Frontlines

Survival of the fittest at 32 below

Marni Jackson March 12 1979
Frontlines

Survival of the fittest at 32 below

Marni Jackson March 12 1979

Survival of the fittest at 32 below

Marni Jackson

Dan Tenen looked at his thumb. It was a sulky blue and not the right shape at all. He moved closer to the fireplace of the Château Montebello, where other skiers just off the trail of the 13th annual Canadian Ski Marathon were thawing out. This year, the world’s longest ski tour—a two-day, 100-mile trail divided into 10 sections, running through the Quebec countryside just northeast of Ottawa—had the added distinction of becoming the world’s coldest.

“I had just finished three sections,” said Tenen, a young doctor from Boston, “and I was in having a hot drink at the checkpoint when I heard this tapping noise, like a hammer. I couldn’t figure out where the sound was coming from and then I looked down; it was my thumb, hard as a rock, knocking on the table.”

More than 4,000 skiers signed up for last month’s marathon, but the cold weather quickly thinned the ranks, knocking skiers out with frostbite or

hypothermia. At the start in Lachute, at 6 a.m. on Saturday, the temperature was -32°C, and—as the radio loved to repeat—the wind chill factor took it down to -57°C. By noon at Checkpoint 1, volunteers had ladled out 100 pounds of honey and 17 cases of raisins, and four skiers had been diverted to the hospital to have their frostbite treated. In the evening, the physiotherapy room set up back at the Château came to resemble a spring crocus bed, with row upon row of swollen blue toes. The volunteer staff spent an offbeat

weekend hand-warming dozens of cold feet.

Frozen tissues aside, was this sort of thing fun? “Oh sure,” said Tenen, swivelling his thumb toward the fireplace. “My main worry is that if I lose my thumb, I won’t be able to ski again.”

The marathon, a mammoth paramilitary manoeuvre organized by three hired staff and 700 volunteers, draws every sort of skier, from novice tourers hoping to complete one 10-mile leg to racers with secret waxing techniques and science-fiction face masks. But the heroes of the weekend are the Coureur de Bois Gold skiers, cardiovascular sasquatches who attempt to ski 100 miles carrying 12-pound backpacks; for aprèsski, they also camp out overnight.

Seventy-four skiers signed up for this mad scheme and 20 made it to the end. One coureur de bois, Don Johnson of Ottawa, received the first award for completing the gold course five times. Johnson, to all appearances a normal person, sprang up onto the banquet podium to shake the hand of the Canadian grandpère of cross-country skiing, “Jackrabbit” Johansen, 104 years old and basking in his post-centenarian celebrity.

Jackrabbit didn’t ski, but his walk had a definite kick and glide and he swung his cane like a cross-country Astaire. At the Sunday night banquet, he held court, a slim Santa Claus, alter-

nately praising and castigating the marathoners for (1) their admirable character and (2) their slackness compared to the old days. Jackrabbit was so self-sufficient he brushed away the microphone at the banquet; no one heard much of what he said, but the spirit of his remarks was unmistakable. His daughter, sitting nearby, covered her face in rueful amusement while the skiers stood and cheered.

After the first day, the lobby of the Château—and every hotel in the areaoverflowed with skiers sprawling, sleeping, limping or basting their frostnipped faces with Vaseline until the crowd had a collective, slippery gleam. Meanwhile out in the woods, about 40 adventurous marathoners settled into one of two winter campsites. They sat on bales of straw thawing out beside a 14-foot fire, tentatively touching the scorched, auburn patches of frostbite on their cheeks or chins. As volunteers heated up stew and handed out cups of hot chocolate, one of the skiers nonchalantly stripped off his shirts and stood there bare-chested, steaming. The sun was gold, the sky was a Sony blue, and altogether the campsite was not the arctic torture chamber envisioned by the skiers hugging the fireplace back at the Château. “It was very comfortable,” said Monique Tremblay, a physical education teacher from Lac St. Jean, Quebec, who has skied the 100-mile route twice and decided to try camping out this year. “A little cold in the

morning perhaps, but a fine sleep.”

Some expert skiers, not necessarily out to clobber the elements, considered it foolhardy to ski at all in such temperatures. Jürg Bloesch of Switzerland, a limnologist (freshwater scientist) working for a year in Canada, skied one day—50 miles—and called it quits. “In Switzerland we don’t even train in this weather. Today I wore a face mask and by the last checkpoint, the ice on it was two inches thick—I could hardly get the drink to reach my mouth.” However he was happy with his time—eight hours—and his new waxing strategy. “I used 16 layers—a base wax that I burned on, 10 layers of polar wax, and then six thin layers of kick wax. It worked well.” He carried Top Ten, a blueberry syrup popular with Finnish skiers, and passed up the bean soup and honey drink offered at most checkpoints. In fact, the entire marathon was an ad hoc experiment in the best way to dress, eat, wax and avoid injury in the unusually brutal temperatures.

Fred Kurdziel was one of the casualties. “Last year I got frostbite and went snow-blind. This time I skied the first 50 miles okay, and then I collapsed while I was walking out. Each year you

learn what not to do. I wore down-filled mitts and jacket, and once they get wet you know, they don’t keep you warm. I didn’t want to wait around for the next shuttle-bus so I started walking back to the road. I was wet and the wind got me . . . it was agony, like doing the marathon all over again. I actually cried, and I never thought I’d cry about skiing because I love it.”

Fred sat on the edge of the hotel bed where they had carried him, and Eleanor Kulin, a publicity chairman for the marathon came in. “Fred, do your poles have orange baskets?” she asked, having expanded her promotional duties to tucking in cold skiers and finding scattered equipment. “Your skies are 217s, right? I think I found them.”

Fred seemed to have perked up; he was eating nuts and drinking a reasonably stiff scotch. “This is a nice marathon,” he said. “But when it gets this cold, the best thing to do is not ski.”

However, while the ill-equipped or the overambitious courted exhaustion, the two racers who made it to the finish line at Checkpoint 10 looked as if they had just jogged back from the milk store. Steiner Klaboe of Calgary completed 80 miles in 11 hours, 19 minutes.

As the photographers waddled to the finish line, crashing through the snow crust up to their thighs and blowing on their fingers, Klaboe glided to the finish ruddy as a salmon leaping up the last waterfall to home.

And for the older, wiser marathoners, the cold weather didn’t matter much. Joan Kingstone, 51, of Ottawa, was one of the 375 skiers who took part in the first marathon in 1967 and she has only missed two seasons since.

“For us, it’s just fun,” she said, indicating a group of four women who regularly reunite to ski a section or two. They started out after the mass of skiers were already under way, so they could take their time and enjoy the trail. Despite the traffic, the snow was smooth, the two tracks were remarkably tidy and the woods, with their slats of sun and shade, were quiet. Where the trees were thick the wind didn’t penetrate, and some leaves, dry and fragile, still hung on the branches, swaying like paper lanterns. The four women stopped, took in the view and posed for a snapshot. For them it was a pleasure to move through the grey and gold stripes of the trail, with a sense of wellbeing neither arrogant nor anxious.«^?