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written by: Sean Hartman
posted: 4/16/03

Raid Ukatak 2003
Charlevoix / Saguenay

For those of you not familiar with adventure racing, it is a team sport involving a number of outdoor disciplines (usually trekking, running, paddling, ropes work, and, of course, navigation). Eco-Challenge is the most well-known adventure race in the United States. The Raid Gauloises, Southern Traverse, and Primal Quest are examples of other famous events. Races can be anywhere from 12 hours up to over a week long and involve navigating, together as a team the entire time, through a series of checkpoints in a specified order using map and compass (no GPS allowed!). Most races are non-stop, meaning you sleep as little as possible (but sleep too little and you can become incapacitated). Physical ability is essential, but equally important are navigation skills, perseverance, and the ability to work together as a team. For those of you familiar with Eco-Challenge or one of the other above-mentioned races, you can think of the race I’m about to discuss as a winter version. A couple bits of AR-speak for the uninitiated:

PC or CP: “Passport control” or “Checkpoint.” They mean the same thing. In an adventure race you are given coordinates to plot on your maps which correspond to PCs. You must travel from PC to PC, in order, and check in to have your passport stamped or punched. You do not typically have access to your gear in PCs. This race had 22 CP’s total, and many of them (not all, though), were in buildings where we were able to dry out clothing and warm up.

TA: “Transition Area.” These are beefed-up PCs, where you do have access to your gear boxes (and in the case of supported races, your support crew). They are also where you transition from one discipline to another.

And now, on to the story…

The Team and Pre Race
In September, 2002, driving to a short (12-hour) adventure race in New Hampshire with a couple teammates, I first learned of a very extreme-sounding week-long expedition race called the Raid Ukatak, held in Canada. “Uka-what?” I asked my teammate, Andrew. The event, he explained, included cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and other strange events like “ice canoeing.” After some discussion we concluded that we had no idea what “ice canoeing” was, but agreed that it sounded very wet, very cold, and potentially very miserable. I told Andrew that the race did sound “interesting,” but I certainly did not have the experience in the cold or in winter sports to even consider such a race any time soon. True to form, I found myself trying to assemble a team barely a month later. After exhausting my “everyone I know” list (the fact that I could not find a single person with whom to do this race perhaps should have clued me in to something, for example, “this race is insane”), I contacted the race directors and they put me in touch with Patrick, who in turn put me in touch with Florent. Both of them live in Quebec and would be members of the team.

Patrick, who was our bilingual captain, lives in Montreal, and though he had little AR experience he was a solid athlete with good winter experience and had done Ukatak the previous year. His prior knowledge of the race proved invaluable in our planning and preparation.

Florent hailed originally from the tropical Reunion Island, in the Indian Ocean. He spoke little English, which translated to “no English” under the strains of fatigue, exhaustion, and hypothermia. But we had Pat as a translator, and Florent was an awesome athlete with lots of backcountry winter camping experience. In one pre-race email he wrote to me in broken English: “I want to put my body and my mind in front of its limits. I want to live strong sensations with three people. I want to be in harmony with nature using self overrange.” Sounded good to me.

Sheri joined us only one week before the race when our original female teammate, Caroline, dropped out due to a family emergency. Sheri had solid AR experience under her belt (more than the rest of us combined, actually), including Raid the North Extreme and the Southern Traverse. She spoke English plus one sentence in French that she found useful on many occasions, “Je ne comprends pas francais.”

As for moi, I had done four Ironmans in the previous year-and-a-half, a handful of 12-24 hour adventure races, the Marathon des Sables in 2002, and could hold my own navigating (I was the primary navigator on our team). As an added bonus, I could, on occasion, assemble simple, nearly grammatical sentences in French.

Thinking it would sound good on my race résumé, even if only to my own ears, I wanted a team name in French. None of my teammates – all native speakers before the loss of Caroline – could conjure one up, so, mostly joking, I suggested “L’Equipe Passion.” We had neither experience nor training time together, but we did have a passion to give this race all we had. Plus it was one of the few French words I could drum up in my head at the time. Patrick promptly translated it back into English and submitted it the Ukatak folks. We were Team Passion, or just Passion for short. C’est la vie.

Race Start: Sunday morning to Sunday night
The race started on Sunday morning in the town of La Malbaie, around 2 hours north of Quebec City. Temperatures hovered around -14C, closer to -30C with the wind chill. Stage 1 was a 120km mountain bike ride. Just after 11am, 18 teams set of to begin 5-6 days of non-stop adventure racing. This biking stage was on a mandatory route, 95% of it on good paved roads, and lots of it uphill. In the course of the morning we managed to break a rear shifter, a rear disk brake, a front V-brake, and almost lose a front wheel. This would be par for the course for the entire race, during which time we managed to break, destroy, or lose almost every piece of gear we had.

