Written by Neil Bryant - www.ultrarunninglife.com
My journey back from the Spine was simple but my choice of footwear was not ideal being some pretty rigid, well supported trainers. Hardly ideal for my swollen foot, which only just squeezed in and meant that there was plenty of unwanted pressure against my tendonitis in my shin. All I wanted to do was spend every second resting my shin, hoping that it would be ready for Frostskade in a little under 2 weeks time. I wasn’t really that concerned about it, but I can’t deny there was a worrying concern locked away in a dark corner of my mind. No need to worry, just be positive.
Once home in Chamonix, I realised that I only had four days there before I headed off again! I sorted all my Spine kit out and madly begun gathering together all my gear for Frosty. Packing was not as easy as usual just because it was a completely new experience for me in a new environment. I packed pretty much all the warm weather gear I own. Would it be enough? Only time will tell. I didn’t feel underprepared but inexperienced. The distance was massive, but no concern. Just the environment. I had my massive Marmot down jacket that Likeys had most generously supplied me with which I hadn’t worn yet as it hadn’t been cold enough! This would only be worn during stops and in emergencies. I have always suffered with cold hands but believed that with mindful management and good gloves, they would be ok. I had a large pair of mittens and plenty pairs of intermediate gloves that should cover most situations.
Now, footwear was where I really didn’t know what would be best. It seems that traditionally, in Arctic races, normal trainers with maybe some gaiters or full covers were the standard footwear. There seemed to be a fair amount of advice recommending something a little more substantial. Plus, there would apparently be large sections of the course which would be deep snow and therefore either snow shoes and/or skis would be highly recommended. I eventually decided to go for skis and I would take some snow shoes, again from Likeys. So because I had decided to use skis (which I would hire from the Frosty team), I needed appropriate footwear. I could either go with a backcountry ski boot or a soft soled very warm Arctic boot that I could use with a special binding that could take these over sized boots. I decided to go for a pair of Baffin arctic boots which I ordered from the USA. They supposedly will keep your feet warm down to -100 degrees C! That should do it.
So feeling probably more nervous about a race than ever before, I set off on my journey North to the Arctic Circle. Two flights, an overnight stay in Tromso and then a bus ride later and I had arrived in Bardufoss, the location of the start. I had nearly a week to burn before the off though. This was fine, as it meant plenty more rest for my swollen and still painful shin. We would also be doing some training sessions to make sure our Winter skills were up to the task in hand.
It was pretty cold (I thought) at -25 for most of that week. My big down jacket was being worn for every outing! Bloody hell, sleeping out in this will be pretty exciting! Bardufoss is a small town that is surrounded by mountains and the light in the sky is amazing. I took a few photos but there was no way my compact camera was going to capture this stunning light. I really was so excited to be out in the wilderness all alone with no light pollution and to see these luscious colours as they spread their way across the wide open sky above. Not long to go now!
I had met Krasse, a competitor who had also turned up early and was just hanging around. I spent a lot of my time lying on my bed, reading, dozing off (still tired from the Spine) and watching crap on the TV. Now I was here, my nerves had settled a little. I met up with Scott and Charlie in the local cafe one day which was nice. They were understandably very busy checking the course and of course a million other tasks that were popping up constantly.
A few days later we were allowed to move into the race accommodation, which was based in a little summer fishing holiday park called Malmselvfossen. Krasse, Mario who had travelled all the way from Argentina, and myself got a taxi there. It was colder here, and if you dropped down the 10 metres or so onto the frozen river surface it was a little colder still. Brrr! It was good to be actually at the race HQ finally. The start was still a few days off, but my nerves were feeling lots calmer now that all the traveling and my kit was all here. It was all very real and I was very excited and fortunate to be in such a beautiful part of the world in the midst of winter.
Over the next few days competitors and support crew were turning up and we all got to know each other. It was good to see that many of the superb support and safety crew from the Spine were also here. Competitor wise I only know Mark Hines before so it was great to be making lots of new ultra friends.
Soon the training got under way with practice in putting our tents up fast and efficiently. I had borrowed a tent but on my first attempted erection (stop being so immature) I realised that there were two poles missing! Not ideal, but Charlie said not to worry, he would get a replacement. No more tent drills for me! We also practised with our stoves though I had a jetboil which is simplicity in itself so was happy with that. Christian, a local chap who used to be in the military and trained different countries Armed forces in Arctic warfare gave us some excellent lectures and tips on survival in the arctic.I feel we could have spent 6 months with Christian and would still have no-where near the knowledge that he has. We also went outside and did a practical on digging snow shelters, concentrating on the most basic, the snow grave, which is exactly as it’s name implies except you don’t get into it dead and you hopefully leave it alive!
With two days remaining, I received my Pulk (sledge I drag all my gear on behind) I was hiring with its trace and harness which I set up to fit me. Time to pack it up now! I carried all my gear over from the accommodation and checked through the obligatory kit list before calling Stu, from the safety team, over to officially check everything was in order. He was happy. I just needed my tent now!
A group of us went out that night for a little ski on the frozen river just to get a feel of what it was like to ‘walk’ on the skis with my Baffin boots using the special bindings. It was simple and perfectly beautiful on the river. The light layer of snow over the ice was peppered with lots of animal prints. They looked like they had been having a party down there. Again my excitement rose as I imagined being out all alone surrounded by the creatures. Even though we were out only around 20-30 minutes, and went very slowly, the heat generated was surprising, and of course the second you stop it really feels -30!
The day before the race, I received my replacement tent from Charlie. It was a two man tunnel tent, which I was very happy about. A little extra weight was fine in my eyes if it meant plenty of sleeping space and a large porch area for snow melting and food preparation. The tunnel style of tent is also really simple and fast to erect and break down. I worked out the best way that it could be partially dismantled but still packed small enough and neat enough on top of my pulk. Once this was done, erection took less than five minutes. This was a comfort, for if I was too cold and needed shelter fast. Now I had everything and it had all been checked over, I began to pack it into the pulk trying to have some logic, and making sure that safety items could be accessed quickly and easily.
