White heat: La Grande Odyssée sled race

A 1,200-kilometre sled race through the Alps pushes dogs and their handlers to the limits. Judy Armstrong soaks up the atmosphere

In the darkness, a dog howls. Another answers, and another. There is a pause; then silence as the animals drop their heads and continue to run. They race through the night, in teams of eight, hauling sleds so lightweight that, if it weren’t for the exhausted men crouched low on the runners, they would blow away in a breeze. In the darkness, they race, as if there is no tomorrow...

This month, La Grande Odyssée Savoie Mont Blanc marks its tenth anniversary. From January 11-22, one of the world’s toughest sled-dog races will charge through Savoie and Haute-Savoie, through wilderness and ski resorts, over mountains and across river valleys. Covering nearly 1,200 kilometres, with more than 25,000 metres of elevation change, 23 teams of mushers will pit themselves and their dogs against the elements, the terrain and each other.

La Grande Odyssée – LGO – runs through daylight and into the night. Eight stages plus two ‘challenge’ days take place in 25 ski resorts and two remote encampments; mass starts attract thousands of spectators who throng snowy villages and thrill to the excitement. And what excitement! Until you have heard 300 dogs howl in unison, felt the noise vibrate through your bones, seen the focus, energy and the power of those teams – until then, you cannot say you have experienced the Alps in winter.

LGO was the brainchild of Frenchmen Henry Kam, and adventurer and film maker Nicolas Vanier. Inspired in 2002 by the Yukon Quest, a legendary 1,000-mile sled-dog race linking the Yukon Territory in Canada to Alaska – Vanier racing, with Kam in support – they decided to create LGO as the greatest race in Europe. It took several years to gather the organisational team, develop a route and gain finance and permissions. The first full event ran in 2005, with 18 mushers representing 10 nations and covering roughly the same distance as it does today.

Over the years, however, it has become increasingly complex. There are now four races within the carnival. LGO, for the international crème de la crème of mushers, covers the entire distance of 1,130 kilometres over eight stages in ten days. The Umes Trophy, running over the first four stages of LGO for ten middle-distance mushers, covers 417 kilometres. The Grande Odyssée Trophy takes place during stages five and six, covering 257 kilometres over three days. The Haute Maurienne Vanoise Trophy takes place on stages seven and eight, when ten mushers race over 250 kilometres, again over three days.

It makes for plenty of presentations, masses of mushers, hyper hounds and no end of noise. I attended a stage of LGO 2013, to experience it for myself, visiting Bessans, a small village in the snow-covered Haute Maurienne valley. It is a typical Alpine scene, with narrow streets, wooden shutters on stolid stone houses, ice-smeared cliffs rising above snow-crusted roofs. Bessans: quiet as a church... normally. But today is not normal. Thousands of spectators, brightly coloured dots on a monochrome landscape, are swarming around the village, concentrated on a large meadow which has become the start venue for the LGO and Haute Maurienne trophies.

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On the outskirts of the melee, dogs, hundreds of dogs, lie silent in their kennels. The racing sleds – sleek chariots in aluminium and plastic, lightweight, strong and flexible – are parked, as space-age as their pulling power is traditional. The cords attached to the padded webbing harnesses look too feeble to withstand pressure from a pack of howling, straining, racing dogs, and their runners, like cross-country skis, seem too thin to stay on top of the snow.

The crowd intensifies toward the centre of the meadow where the seven-piece Bessans band belts out jazz while a woman, encumbered by a padded ski suit, dances in the snow. People swarm through the refreshment stall, munching burgers and drinking vin chaud; they queue for toy huskies and DVDs, and stamp their feet against the chill.

We are one hour from the start time. As the noise level ramps up, a woman taps my arm and points to the cliffs hemming the meadow. A herd of bouquetin – the Vanoise ibex – is standing on pinnacles, watching the scene. Ice hangs in blue teeth from the cliff face, the valley is blind with cloud and we have only hints of the grandeur around us.

Half an hour to go: two bearded men climb on to a snowmobile and shout: “Musher meeting!” One falls off and, as the crowd yells with laughter, he emerges from the snow, stern faced. “We must be serious: this is a race!” He calls a roll of names, details the route, identifies hazards and fields questions – “in French and English please, no Czech!” Most of the mushers are French, but this is an international field with Czechs, Germans, Norwegians, Slovaks and Austrians among the teams.

In the dog park, there is muted excitement. The teams are weary now after ten days of racing. The dogs are smaller than I expected, and serene, lying in the snow or on straw in trailers, yawning. As I pass a cage, an orange and white nose nudges out, a fair match for an English hunting hound. Blue eyes stare at me. I stare back. We are both silent; for a second, it is a haunting interaction.

Twenty minutes to race time. Dogs are stirring; handlers are massaging canine backs and legs, fixing protective booties on to paws. Sleds are being lined up, their traces laid straight. A pale-faced husky sits up, ears lifting. Then a low howling begins, mournful and quiet. It reaches a crescendo, other dogs join the chorus – and then suddenly, it stops. They can sense that action is near, and as pairs are led out to be linked into lines, there begins a quivering, a tension. By the time the teams are together, the noise has built again to become a solid wall.

