So how does someone from Donegal end up in a ski race across 100kms of remote Norwegian mountains in what the race organisers deem to be the “world’s hardest ski race”?
Truth is I stumbled upon Expedition Amundsen back in 2013 while googling extreme races and challenges around the world! One slight problem was that I hadn’t done any back-country skiing at the time, although I could downhill ski and knew how to handle myself in a cold environment (I had completed a week of Arctic survival skills with an ex-army guy in Sweden). So I had put the idea to the back of my mind and looked at taking on a similar challenge where I had plenty of guidance and a safety net in such an environment. This lead me to a ski crossing of the Finnmark region of Norway in 2016, where I joined a group from Ousland Expeditions to learn the ins-and-outs of life on a polar expedition. During this trip inside the Arctic Circle, I shared a tent with an enthusiastic and adventurous German, Steffen Wagner, who was using the week as a warm up for a crossing of Greenland the following year. Over the course of the week we struck up a good relationship and during one of the long evenings in the tent the idea of Expedition Amundsen came up in conversation. So myself and Steffen agreed that when the time was right we would enter the race as a two-person team.
Roll on Summer 2018 and we are completing a rigorous application form to be part of the 2019 race. In this application we had to state our winter experience, mine which was somewhat limited, was compensated for by Steffen’s 30 years of experience which included several crossings of the Hardangervidda, Greenland and Svalbard. Our reference Bengt Rotmo got a phone call from the organisers to check our legitimacy and thankfully they offered us one of the sixty available team slots. And so the planning and preparations had begun…
Over the following months we would plan our gear, race strategy, nutrition, travel arrangements and logistic all via email or over the phone. While planning we both agreed that we each had strengths and weaknesses; the obvious lack of snow in Ireland meant I wouldn’t get on skis before hand but I was confident that my fitness and experience of endurance and multi-day racing would go a long way. We studied race reports and results from previous editions and with an educated guess we estimated that the race would take us somewhere in the region of 30-36 hours to complete.
As we cross-referenced the compulsory kit required by the race organisers, we would weigh every single item that would be placed in our pulk (sled). This was done as every gram counted towards the requirement that the pulk must weigh a minimum of 40kg at the start and finish of the race. With every item weighed and logged on a spreadsheet, my kit came to 26kg but I still had to add some 5kg of food, 3 litres of stove fuel and the weight of the pulk itself. It was important to have all the kit we needed but at the same time we didn’t want to have excess weight that would be slowing us down during the race.
I also had to become more race specific with my training. This meant a lot more strength work than usual and I did two mornings per week for eight weeks, pulling two car tyres around Ards Forest Park or on the beaches for 1-3 hours. With no chance to ski, tyre pulling is the next best way to replicate the sensation of the pulk and it gets the core and hip muscles fired up in a way that running or hiking doesn’t..although it does look strange for anyone walking their dog on the beach!
We decided to pre-pack our food into six-hour bags containing a mix of foods and most importantly Tailwind stickpacks. Tailwind was to be our main source of calories and could be easily consumed through our hot thermos drinks. Our main meals, which were supplied by Expedition Foods, were to be had while in the tent at the three checkpoints along the course. Obviously the importance of fueling correctly in such a race and environment is crucial; we needed to be sure that we were staying hydrated and fueled in order to keep our bodies warm and moving forward.
I flew to Bergen via London, and picked up my rental car for the scenic drive along the fjords towards the village of Eidjord. I finally met up with Steffen and we quickly set about packing our pulks and double checking our equipment. In the garden of the hotel we practiced setting up our tent and using the stove, ensuring we both knew our roles and were as quick as possible. We also tried out our avalanche transceivers which we would carry but hopefully not need.
At race registration later that evening we went through a rigorous kit check, having to lay everything out and have it inspected by a race official. In addition to our extensive gear list, we had to carry 10 extra meals and two litres of spare fuel for the stove in case we got stranded on the mountains due to poor weather. This stringent kit check is one area that must be commended, there were no excuses or shortcuts, you either had the right gear or you weren’t racing; something races in Ireland could enforce more.
Once repacked, the pulk was weighed at just over 50kg, sealed with tape and then loaded onto a truck to be transported to the race start the following morning. It was a stressful few hours but a relief to have everything sorted, all that was left was to fuel up, attend the race briefing and get a good nights sleep.
At this stage I am well used to pre-race nerves, they are a necessary element to getting the mind and body going before a race. If I didn’t have nerves I would be worried but this was on another level. Mainly due to the fact that the race starts with a climb straight up the side of a mountain and there is no time to ease yourself into the race or is there anywhere to hide. I was worried that my lack of recent skiing would be obvious straight away as climbing such an incline with a 50kg pulk in tow requires some serious strength, plus being able to herring bone and side step your skis to get the necessary grip. Luckily I had applied full length skins to my skis and these gave me the best grip possible over the steep inclines.
