Call of the Wild
Growing up in the Northern Hemisphere, I read the books and saw the film adaptations of books by American writer Jack London. Books such as “The Call of the Wild” and “White Fang”. Since then I have been fascinated by the North American wilderness, wolves and sled dogs, so when I was offered the chance to follow the ‘Grande Odyssée’ dogsled race, I was overjoyed. I chose to cover the last five stages of the race, which took place in the Haute Maurienne Valley, a remote area close to the Vanoise National Park on the French-Italian border.
Covering more than 1,000km (621 miles) over 11 days, the race mostly crosses the Alps in France but features incursions into Switzerland. Unlike similar events in Canada, the United States or Scandinavia, La Grande Odyssée crosses over the mountains, meaning that the mushers and their dogs climb over 25,000m (82,000 feet) in total – almost three times the climb from sea level to Mt Everest’s summit.
The event’s organization was excellent, with a designated car and chauffeur available for each team of photographers after the daily briefing; one highlight was the opportunity to take photographs from a helicopter, although only for a few minutes, as it proved to be a popular request.
For the mass start (15 mushers on the same line, compared to individual starts for other stages) in the village of Bessans, I fitted a Gopro camera on the head of Swiss musher Pierre-Antoine Heritier, whom I met a couple of weeks beforehand for a test. He was running last in the race before that start but didn’t mind the extra weight on his head.
Another highlight of those five days of racing was the two nights that the mushers had to spend at the so-called Base Polaire. Located in the Lanslebourg ski area at an altitude of 2,200m (7200 feet), the mushers and their dogs arrive at night. The stopwatch is paused and restarted the next morning when the mushers and dogs commence their attempt to finish the stage. The mushers are completely autonomous, with no help from their usual handlers and the organization provided only water, fuel, straw and a tent. The mushers carry food for the dogs, a sleeping bag and anything else they feel they may need.
On both occasions an almost-full moon provided a wonderful atmosphere with a beautiful light, which allowed me to experiment with long exposure photography. Indeed, the moonlight was so strong that some mushers didn’t feel the need to turn on their headlamps.
Once their dogs were taken care of, the mushers enjoyed a hot meal in a restaurant some five minute’s walk away, where some members of the press were spending the night. The building was situated behind a small hill, providing a nice shelter in case of bad weather but poor mobile phone reception. On the first night I was able to connect from the warm dining room while eating my dinner, but on the second night I couldn’t get any connection, so I was forced to wander outside in the snow, holding my laptop and trying to find an area with a signal. I huddled near a small chapel, used my jacket as a base for my computer and enjoyed the scenery, all while fighting the cold (it was minus 5ºC, 23 degrees Fahrenheit) and windy conditions. It took a good hour to transmit a mere eight pictures.
After a total of more than 26 hours of racing, Radek Havrda of the Czech Republic, the race leader, was forced to quit a few kilometers before the finish, as some of his dogs were suffering from exhaustion. Rookie Slovakian musher Milos Gonda didn’t hesitate to seize the opportunity and won the race.