Going Big in Canada’s North

by Dennis Colburn
This past March 22-28 saw the second annual Rock and Ice Ultra take place in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories. I first heard about this race when I read the article by Elinor Fish in last December’s SkiTrax magazine. My interest was piqued by the challenge of making my way across northern Canada’s expansive frozen landscape.

Scott Smith, the race director, is a tireless, dedicated individual who dreamed up the BHP Billiton Rock and Ice Ultra, a unique winter foot and ski stage race. After contacting Smith, I signed up for the six-day Ultra. To run/snowshoe or cross-country ski was now the big decision. After all that I had read about the race, I thought that skiing was going to be much easier than running, and while looking for a challenge, trudging along in the snow without the assistance of skis is not my idea of fun.

There are no groomed ski trails; it’s all about making your own way along Northwest Territories’ simple yet stunning landscape. Competitors navigate ice-covered lakes and waterways either on foot and snowshoe or ski in three distance events.

I soon learned some simple physics come into play with skis and pulling a pulk up “whoop-dee-doos” (hills). Pulling 40 pounds behind you while trying to negotiate a narrow path with brush on either side of the trail gives a whole new meaning to skiing. It quickly became evident that pulling a pulk while running allows for more traction! Skis, it seemed, now became my enemy in some areas.

Approximately 100 athletes stormed off the start line on Great Slave Lake. Most were taking part in the Cold Foot Classic 80km, a one-day solo or relay event. Of the remainder, 29 competed in the three-day event and 23 the six-day Diamond Ultra, involving traveling 40+ kilometres a day on average for three (K-Rock 135) or six (Diamond 225) days and overnighting at pre-set camps.

The Diamond Ultra ski race had three competitors. Shawne Kokelj, the sole woman, 43, a hydrologist from Yellowknife who finished the K-Rock 160 ski the previous year; and first-time competitors Johnathan Goss, a former British marine from Scotland who prepared by rollerskiing with a tire dragging behind him, and myself, a former Alberta provincial cross-country ski champion.

Much was made of the extreme temperatures and the “arctic desert,” but with a finishing rate of close to 85%, this year’s event was a marked improvement over last year’s event, where only a third finished the first day. Perhaps it was the stories from last year that helped prepare everyone a bit better for this year’s event.

The first day, a cool -21°C, was a real eye opener. The fresh snow made progress difficult and slow. By late morning, questioning my progress, I asked Kokelj how long she estimated this stage would take her; 10-12 hours was not the answer I was looking for. Expecting I would complete most stages in four to six hours, finishing in eight-and-a-half hours was a wake-up call. I had trained with my pulk, but soon learned that racing in the cold for hours on end and having to access food and clothing as you progress mean you had best have an efficient system in place if you wish to make quick time.

Recent snowfalls made for excellent conditions. Temperatures remained consistent at -20°C in the mornings, with the exception of the last day, when we awoke to -28°C. The wind only became a factor on the last day of the race, on the homestretch.

Day Three marked the finish of the K-Rock 135, the halfway mark for the Diamond Ultra and the return to the Matrix Camp on Yellowknife Bay. Large, durable dome tents with camp stoves provided by the race sponsor gave racers much-desired warmth and the motivation to make our way back to Yellowknife. That evening, race supporters and racers alike enjoyed great food and entertainment provided by the Dene First Nations.

The lead skier of K-Rock 135, Corey McLachlan, a ski coach from Yellowknife, had a great race and set the pace for the entire field for the first three days. Without the pulk, skiing is faster than foot/snowshoe, as the K-Rock event clearly showed.

The second half of the race began with 16-foot competitors and three skiers. Last year, only five participants remained in the Diamond 300, including just one skier. This year, not one person dropped out after the second day was done. Credit should be given to Mike Rarog of Arctic Response for the pre-race talk on the challenges of the race, along with many volunteers who kept an eye on all of us!

The sun shone most days and was a pleasant companion along the way. Most of us are aware that snow blindness is a real possibility without protective sunglasses.