The packing didn’t seem to take too long which was nice, but then I got a little paranoid that I had done everything terribly wrong as some people seemed to never finish as they continually packed then unpacked and so on, till they had to sleep! There was one thing left to sort out and that was collecting the maps, and Scott uploading the route files to my brand new Garmin GPS. Time for our last sleep before the off in the morning.
We were up soon enough. We packed our pulks onto a trailer and climbed aboard the two minibuses that would take us into Bardufoss for the start. The local area had put on a festival for the race and there was a marquee in the centre that was serving a fine breakfast to us and the locals before we set off. I ate what I could but was soon rushed outside to collect our Spot trackers and to prepare for the off which was finally almost here. It was pretty cold and I just had on a few layers with my thin Patagonia insulated top and my Arcteryx hard shell over the top. I felt cold but knew that once I got going I would be warm. I strapped on my skis and picked up my poles. This is a good time. Nothing could be done now other than participation. There was no need to worry about equipment choices or whether I had enough to stay warm, would my food supplies be adequate? It felt like this moment was never going to arrive but here I was. My shin was still quite sore but again, nothing could be done. We were off!
Once we had left the town with lots of locals out to cheer us on our way, we made our way down a road for 10-15 minutes before my first challenge presented itself. We were directed away from the main road and down a lane which would take us down to the river which would be our trail for most of the first day. I decided to try and get down here with my skis on to experience how it would be with the pulk. Needless to say I found it quite difficult as the pulk would constantly want to overtake me gathering speed and trying to take me with it, while I was struggling to keep some sort of control on the skis. Well, it was all quite funny really as I fell three times and the rest I went at a crawling pace. Maybe I should remove the skis for the downs.
Once onto the river it was great to settle into a slow and steady rhythm. The field had already split up a lot as some of the whippets had shot off, though there are of course three races here, the 100 mile, the 250 mile and my event the 500 mile, so some people had 4 days ahead whereas us 500 milers had a potential 18 days ahead so the pacing strategies were going to be very different.
So what was my strategy for this one then? Well, as you know I generally don’t really have much of a strategy and the fact that this was so different than what I had done before, there was no race strategy. My focus was more on survival and making sure that I didn’t get my self in trouble. I had warmed up nicely with all the consistent, steady work on the flat river. My hands were a bit chilly but not giving me any reason for concern. My face was cold especially my cheeks, but again no cause for concern. I was excited about my first night out in such temperatures.
The cold also meant that any batteries I had needed to be kept away from the extreme cold. To do this I used my body heat, which meant I had my GPS on a cord around my neck permanently, my torch in an inner jacket pocket as well as a decent stock of spare batteries in a dry bag in another inner pocket. Not forgetting my spare petzl headtorch which was tucked in a pocket. When you added my trail snacks and my maps into the equation, my jacket was bursting at the seams with everything. Not generally how I like to travel, but it’s what has to be done in these conditions. I soon got used to it.
I had slipped into a similar pace as Krasse. Well, actually he was going a little quicker than me, but was stopping more frequently so this evened things up. I liked Krasse. He was as new to this Arctic stuff as I was, and if anything may have been a little more out of his comfort zone as his favourite type of race was desert races! I would prefer cold over heat easily. I now recognised the section of river we were approaching. It meant we were near Malmselfossen were we had been situated for the previous few days. Then as we turned a corner I saw two of the safety crew who were out directing. They pointed us to a section of bank where we had to leave the river for a km or so due to there being a section of the river which was too thin for us to travel on. I enjoyed this section, even if I could just about get myself up the bank on my skis. Once up though the trail through the trees was fun and beautiful. Then I realised that I would have to go back down to the river which would probably mean a descent which I would fall on. Oh well, lets just take it as it comes, and just see it as good practice! The descent was short and sweet, and I was following the two girl team of Liv, a Norwegian guide and Karin from Denmark who both seemed pretty adept on their skis with their pulks, both of which were not on a rope like me but on solid bars so that they had control of it on the downhills. They glided down the small slope with ease giving me confidence. I stopped at the top and knew that I could get down it without the pulk no problem, but knew that once I started the pulk would overtake and possibly take control i.e. pull me down. My prediction was accurate!
Back on the river and we skirted around some thinner sections of ice and soon the whole river was rock solid again. Krasse had pulled ahead a little and I was alone again. I started to hear dogs whining to my right, and then suddenly a team dragging a man on a sled shot over the bank and down onto the river. The driver looked over and waved as the dogs sped along. It looked great fun and surprisingly quick. He did a large u turn before disappearing back over the river bank. 10 minutes later I could just about make out a gathering ahead around two cars. Was this the Frostskade crew? Probably. I saw a group of six leave and head up river. This I guessed was the French as there were 6 of them and they had stuck together over the training days.
As I got closer I could see that this was not our crew. They had a fire going in a metal stand which I stopped at for a minute. Krasse was here already, and once I noticed that this was not a Frosty set up, I moved on. My shin was no issue on this flat surface, which was calming seeing as it had most certainly not recovered well.
I slid along through the frozen, stark landscape. The sky was beautiful all the time and when I stopped I would be met with complete silence. A large bend in the river was approaching and as I came around it, I saw ahead the French and Krasse who had passed me again earlier. When I got there they were clearly unsure about the next direction. I arrived and got my GPS out. I thought we just stayed on the river till we were directed off by markers? The French all made a decision and shot off leaving the river and heading off on a skidoo trail that wasn’t marked by the team. A few more people arrived as Krasse and I checked maps and GPS units. While we were stopped I got cold hands and pulled out my big mittens. We finally decided to follow the river. The French had gone wrong. Sure enough they all appeared out from the trees where they had entered and slowly passed me.
My hands soon warmed up nice and toasty and the rhythm commenced. Krasse and I were now together again and the French had gone ahead and the other guys that had caught up had dropped back. We now stuck together. The daylight hours would soon be coming to a close. We soon caught up Team France again as they debated their next move. I felt happy which way to go. We stopped and I showed them on the map where we were. We still had a long way to go before the first cp. Today’s progress had been exceptionally slow so far and seeing as it had mostly been perfectly flat with no real issues, it was only going to slow if anything!
