The fast track
Arctic Man tests mettle, sanity of high-speed athletes
By Melissa DeVaughn
Adrenaline junkies have one thing in common: that tight-throated amped-up excitement that comes from pushing the envelope, blended with an appreciation for athleticism at its peak.
It’s exactly what Arctic Man delivers each year. Long before X Games riders were flipping off ramps and skiing upside-down tricks, guys – and gals – on snowmachines, downhill skis and snowboards were testing their high-velocity limits in the Hoodoo Mountains of Alaska.
Arctic Man celebrates 30 years this April 6-12 as perhaps the only race of its kind. What started out as a bet between skiers and snowmachiners, and played out as a small speed-skiing challenge among a group of friends, is now a much-anticipated weeklong event that turns a middle-of-nowhere highway pullout into a minor city complete with camping, food, entertainment and more.
Arctic Man 2015 promises another year of mind-blowing athleticism as snowmachiners fine-tune their towing skills while brave-hearted downhill skiers and snowboarders hang on tight and reach speeds in the range of 90 mph. Teams focus heavily on coordination while enduring unheard-of speed and uphill racing that you won’t find in an average ski race.
“We have unbelievable snow there — it’s fantastic,” said Howard Thies, race founder and organizer. “If you’ve been worried about snow the rest of the year, you don’t have to here.”
To fully understand the “only in Alaska” insanity that is Arctic Man, you have to see it for yourself, April 10, in the Hoodoo Mountains north of Paxson.
“If you’re a racer it’s an adrenaline rush,” Thies said. “If you’re a spectator it’s one of the most profound races in the world.”
Here’s how it works: The skier or snowboarder plunges from a 5,800-foot peak known as the Tit, drops 1,700 feet at speeds reaching 60 mph, and navigates a creek — all while staying upright, of course. Eventually, these athletes appear in an open valley where hundreds of spectators watch the most important phase of the race, the hook-up. There, the snowmachiner tries to match speed with the skier, allowing him or her to take hold of a towrope, similar to a water-skiing rope, to be hauled off at high speed, uphill. It’s tricky, and crashes are common – but these pros even know how to crash in harmless style.
With luck, the team is in sync and they’ll rip off without much time lost, catching a little air before disappearing into another creek, the 2.25-mile snowmachine pull.
If the snowmachiner has the skill to ride hard and fast despite the tugging on the rear, and only if the athlete in tow can stay on course and handle the excessive speeds of up to 90 mph, they’ll be contenders for the championship.
Cresting another mountaintop, the skier is released like a slingshot for a second downhill run toward the finish line to complete the total 5.5-mile course.
As Thies said, there’s nothing like it, and the surrounding countryside and mountaintop viewing is, in itself, spectacular.
Thies said the 30th anniversary gives racers and spectators more reason to celebrate.
“Tilted Kilt (an Anchorage bar) is now our new bar and we’re excited about that,” he said. “We’re going to have some special events in the bar that we are still working out.”
One such highlight, he said, is the arrival of a mechanical bull and salmon for riding contests to see who can stay on longest.
That is sure to be a hit. There also will be other bar games for the 21- and older crowd.
Still, Thies stressed, the event is family friendly.
“We have tried to build this up to more of a family event over the years, not just a wild party,” he said. “The Anchorage Motor Mushers Club is coming back again, and we will do a small snow cross for the kids and a mini Arctic Man for them as well. We will not do the hillcross that we have done in the past.”
Also not on the race schedule is the adaptive race, which was featured in both 2013 and 2014. Thies said a scheduling conflict has lured most of the higher-level adaptive racers to an event in Colorado, so he decided to scrap it for this year.
“Paying to get up here is a challenge for a lot of racers,” he said, adding that with the sponsorship of Alaska Airlines, he will be awarding four round-trip airfare tickets to top racers from the Lower 48. He planned to attend the Rahlves’ Bonzai Tour March 14 and 15 and award the tickets to the winners of that X Games style downhill competition.
“If they win that division I’m going to tell them, ‘I’ll give you a round-trip ticket to fly up and race,’ and I’ll start with No. 1 and if he can’t go I’ll ask No. 2 and I’ll go down as far as I need to,” Thies said.
Thies said the stronger the competition, the closer to new records the race will reach — although the current record of 3 minutes 52.72 seconds with an average speed of 79.2 mph, set by Marco Sullivan and Tyler Aklestad in 2013 — is pretty rock solid.
“Think about that,” Thies said. “Five and one-half miles in 3 minutes and 52 seconds on a pair of skis being pulled by a snowmachine. It’s insane.”
True, the race and thousands of spectators riding through the mountains on snowmachines might seem intimidating, but Arctic Man has remained a festive gathering that anyone can enjoy with most everyone being courteous and typically Alaska-friendly.
“The whole thing is to come and have a good time, be safe, don’t drink and drive,” Thies said. “We have a bus that will take you home. The bus is free if you want to tip the driver, that would be nice.”
As always he warns of the risk of drinking and driving – or riding – and with Alaska State Troopers on the premises to maintain safety, reckless behavior will not be tolerated.
Centrally located in the Arctic Man compound, the bar tent is surrounded by hundreds of RVs and vehicles, trailers, snow toys, and the nearly 15,000 people that know how to throw a party. This iconic event draws a mob of colorful characters from around the globe, complete with costumes and elaborate campsites.
Thies invites everyone back for a great time. He stressed that if you had a parking spot last year, whether you know your number or not, those spots are secure until March 1. After that, the many folks on the waiting list get their shot at a coveted campsite, and you’ll have to make another reservation.
Visit the Arctic Man website for an updated race roster, camp registration information and event schedule, www.arcticman.com.
Monday, April 6
9 a.m.-5 p.m. Course closed for course setup and packing.
