Legendary ski racer Daron Rahlves took home first place in this year's Arctic Man Challenge, the mountain madman's relay race that combines skiing, snowmobiling, and, of course, plenty of debauchery. With 15,000 attendees camping out in RVs, tooling around on sleds, grilling reindeer, and drinking beer out of their backcountry packs, Arctic Man is Alaska's answer to the Burning Man.
"It's some good entertainment up there," says Rahlves. "Thousands of RVs, people building out snow bars, towing couches around on snowmobiles. They have drag races and freestyle action on snowmobiles, and a lot of people come out to just hang with their buddies."
The Arctic Man Challenge takes place on a 5.5-mile course that runs the length of two peaks and valleys. The skier or snowboarder begins atop a peak, bombs down 1,700 vertical feet in a mile and a half, picks up a tow rope behind their partners' sled at about 40 mph, and ascends 2.2 miles up another mountain. From there, the racer rockets down another 1,200 vertical feet to the finish line.
Rahlves and his racing partner, pro snowmobiler Levi LaVallee, finished in 4 minutes and 2.8 seconds. That's an average speed of 80 mph, in the Alaskan backcountry, in a race suit. During the downhill portions, Rahlves hit 92 mph while barreling down a snowcat-width course walled on either side by five-foot snowbanks.
The race began, appropriately, with a bar bet made by Howard Thies decades ago.
"He wanted to combine skiing and snowmobile racing somehow, and it was an 'Oh, can't be done' kind of deal," says Rahlves. Clearly, it could be--and now, 31 years later, 55 teams raced for a purse of $61,000 and nearly a third of the athletes were ex-Olympians.
Thanks to the remote location--a six-hour drive out of Anchorage to Summit Lake and a 15-minute sled to Arctic Man base camp--the event was mostly Alaskans for the first 15 years or so. It was only when ex-World Cup racers like Marco Sullivan and Scott Macartney caught wind of the competition's unique combination of motorsports and downhill racing that it began to draw a crowd from across the country.
"It's attractive to me because it's a unique, one-off event," says Rahlves. "I'd been in Alaska skiing with MSP and TGR for a couple years and I'd seen friends of mine, like Marco Sullivan, in the papers up there who won. So I'd always wanted to do it. Then I met Levi at the X Games. We thought we’d make a pretty cool team, so we gave it a shot."
This year was Rahlves' and LaVallee's second go-round. The first year they competed, in 2014, the unique combination of technical skill and finely tuned equipment thwarted their efforts.
"We had a great hookup, things were going well, and then our sled blew up at the top of the canyon and we didn't finish," says Rahlves. "So we had to come back and try to beat ourselves. Levi learned a lot about the snowmobile and the setup. I still felt a little inexperienced, but Levi brought a mechanic and I got a bunch of tips from my old ski techs. And I was like, 'Ok, I know what to do now. Just a matter of doing it.'"
The win may have come as a surprise to their competitors, including Sullivan and Macartney, who have dominated the last 10 years of competition. Rahlves and LaVallee struggled with snowmobile breakdowns, bad hookups, and ugly weather during training.
"Those guys are just down there laughing, like what else could go wrong. I didn't have one pull up the canyon on the race sled," says Rahlves. "Everything was just coming together for race day. It couldn't have failed any more. We got all the mistakes out of the way, did some good problem solving, got our best setup, and put it together when it counted.”
The only thing Rahlves couldn't quite get dialed was LaVallee's race-day outfit.
"The top snowmobilers who've been doing it so long wear downhill suits. They'll take the visor off their helmet to eliminate any drag. And Levi's just shaking his head, 'I've got sponsors, I've gotta wear my own clothes for my sponsors,'" says Rahlves. "I'm like, 'Just wear the suit. Nobody is going to see you. You can put your own clothes on at the finish line.' But he stuck to his guns; 'I can’t wear this ninja suit.'"