Unfortunately, a couple of Danish athletes had not worn their sunglasses throughout the first three days and ended up with some very sore eyes.

An interesting aspect of the race is each day’s finish at camp, where the volunteers set up tents with diesel camp stoves prior to our arrival. OK, usually prior to our arrival — this is the one downside to finishing too quickly! The upside — you get to choose which tent to call home for the night and get a jump on the process of drying out your gear and preparing dinner and hot drinks. The camp stoves were a godsend and definitely made for a more comfortable night. The event still has a few bugs to work out, such as a vent cover for the tents so that all the heat given off by the stove doesn’t escape straight through the roof opening! Crawling into down-filled sleeping bags with your clothing stowed inside to have something warm to get into in the morning was still necessary. Two of the toughest parts of the race: just getting started each morning and bathroom breaks.

Porta-potties were present at a few of the camps, but let’s be honest, plastic gets really cold in -20°C, and there is no reading newspapers in the loo. But once you’re dressed, have some food in your system and prepared for the day’s stage, it’s really a nice trek across some very beautiful terrain.

During the long days on the trail, competitors enjoyed each other’s company. A group of three British foot competitors stopped and brewed some tea along the way. Something may be said for such an approach, though I don’t see myself slowing down for tea just yet!

At an event such as the Rock and Ice, the majority of participants are competing for the experience, which is awesome. I was there to push myself and test myself against the other competitors; the foot/snowshoe event was extremely competitive, and as the race progressed, I began to compete against the top athletes in that event as a measure of my effort. Greg McHale, a world-class adventure racer from Whitehorse, Yukon, set a brisk pace, and in so doing, stretched out the field with the rest of us chasing after him. With the exception of the first day, the gap I had on my fellow Diamond skiers was such that I used the top foot competitors for motivation. By week’s end, I was chasing down McHale. Watching both him and Travis Macy, another great adventure racer who raced with Team Merrell in Primal Quest Montana 2008, clearly demonstrated the importance of proper preparation and attitude.

Day Four and Five had us traversing along Great Slave Lake’s wide-open expanse. The eighth-largest lake in the world, it receives as much annual precipitation as the Gobi Desert, giving the BHP Billiton Rock and Ice Ultra its reputation as the “other desert race.”

The fifth night, we stayed at Trout Rock Lodge, where owner Ragnar Wesstrom treated us to some wonderful hospitality. Suffice it to say, no one wanted to return to their tents on the ice until very late that evening. Food, stories and company were shared by all.

Day Six, the final stage, had us make our way across the portages and lakes back to Yellowknife. This was to be a challenging one, with some big climbs at the very end of the race. The homestretch on Yellowknife Bay had a headwind, making the -30°C almost unbearable. This stretch, which was endured on both Day Three and Six, proved to be the toughest part of the whole race — both physically and mentally.

At the finish line, there were some very happy people. Six days of traversing over some of the Yellowknife’s spectacular scenery concluded with one of endurance racing’s most-unique prize ceremonies. The winners of the K-Rock and Diamond Ultras were flown by small plane to the remote Ekati Diamond Mine north of Yellowknife where we were given a tour of the mine and an opportunity to see where our diamonds originated. The evening Awards party at the Ice Castle was a blast. The K-Rock winners, McLachlan and Ewan Affleck (both Yellowknifers), received half-carat stones, and the Diamond Ultra winners, myself and Greg McHale, one-carat gems.

Yellowknife, while not the first place one would think of for endurance racing, has definitely established itself as an excellent location, with a race director and volunteers who did a fantastic job. Like any new race, there are growing pains, but sharing such an experience with a positive group of people made for one of the best events I have had the pleasure of attending.

The third annual Rock and Ice Ultra will be held March 21-26 in 2009 and if you’re hoping for warmer weather conditions, don’t count on it.

Mo’ Info
For complete Rock and Ice Ultra race information, visit www.rockandiceultra.com.