It’s the morning of July’s second Saturday when I place a call to Kjell Harald Horn, the race director, and ask him where does he see me on the map, as I confirm race GPS tracker secured on my bag is still working. He confirms he sees me on the map and asks to continue moving North-North-East and call once I reach the highway so I can be picked up. “I can’t allow you to continue any further as you’re far beyond cutoff, Sorry”. I acknowledge and disconnect the call. Since I was using my phone for navigation for past many hours, whenever it had signal, its battery is low. I switch my phone off and continue moving in the direction my watch says is North. It’s raining with high winds, the fog is dense, I’m cold and wet, and trying to follow the red Den Norske Turistforening (DNT) markings to climb this mountain that are not visible anymore.
My watch says North is on my left. So, I continue the climb further up, scramble up a giant boulder, hop on a few sharp rocks and reach a marshy patch to continue to North. A few steps later, my watch suggests North is further on my left, so I turn a little further. I get across a snow patch, continue hopping the rocks downhill that continue to become slippery. As sound of hauling winds in the valley amplify, in my head I try to estimate how deep the valley could be. The winds from the valley get further stronger, rain heavier, fog denser and I settle myself on top of a boulder that overlooks a sharp drop into the unknown. I have no idea where I am. I have no idea, how high in the air I am. Tired, I remove my backpack, open the bag of last few nuts, and plan the next step. If it’s indeed the North, there must be some way to get down this cliff as suggested by Kjell. I turn my phone on again to call Kjell to confirm.
Normally, when I turn my phone on after shutting it down, it asks for security PIN for the SIM card. So, it did now. I make the first attempt, it fails. Then, the second. Then, the third. It pops a warning, if I fail even the next two attempts, the SIM will be locked and I will have to enter PUK that I don’t know. After thinking deep for a few minutes, sleep deprived, I attempt for the fourth time, it fails. And then, I fail even the fifth. The phone is now locked and doesn’t have any more battery. In a panic, I get up, and continue to move on my right and then left, on the edge, in search of a red DNT marking. After spending a few tens of minutes, and some close calls on slippery rocks, I climb up the cliff again and reach the last known marking. I look around, and fog is all I see in all the directions. I lift my wrist again and allow the compass on my watch to settle for a few seconds. Watch says North is straight ahead, then it says on left, then behind me, and then says left again. I move around in circles for about an hour and reach the same giant boulder with red DNT marking where I started.
Disoriented, cold, with no food, no GPS, no functional communication device, now even no water, I’m lost on the top of this mountain. Sitting on the flat surface next to the boulder, I’m counting minutes and asking myself, how long would it take me to die if I get hypothermia? If I attempt getting down that cliff again, slam my head on a sharp rock, how long would it take me to bleed to death? Would anyone know I’m dead? How would they know? I attempt to turn my phone on again. It is still locked, but I can still use emergency calling. I dial the local SOS ‘113’ to seek some directional assistance, it failed. And then the phone loses even the last ounce of the battery, and it dies. I-am-probably-the-next.
I’m running the race, Sans Senja Ultra 100 on the Island on Senja in the Norwegian Arctic. Sans means “without”, Senja means “dusk”. Sans Senja. A race with no night. The race started at 10 pm on a Friday and it takes you from the southern part of the island to its north with a total climbing of 5500 meters. The first two-third of the route is not marked with flags, but has DNT markings, and a GPS track provided a day before the race became a key source for navigation for me, someone who had never been to North of Norway before. The race has a series of small and big climbs, 41 sections in total, toughest one is Istindan in Kaperdalen that I’m climbing right now.
