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Arctic Man

At Arctic Man, skiers and snow-machiners unite for one of skiing's weirdest races. There are busted bones, burning couches, and hopes of seeing Todd Palin. Surviving the 4.5-mile race is the easy part. We have helmet cam footage and in-depth account from last spring's race in Alaska.
By Jason Daley
posted: 01/21/2010

 

This helmet cam footage is by photographer Andrew Chapman, who foreran the Arctic Man race course.

The buzz is relentless, like having a wasp lodged in your ear that never sleeps and lives off exhaust fumes and wants to see tits. They rumble, up and down roads scraped out of the snow, every blessed combustion-powered toy dreamt up by lonely Alaskan mechanics. Across the barren landscape drifts the growl of classic touring Arctic Cats and the high-pitched whine of tricked-out freestyle and drag-racing rigs. Hundreds of idling RVs crank their generators and stereos, six-by-six ATVs kick up gravel, dualie pickups rev just for the hell of it. Dirt bikes skid through the soup of gravel and mud; snowcats, helicopters, paragliders, and prop planes all make cameos, adding to the din punctuated with occasional blasts from chainsaws and gas-powered margarita blenders. From the surrounding Hoodoo Mountains, the unending stampede of snow machines echoes into camp like quickly accelerating cows—mwarrooah!—putting God’s country on notice: The Arctic Man is here, bitches.

The musky scent of Todd Palin is in the air—everyone is asking if this is the year the Patrick Henry of Alaskan Freedom will finally sled into their midst to rule over the open-air bacchanal. Men with rough mustaches and Carhartts mill around their midday bonfires like the ghosts of the pipeline workers who leveled this wilderness almost 40 years ago. Underdressed women cling to the back fat of men the size of feral hogs as they cruise their sleds through camp, watching partiers unload threadbare couches, cords of firewood, outhouses, and dingy patio sets, slowly transforming the massive gravel pad into an anarchist’s KOA. Twisting open the weekend’s first bottles of Jeremiah Weed, slednecks complain about the influx of state troopers and set their sirloin tips and moose steaks on the grill for a drunkproof slow roast.

The 12,000 or so revelers are technically here for a ski race, but this is the type of crowd that might throw rocks if men wearing spiderwebbed Lycra wandered into their camps. Then again, the Arctic Man Ski and Sno-Go Classic isn’t the average ski-town showdown; imagine the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally and a super G race shagging Burning Man in the back of a Camaro and you’ve got an approximation. Over 24 years the Man has snowballed from a small charity race into the Last Frontier’s Carnival—spring break for slednecks before their vast white playground melts back into muskeg. During the race, two dozen skiers and boarders are dragged behind snow machines at over 70 miles per hour, nothing more than willing sacrificial bulls for the octane-hungry horde. No one’s happy unless there’s a smear of blood in the Hoodoo Mountains. But for the skiers, surviving the quad-ripping five-minute ride on the hellacious course is the easy part. It’s the other 72 hours they have to watch out for.

It’s midnight the evening before the Friday afternoon race, and the stretch of trailers known as Racers Row is oddly quiet compared to the sonic riot going on around the 300-acre party grounds. Inside their makeshift tech trailer, members of the Happy Boy Racing Club from Fairbanks—more of an inside joke than a race crew—are prepping their Atomics. Wade Binkley, a 20-something snow-machiner and summer riverboat captain, brushes back his worry-free mullet, takes a sip from a can of Hamm’s, and turns down the Zeppelin. His partner, Jeff Levinson, an engineering student at the University of Alaska–Fairbanks, carefully planes off the expensive race wax he’s just applied to his skis. “Ten dollars,” he says each time he scrapes the microscopic curls into the trash.
A stream of college-age girls and friends move in and out of the trailer grabbing beers and warming up by the oversize space heater. Baby-faced Luke Smith watches as his race partner, James Binkley, irons wax onto his boards. Last year, Smith drove a sled in the Arctic Man the day after fracturing his fibula, even though the pain was so intense he could barely slip on his boot. This year, he’s dragging James through the course before pulling a Chinese fire drill and skiing it himself. “If you’re not going 80, it’s a letdown,” he confesses. “The rest of the year is a lead-up to the next Arctic Man. It’s addicting.”

It must be. Through 24 years the event has grown from a few hundred to a 12,000-strong Arctic Brigadoon springing up around mile marker 196, 165 miles south of Fairbanks on the Richardson Highway. In 1985, Howie Thies made a bar bet that he and his brother could beat another set of locals on a snowmobile-aided ski race from the Tit, a natural starting ramp 5,800 feet high in the Alaska range’s Hoodoo Mountains, to a finish line 4.5 miles away. Thus began the first Arctic Man. Over the years, Thies, now a maintenance and operations director for the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, co-opted the former Trans-Alaska Pipeline site for the event and has added snowmobile track races, stunt shows, a beer tent with live music, and even a pirate radio station fueled by an eclectic iPod straight out of Northern Exposure.

