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Quest on the rocks

It’s supposed to be a tough race.And anyone who signs up to travel 1,600 kilometres by dog sled, crossing several mountain ranges, accepts…

It’s supposed to be a tough race.

And anyone who signs up to travel 1,600 kilometres by dog sled, crossing several mountain ranges, accepts this.

But, the Yukon Quest shouldn’t be a life-threatening ordeal.

It’ll be cold.

And there’ll be hardships.

Maybe even the odd lost toe.

But most mushers assume, and rightly so, that there’ll, at least, be a trail.

In fact, they’re guaranteed a marked trail in the race rules.

So, why, on a 1,105-metre summit known for its dramatic whiteouts and raging winds, were there no trail markers?

It’s hard to mark Eagle Summit, explained race marshal Mike McCowan.

The frozen, snowless ground leaves little support for the flimsy garden stakes that race officials call markers.

They just blow away.

It happens almost every year, said McCowan.

And every year they go back up Eagle Summit to replace the precarious trail markers, with the same precarious stakes.

But even before Europeans arrived on the continent, aboriginal people had a better marking system — rock cairns.

Arriving off the mountain, William Kleedehn told reporters the storm had erased the flimsy trail markers.

Quest officials dispatched snowmachines to re-mark the trail.

But the snowmobilers couldn’t make it, the whiteout conditions were too treacherous.

Meanwhile instead of holding teams back, officials at Mile 101 dog drop continued to send racers onto the unmarked trail over a steep, rock-littered mountain summit.

Sure, even rookies should be comfortable in a wild storm. Most train dogs in remote wilderness reaches.

But most do so on familiar trails, not unmarked mountains.

After six mushers and more than 80 dogs were airlifted off Eagle Summit by a US Blackhawk helicopter, Quest officials began to express doubts about their sticks, and began talking about the benefits of permanent markers.

And mushers started floating the idea of a team of professional trailbreakers, rather than throttle-heavy volunteers who aren’t familiar with driving dog teams.

“What I said in Central, that someone could die up there on that mountain, I wasn’t joking,” said three-time Quest champion Hans Gatt.

“The Quest has to sit down and figure out a different route or, one of these years, someone is going to get killed.

“It’s a totally out-of-control situation and it shouldn’t be that way — to bring dog teams up there is not responsible.”

McCowan scoffed at any suggestion the route should be altered.

“Where would you re-route it?” he asked. “It’s a 1,000-mile race and you should expect a wide variety of weather conditions.

“Anytime you get on a dog sled and pull up that hook, it’s just like getting into a car.

“You can drive through the same intersection a thousand times and then, all of a sudden, something happens — there are no guarantees.”

As a ranking official, McCowan should have reviewed the trail himself before sending teams over the summit, said some mushers.

McCowan just tossed that off.

“What are you going to do?” he said. “I knew there was snow on the approach and not much on top — the weather changes.

“And you can’t put a lot of credence into what you hear from mushers on the trail — have you ever played the game of telephone?”

Sure, comments get distorted as they’re passed along.

But when most competitors are saying the same thing, officials should heed the warnings.

It was a bad year. The worst trail many had seen.

It was hard on the dogs and has many racers thinking twice about returning.

“The Quest needs to spend less money on administration, flashy media events and follow-ups and focus more on the key elements of the race, which is the trail and the purse,” said fifth-place finisher Gerry Willomitzer.

The poor trail marking almost cost champion Lance Mackey the race.

The defending champ got lost returning to Dawson — officials had neglected to remark the trail or adequately brief Mackey on the return trip.

So when he turned around at Pelly Crossing and headed towards Dawson, the markers didn’t make much sense.

Mackey, exhausted after 10 days on the trail, came across a marker just before a crossroads. It signalled the mushers to take that next turn. Mackey did.

Three hours and more than 45 kilometres later, he came across the same marker and realized it led teams to Pelly, but sent Dawson-bound competitors on a wild goose chase.

How could officials overlook this?

Mistakes were made. At some points, lives were believed to be at risk.

Which leads one to a more difficult issue — that of alcohol consumption on the trail.

Several, though not all, officials were less than discreet in consuming booze at checkpoints.

Should officials managing a 10-day, 24-hour a day race with 22 teams crossing some of North America’s roughest terrain be drinking at all?

“I think the officials, more than looking at us, need to look at themselves,” said Hugh Neff, after being forced to scratch in Dawson. “Last year, there was a lot of drinking problems. And, as a race, they have to realize how much we put into this.”

This year’s lack of snow, the sudden deep powdery snow, the ice and glaciations, the tree stumps, the sharp rocks, the rain, the overflow and the lack of proper markers took their toll on people and dogs, and taxed officials.

And it’s only going to get worse.

“The Yukon is one of two places seeing the most warming worldwide,” said John Streicker, co-ordinator of Northern Climate Exchange.

Climate change is altering northern precipitation patterns, he said.

Some areas will see more snow and some will see less.

This is affecting sled dog races and people’s access to the land in general, he said.

“And we need to try and address that.

“My hope would be that, someday, I could talk with the Quest organizers and say, ‘Hey, why not take this on as a bit of a thought and try and lead the way for people.’”

But this year, the Yukon Quest raised funds by raffling a gas-guzzling Hummer.

In the Yukon, automobiles are the main contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, said Streicker.

“It’s one of the areas we really would like to try and address.

“And it’s not like one Hummer is really going to make a difference. But I saw the irony in it right away.

“Habitat for Humanity is auctioning off a Smart car and there was the Quest auctioning off a Hummer and you think to yourself, ‘Ya, this is part of the problem that’s leading to (climate change).’”

But it’s not easy to raise money.

And the Hummer raffle did put roughly $60,000 towards next year’s race.

Hopefully, weather permitting, some of that money will be used to establish a better trail, including permanent markers on the summits.

After all, Blackhawk helicopters and dog teams don’t mix.