Overland Challenge - Week Fourteen

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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 Fourteen.

27 March 1994

Kaltag - Ruby (Alaska, USA)

I catnapped on the headmaster's sofa, for what seemed like a minute but was longer than an hour, before Art woke us all to announce that Darrel, a local teacher, and his wife were preparing breakfast at the house. The short walk there showed that the silent falling snow had already covered up our snowmobile tracks.

We met two other people who had made the trail just before us and were astonished we got through. Our chests started to puff out with pride, and to be fair we were pretty good for rookies, although it wouldn't take long for us to re-discover how much more we had to learn. But for now we had a genuine feeling of triumph - we'd done well with no Ural trucks for cover - and we were right to feel thoroughly pleased. Breakfast was a kind of celebration with the over-flowing coffee tasting every bit as good as champagne.

By twelve, we were off again. Straight into driving snow that was whistling up the Yukon with windchill adding to our permanent discomfort.

Sorting the Men from the Boys

It was these conditions that sorted the 'men' from the 'boys' with Jeni being very much one of the 'men'. They charged ahead like hares, occasionally looking round to see how far behind the stragglers were, eventually stopping for these 'boys' (I was very much one of them) to catch up. And as soon as we did, they charged off again. We, of course, were exhausted and somewhat demoralised, needed a rest and so the shambles repeated itself. Eventually, without being able to see the magnificent Yukon, because of the driving snow, from the unique perspective of being right in the middle without a boat, we arrived in Galina.

Galina was hosting a local show, so we stopped in the village hall where dancing and fun went all around us, as we thawed out, swallowed down some food and recovered - still feeling a little puffed up at what we'd done. Well most of us did. Doc, one of the 'men' had already munched two engine heated pizzas and couldn't understand why Art was allowing the daft break instead of leading us off to Ruby - Jeff's scheduled target for tonight. If we made it then, we should be at Manley Hot Springs the next day - Art's home, the end of the snowmobile trek and the start of the last stage of our Overland journey. Paul Wilson, Rupert, Peter and the others would be there to meet us with the Ford Mondeos and Mavericks that we'd last seen and thought of in Russia. And a Ural truck would be there too.

But the weather hadn't finished with us yet.

Two Small Steps Won't Cross a Chasm

We did, however, reach Ruby without a hint of what lay ahead. The school was one of the most memorable we'd stopped at. On the notice board was a map of our journey with most of the stages dilegently marked up, and there was a Thought written up too which read: Two small steps won't cross a chasm. For the first time I felt a tiny bit better about trying and failing to cross the Bering Strait.

28 March 1994

Ruby (Alaska, USA)

A quick talk in our dormatory, changed to gym, changed to assembly hall to the school children in Ruby and we were on our way. Low clouds, gentle snow, but warm.

Too warm. To my amazement Art's snowmobile went over. I'd never seen that happen before. But right now he was stuck in an overflow - two feet of water that had thawed and was now gurgling on top of a thin layer of ice. Underneath that was trouble. Big trouble. In pile-up fashion four, five six of us followed suit. All emerged soaking wet and freezing cold, but, otherwise, falling over was a well-establised consequence of our inexperience.

Jeff was all for carrying on, as if Art's fall was as normal as anyone else's and being cold was what expeditions in this part of the world at this time are all about. I, however, was somewhat alarmed at the sight of so much open water and therefore heeded Art's advice that we return to Ruby and take stock of the situation. First stop was the laundrette where socks, long johns, trousers, ski overalls and our snow boots were all thrown into the driers.

As news of our return bush telegraphed around Ruby so did reports of others abandoning the trail. Two villagers, who had left the night before, struggled back to say it was hopeless. The thaw was setting in. Perhaps the Ice Dog team could get through (those who broke trail for the Iditerod), but for them snowmobiling on the Yukon was over for now.

Potential Disaster

Despondently, we watched as snow melted off the roofs and huge puddles formed on road and paths that hours earlier had been perfect snowmobile tracks. How fast things change. Four days ago we had been desperate for warmer weather. Now it was a potential disaster. If this was the 'break-up' time for 1994 we would have to fly to Fairbanks, and all thoughts of salvaging something from failing to cross the Bering Straits, which we rationalised was sea and therefore not properly part of an overland journey would be lost. All for the sake of a day.

