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The Best Night of My Life

As I reflect back upon the highs and lows of the Life of Hines, there have been some spectacular days and nights I have had the pleasure of experiencing. There have naturally been a multitude of low points too, but the less spoken of those the better. Let the dead past bury its dead and all that - no point dragging it along, shackled to a heel as one lurches ever onwards.  Much better to learn, be grateful for the opportunity to learn, and to move on. As for the high points, these are the memories one hopes will be used to drive ambitions for more of such things. Moreover, perhaps, they will bring a smile to the face and a lift to the heart upon an otherwise troubled or indifferent eve.

Naturally, the main thrust of this ramble is that the positive events of this year will help to shape my future - the occasion is not to be assumed a one-off never to be repeated.  On the contrary, plans are afoot to ensure I move into the final stages of Hines Dream Priority One during the coming 18 months.

Following yet another amazing year competing in the Yukon Arctic Ultra, I was privileged to discover myself unemployed and destitute.  I stayed on in the Yukon as a guest of friends. I shall remain forever indebted to Murray, Kevin, Tina, Mike, Jessica, Kalin, Pam, Sue, Dale and Martin for providing me with shelter, food, beer, transport and company during my time in the Yukon. 

During this stay another race began in the Yukon, and I was keen to be part of the support crew. I would have been tempted to race, but I had no funds to cover the entry fee, and little opportunity to develop the kit for it.  Much better, I thought, to observe this time and to compete the next. I had the pleasure of being a support driver for the race - the 6633, 350-mile ultra-race from Eagle Plains in the Yukon up to Tuktoyaktuk in the Northwest Territories.  This involved driving racers and kit in a 4x4, initially from Whitehorse to Dawson City, then on to Eagle Plains, and from there more steadily along the ice road towards Tuk, as the race had begun and racers were routinely checked upon. Sometimes I would be based at checkpoints, including in cabins, sometimes on the road, and in all cases I was where the race director - Martin - deemed it appropriate for me to be.

Martin knew I had a love for the environment and for The Great Outdoors, and was keen to allow me to realise this for myself whilst out there. During the first 100 miles of the race the competitors had a mountain pass to negotiate, which was in many ways the most dangerous part of the course.  The winds had the potential to blow over the huge 18-wheeled trucks that used the road, and would make short work of a handful of Brits, wearing oversized down jackets and dragging overly-heavy sleds behind them.  With this in mind, Martin offered me the unique opportunity to set-up a remote camp high upon the pass.  Murray drove me as we scouted for an appropriate position - somewhere flat, close to the road, and easily identifiable (so other support staff would know where I was, should a blizzard cover the camp). The time was approaching midnight; the sky was clear, and the temperature between minus 15 and minus 20 degrees Celsius. We threw my kit bags to the area selected, and Murray went on his way.

The campsite was fairly flat, but on sloped land that stretched several hundred metres to the top of a ridge on the camp's side of the road. To the other side, the slope continued down into a shallow and vast valley, before rising again to mountains further along.

I pitched my little mountain tent and dug a trench around it, so as to allow colder air to sink lower than the level I intended to sleep at. I used my lightweight shovel to pile up a low perimeter mound adjacent to the trench, to help shield the tent and to direct ground winds over the top. I organised my sleeping kit, and used my otherwise full kit bags to weigh down the shelter. It was too early to sleep, so I used the shovel to build myself something to sit on out of compacted snow. I sat in it - my very own Wingback armchair - looking down the road and seeing no headlights, then upwards at the starlit night sky.  A cool breeze caressed my face, but it was not cold - for the Arctic - and there was no indication of any foul weather to come.

