Eagle summit stalls dog teams

FAIRBANKS, Alaska One false step on Eagle Summit and it’s a fast, bumpy plunge to the bottom. The vertical climb, or plummet —…

FAIRBANKS, Alaska

One false step on Eagle Summit and it’s a fast, bumpy plunge to the bottom.

The vertical climb, or plummet — depending on the direction the race is run — is in the back of each musher’s mind long before they sign up for the Yukon Quest.

And over the years, the 1,105-metre mountain has forced a number of mushers to scratch just 250 kilometres from Fairbanks.

“Eagle Summit is the only hill where I broke a sweat,” said fifth-place finisher Aaron Burmeister on Wednesday.

If it wasn’t for that mountain, the Alaskan rookie might never have caught Michelle Phillips.

“I thought I was going to be racing Sebastian (Schnuelle) for sixth,” he said.

Heading for the summit, Phillips left Central four hours before Burmeister.

But partway up Eagle Summit things fell apart.

Phillips’ dogs stopped in the middle of the vertical ascent, and the leaders turned the whole team around.

“There was nothing I could do,” she said.

“I couldn’t even push the sled. It wouldn’t budge.”

Phillips was “choked,” but didn’t have much of a choice — she camped out and waited for the other teams to arrive.

“I made a mistake,” she said.

“I had this young inexperienced leader up front.”

Leaving Central, the young dog seemed a good choice.

“I put him up there because he’s so exuberant,” said Phillips.

“But he’s also easily freaked out, and I should have thought about that.”

When Schnuelle arrived, his team passed Phillips, but stalled halfway up the hill.

Burmeister got caught behind him.

And Hugh Neff was close behind.

“I helped Sebastian up,” said Burmeister.

Then he and Schnuelle returned for his team before skidding further down the slope to help Neff and Phillips.

“It took camaraderie and teamwork,” said Burmeister.

“When you’re out in the middle of nowhere, you have no option.”

Schnuelle was “an animal,” he added.

After spending most of the race sitting on his fancy seat, Schnuelle got a burst of energy and made four trips up and down the hill.

“I didn’t think I’d make it up four times,” he said, arriving in Fairbanks in seventh place.

“I sweated lots, but that’s because I’m fat.

“Generally, I sit on the sled and freeze, and then there’s Eagle Summit, and then I sit on the sled and freeze.”

To haul the sleds up the mountain, one person pushed, another pulled and others helped the team.

But when it came time to get Neff up the mountain, all four mushers dragged the sled up the hill; then all four went back to pull up the dogs, said Schnuelle.

“I got a good workout,” he added.

William Kleedehn struggles with the summit every time he runs the race, and he started talking about it when he was still in Eagle.

The Carcross musher had a young, inexperienced team this year and was apprehensive about the steep ascent.

“William is always worried about Eagle Summit,” said Gerry Willomitzer.

The two mushers had been travelling together for most of the race and met on the summit.

Willomitzer left Central first, but made a wrong turn and ended up in a burn area on a dead-end track.

It took him at least 10 minutes to turn the team around, and by then Kleedehn had unwittingly passed him.

“Once I got above the tree line, I could see William in front of me,” he said.

Kleedehn was struggling and Willomitzer passed him, but waited at the top.

With only one leg it is really difficult for him when it’s that steep, said Willomitzer.

“And having his team in front helped me get up there, so it’s only courtesy to wait.”

The little snow that was there felt like sandpaper, he added.

“It was hard pushing the sled in that snow, and it was actually noisy.”

When Frank Turner scratched in Dawson, he mentioned Eagle Summit, and how hard it would be to climb that slope with a small dog team.

But this didn’t faze rookie Mike Jayne.

With only eight dogs remaining in his team, the 24-year old Alaskan had the second fastest run time over the summit.

“I went over the summit during training,” he said at the finish.

Jayne was surprised to learn that Hans Gatt was only seven minutes faster than he was during that run.

Last year, five mushers and six dog teams were airlifted off the summit after being caught in a storm that reduced visibility dramatically and swept away the trail markers.

The incident forced race officials to install permanent markers on the windswept mountain.

But some mushers still think the trail should be re-routed.

A vertical drop like that has no business being in a dog race, said Gatt and Kleedehn.

Especially when alternate routes exist, they said.

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