The Adventures of Arctic Man

Ed Leigh 
By Ed Leigh

Taking part in Arctic Man was Graham Bell’s idea, the worst ones always are. Graham loves winning. That was his motivation for uncovering this living nightmare of a race. He wanted to find a race that he knew he would be in with a very good chance of winning. What he eventually settled on was a race so ridiculous and terrifying that very few skiers or snowboarders enter and of the handful that do, very few cross the finish line. These are the kind of odds Graham likes.

I have been towed behind snowmobiles before and in snowboarding terms I have been reached some respectable speeds, around the top end of the 60 MPH bracket. What Graham didn’t tell me was that the race would take at least four and half minutes, but for a snowboarder that was more likely to be five and half. He also neglected to tell me that there was a good chance we would be reaching 80 MPH while dragged up a bumpy canyon by a one hundred and fifty horsepower race sled. Finally, and most importantly, he didn’t tell me that less than fifty percent of the snowboarders who start training make it to the race.

When we landed in Alaska the fanfare surrounding this gladiatorial-style sacrifice was alarming. Everyone laughed when we told them why we were there and everyone had a story about someone being horribly maimed or in one case dying; it wasn’t the heart warming stuff I was after. Race day came and in true Alaskan style the weather charged in and shut the light down as the last of the skiers set off. One after another in front of me the snowboarders declared they weren’t going to start in these conditions. I had a good long look and could see clear windows further down the course. The start wasn’t hard to negotiate, in fact it was the easiest part of the whole thing, so I decided to go.

The first stage was easy and I had learned up the hook up with my sled driver Carly really quickly, so we linked well and set off up the canyon for 2.2 miles of rutted death trap punishment. Just before the halfway point as Carly hammered the gas out of turn I felt my edge bite and knowing that it was a millisecond between staying up and another big crash I let go of the rope. Unbelievably Carly looked back at the right time and saw me drop it, I managed to stay on my feet and rode straight back onto the rope (the only rule is that the sled cannot come back round and pick up the skier or snowboarder) we set off again.

As we rounded the last turn in the canyon I looked for a highline that would avoid the bumps and help hold the tail of the sled into the corner. Before I knew it I had hit a bump and caught an edge knowing I was going down I clung to the rope praying Carly would feel the jerk and stop. She didn’t. The rope was torn out of my hands and my back foot binding broke, but with my foot free the agonizing build up of lactic acid in my thigh was set free and it gave me a second wind. I jumped unstrapped and tried to run up the hill the hundred or so metres to where Carly had stopped. By the time I got there I had the metallic taste of blood in my throat from exertion at altitude and was shot, I have since watched the footage from the camera on the back of Carly’s sled and it took more than a minute to get back to the rope and strap in.

From where Carly had stopped the course was just a straight shot over a series of rollers to the release that was aptly named First Aid. The one thing I know is that when I let go of the rope I was motoring into a blind roll that carries you down to the finish.

I was absolutely spent when I reached the finish. In my mind I had won my own battle by finishing, I just really wanted Graham to have won. Sadly it wasn’t to be, he only managed fourth, in his eyes a loss. I also finished fourth though, in seven minutes and four seconds. Not by any stretch a fast time, but less than a minute behind the leader, which let me dream a little about what might have been.

In the end I beat Graham on the speed gun with a top speed of 75.2 MPH to his 74 point something, I wasn’t listening after seventy four, I was too busy rubbing it in and I clocked the fastest time on the final stage. I am very proud to have raced in Arctic Man, but by the end of the week the constant drone of sleds wrecking pristine mountains had got the better of me and I couldn’t wait to race back to some kind of civilisation.