Jessie Gladish was born and raised in Whitehorse, Yukon, Canada. She considers herself lucky to have parents who took her and her sister camping, hiking, skiing, and taught them that being outside is possible in any weather and in the dark. After high school she moved to British Columbia to attempt post-secondary school and ended up working and traveling more than going to classes. She has since worked hard and earned a diploma in Adventure Guiding in 2012, and in 2021 finished a science degree in earth and environmental science with a focus on geology. Jessie has been running off and on since 2006. Jesse has now completed the Moab 240 twice; the Montane Yukon Arctic Ultra 300-mile race; winter ultras; desert ultras; 430 miles on skis; 300-mile Iditarod Trail; 120 mile fat bike race; 233 miles in the Yukon Ultra on her bike and many other races. Jessie currently lives a life of adventure with her husband in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Jessie is not your typical adventurer; she is whole other level. There is a quiet unassuming confidence about her that comes through. On this episode you may just get lost in her story telling like we did. We talked a lot about her experiences taking on the Montane Yukon Arctic Ultra. We discuss how her childhood impacted her life of adventure. We also talk about the mental toughness it takes to accomplish such hard goals. There are also some good wildlife encounter stories on this episode. We are really hoping Jessie writes a book. We will be the first to buy it! I know you will enjoy this one and find a lot of inspiration from Jessie.
Here is one of Jessie's race reports! Enjoy!
2015 Montane Yukon Arctic Ultra Race Report By: Jessie Thomson-Gladish
February 23rd, 2015: Over the past two weeks, I trudged at a speed of 3.5-4.5 km/hr, pulling a 65lb pulk loaded with all my winter survival and camping essentials, food and water. This steady pace for 12 and a half days propelled me from Whitehorse to Dawson City on the Yukon Quest sled dog trail. The MYAU is a single-stage, multi-day race with four distances: a traditional 26 mile marathon, 100 miles, 300 miles, and the 430 mile. Participants choose one of 3 modes of transport: on foot, on cross-country skis, or on a fat tire snow bike. Each one has advantages and disadvantages, depending on the temperature, snow fall, terrain and mechanical issues.
I chose to attempt the 430 mile, on foot. Everyone wants to know why. Why do the race at all? Why on foot? Why not try the 100 mile first before jumping into the big distance? I wanted to try the YAU because it took me home to the Yukon, it followed the iconic Yukon Quest sled dog trail (a big part of Yukon gold rush history), it offered solitude, and it offered a major personal challenge which I felt I could achieve deep down but the potential for anything to go wrong was there – any mistake could lead to having to scratch from the race. Why on foot, well, I felt it was the simplest mode. Shoes are simple. Skis can break, waxing can be difficult, ski boots can be cold and hard to warm up in; mountain bikes can break down and are expensive to buy. I felt the benefit of coasting down hills on skis or a bike didn’t quite outweigh the idea of walking the trail, although now having completed the distance I would like to try it on skis one year. The two guys from Sweden on their skis seemed to fly by me every day, after having sufficient rest at each checkpoint. I would travel later every night, they would be sleeping when I arrived, and sleeping when I left at 4 or 5am, only to fly by me again later in the morning or afternoon. Why the 430 mile? Well, I didn’t want to arrive at 100 miles, or 300 miles, and feel good and wish I could keep going but have to stop. I figured if I had to scratch at any point I would be happy with the distance I did make, but I wanted that Dawson City destination in my head, just in case I could put one foot in front of the other for the whole way.
1- Start Day
I feel like I could write pages and pages about the race, so I will! There are so many elements to it. The temperature was my biggest concern. We started at -30C in Shipyards Park and the first night at Rivendale Farms Checkpoint 1 on the Takhini River was reported down to -48C. Very cold night. Many people were not prepared for the low temps and when they attempted to camp/bivvy that first night found they were too cold to sleep and too tired to walk. I’m not sure how many racers scratched that first night, it seemed like half the field. The next day was cold too, around -30C all day. I managed to spend the night in my tent, however, I couldn’t pack it up in the morning – I was too cold. I wondered if I was cut out for this and could hardly imagine another 12 days like the first one. Instead of stuffing my tent I just laid it in my sled to deal with it later when I had more body heat. I had never experienced packing up in this kind of cold before, even with growing up in the Yukon. Most normal humans do not go out in these temps and if they do it’s for a short time with a cozy wood stove blazing for their return home. I spent a long time on this first night in my tent, about 10 hours, assessing my abilities and desire to go on. At 5am I was finally moving again, waiting for daylight and some feeling of safety and comfort from the sun so I could mentally recover from the reality of the extreme cold.
