Another Yukon Arctic Ultra racer faces amputations due to frostbite

Another Yukon Arctic Ultra racer faces amputations due to frostbite

Another competitor in the Yukon Arctic Ultra race will likely be losing extremities to frostbite.

Nick Griffiths, from Bolton, England, will find out later this week if he will need to have his two middle toes and most of his big toe amputated.

The annual Yukon Arctic Ultra, which began in Whitehorse on Feb. 1, challenges athletes to travel 480 kilometres along the Yukon Quest dog sled trail. It's billed as "the world's coldest and toughest ultra" race as athletes travel by mountain bike, cross-country skis or on foot.This year, athletes could choose to race 160 or 480 kilometres along the trail north of Whitehorse.

About 75 kilometres into the race, Griffiths was taken by snowmobile to Whitehorse General Hospital. The night before, Griffiths was unable to keep his feet warm in his sleeping bag and later started developing frostbite on his fingers.

This year's race saw temperatures fall below –40 C at night, and was even halted for a day because of extreme cold.

An Italian athlete who participated in the race is also facing the possibility of losing his hands and feet after suffering severe frostbite. He had to be rescued by helicopter midway through the marathon after he experienced confusion due to hypothermia, and removed his gloves and shoes.

"I wasn't particularly concerned, I thought I would be OK," said Griffiths.

The seriousness of the situation wasn't clear to him until he was being treated at the hospital and his feet started to turn purple when they tried to defrost them.

Griffiths was put on the drug Iloprost, which opens up blood vessels, helping to bring more blood to damaged tissue. Most damage that occurs from frostbite is due to the rewarming of the tissue. As it heats back up, blood clots can form and vessels can spasm, which hinders blood from recirculating, leading to the death of tissue. 

The drug was first used in Canada by the Whitehorse hospital in December 2016. Before that, it was mostly used in Europe, but now is a common treatment for the most severe cases of frostbite.

"It's not going to cure all frostbites but it will certainly enhance our ability to prevent amputations," said Alex Poole, a surgeon at the hospital who co-wrote an article on the treatment in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

"Luckily for people in the Yukon [frostbite treatment is] as advanced as anywhere in the world right now."

Whitehorse General Hospital sees about three cases of severe frostbite a year, but has treated about five so far this year.

Griffiths is now back in England, where he is being treated at a hospital burn centre for his injuries.

"Out on the trail you are responsible for yourself," said Griffiths.

"You are responsible for your own race and how you're going to perform in it."

Griffiths said he believes in hindsight that he wasn't listening closely enough to the warning signs his body was giving him, which led to the severity of his frostbite.

The most common mistake people make when it comes to frostbite is lack of proper equipment and training, according to wilderness skills instructor Fabian Schmitz.

"You need to have the skill and the experience to use that equipment properly," said Schmitz.

Griffiths entered the race after a friend of his ran it in 2017, and wanted to try it for himself. Griffiths said he does not regret participating but wishes he would have made it farther.

"Even though I'm probably going to lose three toes … I would say it was well a organized, and professional run event," he said.