It's April in Alaska so the traffic on the Glenn Highway can't be blamed on either winter snow or summer tourists. The line of yellowing motorhomes, bulbous camper trailers, jacked-up pickups and shopworn Subarus inching out of Wasilla onto the hairpins and steep climbs of the Glenn is, as the bumper stickers say, "Alaska Grown," the annual migration of the state's Sledneck population to Arctic Man. Once clear of the sprawl of Wasilla, the signs along the way read like pages flying back on a calendar, flipping past the state's prospector and homestead era — "Jackass Creek," "Frost Heave," "Eureka" — to the Native names, from long before there was English to write them down: "Matanuska," "Chickaloon," "Tazlina." Then there's the highway itself, named for Edwin Glenn, a Spanish-American war vet and Army officer who was the first American soldier ever court-martialed for waterboarding. But earlier in his career, in the late 1890s, Glenn led two expeditions into this wilderness.
Maybe that's the lesson: If you put your name in the ground up here, it stays. Your life outside the state is your own concern.
The temperature is way below freezing, but the air still carries the smell of gasoline, grilled meat and alcohol.
After the Glenn, you head up past Gulkana — Athabascan for "winding river" — and then a final rush out onto the frozen moonscape of Summit Lake, where the peaks of the Alaska Range fill the horizon, all the way to mighty Denali, which might be the best counterexample of Alaskan identity: William McKinley may have been president, but he never set foot in Alaska, so most Alaskans call the nation's largest mountain by its native name, Denali.
You turn off the highway, down a road piled with eight feet of snow on both sides. This is Camp Isabel, once the single biggest work camp along the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, now a forgotten gravel airstrip at the base of the Hoodoo Mountains. Perhaps 1,000 motorhomes, RVs and trailers are already here, strewn like fallen Jenga pieces inside the frozen walls. Snowmachines buzz past your doors, above your head on the snow banks and over the distant peaks like swarming gnats. The temperature is way below freezing, but the air still carries the smell of gasoline, grilled meat and alcohol. A four-wheeler rumbles past pulling a big sled and on the big sled is a couch, a so-called Alaskan Rickshaw. Four people are riding, holding drinks. One of them is wearing a full wolf pelt, snout, eyes, ears and all. He nods and tips his cup "Hello."
Arctic Man is a weeklong, booze and fossil-fueled Sledneck Revival bookended around the world's craziest ski race. Both the festival and the race at its heart have been firing off every year in these mountains for more than half as long as Alaska has been a state. Over the course of a week, something like 10,000 partiers and their snowmachines disgorge onto Camp Isabel's 300-acre pad to drink, grill, fight, drink and, at least while the sun is out, blast their sleds through the ear-deep powder in the surrounding hills one last time before it all melts away. Then on Friday morning, anyone not hopelessly hungover or already drunk by noon swarms up the valley south of camp to watch the damnedest ski race on earth.
It's just above zero degrees at the crossroads of Arctic Man's main camp, but Danielle from Fairbanks and the three guys she's here with still think they're going to see some boobs. She introduces Hot Mark and The Other Mark, who seem content to sit in their camp chairs and wait, and Darren, who wears a Realtree-trimmed fleece, a visor and Guy Fieri hair. Darren has the Mardi Gras beads and Jell-O shots and makes good cop-offers of both for a flash to anyone who walks by with no regard to gender. Danielle's the bad cop. She hurls dares, challenges and insults at passing women of every age, shape and layering. "Come on! ‘Too cold for nipple? We heard that one before!'" Even as a tag team, their hit rate for girl-boobie flashes versus drunk man-tits is probably less than 1 in 10, but they brought 1,500 beads and it's early.
They've unloaded massive propane grills, maybe six sofas, better than a dozen snowmachines, and a full-sized pool table.
Most of their takers come from the never-ending line of vehicles slowly circulating through camp, a buzzing, grinding parade of modified, rebuilt and just plain made-up creations of double- and quadruple-tread Snow Cats, Play Cats, motorcycles, buggies, four-wheelers and even the rare, hilariously unsafe ‘80s-style three-wheeler. It's hard to name a motorized vehicle bigger than a vacuum and smaller than a tank that isn't on parade at Arctic Man, including the paraglider that swoops over camp all weekend. For those who can't — or shouldn't — find a ride, there are nearly as many ride-along options: hay-covered wagons, sleds of every size and shape and, of course, the sofa. Too drunk for a sofa? A blue "DUI Evasion Bus" patrols the camp all night and will take you to your campsite, if you can recall the way.