Considering the ease with which large blocks of compacted snow could be levered up using the shovel, I felt a mild touch disappointed I had no ice saw with which I could attempt an igloo. Regardless, I set about liberating blocks of snow - many as much as a metre across, half a metre high and several centimetres thick - and constructing my new shelter. I arranged the blocks into a large circular area, a little over two metres in diameter, with an entrance at one end.  Within that entrance I dug out the snow, creating steps that led down into the centre of the shelter. A space approximately two-thirds of a metre across was levelled out around the internal perimeter, and the central circle was dug out further to a depth of a little more than half a metre. With the wall at almost a metre in height, this meant I could sit anywhere within the shelter and have my feet in the centre and head out of the wind. During the course of the night and the following morning I would reinforce the shelter and raise the wall height still further. There were no other materials available - no trees or foliage of any kind.

As there was no sign of snowfall, and as even if there had been I could have retreated to my tent, I decided to spend the night in my snow-shelter. Actually, if you do prefer the demi-igloo image, do not think of it with nicely squared off blocks of snow, as this was far from the reality. Think of it as something built by a chap armed with irregularly-shaped snow blocks, of myriad dimensions, all constructed with a design in mind between an igloo and a stone wall.

It was about 50 metres to the road from my camp, and I headed along the road to greet racers when I saw them.  Some would move past without my noticing, but as they were towards the front and clearly not suffering, they were not in need of my services in any case. I was only there for if people were in trouble, and in fact nobody was, so I was what many considered a pleasant surprise in an otherwise barren and lifeless world.

During the first couple of hours my only company had been a large, black fox. It scuttled around my camp and came within about two metres of me to investigate. It might have tried to investigate further, but had it done so it likely would have felt a sharp bang to the side of its face, care of the shovel I was holding behind my back.  I had never seen such a curious and confident wild animal, and the fact it lacked a sense of fear seemed very peculiar. As it happened some moments passed as we looked at each other, and, having weighed me up, the critter presumably decided it had learned as much from this meeting as there was to learn, and continued on its perambulations.  Racers later claimed to have seen a wolf in that area, but this fellow was certainly not a wolf, and most wolves in the region were further north, tracking caribou.

I placed my sleeping mat across the seating area, having propped up part of the central pit to create a more generous support. I had a waterproof covering for the sleeping bag, which I used as a lightweight bivi, and lay back to look at the sky. By this time (about 2 am) the most magnificent northern light show had begun.  I lay there, gazing up at a long, softly swaying curtain of green aurora, which stretched up for tens of kilometres through the atmosphere. The aurora stretched from the ridge behind me directly across the valley. With my eyes wide open I could not take in the whole aurora, but had to tilt my head back and forth a little to observe the full extent. The aurora danced until 5 in the morning, and may have danced on longer, but by that time I had fallen asleep. 

I awoke the following morning as a racer passed, but lay dozing and contemplating such a magnificent night. Martin drove up and came out to greet me, and I soon rallied myself for the day ahead, continuing to check up on racers as they passed. As I reflect back on that night, my heart is warmed by the memories of the build, the stunning landscape in that pristine wilderness, and of one of the best displays of the northern lights I have ever seen. It was a magical night, and I feel privileged to have experienced it.

For the next night I was sent into sparse woodland, where I built a lean-to-styled shelter with a raised bed and foot-deep mattress of spruce branches. Along the side on the ground I made a fire the length of my bed, and enjoyed one of the most comfortable nights out I have ever had. Well, it would have been the most comfortable night had that git of a Welshman (Martin) not come out to call me off for other duties.  Still, it had been some hours of bliss and yet more wonderful memories made on that trip. Some people think a beach holiday is a good idea, but where is the adventure in that?

Post script.  On the drive back through the pass after the race, the ice shelter had been covered over by snow, and lost once more to nature.  In 2017, four years after supporting the 6633, I cycled from Tuktoyaktuk to Whitehorse on a fat bike.  The lean-to, made from nothing but spruce wood and string, was still standing, albeit with a broken supporting strut on one side that could easily have been mended.  Others have driven by and noticed it standing there, just a little south of Fort McPherson, on the Dempster Highway.  It could be turned into a proper campsite again with minimal effort.  Walking into nature and building a natural camp is one of life's great joys and satisfactions, and I believe this is particularly true in the otherwise intimidating environment of the Arctic.

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