By Peter Hauderowicz.
Team H2 Continental. Peter Hauderowicz (Canada) and Andre Hauderowicz (Norway)
VAKE (Veranger Arctic Kite Enduro) is the world elite kiteboarding long distance race. It is 190 km from start to finish through each checkpoint, but that distance can double when you add in all the upwind tracking and avoiding obstacles.
The organizers work all year long for this, all volunteer time. It is world class, and it improves every year. We kite through a national park, so there are route challenges with reindeer herds, snow cover, and even challenges in protecting their endangered arctic foxes.
Checkpoints are manned by volunteers who sit out in the cold for two or three nights waiting for kiters to come through. One of the checkpoints had a small festival cheering on all the kiters coming through, it was awesome to see people excited about the race going through their town. People in these small towns are always generous, they offer stuff without you asking… They think about your needs and offer them. It’s surprising.
VAKE is a mix of geographical, physical, and mental challenges. You can study detailed topological maps, but the combinations of wind direction and strength messes up every route you plan on a map. The true challenge of this race is your ability to change your plan according to the weather. Communication and a clear plan are keys to success. I saw teams getting frustrated with each other to the point of quitting. That’s tough after you commit so much time into getting to this race. Even quitting should be planned.
We tracked 276 km on our GPS when you add in the upwind tacks and tracks around obstacles. We went up and down 6300 meters of mountains. 42 teams started the race and 16 finished. We were the next closest to the end but with 40 km to go, no wind and about 4 hours left, we were forced to end our race early.
You can only kite between 7 am and 10 pm, but it takes 2.5 hours to get ready in the morning, and about 1.5 hours to get ready at night, so you may get 5 hours of sleep each night, and they are not good sleeps. When you get that tired your mind gets very focused on the basics, and that’s when you stop considering options that can get you out of trouble.
The most difficult is navigating at night. There are lots of small riverbeds, most covered by snow this time of year, but as you go lower down the mountain, these beds form small valleys. Our last night was the craziest. We rigged up big kites on 50 meter lines from one checkpoint because the wind was around 8 knots. We crossed one checkpoint and started heading downwind downhill towards a valley. We were tired and it was around 9 pm. We had tracked 110 km that day. At twilight there are no shadows to look for these dips, and as we neared them we did not realize the wind had picked up to roughly 30 knots. We were way overpowered. I tried to stop at one small crossing but the wind picked me up with my pulk and I cleared the whole river bed, then crashed the kite at a second deeper gorge. I was in trouble with my kite in the gorge, a 10 m drop, my skis over the edge, and my pulk pulling me in. I ended up dumping my pulk and kite in the gorge and managed to ski up and into the gorge to secure my kite, but at this point my partner had also lost control. He managed to dump his kite with the safety release, but was about 500 m downwind from me. It took us about 20 minutes to find each other and we ended up sleeping in the gorge because it was too tough to climb back out with all our gear.
Weather in the mountains changes drastically and you have to be prepared for anything. We had 30 knot winds at the start with whiteout conditions and within 2 hours of the race the wind died and it was a beautiful sunny day.
Here’s a video of the start:
You dress for kiting, but you have to walk when the wind dies, and that takes a lot more energy. I got frostbite on my thumbs and two fingers because we had just finished climbing about 300 m and my hands were sweaty. The weather was around -5C at the top and I had my hands out of my gloves for a couple of minutes.
Our plan was to finish in three days but were out for four. Temperatures drop a lot at night, down to -20C, so at night you get cozy in your sleeping bag with all the stuff you’ll wear in the morning, wet or dry. Sweat was my worst enemy, but I had a good system for changing at night and being ready in the morning.
We ate a quick oat warm breakfast, and then about 1000 cals in the evening. We rationed 3 granola bars at night, so about 2000 cals daily. I lost about 10 lbs through the race. The bigger challenge is having enough water and remembering to drink it. You get busy kiting, or climbing hills and you can forget to drink for 3 hours. You need roughly 4 litres of water per day.
We chose to only bring two kites. A 10 m good for strong winds, and 19 m good for light wind, nothing in between, but you can do stuff like extend lines to fill the void.
The other racers were great, they obviously have similar interests and personalities so it was fun to talk to them. There’s a friendly rivalry amongst all of us, but when you sleep at night you try to stay close to another team. People will help you fix equipment and share chocolate, but there’s never enough time to chat. It’s a race from start to finish.
The race is not "fun" until you finish. It is the toughest kiting race in the world for a reason; it’s tough on your body and tough on your mind. You can prepare well physically, but you get very frustrated when the wind stops blowing.
The worst was being away from my family. I had a ton of friends supporting me on facebook, twitter, and sending me text messages, but you only get to see them at night. You’re very isolated and it was emotionally draining.
The first thing my wife said when I finished was that I have to go back. That was awesome to hear. I would definitely like to go back, I have to finish, but I need some time to forget about this one.
In addition to the story written by Peter, the editors of the Ottawa Kiting Website have asked him additional questions regarding the race and the preparation for it. Below find the text of the online interview conducted with Peter:
Q. When did you start preparing, and how did you prepare for this race?
A. I kited as much as I could in the winter. It helps to work from home. I also started going to the gym twice a week. I'm in good physical shape, but wanted the boost. I started really working on this 4 months before the race.