We all met in the school library to go through the alternatives. Perhaps the strongest skidooers could get through with a top notch guide? Art put a call out to Larry Bredeman to see if this was possible to arrange. In the meantime, memories of the who-crosses-the-Bering-Strait team flooded back as I had to work out who would snowmobile and who would fly on. One thing was for sure. I was definitely not one of the most able skidooers and would have to write myself out of 'completing' the project, which I'd worked so hard to achieve, and fly on.

Possible Rescue

Hours later, Larry called back to say that for a huge cost he, and two mates called Tom and Ralph Kersha would get the 'best' of us through. They were 125 miles away in Tanana, where Tom and another racer had gone the night before. If we were prepared to pay, they'd retrace the steps, be in Ruby around midnight, snatch an hour's sleep and head back to Tanada and Manley Hot Springs, Art's home and where the Fords would be waiting for us.

I told Art we'd pay provided they got us through, and asked how many of us they could escort. Depends how good the track is came the reply, but it'll be only one up on a snowmobile and no sledges.

I stepped aside to work out who would be going and who would fly. The maxium number would be ten as we only had that many snowmobiles.

Soon a list was drawn up. Those who would go whatever were Art, Deon, Dieter, Doc, Jeff and Peter. If Larry said the track was 'good' then Jeni, Kees, Robin and Ronny would take the other machines - this decision didn't impress Robin or Ronny one bit. The rest of us, Marielle, Maunier, Sasha, Vere, Victor and me, would fly with all the equipment that was, up until now, being pulled on sledges. 'You're the leader, I will do as the leader orders' announced Victor. We'd gone a long way since the early days of the expedition.

Midnight came and went.

29 March 1994

Ruby to Fairbanks (Alaska, USA)

One am, two am, three am also came and went.

At four am Larry Tom and Ralph arrived. They'd left late. the 125 miles had taken just five hours. Tom, said Larry, was amazing. 'Never seen anything like it.' The trail he'd made was brilliant. They'd also seen our snowmobiles, all ten could go and the sledges which were much better than they expected could go too.

'And two up?' I asked

A hesitant 'Okay, why not.' came the reply and I instantly scrapped my lists to the sceptisism of Doc, Peter and Robin, who all thought two up was daft. But Art and Jeff were totally supportive. I was now determined to give it a try, no matter what anyone thought.

There Was Water Though.

At 6.30 as the day awoke, we started with the rookies two up with one of the experts. Vera riding with Deiter for much of the time, which she found unbelievably exhilarating after days with me. Everyone was expecting to get wet, but none of us did, and it soon became clear that none of us were rookies any longer.

There were times when I felt we were cheating the river, even Tom announced this was his last ride of the season. But at the end I was aware that although no longer a rookie I was no expert. I therefore flopped on the back of Peter's machine relieved and safe from yet another fall.

From Tanana, we snaked down the tributaries in the dark looking like a crack team in a James Bond movie. All in all it was a day full of emotion, good, bad, but never indifferent. And it was long: Tom, Ralph and Larry's five hour journey took us nearly four times as long. But before the midnight hour struck and our skidoos were changed to pumkins, we arrived in Manley Hot Springs where Art's wife, Dee, had laid on a celebration meal. Peter George, Paul Wilson and Neil were there to meet us in the Ford Mondeos and Mavericks. It was an extraordinary feeling as we drove into Fairbanks.

30 and 31 March, 1994

Fairbanks to Edmonton (Alaska, USA)

The television series that was being transmited on ITV and Discovery Europe was called The Big Race. The title had come about because I first planned a race between two teams. That didn't happen so ended up with a race against time. Our first deadline was to get through the Channel Tunnel before it was opened to the public and trains. The second was to get to the Bering Strait before the ice thawed. The third was to get to New York by April 5th which would enable us to arrive at the United Nations live for the last programme of The Big Race.

We had made it to Fairbanks at the latest possible time that would give us a chance of arriving in New York on time. I rang London and said we'd make it. They should set everything up for our live arrival.

Once again the pressure was on. We had just 4 days to get to New York.

Rupert, Volodya and Sasha left first thing in the Ural truck for a record Moscow to New York drive.

