In late August, a British Columbia man pled guilty in a Fort Nelson courtroom to hand-feeding grizzly bears along the Alaska Highway in northeastern B.C.
I’m sorry, you might say, can you repeat that?
Yes. Hand-feeding grizzly bears along the Alaska Highway.
The man, Randy Scott, had apparently been posting photos of himself feeding roadside bears to social media since at least 2017. In a photo released by the B.C. Conservation Officer Service, an adolescent grizzly can be seen taking a Timbit—Canada’s answer to the donut hole—from a human hand, presumably Scott’s.
That’s a violation of B.C.’s Wildlife Act, in addition to being a mind-bogglingly stupid and dangerous thing to do. In Section 33., “Attracting Dangerous Wildlife,” the act reads: “A person must not intentionally feed or attempt to feed dangerous wildlife.”
According to CBC, the charges stemmed from last October, when a conservation officer happened by while Scott and a woman were in the midst of feeding a bear from their car. (The woman was originally charged too, but her charges were stayed during the same week that Scott pled guilty.)
Scott was fined $2,000 (a little over $1,500 in the U.S.) and ordered to stay 50 metres (which converts to about 164 feet) away from bears for the next six months.
“Hopefully it sends a message and deters people that this is not wise, it’s not lawful, and it should never happen in the first place,” area conservation officer Shawn Brinsky told the CBC.
I hope so too. But while I’m glad that the COs pursued the case, to me the consequences don’t match the crime.
Fifty metresseems like a bare minimum distance to try to stay from any bear, any time, for anybody, regardless of whether or not you’ve been convicted of delicately placing a sour-cream-glazed into a grizzly’s open mouth. That’s not a punishment—that’s just common sense!
In its official guidelines for bear-viewing etiquette, the National Park Service’s top tip is that visitors should “respect a bear’s space”; they recommend the use of binos or a spotting scope in lieu of trying to get anywhere close. Some parks have specific requirements, and they’re stricter than Scott’s restraining order: 300 feet in Yellowstone, 200 feet in Shenandoah National Park.
British Columbia’s own literature on staying safe around bears reminds drivers viewing roadside animals to “remain a respectful distance” and to stay in their vehicles at all times. The pamphlet warns drivers that any bear who approaches their vehicle “may have been previously fed by people and could be dangerous.”
And that to me is the heart of the issue. Scott didn’t just endanger himself, and the bears he fed—who are now at much higher risk of being put down by the COs for aggressive or nuisance behavior—he also endangered all the people who like to walk, hike, run, bike, or otherwise enjoy the wilderness in that stretch of northern British Columbia.
It’s easy to joke around about Scott and his Timbits, or the man who donned a bear suit in Haines, Alaska, a few years ago and then charged into the proximity of a feeding grizzly sow and her two cubs. Their stories go briefly viral, people make their jokes online, and then we all move on. And I’m not against a good joke now and then!
But when I think about the other kinds of bear stories that go viral, the ones about human-bear encounters that end in death, it’s harder for me to laugh. Randy Scott’s actions could have gotten people killed—in fact, they still could, as the bears he fed are still roaming around. In that context, two grand and a laughable restraining order seems like a slap on the wrist.
A 24-year-old Belarusian woman died while attempting to reach the abandoned bus made famous by Christopher McCandless and Into the Wild.
Veranika Nikanava and her husband, 24-year-old Piotr Markielau, were crossing Alaska’s Teklanika River, just outside Denali National Park, when Nikanava lost her footing and was swept away. Markielau made it to shore and was able to retrieve his wife’s body downstream. He contacted the Alaska State Troopers just before midnight on July 25, and was retrieved by a police officer and volunteer firefighters on ATVs. According to Ken Marsh, a spokesman for the troopers, the couple had been married for less than a month.
The river is the primary obstacle in the popular but dangerous hike to the bus. It’s fast and cold, and can run waist-high or worse in high water. Sometimes there’s a rope strung across it, intended to help hikers. But that doesn’t guaranteesafety: Nikanava reportedly lost her grip on the rope when she fell. In 2010, another young hiker, Claire Ackermann of Switzerland, drowned in the Teklanika under similar circumstances.
The bus sits 20 miles down the Stampede Trail, and roughly ten miles past the river crossing. A longtime shelter for hunters passing by in the fall, in the summer of 1992 it was home to Chris McCandless for several months. McCandless had been roaming and adventuring across North America for a couple of years before he wound up on the outskirts of Denali, where he hoped to survive off the land. He crossed the river and found his way to the bus in April, with winter still holding on. Later that summer, hungry and hoping to retreat, he found his way back blocked by the river at high water. He died in the bus in late August, and was found by moose hunters in September.
His story was first told in a classic Outside feature by Jon Krakauer, “Death of an Innocent.” Krakauer published a book-length version, Into the Wild, in 1996, and soon after that, a trickle of pilgrims, inspired by McCandless’ idealism and commitment to living life on his own terms, began making their way to the bus. The trickle increased after the film adaptation of Into the Wild was released in 2007, and by the time I found my way to the Stampede Trail in 2013 to write a story on the “McCandless pilgrims” phenomenon, locals estimated that a couple hundred hikers were seeking the “Magic Bus” each year.
On that trip, the chief of the local fire department told me he’d already rescued a dozen pilgrims during that summer season alone. When I hiked to the river to see it for myself, I watched three hikers get swept downstream by the current. (They survived with minor injuries.) I heard rumors that locals planned to blow up the abandoned hulk in order to solve the problem; a few years later, a local newspaper columnist wrote that he’d always figured “two cans of gas and a match” offered a similar solution.
This second death will likely renew the conversation about whether or not to remove or destroy the bus. But it’s just as likely, given the remote location and the costs involved, that nothing will change this time, either. Twenty-seven years after McCandless’ death, his story continues to capture the imaginations of young people—many of them, now, not even born yet when he died. It’s hard to squelch that kind of emotion.
In a statement, the Alaska State Troopers urged travelers to “come prepared” for Alaska’s wilderness, and its “challenging weather, water, and geographical conditions.” That’s good advice. My own advice? Find another hike, another trail—there are plenty of them. There are better ways to honor an adventurer you admired than by following a dangerously well-worn path.
Gjermund Roesholt left the cabin on Einarson Lake, in the remote backcountry of the central Yukon, around 9:30 A.M. on November 26, 2018. He headed out by snowmobile to check a trapline that was laid north of the cabin. His partner, Valérie Théorêt, stayed behind with their ten-month-old baby girl, Adèle.
Théorêt was a grade-school teacher on maternity leave; Roesholt was a wilderness and hunting guide. The couple, who normally lived in Whitehorse, the Yukon’s small capital city, had flown in to their cabin on October 4, intending to stay until the new year, when Théorêt was due back at school. At the cabin, they hunted for game and maintained their modest trapping concession, a designated area where they were permitted to catch and kill small fur-bearing mammals, living out a dream of rugged self-sufficiency. Both were experienced in the wild, and they were careful about attractants—they stored the remnants of their hunts in a secure container inside a shed a short distance from the cabin.
Around 2:30 in the afternoon, five hours after he’d set out, Roesholt was working his way back toward home. It had snowed gently on and off throughout his morning on the trapline, and as he retraced his own newly dusted trail, he could see fresh bear tracks heading in the same direction. Before he reached the cabin, the tracks turned away.
When he got to the cabin, it was quiet. Théorêt and Adèle were not inside. Roesholt walked down the well-used trail toward a sauna, calling their names. Increasingly worried, he knew he might have to use the loaded rifle he carried.
His partner and child were not at the sauna. Roesholt kept going, down a trail they used for a small trapline that was close enough to the cabin to be checked on foot. He was about 800 feet from the structure when he heard a bear growl.
The grizzly charged Roesholt from 50 feet, but he got his rifle up in time, fired, and didn’t miss. The bear collapsed, shot fatally through the head. Behind it, just off the trail, Roesholt found his family. They had both been killed.
Later, after he had used his Garmin InReach to contact the nearest detachment of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), and after nearly 21 nightmarish hours had passed while he waited for an investigative team to arrive at his remote location and evacuate him, and after the Mounties and other agencies had done their work, a coroner’s report, published in March 2019, would conclude that Théorêt’s injuries “quickly proved to be fatal” and that baby Adèle’s were “instantly incompatible with life.”
The bear, a male grizzly, was 18 years old and starving. He still weighed just over 300 pounds, in muscle and skin and bone, but he had already burned away all his body fat. Too emaciated to hibernate and apparently hampered by a weeks-old injury in his abdomen, he had recently taken the desperate step of eating a porcupine, and he was pierced internally by quills from throat to gut.
The bear had followed the snowmobile trail earlier that day, left it behind to circle wide around the cabin and the sauna, and then rejoined the trail south of the buildings. There, investigators believe, he had sensed Théorêt coming toward him, out for a walk, her baby in a carrier on her back. In the chilling phrasing of the coroner’s report, the bear had retreated from the trail and “moved into a position of advantage” under the thick, obscuring branches of a spruce tree, six feet away. It was an ambush: no one could have seen him coming or reacted in time if they had. Théorêt might as well have been struck by lightning.
The next day, at 1:30 in the afternoon, I was at home in Whitehorse when I saw this on the Twitter feed of the Yukon Mounties:
Yukon RCMP and Yukon Coroner’s Service are investigating the death of two individuals following a suspected bear attack on November 26, northeast of Mayo, near the NWT border. Environment Yukon is assisting with the investigation. More information will be released soon.