The biggest wing of Arctic Man's village is on Isabel's old airstrip. It's derisively called Millionaire's Row for the grandiosity of the campers, campsites and accessories its inhabitants tend to bring. When the sun finally sets about 10:30 p.m., the strip stays lit by an uneven mix of Christmas lights, tiki torches, flood lamps and the occasional flashing neon sign, and music tumbles out of campsites ranging from Pharrel's "Happy" to Billy Squire's "Stroke Me." One group at the end of the strip hangs white sheets across the snow banks to make a movie theater. Further up, a particularly beefy collection of dually pickups and RVs form a courtyard under a banner that reads "Team Hangover." The site is home to about two dozen Fairbanks-area metalworkers, mostly guys, mostly in Carhartts, hoodies and soul patches. They've been coming for 15 years, and their camp sprawls across 12 parking spots. From their various rigs, they've unloaded massive propane grills, maybe six sofas, better than a dozen snowmachines, and a full-sized pool table.
But what they really want to show off is their fire pit. One of them spent the winter designing and welding it at work, cutting air vents in the shape of "Arctic Man" and Budweiser logos and typically well-endowed Mudflap Girls. It's impressive, but then you walk to the next encampment where a group of retired military couples are gathered around their own custom pit with a considerably more ingenious approach to ventilation. Two pipes welded directly into the fire ring run straight to a full-size Stihl leaf blower, creating a kind of high-power bellows. It's the brainchild of Erik Burney, a retired Air Force veteran and past president of the Anchorage Snowmobile Club. Between shots of mouthwash-tasting schnapps, they fire it up and send flames 15 feet into the air.
Burney and his friends have been coming to Arctic Man for two decades, improving something every year, like the tricked-out interior of his snowmachine trailer. It's big enough for four sleds, but when they come out, the walls fold down into a bed, desk and entertainment system. Burney knows that there are hundreds of other camps all over Arctic Man as fine-tuned, hand-built and hard-earned as his own, which is why when he looks around at the sprawling, churning mass of Arctic Man, he doesn't see a high-octane bacchanal for redneck dead-enders. He sees America. "It's a testament to the American spirit," he says. "No other country could pull this off without massive government interference."
At the center of it all is the Beer Tent, the central, 24-hour hub of Arctic Man. Most of Arctic Man's population passes through at least briefly for a beer or a T-shirt, and a few seem to stay all week. As race day nears, the nightly crowd grows. Groups of younger women begin to appear, many wearing the peculiar Alaskan combo of tights stuffed into brown XtraTuf rubber boots. They're quickly surrounded by men in overalls and tiny knit caps, all happily bumping and drinking deep into the night.
Inside the Beer Tent. (Matt White)
The Beer Tent is still the scene of passouts and hookups, blackouts and beatdowns.
The Beer Tent is still the scene of passouts and hookups, blackouts and beatdowns, but it's calmed considerably in recent years. Maybe it's because the State Troopers have started sending serious manpower up here. There are 15 of them this year, patrolling the camp in full battle rattle on their own fleet of snowmachines, four-wheelers and SUVs. Maybe it's just that the snowpack is down. Or maybe it's because, almost 30 years into this, the legendary hell raisers from Arctic Man's creation myths are starting to show up with their grandkids. Where the Beer Tent famously used to host a terrifying, leathery post-race wet T-shirt contest, now preppy kids take over the dance floor and ballroom dance. While the Troopers wait outside, the hefty security staff that Arctic Man founder Howard Thies has brought from Fairbanks is on clear shoot-first orders, tossing out anyone at the first sign of trouble. Few things stop a drunken fight like a plunge into a minus-10-degree night.
A former state roads supervisor under Sarah Palin, Thies is 68, with a white beard and gravelly voice and over the week, it's not at all clear that he sleeps. He is up before sunrise erecting tents and directing incoming traffic, pops up and then disappears like a bewhiskered Cheshire cat all over the racecourse throughout the day, and monitors the Beer Tent's level of frenzy all night. Everyone — Every. One. — at Arctic Man knows Howard. Need a tractor to clear out a snow bank for your trailer? Find Howard. Wi-Fi? Check with Howard. Can I ride my sled past the cops holding a beer? Better ask Howa — no, on second thought, don't do that.
There is oh-so-much booze and partying, maybe as much as ever, but by unanimous consent, modern Arctic Man is missing an edge of wildness and maybe a sense of menace it once had. In one camp, families from Soldotna — at least two hours past Anchorage — are back for their 20th year. Their son left Alaska for Texas long ago and only comes back for Arctic Man. This year he brought his newborn daughter.
The truth is that Arctic Man is changing, faster each year. And nowhere is that more true than in the ski race that defines it.
