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 6 of 7

Endurance racing is a chemical balancing act: carbs, proteins, fats, caffeine, fluids. Stepping inside the hut to sort gear and steel themselves for the remainder, the Bobkittens took a shotgun approach, stuffing their faces with peanut butter cups, pepperoni, cheese strings, trail mix, hot chocolate. Having arrived at the cut-off, they'd headed directly for the rappel.

It was beyond brutal. Where the notorious Arctic wind had stirred a light ground blizzard on the lake, a mere fog of friendly flakes, 300 metres above that same wind howled. It stung the eyes with ice crystals, sucked away the breath, and dropped the already frigid temperature to an effective -40C. In the low light of late afternoon, skis and snowshoes on their backs, teams clipped into harnesses to hurtle together over the edge, the parallel ropes cantilevered away from the sloping face by a nifty tripod of tree trunks. Some flounder in ski boots on the smooth rock face, others bound down in suave, practiced leaps. All hit the bottom to follow the obvious track a kilometre to camp. Or so it seems: when the sun finally lies molten on the horizon, Daniel realizes the local Inuit team is missing.

"Your pulse quickens in any race when it's dark and cold and a team is missing," he notes. "But when it happens in the Arctic, well..."

"... you think worst-case," finishes someone behind him.

Team Monts-Torngats is eventually found by headlamp in a nearby river valley. After the rappel, they'd tried backtracking to a missed checkpoint. But bonking, they'd perpetrated that which precedes many a backcountry disaster: they zigged when they should have zagged. Doing things out of order can spell disaster in any race, but Inuit also have their own mental maps built around landforms, waterways and inukshuk, and when forced to rely on white man's cartography things can go awry.

Camp — a half-dozen canvas tents with floors of evergreen boughs, some featuring woodstoves — is marked by a string of international flags in a stand of trees. The arrangement is a surprise for racers, a gift from Daniel and the community. Besides being universally stoked they don't have to set up tents while frozen and exhausted, racers are impressed with how efficient the Inuit are in throwing together an elaborate camp. Pulling together is a hallmark of any Arctic community, but few more so than this one.

At 1:30 a.m. on New Year's Day, 1999, some 500 Kangiqsualujjuaq residents were celebrating the new annum in a school gym when a massive avalanche swept down an adjacent hillside. Nine died and 25 were injured. The slide, with a crown of three-metres, was triggered by unusually large snowfalls and steady 100km/hr winds. A coroner's inquest concluded no one could have foreseen such a century event. Everyone in town was affected, fraying an already taut social fabric stretched by rabid unemployment, isolation and lack of opportunity. Healing and battling back in part involved embracing more outward-looking elements, and a decade later the community welcomed EA and their youth programs. Its enthusiasm and logistical support were the main reasons Daniel chose Kangiqsualujjuaq for the race. To put it in beer-commercial terms, when it came to adventure racing, the town was "all in."

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