SKAGWAY - Biking up to the summit of the Klondike Highway is a challenge in the summer, but imagine trying it in a cold north wind or a snowstorm during the first week of February.
That's what 18 extreme athletes from Europe and Canada likely will encounter next month as part of the third annual Fulda Challenge, a winter "Extreme Arctic Adventure" event sponsored by the German tire company and Tourism Yukon.
Fulda representatives Holger Bergold and Susan Huff came to Skagway last month to cement preparations for the event, which will take participants from the Southeast Alaska coast to the Arctic Circle.
The 10-day staged Fulda Challenge begins on the summit of the Haines Highway with a 2,000-foot snowshoe trek up to a mountain peak, and a ski back down to the highway. The nine two-person coed teams then will drive their black Toyota SUVs - clad with Fulda tires, of course - down to the Haines ferry terminal.
While waiting for the ferry to Skagway on Feb. 3, their second event will be changing tires on those vehicles.
The teams will arrive on the ferry that Tuesday night. Team members will camp in tents on the lawn just south of the White Pass & Yukon Route railroad depot, where meals will be catered by the Haven Cafe. That evening they will attend a historical presentation at the National Park Service auditorium.
The rest of the 85-person entourage - mostly European media - will stay in a local hotel and B&Bs. Between Sgt. Preston's, The White House, and Mile Zero, about 40 rooms are available, said Tourism Director Buckwheat Donahue.
"We will need all of them," Bergold said.
Originally, the teams were going to race jet skis in the bay, but Bergold said the event would have been too difficult in the wind. Instead, the teams will bicycle from Skagway to Fraser, British Columbia, on the morning of Feb. 4.
Dan Henry of Skagway Fish Co. said he will donate the 18 mountain bikes needed for the event. The bikers will climb 14 miles to the 3,280-foot summit, and then cruise another 8 miles to the Canada Customs station at Fraser.
If held this week, that would have meant starting at about minus-10 degrees Celsius and finishing at about minus-30, in a north wind.
Crazy, yes, but these are extreme athletes selected from 40,000 who signed up to participate. Of those, 100 were invited for trials last summer in the Italian Alps, and eight European teams were selected. There will be two teams each from Germany and Great Britain, and teams from Austria, the Netherlands, and Switzerland.
A separate application process was held last fall for a Canadian team, which was nailed down by a Dawson City, Yukon Territory, couple, Greg and Denise McHale. He is an RCMP officer, and she is a fitness instructor.
They answered a newspaper ad which described the event as such: "2,000 endless kilometers following the notorious Gold Rush Trail. Sweating at (minus)-50 Celsius. Ice-cold nerves in snowstorms. you will sleep in a tent beneath the northern lights, in the middle of a bizarre and inhospitable nature. There, songs of lament are heard by no one ... only the wolves howl in sympathy. It will test your limit!"
Fulda initially was involved with the Yukon Quest sled dog race eight years ago, but after three years their sponsorship was viewed as "too overpowering" for that event, Bergold said. "So we created our own event with Tourism Yukon to promote all kinds of winter sports," he said.
The Fulda Challenge, now in its third year, helped develop the Condor flights from Frankfort, Germany, to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, in the summer, Bergold said, and with the help of Thomas Cook Travel and Toyota, it has become a "mega marketing event" in Europe.
This year, organizers decided to take the event over the border into Alaska.
Many major European TV stations will be covering the Fulda Challenge. "We change the routes and the venues to keep the press interested," Bergold said.
Donahue volunteered the AB Hall for a media center in Skagway.
After the bike ride over White Pass, participants will drive on to Carcross, Yukon Territory, where they will camp for the night. On the following day, they will have a high-speed handling event in their vehicles on the ice of Lake Bennett, Bergold said.
The teams will then base in Whitehorse for a couple days, where they will race a railroad handcar and snow machines, cross Miles Canyon on a rope, and cross-country ski. Then it's on to Braeburn for hovercraft races on the airstrip, and to Carmacks for a climb over the Yukon River bridge. From there they go to Eagle Plains up the Dempster Highway for a half marathon at the Arctic Circle. The event finishes in Dawson City with an ice fall climb, an ATV race, and an awards ceremony at Diamond Tooth Gertie's casino.
For more about the event and participants, visit the event's Web site at http://www.fulda-challenge.com and click on the English flag, unless you can read German.