Q. How much did you prepare to familiarize yourself with the terrain and hazards where the race took place?
A. Not much, that definitely did not help. This is a strange region with lots of hills, valleys, changing weather, etc. We did go out for one night before the race and kited a bit, and a good thing too, half our gear broke on the first day. Luckily we fixed everything up before the race.
Q. What would you do differently or how would you prepare differently for the next time?
A. We did well to prepare. I don't think I could have done more physically. Mentally, the challenges can't be predicted so you have to kite in Ottawa in crap weather as much as you can. I tried going out into scary conditions, just to know how I react. There were a couple of days of 0 visibility, strong gusts, etc.
Q. What did you learn from the other teams, about their different strategies, or equipment?
A. Less is more. The obvious choice was flysurfer kites, usually a 15 m and a 10 or 8. I flew a 19 and 10, my partner a 15 and 9. Not much difference between the 19 and 15. The hardest part of these kites is packing them, especially the 19.
Q. In an event like this, team work is very important and no doubt you are faced with many stressful situations together. How well did you handle the stress (if any) with your partner? What kept you guys strong?
A. Yeah, there's definitely tension. It's all great when you're kiting and going fast, but I hate walking and my partner was way better at it. We did not have a great communication plan, and that was bothering both of us. You need to be on the same page, even when you need to call it quits. You need the same expectations. We did well together as a team. Having the exact same equipment would have helped because you'd both know when it's time to change kites. Also having roles is important, one guy gets the tent ready, the other guy starts too cook right away. It takes forever to cook snow.
Q. A lot of things can go wrong with the gear, so in a race like this how do you prepare for gear failure? Is that even possible?
A. Tuck tape. Extra lines. We did not prepare for catastrophic failure, but we brought stuff to fix kites, lines, etc. Gear breakdown is a strong possibility. My partner's binding fell off so we had to tape it to his boot for most of the race. It sucked for him.
Q. In total how much gear did you have? Was it enough? And would you have brought something different or left something behind?
A. We brought 3 changes of base layer, tent, sleeping mats and whatever we wore at the start. It was perfect, I could have left behind one pair of super thick mits. Basically, take what you'd take on a normal winter kiting day, add three layers of base, extra balaclava, extra mits, tent, stove and food. Everything else is extra weight.
Q. Does packing lighter give you a much better advantage, or it's better to be over prepared and have gear for all sorts of different situations?
A. Definitely, we saw some teams pulling VW beetles, till they got to the first valley and realized they'd have to drag that up 300 m of mountain. The teams that placed early knew there would be walking involved. We could have left behind the thermal rests and stayed with sleeping mats (way lighter). It's a big deal when you're dragging that stuff up, and we went up 6,000 m of hills.
Q. What kind of food did you bring along and what was your diet like during the event? Do you need to bring water or you could rely on melting the snow?
A. Food is not as important as water. You can starve your body of nutrients for a long time. We brought dried food, about 1000 cals for the evening. You're racing from 7 am to 10 pm, so you eat once at night and boil enough water for the next day. Morning is a quick cereal with water from the night before (in a thermos), filling up the camel backs and hoping you don't walk too far to sweat it all out. We had 3 granola bars per day. We got really cramped up the second night, every move in the tent was a cramp, not sure what we should have taken differently, but it's something to think about for next year. Third night was OK.
Q. Is it important to be able to quickly setup/organize your gear? And how important is it to have foil kites over LEI kites?
A. We wasted (and got frustrated) several times when setting up/taking down gear. You'd do it just to re-do it in 1 hour. LEI's are heavy, but there were lots of guys using them, but foils are the way to go for weight and more grunt. Foils take a long time to pack, and are tougher to crash with all the lines, but they are still the preferred choice.
Navigation / Strategy
Q. What strategies did you have (if any) to gain advantage over the other teams?
A. You have to read the terrain. The race is waypoint to waypoint, but you can pick different routes around obstacles, mountains, etc. We got smart in a couple of spots and found some better routes based on intuition, and some luck. Basically staying upwind as much as you can and finding places that were wind blown. We changed our route a lot from our plan.
Q. Was there lots of upwind riding required?
A. Ask my legs! We did about 150 km of the 190 km race and we tracked 276 km on my GPS. YES, it's all uphill too.
Q. During the race, are you able to see/monitor the progress of the other teams? If yes, does it help to know?
A. No not much, you're very cut off throughout the race. We got some texts, but it was too little too late. If you want to play that game you need to have a phone contact throughout the race with someone like a coach.
Q. Do you feel that some of the other teams had significant advantage by knowing or having experience with the terrain?
A. Not the terrain as much as the experience. You need to have one race under your belt to get a feel for what you're up against. There were some local teams that covered far less distance than we did.
Q. In your team, was one partner responsible for navigating, or both of you shared the navigation role?
A. We both navigated, but usually picked one guy to navigate and the other to make sure we were going the right direction. There are two parts to the race. You have to point yourself in the right direction, and get around stuff. My GPS kept feezing up, so Andre was usually telling me which way we should head, and I was leading in figuring out the landscape.
Q. What's important (gear and/or strategy wise) in low or no wind situation?
A. 50 m lines. We could have figured out a better way to go from 25 m to 50 m lines. Every time you stop to adjust you waste 30 minutes, at least. Then you get your kite up on 50 m lines and find out the wind dies completely and you have to pack everything and walk.
Below find some of the pictures that Peter has submitted for this article, along with a map of their progress tracked by their GPS.