Overland Challenge - Week Thirteen

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Overview | Week One | Week Two | Week Three | Week Four | Week Five | Week Six | Week Seven | Week Eight | Week Nine | Week Ten | Week Eleven | Week Twelve | Week Thirteen | Week Fourteen | Week Fifteen

Watch The Video for Week Thirteen.

20 March 1994

Photo Diary - Week Thirty

Teller to Nome(Alaska, USA)

Breakfast (porridge in the bag) quickly becomes a full-scale meeting with the team about a rumour spread by the English newspapers that the expedition was over. That we will be flying from Nome to Fairbanks and from there back to London. Everyone without exception is adamantly again this, prepared if necessary to travel overland day and night until we reach New York.

I get through to Roger Laughton, the big boss of Meridian where I worked as his Director of Factual Programmes, in the UK. Roger is delighted to hear from me. As supportive as can be. He dismisses the rumours as mere press talk. Neither ITV or Ford would countenance our abandoning the project, which they still see as a huge success.

Roger's key anxiety is that we travel fast but safely. He would also be grateful if we kept a tight watch on the budget. We will do just that.

The team feel I've won another great victory and for a while even the snowmobile feels great. My thighs no longer ache, my throat is not so sore. I feel (nearly) on top of the noisy two-stroke world, where of course I was. Then the sun disappeared, the wind came, the snow blew and the skidoo felt a hundred times less friendly that Ural Truck 5, Vera and my Siberian command centre.

Vera took over again. I sat lumpen on the back which certainly explained why, on a hill and lefthand bend, we skidded and came off. Art, seeing that I was hopelessly unable to cope commanded that I eat something, dug into his pocket and drew out a frozen Mars bar. He also gave his grand, colossal, fur gloves that, much to my surprise, quickly warmed me up.

By the time we got to the outskirts of Nome, flu, cold, and hunger gnawed at me, and as if to rub salt into the wound, the Betacam second crew came out to greet us and film our entry into the big town which had a jet-enabled airport and a real hotel. As always the Beta crew took forever to set up their shots and I rattily stayed in the background attempting to ignore them. I look back on that day with real regret because, in different circumstances I know I would have been at the centre of the general bonhomie which affected most of the team.

The Nome Nugget was great though. It looked like a film set and felt just like a goldmining frontier town saloon. Indeed, as I look back at the whole expedition, it was the hotel that I remember and enjoy the most.

Alongside the airport and hotel, Nome sported an immigration officer and it was here two days after we'd crossed in the the US that our passports were stamped and we were officially welcomed. What a difference between that and the paranoia of departure from Russia where immigration had to be helicopted to us at Mys Dezhneva as we abandoned the Arktos. It seemed a decade ago.

With a phone in the room I was at last able to have easy contact with the outside world, Roger James in London, Michael Levine in Toronto, but by and large I just wanted to sleep. And I did !

21 March 1994

Nome(Alaska, USA)

A day of meetings in which I try and fail to delegate. I'd like others to take over the lead for the snowmobile ride to Fairbanks, and the Ford drive from Fairbanks to New York. I try because I don't feel at all equipped to lead the snowmobile part of the journey, and if that can be delegated it would make huge sense to delegate the Ford drive. I fail for just the same reason that I did in Seymchan. Most people don't want to take over and Jeff, who was keen to do it, especially now that he was on home territory, wasn't wanted as leader by many of the others, especially Art and Peter. Nevertheless I let Jeff be the de facto leader at least until I felt a lot better.

That evening Mike, the beta director, told me that he'd talked to Mike Nunn, the producer in London, and told him it was time to pull out because there just wasn't enough co-operation coming from me for it to make it worth the beta camera team staying.

I know that I should feel bad about that, and persuade him to stay. Instead we have a beer, politely agree that it was a pity it had turned out like this and then said our goodbyes.

Eventually, I make two visits to the laundrette to get my clothes clean at last. Vera buys me a green warm fleece for the snowmobile ride to come. I'll need it !