2 - Day Two
The next checkpoint would be Dog Grave Lake, which was a long 33 mile (53 km) day. I wore my down jacket with fur-lined hood all day without breaking a sweat. Constantly trying to keep my hands and feet warm and monitoring for frostbite, keeping my face as covered as possible. Luckily it was a beautiful clear day, which makes the cold more bearable. Mountains to the south, snow crystals shining. The man I was walking with that day, Helmut, stopped to take photos more often than I hoped as it slowed us down quite a bit. Eventually, I left him behind as I pushed on to Dog Grave Lake CP, only to find it way farther than I had expected (or it just felt like that). Traveling in the dark (dark by 630pm at this point), alone, through winding low-land alder and willow growth, then up up up a huge climb seemed endless and unfair, until finally reaching the remote CP around 1030pm. The small wall tent was packed with sleeping bodies, and I found out from the volunteers most of them were scratching and waiting for a snowmobile ride out the next day. There was no room for me to sleep in the wall tent, so I set up my sleeping bag on some straw dog beds left over from the mushers who passed through days earlier and slept fairly well in the -41C night. I didn’t set up my tent and instead just slept in my bag with my dads old army bag liner over top – much easier than dealing with tent poles.
3 - Day Three
I woke early and left by 530am, walking by the half-moon light and enjoyed myself, knowing the sun would come up in a few hours and Braeburn CP was my next stop, though not for many miles (35 miles) and hours. Braeburn was the first chance to sleep inside, dry my stuff out, eat a massive burger and let it sink in that I’d traveled 100 miles up to that point. This was the finish line for many, but not even a quarter of the way to Dawson for the 430 mile race!
4 - Day Four
From Braeburn to Ken Lake that fourth day was a beautiful one, although the longest day, at 45 miles, 74.5 km, it was a long haul. Chains of lakes with winding trail through the forests between. A flat day. I enjoyed catching up with Julie Pritchard, who had left Braeburn not long before me. We traveled together in silence and then chatted during our snack breaks. Before the sun set Oliver caught up with us, a 35 year old English doctor, and I ended up leaving the two of them behind to pick up my pace to Ken Lake CP. This was a long night for me, the lakes went on and on, and seemed to go uphill in the darkness. The forests between weren’t as much fun as they were in the daylight and the CP seemed to be farther away than I’d hoped (a recurring phenomenon throughout the race..that last 10 km before each CP was unbelievably long). I’d left Braeburn at 5am and arrived at Ken Lake by 11pm. Ken Lake checkpoint is at a small fishing & hunting cabin with a wall tent set up for athletes to have a meal in. There is no indoor sleeping. I quickly set up my sleeping bag (no tent again), using my pulk to sleep against so I didn’t roll down the sloped ground, changed my shoes and put my glorious down booties on. The small wall tent was warm, and I could dry my shoes and a few things out. I wolfed down the moose chili and a couple buns provided by the CP then hit the bag.
5 - Day Five
I ended up sleeping in until 630am, far later than I wanted! I bolted up, packed up quickly in the cold and filled my thermoses with hot water from the hard-working volunteers and got started on the trail. I was headed for Carmacks, a long 35 miles away.
More lakes to start with, and then the trail wound through a beautiful burned forest, and along the edge of the Yukon River. It felt good to see the Yukon River again. I caught up with Oliver and Tim and traveled with them most of the day. We were all tired and ended up snacking, breaking a lot, and walking painfully slow. We were close to Carmacks around 830/9pm, but still 4 km out when the snowmobile guys, Glenn and Ross, showed up and informed us we were cutting it close for arriving in Carmacks in time to make the 4.5 day cut-off time. We had no idea! We all thought it was the next morning. This kicked us into a gear I didn’t know I had in me, and we literally ran 4 km to Carmacks, pulks flying behind us up small hills, down, and along the river all the way towards the lights of the tiny village. It was not fun, but once we made it in time had a good laugh about how close we were to being pulled out of the race for what would have been a silly mistake.
Carmacks was a great place to be. The recreation center graciously gave us space inside, even for our pulks. So, it was a nice treat to dry everything out, reorganize the pulk, leave some gear behind that was too heavy and not being used, pick up the food drop bag and resupply the snacks. I ended up staying up until midnight as everything takes so long to do. I was able to talk on the phone and even check some emails. It was at this point I was realizing just how many friends and family were following my progress (via SPOTtracker online). I was overwhelmed by the support and love I felt, and it gave me extra energy and motivation.