I started last night with about 40 others from Senja Fjordhotell, Frovag in the South of Senja with two energy bars, some tailwind, electrolytes, nuts, a couple of energy gels, first-aid kit and the mandatory equipment as listed in the race bible. For navigation, I was using my new Garmin watch and phone as a backup. After leaving the starting area, race routes continues on a forest road and then enters a marshy overgrown trail onwards to the Anderdalen National Park following DNT markings that are essentially red paint on the rocks. I started with a plan of finishing the 100 km under 21 hours, thus, plan was to maintain a 8-10 minute flat-surface pace with a constant effort otherwise. The first aid station was 22 km away in Anderdalen and the next one about 37 or 38 km away in Kaperdalen, where I could access my drop bag. Thus, I had enough food and resources to get me to Aid station without any discomfort while still having sufficient supplies in reserve.
GPS track for the entire race was loaded on the watch, and I started taking down one climb at a time – thus, I charted 41 different stages for myself and pace accordingly. As soon as I crossed the forest boundary, my GPS track started meandering off the DNT trail to the left, while the marking continued towards right. The more I’d try to adjust my direction of movement, the more it’d get off the trail. In no time, I was now hopping over from one rock to the other, or walking in the deep marsh, or exceptionally overgrown trail or scrambling up the boulder to find the right trail. No matter how much I’d try, I’d neither be on the GPS trail or on DNT trail. This continued until I found a brown tent in the middle of nowhere and checked if someone was in there. Having lost the sense of time in the brightness, not realising it was 1 am late in the night, I go,
“Hi. Is anyone in there?”
“Hi” answered a young woman.
“Could you please help me find my way to Anderdalen?”
“You’re on the wrong side. Go slightly back, and then turn left and climb up and you’ll find the trail” woman continued from inside the tent. I thanked and started walking back. As I continued, suddenly my watch chimed I was back on the route and should continue to my left and then walk straight for about 3 km. I immediately turned left and continued pacing in the marshes on the edge of a lake Lutvatnet. In no time, I again found myself in no man’s land with no path to go forward. A river was raging between me and the overgrown marsh ahead and I had to cross that with utmost care. After a struggle for a few minutes, I was back on DNT marked trail and GPS track agreed, I was indeed on the right trail.
A few minutes of manoeuvring around the woods and the lake later, I found a couple of hammocks, a tent, a half empty bottle of coke, and other camping gear spread around the site with people sleeping in. “Is this Anderdalen aid station?” I asked myself. Already embarrassed of waking someone up at 1 in the night earlier, I chose to let them sleep and continued forward as I didn’t see any race related marking. Given my GPS was not properly working, the new plan was to reach the first aid station, speak with the volunteers, and probably stop as it was a better option than getting lost deeper in the woods. However, before I could realise I did indeed pass the sleeping race volunteers, I was already on the top of the first climb and now less than 10 km away from the next aid station as per my phone. I finally had some signals.
As soon as I reached the exposed section large snow patches, lakes and dense fog on all sides, I lost the trail again and was dependent on GPS to find my way ahead to start the next climb. After struggling for nearly an hour, moving in circles to reach nowhere, I found my path again on the opposite side of the mountain and the trail descended quickly into another lake that demanded some effort as I could now see the Istindan climb hidden in the clouds. It had started to rain now, the rocks I was hopping had gotten slippery and more than running, it was now carefully stepping on one rock at a time. One missed step and I’d fall in the lake, and I remembered Kjell’s story of how one runner in previous years had a similar fall in the water and had to be rescued by Emergency Services due to hypothermia. So, I took my time, crossed another raging river and found myself at the front door of a private locked cabin in the middle of nowhere that was at the base of the climb. A trail went on the either sides of that cabin that had names of lakes marked on them. None of them was familiar, my GPS suggested to turn right and climb straight ahead a steep mountain that was so overgrown that it was not possible to even see if I was stepping on ground, a rock, a tree or a stream.
I continued walking forward, backward, up and down, until I found DNT marking again along a lake in the valley and strong winds blew the fog away to expose the Ratjaw-like climb on my left. It was rocky, slippery, with streams of water flowing down and I was able to spot the red paint on some the rocks to trust it enough and soon found myself on the top of the first climb. The climb continued further up, where I am sitting right now, contemplating whether should I go back on the trail that included dangerous rock-hopping to chase Anderdalen aid station and get to the road there or continue my battle of find the trail by following Kjell’s advise – move North-North-East and you’ll be out.