I remember thinking: Two? That’s weird.
There had been three previous fatal Yukon bear attacks in recent memory. An adventure tour operator named Claudia Huber died in 2014 after a grizzly invaded her home in the Johnson’s Crossing area, off the Alaska Highway. Jean-FrançoisPagé was killed by a defensive mother bear in 2006, after he unknowingly walked by her den while staking mining claims outside the community ofRoss River. And a hiker visiting from British Columbia, Christine Courtney, was mauled to death in Kluane National Park in 1996. I knew these stories well, and I had read about other attacks elsewhere, but I couldn’t remember hearing of a double fatality before. It never occurred to me to think of a mother and her baby.
Awful clarity came less than two hours later, when a media release from the Yukon’s chief coroner landed in my inbox. At the same time, my Facebook feed began to fill up with photos of Valérie’s smiling face. Whitehorse is a small, close-knit community, and while I didn’t know this family personally, our worlds overlapped many times over. As I watched from my couch, our mutual friends changed their profile pictures to shots of themselves with Val, shots of themselves with Adèle, shots of Val and Adèle together. People were reeling and paying immediate tribute to their friend’s life the best way they knew how.
What happened next, I suppose, should have been predictable in our extremely online era. Local news spawned national news and then international news. “Canadian Press picked up the story,” Yukon News reporter Jackie Hong told me. “The New York Times picked it up, The Washington Post. And then suddenly it wasn’t just a Yukon story or a Canada story. It was an international story.” Hong covered the attack for the Yukon News, and soon she was receiving requests from outside media, some as far away as Norway, to help her make contacts or to provide them with updates herself.
I was not exempt from all this. Outside contacted me less than 24 hours after the news broke to ask if I’d be interested in covering it. I was torn: I didn’t want to add to the noise, and I wasn’t eager to ask my friends to speak on the record about their pain. I didn’t want to have to try to track down Gjermund Roesholt and intrude on his agony. But I also didn’t want someone else, someone who might be less sensitive to the issue than I was, to get the assignment. I told my editor I’d be willing if we could wait for the results of the coroner’s report. Then, I thought, I might actually have something new or meaningful to share with readers.
Meanwhile, a TV reporter made the long journey north from southern British Columbia and set up shop outside Whitehorse Elementary School, where Valérie had taught. As grief counselors were made available to the students there, and as local parents struggled to figure out how to explain to their children that their teacher had been killed, the school received e-mail and phone calls from around two dozen different media outlets.
As the story spread, Facebook and Twitter and the comments attached to news articles filled with the most callous contributions imaginable.
“Who in the world takes their wife and 10 month old into bear country,” one person wrote in response to the RCMP’s initial tweet. “Why wasn’t she carrying a weapon?” said another. A third: “They both were torturing animals in traps for their whole lives, and now this bear fought back in his territory. I feel sorry for the baby, for the bear, who paid with his life, and for ALL THE BEAUTIFUL WILD ANIMALS THESE TWO PEOPLE MURDERED !!!”
It was like that everywhere: She should have had a gun. Or they’d been trapping and killing animals, so they had it coming.Orthey should never have taken a baby out there.
I wasn’t the only one feeling conflicted about covering the attack. Claudiane Samson is the Whitehorse reporter for French-language Radio-Canada. She knew Valérie socially; they shared a tightly knit circle of friends in the Yukon’s Francophone community. She heard the news before the RCMP and the coroner made it public—she’d heard rumors of a grizzly attack, and then a letter arrived for the parents of children at Whitehorse Elementary, announcing that Valérie Théorêt had died. Samson did the math.
“It’s the kind of story where I hate my job,” she told me. “And it was not my first.” Jean-François Pagé had been her friend, too, and she’d been obliged to report on his death 13 years ago. But back then, social media was in its infancy, not the global force it is now. And so Pagé’s death was not scrutinized in the same way.
“I kind of knew where this would lead,” Samson said. All she could do, she figured, was try to use her work to show what Valérie’s life had been all about—her passion for the outdoors, her love of the Yukon wilderness, and her desire to be immersed in it. Like me, she figured she would do a better job than some outsider. “They were living their dream out there,” she told me. “That was my driving force in my whole coverage.”
But she was in a difficult position. Some media reports struck locals as insensitive—the station that sent the TV reporter to Whitehorse ran a segment that included charging bears and injured mauling victims describing their attacks. Even the most respectful coverage was tainted by the comments that faraway readers left online.
“It became a judgment over our lifestyle,” said Samson, who has had bears pass through the same backyard where her children play. “That’s where we’re at with social media.” (While Roesholt and Théorêt had gone deeper into the bush, and for longer, than most of us do, trapping and hunting are common activities around Whitehorse.) Very quickly, friends of the couple became reluctant to speak to reporters, fearful that even their most loving memories of Val would be smeared by online hatred. Months later, that fear is still fresh—when I eventually approached a friend of Val’s for this story, she described the pain of seeing her friend’s picture everywhere in the days after the attack and always surrounded by harsh comments from strangers. A teacher herself, she worried about fielding questions from her students, about scaring them away from the outdoors. She was no longer living in the Yukon, and she didn’t feel able to tell many people in her daily life about the loss she was grieving.
Reaching out to family members for comment is fairly standard practice when news reporters cover a person’s death. The Mounties had asked the media to refrain from contacting Roesholt or any other relatives. Not every outside reporter honored that request, but all local reporters that I’m aware of did. Samson told me she couldn’t bring herself to call Gjermund. Jackie Hong agreed. “There was no indication at all that he wanted to talk or was ready to talk,” Hong said.
The scrutiny was unprecedented. It’s a running joke among Yukon reporters that their stories only go national when they’re about animals. The wolf that chased a cyclist. The Bohemian waxwings that got drunk on fermented berries and then were locked in the government’s avian drunk tank. The wild boars that escaped from a farm and terrorized a rural subdivision. Now our joke had come true again, in the worst way.
Bear attacks are personal here—there is no hiding from them, no distancing yourself from the horror and thinking,That could never happen to me. As Samson notes, while strangers on the internet accused Valérie of being irresponsible for bringing her baby into bear country, every parent in Whitehorse knows that a bear could wander across their driveway or through their yard someday. Our whole lives are lived in bear country.
My favorite hiking trail winds right by the area where Christine Courtney died—there’s a monument to remind me, in case I’d managed to forget. I didn’t know Claudia Huber, but I had a dozen friends in common with Valérie Théorêt. And when I worked for a mining company as a field laborer a few years ago, I walked into the lobby of the office on my first day—about to head into the bush for a month, where I would hike alonefor eight hours every day—and found a memorial to Jean-François Pagé mounted on the wall. Attacks are incredibly rare, but when they do happen, they feel real to everyone in the community.
Maybe that’s why the response to this one bothered me so much. In the aftermath, I found myself surprised and disturbed by the amount of attention the attack received. I felt intensely protective of my grieving friends and my shocked, horrified community—I wanted to shield them from the intrusive phone calls, the strangers creeping into their social-media profiles, the awful, cruel comments appended to every news story. When a reporter for The New York Timescalled the Yukon “desolate,” I wanted to reach through my laptop screen and shake him, to try to make him understand a place he wasn’t describing properly. Life here is amazing, I wanted to say. This is the kind of place where you can hike to a glacier, watch it calve, and then engage in a howl-off with a pack of nearby wolf puppies. This is where grizzlies swipe spawning salmon from streams, and caribou still flow like rivers across the mountains, and the northern lights come out at night. It’s the opposite of desolate.
“This is a great place to live,” Samson agreed. “Yes, we live in bear country. [But] I’m not going to judge people raising kids beside a river because a kid drowned one year.”
In any future tragedies with the awful potential to go viral outside the territory, Samson would like to see authorities devote more resources to helping families cope with the deluge of media requests. The police could connect the family with a designated spokesperson, for instance, and all requests for information could be funneled through them. That kind of thing “helps the families,” she said, “but it also gives media what they need.” It directs their energy away from elementary schools and the Facebook accounts of the grief-stricken while still feeding their need for quotes and copy.
I kept wondering about that need, though. For Yukoners, this was real news—we needed to know that a friend and community member had been killed, where counseling services were available, and where public-memorial events were being held. For a community, the media can play a role in processing the event, even in healing. It can offer people a place to say: My friend was wonderful, and I will miss her.
But what about those outside that circle—the reporters in New York, in Vancouver, in other cities where grizzly attacks are not a threat? What need are they serving for their readers? On some level, it’s obvious: horrible stories travel around the world. We know this. We click on the tales of trauma and tragedy the way we slow down on the highway to gawk at the shrapnel of a broken vehicle. But at least the aftermath of a car accident can remind you to slow down yourself. For people outside bear country, was reading about this tragedy really anything more than voyeurism?
All winter these questions troubled me. As people around Whitehorse strapped canoes to the tops of their vehicles in midwinter to remember Val, whose boat had seemingly always been riding around on top of her little car, and as my friends who knew and loved her went on adventures in her honor, I thought about how the media and social-media dynamics had made their grief even harder. I wondered if it had to be that way. I didn’t find easy answers.