22 March 1994

Nome(Alaska, USA)

We got away by eight, everybody was raring to go. Anticipating the cold, I was wearing - a thermal vest, shirt, poloneck sweater, my new fleece jacket, full winterised flying type overall, my down ski-type jacket, 2 pairs of thick socks, Sorrel (heaviest grade) boots, long johns, padded trousers (that overall), neck warmer, two balaclavas, two hats, and goggles.

And felt just about warm enough to start the snowmobile.

It was an easy trail, which covered the last stage of the Iditorod, and as the last person was yet to come through the flags that marked the trail were still in place. Confidence overtook me and Vera and I tumbled into the snow as the skidoo came off at a turn. No harm to us or damage to the machine, just a bit of hurt pride, although we'd be coming off so regularly over the next few days that my hurt pride was numbingly incidental.

We stopped at Safety, a lone resting place - the Alaska equivalent of a Wells Fargo Pony stop - for a coffee break, before heading off again.

Four miles out and right out of the blue, we found ourselves in a near whiteout just as we entered a valley which the wind was racing through.

Two people on snowmobiles were coming in the opposite direction. One had a 'dead' body on board 'or else we wouldn't be here. No way.' They were worried about Beth, the last Iditorot musher who was back there somewhere. And very strongly recommended we return to Safety to wait out the valley storm.

Beth arrived in the early evening without all her dogs. As she thawed out, her hands badly frostbitten, we heard of how the dogs had been confused by the storm and got lost. Beth had hoped to outlast it, but eventually had to move or be forever frozen in. She'd found Safety, goodness knows how, and was on her way back to get the rest of the dogs.

Hours later she returned, her hands looked terrible, but she was desperate not to give up at this late stage. Nevertheless the dogs were also poorly, unable to warm themselves up enough to stop their tails being frozen to their bodies while weeing. Some had to be cut off. There was frozen blood everywhere.

The Iditerod sweeper, an official took her to one side and I could feel the gentle way in which he cajoled her to the real world. Less than ten minutes later, she and the dogs were bundled into a pick-up truck. Their race over.

We stayed the night in Safety.

23 March 1994

Safety (Alaska, USA)

The whiteout, which is driven snow, still obliterated site of the valley when we woke early after a particularly uncomfortable but safe night at Safety.

We waited.

Now the Iditerod was over it was time to close Safety until summer. As we couldn't go forward the only way was back - to Nome. I felt very badly about this especially as we now needed to get to New York. But as we huddled round the radio listening to weather forecasts it was clear that, like Beth, we didn't really have an option. A windchill of -90C was being forecast. That was cold, even for trans Siberian travellers. And looking on the bright side, we'd been lucky. The pass we taken from Wales to Nome was now even colder - - 101C with windchill.

At Safety, it was beautiful though. I was tempted to disbelieve the weather forecasters, espcially when a couple stopped by on a day's outing from Nome to the White Mountains. They stopped for coffee and set off in exactly the direction we wanted to go. I suggested we wait for an hour and, if they didn't return, we follow them and prove the forecaster wrong.

They returned well before the hour was up, frozen and shaken.

I was still determined to give the storm just a bit more time to die down. We'd leave Safety late in the afternoon, giving us just enough time to return to Nome, or if luck came our way, move forward towards the White Mountains and camp overnight.

Safety was closed down around us. First the bar closed, then the hot water was switched off and finally the heating. Luck was still sleeping. We left for home.

We had started 30 hours earlier and made 30 steps forward. Now we took 30 steps back - tails between out legs.

24 March 1994

Nome(Alaska, USA)

Calls to the UK and a pain in my big toe requiring antibiotics from Doc were the highlights of the morning. By four in the the afternoon we were ready to go, but the weather forecaster at Nome Airport, a veritable weather centre, was warning caution and a rash was quickly covering every inch of my sweating body as I discovered for the first time that I was allergic to penicillin. A hopeless, wasted day won out. We booked back into the Nome Nugget hotel where I had a restless sleep - the last in a bed, I hoped, for some time to come.