The race has drawn world-renowned speed skiers (though speed-skiing equipment is now banned), extreme skiers, and even U.S. Ski Team members to compete for the $20,000 in prizes. In 2008, American racer Marco Sullivan took home the top prize. This year, the economy and a looming Olympics have left Arctic Man to the diehards, but it’s not a crew to be trifled with. Peter Kakes, overseer of the speed-skiing course at Mount Hood, is a perennial contender with several wins under his belt. Robert Graeber, a 19-year-old pro sledder who was paralyzed in New York in 2008, is back for the race after a year of grueling physical therapy. Jimmy Scott, a UC-Berkeley economics grad student, is back too after falling from a helicopter and breaking his back a few years earlier. Graham Bell, five-time Olympian for the UK ski team, is on hand to record a ride for his BBC show, Ski Sunday.

The afternoon of race day, the light is dismally flat, and all practice runs are canceled. Throughout the morning, under the gray pancake sky and in six inches of fresh powder, thousands of snowmobiles zigzag up the steep canyons like a herd of spooked musk oxen on the way to the Arctic Man course. “There’s always carnage during the race,” explains Sunny Prather, who organized the first women’s division. “There’s always a tib-fib and medevac coming off the Tit.” If a skier makes it off that incredibly steep starting ramp, he has to tuck into a 1,700-foot drop over two miles to a small canyon where he’ll grab onto a stiffened towrope attached to the rear of his partner’s sled. From there, the duo speeds uphill through a snaking canyon—the fastest sled on record was clocked at 86 miles per hour—for two and a quarter miles, the skier deflecting chunks of ice and crud the whole way. Then, if his quads have survived the lactic-acid bath, the sled peels off at the release point known as First Aid and the skier slingshots into the final 1,200-foot full-speed drop to the finish line. You can tell the spots with most potential for gore by the crowds gathered at the sidelines.

During an average year, roughly half the teams finish, but this year, the flat light turns the first half of the course into a DNF factory. Ben Craigen, a snowboarder from the Yukon, drops at the wrong angle and hyperextends both ankles, forcing him to walk like he has a load in his pants for the rest of the weekend. After all that waxing, Wade and Jeff miss each other at the hookup point and don’t finish.

The course is slow because of the fresh snow—racers are averaging speeds in the 70s instead of 80s—but there are still some meaty wipeouts at First Aid. After the first racers execute several flawless releases, Nicholas Barton crests the small rise and lets go of the tow, but the change in velocity puts him off balance and he stumbles as his skis pop off one after the other, flying six feet in the air. He rolls ass over teakettle and stops facedown in the middle of the course, just 1,200 feet from the finish. When he stands up and walks away, there’s audible disappointment in the crowd pressed up against the orange snow fence. No medevac today. Over the years the race has resulted in a tick list of injuries from crushed helmets and concussions to snapped legs and hands. There’s a reason no U.S. Ski Team members showed up this year.

A few minutes later, Rory Casey of Anchorage bobbles the rope as he lets go. He ragdolls hard and cartwheels three times before coming to rest a few feet from the fence. He’s motionless for a moment, and people begin to anticipate an airlift, but he gets up and walks away too. Todd Palin would be proud.
Top honors go to Anchorage schoolteacher Eric Heil and his driver Len Story, both in their 40s. It’s their fourth win since ’86, and their experience shows—they manage to hit 85 miles per hour with their ancient 2003 Arctic Cat, seven miles per hour faster than the next-fastest team. Graham Bell takes fourth, and Luke and James earn seventh place and a DNF. Robert Graeber powers his skier into a third-place finish.

The race ends and it’s as if a starting flare for mayhem goes off. In the finishing canyon, sledders gather to watch freestylers and premature drunks launch snowmobiles over a 100-foot cliff. One genius flies high above the abyss before dropping waist-deep into the snowpack while his sled ghosts into the crowd. A lawn chair on skis zips by. Ribbons of sledders funnel through the two-mile-long gorge back into the main camp, where the majority of Arctic Man Village has been getting a head start on the after-party. A six-wheeled ATV drags a couch around a campground where teenagers pass a box of Coors and crank a battered DeWalt radio. “What race?” they yell at the returning sledders. “Did anybody die? We were drunk by noon!”