Tuesday, April 7
9 a.m.-5 p.m. Racers, please watch for preparation crews. Course sections open for practice. Watch for ‘section closed’ signs.
Wednesday, April 8
9 a.m.-5 p.m. Racers, please watch for packing crews and set-up crews. Course sections open for practice. Watch for ‘section closed’ signs.
Thursday, April 9
9 a.m.-5 p.m. Canyon Pull closed (no access to canyon). Skiing sections, hookup and drop-off open for practice. Noon-2 p.m., Avalanche Rescue Workshop. 2 p.m. Mandatory racers’ meeting at release point for course inspection and start-position drawing. 5-7 p.m., AMMC Race registration, Bar Headquarters. 7 p.m. Mandatory racers meeting at main tent for bib pickup, pre-race instructions, questions and answers.
Friday, April 10
10:30 a.m. Tech inspections at hookup. 11 a.m. Forerunners start, with race to follow. Noon Race start. If race is postponed, the race will be held on Saturday with the same schedule as above. Saturday, April 11
10-11 a.m. AMMC Registration. Noon, Arctic Man Kids Races at Snow Cross. 4 p.m., p.m. AMMC Drag races. 7 p.m. Awards. 8 p.m. AMMC awards Bar Headquarters. 10 p.m. raffle. (Saturday is the backup day if race not held on Friday.)
Sunday, April 12
Backup day if race not held on Saturday.
Following the race
If getting to Arctic Man just isn’t an option — maybe the budget is limited or you can’t get the time off of work — don’t worry. Arctic Man organizers have created many ways in which you can follow the race from the comfort of home.
Radio station KZND-FM 94.7 will be announcing times and places to the crowd via Arctic Man’s on-site station 107.5 FM, and also will send race updates and online communications beyond the race venue via social media, including Facebook and Twitter.
Facebook updates will occur in the morning and evening — find the Arctic Man page at www.facebook.com/pages/Arctic-Man/177882763753. Twitter updates will be at www.twitter.com/arcticmanalaska.
The spectacular Hoodoo Mountains are the venue for this annual event, which attracts nearly 15,000 spectators each year. To get here from Anchorage, follow the Glenn Highway to its intersection with the Richardson Highway, at Glennallen. Turn left (north) on the Richardson for approximately 82.5 miles. From Fairbanks follow the Richardson south. Follow the Richardson for another 62.5 miles past Delta Junction.
General GPS coordinates for the Arctic Man campground are 63°12’7.21”N, 145°30’35.30”W.
Side events & entertainment
Arctic Man race director Howard Thies says to expect the usual forms of entertainment, Alaska Motor Mushers Club races, jumping, drags, live music, food, beer tent — all the things that make Arctic Man just that much more fun.
Of course, spectators are always encouraged to get creative and make their own forms of family-friendly entertainment as can be seen by the elaborate camps, cookouts and general camaraderie.
Arctic Man organizers say there is loads of snow in the Hoodoos. With much of the region lacking in good snowfall, Arctic Man is one of your best hopes for spectacular, spring riding.
Bar tent and shuttle bus
As a free service, Arctic Man guests can be transported from the bar tent back to their camp on a shuttle. The shuttle is for anyone who has been drinking … not just the lightweights. So hop on board and tip the driver. After all, he or she is putting up with a rowdy bunch.
If you plan on drinking, walk — don’t ride — to the bar. Make a plan to use the shuttle. Watch out for friends and family. If needed, put them on the shuttle to save them the embarrassment of winding up on the Alaska State Troopers TV series. It’s a poor representation of Alaska, and gives Arctic Man a bad name.
Roadside services caution
The Paxson Lodge and fuel station likely will be closed after shutting down two years ago. If driving up from the south (Wasilla, Anchorage, Valdez) fuel up in Glennallen, and plan accordingly.
Cell phone coverage
Arctic Man organizers would like to thank AT&T for the cell phone service they’ve provided for the past few years. 4G service will again be available.
Do you consider yourself a king or Arctic Man? Then you deserve a proper throne. If you don’t want everyone messing up your RV toilet or if you don’t think it will function properly in the extreme cold, then call (907) 452-1480 to secure your very own outhouse.
Fires are permitted in your camp area. Bring your own wood or purchase wood from the provider at Arctic Man. Just be sure to call well in advance to make arrangements so you’re not left out in the cold.
Rules of the camp include no burning of pallets (nails have been a problem in the past) and no throwing glass in the fires. And, as weird as it is to write these words — feel free to bring a couch but do NOT leave it behind, attempt to burn it or dump it in the Dumpsters.
To purchase firewood, call
(907) 803-8300 or (907) 895-5586.
The Arctic Man compound is plowed and constructed annually and offers limited space for campers and RVs. Camping groups must reserve campsites and register with Arctic Man organizers. The cost to do so after Feb. 15 is around $145. After March 15, the cost is $155. PayPal credit card payments are available online. Previous Parking Pad users must download a registration form, make payment and mail the registration form to race officials. New Parking Pad users must use the online form and will be contacted with further information.
Campsites include plowed parking, access to the medical tent, outhouses, garbage Dumpster and the opportunity to be close to all the action. Previous Arctic Man campers have the first opportunity to reserve their campsite. After March 1, however, all sites are up for grabs.
Find the registration form online at www.arcticman.com. Be prepared to be placed on a waiting list as sites are often claimed long before event day.
Fuel and propane
Fuel will be available for purchase at the Arctic Man compound, but it’s an excellent idea to bring extra fuel to ensure your vehicle or generator can keep you warm for the duration of the event. Propane will not be available, and folks have been known to run out.
The nearest fuel station is a long haul away, so plan accordingly.
REMEMBER: Store fuel properly so as not to create a fire hazard. Also, NO fireworks are allowed. Don’t even think about bringing them.