trail of the Yukon Quest Dog Race. Where dog teams once slid and scrambled, now human power chases up the trail. This is a brutal non-stop race across one of Canada’s most remote regions."
Whitehorse, definitely has the vibe of a frontier town, and it's gold-rush history makes it feel a bit like you are on the set of an old western movie that has been transposed into modern times.
Once I had picked up my Baffin artic boots and had a few obligatory Tim Horton's coffees, it was time to check on the race participants to ensure they had the correct kit, knew how to light their stoves and had two functioning SOS communications devices.
Several options existed for the aspiring athletes: a marathon, 100 miles, 300 miles or 430 miles. I was only working until the end of the 300 mile event, but there would be other medics covering the rest of the event.
The race participants came from all over the world, and there were local Yukoners lining up alongside participants from the USA, Taiwan, Australia, the UK and Europe. There was a mix of race veterans and people who were new to the event, however they were united by a desire to test themselves to the limit and experience the spirit of the Yukon wilderness.
Race day was soon upon us and I headed out to one of the remote checkpoints at Dog Grave Lake. This was a few hours by snowmobile so it was time to layer up and test out my winter gear.
We eventually arrived at Dog Grave Lake where there were already two "hot tents" that had been put up by some of the team. I set about helping clear the snow so that we could get the rest of the checkpoint set up. We had two more tents to erect, stoves to set up and plenty of wood to chop so that we were ready for when the racers arrived.
The first participants started to arrive around 1-2am later that night. We set about giving them a hot meal and plenty of hot water- they had to take a minimum of 3 litres of this when they left the checkpoint. We also performed a mandatory medical check to check on their wellbeing but also to ensure that their fingers, toes, ears and nose- basically any exposed areas of skin were free of any sign of frostnip or frostbite.
The volume of hot water we had to boil meant that the operation would fall apart if the stoves went out. We worked on a rota to ensure the stoves were stocked, the water was boiled and the athletes were medically cleared to continue the race.
Chopping and stacking wood was a good way to keep warm.
Eventually all the participants passed through the checkpoint. The past 24 hours had been relentlessly busy so we had some dinner and some down time. We had been sleeping in raised beds within the canvas tents, with log stoves. This was perfectly adequate accommodation, however I decided that seeing as I had made it all the way to the Yukon, I should at least experience a night out on the trail to see what the athletes were having to contend with.
I walked a short distance away from camp, cleared a patch in the snow and set up my bivvy bag and sleep system. I got a fire going and settled down under the light of a full moon. In the morning there was a bit of ice from frozen condensation within my bivvy bag, but overall I was warm and my sleeping bag was not too damp. I had a great nights sleep, however I could also see the challenges with moisture management, and the trouble that this could pose for multiple nights out on the trail.
It was time to break camp and move on to the next checkpoint. Robert, the race director, had us moving in groups to ensure that the checkpoints were operating by the time the participants were likely to arrive. The next leg of our journey was made slightly harder by the fact that one of the snow mobiles started leaking engine coolant and overheating. Eventually we rigged up a tow line and we managed to get back to civilisation. This highlighted the importance of riding in convoy!
We reached the next checkpoint which was a cafe at a truck stop. Most of the participants had already passed through and I was mainly waiting on a lift the following morning. I opted to head back into the snow to camp and had a great night under the northern lights
Over the next few days I was based at a checkpoint at Carmacks within a community centre. Here I linked up with some of the rest of the team and witnessed another spectacular display from the aurelia borealis.
We had gone out on one of the snowmobiles over the frozen river to look for a participant who was near the checkpoint but her beacon was not moving. We found her and checked everything was ok before driving back, and on the way back to the checkpoint I remember sitting on back of the snowmobile with these amazing green lights overhead- it was amazing!
As we progressed further north, the temperatures dipped to -30C and I was worried about the state of people's feet and the risk of them developing frostbite. Up until this point we had been relatively ok from a medical point of view. Some people had dropped out of the race due to sprains and strains, gastroenteritis, exhaustion and breathing difficulties but otherwise we had been relatively lucky compared with previous years.
There were 16 hours of darkness each day and athletes were often alone with just their thoughts and the beam of their head torch. Lots of people reported strange hallucinations which seemed to mainly be linked to sleep deprivation, something that is often noted to occur during endurance events
We continued to travel up the trail to reach Pelly Crossing and Pelly Farm. Here the trail crosses the frozen Yukon river and it was such a beautiful site to see. Having seen the vast size of the river in the summer a few years previously, seeing it transformed into an icy wonderland was a magical experience.
Reaching this stage of the route, where the 300 mile challenge ended, marked the end of my trip as well. It was time for me to head back to Whitehorse to start my journey back home.
Working on these sorts of events is always fascinating and I think this is largely due to the people you meet, whether participants or fellow crew.
Luckily, we had no major medical issues to write home about, and our proactive medical checks hopefully played a role in this.
The race had a high number of finishers this year which was awesome- congratulations to all and sorry I had to leave you early!