Ice Hero! One man only finishes the Montane Yukon Arctic Ultra

By Alice Morrison

There’s crazy and then there’s the Montane Yukon Arctic Ultra (MYAU). 300 miles over 8 days it takes place on the trail of the Yukon Quest sled dog race and is one of the toughest ultras in the world. It’s open to XC-skiers and mountain bikers too and there are also varied distances including a 100 miler and a marathon.

This year, the temperatures were at record lows and proved to be an insurmountable obstacle for all but one. It was a constant –35 to –45 degrees Celsius.

It all started well. There is a marathon on the first day and all but one of the racers finished, no mean feat. But then things started to get real.

That night, temperatures plummeted and in the words of the Race Director, Robert Pollhammer, “Temperatures got so cold that we were experiencing difficulties with machinery. Generators broke, ski-doos did not start and with cars/trucks it was not much easier. When we knew that going on the trail would be impossible for the guides, the race came to a halt. Once all repairs were taken care of, we continued.”  

Frostbite was the biggest enemy of the racers, and there were many sufferers including Nick Griffiths from Bolton in the UK who had to retire at the second check point. He was found to have third or fourth degree frostbite and doctors warned that he could lose his toes or part of his foot.

He told the Bolton News: “We are talking unprecedented cold. The big problem though was the humidity. I think it was 80 per cent. It looked like it was raining but it was just ice crystals in the air. All your stuff was covered in ice. You have ice blocks forming on your eyes. All the moisture in your eyes froze. You are trying to pull the ice off and you are pulling all your eyelashes off instead”.

There were four hardy finishers for the 100 miles: Emanuele Gallo (Italy), Peter Mild (Sweden), Tomas Jelinek (Germany) and Michelle Smith (UK). Fantastic work from all of them and what a sense of achievement they must have.

But, still out on the trails were the last three pressing on for the 300 miles: Jethro de Decker from South Africa, Ilona Gyapay from Canada and Roberto Zanda from Italy. By now it was a war of attrition with the freezing temperatures and it looked as though the temperatures were going to conquer all.

Roberto got into trouble about half way to McCabe and had to be rescued by the race team, who did a superb job. Then it was the turn of the heroic Ilona, (what a woman!). She had to retire at Pelly Crossing with frostbite in her fingertips.

Jethro was the last man standing and battling on. He made it to Pelly Farm and the race organisers declared it the end of this year’s edition and Jethro as the winner with around 132 hours. What an incredible effort.

As he said on his Facebook page, “Crossing the Yukon Arctic Ultra finish line has taken years. My official race time (around 132 hours), the time to get from the start to finish line, hardly captures what it takes to complete this event. I needed all those weekends & late nights out with Denzil & his friend Stanley (2016), and then Belinda (2017) to be physically prepared.

Without a first attempt at the event last year (when my race ended with an injury at Braeburn, 100 miles in) I wouldn’t have had the right gear this time. That experience also gave me a better understanding of the discomfort I would need to be mentally prepared for the 2nd time around.

Without Stu’s Survival Training Course, I wouldn’t have made it through the first night last year and I would certainly have suffered frost bite in the extreme conditions dealt out in 2018. It gave me the skills & confidence I needed to keep moving through the CPs on those extremely cold nights.”

Congratulations to all the racers and especially, of course, to Jethro. Absolutely amazing!
For more on the race, check out Robert Pollhammer’s blog.

"Crossing the Yukon Arctic Ultra finish line has taken years. My official race time (around 132 hours), the time to get from the start to finish line, hardly captures what it takes to complete this event"

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