So here, then, is the race: beginning 10 miles outside Isabel, a skier kicks off a 5,800-foot peak called the Tit and, skiing without poles, plunges 1,700 feet in about a mile and half downhill to the mountain's base, the fastest in less than 80 seconds. There, in a ravine known as Hookup, a teammate waits on a 600cc snowmachine. As the skier sweeps into Hookup, the rider accelerates out and hands the racer a towrope, little different from a waterskiing rig. With the snowmachine now towing the skier, the team launches up a second ravine and begins a 2-mile, 1,200-foot climb up a second mountain, the sled churning a rooster tail of powder and ice chunks at the trailing skier the whole way. The fastest teams make the 2 1/2-mile uphill run from Hookup in slightly under two minutes and, at the peak, catch simultaneous air before diving into a short downhill stretch toward the race's most dangerous section, a jump over a cliff identified ironically as First Aid. Just short of the drop, the driver pulls hard to the right, sling-shotting the skier to the day's top speed. Back in a racing tuck, the skier flies perhaps 50 feet over the First Aid lip and, if managing to remain upright, screams down a zigzagging final mile to the finish, where much of Arctic Man's 10,000 spectators will have temporarily moved the party.
Downhiller Marco Sullivan became the first skier to win Arctic Man in under four minutes, an average speed of about 80 miles per hour.
In 2013, three-time U.S. Olympic Downhiller Marco Sullivan, with his driver Tyler Aklestad of Palmer (near Anchorage), became the first skier to win Arctic Man in under four minutes, an average speed of about 80 miles per hour. Considering the time it takes to accelerate from a dead stop at the top and in the flat section at Hookup, top speeds along the course are way faster than that.
Unsurprisingly, the Arctic Man race started as a Fairbanks bar bet 29 years ago, when Thies and his brother made a wager they could beat two other skiers from the Tit to the valley outside Isabel. For two decades, it was almost entirely an Alaska secret, shared between the state's snowmachine crowd and a few local racers and extreme skiers. Times on the course sometimes extended up to six minutes, after which racers would not bother trying to stop, but simply point their skis up a hill behind the finish line until their speed ran out and then collapse in a heap. The floodgates opened in 2007, when Alaska's only big ski resort, Alyeska in Girdwood near Anchorage, hosted the U.S. Alpine Championships, the final event of the World Cup season, just a week before Arctic Man. Some of the pros, including Sullivan, stayed in town to see if the rumors — the prize money, the party, the flat crazy chance to rip behind a snow machine — were true. Sullivan has won the race four times coming into 2014, and with more than $100,000 in prize money — $29,000 to the men's winner — a tipping point seems at hand that has put Arctic Man squarely on the map for international-level talent. During the daily practice runs and nightly in the Beer Tent, Olympic-issued jackets and pants with "Sochi," "Vancouver" and even the occasional "Salt Lake City" are everywhere.
The man who has won Arctic Man more times, five total, than anyone else has one piece of customized gear: a fanny pack with "Goldenview Middle School Physical Education Dept." stitched across it. Eric Heil is at Arctic Man, as he is every year, on vacation days from teaching middle school PE and health in Anchorage. Heil, 49, is shorter than most of the skiers at Arctic Man and, by the end of Wednesday's training runs, his skin is significantly redder, too, a telltale sign that he gets less frequent exposure to the sun, glare and thin mountain air than the professionals. Still, with tousled brown hair and wide, friendly eyes, he could easily pass as a decade younger and he retains a skier's infamously thick lower torso — the so-called ‘skiers butt' — that allows racers to squat at 80 mph for five minutes, but makes finding decent fitting pants all but impossible.
Heil calls teaching his "winter job," because his "summer job" is captain of his own Bristol Bay longline salmon fishing boat. He's been in commercial fishing since he was 15, soon after his father arrived in the state looking for Pipeline work. His first job, like many in Alaskan fishing, was a grueling gig in a cannery at 15, until an inattentive accident after a 20-hour day sent him to the hospital. When he told the doctors he wasn't 18, he was fired. "Next summer, I was back working at that same cannery, which tells you about that industry," he says. He bought a fishing boat in 1995 and saw it sink in 2000, only then discovering it had sunk once before. "I gotta sell that thing. It's a bad luck boat," he says. He hasn't and instead, two weeks after school lets out, he'll be back on it fishing for 40 days. He might get some downtime in July, but probably not.
