It’s bitter cold and white and dreadfully early morning in the Alps above Megève. Only the sound of crunching snow breaks the mountains’ silence and I’m watching my breath curl. I don’t like the cold and winter and never was a typical Canadian.
Suddenly in the distance a dog barks, then several, until the baying and howling of more than 300 huskies and hounds echo off every peak, cliff and valley.
The first trucks reach the enormous parking lot, skidding on icy roads and before long the huge empty space is filled with dogs, mushers, handlers, food bowls, water bowls, veterinarians, sleds, and everything else a musher needs for a dogsledding competition.
I’m a dog lover but it’s the first time I’m surrounded by several hundred.
Welcome to the Megève-Les Saisies stage of the Grande Odyssée Savoie Mont-Blanc, known as the most technically challenging dogsled race in the world. I’ve been wanting to watch it for years and it is one of the few things that could get me out of bed and out of doors at a windy minus 16 degrees centigrade (3°F for my American friends).
Speaking of numbers, these will give you a sense of this race’s magnitude: 17 mushers from ten countries are covering more than 1000 kilometers (well over 600 miles) over 11 days; they are climbing and dropping some 30,000 meters (18 miles), nearly four times the height of Mt Everest; and half the race takes place at night, when it’s harder to see and temperatures plunge.
Surely you have to be tough, impervious to the cold, single-minded and comfortable with your own company.
This is a man’s world – or is it?
Today’s stage begins in under two hours but there’s still a lot to do. The dogs have to be fed, massaged, walked, and their paws waxed to protect them from cracking and bleeding because of the cold. Some will have to wear little booties though I found it hard to keep a straight face when a team of majestic dogs flew by wearing tiny fluorescent lime green socks.
For some reason I had always thought mushing was a man’s world, a rough and tumble and freezing sport in which only the hardiest make it to the finish line. Not exactly.
Take the race’s unique ten-woman veterinarian team, whose slim, youthful leader Delphine Clero would look at home on a fashionable Parisian street. “I can only think of one other all-female dogsled vet team, and it’s in North America, maybe in Wyoming. We ended up with a women-only team by accident, but it works so well we decided to keep it that way.”
“It’s hard work and the team is on call 24 hours a day. We’re there when the dogs start and finish for the day, and we have midway checkpoints to make sure everything is all right.”
The veterinarians deal with injuries but also give mushers advice on which dog to race, or which one to rest up for a day or two. Each team has 14 dogs but only race 8-10 at a time.
“My biggest satisfaction? To see the dogs cross the arrival line healthy and still anxious to keep racing,” said Delphine.
Handlers at the heart of dogsledding
Throughout the parking lot, as the vet weaves among the teams, dozens of busy young men and women are getting their dogs into shape for today’s race.
“Our job is to walk the dogs, feed them, and take care of them,” said Eva Marickova, a handler for one of the Czech teams. “And fix the sleds too! And then every day when the mushers have left the starting point we get into the truck and drive it to the next meeting point so we arrive before the musher does.”
Handling is a physically demanding job but Eva loves being around dogs and sleds. Before ever becoming a handler she used to accompany mushers by skiing behind them in the Czech mountains.
Dogsledding may well be a man’s world but not exclusively so: two of the 17 mushers happen to be women.
Silvia Furtwängler has an infectious laugh and her curly dark hair flies everywhere when she speaks. A German who lives in Norway, she’s a 51-year-old grandmother who has been mushing for nearly 30 years, and she loves the challenge – she has taken part in every major race there is.
Her dogs are happy, too, because temperatures are falling. I, on the other hand, am having the opposite reaction.
“When I left Norway it was minus 30 degrees centigrade (-22°F). I came here it was plus four. It was like Majorca for the dogs,” she said. Majorca indeed.
Silvia’s passion is obvious. “I love nature and dogs and bringing the two together is a wonderful thing. I’m just a tiny tiny part in all of this and I like to see how well I can do. It is more of a man’s world but that doesn’t matter, men, women, we are human together. In the race, we help each other, and that’s what counts.”
Watching Silvia at the starting point, I felt a moment of pure excitement. I might be freezing to death but for a few seconds, only a few, I wanted to be on that sled. There she goes, in what is my first attempt at video!
I’m not sure what I expected from my first dogsledding race. To freeze, certainly. To see gorgeous dogs, of course. To experience scenery so majestic it took my breath away – goes without saying.
Some things surprised me.
First, the huskies used for racing are significantly smaller than the ones I’ve seen as pets, thinner and more wiry. Second, I thought all sled dogs were huskies: not true, many of the dogs are hounds. Third, I expected a more cutthroat and competitive atmosphere (it does cost a princely €1200/US$1600 to enter a team) but everyone was actually relaxed and friendly. Fourth, the mushers’ age: only one of the 17 was under 30 and nearly a third were in their fifties, quite amazing when you see how much they exert themselves, sometimes running next to their teams to egg them on or lightening the sled’s load by sprinting uphill when the going gets steep.
Another surprise was the snooty exclusive resort town of Megève: it wasn’t snooty at all. Expensive, yes; well-dressed, very much so, with designer names everywhere. Yet each time I needed directions or had questions, people were far friendlier than I’d expected, even though I was wrapped unstylishly in my cold weather clothes, a gray Russian polar parka that made me look like I’d stepped off a space station.
Shopping can be affordable if you choose your shops wisely (I did) and visit during the January sales. You can eat cheaply or at least relatively reasonably in plenty of pizzerias and coffee shops but for a rustic cheese adventure and an unbelievable truffle fondue try Le Torrent, down a dark flight of stairs but don’t be put off because it’s bright and sunny inside. Hotels can be steep but if you want to stay right downtown you’ll get a double bed and breakfast at Les Myosotis for €129 (US$170), not cheap, but it is the height of the season and this is a luxury resort. You can easily find much cheaper rooms in nearby villages but being in Megève proper and observing high society walk by is half the fun.
Watching a dogsled race was on my Dream List and I can now cross it off. I loved every frozen minute of walking around the dogs as they strained against their harnesses, desperate to race.
It’s still cold and still white and my nostrils are stuck together but somehow I’m a little – just a little, mind you – reconciled with winter, just enough to come back to the races next year.