Surviving the 2001 Fulda Challenge
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Since the 1800s the Canadian Arctic has been a magnet for adventurers from all walks of life, drawn to the region in search of fame and fortune in one way or another. Jack Londons famous novel The Call Of The Wild gives the reader a glimpse of what life was like in the fall of 1897 when the Klondike strike lured men from all over the world to the Great White North. It was not uncommon in this hostile setting to cover hundreds of miles by dogsled, traipsing through blinding snowstorms over uncharted terrain to reach a destination, which for most proved futile.
Today modern day explorers tackle the extreme environments of the Yukon and Northwest Territories equipped with four-wheel-drive vehicles and high-tech Arctic clothing. Their motivation is personal adventure rather than a lust for gold. The journey takes them from Whitehorse, the capital of the Yukon, north to the city of Dawson by way of the infamous Klondike Highway. From Dawson, the route follows the treacherous Dempster Highway to the end of the line at the town of Inuvik. Here in the wintertime, the mighty MacKenzie River becomes a frozen super-highway that leads to the isolated Eskimo village of Tuktoyaktuk on the edge of the Arctic Ocean. This utterly frozen, final outpost of civilization is the ultimate destination for an incredible test of man and machine known as The Fulda Challenge.
Fulda, a major tire company in Germany, decided that a great way to promote its product would be to test its tires to the extreme. However, merely driving from point A to point B wasnt enough of a challenge. So, eight teams consisting of two participants each, seven from Europe and one from Canada, were chosen to add a human element to the equation by competing in extreme winter sports along the way. We went along for the ride. This is how it went down.
Each team arrived in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, from Edmonton, Alberta, on a chartered flight that struggled to navigate through a gale-force blizzard. Once on the ground, participants were relieved and eager to start the challenge, even though the air temperature was hanging just below zero. Eight Jeep Grand Cherokees were lined up on the tarmac and were equipped with Fulda Tramp 4x4 Yukon tires, bull bars, and driving lights. From the airstrip we drove immediately to Mount Sima, a ski resort on the outskirts of Whitehorse, for the first stage of the event, a downhill slalom skiing competition. Undoubtedly, the Austrians were the strongest in this event, taking First place with the Swiss team a close Second. This event was followed by a skijoring slalom on frozen Marsh Lake a few miles away. Skijoring is a sport developed in Norway that allows a skier to be pulled behind a horse (in this case a 4x4) on a frozen lakebed. As it turned out, the conditions were deemed unsafe, with excessive snowdrifts due to a recent storm, and this event was cancelled. However, Olympic ski gold medallist Marckus Wasmeier made it look easy as he tested the course behind the German road-racing great Hans Joachim Stuck and Paris-Dakar Rally winner Jutta Kleinschmidt.
Dawn greeted us with clear skies and temperatures warming to the low teens, which were ideal conditions for a 20-mile dogsled race over the frozen surface of Fish Lake. Once we arrived at the location, each team was given expert instruction by a local musher on the proper technique for handling his dogs and rigging their harnesses. Most of the team members had little or no experience at dogsledding and were a bit nervous about the whole ordeal. Interestingly enough, after a few moments of instruction, the excitement grew and by the first mile into the race youd think each person was an Iditarod veteran. The 20-mile course was designed in a loop, beginning and ending at the same spot. As the race neared the finish it was a battle between three teams. The Austrians maintained the lead with the more experienced Dutch team closing in for a tight Second, followed by the Swiss team, which finished Third. By the end of the day when it seemed the dogs were just getting warmed up, the weary competitors crawled into their ice-cold tents for a good nights sleep.