Two nights before the race, in a quiet cabin two miles from Arctic Man's central camp, he's peeling aluminum foil off a tray of enchiladas. Like so much of modern Alaska, the cabin was built with Pipeline money by a Pipeline worker who couldn't bring himself to leave when the pipe was finished. Heil started renting the place years ago to escape the main camp's 24-hour party. His team is now all sprawled on sofas and benches around the living room and they are much of the reason he's managed to stay at the top of the leader board even as younger, faster skiers have arrived. The crew includes two white-haired Canadian firefighters from Whitehorse, Heil's driver Dan Branholm and another team, skier Dan McKay and rider Eric Quam, and a pair of floppy-haired 15-year-olds. All four racers are longtime Alaskan athletes and competitors in the state's skiing and snowmachine circuits. As Heil prepares dinner, he talks strategy for this week and how close he came to not coming back this year.
"Quitting is for wimps," Heil says, smirking, "I move we die." This is a fishing joke, or at least a fishing laugh line, tossed between deckhands for generations to ward off the misery and boredom of fishing, but Heil obviously hears a ring of his own story in it. He chuckles to himself as steam rises off the enchiladas, filling the cabin with the smell of roasted chiles and melted cheese. Heil has spent much of the last year recovering from his first major Arctic Man crash in 2013. Soon after the start, one of his bindings came loose and he tore knee ligaments and most of the muscles in his hips in the ensuing impact.
Heil first won Arctic Man in 1993, fresh out of college at the University of Alaska-Anchorage, still chasing a shot at the U.S. Ski Team. He raced independently for a few years, but says, "I never had my best day on the days I needed them." Still, he's been Arctic Man's dominant figure, at least among Alaskans, for two decades, finishing second eight times along with his five wins. He was the first to break five minutes on the course, last won in 2009 and took second in 2011 behind Sullivan, but the crash led to a summer of surgeries.
"This year is about redemption," he says. "One of the recurring themes I've had for this last spring is identifying with the energy you get from being injured, and the drive that comes along with a comeback. The last time we won I was coming off an ACL, and I was like ‘I'm not going down with this ACL, I'm coming back, as a lifestyle I'm coming back 100 percent, I wanna know I can do what I used to do.' That was the same thing this last year."
Among the 55 men and women who have come to race, at least 18 have made an Olympic (or Paralympic) team.
Age and injury, though, may be the least of Heil's concerns. This year's field is, by far, the best in the race's history. Among the 55 men and women who have come to race, at least 18 have made an Olympic (or Paralympic) team, while another dozen have raced on national teams in the U.S., Canada or Europe. The Snowboarders include Olympians and X Games stars Nate Holland, Scotty Lago and Carle Brenneman, while the skiers include Sullivan, Erik Fisher and Steve Nyman, all vets of both Sochi and past Arctic Mans. There's also Petr Kakes, a former Olympian who runs the ski school at Mt. Hood, and James Scott, a snowboarder from Fairbanks who has raced Arctic Man at least 20 times.
Arctic Man has also welcomed adaptive skiers for over two decades, and five are signed up this year. Sit-skiers, as they call themselves, do not have use of their legs and instead ride on a seat mounted over a single, wide ski and maintain balance with poles that have small skis mounted on their ends. The adaptive skiers hook up to the snowmachines with rigid poles rather than with ropes, but otherwise run the same race. The Adaptive field is a mix of Alaskans and outsiders, including Kurt Oatway, who placed fifth in the Downhill at Sochi for Canada, and three-time U.S. Paralympian Kevin Bramble. The most-watched team might just be Ravi Drugen skiing behind a sled driven by Paul Thacker, the only driver who is also paraplegic. Before a training crash in 2010, Thacker was one of the X Games' top riders and held the world record for distance jumping. He returned to the X Games in 2013 in its Adaptive division. Thacker, a lifelong Alaskan rolled into Arctic Man in what might be the entire camp's most badass rig, a massive green-and-black Monster Energy-sponsored tour bus pulling an equally oversized snowmachine trailer.
But among the fans and racers alike, Heil is Arctic Man's hometown hero.
"All us local guys, we think it's awesome that these Ski Team guys come here, wanting to do this race, pushing us," he says. "I always tell, them, ‘You guys make us better,' and I think they respect us for how we push them.
"But, ya know, we're here to kick their butts."
Heil's training partner at Arctic Man, Dan McKay, is another Alaskan. He's finished third a couple times and in the top five a few others. Last year he was one of three skiers to break four minutes on the 5-mile course, finishing third behind Sullivan and former World Junior Downhill Champ Chris Beckmann. McKay is almost half Heil's age and grew up in Montana, but otherwise their biographies run as parallel as ski tracks. Both came to Alaska for its wide open sense of adventure, and both skied at UA-A. And when a few years of chasing the professional circuit couldn't quite pay the bills, both found their way into the hard, physical work of Alaska's outdoor economy and the distinctively Alaskan lifestyle where miserable conditions and occasional real danger are rewarded with high pay and seasons off, perfect for feeding expensive outdoor adventure habits.