For the very last time I met up with a new member of our team, Karen who was the Ford representative. Her job was to smooth our journey to London and get as much publicity for Ford as she reasonable could.

Peter George, who had little to think about except the safety of the rest of the team, and still remembered the luck involved in driving from Paris to Berlin without incident, was in favour of the Fords being driven to New York in packets of three, or individually, with some planned stopovers; this plan involved splitting up into teams for the drive and sticking to them. Jeff on the other hand wanted everyone to go in convoy as we had up 'til now with people swapping cars, some of which would be converted to traveling dormatories so the drive could be done non-stop. I shared Peter's view but Jeff's was dominant. Democracy at last. I didn't have to take a decision, except not to take one.

We set out as a convoy at 7.30 evening for the longest non-stop drive I've ever attempted.

There was press briefing in Edmonton scheduled for the 31st

To get to Toronto in three days, with no stopping time, but some leeway for the press briefing, we needed to cover 50 miles every hour - 24 hours a day. Victor, Vera and I started out in the leading Mondeo L1.

All three days fused into one. There was no time to write a diary. But some memories are very clear.

There was the quick stop at the USA/Canada border, where carnets were stamped and Victor, as he had in Belgium months earlier, melted into the background for lack of a Canadian Visa. After that, Victor drove while I slept.

When I awoke we were in the middle of one of the most spectacular mountain ranges we'd seen. The trees and the light is still implanted in my mind. I took over the wheel and was soon way out in front of the convoy in the four-wheel drive Mondeo glorifying in the chance to drive fast, and I thought safely on a long straight road where no other cars were in sight. The world seemed as if it was made just for us until this daftness was abruptly interrupted by a radio call saying that Ronny's car slipped off the road, thank goodness, into a snowfilled ditch.

Peter George's instincts were right, we were undertaking a dangerous, perhaps the most dangerous part of our long journey. Ronny had been driving alone and found an excuse for the slip which neglected the reality. All of us knew we were caught up in a lethal mixture of huge fatigue and the irresponsible habits that we had got into on our snowmobile trek, where slipping off the road and driving too fast was intoxicatingly safe.

During the first day we averaged 43 miles an hour. We'd need to go even faster.

Doc Screams

At the next petrol stop I called for a proper break. And it was clear that the dangers hadn't sunk in. We all still happily discussed ways in which we could speed up. After the break I switched to a Maverick to give others a chance to drive the more comfortable Mondeo and was at the back of the convoy.

I can't recall how much later I rounded a corner to find everyone stopped. Kees was desperately trying to get his camera together to film Doc screaming at Ronny about the difference between a car and a skiddoo.

Driving wildly was dumb. Blocking the road was dumb. Screaming at each other was dumb. And having to speed up the convoy was dumb. Shoving my leaders hat back on I 'ordered' everyone back to the cars before Kees could find his camera, got back into the Maverick and put my thinking hat back on.

The only way I could see to save the convoy speeding up was to either abandon the Edmonton press briefing, or just have a token few of us attend it. As Karen was with us representing our sponsor there wasn't a decision to take. We'd do the latter.

The two Mondeos, which were much more able to cope with higher speeds, would take Deiter, Jeff and Karen. Victor, Vera and me. It was another unpopular decision for those who wouldn't be there, but it made sense.

1 and 2 April, 1994

Edmonton to Toronto (Alaska, USA)

4.44 (am) it said on the clock as I spotted real America for the first time. A Chicago Express Greyhound bus was speeding past us in the opposite direction. I never did work out why it was apparently going in the wrong direction. But it was a Greyhound and I 'knew' that it had been to New York at some time in its long travel-hungry life.

The clock read 10.00 when we arrived in Edmonton enough ahead of schedule for a really relaxing swim and a shave. And the press briefing with the local press and television felt great too. Made even better with the appearance of a Canadian artist called Peter Lewis who planned to light 45,000 beacons through North America in the shape of a dove that could be seen from satellites on the Millenium Day. He was keen to know if we could help achieve the same thing in Russia?

We caught up with the rest of the convoy at 5.30 in the afternoon. I suggested enforced sit-down meal breaks at every other petrol stop. And in this way, with no more upsets we reached Toronto. It would take only another ten hours to reach our goal. A ten hour journey that I had done many, many times before.

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

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