25 March 1994

Nome - Koyuk(Alaska, USA)

We started out at seven and by ten o'clock Art swept us past a boarded up Safety and on through the windswept, icy valley, the whiteout replaced by a clear, cold day. Every now and again one of the team stopped to pick up a musher's booties.

At White Mountain, Art and Jeff, invigorated by our success and thoroughly enjoying their snowmobiles, fully expected us to refuel, eat our muffler warmed pizzas (which taste more of exhaust fumes than tomato source) at the side of the frozen river. Personally I had no rapport with the snowmobile and was as frozen as the river, along with just about everthing else including, I later discovered, the much-neglected shampoo in my washbag. I therefore set off for the store to thaw out and buy some mercifully unfrozen snacks.

Refreshed, our (my at least) spirits greatly outshone our/my ability.

Jeff, Jeni and I represented members of our team. Jeff, the experienced, Jeni the enthusiastic, me. We gritted our teeth. But each in our different ways were determined to reach Unalakleet. Art knew better. At eleven that night after sixteen hours in the saddle, we reached Koyuk, where the school kitchen welcomed us with much-appreciated heat to cook our boil-in-the-bag dinners.

Jeff, Deiter and Deon were soon urging everyone to take just a two-hour break to make use of the school workshop for some running repairs, and have a catnap before moving on.

They made the repairs using Vera's hair dryer, which highlighted our expeditionary ability for resourcefulness and our non-expeditionary nature. The rest of us were dead to the world on the gym floor.

That turned out to be a good decision.

26 March 1994

Koyuk - Kaltag(Alaska, USA)

Despite a later-than-hoped-for start, Jeff worked out that we would get to Unalakleet by twelve, if we were lucky, or two if the slower members of the team, which very much included me, had learned little from our previous days' experience. We eventually got there at five. En route we passed just one other team, an ex-Iditerod musher was leading three trailcats (freight carrying snowmobiles) on a leisurely - just want to get there - kind of a pace. Despite the clear bright skies, he was convinced the weather would turn bad again this side of the mountains. He therefore advised us to rest in Unalakleet for the night and expect to stay there for a while.

Once again a good break, this time in a real restaurant, disguised the ineptness of the inexperienced and persuaded us to keep going over the Kaiyuk Mountain pass to Kaltag, on the banks of the Yukon river. From there, we (wrongly) were sure it would be an easy ride to Fairbanks.

We left Unalakleet under a full moon and set off what would turn out to be one of the highlights of the expedition, first climbing high up through a mountain pass on a narrow track with only the foot to spare. Steer off it as, being tired, we increasingly did and we quickly slide through the soft snow into a drift or ditch.

For a while, I forgive the noise and the smell of the clattering two-stroke engine. No other machine could have got us up here - and only dogs would feel more at home. It was, I couldn't helping thinking, so obviously where Father Christmas comes from.

At midnight, Art led us to a tempting isolated cabin where he suggest we stay the night - pitching tents around it in the snow that seemed so bright under the moon and stars. But I knew that we needed to keep going while the weather held and get over the pass to Kaltag and the mighty Yukon River which would lead us all the way to Fairbanks.

An hour later, we crossed the north east side of the pass. Here the snow was much deeper and many of us were quickly bogged down, unable to skidoo at the speed needed to float over the snow. I lay down in the snow, totally exhausted while Art and Jeff and Deiter, helped by the better snowmobile drivers, created a track for the rest of us to follow. For a while even the magnificence of the scenery was lost on us, as we fought our way down to Kultag. Arriving at 7.00 in the morning.

We'd been on the move for nearly twenty-four hours - but, my goodness, it was worth it. We heard later than no one else got through for a further week, and by that time the mightly Yukon was beginning to thaw.

Our problems hadn't ended on reaching the Yukon, indeed, they were only just beginning.

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