McKay, only 30, recently got a job blasting rock and frozen ground with explosives for oil and construction companies. It's hard work and he's eager to find something else, maybe in the oil fields, maybe not. A friend is doing a film project that might involve sailing to Tahiti, which he thinks sounds like a lot more fun than blasting permafrost.
While Heil and McKay talk about the course and what kind of wax will probably be best for the warmer-than-average snow, Quam and Branholm stare at a pair of laptops. Graphs and charts scroll across the screen that might be stock prices or an EKG of a person climbing stairs.
"Here's where I lifted over the last rise," says Quam, scowling and shaking his head. The data is the telemetry recorded by their snowmachines' computer during training runs — throttle, speed, temperatures, etc. They are both looking for small mistakes and openings from the day's practice runs, opportunities to shave a quarter-second off their time.
Quam and Branholm, like most of the riders on Arctic Man's top teams, come from the Iron Dog world. While snowmachines have made it to the X Games in recent years in events that mirror motocross, endurance events are more common in Alaska, with the Iron Dog at its apex. In that race, snowmachines follow the same 800-mile course as the Iditarod dog race, then tack on another 400 miles to Fairbanks. If you're thinking you've heard about this, but can't quite place it, it's that crazy race that Todd Palin, ex-Governor Sarah Palin's "first dude," has won three times. Quam won the race in 2008 in 42 hours and Sullivan's driver Tyler Aklestad has finished second.
Of the 20-plus Arctic Man races, this will be Heil's first skiing behind a sled piloted by someone other than his longtime driver, Len Story. A family emergency this year took Story away, and Heil had to scramble to find a replacement driver. Quam, who has raced with McKay for five years, put Heil in touch with Branholm, a pipefitter who has run the Iron Dog three times, but prefers the short-track excitement of ice racing, perfect for Arctic Man's brief, all-out pull section.
"We kind of have the easy job," Branholm says. "They tell you to go and you go as fast as you can. The pressure is not messing it up. He expects to win."
As the night goes on, Heil gets into some verbal sparring with one of the teenagers on the couch. Like all teenagers, the kid thinks he's being funny, mouthing off to an adult willing to let him do so, but Heil has a trump card: He is the kid's health teacher, and watched him cringe and wince his way through Sex Ed class.
"Well," says Heil after some back and forth. "We can do the talk on condoms and sex organs if you want."
"No!" the teenager howls.
Another adult voice cuts in: "Or you can go to the Beer Tent and see it for real."
- Team Hangover's custom built fire pit. (Photo by Matt White)
- The Arctic Man's version of a hay ride. (Photo by Matt White)
- A sofa taxi with the DUI Evasion Bus in the background. (Photo by Matt White)
- Daron Rahlves goes airborne over the First Aid lip. (Photo by Matt White)
- A skier crashes at the Hookup. (Photo by Matt White)
- A snowmachine driver goes airborne. (Photo by Matt White)
- An adaptive skier hooks up with his driver. (Photo by Matt White)
- The Northern Lights. (Photo by Brian Montalbo)
Sometime after sunset, Daron Rahlves shows up at Heil's cabin, along with skier Kyle Coxon and driver Alec Jones, teammates in the race. If Heil is the face of Arctic Man's past and Sullivan its current champ, Rahlves and teams like Coxon and Jones may represent its future. Rahlves is a four-time Olympian with 28 podiums and a dozen wins on the World Cup circuit and in the last 10 years has become one of the biggest stars in the freestyle skiing world under the umbrella of ubiquitous sports-sponsor Red Bull, wearing the company's famous blue, red and yellow helmet. The energy drink behemoth signed Rahlves in 2004 as its first fully-sponsored skier after he posted the first American win in 44 years on the legendary Hannekahn racers in Kitzbühel, Austria. "They said ‘If you win Kitzbühel, you get the helmet deal,'" said Rahlves. "I won, and I got the helmet deal."
Just 5'9, Rahlves has neither the oversized torso nor lanky limbs of many World Cup skiers. He's fit and solid, with a hard chin, narrow, intense eyes and carries a serious air that suggests why he's been able to make that rare transition in sports, from elite competitor to professional promoter. After making three Olympic teams in traditional events, injuries ended Rahlves' World Cup career in 2006. But he qualified for Vancouver in 2010 in Ski cross, the roller derby-style event where multiple skiers jockey for position down a course of tight turns and jumps. Sensing that the underlying demographics of his sport were shifting, he returned to California and started a localized Ski cross series, the Rahlves Banzai Tour, which just wrapped its fourth season around Lake Tahoe.
