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
‘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.