I get up, turn off my GPS, just activate the compass feature and wander around for another hour chasing the direction that was North. Out of food, water, sleep deprived, disoriented, with no visibility in fog and rain, I then begin to chase the sound of a river flowing deep in the valley while scrambling, sliding, hopping over slippery unstable bounders to reach the steep section again after nearly six hours, to start everything all over again with some fresh piece of mind. I refill water from the river, tap into food I had reserved for emergency and start climbing following the red marking again to reach the top of the same boulder all over again. It is no longer raining, winds have blown the fog away, I can see much better now and I remember, race directions talked of crossing the river before starting Istindan climb. “I have already crossed that river before I was stuck near the lake in the valley. Should I cross this river on my right as well to get back on the trail?” I asked myself.
Following my instincts, I cross another raging river flowing down deep in the valley, and see a faint red marking in the distance on the top a rock that look eroded suggesting it could be a trail. As I reach that one, I see another, and one more. In jubilation, I load the GPS trail on my watch again and it suggests I’m indeed on the right trail. But, after struggling for past nearly 16 hours, can I even trust it anymore? I take a chance and continue hiking up the mountain, following the marking and find myself in dense fog again overlooking a vast patch of snow with nothing visible on the side. While going down the rocks, I hear a whistle. “Is someone hiking on this trail? Or am I hallucinating?”. Thinking it’s merely my brain tricking, I pause, take a few sips of water with caffeine, look around and continue forward towards the snow climb. I then hear another whistle, and see two figures rising over the rocks on the other side.
“Hello. Is anyone there?” I shout expecting no response in return. And no response came. Before I process that my brain is now indeed tricking me, I see the two figures stretch out their hands, wave in the air and call my name. It’s Jo and David, the race crew members, who had driven for 90 minutes and had been climbing up for about 100 minutes in search of me to get me down to safety. Jo immediately offer a rain jacket, while David takes out a granola bar with a can of coke. Smiling seeing human faces for the first time since the race started, I accept the granola bar and continue pacing with them on the snow trail to reach the official summit of Istindan after struggling for 11 hours since I was on the edge of the lake, hopping the dangerous rocks, contemplating on my decision to continue forward or head back to Anderdalen and search for the race crew there.
The blue skies open up at the top exposing the beautiful Central-North of Senja on the other side and we slide down on soft deep snow, and further two kilometres more to reach the illusional highway I had been chasing since the time I called Kjell in the morning. 20 hours. Twenty hours it took me to cover an official race distance of about 37 km in a bid to make out of the park safely, where I spent nearly 12 hours on just one mountain that was inches close to becoming a matter of life and death with no warning. When I look overall statistics that my watch recorded, unofficially, I covered 61 km and climbed about 4100 m in these hours until I reach to safety ably guided by David and Jo out of the park that otherwise would have been much slower, given the limitations of navigation options and trail markings.
Not stopping at Anderdalen was sure a huge mistake when I was convinced I could not trust my GPS anymore, but then extremely poor resolution of GPS map provided on the race tracker website was of no help either while navigating through phone, that I see few others struggled too in the fog alike.
Sans Senja is an extremely beautiful and challenging race and I had my share of small successes and failures of epic proportions in those 20 hours. In all these years of running, if there was one thing I never wanted to happen to me, it was to be rescued from a trail and become a story for the race and those, who have no business in my life. But, here we are. Circumstances, some poor decisions, technology failure, and inclement weather has made sure, the race will talk of an Indian getting lost on the mountain for nearly 12 hours, who struggled for almost his life, to get out of the park, unharmed, on his feet, defeated by a 800m tall mountain that was anything but demanding and shouldn’t have needed someone to send people to rescue, no matter how naive was the person’s might. In view of recent events, I’m not sure if and when I’ll return to Senja again, but this sure remains an unfinished business and I’ll wait to mark my claim on the piece of Husoy, the finish line, whether at Sans Senja or my own, when there is no race.