"Even my home race team at Sugar Bowl has a Big Mountain team now," he says.
Coxon, 23, is a perfect example. A Utah skier, he won the championship of Rahlves' Banzai event this past season, commuting for the races from Salt Lake City. When Thies invited Rahlves to bring a team to Alaska, Coxon jumped at the chance, inviting Jones to be his driver. Heil and the two young racers quickly discover they have commercial fishing in common. Jones just bought his own boat and Coxon plans on crewing with him this summer. He had considered working instead with his girlfriend on a boat owned by Jones’ mom, but decided not to mix his relationship with the hard days of fishing.
"Smarter that way, probably," he says.
Instead, the two crews have a bet. If the men catch more fish, Jones' mom has to skydive; if the women do, Jones has to sing Whitney Houston karaoke at their fisherman's bar.
Rahlves and his team's presence at Arctic Man is both a shot in the arm for the level of competition and exposure, and a glimpse of the event's possible future. Just before the New Year, Arctic Man's longtime title sponsor, Tesoro, a Houston-based oil company that owns gas stations all over Alaska, pulled out after 10 years. "The decision was made out of Texas, not Alaska," Thies told the Fairbanks News-Miner, referring to the company's home headquarters. "The guy who made the decision is a marketing guy from Texas."
That left Thies just months to fill a $25,000 hole in the event's budget. In February, he flew to California for the season finale of Rahlves' Banzai Tour and offered to bring Rahlves' team to Arctic Man, hoping to catch the eye of Red Bull. However, energy drink and sports-sponsor Rockstar is already an Arctic Man sponsor. When racers finish, they ski under a Rockstar finish line. It's left Thies in a difficult position, competing for dollars in an ever-more crowded marketplace of non-traditional sports events.
"Rockstar's been good to me," says Thies. "They've stuck with me and been good for the event. I told Red Bull, I'll listen to anybody, but I'm not listening for $30,000. Show me $100,000, I'll listen."
McKay says that if the snow is right, they can expect to hit 100 mph.
As the racers all dig into the enchiladas, Heil, Coxon and Jones are soon so deep in fishing talk that Rahlves seems concerned they might never get back to skiing. Eventually, though, Heil and Rahlves find their own conversation that locks out the younger men: hip injuries. Finally, talk turns to Sullivan, who Rahlves knows well in California, and his current streak of dominance. "Marco's got a sweet tuck," he says, his voice trailing off. Today's practice had been an eye-opener for the Californian, "I thought you'd come up and just bull your way down, but it seems like there's a lot more to it," he says. McKay says that if the snow is right, they can expect to hit 100 mph — high 90s, for sure — off the slingshot at the release spot. At first, Rahlves plays it off. Then he turns back to McKay, his face a little unsure.
"A hundred?" he asks.
"A hundred," McKay confirms.
Rahlves shakes his head and, for a moment, his veneer breaks in wide smile. "That's pretty damn fast."
The day of the race, the skiers walk the top of First Aid. The week began with three days of storms, but the last two have been perfect and from both the Tit and First-Aid, you can see peaks in three of the state's biggest ranges, the Alaska, Chugach and Wrangell around the horizon. As it has all week, the fastest sled seems to belong to Rahlves' Red Bull teammate, Levi LaVallee. Unlike the Alaskan riders raised on Iron Dog-style backcountry races, LaVallee, an affable Minnesotan who can drop a corny Midwestern colloquialism, "Geez, Louise," into the same sentence as gnarly, is, by far, the most dominant rider in the X Games-style events of Snocross and Freestyle. He has the kind of résumé that sends you immediately to YouTube: He once jumped a sled 412 feet (the same record once held by adaptive racer Paul Thacker) and pulled off a double backflip on a snowmobile at the 2009 X Games, though the trick was ruled incomplete when he bounced off during the landing. The Alaska riders, even the Iron Dog guys, are all a little in awe of LaVallee in the days before the race. He had his machine shipped up for the race, which absolutely freaks out everyone, and during practice runs, it looks like the fastest rig on the mountain. As he screams through checkpoints, it even seems to have a distinct high-pitched whine that sets it apart from the rest of the field.
The secret they don't know is that LaVallee, an affable, even humble Minnesotan, is almost completely out of his element at Arctic Man. For one, perhaps alone among all 10,000 Alaskan snowmachine riders in camp, he says "snowmobile." More importantly, he has very little raw backcountry experience. When Rahlves asks him about his avalanche gear — universal safety equipment in backcountry sports — LaVallee has no idea what he means.
"It was different being up in the mountain from Minnesota. We don't have any mountains or that kind of riding," he says. "Avalanches are a completely different program for me. I follow whoever knows something about it. I say ‘Can I ride here?' and I don't go one track outside of that."
