My Winter Odyssey part two

…Continued from here

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!1537695_669796866395586_2110433214_o

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. I1614030_669796609728945_202320645_o 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.

Happy running.

11 thoughts on “My Winter Odyssey part two

  1. Been reading this slowly on my phone since the day you published it. Brilliant. Enjoyed very much. Well done. Not sure how you even made the start line of frosty so soon after the spine. I can still barely jog!

    • Thanks Steve. Im still resting now as I still have a bit of the tendenitis in my shins. I can’t wait to get going again though!

  2. Great writeup Neil. Sorry you didn’t get to finish the full 500 miles. Why did they stop it in the end? I have read the full report with great interest as I am seriously thinking of signing up for it next year. I have had the Yukon Arctic Ultra in the back of my mind for a few years, but this one looks equally great and a little easier getting to. If you have any top tips, what would they be?

    Thanks,
    Ali

    • Hi Ali. Thanks for the kind words. I really had an incredible experience and I really can’t stop thinking about Norway. It is such a beautiful place that I must return too. If you want a adventure in a true wilderness, then I say go for it. You will love it I’m sure. Tips? Plenty, but the key to success is like any long ultra, and that is to be able to look after yourself and not push your body too hard. It’s all about staying in one piece. I had plenty of space for improvement in this department! Feel free to contact me if you have any questions. Neil.

  3. Hi
    I’ve just finished reading your reports on the Spine and Frostkade 500 in the Ultra Tales Mag. What a fantastic achievement. Many congratulations. I really felt for you when the race was cut short as I believe you would have stormed it. I loved reading all about it, I did not want it to finish. I’m going to become an avid reader of your blogs. Hope you heal quickly. I look forward to reading more of your adventures.

    • Hi Jackie. Thanks for the kind words. It’s always nice to know that people enjoy reading about my experiences. I’m glad I can share it. Neil

  4. Neil, just read the Frostkade 500 report mate an excellent read and I’m gutted for you that you couldn’t finish which I have no doubt you would have. Look forward to future postings. All the best Mike C

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