Early challenges drew out some immediate teamwork issues with respect to biking together efficiently as a team and moving through checkpoints quickly. This was not entirely unexpected given how little time we’d spent training together and the minimal AR experience of Florent and Patrick. But within a couple hours we pulled together and found ourselves working together as a rather tightly knit team – I was really proud of everyone.

We arrived at CP 3 / TA 1 Sunday night in the dark in third place, less than a minute behind the second-place team. Here we had to take a mandatory 4-hour stop and stay outside in a tent, to prove we could survive a harsh Canadian winter. It was calm but quite cold around -30C, and teams were streaming in and setting up their tents, which made it loud. I didn’t sleep at all. Others on my team got a little sleep, but not much. We finally set off on skis in the dark, wee hours of Monday morning, not really rested, but not really tired either as it was still very early in the race.

Monday early morning to Monday afternoon
Thus began the tough orienteering section which was to involve approximately 95km of winter travel on snowshoes and cross country skis through CP 10. This included passages through frozen and quasi-frozen stream and lake-ridden regions, and some heinous bushwhacking including the ascents of two 1000m peaks. We’d get one food re-supply around 25km into the stage, at CP 5. The first bit went well – surprisingly well, actually. To get to CP 4 we navigated along and on several frozen streams (mostly frozen, at least), on some snowmobile trails, and through some steep up-and-down bushwhacking sections, sometimes on snowshoes, sometimes on skis.

It was a beautiful morning when it got light – not too cold – and when we arrived at CP 4 (a huge dome expedition mountaineering tent set up in the wilderness near some lakes), we realized all the top teams were there. We departed to too long after them, and after an amazing, beautiful, and wickedly steep descent down a wooded mountainside arrived at CP 5, where we found the other five teams leading the race. This checkpoint was a large teepee-like tent with two wood burning stoves which provided warmth and allowed us to dry out a little before heading off again, not very long after the other 5 teams.

Monday Afternoon to Tuesday afternoon
CP 6 was on Jeremy Peak, around 15km from CP 5, and the final kilometer was a heinous bushwhack gaining 700m of vertical. CP 7 was on the peak of Mount Elie, “The Everest of Charlevoix,” only a couple kilometers from CP 6. After Mt Elie, it looked like a fairly straightforward hike to CP 8, around 20km more. Race organizers had told us of two emergency warming huts in the area that could be used for emergencies or simply rest, but we intended to push through all the way to CP 8, a private home that we knew had hot water and hot soup, and would be a good place to sleep for a little bit.

A nice trail took us from CP 5 all the way to the base of Jeremy Peak, which was on Lake Noir. By the time we got there, darkness had fallen and conditions were starting to deteriorate. Off the main path a bushwhack trail headed into the woods and straight up. At this point only Sweden and Poland were ahead of us, breaking trail. We headed in and began the ascent.

This was as steep a wooded slope as I could imagine and it still be wooded. There were times when I could see no farther than one foot in any direction, completely enclosed in pine trees. Fallen trees and logs were everywhere, all covered in snow. We half-hiked, half-crawled (literally), one step at a time, on snowshoes, up the 700 meters of elevation gain over less than one kilometer, with skis on our backpacks. We were constantly and completely entangled in a morass of branches, fallen trees, and roots buried in snow. At one point I found myself on my belly, immobilized under a log I was trying to get under, for 5 minutes, in the freezing, blowing wind, just trying to get disentangled. How in the name of god Sweden and Poland were breaking trail through this nightmare I had no idea.

Florent was ahead of me and had two skis pulled off his back by the trees. I started carrying them, and finally took my own skis off my back as forward progress with those extensions on my back was nearly impossible. There are times when being 6’4” tall is an advantage – I don’t think I encountered any whatsoever during this race.

I would set one pair of skis in the snow above me. Then the other pair. Then, I would grab whatever trees were around me to help myself move up, as it was so steep I needed hand holds. I would take one step up. Then, I would move one pair of skis. Then the other. Then grab trees to pull myself up…one step. This continued for hours on end, with the temperature plummeting and the wind increasing. Florent was getting cold and hypothermic, and insisted on powering up the mountain faster to stay warm.

Sheri and I lost sight of Florent and Patrick at some point on the ascent, as they were moving faster to keep warm. We kept telling each other we were sure there must be a trail above…somewhere…leading to the top, as we’d never otherwise make it. Oh, the fantasies you entertain out there to keep yourself going. After several hours of this, including a harrowing climbing ascent up a nearly vertical 100-foot rock gully with loose branches, dead trees, snow, and dirt (while carrying two pairs of skis in my hands, remember), we actually caught Poland and Sweden, and took our turn breaking trail to the summit.