6 - Day Six
Carmacks to McCabe Creek, 38 miles..another great day, a solitary one, I saw almost no one. The Swedish guys passed me, and we exchanged a few words and the usual smiles and then they were flying away on their skis. The snowmobiles came by once, the comforting fatherly face of Glenn always brightened up my day or night. But other than that, I had a solo day all the way. The sunny, shimmery, winter wonderland day turned into a dark tunnel at night, as usual. This was the worst night of the race for me mentally and physically. It felt endless..endless trail in endless dark. The trail seemed to wind in circles in the forest and at one point I thought I saw a red glow of fire in the distance, but it must’ve been imagined because it took another couple hours, a mental breakdown, and acceptance of reality, before I finally stumbled back onto the river and across it to the CP. It was 10pm. McCabe Creek. Finally. I slept on the floor beside other racers in the shed provided by a local Yukoner’s home. It was hot in the shed, but to let my body rest after such a long day on my feet was such a relief. I ate vegetables which tasted unbelievable. Rice and fish with the veggies then chicken, and then bread and peanut butter with something sweet for dessert.
My body felt broken after this many days on my feet and very little rest – joints screamed, and my bones ached as I lay on the floor in my sleeping bag. It really felt like all the stress and fear of the cold had cumulated in my body and were now being released. It was also the turning point in the race for pain. I felt like if I woke up and was still in this much pain I’d have to quit, but what happened instead was I woke up feeling better than I had since the start. My body figured out what we were doing and suddenly felt stronger day by day from then on, instead of breaking down.
7 - Day Seven
I left early, again. I was walking by 4 or 430am. I’d discovered my prime rest time was between 11pm and 4am, using some darkness to rest but getting away early enough to wait hours for the sunrise and maximize my daylight travel. The Swedish guys were still sleeping, of course, I would see them later on for sure. Today was a 6 mile long powerline walk near the highway towards Minto, then through low lying willow & alder land, along some lakes then eventually finding Pelly Crossing, 28 miles away, on the bank of the Pelly River. A shorter mileage day – but not a piece of cake by any means. I encountered overflow during the low laying land and had to put my snowshoes on to spread out my weight, use my poles to prod for harder ice sections that might not break through, and hope that my pulk didn’t tip over into the puddle of water. I made it through high and dry, but the thought of getting wet feet in this cold environment got my heart racing.
Pelly Crossing arrival in the daylight! That was my goal for the day, it felt great to roll in at 5pm, finally I had gotten somewhere at a ‘decent’ hour. Glenn took me over to the store to buy apples and new snack food, which was all I was thinking about all day! In the rec center I sorted and dried my gear, repacked my sled, visited with volunteers and racers (Oliver and Tim were there, both having scratched due to recurring injuries..back pain and shin splints). I also made a phone call to my Dad and stepmom Denise, who’d been quite anxious and worried up to this point on how I was doing. They were relieved to hear my voice and that I sounded confident and happy, and I think starting to realize I may just make it to Dawson if I kept doing what I was doing. My Dad said if I kept going he would be in Dawson for the finish, and this unexpected news made me so happy; knowing he’d be at the end consumed much of my thoughts for the next 6 days on the trail. After my phone calls and organizing I wolfed down bison stew and went to sleep amongst the other snoring bodies.
8 - Day Eight
3am wake up..bison stew for breakfast..then I was off on the Pelly River for 16 km which was absolutely beautiful in the starry morning and eventual sunrise. The rest of the day was on a road into Pelly Farms (33-mile day) on the longest, most beautiful driveway I’ve ever seen. I was near tears a few times because of the beauty. It was a special day and I travelled alone again all day – I hadn’t been on pace with anyone really at all yet and had spent more time than I ever had on my own in the wilderness. Arriving at the farm at 530pm as the sun was setting felt like a great end to the day. It got even better though once I realized I had arrived to heaven on earth. Pelly Farm is at the end of the Pelly River, just before it hits the Yukon River near Fort Selkirk. Dale and his wife run the farm, they have cows, chickens, pigs, and some beautiful collie dogs running around. Their house is tiny and cluttered, full of life with a real Yukon character; it was warm and inviting. Their generosity knew no bounds – we invaded their home, slept in their bunk beds, dried out gear, drank coffee and tea and used their tiny bathroom. The dinner they provided was a bread loaf pan of lasagna. Probably 2lbs of food. Apparently, it was a mix of bear and beef meat, and man did it taste good. I ate every ounce of it, plus a kit kat bar, and various chocolates and cookies and muffins kicking around. I slept like a log even with Jorn snoring on the bottom bunk, but only for a few hours.
