Saturday, 24 March 2018 11:57

Kevin Webber survives Freezing in the Arctic! (blog #27)

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Hi Everyone

I composed this on the plane back from Canada, so much has happened since I last wrote, sorry its so long but even this is abridged of the many stories that happened along the way. Three weeks ago I was panicking about my kit choices, food, general prep for the Arctic and was seeing my Dad every day in hospital as he had been there for a few weeks. I knew inside myself that all was not well with my father and unusually felt compelled on my last day in the UK to actually tell him that I love him and even take a joint photo, both of which I never did enough of. Sadly, after being in Canada for 4 days, just before the race, I found out that my Dad had died...

A Time for me to Reflect

I felt that I ought to come home but my brother and wife were insistent I stayed as Dad knew I was going and why so with a heavy heart, I decided to stay and do my best top make him proud knowing that I would have so much time to think of him.
The arrival of the 26 competitors and race crew at Whitehorse in the Yukon was a time of great excitement as it was our first chance to meet most of the competitors who had traveled from 10 countries around the world as far afield as Australia, South Africa, Romania and even Wales! As ever on ultra races, the common challenge is enough in itself to instantly bond everyone so friendships were easily formed immediately.
Before we set off on our 520 mile road trip to the start we had a 5 mile practice with our sledges where we had to take all kit, put up our tents and boil some water from snow. Whilst we all set off confidently, many of us soon found out personal limitations, mine was a broken tent pole, I realised that I would be sleeping in my tent with no poles from now on, great! After our long car journey through the spectacular Yukon we had one last night of a real bed in Eagle Plains. The hotel and petrol station there in the middle of nowhere was set up for the oil industry but never used as expected when thankfully conservationists got the drilling planning refused however that left a weird set up but a welcome stop off for those travelling the Dempster Highway across Northern Canada.
The race started with a "bang" literally as the hotel proprietress signaled the start with a blast of her shotgun and we were off, over a year of planning, training and worry was over, either we were ready or ......were not! The weather was kind at the start and whilst -15c there was little wind chill and bright sky's, the first 10 miles was generally downhill, lulling us into a false sense of ease. The eventual winner and probably the only elite athlete in the race showed everyone a clean pair of heels and was not seen again until the finish!
As we ventured on we began to spread out and I started to feel very alone. Bizarre things happen in the beautiful landscape like runways on the main road as there is no other way to get to the remote areas quickly. The first hills started to challenge us and a long slow climb eventually brought me to the Arctic Circle after 36k. Unlike other "significant landmarks" such as Lands End, this is no tourist site in a remote area, just a sign confirming that you are there. That said, it was a chance for some food, photos and then off again alone.
As night fell with a clear sky I did not need my head torch and could see faint red lights of others in the distance in front of me. Time to think about my Dad and some tears came but magically then as if my Dad was on cue, the Northern Lights appeared, not a faint patch on the horizon but all around in every direction, bright green and some purple. I have no idea if my Dad had a part in it but right then it felt like he did. I continued plodding onward, passing others who had decided to stop for the night in the snow looking like cocoons abandoned haphazardly by the side of the road. Whilst the road we were on is the only road South/North for 100's of miles there is little traffic, perhaps a lorry every two hours or more. Eventually at 2-00am I decided that I needed a sleep having not sat down for 16 hours and joined the ranks of a few other "cocoons" before the biggest climb over Wright Pass.
Despite being quite tired, I did not sleep although my legs enjoyed a couple of hours off. I heard others around me pack up to start the ascent and eventually decided to get up as sleep was clearly not going to feature for me that night. Again, I was alone and Wright Pass, we had been informed, was the biggest beast of the whole race. Furthermore, we were aware of blizzard warnings and high winds for the summit. It is a 20k uphill slog to around 4,000 feet followed by a further 20k of undulating descent to the next checkpoint.
I was about half way up to the summit when I could see in front of me the road dissappear in what looked like a white mist, the wind had picked up, the temperature had dropped, perhaps -25c and pulling my sledge through snow drifts against the wind was becoming more challenging. It was hard to get my body temperature right as the ambience required many layers but the exertion was heating me up so stopping sweatting was the big challenge (this is because the sweat will freeze once you slow down or stop causing hypothermia or frostbite). Out of the white suddenly appeared a car, the first I had seen for hours and in it was the race director with a concerned face. He stopped to advise me that whilst a handful of competitors had made it over the pass, the three in front of me had all been pulled from the race (frostbite/hypothermia) as the white cloud I could see ahead was a blizzard. It was my choice to either go on and try my luck or return to where I had stopped and walk back to my current point continuously and wait for the blizzard to clear.