When the coroner’s report came out in March, it emphasized the family’s preparedness, their experience, their safety precautions. The investigators’ reconstruction of the attack made it clear: even if, somehow, Valérie had had a loaded gun in her hand when the bear made his move, she wouldn’t have had a chance. The only thing she could have done differently, I realized, was not be there. Not have gone for a walk with her child in the freshly fallen snow, not have been in the backcountry to begin with.
But those of us who love the outdoors understand: staying inside is no option at all.
The bestcompliment I can give a nonfiction writer is that they make me care deeply about an obscure topic I would otherwise never have been interested in. That’s the case with Kirk Wallace Johnson’s The Feather Thief($27, Viking). The book opens in 2009 with a young musician robbing a British museum of its collection of dead birds, and from there it delves into the strange world of Victorian-style flytiers—present-day hobbyists who obsessively re-create the elaborate salmon flies of the 19th century. To do so with perfect authenticity, they need the feathers of rare and endangered birds, and that’s where the trouble begins. Johnson has written an unlikely page-turner, one that’s much more than just a wacky crime story. It’s about how our greed to possess the wonders of the natural world so often leads us to destroy them.
Rachel Slade’s Into the Raging Sea ($28, Ecco) also involves a mysterious true story. In October 2015, the American cargo ship El Faro sailed straight into a hurricane on a routine run between Florida and Puerto Rico. It sank with 33 people aboard, America’s worst maritime disaster in decades. The Coast Guard spent months—and millions—trying to figure out what went wrong. Slade pieces together the final voyage, interspersed with stories of the ship’s merchant mariners. Thanks to an audio recorder on El Faro’s bridge, she’s able to take us inside the doomed vessel in its final hours. The result is intimate, eerie, and gripping.
Another for the I-didn’t-expect-to-care file: Kickflip Boys ($28, Ecco), Neal Thompson’s thoughtful, honest memoir of fathering two young sons who want nothing else but to immerse themselves in skateboard culture and everything (the graffiti, drugs, and more) that goes with it.
From skate dads we turn to climber moms. In End of the Rope ($26, Counterpoint), Jan Redford navigates life as a young climber, as a girlfriend of climbers, and, eventually, as a wife and mother who still wants to get out and send it when she can. The wall scenes made my palms sweat. The funerals of loved ones lost to the mountains made me cry.
Great nonfiction also takes a topic you thought you knew well and makes it new again. I’ve spent a lot of time traveling in and reading about Alaska, but I’d never heard of the epic Harriman Expedition. The 1899 steamship journey aimed to study the state’s coast, with a passenger list that included John Muir and many of the era’s leading scientists and naturalists. In Tip of the Iceberg($28, Dutton), Mark Adams hops on the Alaska state ferry to trace the expedition’s history. His storytelling is guaranteed to make you want to get off your beach towel and book passage somewhere in the great wild north.
On March 29, 1912, Captain Robert Falcon Scott lay in his tent during an Antarctic blizzard and wrote his last diary entry. It had been two months and 11 days since he and his four men reached the South Pole, only to realize that a Norwegian team, led by Roald Amundsen, had beaten them there by a month.
Scott’s team began their 800-mile slog on January 19. It went badly. One of the expedition members died in his sleep—apparently overwhelmed by frostbite, exhaustion, and despair—in mid-February. A second member, sick and injured, walked out into a blizzard a month later, never to be seen again, hoping to spare the group the burden of caring for him. The three survivors struggled on, but as of March 21, they were pinned down in their tent by the weather, steadily running out of food and fuel. They were just 11 miles from their next supply cache, but it might as well have been 1,100. They couldn’t move.
“Outside the door of the tent it remains a scene of whirling drift,” Scott wrote in that last entry. “I do not think we can hope for better things now. We shall stick it out to the end, but we are getting weaker, of course, and the end cannot be far. It seems a pity, but I do not think I can write more.” A search party found Scott and his companions frozen in their sleeping bags eight months later.
In the 105 years since their bodieswas discovered, the story of Scott’s death has been told and retold. His diary was first published in 1913 and remains in print. The Worst Journey in the World, a book published in 1922 by Apsley Cherry-Garrard, one of the expedition survivors back at base camp, became an adventure classic. Dozens of biographies and historical narratives have been published, and academics have pored over every detail of the expedition from beginning to end, trying to understand what went wrong. Scott has been painted as the noblest of heroes and as a bungling incompetent.
Now, a new academic article published in the Polar Record suggests that Scott’s chances of success—and survival—may actually have been undermined by one of his own men.
Chris Turney is a professor of earth sciences and climate change at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. He’s done some remote and rugged Antarctic travel himself on various field research expeditions. Turney’s ship was once ensnared in sea ice for a week, giving him a taste of what others—most notably, Ernest Shackleton—had gone through during their polar expeditions. His initial interest in Scott was focused on the expedition’s scientific work. Antarctica has a short and patchy record of weather and climate observations, and the records compiled by Scott and others, Turney says, “are like gold dust” for people like him.
But despite himself, Turney was eventually drawn into the arguments around Scott’s fate. He began to suspect that he’d stumbled onto an untold facet of the story a few years ago, when he was researching his book, 1912: The Year the World Discovered Antarctica. He’d been digging around in old documents and began to wonder about the role of Lieutenant Edward “Teddy” Evans, Scott’s second in command. (Teddy should not be confused with Edgar Evans, who died in his sleep on the return from the pole.) That led to more research, which resulted in the scholarly article he published in the Polar Record last September, “Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?”
In it, Turney argues that Evans may have compromised Scott’s safety on two fronts: first, by taking more than his fair share of food from the expedition’s caches, and second, by muddling or failing to deliver some of Scott’s final orders regarding the sled dogs at base camp.
Understanding Turney’s arguments requires a quick crash course on the expedition, officially known as the British Antarctic Expedition. Think of old-school, siege-style mountaineering: climbers assaulted mountains systematically, with large teams, building camps and caches as they went.
That’s how Scott tackled the attempt on the South Pole. He arrived on the ice late in 1910 and spent the early part of 1911 establishing his first supply depots before settling into his base camp for the Antarctic winter. He finally headed for the pole in the fall of 1911 with ponies, dog teams, and experimental motor sledges, in addition to his team of more than a dozen men. They slowly worked their way south, building a series of caches along the way for their return. The sledges broke down, the ponies died, and eventually Scott sent the dogs and some of the supporting team members back to base camp, leaving the remaining men to haul their supplies themselves.
On January 4, 1912, as they neared the pole, Scott sent Teddy Evans and two others—dubbed the Last Supporting Party—back the way they had come along the chain of supply depots, while he and four others, the Polar Party, carried on to the South Pole.
That’s where Turney’s research comes in. Evans, it seems clear from various diaries and letters, was not well-liked by his teammates on the expedition. He was angry that he’d been left out of the Polar Party and angry that he was being sent back with just two men while Scott carried on with four. On his doomed trek back from the pole, Scott found unexpected shortages of food in the supply depots; Turney argues that Evans, disgruntled during his own return voyage, took more than his share. On the way back, Evans got sick with scurvy—unlike the rest of the men, he refused to eat the seal meat that helped stave it off. Later, back in London as the Scott disaster was being unraveled, the taking of the food was excused as the act of a sick man saving his own life. Turney argues, however, that Evans fudged the timeline of his illness to avoid blame. A letter written by Evans dated from 1912 has him getting sick with 300 miles to go, but Evans later claimed to have gotten sick with 500 miles to go.
Further, Turney suggests that when the others eventually dragged Evans into base camp, in late February, he failed to convey an order from Scott. The order, noted in a sketchbook retrieved from one of Scott’s two dead companions, asked that the dog teams be sent out to help retrieve the Polar Party. (Apsley Cherry-Garrard would lead the dogs out in early March, but only as far as One Ton Depot, which Scott never made it to.) Still sick, Evans boarded a ship for New Zealand on March 4, 1912. Other members of the team remained at base camp, waiting for Scott and the rest to arrive.
“I don’t think he thought that Scott would die,” Turney says of Evans’ actions. “It’s more incompetence rather than anything else, [and] probably a little bit of anger. But I don’t think it’s something where he went out of his way to cause death at all.”
Turney, having spent time on the ice, is somewhat more sympathetic than other armchair Scott-watchers might be to the pressures Evans was under. He understands the stakes better than most. “We all make mistakes, and, of course, individually they don’t really amount to much,” he told me. “But when you have two or three—which is what Evans seems to have done—in an environment like that, small errors blow out massively and end up having a cascade effect, and that was very true in this situation. And then he massively covered things up afterwards by the looks of it.”
Turney’s article has already generated reactions from the devoted community of historians and history buffs who have followed Scott’s story. “Even a century after it happened, people have very strong views,” Turney says. Some of the people he’s heard from are “quite cross about it.” But he’s also been in touch with the descendants of some expedition members. Family members of Cherry-Garrard, who lived out his life wondering if there was more he could have done to save Scott and the others, told Turney that their ancestor would feel “vindicated” if he were still here.
Karen May, a researcher whose 2012 Polar Record article “Could Captain Scott Have Been Saved?” helped reshape our understanding of Scott’s fate by poking holes in a book that had positioned him as incompetent, has mixed feelings about the new assertions from Turney. He’s made some “useful discoveries,” she told me in an email, but in her view, he “makes the mistake of arguing from ‘character’ rather than ‘actions.’” That is, in emphasizing Evans’ unpopularity and unsuitability as a member of the team, Turney prepares the reader to expect the worst from Evans and to see his subsequent choices in that light.
