Race to put all others in the cold

Six-day winter adventure is the ultimate test of endurance in frozen wastes of Quebec.
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The Independent Online

When the start gun fired and the Raid International Ukatak began on the Isle-aux-Coudres, set in the middle of the St Lawrence river, teams of four set off in canoes to make their way across to the mainland, but the river was frozen. This was the beginning of the world's first winter adventure race, a six-day, non-stop expedition through the mountainous Charlevoix region of Quebec.

When the start gun fired and the Raid International Ukatak began on the Isle-aux-Coudres, set in the middle of the St Lawrence river, teams of four set off in canoes to make their way across to the mainland, but the river was frozen. This was the beginning of the world's first winter adventure race, a six-day, non-stop expedition through the mountainous Charlevoix region of Quebec.

Ice canoeing is a sport unique to this area, and each team was accompanied in the metal 20ft canoe by an experienced captain to guide them. It was like a toboggan race start, everyone running and pushing on the ice to gather momentum, their spiked shoes biting in and the hull gliding over the surface, splashing into the freezing water or grinding to a halt and having to be hauled and lifted over ridges in the surface. It was not frozen solid everywhere; this was flowing, tidal ice, constantly shifting. Teams leapt in and out, put one foot out to push or used a rowing action, their blades hitting the ice and skating the canoe forward. Only in midstream did they cross open water.

On the far shore everyone climbed on to mountain bikes. The packs they were carrying contained food and survival equipment; shovels, sleds and plastic ski boots hung from the sides. The biggest weighed as much as 55lb and the bike ride began with three kilometres up "Misery Hill", a compacted snowmobile trail.

On a bright, sunny day it was minus 7C, which the locals described as "warm", and sweat from the unrelentingly steep climb would freeze when the teams stopped. During the night the temperature dropped to minus 30C and after switching to cross-country skis, teams had to camp out for four hours at a checkpoint to prove their survival equipment was adequate.

The cross-country skiing was new to Team Peak.com, even to their most experienced racer, Adrian Crane, a British adventurer who has completed every Eco-Challenge, run 2,040 miles across the Himalayas and finished a 100-mile foot race through the Arctic. Like everyone else he had come to see if winter adventure racing on this scale was possible.

"This is totally new, and pushed the limits of adventure racing forward," he said. "It's not surprising there are only seven teams - it takes more guts in winter. You can't stop and put your head in your hands here: you'll freeze to death. Even small problems, like a frozen lake, are magnified in really cold conditions."

Constantly falling up to their waists while snow-shoeing through almost impenetrable forest and getting lost in the dark were some of the problems they had to cope with, apart from the intense cold. Crane freeze-burnt his fingers just from touching the tent poles with his gloves off. Sophie Deudon, of the French team PlanetAventure.com, cut away most of the skin on her blistered feet and Team Le Yeti from Quebec took a wrong turn and a six-hour detour on the first night.

The race favourites, Team Finland, led the way, but that meant they had to break the snow-shoe trail, working twice as hard just to stay in front. By day four, they were first to arrive at Les Hautes Gorges, a 500m deep canyon which they abseiled down into in the dark. The top was overhanging, some of the wall was ice covered and the bottom was a snow chute where Pasi Dkonen had to be rescued from the top of a tree. The French team followed, but then the rope frayed and Team Peak.com and the Japanese team, Samurai Spirits, were forced to camp out at the top. It was a survival situation, Peak.com were out of food and Shane Michael-Nachin had lost his sleeping bag.

At dawn they found a route down to the frozen Malbaie river far below. "We were picking a way through the cliffs and it was so steep we had no choice but to use the bowling ball method of descent," said Crane. "At one point Joe was hanging from a branch shouting, 'we don't want to go this way' and we had to haul him back. Our retreat was cut off and we could have met a cliff or fallen out of control at any time." The fourth team member, Maureen Monaghan, faced another challenge on the climb back out of the valley. Teams were provided with crampons and ice axes to follow a rope up a near vertical ice wall, a two-hour climb after they had only slept for a few hours in the last four days. It was Monaghan's first experience of ice climbing.

For Crane the worst was still to come. "We thought once we got off the snow-shoes in the forest above the valley and on to skis it would be easier. It took us three hours to do the first four kilometres. Every few feet we fell into deep snow, had to take the skis off, dig ourselves out and start again."

All the teams, even the Finns who excelled at cross-country skiing, had the same problem. It did not stop them and early in the morning of the fifth day they crossed the line on mountain bikes to complete the 350km course in 94 hours and win the first Raid Ukatak. Team Peak.com were fourth of five finishers and Crane was in no doubt about the difficulty of the race: "So many races claim to be the toughest in the world, but nothing compares to this."

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