Yukon Arctic Ultra competitors wary of cold-weather risks

Barry Potts of the U.K. sets off from Whitehorse in the 2018 Yukon Arctic Ultra Race. The 2019 race starts on Sunday. (Philippe Morin/CBC)
The temperature in Whitehorse, Yukon has dipped, just as competitors are doing final preparations for the Yukon Arctic Ultra this Sunday.

Environment Canada is forecasting a high of -25 C over the weekend.

The 82 participants in this year’s race should be well aware of the dangers posed by the frigid weather after last year’s serious injuries. Race distances range from marathon up to almost 700 kilometres for those travelling the entire distance between Whitehorse and Dawson City. They may travel on foot, skis, or bike.

Last year, two participants underwent amputations due to serious frostbite. In the most severe case, Italian competitor Roberto Zanda has both his legs amputated at the shin. His right hand was also amputated, and most of the left.

Roberto Zanda, at the Whitehorse hospital, suffered severe frostbite during the Yukon Arctic Ultra. (Wayne Vallevand/CBC)
‘My hands are my life’

The fate of Zanda weighs heavy for competitors like Russ Reinbolt, who says he is “singularly focused” on avoiding frostbite.

“My hands are my life,” said the ER doctor from Southern California.

Reinbolt, who is racing 480-kilometres to Pelly Crossing, has experience competing in the cold, having previously run a 160-kilometre race in Alaska.

“I’ve got like six different combinations of mittens and gloves because I just can’t afford to get frostbite.”

Reinbolt, 53, says he needs to avoid frostbite at all costs. ‘My hands are my life.’ (Philippe Morin/CBC)
Conditions could be challenging

Race competitors have been doing mandatory gear and safety checks this week. All competitors doing distances greater than a marathon must carry items including fire starter, a sleeping shelter and 48 hours worth of food provisions. Gear is normally pulled behind competitors in a sled.

On Wednesday night, they went on a four-hour evening hike to test gear and set up their camping gear.

Shelley Gellatly, a local guide who is also competing this year, led the way. She plans on doing the full distance to Dawson City. Pre-race, she is wary of the conditions.

Yukoner Shelley Gellatly tests out her bivy sack, a compact one-person shelter. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

“For me personally, this wet heavy snow I find in some ways more challenging than the colder weather because it’s really tough to stay dry.”

New safety measures

Race founder Robert Pollhammer said some people were turned down from entering the competition this year because of new entry requirements.

For the first time, each potential competitor was interviewed by phone, during which time Pollhammer said he discussed the risks.

“I am literally telling people they can die out there,” he told the CBC in January from his home in Germany. “This is not some joke or funny adventure. This is serious business when it gets that cold.”

Yukon Arctic Ultra organizer Robert Pollhammer at the Braeburn checkpoint, Feb. 5, 2018. Pollhammer interviewed all this year’s competitors by phone. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

Pollhammer said the race organizers will make it as safe as possible but that “there is no 100 per cent safety.”

Now in Whitehorse, Pollhammer said a couple of people didn’t make the cut.

“We had to screen out a couple of people for language reasons, because they do need to understand the briefings. And we had one person who didn’t have the time to do a training course before. All the people who don’t have cold weather experience need to do a training course.”

Yukon competitors

While the race attracts a mostly international crowd, there are a few Yukoners competing. They include:

  • 160 kilometre race: Matt Hosford of Mayo and David Brabec of Whitehorse
  • 480 kilometre race: No locals
  • 688 kilometre race: Jessie Thomson-Gladish, Shelley Gellatly and Gillian Smith of Whitehorse.

There are also several Yukoners competing in the marathon distance, which ends at Rivendale Farm.

The Yukon Arctic Ultra starts Sunday at Shipyards Park in downtown Whitehorse.

With files from Philippe Morin

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: What’s up, doc? Yukon Quest dogs get pre-race vet check-up, CBC News

Finland: Younger Finns more and more attracted to winter swimming, CBC News

Norway: Swedish musher wins Finnmarksløpet, The Independent Barents Observer

United States: Iditarod adds four new board members amid criticism, Alaska Public Media

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