When we emerged onto the exposed, treeless peak, things started to get what I would classify as “dangerous.” Awesome, yes, but dangerous. We were being literally knocked off our feet by the wind, and we crouched and staggered back and forth to stay standing. Winds were as high as 80mph up here, with considerably stronger gusts, and the wind chill was down to -70 degrees Fahrenheit. Environment Canada later reported the setting of record lows and record winds that night. The wind was incredibly loud, making communication very difficult – we had to yell at each other while standing right next to one another. People were getting white splotches of frostbite on exposed flesh on their faces within a minute of being up there. No one was really dressed for being in such conditions – we were outfitted for moving fast in cold but nothing like this.

After attaining the peak (this was an unmanned checkpoint) we headed into the woods as rapidly as possible to escape the extreme conditions.

The teams split up at this point, and everyone seemed to go their own way. To make a long story short, Sheri and I wanted to press on to CP 7 but Florent was hypothermic and Patrick was seriously hesitant given the weather. We retreated to an emergency warming hut where we found several other teams and also learned that the race had been put on hold in light of the extreme weather and an emergency call from a lost team with a racer who had fallen through the ice somewhere in the region of CP 4.

For 12 hours the race was postponed, with virtually all teams remaining in huts. The race restarted at around 3pm on Tuesday. Patrick was pulled out by race medical staff as he had frostbitten toes and we were to continue unranked as a three-person team. Only 6 teams, us included, continued forward on the full course at this point. An additional three teams who hadn’t made it to CP 5 before the race delay were pulled off the course and re-inserted at CP 10. The other 9 teams that had started on Sunday morning had now either dropped out or been forced to stop for medical reasons, within the first 48 hours of the race.

Tuesday Afternoon to Tuesday night / Weds Morning
We restarted Tuesday afternoon for what should have been a straightforward 30km snowshoe to CP 8. CP 6 and CP 7 had been officially removed from the race. We traveled this day with Team Hellmann-Salomon – the Polish team who took second place the previous year and was a race favorite.

The first 15-20km was on a trail under some high-tension power lines, and then along some lakes. As we hit the lines it was clear the wind was strong, and getting stronger. In fact, it was considerably stronger than the previous night on Jeremy Peak. It was almost a direct tailwind, but gusts were getting more powerful, and we were struggling to not be blown over on our faces or off the trail. We were leaning back into the wind, bracing ourselves against our legs and literally adopting a wall-sit stance to maintain control. Several times we each were blown off our feet by “little” gusts.

Then, BLAM!, the first serious wind blast. I was knocked off my feet to the ground instantaneously. This was a flat trail, mind you, and I was rolling, literally being tumbled along the trail like tumbleweed by the wind, completely out of control. It was almost unbelievable to experience this and I don’t think I can convey the feeling in words. I managed to stop myself (perhaps the term “self arrest” is more appropriate) and turn my pack to the wind to protect my body. My legs were exposed, however, and were getting hammered by sharp shards of ice that had been ripped off the ground by the wind and hurled down the trail.

I was worried about other people, but really had to take care of myself, as did everyone else. There was a boulder 15 meters away, and I dragged myself along the ground behind it. I managed to look around and saw other people similarly hiding behind boulders, waiting for the wind to die down enough that we could move again. In such moments we literally could not move at all, the conditions were so harsh. And so it continued, for hours. We would cover as much ground as we could between frequent episodes of getting completely wiped out my the wind. We were getting our asses kicked – hard – by mother nature.

On the one hand I was thinking, “Whoa, this is really serious.” It was so bitterly cold that we couldn’t stop moving for more than a few moments lest we start to cool off and get hypothermic. The wind was so strong we could only move downwind – moving into the wind was impossible. Setting up a tent would have been similarly impossible, and there was no shelter from the wind anywhere in sight. The conditions were almost unreal, they were so extreme – we were at the complete mercy of the wind and cold. Had anyone gotten injured and not been able to move under their own power, the consequences would have been dire.

At the same time, I was thinking, “This is the most awesome and amazing outdoor experience I’ve ever had!” Sheri shared this. At one point she yelled to me, “This is so awesome!! This makes this entire race worth it, whatever happens from here on!” And she was right.

Despite the awesomeness, there was certainly a sense of urgency – get to CP 8 as soon as possible. Repeatedly we were all blown off our feet and had to find cover. Early on in this section my skis were ripped from my backpack and I wound up carrying them in my hands for 20km because we never stopped long enough to remount them on my pack. On one frozen lake a massive gust totally wiped out the entire group in one moment, slamming us all to the ice simultaneously, instantaneously. I just laughed at how truly out of our control the conditions were (and wished I had a video of that moment!).

Turns out Sheri was thrown right on her face into the ice and her nose was bleeding in that incident. She came over and asked if there was a lot of blood. She insists that I said, “It’ll be fine – it’s just your nose.” I contend I responded with the rather more compassionate, “No, just a little blood.” Whichever way, I was lying – there was blood everywhere. She was fine, though.