I mounted my Petzl here, which was an old discontinued Myo xp with a remote battery unit. This was the first headtorch I bought when I first started ultrarunning. I bought a remote battery torch because even back then I dreamed of doing an Arctic ultra! At last it’s time had come! These are better because you can keep the batteries in a warm pocket making them last lots longer. Team France had obviously finally agreed with our route as they were now chasing behind. I was starting to feel the need to see the marker that would direct us off the river. I had had enough of this river now.
Just before team France caught us again I spotted two marker sticks that marked our river exit point. Once off the river, we stopped for a quick drinks stop and let the French pass. There was only around a km of trail before we spilled out onto a road. There was snow at the side so we left our skis on and continued down the road. This road section seemed to go on for a long time till eventually people started to pass us. They were on foot. I decided to remove my skis as there was obviously quite a bit more road and being on foot was far quicker than my skiing. It was good to be on my feet, as my boots really gripped the snow and ice well so I could just stride out with a confidence that I wouldn’t slip.
By this stage I was all alone again and it was completely dark. Although we were on a road, there were barely any cars around so it was really peaceful and not as cold as earlier now that we were away from the river. There was a little colour in the sky above but it was barely noticeable. The Northern Lights! They had been like this a few nights before. I really wanted them to progress and brighten tonight. Within minutes I was sure there was a change. I didn’t trust my sight and I was quite tired now, but I kept my eyes looking up eagerly. Now I was sure, it was certainly brightening and it moving fluidly across the sky. Brighter and brighter the green glow got until it was the most glorious sight I have been lucky enough to see. It was so spectacularly beautiful and psychedelic that I could die now and my life would feel complete. Well, ok maybe that is a slight exaggeration, as I still had to finish this race!
After an hour or more of this wonderful light show, it began to fade a little. I was still on the road and hadn’t seen a car for ages now, when a pickup approached me and stopped directly in front of me blocking my way. I stopped and stared into the bright lights as someone jumped out and walked my way. It was Charlie. He told me who was up ahead and how far. Apparently the French were about 1 km ahead. It was interesting but not in the same way as this sort of data would excite me in a race where I was actually competitive. But I was again running and trying my best to be disciplined and just stick to my pace. Charlie also informed me that in 5km I would turn off the road and then 5km later I would be at the first CP! Where was I planning to stop he asked. I would definitely get to the CP and depending how I felt I would camp or push on. I said goodbye and carried on down the icy road.
An hour later, yes 5km per hour, I left the road and within 100 metres I passed Team France who were just starting to set up camp. I knew that the next 5km to the CP were up hill and I really wanted to get stuck into this before I called it a day. As soon as I passed the French the path kicked up and immediately I felt the pulk working against me. It felt good to be off the road and on hillier ground. The climb was decent and sustained which got me warmed up very nicely. I soon saw two lights up ahead and caught them fairly quickly. Who could this be? It was Liv and Karin. I’m not sure exactly how they got ahead of me, but I know that Liv had some proper maps of the course so could make more informed route plans. The printouts we had been given were ok but on a massive scale so plenty of land features were lost.
I said hi and passed them on a steeper section. The higher I got the stronger the wind got until eventually the trail levelled out a little and the wind was strong and fresh. Not a great place to pitch a tent here! I eventually came out of the trees and was then passing over a frozen lake where the wind was very strong and in my face. Not very pleasant! A short climb out of the lake at the other side and there right in front of me was the CP tent. I walked up to it and shouted out. Stu was inside and he asked me if I was going to camp here. I said yes, but after a walk around the local area I decided it was too windy so informed him I was going to move on. After 5 minutes I found a spot that was a lot quieter. I stamped out an area larger than my tent and pitched it. I soon had the stove on melting snow. I prepared two freeze dried meals with the water and within minutes had emptied them both. Time to sleep!
Sleeping arrangements in the arctic. Just get into your bag and get cosy and sleep right? Close, but not quite. Batteries need to stay warm of course, so they come in the bag with you. The liners from my boots are wet from sweat so they don’t want to get cold as they’ll freeze. In they come! My gas for the stove is more efficient when warm. My big mittens are a little damp so they come in. If I have any excess water from my snow melting, then the flask/flasks come in to. It gets pretty cosy in there as you can imagine!
I slept for a solid 7 hours that night, waking to the alarm I’d set on my Garmin. I laid there for a minute as I took in where I was and what I was doing. I felt good and was really happy to be taking part in something in the Arctic circle after many years thinking about it. Right time to move, and move quick. I was warm in my sleeping bag. I say my sleeping bag, but I must point out that it was in fact Mark Hines’ bag as I just couldn’t afford one and Mark very generously offered to loan me one of his amazingly warm Rab bags. If and when I get an Arctic bag of my own, it will no doubt be a Rab. I heated some water, still in my bag, for breakfast and then melted snow to top up my litre and half-litre flasks for the day ahead. Once breakfast was done with it was time to crawl out of my bag. The cold doesn’t let you hang around! Fortunately I felt fine with this from all my winter bivvying I’ve done. Within 10 minutes, everything was packed up and I was clipping the carabiner onto my harness that attached me to my beloved pulk. It had been light for less than an hour so I would make good use of the day. I still had some uphill before it levelled out a little which was great for warming me.
Today’s aim was to climb up a valley surrounded by the mountains before dropping to CP2 then following another valley. Shouldn’t be too challenging! The wind proved to be strong and cutting for the duration. It was again a head wind so my hood was tightened down as much as possible. I followed no path, beating my own through the wind scoured snow. I was constantly looking at maps and my GPS to confirm. Route finding was not too difficult overall, but picking the easiest route and the one that wouldn’t lead you into some challenging dips was very difficult. The ups were technically easy though of course slow, but the downs were difficult with the pulk, even though I now was off the skis. My pulk had a mind of it’s own. It was like taking a large, very strong, completely untrained dog out for a walk. I soon named it ‘little bastard’ as this is what normally spouted out my mouth as I spoke to it during difficult sections
As I climbed to a section of a ridge, the wind grew to hurricane strength and was blowing spindrift at me like I was being sand-blasted. I pushed hard here as I wanted to get out of the wind. It dropped a little but not a great deal as it was funnelled down the valley I was trekking up. After most of the daylight hours traveling up the valley I saw ahead the two figures of Liv and Karin. I trailed behind for an hour before they stopped and started pitching their tent. I stopped to chat and to make sure they were ok. They were good and were just providing some shelter for a little break before pushing on. I found out the Mark had pulled out here due to his hand that he had fractured during The Spine.