Dusk falls and bonfires light up all over camp like Zippos during “Free Bird.” The Happy Boys are relieved that they can finally cut loose and change out of their race gear into nad-tight ski suits and wigs. Captain Wade has rolled his mullet into a Flock of Seagulls do. A friend from town tapes a cardboard cutout of the GEICO Caveman to his back, and when he pisses in the sagging urinal they’ve carved into a snowbank, it looks like the Neanderthal is taking a dump.
The beer tent fills up quickly in anticipation of the wet T-shirt contest; men in oily sled suits mingle with a surge of college kids down from Fairbanks. Seven lonesome bucks stand on a flimsy table with their cameras targeted. The Happy Boys and their harem enter in full retro regalia to laughs and confused stares. Gen Y irony has not penetrated much of the bush. The MC, who has made a close study of Ice-T, keeps everyone primed. “Everybody loves boobies up in this room,” he purrs. Kid Rock’s “Cowboy” seems to stir something primal in the crowd.

The wet T-shirt contest is a slideshow from the 1983 Harley Davidson catalog. Some of the boobies in here have lived a hard Alaskan life. The floor-level stage means aggressive pushing is the only way to catch a glimpse, and the slow-motion mosh pit lasts for 20 minutes, until a desperately drunk brunette with a mom-bob pulls off her soaked shirt and begins to roughly dry-hump the MC in the DJ booth. He instinctively spins “Cowboy” again.

Outside, things are deteriorating fast. The promise of Todd Palin has long since faded, replaced by a leaderless free-for-all. Inebriates stumble from bonfire to bonfire, looking for home. A shuttle with the words “I’m Drunk Bus” painted on the windows prowls the camp, dumping partiers at dark RVs that may or not be theirs. The Happy Boys leave the beer tent, taking the choicest girls with them, heading to a distant camp to watch AC/DC concert videos projected onto a bedsheet.

Snow falls overnight, and when the final day of Arctic Man dawns, dark patches where the bonfires have been look like cigarette burns on a white carpet. Peter Kakes and other skiers try to escape the rise of the machines and head into the mountains for a powder soul session, but after burying their sleds in deep snow they know it’s not their time. This weekend, the virgin backcountry has given herself fully to rough, knobby treads, not P-tex ski bases. In camp, an acrid stench cuts through the hangovers and people climb a berm to watch a snowmobile burn in the alders. “Left the handbrake on coming down the mountain” is the general consensus before everyone wanders back to their headache cures and the finale of the drag races.

Bonfires reignite as soon as darkness falls, embiggened with trash, firewood, and smashed furniture. Snowmobile skids grating over bare gravel takes over as the dominant noise, soon to be drowned out by Diabla’s Bones—an odd mix of heavy metal and a drum machine with a flair for ’80s dance hits—coming out of the beer tent. The I’m Drunk Bus disgorges dozens of buzzed dancers, and a surplus of young women up for the night, at the doors. The Happy Boys appear in a fresh costume change and form the core of a dance party that will continue all night. A drunk in a maple-leaf Dr. Seuss hat does some sort of apoplectic crunking and ends up wallowing on the grimy, beer-soaked plywood floor. This is no country for Canadians.

Outside, Arctic Man is unraveling. Anyone with sense and extra firewood is hunkered down in his own camp. After a couple Jäger bombs, Jimmy Scott has retreated to a friend’s cabin. Eric Heil has grabbed his winnings and cleared out. Other skiers are ensconced in their camps, settling in for a mellow drunk. All around, brave Arctic soldiers are passing out in snowbanks or fighting with cops or making out in the cramped upper berths of RVs.

Down on Racers Row at Klaus Gumb’s camp, a group of young men hoist the night’s last couch above their heads, scream “Arctic Man!” and toss it onto the blackened coils of the previous couch’s guts poking out of the bonfire. The foam-fueled blaze singes the eyebrows closest to it. The I’m Drunk Bus crunches over the gravel and picks up two men. “Thanks, you guys,” says the driver. Earlier that night, an elderly couple found a strange girl passed out on their RV bed. They dragged her out to the shuttle-bus stop, where the two men took charge of her. They got her onto the bus, where she passed out again and peed herself. The driver won’t identify the soiled seat.

Inside the beer tent, 48 hours of drinking are coming to a head. Howie Thies is at a loss to explain Arctic Man’s wild popularity over the years. It could be the booze, the endless backcountry, or the booze. Or it could be the chance for catharsis. After a long winter, there’s nothing more renewing than burning your old furniture and watching a man in a speed suit cartwheel through the air. Or it might just be the booze.

Whatever it is, it’s coming down on the Happy Boys, who are still monopolizing the girls on the dance floor. An older man has been watching from the edges of the bar for hours, getting more and more frustrated by the tight, bright ski suits and big sunglasses. He tosses a glass of ice in James Binkley’s face, calls him a fag, and punches him in the nose before turning on the others. The cops bust through the doors and part the crowd. Outside the beer tent, a limp blonde is being dragged to the first-aid tent. Fireworks shoot up from a distant camp. A snowmobile grates by, carelessly spraying tiny rocks at everything in its wake.

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