The confusion surrounding the order for the dog teams, May says, stems from Turney assigning a date of 1912 to an undated document that she argues, convincingly, is actually from 1911. (For instance, it uses the future tense, May says, and is written in ink, not pencil, as all the 1912 writings were, because ink freezes when you’re living in a tent on a glacier.) If true, that would mean there were no updated orders for Evans to pass on, as Scott’s orders regarding the dogs remained unchanged.
As for the food, May disagrees with Turney’s interpretation that Evans began taking extra food before he got sick and then fudged the timeline later. The discrepancies, she says, “can be explained by Evans not wishing to disclose his scurvy to his naval subordinates, and instead keeping it firmly to himself until it could no longer be hidden.” In other words: May thinks it’s more likely that a person in Evans’ situation might hide the extent of his sickness from his team for awhile, trying to tough it out, while sneaking a little extra food to survive.
Both Turney’s work and May’s have focused on the external factors that might have allowed Scott to make it home. But in the end, May points out, his fate was a kind of choice. “We need to put all this in perspective and remember that Scott—had he been the ruthless type—could have left his debilitated men behind to die, taken their food, and got himself to safety,” she wrote to me. Instead, Scott urged them on until they couldn’t go any farther, losing time and his own life in the process. It was that discipline, in part, that made him a national hero in his era and a target for skeptics later on.
It’s that tragic element that keeps people in thrall to Scott’s story more than a century after his death. Someone who is randomly struck by lightning and killed is a sad case. Someone who is struck while studying lightning, chasing it, seeking it out, is something more complicated and compelling to the public.
One thing is certain: Turney’s article won’t be the last reassessment of Scott, his teammates, or their fate. While government documents are public, there may still be private letters, diaries, and reminiscences from expedition members that have yet to be discovered and examined by Scott scholars and could shed new light on what went wrong. “A lot of the documents are still held by families,” Turney says. “It does make you wonder what else is out there.”
Roberto Zanda left the Carmacks checkpoint of the Montane Yukon Arctic Ultra just before noon on February 6. He was at least 150 miles into the 300-mile race—he’d already been slogging down a dogsled trail through the Yukon backcountry for more than five full days. Temperatures had plunged below minus 40 Fahrenheit on the first night out of Whitehorse, the small Yukon city where the race began; along the race course, temperatures consistently ranged from the minus 20s to the minus 40s.
In short, conditions were brutal. Of the eight racers who’d begun the 100-mile version of the variable-length event, just four had finished. Of the 21 who’d started the 300-miler, only the 60-year-old Zanda and two others remained. Most of the rest had scratched with frostbite or hypothermia.
When Zanda left the checkpoint, hosted in a village rec center, a race medic wrote on the event’s Facebook page that the racer had paused only for “a short rest and a big meal. He was looking very strong.”
Just over 24 hours later, Zanda was in a helicopter, being rushed to Whitehorse General Hospital with hypothermia and catastrophic frostbite, lucky to be alive. He now faces the likely amputation of both hands and both feet. What went wrong?
This was the 15th running of the Yukon Arctic Ultra, an annual race in which competitors choose their distance—marathon, 100 miles, 300 miles, or, every second year, 430 miles—and their mode of transportation: a fat bike, cross-country skis, or their own booted feet. Race organizer Robert Pollhammer, 44, who runs an online gear store in his native Germany, started the event in 2003 after being involved with Iditasport, a similar event on the Alaskan side of the border.
The Yukon race takes place on part of a trail built each year by the Canadian Rangers for the Yukon Quest, a 1,000-mile dogsled race, and it’s as much a feat of logistics as it is an athletic contest. It’s continuous, not a stage race; competitors are self-sufficient, carrying all their camping and survival gear, spare layers, food, and water in sleds they pull behind them. Temperatures are cold enough to kill, and it’s dark for roughly 14 hours every day. Nonetheless, eager ultra racers travel from around the world for the event, paying anywhere from $750 to $1,750 USD to enter (depending on when they register and the distance they’re attempting), plus the cost of flights, hotel, and gear. The total can easily add up to $5,000 or more.
The entrants tend to be experienced ultra and adventure racers; many athletes have already completed events like the Gobi March or the Marathon des Sables. Most competitors come from Europe, although this year’s race also saw entrants from South Africa and Hong Kong. The race organization offers a survival course a few days beforehand—a crash education in moisture management, layering, and cold-weather injuries. Generally speaking, the racers are accomplished athletes, but they may not have extensive experience with severe cold. The challenge lies in keeping themselves safe while moving through the Yukon’s remote, frigid backcountry.
The race is billed as “the world’s coldest and toughest ultra,” and there have been plenty of serious injuries before: flesh blackened by frostbite, frozen skin peeling off racers’ faces like wax, and bits of fingers and toes lost to amputation. But what happened to Zanda is by far the worst medical outcome yet, and it has shocked former racers, event organizers, and fans. It has also led to discussions and debates, often heated, about where a race organization’s responsibilities end and a racer’s personal assumption of risk begins.
As Zanda moved out of Carmacks, his Spot tracker showed him clipping along steadily at around three miles per hour. Between 3 p.m. and 9 p.m., his beacon’s transmissions became more erratic—but that’s fairly normal in the Yukon, where satellite signals can be weak or inconsistent. Between 9 and 10 p.m., the problem cleared up and the Spot began sending signals every few minutes.
The last blip came in at 10:08 p.m., at route mile 189.7, and then the device went into sleep mode. After a strong ten-hour, 25-mile push from Carmacks, Zanda appeared to have stopped to camp for the night.
In the morning, as the sun rose, his tracker still hadn’t moved. The race crew wasn’t concerned yet—Zanda had taken a 12-hour rest once before during the race, as had some other athletes. At 9:32 a.m., Pollhammer posted on Facebook that two volunteer trail guides were headed out to check on him. “His Spot has not been sending for a long time now. Once we have news I will let you all know.”
The trail guides are the race’s safety net, patrolling hundreds of miles by snowmobile to check on the athletes and, when necessary, evacuate them from the course. They motored down the trail toward Zanda’s Spot location, but when they got there, in late morning, they found only the racer’s harness and sled, loaded with a tent and sleeping bag, a stove and fuel, and—crucially—the Spot device. Zanda was gone.
They called back to Pollhammer, who contacted the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and then they began searching the area, looking for some sign of where the racer might have left the packed trail and wandered into the forest. The Mounties were about to launch a search of their own when the call came in: Zanda had been found. A helicopter was dispatched and landed near him. The trail guides, advised by the incoming medical team, did what they could to care for Zanda while they waited. As Pollhammer put it in an email to me: “No time was lost.”
A few days later, Zanda spoke to a Canadian television reporter from his hospital room in Whitehorse. He wore a pale-green gown, and his hands were heavily bandaged, nearly up to his elbows. His feet and shins were the same. He said he’d left his sled behind to go look for help because his feet were freezing up. He and his family members have also told race organizers that Zanda had lost the trail and went in search of the next marker, leaving the sled behind while he scouted.
Hypothermia must have already had Zanda in its grip by then, muddying his mind and compromising his decisions. His sled was his lifeline, containing everything he needed to stay alive and the only tool he had to call for help. He wandered through the cold and dark all night while the sled sat on the trail, sending out a reassuring beacon to the world that all was well.
I competed in this year’s Yukon Arctic Ultra—my first attempt—and I didn’t last long. Twenty-two hours in, suffering from frostbite on three fingertips, I scratched from the event, one of four 100-mile racers who decided to quit.
I never met Zanda, though for all I know we could have been standing side-by-side at the start line. On the afternoon of day one, he left the first checkpoint 19 minutes ahead of me. That night, I passed by as he bivied on the side of the trail. A couple hours later, I put up my own tent, crawled inside, and was trying to change into dry clothes with my hands briefly exposed. That was long enough for frostbite to set in.
Early the next morning, Zanda and two other racers passed my tent. I heard them go by but didn’t call out. I was waiting until daylight to push the help button on my Spot. I’ve thought about those encounters a lot since I learned about what happened to Zanda. It’s impossible not to hear his story and ask: Could that have been me?
Easily. I knew when I signed up for the race that amputations, or even death, were among the potential consequences. At such low temperatures, exhausting yourself to the degree required to complete an ultramarathon is a good way to erase whatever thin margin of safety you’ve managed to create. But while some of my friends had concerns, I wasn’t really worried. That disconnect is what allows many of us to put ourselves in these situations.
Zanda wasn’t the only person hospitalized. Nick Griffiths, another 300-mile racer, scratched on day two. The frostbite on his left foot had become severe by the time he was whisked from the trail to a remote checkpoint for eventual evacuation to Whitehorse. Griffiths spent five days in the hospital, and he will eventually lose his big toe and two others next to it. (To preserve as much healthy tissue as possible, doctors will allow the toes to “self-amputate,” meaning that the dead tissue will simply fall off.) Losing the big toe, in particular, could have a serious impact on Griffiths’ future ability to walk, hike, and run.
“I’m hoping I’ll be all right,” he told me from his home in England, where he’s been reading up on athletes who’ve lost toes. “I’m not expecting to be able to go and do ultras or things like that, but there’s other challenges. It’s not ideal, but there’s no point jumping up and down about it. It’s done.”