Whilst I fancied Wright pass I also was under no illusions that an error of judgement on my part would have me out of the race so I took the advice and started doing 14k loops. As I did so others behind me started doing the same, this carried on for a few hours until we were told that the pass was only passable by vehicle having just been ploughed and that we were all to get lifts to the next checkpoint. They would then would work out how many miles we "owed" from our loops less the distance to the checkpoint to make up later. Driving over the pass was an experience, our convoy of 3 cars buffetted by the wind occasionally being forced towards the edge or into huge snow drifts but we managed to make it to the top. The highways agency there are good friends to the race and had kept the pass open for us but as soon as we summitted, they closed the road as it was too dangerous. The above excitement now saw us at the next checkpoint but for me far too early in terms of my strategy. They had not worked out how many miles I owed so reluctantly about 15 of us bedded down in the snow plough yard in a smelly noisy idustrial shed (although it was warm and out of the wind).
I tried to sleep for a few hours but the noise just would not let me so by 9-00 I was up, legs rested but still quite tired and I set off after some food towards the end of the 120 mile race at Fort Mcpherson, it was 60k away and I wanted to be there by nightfall so I could rest before carrying on. After a few hours I was so tired, no sleep since the start was affecting my judgement, I began hallucinating, zig zagging accross the road and falling asleep tens of times as I walked suddenly finding myself on the other side of the road jolting myself awake. I was not scared at all about the environment alone through dark forrests as I was so tired but saw all manner of shapes in the snow that at the time I would swear were real as diverse as phone boxes, filing cabinets, coffee shops and at one point the dockyards at Dover!
I decided I needed to try to sleep again but was aware from fresh footsteps in the snow that I was probably not alone, I had no idea if the near constant prints were wolves, foxes or other animals that size I remember just being grateful that the only larger possibly bear sized prints were older as they were part filled with fresher snow. In the end, I found on a wide streatch of road an area with no foot prints so bedded down again in my cocoon. I still find it amazing that despite being the most tired I have ever been, sleep still did not come. As part of my cancer drug routine I am on steroids a couple of times a day which are like having caffine shots, I guess they did not help. Two hours later at 4am I gave up again, I had heard many people pass me as I lay there so packed up to go. It was then that I saw many animal foot prints around my bivi, I have no idea what they were, I guess some of those "people" I heard were in fact the local wildlife having a sniff around!
At this stage the route became very hilly again, in the dark you can not see just how long each up or down is (mercifully), some went on for an hour at a time. Daylight came and then I could see just what I had done and what was before, I plodded on, slower now, stopping and resting on my poles on the longer hills as I just did not have the energy to continue but eventually forcing myself to start again. The route began a steep descent, my ankle had been hurting from my injury I got in Iceland in September and now both knees were screaming too with every step. I had lost track of how far I had gone and when reaching a wide river to cross over the ice was demoralised when I discovered I still had 11k, generally uphill to go. I began to realise that my goal of 380 miles was probably outside my reach but still decided to press on , not eat for the next 11k and then cook up and see how I felt at the checkpoint.
That 11k went on forever, eventually I was met at a turning to the checkpont to discover that it was an extra 1k but worse still, before I could stop I had to make up my shortfall from the trip over the pass. My shortfall was the shortest at 8k (some had 30k!) and I had to turn a different way and go 4k up hill before coming back. I guess that was 8k too far, I had no energy, ankle, knees and now hips were killing me, I cant even describe how tired I was, it was my lowest point, I had some music that I planned to use for such ocurrances but we had been told at the start that we could not use music because of the traffic so I had nowhere mentally to go. The last 1k to the checkpoint with my mate Stu lifted me but made me accept that at best I had another 50k in me so reluctantly but in reality sensibly decided to finish there and take my place in the 120 mile race finish. Once I had made that decision my mood lifted and I enjoyed my moment of glory coming second in the race, despite there only being a few people at the checkpoint they all came out to make me feel amazing, probably my most emotional finish ever (see attached photo). At the time I finished, I was 10th overall in the bigger race and 8 others had already dropped out, two more never finished the 120 mile race so I guess it was an achievement for an old sick note like me.
At the checkpoint it was like a field hospital, people were coming in with frrostbite, swollen legs that would have made Nora Batty proud and massive blisters amongst other challenges, the medics did an amazing job patching them up. One competitpor who had dropped out earlier decided to go to the next checkpoint but immediately got lost and was discovered by the police many hours (and panicing) later. Eventually I slept, I slept like a log, I slept for 10 hours, I hoestly have not slept that long for over 3 years, I did the same for the next two nights too! Whilst as I indicated I was a bit dissapointed in myself for not being able to complete the longer race it was only then that I started to live up to my own expectations of myself and life. Those who had either finished the shorter race or dropped out became an entourage who followed the race round, getting in front of most, then helping them in and out before moving on to the next checkpoint.
