6633 Arctic Ultra: CP4 to CP5 (Mid-Point Peel River to Aklavik)

 

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We set off from CP4 and it got dark very quickly. The fatigue was setting in, so we decided to bivvy up quite soon after setting off. As before, the alarm was set for an hour and I was asleep as I my head hit the pillow. On waking, it was freezing again, maybe -25'C and it took us a while to warm up this time, but we got there, eventually. 

So far the arctic weather gods had been fairly kind to us, that was about to change! As we progressed through the night the wind started to pick up, nothing too serious but as soon as daylight arrived the winds started to really smash us. No matter where we were on the ice road, it seemed like we had a head wind. The wind was turning into a storm, snow was whipping across us and it was a real grind. It was head down action for hours, driving onwards, hoping that the storm would blow through.......but it didn't. This was a tough slog, I wasn't sure how long we could keep this up for! For a second the wind seemed to subside, we were knackered, so Hayley and I took the decision to try to bivvy out for an hour, hoping that when we woke the storm would have disappeared. 

Whilst setting up our bivvy systems, some snow got blown into our sleeping bags, this had to be removed quickly as we couldn't allow our down sleeping bags to get wet, that could be catasrophic. Snow removed and we were both asleep within minutes. 

An hour passes and we're back on the ice road grinding out the miles. The wind has died down a bit, it's still pretty strong but not a patch on the previous few hours, so we try to make headway whilst we can........except that we're knackered. The snow storm had really battered us and taken a lot out of our bodies. We're eating well but it just feels really hard. After a few more hours we decide to have another bivvy, we get off the ice road onto a soft snow bank and set up camp. We decide to eat first, then sleep. Whilst doing this more snow gets blown into our sleeping bags, which we have to remove quickly to avoid ruining the thermal properities of the sleeping bag. We decide on 2 hours sleep and, again, I'm sleeping like a baby before my head hits the pillow! 

Next I hear Hayley shouting to me, "Mark, Mark, get up, I'm freezing cold, we need to move!" I think it's a dream, I stick my head out of my bivvy bag and see Hayley staring at me. She's cold. Very cold. We need to move. We need to move fast. 

Read more: 6633 Arctic Ultra: CP4 to CP5 (Mid-Point Peel River to Aklavik)

6633 Arctic Ultra: CP3 to CP4 (Fort McPherson to Mid-Point Peel River)

 

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As we leave CP3 we're told that the weather is quite mild, so we delayer to get ready for the new ice road section of the race. We're guided out of Fort McPherson by Tim, Emily and Mimi and down onto the ice road. This mild weather wasn't quite as mild as we'd been told so we quickly changed back to our warmer clothes and donned our headtorches as the darkness was setting in.

I've mentioned the 'ice road' a few times, so I should really clarify what it actually is. The ice road is a huge frozen river (the Peel River), where the ice is a couple of metres thick, all covered with a few feet of snow. In the winter the municiples of Fort McPherson and Aklavik essentially each drive from 'their' end to meet in the middle (over 150 miles long) with huge snowploughs to create a road that the villages can use to get around a bit easier. This is usually done in the middle of March, but the area supports the 6633 Arctic Ultra race so much, they open the road early especially for us.  

As we get onto the ice road we notice the banging and cracking noises from the ice as we move across it. This is quite disconcerting initially, but we soon settle into a rhythm and forget all about it. The start of the ice road is very rough, not the smooth glass-like surface I was expecting, so we grit our teeth and haul our pulks over the rough ice for a few hours. 

The rough ice turns into smooth ice and we're able to settle into our routine again of 2 hours on/15min rest, during one of these stops I have to take a look at my left achilles, it's really sore and I'm not sure why. I take off my boot and sure enough I have a small blister appearing, I put a plaster on it and then take a look at my boot, there must be something rubbing? Sure enough, one of the straps from my ice spikes was in the wrong position and was rubbing through my boot, however on looking again, the ice spike was on my foot back to front. In our rush to leave CP3 one of the team put my ice spikes on my boots for me, and I didn't check them, my fault, always check your own kit. Lesson learnt, no big deal, time to crack on with this night section. 

The Northern Lights were now bouncing around the sky and the offical photographer, Weronika, stopped us and asked if we wanted a picture. Even though it was quite cold and we didn't want to stop too long, we obliged and she produced the amazing shot below. 

Read more: 6633 Arctic Ultra: CP3 to CP4 (Fort McPherson to Mid-Point Peel River)

6633 Arctic Ultra: CP2 to CP3 (James Creek to Fort McPherson)

 

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As we leave James Creek we know that this next section is vitally important. We've been told that most people DNF before CP3 and if we get to CP3 then we'vebroken the back of the race. Yes, we'll still have over 260 miles to go, but the hilliest part of the race is between the start and CP3, after which we get onto the ice road which is flat for about 150 miles. 

