May 30, 2013 Features & Images » Feature Story

Cold to be cool 

Do you really need to know how to ski to finish a winter adventure race in the Arctic? Not if you're from South Africa.

click to flip through (9) PHOTO BY LESLIE ANTHONY - Teams raced a total of 77 kilometres over two days.
  • Photo by Leslie Anthony
  • Teams raced a total of 77 kilometres over two days.

Page 4 of 7

"I figured I'd get on top of a big rock and swat the bear with my ski pole," he'd related through an enormous, frost-bit grin.

As the group doubled over, imagining the gory outcome, Hugo mentioned he'd also purchased bear-bells, which, as someone barely explained through choking laughter, meant Hot adventurer pie! Gore Tex crust, chewy centre! to a bear. Teary-eyed jokes ensued about pimped-out bruins wearing bear-bell necklaces.

With the ice broken so to speak, Hugo passed out samples of dried African meat. "What is it?" Christian asked, suspicious.

"Beas we call it," said Hugo, his Afrikaans accent deepening noticeably. "Cow or someding like dat. They chewed it while racing. It had energy and salt to prevent cramping, and was "a little spicy to keep your mouth warm."

Things only got serious when talk turned to navigation. Everyone had seen how the constantly sifting wind meant you couldn't count on following your own tracks should you veer off course. You might turn to find them gone, or your tracks might be erased and others uncovered, a trail that could lead anywhere — even oblivion.

At the 8 a.m. racer's meeting in the hotel kitchen, the only face that didn't look nervous belonged to the massive caribou head mounted on the wall. The picture windows framed an almost inviting scene of stark, frigid beauty while racers listened attentively to English and French explanations of a route that would cover 44 kilometres the first day, include an overnight camp, then loop back 33 kilometres. The Italians used clues from both languages to plumb essential facts: with volunteers strung along the course it would be difficult to get lost, even in the notorious whiteout area between CPs eight to 10; it would also be cold, but how and when the wind would blow was anyone's guess. "If the weather is good it will be the experience of a lifetime," advised Daniel, "but if it's bad it will be a hell in which you won't even see your partner." For safety, most of the course was flagged and paralleled by a snowmobile track (but then, there were snowmobile tracks everywhere).

Other safety issues included ice conditions and, of course, polar bears. "Don't worry — course personnel are armed," Daniel advised. Though common on Ungava's ice, bears were rarely seen near town. "And when they are, they don't live more than an hour. The fur is prized and meat given to elders."

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