I left them to it continuing down the mountainous valley. A couple of hours later and I was descending a gentle slope which would take me to CP 2 which was again a tent manned by John and the race Dr, Nick. I crawled in and sat in the shelter out of the wind. Absolute bliss! The wind had been relentless today. My head torch had been on for about 10 minutes already, but I changed the batteries now, while I was in the heavenly shelter. John loaded me up with hot tea which went down a treat. They informed me that Karl Hinett, a 100 miler had just left, literally while I was there and that Jin, a 500 miler had passed through a few hours ago. I was in third place! I was a little surprised to say the least, but felt happy with my pace and of course knew just how early in the race it was. Pretty meaningless really. I thanked the guys for their hospitality and moved out into the cold darkness. The next section was a simple ‘follow the valley’ again. As long as I was in the right valley nothing could go wrong.
Route finding, well, good route finding, is difficult when it’s pitch black and all you have are maps with no decent detail. I was climbing and descending a lot and occasionally hitting some deeper snow which slowed me a little. I checked plenty to make sure I wasn’t going badly wrong so was happy that what progress I was making was good progress. I was thankful that this section seemed to be quite sheltered from the wind and if anything things seemed very quiet. I felt very alone and was rather enjoying it. I continued till around 2330-2400 before starting the camp procedure. I had relative shelter and with plenty of snow heaped on the valances, I achieved a nice fairly airtight tent. Now I was in my second night, I knew exactly what to do, and in what order. I was happy to get into my sack for some well earned rest.
I awoke and when I got to see the landscape that surrounded me, I was surprised as the previous night my imagination had cobbled something very different. I was slightly up from the bottom of the valley on a very gentle slope. There were trees around but these were sparse. As I got on my way again the morning was bright and calm and soon the sky was turning beautiful hues of orange as the sun attempted to show itself again, which was reflecting off the snow. I took a few photos and wondered whether I would be graced with the sun today. I hadn’t seen it at all yet during the race. It was coming above the horizon this far up North but only just so if there was a hill or mountain it wouldn’t quite make it. The glow was beautiful and really inspired me to push on this morning.
After a couple of hours of plodding through the snow, I found myself in some very deep powder, so I stopped and pulled my snowshoes out of the pulk. I struggled to fit them to my boots due to the width of them but was soon off not sinking anywhere near as much as before. This was short lived though as they soon worked loose. They just weren’t designed to fit these monster boots. I looked them over seeing if there would be a way to bodge it with tape, but decided that I didn’t want them permanently stuck to my boots. I packed them back away and pulled the skis out and strapped them on. Within 20 strides my foot came loose of the ski. On inspection I realised that the binding had snapped! Again, I saw no solution to this with the materials I had to hand, so packed them away and continued trudging through the snow.
I was of course frustrated with these turns of events but worked hard to not let the negative thoughts take charge. I was still going ok, and I was sure that as soon as I moved away from the river I would leave behind the deeper snow. Thankfully the snow did become a little easier to get through but this was short lived as I entered some woodland where the snow was very deep. Now things got really tough! The woods got denser and the land was far from flat. When you could see far ahead up the valley you could see that there were mounds all the way up and no possible route you could use that would miss this out. I think I may have sworn once or twice here.
I was constantly sinking into deep snow and the little bastard was really living up to his name! It was banging into the back of my legs, overtaking me and dragging me down, going the wrong side of trees meaning I would have to back track and drag it out which was very tiring. That was just the downhill sections! The ups were of course difficult and slow. Combine the two and progress was barely existent. I would guess that I was hovering somewhere near the 1kmh along this section. This was not great mentally. I was not too far from the front of the whole race and we were nowhere near where Scott guessed the first person would be by the end of day one! Things were slower and harder than expected.
After a few hours of this I found myself closer to the river. I looked up and down this section as much as I could and saw no open water or thin looking sections so decided to try this freeway. It was fantastic! Nice and flat and no trees! Then I heard a hollow sound and I suddenly dropped through the ice. I was surprised at how quick I scrambled out! I looked down at the large hole I had made, and saw that the water level was about half a metre below the ice which is why I was feeling dry. A few minutes later I did the same again and resigned to the fact that I needed to head off the river and back into the woodland. I knew from my map that eventually I would need to go right, so I switched sides from the laborious left which I’d been on all day to the right and was met with deep snow again. Then I noticed some fresh ski tracks. They were heading in the right direction so I took advantage of the beaten trail, though still sinking deeply.
I followed the tracks back down to the river. There appeared to be three sets of ski tracks which was a little puzzling as I initially thought it would be the girls. Who else could it be on skis? I followed the their trail as it snaked it’s way down the river keeping to the thickest ice and obviously steering well clear of thinner sections of which there were many. I felt safe and things only got difficult as the thin ice forced me onto the bank briefly and back into the deep snow. I was a little envious of the trail from the skiers that left a shallow trail through the snow as I sunk up to my thighs and sometimes deeper. Soon though I spotted them ahead. It was the girls and the Norwegian Lief. Lief was in the 250 mile event. They eventually stopped to have a mini break and I now caught them up. We chatted about the tough trail, and about my ski and snowshoe bad luck. As far as we could work out, there were two in front of us, Jin and Karl and as far as we could work out they were on the left bank which by now was a small cliff which you could not safely come down. I was glad for being on the river.
A little further on, the river became a little too sketchy to travel on, so Liv, using her map directed us over the land again. The snow was deep and I was sinking very deep with every foot step. The skiers were gliding along ahead with relative ease. I decided to try single ski skiing. Surely it would be better than my current situation? It wasn’t the most efficient ways of moving, but it was much better than before. I began to make more progress and soon caught up with the girls. I must have looked quite special limping along on one ski! I let them go ahead and now there was a fairly steep descent down to another river. I half skied and half fell down here with my (un)faithful friend making things that little more challenging. I was soon back on a river which was solid and safely frozen. After a short while on this, it was time for a nice challenging up hill. Even the Norwegians took their skis off for this one! This was a real grind up here. It was only a short distance but seeing as very little if any real momentum could be gained due to the pulk pulling back on you, It took a long time. Finally after much hard graft, I caught a smell of a fire and soon saw the warm and friendly looking glow of the Dividalshytta hut.