Julie and I woke up at 230am, ate pancakes and amazing farm fresh eggs, packed up and were on the move by 4am. Julie had shown up at the farm the night before, much to my surprise. She’d fallen behind before McCabe Creek due to getting sick and losing a full day of travel time. It was a hard decision, but she decided to scratch from the race. She had been taken to Pelly Crossing, and after some rest and a chat with the RD she decided to take a snowmobile ride to Pelly Farm to catch up with me to see if I wanted to finish the race together. She would be an unofficial racer without a finish ranking, but I think this just shows her true spirit – Julie was there for the trail and experience, not a medal or status. I was more than happy to spend the next few days, the most remote days of the race, together. We’d become a team.
9 - Day Nine
Pelly Farms to Scroggie Creek CP is 65 miles. This meant we’d be camping out overnight somewhere in between the checkpoints. With really great information from Dale at the farm, we traveled about 50 km or so through the gorgeous burned forests and overflow sections, then up a 6 km hill climb and found a place to set up a bivvy beside the trail. We melted some water for our thermoses for the next day, ate a quick freeze-dried meal, and went right to sleep. We meant to wake up early, like 3am, but ended up sleeping in as I didn’t hear my watch alarm buried in my sleeping bag. We slept til 645, and I bolted awake and we quickly packed up and were moving by 730. This meant we were later into Scroggie Creek than we wanted to be, but I suppose we needed the sleep too. We followed a valley all the way, so much of it was flat. A nice “7.5km to go” message was written in the snow by Mark Hines, keeper of Scroggie Creek CP this year, and a 3-time MYAU 430 finisher and professional ultra-athlete. It was so great to meet him, as I’d read his book last summer – a couple times – in preparation for the race and Julie is a good friend of his. We ate dinner and visited in the small cabin. This place is remote and Mark was here for the whole duration of the Yukon Quest and the MYAU (checkpoint manager for the dogs/mushers who started a day before us, plus our race..he was there for about two weeks straight). The only way in is by snowmobile and it’s a long ride out either to Dawson or back to Pelly Farm. The dinner was chicken stew for me, and Mark made Julie a curry dish to make up for the last time he made it for her. I guess he mistook the cayenne for paprika and make it far too hot to the point of being inedible! Julie said this curry was just perfect.
10 - Day Ten
We left Scroggie at 4am. 99 miles to Dawson City from here. 99 miles!! I’d been dreaming of the moment I could say that, especially since I’d made up a song called “99 Miles to Dawson” in preparation for this moment. We were on the Stewart River for a short time, then eventually wound through the forest and into mining territory. We passed cats and bulldozers, haul trucks and sluicers. Great white mounds of snow-covered tailing piles as well.
That day we had the Black Hills/Eureka Dome climb ahead of us. It was a switchback road that took us from about 400m elevation up to almost 1200m. 2.5 hrs later we were sweaty on the top due to warm temps and spent the next few hours gently rolling along the ridge top, with a few surprisingly big hills to climb still. Also up here were many large wolf tracks. If I’d been alone my imagination may have wandered more to terrible scenarios that were unlikely to really happen, but in the company of another we were glad to find the tracks as evidence of animals moving about around us. Before we descended from the hills, we decided to set up a bivvy to get a couple hours sleep. It was already 930pm and Indian Creek CP was still a few hours away.
11 - Day Eleven
We slept until 3am then quietly awoke and packed up our tents to continue on our way. By this point in the race, actually ever since Carmacks, the temperature had risen, it was now much more comfortable traveling. The nights were lows of -12C ish, and daytime highs were even up to -2C. It felt warm. Indian Creek CP was reached just as daylight was breaking. We had Gerard’s amazing coffee, a pot of ichiban noodles, and a nice visit with his rather chubby rotweiller named Celise. Diane (medic) and Yann (photographer) were also hanging out there at the wall tent, so Julie and I had a tough time getting on our way! Coffee and socializing, plus some chocolate treats were enough to keep us there for a couple hours. But we had walking to do. And so, we continued. Our next big obstacle was King Soloman’s Dome, another hefty climb up to 1100m after losing a bunch of elevation the day before. So up we went, starting the climb that night around 7pm. We made it to the first switchback and decided to sleep for a couple hours before the final push to Dawson up and over the Dome, and all the way ‘downhill’ to Dawson on the other side. The night sky was great, bright stars, crisp night, maybe -15C or so, a slight breeze made it feel colder but we were protected by trees. We had boiled water and eaten our freeze-dried meal of choice by 11pm, crawled into our sleeping bags, and apparently, I was snoring within a minute of laying down. The northern lights were the last thing we saw before sleep, they were just coming out to dance as we slept.