Florent was once again having trouble staying warm, but he was at an additional disadvantage. He had a little frostbite on his finger, and race medical staff had told him that if it got any worse they were going to pull him out of the race. Sheri and I wouldn’t let him take his hand out of his glove while we were outside…at all. In the second half of this ~8 hour survival hike we started feeding him, shoving whatever food we could fit through the small hole in the ice in his beard. The scene was incredibly comical, us feeding this grown man through a hole in his beard he would constantly melt out with his tongue, but showed an incredibly high degree of teamwork, cooperation, and egolessness.

We finally arrived at CP 8, around 10 minutes behind Poland, literally limping the final 600 meters across a lake to a private home, where we took a needed four hours of sleep.

Wednesday morning to Thursday morning
Wednesday was a relatively easy (comparatively speaking – in reality it was incredbly cold and windy) cross-country ski on snowmobile trails to a ski area, CP 10 / TA 3, which we departed that evening. The CP itself was in the main lodge of this ski area, and they had opened the cafeteria so we feasted on cheeseburgers and poutine (a Quebec specialty of French fries drenched in melted cheese and gravy – YUM!). I devoured three burgers in a matter of a couple minutes, realizing that, just perhaps, I was a little behind in my nutrition (hard to avoid in races of this type).

While the conditions were not so bad now, fatigue was becoming a factor. Sheri and I made a major strategic error during the 12-hour break in the race on Tuesday. While Florent got a good 6 hours of sleep (he had been hypothermic and just disappeared into his sleeping bag upon arrival at the hut), I got only three, and Sheri almost none at all. Most of that was due to us spending our time chatting with other adventure racers instead of sleeping. The effects of this error were now being felt. Over Wednesday night on this hike Sheri was repeatedly falling asleep on the trail, much of which was on a single-file trail through the woods – lots of bends and curves in this narrow trail meant it always looked more or less the same. It was like a little hell in there – there was no escape except to slog onward to reach the next CP, and we were moving painfully slowly, barely 2km/hr at this point. I’d look back and see her stumble and fall over (onto or off of the trail, depending on which way she fell), having fallen asleep while walking. She’d get up, we’d go a bit further. Repeat. When we finally emerged onto a wider road I had also reached state of extreme tiredness and was similarly falling asleep and stumbling while walking. We interlocked arms and leaned on each other, sleep-walking, to the rappel. Given the conditions, we couldn’t just stop and sleep on the side of the trail – we had to make it to the next CP to survive.

After barely convincing the race medical personnel that we were awake enough to actually rappel the 200 foot cliff in the dark, in brutal winds, we did so and then stopped at CP 15 – in a building where they served us some pasta – for a few hours, where I got an hour of sleep.

Thursday afternoon to finish
Thursday afternoon was beautiful. The previous couple days had seen weather so severe that highways were closed because vans were - literally - being blown off the road. But this day it was sunny and comparatively warm, and we were excited to set off on the last sections of the race. We traveled by XC-ski to the “tyrolean traverse,” which was, in reality, the steepest, fastest zip line I’ve ever seen in my life, terminating in a solid rock face at the bottom. On this one I managed to get my head stuck between the runner from which I was hanging and the zipline itself, burning a hole in the hood of my GoreTex jacket. I was happy to retain my head in the experience.

Then, a 30km bike ride to a final 30km cross country ski section to the end. Thursday night we were again dealing with sleep deprivation, and we were all hallucinating. Given we slept around 8 hours total the entire race (only four of which, for me, was good sleep), from Sunday to Friday, this was unsurprising. But we persevered and finished up on Friday morning around 6am. Patrick greeted us at the finish line, which was wonderful. It was really too bad he wasn’t able to complete the race with us. Only 5 teams, including ours, completed the whole course, though we finished unranked. Two of those teams actually did an extended “extreme course”. Three additional teams finished a much shortened course.

This year’s Raid Ukatak ended up being really a survival race, and in fact this is how the captain of the Swedish team (who won) described the race. The goal became simply to get to the finish line (a) alive, and (b) without frostbite (though many finished WITH frostbite). I’m still in the very early phases of my AR career and have admittedly limited experience, but I am going to go out on a limb and say the Raid Ukatak is, hands down, one of the most extreme adventure races in the world. The cold is an ever-present companion that forces you to stay focused and to keep moving fast. Many, many people suffered from frostbite, which is a serious injury with permanent ramifications. But with the extreme elements comes an unparalleled purity of experience and sense of accomplishment. Solid mountaineering and / or winter camping experience combined with AR experience is the key to excelling in this race. And merely finishing IS excelling in this one.

Will I return? Almost certainly.

Sean Hartman
Cambridge, MA