The warmth that hit me on entering was glorious. I was keen to get my boots off and dry my feet of and warm them up. Even though they are high boots with a snow skirt, the snow had been deeper a lot during the day and some had crept in making my feet very wet and cold. Soon they were glowing warm and my boots were steaming away. Scotts partner, Solveig was manning the hut and looked after me the girls, Leif and the French who had caught us up on the climb. I think we were all a little surprised that we were the first to the hut. I ate two freeze dried meals straight away and then just sat there enjoying the stories and the warmth. It had been an epic for everyone today. There were no shortcuts. Soon people started bedding down for some sleep. I sat there longer, before realising that I should also have a little sleep. All the beds were taken by this stage but Solveig took me to the other hut that was empty and quiet. I lay down setting my alarm for 0600. I soon realised that sleep wasn’t coming. I waited longer, but soon decided that I should move on. I had been resting for around 5 hours in total. I wandered back to the hut and quietly prepared to move, trying not to wake those sleeping. I filled my flasks with hot water. I thanked Solveig for her hospitality, stepped outside clipped onto the little bastard and was off. It was 0100 in the morning.
The climb from the hut continued where it left off. It was steep and hard. I couldn’t find the trail so just headed up the best route I could find. It wasn’t great at points requiring leaning forward and using my hands and kicking in steps to the steep snow. I felt very exposed at times and the pulk was really not making things much better. The going was incredibly slow and soon it begun to snow making what visibility I had much less. It soon levelled out though and after two more sketchy climbs (literally!), I thankfully begun to head down. We had been warned that there was a good downhill though so the pressure was far from off!
My pace at least sped up now, and when the descent came it was fine. I turned my pulk around and let it slide in front of me holding the rope to keep some sort of control on it. The sky was beginning to glow as the new day arrived. It was quite cold and there was still a good wind blowing that kept me moving and my hood up to retain the warmth I worked so hard for. I now was constantly wearing my large mittens and they were working a treat. From the hut I’d just left to the next one was 25km (a massive distance at this pace) which was possibly too short for a day. The next hut was an extra 25km further. This was a manned CP too. 50km was a big day and seeing as the start had been incredibly slow, I predicted at least 20hrs. By midday I hadn’t made the hut at 25km. I really needed to get to the next CP in one push if I was going to keep the 500 mile race alive. When I was around 5km short of the hut, I saw the girls ahead but on my left. They seemed to be having a good sit down rest. As I passed I waved a pole and they waved back. I wanted to at least make the hut before stopping to eat. I was starting to feel tired and weary. The hut seemed a fantastic place to rest. I saw it and it took forever to get there. It was of course locked and I didn’t have one of the keys (you can hire them) so without thinking pitched my tent in the most sheltered area with just rest on my sleepy mind. I melted snow, ate a meal and got into my bag and lay there for around an hour not sleeping again. It was still light out. I looked at my watch, 1530. What the hell was I doing? It was going to be dark in 30 minutes and I should be using this! Within 10 minutes I was packed up and hurriedly rushing back towards the trail, eager to get through the next 25km section.
The tiredness had taken firm control for a couple of hours there, overhauling all logic and reason. I justified that it was all alright though as I had given myself a little down time from an already challenging day, feeding myself and drinking plenty which should keep me afloat for the next section.
It was mostly flat and pretty straightforward navigation wise. I locked into a pace and kept moving. I knew that this was going to be a tough section mentally. Tiredness was my number one enemy here. It didn’t affect me for ages because of my little break, but after a few hours, I could feel my eyes prickling. Here it comes! As I got more and more tired, I started to feel the cold. The wind was from behind but it was still affecting me. I didn’t wait too long and stopped to dig my super warm Marmot down jacket out. I pulled it on and put the hood up. Instant bliss. I was soon feeling the benefit all over my body as I warmed up. The tiredness was really slowing me still though and I was aware that I was staggering like a drunk. I needed a micro rest. I really wanted it to be short on time though. I just needed to close my eyes for 5-10 minutes. This can work wonders. I needed to be out of the wind, so I pulled my skis out and laid them on the snow upside down to give me something to lie on off the snow. Then I got my bag out which was permanently in a bivvy bag and to save me taking my boots off, I crawled in head first. Probably not the wisest of moves I’ve ever made, but my god it was amazing in there. Warm and out the wind, I closed my eyes and just relaxed for 10 minutes and then, opened my eyes and packed up and feeling a little invigorated, I moved on.
The final section down to the hut was of the circuit which meant when leaving the hut you would have to back track 4km to get back on route. I arrived at the hut at around 0330 in the morning. I was again greeted with smiles and warmth from Phil and Justin. The girls were there and already sleeping. I had a couple of meals and got into bed myself. I was exhausted but content that I had made this cp.
I think I actually managed an hour or two of sleep here before hearing the girls quietly getting up and then discussing whether they should continue as they had to be back at work soon. They needed to finish the last section to Kilpisjarvi in one big hit, which was the end of the 100 miler, though I suspected it was a bit further than that. They were determined and were soon readying for the off. I was wide awake now and got up just before they left. I wished them well and wondered whether I would bump into them today. I slowly sorted myself out and then one of the French chaps, Erick Basset arrived. He had just slept on the trail about an hour back and wasn’t intending on hanging around. I said my goodbyes and walked out the door.
I couldn’t believe the scenery. When I arrived 4 or 5 hours previously in the dark, I could have sworn that I was descending through a heavily wooded area. No trees here! Hmmm… I guess my mind was playing tricks on me. I never hallucinate but then I recalled just before arriving at the hut that I had seen a man on a horse pass me by, apparently not seeing me. Once at the 100 mile point I would need to get some more sleep, and that meant more than one or two hours.