This day was spent driving north on the icy Klondike Highway to the infamous gold rush town of Dawson. The 350-mile route had to be driven with complete concentration due to many patches of black ice that could send you careening off into oblivion. Surprisingly, the Fulda Yukon tire provided more than enough traction at the hair-ball speeds we were driving at and we all got to Dawson safe and sound. After drinks and dinner at the historic Downtown Hotel, our group once again climbed into the Jeeps and headed to the Yukon River bridge, located a mile south of town. Here the competitors were faced with the challenge of climbing a 100-foot frozen waterfall using crampons and ice-axes. Just to make it a bit more interesting, event organizers Juergen Hampel and Holger Bergold decided to have the event at night, and this particular night the temperature dropped to 20 below. The Austrians, once again took the lead in this highly technical event with the Dutch coming in Second.
These days, the snowmobile is the preferred method of backcountry travel for most folks living in the Yukon. So it seemed only fitting that the Fulda Challenge offered up some extreme sledding action. A 250-mile loop route was designed for the competitors, who had to navigate into the remote backcountry on snowmobiles using GPS coordinates. Halfway through the course, each team stopped for lunch at a local bear-hunting camp where they were treated to hot caribou stew, smoked salmon, and coffee. Afterwards, a log-sawing and rifle-shooting competition were thrown in to give the competitors a chance to prove their backwoods skills.
The Dempster Highway is considered to be one of the most remote and lonely roads in North America. There is one gas station at mile zero and not another for nearly 250 miles. Constructed primarily of gravel, this icy, serpentine road winds through sub-Arctic tundra, mountain valleys, and river bottoms nearly 500 miles to the town of Inuvik, NWT, at its end. Its not uncommon to encounter extreme conditions while travelling the Dempster; huge snowdrifts, blizzards, and complete whiteouts are the norm. On the way north, about 20 miles into this God-forsaken landscape, the organizers had arranged a little surprise for the competitors. Up until now there had been rumors floating around about certain events being too easy. This was about to change. As our convoy pulled off to the side of the road, Juergen Hampel was seen pointing in the direction of a huge snow covered peak. The task for today was to snowshoe two miles to the base of the mountain. From there it was nearly two more miles to the summit. As the teams struggled toward the top, one member nearly slipped off a narrow ridge with a 2,000-foot vertical drop on one side. Thank God this didnt happen and all team members eventually made the summit. Now the fun part: downhill skiing on a virgin, icy, rocky mountainback to the convoy. It goes without saying that the competitors finally got their wish for an extreme challenge.
After a cold night of sleeping on the tundra, our group headed north of the camp at Eagle Plains to the Arctic Circle. Here, a grueling two-mile snowshoeing race was designed to test the endurance of exhausted challengers. The mainly flat course looked easy, but an average snow depth of two feet made it a real struggle. The Austrians excelled here once again, completing the two-mile course in just under 20 minutes.
Waking up in Inuvik from the first warm nights sleep of the journey was kind of ironic since our hotel was named the Eskimo Inn. After a hearty breakfast of bacon, eggs, and multiple cups of coffee, we headed off for the biggest adventure yet. In summer, the only way to get to Tuktoyaktuk is by boat via the MacKenzie River or by air. However, average wintertime temperatures of 30 degrees below zero turn the second-largest river in North America into a 125-mile-long ice highway. Road graders plow a path nearly eight lanes wide to make room for a high volume of oil-industry heavy equipment and heavy-truck travel that thunders over this frozen river, leaving behind huge cracks in the ice. We traveled this frozen motorway at speeds sometimes exceeding 100 mph, testing the vehicle and tires to the max. As we rolled into the Eskimo village of Tuk, the sense of remote isolation was overwhelming. Villagers appeared out of warm, simple houses to greet our convoy and offer us a traditional Inuit feast consisting of whale blubber, caribou stew and jerky. With their bellies full and senses overwhelmed from the excitement of the journey, competitors had one final task to complete. Since food and shelter are the two most important necessities to survive in the high Arctic, it only seemed proper for the Fulda Challengers to provide the secondbuild an igloo or die.
As you can see, the Fulda Challenge is a 4x4 journey of a different sort into one of the most remote places on earth. If you have a desire to compete with some of the best winter sport athletes in the world, drive to the Arctic Ocean and test your own personal limitations. They can always use an American team next year.