With some 60 teams all leaving the start line together and all wanting to use the same trail that had been broken earlier by the solo racers, it meant that 25 minutes passed before we even crossed the start line! Once in the long konga line we slowly made our way up the first ascent, soon to be dripping in sweat and needing to vent our jackets and remove gloves.
The race route spans 100km across the Hardangervidda National Park, a mountainous plateau in central Norway. In comparison it has an area twenty times the size of Glenveagh National Park, while being at an average altitude of 1100m. This same area was the training ground for the famous explorer Roald Amundsen who won the race to the South Pole against the ill-fated Captain Scott. I felt privileged to be racing in the same mountains that Amundsen used in preparation for his many adventures and this was a major source of motivation.
Once underway, our race plan was to operate in 2 hour cycles, therefore ski for 110 minutes and rest for 10 minutes (drink some hot Tailwind and eat) then repeat until we reached a checkpoint. There were three mandatory check points at which we had to register a minimum of 8 hours of rest.
The first of these checkpoints, Haukeliseter, was after 25km and it took us 8 hours to reach it. We had estimated 6 hours but the conditions had been tough and with so much vertical it made for slow progress. One thing I found most surreal was the sheer whiteness of the whole area, there was no definition between the land and the sky and it was quite hard to actually see where you should be going. Also the complete lack of visible life, no animals/birds, no smells and no sounds other than the wind…a detox for the senses!
Once at the checkpoint we set up the tent, got the stove going and began melting snow for our meals and thermos. We stayed for two hours at this point before leaving at 9pm for the 20km section towards Litlos. We knew the forecast was for high winds and as we skied through the night the conditions gradually became worse. The visibility was no worse than during the day as we could now see some definition with the light from our headtorches, but the wind chill was well towards -15c and we made sure any exposed skin was covered.
We arrived at Litlos after 18 hours and we both felt the impact of the relentless wind and cold. We again pitched the tent, had some food and decided to catch an hour of sleep and let the worst of the winds blow over. Cocooned in my sleeping bag I fell into a deep sleep, before a small fragment of ice hit my face after falling from the tent ceiling as the buffeting wind shook the tent. Luckily it did as we had slept through our alarm by 30 minutes! We set off from Litlos around 10.30am into a bitter cold headwind but visibility was much better and we had banked some sleep which would benefit us later in the race.
I was starting to worry slightly at this stage that our pace was so slow at 2km/hr that I would miss my flights home on the Saturday evening. However the terrain was beginning to flatten out and the snow conditions were improving allowing for a much faster ski pace. Forwards we pressed through the next 30kms to reach the final checkpoint at Viersla where we were required to log four hours of rest. This allowed plenty of time for melting snow, meals and some sleep before we packed up and set off at 9pm for the final 37km section to the finish in Maurset.
The strong wind had since passed and we skied into a beautiful night knowing that a final 7-8 hour push would see us finish early Saturday morning and under the 40 hour mark. With 85km complete we finally began to descend from the mountain plateau and over the next 10km we zig zaged our way down towards the finish line. This final section had been by far our best of the race, we were skiing in sync with efficiency and even managed to catch and pass a number of teams. We eventually crossed the finish line in 39 hours 50 minutes to finish in 50th place overall out of 99 finishers, with 14 DNFs.
At the finish we were greeted with the best bottle of coke you ever tasted and some beef stew to warm us up! We had our pulks weighed to make sure they were still 40kg (I over packed at 45kg) and reserve fuel and food checked to make sure it was still untouched.
The satisfaction of completing Expedition Amundsen is up there with any previous race I have done and it was also as tough. What makes EXA difficult is not only the terrain but the environment and total self-sufficiency from start to finish. Unlike other races were you can always have a “Plan B” there is little room for error here; take for example a multiday adventure race, chances are you are never far from civilisation be it a house, shop or farm barn, worst case you have phone signal or a road near by and this reassurance is comforting. In EXA you are fairly remote, yes you have an emergency satellite beacon that you can activate but this is worst case scenario. Otherwise you are in it for the long haul unless you want to set up camp and wait to be ferried out by snowmobile. But this is what makes the race great, it is you versus the elements and your own mind.
I must mention the professionalism of the race organisers from Xtremeidfjord and the numerous marshals that stood at check points…I always appreciate the volunteers who marshal and help out at races but these were on another level. Standing in a blizzard at -20c seems crazy to most but these Norwegians still managed to greet every participant with a big smile at each checkpoint and it is something I will remember for a long time.
I am delighted to have completed the challenge and to have shared the experience with Steffen was fantastic. His knowledge and expertise was invaluable in our success and I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to race along side him. His good humour was so welcome during tough situations but his German efficiency was second to none and every little detail was covered prior to and during the race.
So will I be doing more races like EXA? At the moment no, but I have all the gear now so it would be a shame to waste it! But for now I will need some time to recover and hopefully build towards some multisport races and get back on a similar track to last year…
#gotailwind #tailwindnutritionuk #uglow #uglowsport #wildatlanticcamp #ardscoffeetree