I was probably an hour behind the girls. It was a beautiful clear day. There was a bit of a chill in the air. I wondered whether it was actually cold or whether it was just my tiredness. I soon was back up onto the main route and was now heading towards Sweden across some relative flat land. I kept sinking into the snow so eventually I had to try out my skis. Phil and Justin in the the last cp had lent me a bungy cord to bodge my ski binding. I was sceptical but it worked really well and soon I was gliding along like a Norwegian (in my dreams). Due to the flat terrain, I could see the girls ahead, and Erick behind about an equal distance. I was grateful that there was not any competition in me still. I was very happily doing my own thing. After a few hours I caught the girls up as they stopped for a mini break. We decided to join forces here and be a trio. It was nice to have some company. I soon had the bad luck of my other Binding break and not having another bungy, this left me ski-less again. Oh well, at least I got a few hours out of them. We stopped soon and had a rehydrated meal each. Erick caught us here, stopped briefly and then pushed on ahead alone. He looked to be on a mission.
It was soon dark again, and we were getting closer and closer to the cp, though first we had to get over some rather lumpy ground with quite a bit of ascent slowing things right down. Then we saw some light glowing in the sky. This must be Kilpisjarvi! When the trail began to go down a bit it was then that we saw it. It looked so close but we knew it would still be a number of hours before we arrived. It was here that I looked at my fingers that were tingling and a little sore and realised that one of the tips was white with a distinct line around it. Bugger, frostbite! I really needed to look after it, so I put a handwarmer into my glove to make sure it was nice and warm. When had that happened? I scanned my mind but couldn’t think of any particular time. They had been tingling for days but I stupidly thought nothing of it. It didn’t look bad, but I was keen to let the Doc look at this when I arrived at the CP. Liv and Karin were getting excited as they would soon be finishing. I had over 400 miles left! Overwhelming, I’ll admit, but these things always are.
After a long descent where my pulk was sliding all over the place, we arrived onto a lake. This meant we just had a 12km death march across the frozen lake towards the lights. This would take around 3hrs the way we were going. We were chatty at first, excited to be so close but soon went quiet as we all started our own battles to stay awake. Then came the hallucinations which were numerous but topped by a rather freaky one involving a constant flow of people, all looking a bit odd, walking directly towards me and just fading to nothing just before the hit me, revealing the next one a metre or so behind them. This continued for a bewildering 10-15 minutes as I trudged into them.
We were guided in by John Bambers’ headtorch as he waited patiently for us to arrive. He and I congratulated the girls who had done an amazing feat by winning the team 100 mile category. A big surprise to them. John walked us into the little chalet where I was grateful to remove my boots and put the liners into the clothes dryer they had there! I was informed that I was going to be held here to let some of the other guys catch up a bit as we were too spread out making safety an issue. My race clock was stopped until they arrived. A forced rest. Oh ok then, if you insist!
I showered, ate plenty and then crashed out dead to the world. Sleep at last! I was woken when Scott and some of the team arrived. We had a chat, and then I got up and lounged around drinking coffee. At some point we were joined by Erick for a can of beer as he was celebrating winning the 100 mile solo. He had entered the 250, but had decided to stop at 100. Dr. Nick had a look at my frostbite and said it was just superficial, but should definitely be monitored, and be kept warm all the time as it was far more susceptible to getting it at a level which could threaten my fingertips survival. I stocked up on heat pads and vowed to not take my large mitten off that hand unless absolutely necessary. We looked at our GPS feed that day and calculated that the true distance to the ’100′ point was in fact 128 miles. That felt a bit better seeing as it had taken around a day longer than it should have.
The next person to arrive was Leif who got in around 10 hours later (I think?) followed a short while after by Jin and David Jorgensen. Jin was to continue but David, who was in the 250 mile race was having to pull because of work commitments (quite a few other runners had pulled out as they had flights to catch and the race was so much slower than anyone expected) . This meant that only three were still racing from this point onward. In the 250 there was Leif and in the 500 was Jin and I.
Scott lent me his skis and sticks. His skis had much better bindings on as they were metal not flimsy plastic like my last ones. The poles were great as they were adjustable in length. My last ones were very long which meant my hands were high up which meant that blood didn’t circulate so well giving me cold hands. After a half decent nights sleep I woke at 6 with the intention of leaving at 7, but I got held up waiting for one thing or another and didn’t get on the road till around 9. A little frustrating but I was happy to be on my way. Scott set me off on my way and I quickly got into a decent stride wanting to take advantage of the faster trail.
I was now on a decent skidoo trail that Scott had likened to a motorway. I started out on foot and made good progress, but after a few hours I was sinking a little so decided to use the skis. It was nice to have a change. I didn’t see another soul for ages and then the cloud came down a little cutting down the visibility. Out of the deathly silence I heard two skidoos come from behind and pass me waving as they went. Ten minutes later I saw them stopped up ahead. They were both crouched down next to one of the skidoos. When I got closer I realised they had just stopped for lunch and were sheltering from the wind. I said “hei” as I passed, they responded with the same. I had been on my skis for a few hours now and wanted to be back on my feet as the trail seemed pretty good again. The land was very open here so there was no shelter from the wind which was gaining in strength.
The darkness fell again. I was determined to make it to a turn in the route at least today. I think it was around 50km. Every now and then I would see a dull glow in the middle of nowhere. I think this was Sami people settlements. Later on I saw two lights that I assumed were two skidoos far over to my left, approaching quickly. The first one pulled up next to me. It was a middle aged woman who spoke. I asked if she spoke English and she asked where I was going. I wasn’t too sure how to answer, so I pointed to my race number and told her that I was taking part in a 800km race. That’s all she needed, and she shot off. The other one pulled up. This time it was an elderly woman who unfortunately couldn’t speak English so she followed her friend (daughter?) into the darkness.
The trudge through the cold dark night continued uneventfully for a few more hours when another skidoo approached from behind. It stopped beside me. It was Charlie and Mark Hines, who was now part of the crew. They informed me of everyone else’s progress behind. They also wanted to know where I planned to camp as they were going to set up an intermediate cp. I told them about the turn in the trail. Charlie told me that there was a hut not too far further on from there and said they’d be there. There was a strong wind now that was blowing in from my left. This would be directly in my face when I turned the corner. Lovely.
