YAU My Foot!!!
Another year and more negative coverage of the Montane Yukon Arctic Ultra (MYAU) has come to light. As has occurred previously, racers have received emergency medical attention and face losing digits and even hands and feet. As ever, I have 'views'...
To begin with, nobody suffers hypothermia or frostbite because it is -40 to -50 Celsius, not even if it is such for a week. 40,000 people live in the Yukon Territory, Canada, and 40,000 people were not lined-up at Whitehorse general hospital the week of the MYAU because they all suffered frostbitten hands and feet. Nor, for that matter, were all the race competitors. The event has seen temperatures that low before, and even colder, including in 2007 (when the race was halted at around -60 C), in 2011 (when the race continued and many of us finished at -50 C and below), and in 2015, when another competitor was evacuated to hospital with hypothermia and severe frostbite. However, we did not all suffer frostbite and cold injuries, and, in fact, most of us did not suffer at all. Therefore, it is not the temperature itself (or in isolation) that causes harm, but rather how we manage ourselves in it. QED.
Because the cold is the medium, rather than the root cause of frostbite, there is no pride in getting frostbitten. Over the years I have had superficial frostbite to various parts of my body, and almost every time it was not particularly cold. Rather, because it was not especially cold, I was experimenting with different clothing and layering systems, or else I just let it happen. In multiple years of racing, I permitted very superficial frostbite to my cheeks, because I did not want to cover my face due to how hard I was working. I made a choice and I knew the consequences would be short-lived. It is ignoring those early signs that causes the severity of cold injuries to increase.
On only one occasion have I suffered frostbite because of an equipment failure, due to mittens not having been made to the design specifications, and a cold day coupled with longer than ideal exposure (due to a binding issue with snowshoes), permitted frostbitten fingertips. I should have tested the mitts beforehand, or else I should have had spares, and I should have taken action sooner when I realised my fingers were not rewarming. It was my fault. On every occasion frostbite could have been prevented. Every single case of frostbite during a race or event is the result of a decision; a choice. Therefore, for a racer who has selected their clothing, equipment, and race strategy, the only reason they suffer frostbite is because of bad choices. Frostbite happens to us because we allow it to, and if it is allowed to progress beyond superficial frostnip to deep frostbite, it happens because we made mistakes, such as ignoring the signs. Racers do not get frostbite because it was -40 to -50 C; they get frostbite because they fucked up.
How do we prevent frostbite? In a race, the most important step is selecting the right equipment. If the equipment fails (breaks, becomes wet, something else), we need back-up options, such as spares or the means to improvise. Racers can use chemical warming pads for the hands and feet, or battery-powered heating pads. Movement creates warmth, so muscle activity by clenching and relaxing grips on trekking poles helps to keep the hands warm, faster walking and short sprints can warm the feet. Toes and fingers should be constantly moved about with the focus of determining whether they are becoming numb. Consuming food and fluids helps promote warmth, and ensuring the torso is warm helps promote blood flow to the extremities. Beyond this, if the temperature goes below the capacity of the equipment, decisions can be made on retreating to a sleeping bag for a few hours, or getting a fire going (if the environment permits, and it mostly does in the Yukon), or else reaching and remaining at a checkpoint. Ultimately, a racer can quit, and this is easy in the Yukon, due to the many checkpoints and the use of SPOT devices. Again, frostbite occurs because of choices made by the racer.
So, having made it clear the racer is responsible for their frostbite, where does the race organisation stand? In my view, if a serious incident occurs to a racer in any event, the following question must be asked: Was the racer fully aware (truly) of the risks that could occur whilst participating in this event, and had the organiser done everything reasonably practicable to minimise the likelihood of this incident from occurring? This is where I think it becomes interesting; if the organiser has not done everything reasonably practicable, was the racer aware of this? In the Iditarod Trail Invitational (ITI), for example, it is made abundantly clear that racers are responsible for their own evacuation, and would not even be participating unless the organisers were highly confident of their suitability. The ITI's safety management is far from perfect, in my personal view, but their approach does give food for thought and there is much to be admired. Could more be done in managing the safety of racers in the MYAU? Absolutely. Should it be? Well, sort of; either more needs to be done to ensure the suitability of the racers taking part (their experience), or, more needs to be done in terms of racer monitoring and trail support.