This situation gave me an opportunity I was not expecting, firstly, it allowed me to walk in the last 10k with many who were low before each checkpoint and then escort some out. I know from my own experiences, any company at times is welcome and I heard insprational stories from them about their own lives and how many have helped others. The next opportunity was to meet many First Nation Canadians and experience some of their way of life. In the remote Arctic there is little to do, settlements of 500 or so people live without any shops, cinmas, hospitals etc and whilst we may think that sounds ideal, to some of them it was prison like for much of the year. The ice roads that connect some settlements are a lifeline but even those were rarely used. Unemployment is high and the only thing that many do despite being "dry" towns is drink.
The welcome we received however and use of what facilities they had was amazing. Two of us went to watch a local ice hockey match one evening, another night the locals performed their traditional first nation delta drum dances, telling us many stories of years gone by and how they were trying hard to keep their traditions, history and launguage alive. That is so hard when many leave these small towns for a "better life"and the younger geeration do not see the beauty on what they already have or what could be with some imagnantion and belief. One day I went dog sledging with two others from the race. As I get older I become more in love with all animals and huskys are just the best. They are so loving, excitable and just glad to be alive, like me I guess! The few hours out in the wilderness controlling my own sledge with a team of 5 dogs truly had me at one with nature and enjoying the moment like no other.
Eventually, on day 8 we arrived at Tuktoyatuk, one of the most northerly towns on earth literally on the shore of the Arctic Ocean. What a beautiful place it is, walking on the Arctic was mentally uplifting, something I never thought I woud do like much of the whole event. We stayed in Mangilaluk school hall for two nights and I was invited to present to a few classes about my life, prostate cancer, enjoying the now and chasing your dreams. What was so inspiring for me was the attention I received, kids who have in some respects nothing to look forward to were coming up to me at the end with new dreams or declaring dreams that they had previously surpressed as they could see no way of ever living them previously. Now just maybe, some will find a way. I think one of the things that really hit home was when I said "I promise you, when you are old, you will not say, I wish I watched TV more, played on the playstation more or spent more time glued to my smart phone", I have no idea if they will remember what I said in the long term but even if just a few did something different for one day it will have been worth it.
As for the race, Tibi from Roumania came in first by over a day, 5 others finished inside the time limit, amazingly, Tony who was last at one stage came second although all who did make it were absolute heroes in all our eyes. The camaraderie amongst everyone was like a massive family, we all wished everyone to succeed and supported each others needs at any time. I could tell you tales from the other racers that could go on for ever of shoes blown away in the wind, tents covered in snow, soaking and therefore freezing hands, clothes and frostbite, this race is in every way one of the toughest.
I was lucky that a film maker, Richard, followed me around in part for the trip and as such in due course there will be some lasting tangible material that tells my stopry plus that of the race. I wish to thank all the crew and competirors who made the time that I spent with them so memorable. The race organisers, Martin, Sue and Stu ffom Likeys of Brecon (www.likeys.com) were first rate, they had many tough calls to make and in hindsight did the best that they could have done to give everyone the wild experience that we craved whilst keeping us all as safe as possible. Thank you from all the racers and I, you have facilitated fantastic lifelong memories for us all I believe.
I must also thank everyone who has supported me by sponsoring me, sending me emails, texts etc, your efforts have now raised over £18,000 for Prostate Cancer UK this time to help other families not be destroyed by prostate cancer like mine is. If you are able to and want to support this cause please visit www.justgiving.com/fundraising/kevin-webber6 thank you. If you have kindly sponsored me and I have not responded to you personally yet, please forgive me, I am flattered that so many of you have since I left and I have not and will not have the chance to thank you individually for some time, I hope you inderstand and please never feel I am ungrateful.
My wife Sarah has been amazing all through my journey and Nat West/RBS have been the model employer still supportng me through everything, thank you.
The return to the UK gave me more time to reflect on what is important, yes our history is what makes us who we are and should not be forgotten with grattitude but what we do today should never be negatively influenced by that history as we have an obligation to make things better for each and every one of us today and for those who follow in years to come.
So what is ahead for me? I have to now, with my brother, sort out arrangements to say goodbye to our Dad, my brother did so much when I was away, thank you Ian, I hope I did good when I was away and in some way made Dad proud. I have many trips to the doctors, I cracked a tooth on the first day of the race that needs sorting, I have to have an ECG and medical to allow me to complete in my next race, I have the usual blood test and Russian roulette results day for my cancer, accupuncture, physio appointments, heat acclimitisation, unpack from the Arctic, and pack for the Marathon Des Sables in the Sahara less than two weeks away. I will write again before I go there (shorter I promise) about how you can follow me if you wish and (hopefully) send me emails of encouragement.
Please feel free to share this email with anyone who you feel may like to read it, if you no longer wish to get these emails just email me back, I wont be offended.
Its not the years in your life that count, its the life in your years.

Thanks for reading
Kev


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