Still, LaVallee is a Snocross champion. Arctic Man's groomed flats and smooth corners are a close match for his skills of shooting angles through turns under full throttle, though towing a skier while letting it rip is something new.
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"The biggest thing is to slow down not nearly as aggressively," he says. "If I don't flow through a turn then he's flying up on me, and then you have a bunch of line slack. And some of the snow banks are 5 or 6 feet, so I'm trying to hit the apex of a turn and cut in, but you gotta give him a little room."
As noon approaches, thousands of riders pour out of camp and up the course, some all the way to the Tit to watch the start, others stopping at Hookup, where machine meets man and where most crashes happen (three racers will bite it here this year, momentarily pulled off balance as their driver surges ahead). But the biggest crowd is at the finish.
The race starts with the Adaptive skiers, and promptly takes a dark turn. When Ira Edwards tumbles over on the starting hill, he breaks a leg. A doctor and EMT team stabilizes him, but his injuries are too severe to move by sled. Alaska is crawling with capable military units who have historically stationed a helicopter at Arctic Man — both the Army and National Guard have multiple medevac units and an elite Air National Guard rescue squadron is in Anchorage — but the closest helicopter this year is the State Troopers in Fairbanks and it takes two hours for it to arrive. Waiting in the cold, the delay takes a mental toll on the skiers at the top.
"We were all talking, like they could be any of us," said Sullivan.
But the bored spectators at Hookup put the delay to good use. On a well-shaped ridge above the racetrack, they take turns launching their sleds into the air, flying approximately 100 feet down the slopes. When one rider misses the landing, he bails out and his sled tumbles down to the bottom of the hill. When he stands and raises his hands, a tiny scarecrow figure on the cliff face, a cheer goes up.
When the race resumes, Sullivan is one of the first skiers down the course, and he rips off a 3:56 run, his second straight year under four minutes and a blazing time on this year's far-warmer snow. True to his reputation, his time over the smooth top section will be the day's fastest by 10 full seconds. As the race goes on and team after team tear down the mountain, none catch Sullivan as the final racers wait up top. Rahlves is third from last while Heil will be the final man down the mountain. He knows Sullivan's time and thinks he can beat it. "They said ‘3:56,' and I was like, 'Man, we got a chance at this sub-4, right on,'" said Heil. "I thought there's a chance of going 3:55."
When Rahlves pushes off the Tit, he immediately makes a rookie mistake, forgetting his first "skate," or kick, down the initial slope, an early error that will compound over the top section. Still, his time to Hookup is the sixth fastest of the day and he nails the transition behind LaVallee, whose sled screams up into the ravine, its distinctive whine echoing behind him.
As it turns out, it sounds different for a reason. Halfway up the make-or-break hill toward Release, LaVallee pulls up. His fuel is too rich at this altitude, the engine not properly tuned, and a spark plug, in the Arctic cold, has, quite literally, melted.
"I've never seen a spark plug do that," he later says. Rahlves is out of the race.
Back on top, Heil finally pushes off the Tit, skating down the slope to build speed fast. Almost immediately, he's at the spot of last year's crash. Even now, he's not sure what happened that day. He tells himself a binding came loose, but all he really remembers was being in his tuck and then tumbling. Did he catch an edge on an unseen groove? Did the binding just fail? Did he click in wrong?
Could it happen again? "I had a mental moment going around the turn," he says later. "I'm like, ‘I'm not crashing here this year, be on it, be on it.' My skis were washing around so I was like ‘Oh no, feelin' edgy, don't catch an edge, don't catch an edge.'"
Once past the sketchy top, Heil crunches into a full tuck to cut through the air faster and to expose as little of his skintight racing suit as possible to the frozen air. Arctic Man's top portion is long, but well groomed with few technical turns: Heil's biggest challenge is conserving energy in his quads and hips for the violent uphill pull still to come behind Branholm's sled. Skiing without poles, he keeps his hands in a wedge in front of him, like a diver, and keeps up a running mental pep talk.
"When you're in your helmet, it's just a super quiet ride, you're just talking to yourself like an echo chamber," he says. "It's too long to just sit there quietly so you start sort of like, ‘This is it, come on, come on, don't catch your edge keep it going, keep it going!'"
A little more than a minute later, Heil barrels around the final downhill corner into the flats at Hookup. If missing his longtime driver is going to cost him, it will be here. Branholm jets out of the holding pen and intercepts Heil as he comes off the last pitch. With his right hand on the throttle, he hovers the sled next to Heil at 60 mph, and hands him the handle with his left. Heil locks his hands onto the bar then crouches as he sweeps 10 feet back behind the sled, knowing what's coming. Just as they the cheers and cowbells of the Hookup crowd hit them, Branholm feels Heil's weight on the rope and punches it.
