Sports Active: Kings of the Wild Frontier ; Ian and Vicky (That's Them on the Left) Hadn't a Clue about Winter Sports - So How Did the UK Team-Mates Fare on the Fulda Tyres Extreme Arctic Challenge at Sixty below? Minnie Burlton Reports on Eight Days of Snowshoeing, Skiing and Skulduggery under the Northern Lights
Burlton, Minnie, The Independent on Sunday (London, England)
Petite, blonde and weighing in at eight stone, Vicky is a picture of determination. Her face is just inches from the snow-covered road as she pulls two four-wheel-drive cars along a 60-metre course. But it's not just 3,000kg she's pulling; the pride of a nation rests on her shoulders, too, since she is here (along with team-mate Ian) to represent the UK. Welcome to the Fulda Tyres Extreme Arctic Challenge, held annually in Canada's Yukon region.
Now in its fourth year, the event is rapidly growing in popularity; the sponsors hope it will become a chillier version of the Camel Trophy, the better-known team adventure spectacular. This February, the Challenge attracted over 50,000 applications from the nine competing countries.
It is an amateur event in which each team - consisting of one man and woman - must complete 15 tasks to decide who will receive gold nuggets worth C$10,000 (pounds 4,200). The prospect of all that gold clearly did strange things to certain teams' interpretation of "amateur" - but more of this later.
Starting in Whitehorse - capital of the Yukon - competitors travel 1,000km via Inuvik in the Northwest Territories to Tuktoyaktuk on the edge of the Arctic Ocean. The final 200km involves driving up the frozen Mackenzie River. During this eight- day trip, the teams stop off on the way to compete in a range of Yukon activities, from the traditional - husky sledding, ice climbing, snowshoeing, lighting a camp fire and ski touring - to the unusual - car pulling, chicken cooking, tyre changing and frozen- water skiing. At night, they camp out in the wilderness, beneath the flickering Northern Lights.
Tyre changing is an obvious nod to the sponsors, Fulda, but is also an Arctic necessity. The Arctic Challenge is supposed to reflect life in one of the most extreme environments on earth, where, to keep cabin fever at bay, Yukoners often partake in eccentric sports. To join a local institution, the Sour Toe Cocktail Club, for instance, you must drink a cocktail with an alcohol- preserved human toe in the glass, allowing the toe to touch your lips as you knock the drink back. The original toe supposedly came from the frostbitten foot of a gold miner.
How did Ian Ellis, a 36-year-old futures commodity trader, and Vicky Hilliard, a 29-year-old editorial assistant, end up here representing their country? A good question, because the selection process they under- went had little to do with the challenges they would eventually face. Instead, six men and six women (myself included) spent one day before Christmas in Buckinghamshire being blindfolded, shouted at and repeatedly timed over an army assault course, as well as completing problem-solving exercises, climbing, abseiling and 4x4 driving. Extreme, perhaps, but certainly not Arctic extreme...
Cut to the edge of the Arctic Ocean, in temperatures down to - 60C. Ian and Vicky arrive in Whitehorse and collect a team car filled with Arctic clothing, survival kit and sports gear which includes ropes, skis, ice picks, crampons, snowshoes and climbing harnesses.
Before they get behind the wheel, ex-Formula One driver and event organiser Hans Stuck issues a stark warning: "Please treat your car like your body. Look after it. This is an extreme environment. Extremely beautiful, but it can also be extremely dangerous. Drive carefully on the icy roads; if you have an accident, within minutes a warm car can turn into a deep- freeze, and your chances of survival are minimal."
For 800km the route follows Canada's northernmost main road, the Dempster Highway. But it is less a highway and more a narrow line of gravel which meanders through a vast wilderness. …