I’m not sure I could muster the same acceptance if I were in Griffiths’ position, let alone Zanda’s. Understandably, the Italian racer’s friends and family are extremely upset. In the days after his rescue, the race’s Facebook page filled up with furious comments from people demanding to know how this could have happened, why Zanda wasn’t checked on sooner, why the race hadn’t been canceled entirely when the weather refused to relent. Zanda’s wife, Giovanna, wrote, in Italian, “It’s been too many hours before you decided to verify what happened. He didn’t die by miracle.” His brother, Paolo, posted, “Why they promise you safety when they do not care about you?” To which Pollhammer replied, “Nobody promises safety.”
That much is certain. The waiver I signed when I filed my registration paperwork last summer listed the risks I was assuming as including but not limited to “dehydration, hypothermia, frostbite, collision with pedestrians, vehicles, and other racers and fixed or moving objects, sliding down hills, overturning of ice-rocks, falling through thin ice, avalanche, dangers arising from other surface hazards, equipment failure, inadequate safety equipment, weather conditions, animals, the possibility of serious physical and/or mental trauma and injury, including death.”
Still, even as we sign our lives away, participating in an organized race may provide us with an illusion of safety in a way that an independent backcountry trek might not. If so, I suppose it becomes our job to tear down that illusion and make clear-eyed choices about the risks. That’s easier said than done, of course.
Throughout the aftermath of this year’s race, Pollhammer has remained calm as he answered his critics, walking the fine line of showing empathy for Zanda and his family while making it clear that he believes the error was the racer’s. Initially he seemed shaken, unsure about running the event again next year, but he has since announced the 2019 dates. I asked Pollhammer if, with the benefit of hindsight, he would do anything differently. He said that the rules and safety procedures evolve almost every year, and next year will likely be no different. But there are limits to what he can do, no matter how much he tweaks his protocols
“We can increase the list of mandatory gear, make people carry a sat phone, warn athletes even more so than we do now,” Pollhammer said. “We can do many things. However, we won’t be able to make sure people don’t get hypothermic and start making mistakes when they are out there. It they don’t act, or if they act too late, it will always mean trouble. I wish I could take that away from them, but it is impossible.”
Or as Nick Griffiths put it, “I can’t blame anybody for it—it was my own fault.”
As for Zanda, he told the CBC that he’ll be back out racing again—on prosthetics, if need be.
Before she climbed onto her snowmobile and drove away, leaving us to the ice, Sarah McNair-Landry had a few parting words. “Don’t burn the tent down,” she said, hugging all of us hard. “Don’t lose each other.”
She pulled away and headed to her machine. Soon its red tail light receded in the distance, veering right and left as Sarah steered along the ocean’s rough, frozen skin. A cold wind blew at our backs as we watched her go; the hum of the machine vanished almost immediately. We three people—who had met just a few days earlier—were alone on the sea ice of Frobisher Bay, on the east coast of Canada’s Baffin Island, 2.5 degrees south of the Arctic Circle.
Eirliani, a chatty, high-energy 41-year-old ex-diplomat from Singapore who went by Lin, broke the quiet. “This is weird, no?”
Jonatan, 31, a ponytailed Dane who could have been cast as one of the rugged men of Rohan in Lord of the Rings, was stoic. “Not really,” he said.
I didn’t say anything at all, just watched the snowmobile shrink to a dark blur before finally vanishing into the white. Until this moment, I hadn’t quite believed that Sarah would really leave us out here—we weren’t ready, I’d figured she would say. We weren’t strong enough. My excitement arm-wrestled with fear and dread. For the past three days, Sarah had led us out across the ice from her home in Iqaluit, the capital of Nunavut, the largest and northernmost territory in Canada. For a week before that, she and her mother, Matty McNair, had attempted to cram our brains full of information about how to travel in the polar regions under our own steam, and survive.
Now Jonatan, Lin, and I had 72 hours to find our way back to town. To get there, we would have to ski across the ice in harnesses, towing heavy pulks—fancy sleds, basically—loaded with all the gear we needed to stay alive in extreme cold. We would have to navigate using all the tools at our disposal: compass, maps, sun, wind, and the sastrugi, lines carved into the snowpack by the prevailing northwest winds. We would melt snow for water, pitch our tent in gale-force gusts, eat and sleep and ski and piss and shit in temperatures as low as minus 40 Fahrenheit. And we would do it all while dodging dehydration, frostbite, hypothermia, injury, navigational error, loss of critical gear, fuel spills, a tent fire, and a good old-fashioned societal breakdown in our civilization of three.
This was the final test. We were students in the two-week Extreme Polar Training course offered each year by Northwinds Expeditions, the Iqaluit-based guiding outfit that Matty founded and ran for more than 25 years. Sarah had recently taken over the business. Between the two of them, they knew everything there was to know about traveling over ice in both the Arctic and Antarctic. We had come to Iqaluit to soak up wisdom from the best, and now we would find out how well we had learned.
I arrived at the waterfront headquarters of Northwinds Expeditions on a dark, cold March night. Iqaluit, home to about 8,000 people, wraps itself around an inlet of Frobisher Bay—the town’s bungalows and low-rise office buildings begin at water level and march up a series of benches before the open, rolling tundra of Baffin Island takes over. In summer, the land is brown and bare, but in winter the area is a patchwork of white: snow-packed roads, snow-covered hills curving down to the sea ice that locks the ocean in place. The bay is frozen over for at least half the year, and the area becomes a snowy jumble of parked snowmobiles, grounded boats, and the sea cans and shacks used for storage. The McNair house was right on the beach, where the line between land and sea is marked only by broken ice piled up along the shore.
I was two days late, thanks to an Arctic blizzard and a long flight delay, and the other three students were already settled into tents pitched on sea ice in front of the house. I had shown up in jeans and a T-shirt, and I didn’t feel psychically prepared to sleep outside on a night that dropped to minus 15. I changed into long johns and snow pants in a gear room, and pulled on a big down jacket and clunky expedition-grade winter boots. The elation I felt on the plane had twisted into fear.
For the past several years, I had hovered on the fringes of the McNairs’ world. I read voraciously about polar exploration, wrote several stories about other people’s adventures at the frozen ends of the planet, and lived within a day’s drive of the Arctic Circle. I joked with friends that the beauty of journalism was precisely that I didn’t have to ski to the North Pole myself; I could just interview someone who had. Deep down, I wanted to be out there on the ice, not just asking questions. But here, now, I finally had my chance, and I was terrified.
I had winter-camped in extreme cold before: A year earlier, I spent my 34th birthday on a frozen lake, on a night that plunged to minus 29, part of a fat-biking expedition that was meant to simulate conditions at the South Pole. So I knew what it felt like to lie awake, shivering in an inadequate sleeping bag, too cold to sleep and almost too afraid to try. Now, as I slogged through deep snow and deeper darkness toward my tent, tripping and scraping my shins on chunks of broken ice concealed by fresh powder, I reminded myself that I had come here intending to suffer.
The history of polar exploration, after all, is a story of pain. White men, many of them British, battered their way through or across the ice that covers the top and bottom of the world in a parade of frostbite and scurvy. They froze. They starved. For the most part, they ignored the accumulated knowledge of the indigenous peoples they met in the Arctic. Instead, they ate their dogs, their shoes, and sometimes each other.
Perversely, the hardships endured by the earlier expeditions inspired those who came later. Roald Amundsen, the great Norwegian explorer, wrote in a memoir that his polar dreams were cemented when he read a chronicle of an earlier Arctic attempt. The element that most caught his imagination, Amundsen said of his teenage self, was the suffering the men endured. “A strange ambition burned within me to endure those same sufferings,” he wrote.
This urge to fling yourself into a sufferfest and come out the other side still animates plenty of people. But my expectation upon arrival in Iqaluit—that I was about to endure two weeks of relentless discomfort—was misplaced. It turns out that the McNairs don’t traffic in suffering for its own sake.
I first met Sarah McNair-Landry at a writing residency in Banff, Alberta, a couple years ago. If you were to come across her in a city or town, she wouldn’t seem extraordinary at first. Pale and brown-haired, quick to smile, she’s taller than average, and she’s fit-looking, but you wouldn’t see her at a coffee shop and think, That woman is ripped. She doesn’t brag about her achievements—you’d never know, from her laid-back exterior, that she has coolly stared down the barrel of a shotgun at a polar bear that pounced on her tent in the night, fired a warning shot just above its head, and let it walk away.
Now 31, Sarah is one of the world’s most accomplished young polar explorers. She’s been to the South Pole three times and to the North Pole twice, and in 2011, with her brother Eric, she completed the first transit by kite-ski of the Northwest Passage. In 2015, she and her boyfriend, kayaker-turned-polar explorer Erik Boomer, became only the second team to complete a full circumnavigation of Baffin Island by dogsled. (Sarah’s mother and father, Paul Landry, were the first, when she was a small child.)
Matty McNair was a pioneer of the modern polar guiding industry; she led the firstcommercialguided trip to the North Pole and has been to the South Pole five times. Now 66, she still holds the record for the fastest expedition to the North Polewith dogs—36 days, 22 hours, and 11 minutes—a mark set in 2005 on a classic route that starts off the northern coast of Ellesmere Island.
