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Meet The Adventurer Who Battled -70°C Windchill In The Yukon

When Richard Harpham set off to retrace Alex Van Bibber’s iconic 1943 expedition, he soon found ‘lights on the dashboard’ blinking at him, requiring risk management in a survival situation

There are some scenarios you can train for – others are so extreme that you simply have to turn up and take them on. But when things get this tough it’s easy to be booted out of your comfort zone into a place where every move could land you in a survival situation. This is something adventurer Richard Harpham discovered on an expedition to retrace the steps of one of North America’s most iconic outdoorsmen, Alex Van Bibber.

When the temperature drops to -70°C windchill, the margin of survival becomes vanishingly thing – fortunately, Harpham’s extensive adventure experience has given him the ability to assess risk and make the right call even when pushed into uncharted territory. His tried and tested system of counting the ‘lights flashing at me on the dashboard’ meant he was able to know when to push on, and when to back away from the edge...

The Mackenzie Mountain Range acts as a polar corridor and was pretty much the coldest place on the planet

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Q: Your Ski To the Edge expedition aimed to retrace the steps of Alex Von Bibber’s 1943 Yukon trek – why was that so trailblazing?
A:
‘Alex Van Bibber was Canada’s most decorated outdoorsman – his Canol Expedition in 1943 was truly trailblazing to travel on foot breaking trail in the Yukon Winter from Mayo, YT, to Norman Wells, NWT to find a route for an oil pipeline. It involved snowshoeing over 500 miles with temperatures at -40°C for 12 days, hunting for food and finding a route through the Mackenzie Mountain Range, in First Nation design wood and gut snowshoes, furs and moccasins. Some 42 days later the team arrived in Norman Wells having crossed passes and followed frozen rivers through a wilderness area.’

Q: Your expedition faced temperatures of -70°C windchill – what’s it like operating in those extremes?
A:
‘All tasks take longer and burn more energy. For the first few days my brother Matt and I were seriously out of our comfort zone into a fear zone of not making a mistake in this hostile environment. There was no room for error with a very high risk of frostbite.’

‘Our protocols included regular checks of each others ears, noses and other extremities to watch and guard for the onset of frostnip, waxy skin and other signs. The Mackenzie Mountain Range acts as a polar corridor drawing cold wind and temperatures from the frozen North and at one point was pretty much the coldest place on the planet.’

‘Night time camping in those conditions was also tough with almost two hours required to boil water, heat food and warm the tent. Our sleeping bags were continually frozen with our breath during the night.’

Q: How much fuel did you need to take on board to pull your 80kg pulks (sleds)?
A:
’We were burning 5000-6000 calories per day – high energy and high protein foods from Extreme Adventure Foods and also taking care not to become too dehydrated. We had several blizzards and near white outs and also huge patches of jumble ice, which made it difficult going pulling our pulks. Despite being -70°C there were several places where the river had open traces of water, presenting a serious risk to us skiing on top of a fast moving river.’

Q: You’ve talked about using a ‘lights on the dashboard’ system for expeditions in order to make decisions during survival situations – what does this mean?
A:
‘There has been quite a lot written about accidents and incidents from a risk management perspective. Usually there were a series of colliding factors that existed before the situation deteriorated, like broken equipment, an injury, exhaustion, a bad plan or inclement weather.’

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‘So we now look at the environment and plans as they unfold and look for ‘lights on the dashboard’. We often ask expedition members if they have any ‘lights on’ and or for a score out of 10. On some of my sea kayaking trips people have reported a lower score as the journey progresses – on one of these I ended up towing a team mate for seven miles into the wind.’

‘It is important to include the whole team in the assessment of hazards, personal fitness and energy levels, and mental state – we are only as strong as the weakest member and at times we all suffer low points.’

Q: Many expeditions have a time limit, or are attempting to break a record – can that be a light on the dashboard?
A:
‘Over the years I have had a number of challenging experiences caused by the weather and schedules. In Alaska they say that the biggest risk is an airline ticket, or a schedule. What we say in my world is that you will never beat the weather! The best you will achieve is a score draw.’

Q: You used this system when you decided to abort Ski To The Edge – it must have been a hard to do that?
A:
‘My brother being extracted from the Ski to the Edge expedition [due to frostbite] was tough having spent three years planning and training. It felt so disappointing and of course was a change of mission and dynamic with lost time and two of us remaining. But it would have been reckless and dangerous to try and make it 500 miles through the Mackenzie Mountain range unsupported with two of us.’

Q: You spend a lot of time in the Yukon in summer too, paddling in kayaks – what’s the attraction?
A:
‘The Yukon is one of the world’s last true wildernesses. It has incredible wildlife and a rich history of the gold rush and pioneering people. This year will be my seventh expedition to canoe the river with Canoe Trail and I love sharing this pristine and iconic place with my kind of people. Rounding a corner on the moving conveyor belt of water on a 450-mile journey and walking across an island to find a giant paddle steamer from 1914 was a real Indiana Jones moment!’

Find out more about adventures you can have with Richard Harpham’s Canoe Trail from SUPing East Anglian rivers to paddling the mighty Yukon.

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