On leaving James Creek we're straight into 4 miles of climbing. It doesn't feel that bad, especially after the battle with Wrights Pass, so we dig in and simply get on with it. After 2 hours we assume we're near the summit and decide to stop and have our 15 minute break. One of the medics, Johnnie, pulls up for a chat (especially theses 'chats' are the medics way of assessing us without us really noticing) and tells us that the summit is just around the corner, so we wrap up and drive on to get this climb done (we know the rest of the course is undualting, but no more 'big' hills to climb). 

Very quickly after this we're joined by Neil, who we'd seen at the check point earlier. He'd had a 90 minute sleep there, but had really pushed hard to catch us up and asked if he could join us for a while. Of course, we said yes, having three people working together is far better than two and Neil had been at the race in 2017, so his arctic experience would be invaluable. So far Hayley and I had been working pretty hard, which meant having our heads down and not looking up too much, Neil encouraged us to stop occasionally and look around, to actually enjoy where we were and soak up the atmosphere of the North West Territories. This is when we first saw the Northern Lights. They were out, not massivley, but it was good to see the famed "Aurora Borealis" for the first time. 

Read more: 6633 Arctic Ultra: CP2 to CP3 (James Creek to Fort McPherson)

6633 Arctic Ultra: CP1 to CP2 (Arctic Circle to James Creek)

 

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We leave CP1 and now we get to the real nitty gritty of the 'race'. The first 23 miles were simply a warm up, now with the darkness arriving and some colder temperatures setting in, this is the start of the real test.

From this point on we decide to work on a 2 hour on/15min off schedule, so we'd hike at a steady pace for 2 hours, then stop for 15mins to eat, drink and do any admin that was required. This schedule worked well, we were making good ground and were staying topped up with nutrition and fluids, all-in-all everything was going well.....so far. 

From researching the route and chatting to previous competitors I knew we had a big task ahead of us on this leg, it's called Wrights Pass and it's 10 miles of climbing, anywhere between 6% and 16% gradient. 10 miles of climbing means quite a few hours of digging in and just keeping the momemtum going by placing one foot in front of the other. We weren't there yet, but most people said we should try to get it done in the dark, as you really don't want to see what's ahead of you (in the daylight) as it's such a long climb. 

As we approach Rock River we start to get tired and decide to bivvy out and get an hours sleep before we get to the base of Wrights Pass. This would be our first bivvy and I was keen to get one done, so we know what to improve on (getting our systems right) as we move through the event. We find a convenient place to stop off the main trail, get out our sleep systems and get set up in less than 5 minutes. This is a good start, as it's starting to get cold and we need to get into our sleeping bags as quickly as possible. I set my alarm for 1 hour and I'm asleep as my head hits the pillow. 

Read more: 6633 Arctic Ultra: CP1 to CP2 (Arctic Circle to James Creek)

6633 Arctic Ultra: Start to CP1 (Eagle Plains to Arctic Circle)

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The day has come! After many, many months of training, planning and researching, the 6633 Arctic Ultra is finally here!

We wake at Eagle Plains, grab a quick breakfast, finalise our drop bags, fill our flasks with boiling water and Camelbaks with warm water, tinker with our pulks for the final time and then its time to line up outside for the start. The mayoress of Eagle Plains starts the race and we’re off. We start quite leisurely with a 10K down hill and everyone settles into their own pace.  A few of the ‘fast’ guys shoot off the front (American David, Didier, Patrick, Avram and Vlad (120km)), whilst the rest of the group settle into their own pace. As we hit the Eagle River Bridge the race starts its first real climb (about 10km), now we start to know if our pulks, harnesses and clothing are correct. As we climb we all start to warm up and a few people seem to be overheating already (gone a bit too hard too soon) and start delayering, which is a common occurrence over the next few days. 

53496276 1706409169459687 4799225795471998976 nThe terrain undualtes for about 6 miles, where upon the landscape becomes more exposed but the wind wasn't too bad (in fact the weather was very good, but more on that later), so all in all everything was going smoothly so far. This leg is a shorter leg at 23 miles and one that's used to get you used to the environment, and the condtions, and get you used to using your systems; my plan at this point was to keep on snacking and hydrating whilst on the move as I'd planned to not stop during this leg for a dehydrated meal and wait until after CP1 to have some real food. Each Check Point is subtley different, some are warm community centre's or school halls, whilst some are simply a trailer (a bit like a large horse box) with 2 gas burners in them to boil water. CP1 was a trailer, so the plan was stop at the trailer, refill my flasks (I had x2 two litre Stanley flasks) and my 2 litre Camelbak, make up a dehydrated meal (in my Stanley food flask), head out the door as quickly as possible then stop 3 or 4 hours further down the route and stop for a good break and some real food. 

The hilly terrain continued until arrival at the check point (which is right on the Arctic Circle) and we arrived there just before it was getting dark (when I say 'we', I was with Hayley Robinson at this point). I had no time to admire the "Welcome to the Arctic Circle" sign, instead I had a quick chat to Chris (who was already in there) and then I ran through my mental check list, got my water sorted with the aid of the crew, got out my head torch and an extra layer of clothing ready for the first night section and got going.....CP1 done and dusted! 

Start to CP1 (Eagle Plains to Arctic Circle): 23 miles