This may be the most perilous moment in the race, but Heil's two decades of Artic Man experience take over when he hears the engine race. He tenses and shoots forward in a perfect tuck as Branholm rockets away at 80 mph. The entire pass covers 100 yards in three seconds.
"Hookup is so important," says Heil. "Ya know, it was a little different, not having the same driver I've had every year, and I was worried our timing would be off or he might miss it. But Dave nailed it. I couldn't have asked for anything better."
Over the next two miles, Branholm makes good on Heil's trust, skidding through corners at full speed, but wide enough that Heil can follow. Heil, like all the skiers, rides as much as possible offset behind the sled, out of the direct line of flying ice chunks and blinding snow kicked up by its treads. They still take a beating. Though the racers all wear hard plastic masks over their faces, when a corner forces them to skate across the sled's path, snow and ice push into their mouths and noses. Through the timing gate, Heil and Branholm make it from Hookup to Release in 1:52, within tenths of a second of the fastest time of the day.
As they scream toward First-Aid, Heil pulls out wide, lets the handle snap out of his hand and slingshots over the lip. He carves through the first turn then goes to his last trick, sitting back into a "butt tuck," hands on his ankles. It's an unthinkable position in a traditional downhill event, and none of the other top racers do it, but Heil is convinced the lower position is both a faster and smarter approach to the relatively gentle final section with his legs already shaking from the pull.
Across the finish line, the official radar gun confirms this, recording his speed at 81 mph, the fastest finishing speed of the day.
But it's not enough: 4:01, five seconds behind Sullivan.
Heil doesn't learn his time until he's stopped. It's the fastest run he's ever had on the course, but good enough today only for fourth.
With his fifth win, Sullivan ties Heil for the most wins in the event's history. Sochi vet Erik Fisher and Alaskan Scott Montalbo, another Arctic Man regular who also crashed in 2013, finish second and third. Yet at the finish line, Heil gets as much love from the other racers as Sullivan. "He was awesome," says Rahlves. "On the practice day, by the time we showed up, he'd already gotten in four or five releases. He put the time in and it showed. Talent only gets you so far, and he worked for it."
In fact, it's a banner day for Alaskans. James Scott of North Pole (a Fairbanks suburb), in his 25th Arctic Man, wins the men's snowboard race in 4:35, edging Olympians Nate Holland and Jayson Hale (and in so doing denying Tyler Aklestad a double-win as both Holland and Sullivan's driver). Rahlves' skier Shelly Robertson wins the women's ski division Canadian Kurt Oatway wins the Adaptive division in 5:18, just one second ahead of Kevin Bramble, times that would have won any of the first three Arctic Man's.
"Where could I scrub one second? It can drive you crazy. I can go faster."
Heil still takes something positive away from the race. He likes that he drew bib number 50 this year. "I'll be 50 this summer," he said. "It's like it all fit together." In Anchorage, his son is a senior in high school, and this summer for the first time, father and son will crew his boat together, which makes Heil feel proud, happy and very old. Even with no injuries, he knows he can't ski Arctic Man forever. His finish earned him $3,000, which will go a long way toward the food, gas and cabin rental, but won't cover it all. The years, he knows, will keep going one way, like signs on the Glenn Highway, while no amount of rehab will make his body younger.
But if he can't shave years off his age, what about just one second off his time? What about that 4:01?
"It's like ‘Where could I scrub one second? It can drive you crazy," he says.
"I can go faster."
With the race over, the spectators and racers alike scatter out of the finish line's valley into the surrounding hills, looking for a few final hours of riding in the perfect weather and deep snow before spring arrives.
That night in the Beer Tent, Heil makes a brief appearance, but cuts out early, while McKay stays, drinking with the pros. Sullivan, in winner's tradition, buys rounds for whatever racers and drivers stick around.
Out on the strip and in campsites all over the pad, fireworks begin to pop into the sky. Rockets from one camp are answered by starbursts from another, followed by bottle rockets from a third. Lured by the overhead booms, partiers spill out of the tent, each in the dress of their Arctic Man tribe: snowmachine armor of the Slednecks, the racers in snowboard chic and Truckee Cool, even one guy in a full-body Yeti suit. Together, they sip their drinks for warmth and look up to catch the last few sparks.
And then the arms fly upward, pointing. Glowing from peak to peak above the camp are the Northern Lights, ghostly signatures written in the April sky. The crowd laughs and giggles then wanders back inside.