Some points on navigation. The Italian racer who, at the time of writing, stands (poor choice of words) to lose both hands and feet, claimed it all went wrong when he lost sight of trail markers and wandered off. He abandoned his sled before leaving the trail. Personally, I think this demonstrates the racer's incompetence and lack of experience, rather than being due to a lack of trail markers. If he can provide evidence he was sufficiently competent and experienced, I would be staggered to see it. Not least this is because all the other racers were not similarly lost. It is plausible that his confusion resulted from hypothermia, but this is speculation, and still returns us to the point it all began through a lack of competence and experience in the environment.
The MYAU is mostly one of the easiest trails to navigate, and for many reasons: Firstly, if the trail is going through the woods, even if it is covered in snow it will still be the obvious passage through the woods. Where it becomes difficult is along rivers and lakes, where the route may not be visible, and during even light snowfall the trail markers become impossible to spot. However, anyone who has experience of this ought to know that you do not need to see the trail to follow it. When asked by race support veteran Mike if he could discern whether or not he had come off the trail, veteran competitor Klaus replied 'Yes. Whenever I am standing up to my balls in snow, I know I have come off the trail.' And never a truer word was spoken.
I have navigated an invisible trail along the Pelly River by 'feeling it' for several miles. It is quite satisfying to be able to sled-haul at a respectable speed, altering direction as the feet seek-out the deeper snow off the trail. There are around 60 rangers who compress the trail with their snowmobiles ahead of the race, plus around 30 dog teams from the Yukon Quest. Something that feels like a pavement, hidden beneath a considerable amount of snow, still feels like a pavement, whereas everything off the trail feels like a descent into the abyss. This approach is only not possible when there is very little snowfall during a season, so little change in depth between the trail and the rest (such as occurred in 2016).
As a rule, if you become lost you can call for help or sit tight until a snowmobile comes along. Abandoning equipment and wandering off is absolute madness, and not something the race organisation can be expected to directly prevent, although the likelihood could have been reduced by requiring greater experience of the racers. I will (and do) gladly share the GPS route files with anyone who requests them. Although the routes along the rivers and lakes can change from year to year, the entry and exit points are fairly consistent. As a reminder of a key point in all this: if you are unsure whether or not you are on the trail, just stop. Someone will come along, whether another racer, support staff, or other trail user. Wandering off lost in the cold is an excellent way to die, because allegedly hypothermia is relatively pleasant in the final moments before death. If a racer leaves the trail and abandons his equipment, his gloves and his shoes at around -50 C, and only loses his hands and feet, he can consider himself lucky.
There are warning signs of frostbite. The skin becomes perceptibly cold, numb and waxy to the touch (although sometimes it has to be touched to notice this, hence wiggling toes and such like). Digits become cold when exposed after outer mitts have been removed, such as to access food, set up or take down camp, or when tinkering with clothing and equipment. Feet become cold when not moving, or if putting them into cold shoes in the morning (they should be kept inside the sleeping bag, or beneath it). There are always warning signs, if you know how to look for them, and there are always steps that can be taken to prevent frostbite succeeding from superficial and reversible, to deep and life-threatening.
Frostbite does not happen because it is cold; it happens because of poor choices, and ultimately the responsibility lies with the racer. The race organisation can always do more, one way or another, but the racer should take responsibility for investigating the event and its risks ahead of participation, and they should prepare and participate accordingly. Accidents can and will happen in the cold, but on this occasion there were no accidents, only bad choices.
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I love the Yukon Territory. For me, it is the most beautiful place on Earth and with a rich, fascinating history; Beringia, the First Nations and the great gold rush of the 1890s. It is a home to some 40,000 people in an area the size of Spain, and one of the world's last true wildernesses. I have seen wolves, a wolverine, bears, lynx, elk and moose, and followed tracks of mountain lions. The Yukon Quest is the toughest sled dog race in the world, and along the most staggeringly beautiful long-distance trail I have experienced or come to know. Out of approximately 4,000 miles of endurance racing and events in the sub-Arctic and Arctic, I have spent almost 2,500 on the trail of the Yukon Quest, and I hope to spend many more there. It is my love of the Yukon and the Quest trail that makes me particularly aggravated that people have such negative experiences there.
I think of the Yukon and I think of the trail where snow sparkles with crystals beneath brilliant blue skies; I think of reclining back on my pulk as I take a break looking in awe across a mountain range; I think of nights in my sleeping bag beneath trees, the smell of spruce whilst the Aurora lights up the sky as a dazzling green curtain, swaying and dancing above me. The Yukon is a fantastic place, the MYAU is the best race route I know, and I hope that more people will come to enjoy the Yukon and the Quest trail however they can.
A review of exercise in the cold is available here.