In an interview regarding this episode to Folkebladet, a local tabloid in Finnsnes (Senja), the race director said “Han burde kanskje ikke startet, til tross for at han hadde en fantastisk CV. Men grunnlaget for det han holdt på med var kanskje litt gammelt (Maybe he should not have started, despite the fact that he had a fantastic CV. But the basis for what he was doing was perhaps a little old).”
He further added, “Han var nedfor, men jeg tror ikke han skjønte at han aldri burde stilt på dette. Han er en veldig fin fyr og veldig trivelig, og han hjalp til med arrangementet. Men han burde kanskje ikke stilt til start (He was down, but I do not think he understood that he should never ask this. He is a very nice guy and very pleasant, and he helped with the event. But maybe he should not start)
In view of the two shocking statements the race director made in the above report, I will respond in a sequential manner. Having been in and around this industry for about two decades, if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it is that one must refrain from making public statements based on their half-baked ideas on someone else’s behalf before even bothering to check with them; maybe, once? And that happens on both the occasions as stated above. While the race director owns the race and reserves all the rights to pull a runner off the course whenever they wish before, during or even after the race or even ban them from future events without prior intimation, a runner has all the right to Start until they fulfil the laid process, meet the mandatory gear requirements, do not violate any rule of the race, make all efforts to remain on the race course under all conditions, doesn’t pose threat to any runner or person connected with race, believe and establish they are significantly prepared and do not exhibit any physical or mental limitations that are deemed unsuited by the medical team of the race or the race director themselves prior to or during the race. So, whether or not should I’ve started, stands for itself.
Secondly, the race director establishes that he doesn’t believe I understood the gravitas of the situation that unfolded on the Saturday afternoon on the top of Istindan and perhaps cites my carelessness without acknowledging the circumstances. In my opinion, this closely charts the territory of judicial commentary that judges in the courts often undertake where they make needless observations on how a victim (or even accused) should behave, talk or act after a horrible/unpleasant incident for establishing their verdict, so they remain clear of challenged accountability, if any, which closely treads the territory of victim blaming. I believe, before making such claims in public, an on or off the record conversation would have gone long way, given I was a whispering distance away for the next 36 hours after the incident. While I dearly appreciate all the efforts taken at the basecamp and the fact they sent two of their most experienced team members for the search in an area that was 90-minute-drive and hours of climbing away and prone to unpredictable inclement weather to ensure my safety, at the same time, I also must acknowledge that I was never once asked what exactly happened, how did I get lost, where and in what condition I was found or what do I think of this?
It was my life that was potentially under threat, it was me who was stuck on a mountain for hours, and it was me who could have easily bled to death and hypothermia if even one of the countless falls had proven fatal. All this, for no fault of mine. No one ventures in the wilderness with a plan to get stuck, call for rescue and enjoy the ride to the finish line instead of running it down. I’m fully aware that my time on Istindan could have easily snowballed into a major unpleasant incident that could have possibly even jeopardised the race itself. Having trained and practised Wilderness Advanced First Aid in the remote locations for Canadian Red Cross for over four years serving in different capacities, I fully understand the challenges mountains and Arctic environments pose, and gravity of the situation I was in, perhaps a reason I was able to evacuate myself without any assistance, albeit slow because of failed technology, and being blinded by incessant rain and dense fog. So, it was extremely disappointing to read such comments in the public domain.
I’ve nothing but deep respect and appreciation for the team behind Sans Senja Ultra for putting a wonderful race together on a trail that is probably one of the most beautiful in the world. However, I believe the race is yet to go a long way to fully work out their own approach towards the organisation, course of action for various situations and handling challenging situations with transparency. There is only one way to go from here, and I strongly believe Sans Senja 100 will soon establish itself as one of the World’s most sought out ultras.
This story will be updated if a rebuttal is received from the race director.