12 - Day Twelve
At 2am we packed up. The sky was clouded over, no stars, and a layer of fog to travel through in the middle of the night made our headlamp light difficult to see through. The physical summit of the Dome was anticlimactic, as we still had some uphill grinds to do along the mountaintop, but we did take a photo for Jorn, who had scratched before Scroggie Creek and gave us treats to continue on with, and said we “had to make it to Dawson, for him, and for everyone”. He gave us gummie bear packages and we took our photo holding onto the bright packages in the darkness. I then ate all them at once.
We didn’t have daylight until we were well off the Dome and onto the downhill road descent on Bonanza Creek Road. We ran a little bit, maybe a 6-7 km/hr jog, when we could. Two more sections of overflow to cross as well, just when we thought we’d put it behind us! The snowmobile guides caught up with us at some point, Gary said we were doing great and to just keep going. We knew Bernhard was ahead of us, and Shawn behind. With Dawson in our sights we passed Claim 33, a splash of color, finally after the black and white past couple days, and then past Dredge #4. Joanne and Lucy came out to meet us with hot chocolate. Music was playing from their vehicle to pump us up for the final 13 km. But it ain’t over til it’s over, and in true MYAU form the last 10 km was tough! It was mid-afternoon and we knew we’d arrive in daylight, but it made it no easier or faster. We still plugged along, wondering when the hell we’d see the city and that finish line.
We had a visit with a local man and his Pomeranian fluff ball, then had to skirt past a barking black dog guarding the street. Finally we could see the bridge over the Klondike River and the path which would lead us into town. Walking the riverfront trail into Dawson City felt like coming home, kids playing and sledding, people going about their daily business, probably wondering what we were doing, or not caring at all. I could see the visitors center, which was the finish line and a small crowd of people gathered. My Dad and Denise were standing there just before the finish, relieved to see me looking fine after all that way and all the worrying. Finish line hugs and photos and congrats were a mix of emotions – I was so happy to be done, but also a little sad it was over.
There are so many moments that happen in almost 700km of walking. Ups and downs, daylight, nighttime, sunrise, sunset, worrying, wondering, being amazed at scenery, eating and drinking, resting and walking, sleeping minimally, reorganizing, packing/unpacking. Things happen slow, but now that it’s over it feels surreal and fast. 12.5 days of walking. I had thought I’d have some kind of great epiphany, some life revelations, some ingenious moment. Instead, I spent hours worrying about battery life, headlamp quality, how much water I had, my dwindling snack bag, sore hips, then sore heels, then a sore quad muscle, cold hands, layer on layer off, gloves on gloves off. Too hot too cold. Where is the checkpoint, how far have I gone, how fast am I going, how many hours can I sleep tonight? My mind was consumed by the present, which really is the beauty of survival at its simplest. Eat, sleep, water, shelter, keep moving. I loved it all, and even the moments I was alone in the dark and cold I felt in control and ready for anything.
March 15, 2015
It’s been 5 weeks since the start of the MYAU. Recovery has been easier than I thought it would be, but what isn’t easy is realizing it’s all over. The past year of thinking about the ultra, preparing for it, organizing my gear, buying more and more, training with my pulk and having it take up more mental space than I imagined it would has left a void I wasn’t ready for. I want to be back on the trail where life is simple. Move forward, eat, sleep. I miss the sound of my footsteps and the scrape of my pulk on the snow, and the pull of my harness on my hips. I miss the volunteers and the racers, the animal tracks, the snow. I even miss my small headlamp beam in the dark. I plan to do the YAU again in 2017 and that seems too far away.
My official result:
4th place out of 5 finishers on foot for the 430 mile. (19 people at the start line)
1st female in, and the only “official” female finisher of 2015.
2nd woman ever to finish, 1st Canadian woman to complete the 430.
Official time: 293 hours 25 minutes (12.5 days)
Thanks for taking an interest in my write up, and I hope it inspires you to challenge yourself in whatever way you want to.
http://yannbb.com/ (professional photographer, also on Instagram @_y_a_n_n_b_b_ )
http://www.arcticultra.de/en/event/results/results-2015 (MYAU website and results)