The McNairs’ secret, oddly enough, is to have fun. To thrive, Matty believes, you have to find the beauty and wonder in polar travel instead of dwelling on the obstacles and suffering. She and Sarah teach a sequence of interlocking systems intended to prevent any eating-of-boots or enduring-of-hardships. Just one of a dozen examples: Matty designed and sews her own Velcro-sealed snack packs for use during a day’s travel, with wide openings and beefy pull tabs. That means you can shove your ration of frozen bacon and cheese and chocolate into your mouth without removing your bulky overgloves and exposing your hands to near-instant frostnip.
That first night on the ice, once I made it into my layered sleeping bags, I was shocked to feel cozy and warm. As I settled in for sleep, I felt hope for the first time that there might be more to polar travel than fear and misery. But the night still seemed deadly: The tent thrashed around in a heavy wind, the huskies chained nearby howled, and the ice creaked and boomed as it shifted in the grip of the tide.
The next morning I was up early, and wired. Lin was still REM-cycling in our shared tent, so I quietly pulled on my outer layers, packed up my sleep system—two bags, a liner, and two pads—and slogged through deep snow to the house. It was not yet six, but as the spring equinox approached, the Arctic days were stretching longer: The day was bright and sunny. I let myself into Matty’s workshop and waited anxiously for the household to stir.
A handful of people sign up for Extreme Polar Training each year, paying $5,200 Canadian dollars (around US$4,125) plus the hefty price of flights to and from Iqaluit, for the privilege of soaking up the McNairs’ know-how. In an intensive, jam-packed, two-week boot camp, they learn about moisture and calorie management, about weather and navigation, about polar bear deterrence and crevasse rescue. They learn how to solve problems they never even knew existed—like how to melt snow in a pot without burning it. (A real thing that happens.) Some want to lead polar expeditions of their own, while for others it’s a sort of mutual audition: They might be interested in hiring Sarah as their guide, and the training program offers them a chance to give her leadership a test. Likewise, the training lets her get a sense of students’ attitudes and abilities, and whether she’d like to share a tent with them for 80-odd days.
The four of us students were here for a mix of reasons. Eddie was a local guy who was keen to know more about surviving in the Arctic backcountry and had been helping with the McNairs’ sled dogs for weeks. He would only be around for the first week of classroom sessions, and I knew from day one that I would miss his cannibalism jokes and his laughter when we were out on our own. Jonatan had trained for the military, hoping to be deployed to Greenland as a member of Denmark’s prestigious Sirius Patrol. He was already experienced and extremely fit; Sarah would load his pulk with two 44-pound bags of dog food every time we went out for a practice ski in an effort to slow him down. Lin was working toward a South Pole expedition, with Sarah as her potential guide. She’d been training hard and had the necessary cardio bandwidth, but she’d only just learned how to cross-country ski and struggled at times. In good conditions, Lin would leave me in her frozen wake. In rougher terrain or with poor visibility, my experience with the climate helped make up for my lack of conditioning.
After breakfast, the other three sped me through one of the lessons I’d missed—a PowerPoint on preventing, identifying, and treating cold-weather injuries. (I have now seen a photo of a blackened, frostbitten penis. There is no turning back.) Then Matty sat us down at the dining room table for a session on the art and science of polar navigation.
“To be a good navigator, you have to use everything,” Matty told us. That meant the whole array, from GPS units, maps, and compasses to the sun, wind, landmarks (if any), and the sastrugi, the wind-carved waves that topped the sea ice. We tossed out a list of potential tools while Matty scribbled on a whiteboard. “Stars,” someone suggested. She wrote it down. But, she reminded us, the North Star—that old navigational standby—is worthless in the Arctic, where it sits directly overhead.
She added “dead reckoning” to the list, a term I’d seen but had never heard defined. “Dead reckoning is a good guess,” Matty explained. “It’s a guesstimate. But a lot of people discount their gut.” Our intuition could be more valuable than we realized, she said. I scribbled notes, already feeling overwhelmed.
That afternoon, we layered up, strapped ourselves into harnesses, and headed out to the sea ice on skinny cross-country skis with half-skins attached, towing pulks loaded with dog food and the short list of essentials Sarah had told us never to be without: goggles, our heaviest mitts, big down jackets, insulated down pants, an insulated water bottle, headlamp, lighter, compass, and map. It was minus 10, clear and sunny, but a sharp breeze dropped the windchill to minus 40. We traveled in a convoy, single file, taking turns breaking trail. We practiced throwing on our heaviest layers the moment we stopped skiing, watering and feeding ourselves, and then delayering and skiing on.
I worried about the icy wind on my face—I was still working out the best combination of balaclava, buff, goggles, face mask, and nose guard to keep me safe while letting me breathe freely—but otherwise the excursion was glorious. I leaned into my harness, throwing my body weight forward to lift my pulk over and through the soft mounds of snow. Sometimes, in deeper drifts, I braced my feet, turned, and hauled it past an obstacle hand over hand. The sun sank toward the frozen horizon ahead of us, turning the snowscape pink and orange.
Then we headed for home. It was my turn to lead, and I faced a cold, hard wind. My legs began to go numb, and I felt sweat running down my back and belly in alarming quantities. The fleece neck gaiter I had pulled up to protect myself clogged with frozen breath, and I couldn’t seem to suck enough air through it. The Arctic night came on quickly as I struggled along, and when I stopped to pull out my headlamp, I couldn’t find it right away. I stripped off my big mitts to feel for it in my sled bag, and my fingers began to ache in the cold.
That morning, when they’d gotten me caught up, Jonatan, Lin, and Eddie had passed along the five iron rules of polar travel: Eat before you’re hungry. Drink before you’re thirsty. Remove layers before you sweat. Put them back on before you get cold. And stop before you’re exhausted. By my count, I had broken at least three, and I could feel myself unraveling. It was shocking how quickly I had gotten myself into a potentially dangerous situation—and on just my first short ski, within sight of town.
Silently, Jonatan relieved my sled of its 44 pounds of dog food. Boomer loaned me his headlamp. I staggered the rest of the way back on shaky legs, trying to hang onto the elation I’d felt during the outbound trip and push away the fear that had found me on our way home.
After a week of lessons and training, it was time for our full-blown mini-expedition. We left Iqaluit at midmorning, skiing out of Koojesse Inlet and into Frobisher Bay proper. Our plan was to head west along the bay’s jagged northern shore, then cut south through a maze of islands before slanting east and then north again, completing a weeklong 40-mile loop. Our halfway point was a polynya, an area where strong, churning currents keep the water from freezing. That was where Sarah and Boomer would leave us on the ice to get home on our own.
We managed to cover just 3.5 miles on our first day. The next morning, I took the initial lead. A haze had rolled in, and the day was gray, the light flat. There was no reference to tell ice from air. Deep, fresh snow compounded the problem, and we struggled along slowly, stumbling through unexpected valleys of powder between hard crusts of wind slab, our pulks catching in every drift.
The tough going was worse for Lin, who wore glasses and struggled to keep them from fogging. I stopped periodically to let her catch up; sometimes I’d hear her words drift forward on the wind. “I’m sick of this shit.” “I can’t see for fuck!”
I tried to focus inward, tried to channel Matty and see each valley of powder that I blundered through, each tall line of sastrugi, as a beautiful little challenge. I tried to think of the journey not as a struggle but as a game and to find joy in each tiny victory.
Late that afternoon, we had our first major disagreement. A fierce wind had whipped up, and during our brief hourly break, we huddled under a tarp to debate what to do. Lin voted to stop for the day, while Jonatan and I wanted to push on for another hour and then stop to reassess. I hoped to put more mileage behind us. Visibility could be even worse tomorrow, I said.
“How could it be worse?” Lin asked.
Sarah had stayed out of the discussion so far, letting us hash it out ourselves. But now she laughed. “It can always get worse.”
We carried on. It was Lin’s turn to lead and break trail, but Jonatan stepped in for her. He rarely said much, but I sensed that this wouldn’t be the last conflict he resolved by simply taking on a larger share of the work. I was grateful but embarrassed. I didn’t have a drop of strength to spare.
Sarah and Boomer left us on the afternoon of the fourth day. They had tried not to babysit us for the first half of the trip, forcing us to make our own decisions. But still, we had always known they were there: calm, experienced, blessed with seemingly limitless energy.
It was a Sunday. We had until Wednesday at noon to find our way back to town. Retreating the way we had come meant failing the course. We had to complete the loop. And on Tuesday, our second-to-last day, we were required to cover at least 11.5 miles—a fair bit more than we’d managed so far.
It had been a sunny day, but on cue, the sky darkened with thick clouds and the wind picked up. The weather reports promised an incoming blizzard, with winds gusting up to 40 mph and visibility below a mile. As we started skiing, I tried to focus on the harsh beauty of the ice walls lining the frozen channel we were moving through. I was determined to bury my fears in sheer wonder and suffocate them.
The next morning, Jonatan took the first lead. The island where we’d camped vanished behind us, and that was it—there was nothing to orient us in the world. Frozen ground merged with frozen sky. I squinted hard at my skis, trying to discern the snowpack’s ups and downs, staggering through each unseen valley, each unexpected drift of soft snow. Every so often, in a lull in the wind, I could hear the squeak of my skis and my pulk on the surface, or the occasional “Fuck!” drifting up from Lin, behind me.