Three hours later I was at the turn. I was really happy with today’s progress. I turned into the wind and was straight away looking down, as the spindrift getting blown into my face was very painful. I stopped and got my Julbo goggles out. Straight away things became lots more comfortable. Looking into the snow was very trance inducing, but there was no hallucinating today. I travelled 10km down this trail and then gave up on the hut so pitched my tent and got some sleep. I had set my alarm for 0700. By 0800 I was back on the move. While packing up, Jin had passed me. He had not stopped properly all night!
Annoyingly within 1km I saw some sticks signalling that there was a cp just off the trail. Sure enough there was a lovely warm hut with Charlie and Mark in and some beds. Damn, I was so close! This really irritated me. I had wasted a couple of hours with my tent and melting snow etc. Never mind, there was no need getting too wound up by it. I had slept so all was good. I was kindly offered some of Mark’s coffee that had been lovingly filtered through his buff as they had nothing else. It tasted great! I stayed 20 minutes before dragging myself back out to the trail again.
The snow was now deep enough to put on the skis. From here on the trail became difficult to follow and even on skis the going was slow and difficult because of the snow. I slowly weaved my way through the trees and across frozen lakes and marshland. This was a lot slower than yesterday which was a bit frustrating. I was following a trail that seemed not to bad for most of the day though, but later in the day I was heading quite a bit south of the route on the trail and starting getting concerned that it was taking me too far away, so after a while I followed a new trail that forked off in the direction that would get me back on trail. This was a mistake! I soon realised that this trail was just not right and before I knew what was happening I was circling around looking for a trail that would go in the right direction. The deep snow off these trails was ridiculously slow and laborious to move through. I soon was aware that I was not really making any meaningful progress and was getting a bit stressed about the time wasting. I dug my phone out and called Scott (this was the first time we had had mobile signal) to let him know that I was ok, just messing up my nav, in case someone was watching my GPS tracker and wondering what I was doing. Scott was great and gave me a waypoint to aim for which should get me back on track. This took a while, but I was soon back on the good trail I had stupidly left.
I didn’t need my skis again so off they came and I strode it out. In around 5km I saw a flashing light ahead which I knew was John’s head-torch signalling an intermediate tent CP. Once there I stayed for around 30 mins. John and Nick again kept giving me hot drinks and then a hot meal to prepare me for the last 30km push to Kautokeino, the location of the next cp. I left the tent with a determined stride that, within 5 minutes, came to a stop as I had to change my torch batteries. Then I was off. There was about 10km to a road and then 20 along here to the cp. I must confess that I was not exactly looking forward to the road section, but the solid footing and the lack of navigation would be a nice relief, mentally and physically.
Once I had been on the road for half an hour, a car sped towards me and stopped along side me. It was Scott. He jumped out and walked with me for a while, feeding me with positivity and even an apple which went down very well. Once he was gone, I put my head down and pushed hard. My feet were sore and my shin too but the overriding thing was the tiredness, though it wasn’t as bad as before. There was plenty of light pollution here and to be quite honest it didn’t bother me at all like normal. It meant that I was surrounded by houses and people. I knew that the next day when I set off again I would be eager to get back into the wilderness, but for now it felt comforting. The road just went on and on with the lights seemingly not getting any closer. I kept my calm and just kept moving. Once into the town, I turned back on myself and proceeded for another 4km till I reached the motel. It was around 0400 when I got there. Scott was still up but the tiny box room was full of snoring crew. I crept in and slumped happily into a seat. Scott plied me with pastry and a meal and some more fruit which all went into the bottomless pit. I used the shower and felt lots better for it before pitching my tent outside with some help from Scott as there was no room in the motel. I had no problem sleeping for a few hours now!
When I woke everyone else was also awake, so I sat in there with Leif who had arrived a number of hours before me. After a hot drink and breakfast in a bag, I started to pack away and get back on the road. The next section begun with around 25km on a road, which was great for speed, but really uninspiring and dull. After fastening everything down to my pulk and tucking my flasks of boiling water into my sleeping bag to insulate more. I said my goodbyes and left. I was around 1 hour behind Leif. I think Jin was a couple of hours away yet, but wouldn’t be stopping at the motel. Just before leaving town, there was an open garage, the first I had passed I believe. I popped in and bought a hot dog, a massive bar of chocolate and a large bag of dried fruit and nuts for the day ahead which would undoubtedly turn into an epic.
The road was how I expected it to be, long, dull and fast. I was longing to be away from it and finally I arrived at the start of the old post road which was the skidoo trail which we would be following for the next 55km into the next cp. We had been informed that because of the distance covered being greater than what was originally stated, the 250 mile point was being moved forward to the next cp! I would soon be at the half way point. I will then have cracked the back of this thing! This would be the end of Leif’s race which would just leave me and Jin. What a crazy race.
Once off the road I was straight onto my skis and making some good progress just as it started getting dark. I continued on skis for a few hours but then as I finished a climb that went on for a long time and I was very exposed to the wind, the snow started sticking to the underside of my skis. I ignored it for a while, but it became slow and very difficult as your feet became heavy with the sticky snow and this of course made sliding nigh on impossible. I removed them and trudged through the snow as the spindrift pelted me hard. The trail was getting difficult to see as the wind was drifting the snow, covering it very well. You knew when you were off the compressed trail though as you would sink mid thigh deep and would struggle to get out.
This exposed area of hill went on just a little too long and I was happy when I could see a slight descent ahead which took me out of the worst of it and everything seemed to calm around me. I was making some good progress still when I entered a field and was surrounded by many different skidoo trails going in all directions. Which one was the right one? I looked at my GPS and after much plunging around in very deep snow and trying to find something that looked like it might be a trail, I was back on it. There was now no skidoo trail so the going was slow and frustrating. Soon the tiredness hit me like a tonne of bricks.
