PTARMIGAN CREEK—Jennifer Cochran watched as her dogs strained in their harnesses and began to disappear over the rim of Eagle Summit.
The Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race’s most formidable obstacle was living up to its reputation around 8 p.m. Sunday, with 40 mph winds and blowing snow that pelted the back of her parka. Then her sled topped the rise near the peak of the 3,685-foot mountain and the world changed.
“As soon as I hit the summit, it was just like a wall,” Cochran said as she loaded gear into her truck Tuesday at the 101 Mile Steese Highway dog drop about 24 hours after she and five other mushers and their dogs were plucked off Eagle Summit by a rescue helicopter.
Hurricane-force winds and fresh, wet snow created whiteout conditions her headlamp couldn’t penetrate. Her dogs, even the ones just a few feet in front of her sled, disappeared. Though she had been over the trail before, there was no way to see markers or the tripods lined up across the moonscape of the summit.
The 33-year-old Fairbanks social worker went into survival mode.
“I knew to park the team right away,” she said.
“The only thing to do was put them in their dog coats and take care of them, get in my bivy sack and my sleeping bag, and wait it out.”
In the next few hours, as many as a dozen teams in both the 1,000-mile Quest and a 300-mile qualifier that is run simultaneously came and went, scouring the top of the summit for trail. Some teams turned back, others made it off the peak somehow and turned up in Central later that morning.
Cochran and rookies Saul Turner of Whitehorse, Yukon, and Yuka Honda, a Japanese citizen who lives in Healy, camped together. Cochran said she and Honda huddled together on the lee side of her sled, sharing their body warmth and reassurance.
The trio combined their supplies over the 17 hours they were stranded in the whiteout. No one really slept, spooked because the storm didn’t seem to be quieting as the hours passed.
“I think anytime you’re in that type of situation—which I’ve never been in before and never want to be again—you definitely think about death because you don’t want to make a single mistake,” Cochran said. “I think we’re lucky no one died up there.”
Turner, the 25-year-old son of former Quest champion Frank Turner, said he didn’t fear for his life. He fashioned a sealed dome out of his sleeping bag and passed the time by smoking cigarettes.
“Sometimes it was a little too smoky, so I’d have to ventilate it a bit,” he joked.
Turner did have a few reflective moments as the wind buffeted his shelter.
“I was thinking about a lot of different things and it put a lot of things in perspective for me,” Turner said. “I remember at one point I was in my bag and I imagined a satellite image from directly above and I was just a tiny speck of dust.”
The mental image reminded him how powerful nature is and how everything can be taken away in a moment.
“It made me feel pretty insignificant,” he said.
At the same time and not too far away, 1,000-mile Quest rookies Phil Joy and Kiara Adams of Whitehorse were camped with Quest 300 musher Jodi Rozmyn of Two Rivers. Joy, a 33-year-old Goldstream Valley biologist, met Adams and Rozmyn as he searched for the trail.
His dogs were moving, despite conditions that alternated between deep snow drifts and bare rock and tundra. He briefly pondered going on, but realized he was dehydrated, hungry and had been without sleep since the race started 36 hours earlier. He was also out of gloves, though Adams gave him a pair.
He decided to hunker down and set up a shelter. After retrieving his sled under calm conditions Tuesday afternoon, Joy said they appeared to be a few hundred yards from the Quest trail when they shut down.
“Now that I’ve seen it, I don’t know how we got there—bare tundra, rocks sticking out, shale all over the place. It was the kind of place you shouldn’t take a dog team,” Joy said.
Around noon Monday, the mushers said winds began to die down. Though visibility was still fairly poor, mushers in both camps began untangling dogs, feeding and searching for the trail. Both groups said they were closing in on it when they saw rescue planes circling.
An Army National Guard helicopter soon appeared.
“I just remember being really embarrassed when the helicopter showed up,” Joy said. “I mean, it’s the Quest. No one’s ever been rescued by helicopter in the Quest.”
The annual run between Fairbanks and Whitehorse has long been billed as “the toughest sled dog race in the world,” a reputation Monday’s snowstorm did nothing to diminish. The rescue effort, which ferried six mushers from Eagle Summit on Monday and another Tuesday from Rosebud Summit, was the largest launched in three decades of 1,000-mile racing in Alaska and Canada.
The mushers who were rescued and those unable to complete the section of trail leading into Central, 165 miles from the Fairbanks start line, were withdrawn under race rules. There are similar rules in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race and most mid-distance races.
While the three 1,000-mile Quest mushers said officials on the ground and at the scene acted correctly at every step, they all believed they could have continued down the trail if allowed.
“I was confident at that point that we were going to go over the summit, go down into the trees to where we saw fit to camp, pull out our cookers and get them going,” Turner said.
Turner said others were offered the option of staying, but that by the time he got to rescuers and the race official who accompanied them, the decision was already made: The six mushers and seven dog teams on Eagle Summit would be flown back to 101 Mile.
Cochran said the decision was the correct one. But she believes the group should have been allowed to go on to Central. Officials had no choice but to withdraw them from the race because of the rules. She thinks those rules should be altered so that mushers who aren’t chasing prize money can have more latitude.
“I know Saul, Yuka and I did everything right,” she said. “We took care of ourselves, we took care of our dogs, we did everything we should have done and we were punished for it.”
Turner said the ordeal has changed his mind about certain bedrock traditions in the Quest. The race remains proud of its self-reliance ethos, but has loosened rules in recent years to make the experience more positive for mushers, dogs and handlers.
He and his father, who won the race in 1995 and missed the Quest for the first time this year since its start in 1984, both spoke out against musher use of Global Positioning System units prior to the race.
“I said it goes against the spirit of the race and it’s a terrible idea,” Turner said with a grin. “But now I’ve changed my mind. If we had a two-way radio, we could’ve camped down there where we were going to camp and get in touch with them. No planes, no helicopters and we would still be in the race.”