Five minutes to the départ. The crowd surges to the ropes surrounding the start arena, where tracks are ploughed into furrows to separate teams for the mass start. The commentator, booming over a loudspeaker, is winding himself into a lather. “You must shout!” he yells. “The dogs love the excitement! They love the adoration! Adore them!”

Any tranquillity from the kennel park has evaporated. The teams – mostly eight dogs per sled – are plunging, bucking, leaping against their harnesses. Handlers are clinging to their charges, desperate to keep control. “These are the gladiators of the snow!” screams the commentator.

A helicopter lifts off, its rotors spraying snow over the gathering. Sun bursts through the cloud, snowflakes glitter, classical music floods from the speakers and – with a roar from the crowd – the first wave of dogs bursts from the start line. They fly down the arena, paws pounding, sinews straining, ten abreast. It is thrilling – the speed, the noise, the effort, the sheer scale of the challenge ahead.

As rapidly as the crescendo built, it dies. The teams settle, after the first mad sprint, to a lope then a steady trot. They are following a track wide enough to allow teams to pass in safety but also narrow, in places, through the confines of terrain. With most of the crowd, we follow them up the valley by car, snatching glimpses through banked snow and across icy rivers. At every viewpoint there are spectators, urging the teams onward.

Today’s race turns at Bonneval-sur-Arc, the village’s traditional architecture and ambience making it a jewel in the Haute Maurienne crown. Here, two hours in, the teams have spread out and calmed. Mushers talk soothingly to their dogs, encouraging them forward. They are the only movement in a white world; with the low cloud the light is flat and even the mountains have disappeared.

They race back down the valley, through the afternoon and into the night. At 8pm, we join an excited group at the finish line, where the party has already started. Fires burn in metal drums, and the Bessans band plays in the darkness. Handlers crowd the barriers, waiting anxiously for their teams. People jig in the snow, clapping hands and stamping feet to the music, and against the cold. It’s snowing lightly, flakes backlit by flames. Suddenly, out of the black, after four and a half hours of hard running, the first LGO teams arrive. The mushers’ head-torches grow from pinpricks to blazing lamps as the dogs charge down the pisted slope toward the line. The animals are silhouettes, tails, ears and legs flying, eyes glinting green in the firelight. With the noise, the flames and the drums, it feels eerie, almost primeval.

More teams arrive as vets, TV crews and organisers swarm through the area. A child shouts a welcome as his father crosses the line, and resting dogs take up the chant, howling and yelping. Handlers caress their dogs, examining them for injury. Their charges’ eyes close in happiness as gloved hands stroke legs, feet, bellies. I watch a bearded musher hug an exhausted dog, stare into his eyes and hold him close. Tears spring to my eyes, as they do into his... the love, emotion, pride and courage is evident in every team: man and dog alike.

This, then, is La Grande Odyssée: the spectacle, the bravery and the bond between man and dog, dog and man. It is a race like no other, covering a huge distance, yet accessible to all who care to watch, cheer and admire. As Nicolas Vanier and Henry Kam declared, back in 2002, this is surely the greatest race in Europe, perhaps even the world.

LA GRANDE ODYSSÉE 2014

Who’s Who

The 2014 line-up makes for exciting racing. There are 23 teams, each with 14 dogs, with eight running in any one stage. The youngest is Frenchman Grégory Coffre, at 20 years old. With his father, he breeds Siberian huskies and Greenland dogs. In 2013, he ran the Grande Odyssée Trophy (coming fifth) and his father the Haute Maurienne Trophy with the same dogs.

At the other end of the age range is 60-year-old Jack-Gerard Gaspard. From his base in the Vercors, he runs 100 sled dogs, mostly Siberian huskies but including 15 Alaskan huskies, specifically for racing.

Two women will tackle the challenge: German Silvia Furtwangler, 52, who ran in the inaugural LGO, and Frenchwoman Sandrine Muffat, 27, who came fifth last year in the Haute Maurienne Trophy.

Last but not least, Ji?í Vondrák from the Czech Republic: LGO winner in 2013, he is back to defend his title. And, when he takes his team to the start-line in Les Carroz, the champion knows he is in for a tough race.

Race details

Date: January 11-22, 2014

Website: www.grandeodyssee.comTo follow LGO 2014: Video streaming through the website and on dailymotion: www.grandeodyssee.com/fr/60/tv-lgo-news/ On LGO’s blog: www.grandeodyssee.com/fr/12/lgo-blog/

On LGO’s Facebook page: www.facebook.com/pages/La-Grande-Odyssee

Newsletter (in French): www.grandeodyssee.com/newsletter.phpGETTING THERE By air: The nearest airports are at Chambéry and Geneva.By rail: The nearest TGV station is at Chambéry, which has a direct link with Paris.TOURIST INFORMATIONThe race covers a wide area of Savoie and Haute-Savoie. For hotel and restaurant details contact Savoie Mont Blanc tourist board (www.savoie-mont-blanc.co.uk).