I knew that when you were this tired that something had to be done immediately. You could carry on, but you would slow down immensely, decision making would be impaired and you would feel colder. I moved off the trail and decided to dig a snow grave. This is what you imagine it to be except I intended to crawl out of it after an hour. I dug a hole long enough to lie in and deep enough to be sheltered from the wind. Then threw my sleeping system in and crawled in. I had a quick meal with barely luke warm water (Sweet and sour chicken I think) before drifting off for an hour. I was rudely awakend by my GPS alarm all too quickly. I packed up fast and got back on the trail (?). Damn deep snow! I noticed that to my left there was a large frozen lake, so I headed down to it hoping to find a better route. Sure enough there were skidoo trails along it which I followed all the way to the end saving me some seriously frustrating deep snow.
As I left the lake the trail was barely visible as the wind scoured the snow. Soon I was rewarded with a proper skidoo trail sign. They now appeared more frequently and the trail was easier to follow as there were trees at each side creating an avenue. Leif’s trail was quite visible now. He was also on foot, which I guessed meant the snow was sticking to his skis too. I crossed a large open section and the wind was not very pleasant here, but I could see up ahead trees that could offer shelter.
I saw in the distance what looked like a tent. I couldn’t be sure until I got a lot closer, but yes, it was certainly a tent, and it had to be Leif. There was no-one else stupid enough to be out here. I had decided that when I found a relatively sheltered spot, I would set up camp, just to get an hour or so. This looked ideal. I quietly slid past his tent trying not to wake him, then when about 100 metres up trail I found my spot. Leif then poked his head out from his tent. I walked back and chatted about the crappy conditions and the awful trail. He said he would be 5 minutes so I waited. Rest can wait!
Soon we were off in single file pushing as fast as our fatigue and the trail conditions would allow. We climbed for a long time along a perfectly straight avenue and then burst out onto an open hillside. The wind was still battering us and made the going a little unpleasant as we were so exposed. The head-torch had been off now for a couple of hours and will not be going on again for this section. I liked that. As we contoured around the hill the wind was soon at our backs which felt great. Now we were on the home straight!
plod, plod, plod…
As I stopped to get a heat pad out and put it into my glove Leif pulled away. I left him to it and continued my plodding. Once at the top of a little climb, we saw the small town of Suolovuopmi. I caught up with Leif here as he was getting his skis out for the downhill. I thought I would try also. Within minutes Leif had disappeared. Damn these Norwegians! I again showed why I needed to practice more with the skis and with a pulk on a rope. I packed the skis away and tried to slide down the hill sitting on the pulk with no joy. I resorted to good old walking. Within 20 minutes I was in the outskirts of town, and then a skidoo approached me. It was Charlie with Stu, coming out to greet me and make sure I went the right way through town to the CP. They shot off and 5 minutes later I turned a corner and saw the finish line of the 250 mile race. I felt a little emotional to have reached this point. I was exhausted and had decided that I was going to spend a solid 8 hours or so here as I needed to sleep properly.
There were a few people there to greet me as I crossed the line which was really nice and Scott came up and gave me a big hug congratulating me, and then said that the race was not going to continue from here. I was gobsmacked and didn’t know what was happening. I asked to confirm that this was definite as I knew that my body would close down once it thought it was finished with. Scott confirmed that it was over, and slung a 250 mile medal over my head.
There were plenty of photos taken and I of course was happy that I would not have to continue as I was exhausted, but totally gutted that I had DNFed. I was around 24hrs ahead of Jin and around 12 ahead of Leif (including the time when my race clock was stopped at the 100 mile point). I had been psychologically preparing myself for this part which would have been difficult as Leif would have finished and I would continue alone. But now I felt hollow. My experience had been truly incredible and I had loved being in the Arctic but now it had been cut short. It was all out of my power which I respected but the disappointment was almost overwhelming. Could I have finished this thing? I have no idea, but I would have loved to have continued as far as possible. Since the race ended I am still disappointed but I will not let this affect the great memories I will have for the rest of my life. I feel like this event has touched me in a way like no other. I have to visit the Arctic again, for it’s utter beauty and the challenges it provides.
I now have a load of debt from the Spine and Frostskade which I will deal with, meaning there won’t be hardly any, if any at all, racing this year. That’s ok though as these things are worth so much and I will never regret it.
Would I do things differently if I returned to the Frostskade? Yes for sure. My Baffin boots were great, but I think I would have to use trainers with thermal covers I saw some of the experienced French and Mark using. Either that or I would buy some decent backcountry ski boots that the Norwegians were using. I loved my Marmot down jacket, my Arc’teryx jacket which is bomb-proof. I would not use rope for my pulk, swapping it for the solid trace making those downhills easier. My Marmot Mittens were just superb. My Jetboil was good but I would swap it for my petrol stove which is more efficient in the extreme cold. My sleeping system was great (thanks Mark). Overall I was happy with most of my kit choices and felt fairly well prepared. I have learnt so much and need to do something else just to practice it all.
Now I have been home for a while and I am almost fully recovered with just the tendonitis on my shin dragging on, I am very happy with all I have achieved. My experiences in both races, my winter odyssey, has been exceptional and I am so glad that I pushed my limits by choosing to take them both on. But where do I go from here? I am not too sure, but I know my path will make itself clear as time moves on. I won’t worry about it. I do plan on running the 114 mile Haute route (summer version) this year, self sufficiently which is what really gives me a kick and is relatively free! Let me know if you have any opportunities!
I know that I really need to learn how to edit these things and make them more manageable, but the primary reason I started writing about my experiences was as a personal record that I could read in the future when the finer detail would have faded from my poor memory. Though now this part is closure on the whole process. I relive the great parts and the deep, deep lows which I subconsciously hide from myself. So for the time being, I will continue to write in this style and if you have made it this far then well done and thanks for sharing in my experiences. I really hope that I can get across just how incredible these times are for me.
Finally I would just like to thank the superb Likeys who helped me out with so much amazing equipment which, if I hadn’t have received, I probably wouldn’t have been able to take part. Also, a huge thanks to Lou who has supported me during these, at times, selfish endeavours. It means so much. Through all the social media outlets, I received so, so much incredible support from friends and the great community that is ultrarunning. It is genuinely touching to look back through. Thank you. Thanks to John Bamber for the loan of some of his excellent photos.