It was hard, slow going. After an hour, it was my turn to lead. I shuffled to the front and checked our compass bearing. Our desired direction had me facing almost directly into the wind—it struck the point of my left shoulder first, before smacking me in the face. My skis lined up nearly perpendicular to the sastrugi carved into the snowpack. These would be my only navigational tools: I tried to memorize the angle of my skis against the lines in the snow and the feeling of the wind hitting my shoulder.
At first, I stopped to check the compass every hundred yards or so, and each time I did, we were still bang on course. It was working! I got more confident, halting the group less often. Despite the wind and the cold and the headache that was settling in behind my forehead, I grinned. I felt like I had acquired a superpower.
The wind gusted strong enough to send me sliding backwards. It pushed my hood off and forced my jacket zipper open. Eventually I gave up on standing straight and started to move in an awkward lunging crouch, squatting and pushing one ski forward, then the other, making myself small.
I glanced behind me sometimes, and noticed that Jonatan and Lin were partially obscured in the haze. Sarah had told us not to move if we couldn’t see each other—advice that had seemed obvious at the time, although we were now coming close to violating it. Jonatan had the stove and fuel, the tent, and satellite phone—plus all that dog food—in his heavily laden pulk. I had an InReach—a satellite texting device—plus two sleep systems and our shovel. Lin had a sleep system to keep her warm but no way to contact anybody.
If we got into real trouble, Sarah was just a sat-phone call and short ride away. But, I reminded myself, it wasn’t that simple in practice. The phone or the InReach, both frozen solid, would need nearly an hour to warm up against a human body or inside a warm tent, and there was no saying whether a rescuer on a snowmobile would be able to find us—or even safely look—until the storm weakened.
I pushed on. As my hour wound down, patches of blue appeared high above us. The faint shadows of islands and coastline peeked through the gray. The wind began to ease up slightly. We carried on for three more hour-long rotations, then called a halt in midafternoon, still a few hours short of sunset. We were in position for our final stretch: exactly 11.51 miles from Monument Island, our goal for the next day. I was proud of our progress, but we had averaged only a little more than a half-mile per hour. If tomorrow brought flat light, winds, and whiteout or a soft snow surface, it would be a very long day.
We were on skis and ready to go by 6:20 a.m. The lights of Iqaluit were visible on the horizon, 15 miles away, glowing through the gray dawn. I was excited, nervous, antsy to start—I had the same flutters in my stomach that I used to feel when I played rugby, bouncing on my toes and shoving my mouthguard into place in the very last moments before kickoff.
The night before, we had figured the day’s required mileage would likely take us 12 to 14 hours of skiing. We planned to try a strategy that Matty and Sarah called “rolling the clock”—after several hours of pushing hard, we would set up the tent for a quick two- or three-hour rest and attempt to trick our bodies into feeling like they’d had a full night’s sleep. With the sun vanishing around 7 p.m., it would mean night skiing, finishing our long day a few hours after sunset. But we hoped the gain in our strength and efficiency would be worth the tradeoff.
We set out with Lin in the lead, and everything went better than expected. We skied across a hard, smooth surface; the light was good, visibility clear. In our first two hour-long pushes, we covered nearly four miles.
By my second lead of the day, our fifth hour-long push, I was giddy. A whiteout had rolled in far ahead of us, and so, though we traveled under blue skies, we could no longer see where we needed to go. But with the sun behind me, I navigated by the feel of the wind on my right backside, the angle of my shadow falling ahead and to the left of my skis: the Incredible Human Sundial! I kept twisting in my skis to turn back to Jonatan, in line behind me, trying to transmit my delight.
That push ended at noon, and as we clustered together, we realized we had only three miles to go. We stopped to snooze for a couple hours in the sun-warmed tent before carrying on to the finish.
We made camp that night, just 10.5 hours after we’d set out. We had passed the test, and we would be back at the McNair house in time for lunch the following day. If skiing for hours across a frozen ocean while towing a loaded sled can ever be described as “a breeze,” this was the time. In the tent, Jonatan passed around our last stash of cookies in low-key celebration.
We were in bed early, but I woke around 11. I had to pee. I lay on my back in my layers, staring into the darkness. I wondered if I could ignore the urge and get back to sleep—aside from my insistent bladder, I was warm and comfortable.
Finally, I felt around in the darkness for my mitts and headlamp, unzipped my two sleeping bags, shimmied out of my liner bag, and staggered into the night, my down booties squeaking quietly on the snow.
I was still grumbling to myself when I looked up at the sky. The usual dark bowl filled with stars greeted me, but this time it was ribboned with the vivid green of the northern lights, each stripe undulating from horizon to horizon. I craned my neck back and stared, and I forgot about the cold, or the risk of my mitts blowing away while I fumbled with zippers, or the hassle it would be to get my sleeping bags aligned just right again.
Here was that same lesson I had learned and relearned over these two weeks. Joy and awe would always win out, if I let them. The Arctic had an alchemical ability to transform my fears and my suffering into raw wonder. If I kept coming back, kept flinging myself onto the ice, moments like these were the rewards. It was a lesson no interviewee could ever have taught me over the phone. I had to be here, on the ice, to learn it for myself.
I watched the sky ripple and burn for a few more moments. Then I crawled into the tent and zipped myself in, warm and happy and safe.
The lights in the Seward High School gymnasium were dimmed so that the dozens of people scattered across the bleachers and the shining hardwood floor could clearly see the images being projected on a large screen. There was a short video clip of a man clinging to a steep wall of earth and tree roots—until a loose rock the size of a bowling ball tumbled down and knocked him loose. There was a still photograph of a woman in mid-freefall, limbs splayed, the rocky cliff face a gray blur behind her. A narrated voiceover accompanied the images, reeling off the “countless opportunities” for injury: “snow fields, devil’s club, loose shale…”
The man working the laptop connected to the projector chimed in. “You signed a form that said you’ve been up the mountain,” he said. “We want to make sure you’ve been up the mountain.” He paused so his serious tone could sink in. “This isn’t any old 5K.”
That was an understatement. The Mount Marathon Race, held every year in Seward, Alaska, might be the world’s gnarliest three-miler. Calling it a running event is barely accurate: It’s more of a high-speed scramble directly up its eponymous mountain, and then back down again. The fastest racers aim to finish in under an hour; even the best mountain runners in the world can’t crack 40 minutes.
The images were being shown as part of a safety meeting—mandatory for rookie racers—that takes place the night before the race. There are three ways for hungry newcomers to get one of the approximately 700 race bibs—350 each for men and women. First, they can enter the main lottery, held in April. Failing that, here in the high school, the night before the race, they can buy as many $10 raffle tickets as they can afford in hopes of landing the single bib given away in a draw. If that doesn’t work out, they’re left with the auction: ten men’s bibs and ten women’s bibs given out to the highest bidder. This year, the bidding went as high as $3,500. (The money goes to the Seward Chamber of Commerce to pay for the costs associated with organizing the race.)
Patrick Stinson, a 37-year-old grad student who’d run the race seven times before, missed a year in 2016 and wound up paying $3,000 in the auction to buy his way back in. (Ten-time finishers get lifelong tenure, as do champions.) “It’s totally unique in Alaska,” he said. “It’s technically so hard.” Tommy Nenahlo, 31 and about to become a dad, also paid $3,000 for his bib—a pre-baby gift from his wife after six years of failed lottery entries. “There’s nothing like being able to compete at such a level in a place like this,” he said.
I know what you’re thinking: Three grand to run a 5K? But Mount Marathon, iconic and brutal and more than a century old, has that kind of effect on people.
The next morning was the Fourth of July—Mount Marathon is always held on the Fourth—and the barricades along Seward’s main drag were lined with starred-and-striped spectators. On the cross streets, vendors hawked hot dogs and Kettle Korn, Hawaiian iced sodas and Dippin’ Dots, fried halibut chunks and grilled corn. There were booths selling hoodies (“Mountain Mama”) and bumper stickers (“Hiked It. Liked It.”) and Top 40 tunes blasting from a massive PA system. At one intersection, the Seward Fire Department had hung a massive American flag from the ladder of one of its parked trucks, extending it high above the street.
At 11 a.m., nearly 350 women gathered behind the start line. The junior race, for runners ages 7 to 17, had already taken place—the kids went only halfway up the broad, triangular mountain that looms over downtown Seward. The men would take their turn after the women, tackling the full-length course at 2 p.m. This year, the outcome of the men’s race seemed nearly certain: a cross-country skier, Scott Patterson, was heavily favored to win. But the outcome of the women’s race was harder to call.
The race began at 4th Avenue and Adams Street, just two blocks above the cold, dark waters of Resurrection Bay. Seward sits at the head of the long, narrow bay, on the east side of the Kenai Peninsula, and, on a clear day, the water and the glacier-draped mountains that hem it in stretch as far as you can see. But no one was looking at the view right now. The runners had their backs to the ocean, and their focus was on the street that sloped upward ahead of them, leading to the base of Mount Marathon.
Toeing the line was Christy Marvin, the defending women’s champion; immediately to her left was Allie Ostrander, a six-time junior champion whose 2014 time of 28:54 was still a girls’ course record. In 2015, at 18, Ostrander finished second in her first senior race. A promising runner for Boise State, she skipped Mount Marathon last year to focus on the Team USA Olympic trials, and now she was back on the mountain where she’d grown up running. Wearing festive red shorts and a blue sports bra, Ostrander looked tiny and baby-faced next to the older, taller, and more visibly muscular runners waiting for the starting pistol to go off. But by the time they’d covered the half-mile of pavement that led to the base of the mountain, Ostrander had a clear lead.
When she reached the base, Ostrander and all the runners following her had a series of choices to make. Mount Marathon has no fixed course: The rules simply require that runners begin at the start line, circle around a large boulder at the false summit that marks the turnaround point, and end at the finish line. In between, the mountain offers several options of varying efficiency and potential danger. The line each runner selects as they ascend and descend the mountain is up to them.
The first choice: Go right and climb the roots, or go left and ascend the cliff. The start of the trail up Mount Marathon feels nearly vertical, but to the right, a jungle gym of tree roots offers easy climbing; to the left, there’s a rocky scramble, potentially faster but tougher. Then the trails converge again, winding steeply up through dense, damp forest and—after a few days of rain—greasy, slick mud. Runners propel themselves upward with hands as much as feet, pulling on exposed tree roots as thin as shoelaces and digging their fingers into the soil.
The foliage thins out to nothing as the runners hit the halfway point to the false summit, where the juniors turn around to descend and the seniors carry on through a steep, open field of broken shale. From here, it’s a pure grind to the top. The trail has an average grade of 34 degrees—at its steepest, it hits 60 degrees. Racers pump uphill with their hands on their quads, pushing down on their legs with each step, bending over at the waist but trying to keep their back straight and their airway open. They gain 3,000 feet of elevation in under a mile.
Ostrander opted to go right, to the roots, while the two women behind her, defending champion Marvin and Mount Marathon rookie Morgan Arritola, went left. When Ostrander popped out of the trees, back into the view of spectators and binoculars and drones, she was holding her lead. She headed up into the scree with Arritola, a newcomer to this race but a two-time U.S. Mountain Running champion, pushing hard behind her.
Extremely qualified outsiders like Arritola are relatively rare at Mount Marathon, which, despite its growing reputation, is fundamentally still a local race. There are Alaskan families who can claim three generations of finishers; keeping the championships in-state is a matter of patriotism and pride. Two years ago, Kilian Jornet became the first ever non-state resident to win the men’s race, setting a new course record of 41:48. Champion mountain runner and ski mountaineer Emelie Forsberg, Jornet’s Swedish girlfriend, did the same on the women’s side in an unheard-of 47:48, beating out 18-year-old Ostrander in the process.
In 2016, with Jornet running up mountains somewhere else in the world, Anchorage-based David Norris took back the championship—and shaved 22 seconds off Jornet’s course record to make it clear that this was still Alaska’s race. Norris hadn’t even been gunning for the record—“There’s no way I can run downhill as fast as Kilian,” he says—but his uphill grind was nearly a minute faster than Jornet’s, and that made the difference. Norris got emails from people all over the state, congratulating him and letting him know how much those 22 seconds meant to them. “This race is really important to a lot of people,” he says. “They love their race, and they love their state.”
On the women’s side, Christy Marvin took back the women’s title, but Forsberg’s time had been nearly four minutes faster than the previous record, and Marvin couldn’t get near it.
Which brings us back to Ostrander, now 20, in 2017. With Arritola working to close the gap between them, Ostrander switchbacked up through the loose, sharp scree, somehow managing to accelerate as she climbed, and hit the false summit at the 37-minute mark. Then she turned, picked her line from a selection of well-worn down-trails, and began her descent.
Like most of the great Alaskan sporting events, the Mount Marathon Race began in a bar. Back in the first few years of the 20th century, so the legend goes, one Seward local—a railroad worker, maybe, or maybe it was a fisherman—wagered another that he could make it up the mountain and back down again in under an hour, a seemingly impossible feat. The bet was made, and the race was on.
Official records for the event begin in 1915, and that first formal winner finished in 1:02:02. Sub-hour winning finishes became common, if not always certain, soon after that, and the men broke the 50-minute mark in 1964. The first woman, Jane Trigg, finished the race in one hour and 37 minutes in 1963, and the women’s times plunged from there. In 1970, Margie Mahoney slashed nearly 20 minutes off the previous year’s winning time to finish in 1:07:24, and, in 1974, the women broke the hour mark for the first time.
Since then, the times have kept dropping and the list of runners who want in on Mount Marathon has grown longer. It used to be that all finishers got a ticket to return the next year, but now only the top 225 men and the top 225 women (out of a field of roughly 350 each) are guaranteed another slot. Finish below the cut or miss a year, and you’re back to the lottery, the raffle, and the auction.
In 2012, the race experienced a much darker milestone: the first death of an athlete on the mountain. Michael LeMaitre, 66, vanished somewhere on the course—he was in last place on the way up, and he was last seen as he neared the false summit, nearly three hours after the starting gun. The volunteers at the turnaround rock had already packed up for the night; they passed him on their way down. His body was never found.
There had been injuries before, even serious ones, but the loss of LeMaitre was a shock. It prompted a two-year legal battle with his family and a revamping of safety protocols and procedures. Still, no matter the safeguards in place, there’s always the possibility of an accident—a bad fall, a bear attack, a rock shearing off the cliffs onto the racers climbing below. “Just remember, it is a mountain,” the official told the group at the safety meeting.
This year, though, there were no catastrophes. In the men’s race, cross-country skier Scott Patterson would win comfortably, which was expected in the absence of Jornet, of last year’s champion Norris, and of 2016 runner-up Nick Elson.
Every winner of Mount Marathon becomes, as one racer put it to the Alaska Dispatch News, “a rock star forever.” The many people who love this race know their names, and their times, and their stories. But every racer who crossed the finish line was the star of their own narrative, their own tiny drama, and each one was as compelling as the last.
There were the teenage boys who raced with the words “JACK COOPER” written in Sharpie on their bodies in tribute to the 16-year-old trail runner who was fatally mauled by a bear during a race outside Anchorage in June. There was the young girl who started puking uncontrollably with 20 or 30 yards to go and staggered across the finish line still spewing.
There was the guy who did cartwheels down the home stretch for the cheering crowd; the woman who crossed the line clutching a beer. There was the man who raced the last half-mile being paced by his young daughter, who’d already run her own race earlier in the day. And there was Chad Resari, who finished in two hours, six minutes, and 46 seconds—good for 302nd overall, but first place in his age division: 80-to-89-year-olds.
In Independence Day: Resurgence, last year’s sequel to the Fourth of July alien-invasion classic, the young space pilots have a running joke about a “controlled dive”—in other words, a plummeting potential crash. The descent from Mount Marathon is a sort of controlled dive: a hectic sliding rush along loose, soft rock that drops runners back down to the halfway point in seconds, and then sends them into a long, narrow, gravel chute that bypasses the greasy forest trails entirely, carrying them nearly to the bottom. It’s part running, part skiing, part falling, and it often leaves finishers dripping blood or with gravel shrapnel embedded in their butts and legs. The fastest racers reverse all 3,022 feet of hard-earned elevation gain and the last half-mile of pavement to the finish line in just under 11 minutes.
After being pushed hard by her competitor all the way up, Ostrander left the more cautious Arritola behind on the downhill. Ostrander never wears a watch when she races—“I really just like to focus on how I feel,” she says—so she didn’t know that she was only 41 seconds behind Forsberg’s 2015 uphill pace. Her goal for this race wasn’t to beat that record, which she felt was beyond her. Ostrander just hoped to finish under 50 minutes, something that, in the women’s race, only Forsberg had ever done. If she was going to make that, she had 13 minutes to get down the mountain and over the finish line.
The shale was loose and deep, softened by the recent hard rains. It made for a fast descent. “Almost too fast,” Ostrander said later. “My legs were just so toasted after the uphill. I think at times my legs just couldn’t really handle it.” She belly-flopped once, then twice, on her way down, tumbling face first into the heaped gravel. But she popped up quickly each time.
Then she reached Mount Marathon’s final challenge, the area known to racers as “the gut.” This is where the gravel chute narrows abruptly and becomes a running creek strewn with wet boulders and small waterfalls. Racers scramble down through the creek bed until they reach their final choice: the waterfall, the switchbacks, the cliffs, or the jeep trail.
The waterfall is a long drop (posted signage lists it as a triple-black-diamond option), and volunteers posted at the top of it will only permit racers to go over if they provide clear verbal confirmation that they’ve made that choice. The switchbacks offer a way down to the runner’s right of the waterfall, but they’re a slick nightmare in wet, muddy conditions. Then there are the cliffs—that’s where the racers came up to begin with, making their choice between roots and rock. The last option, the jeep trail, is a wide, circuitous path, totally safe but so slow that no serious contender would ever bother with it. (“There’s no shame in the jeep trail,” the race official who ran the safety meeting repeated, over and over.)
Ostrander chose the cliffs, then made her way down the last of the gravel trail and out to the road, past lines of cheering fans, a police car rolling slowly ahead of her to clear the busy streets. She hit the pavement and straightened up for the final half-mile, taking long, smooth strides. Ostrander crossed the finish line at 49:19, missing Forsberg’s record by 91 seconds but taking more than a minute off her personal best and becoming just the second woman ever to record a sub-50-minute finish.
At the line, Ostrander raised her arms above her head, then doubled over and was helped away, her legs and belly covered in the gray mud and grit she’d carried with her off the mountain.