The Yukon Quest trail vanished when Lance Mackey was roughly 120 kilometres from Eagle.
The three-time reigning champ was ahead of the trailbreakers.
Contending with jagged, sharp jumble ice two storeys high, and patches of steaming open water, Mackey and his 13 dogs zigzagged across the river trying to find a route in the dark.
“It was a little ridiculous in a race,” he said.
“I lost at least one-and-a-half hours.”
He had turned around and was on his way back to the last cabin he’d passed on the Kandik River, roughly 16 kilometres away, when the four trailbreakers showed up.
The night before, the trailbreakers had tried to make it to Eagle, but things turned ugly just beyond the Kandik.
Already battered and bruised from rolling their machines in some of the worst jumble ice in years, they couldn’t find a way through the next bad section.
“The banks were too high — it was jumble from one side of the river to the other right up into the willows and there was open steaming water,” said trailbreaker Eric Cosmutto.
In the dark it was impossible to tell what was glare ice and what was water, he added.
That’s when they turned back and went to sleep at the public-use cabin on the Kandik.
“We kept looking out to see if we saw a headlamp going by,” said Cosmutto.
But none of them saw Mackey.
“When we woke up and saw puppy tracks on the trail, we knew we were in trouble,” he said.
Trying to find a route through the huge shards and ledges of ice with Mackey on his tail, Cosmutto dropped into a six-metre trough and started running his snowmachine along the bottom.
That’s when he felt the ice move.
A nine-metre slab broke off.
“I goosed it and jumped up into the jumble,” he said. “And that piece was just sitting there bobbing.”
Right behind him, Mackey jumped on his sled brake.
“There was no way I was going that route,” he said, eating pancakes, curried chicken and pasta at the Eagle checkpoint at 2 a.m. on Wednesday.
Although they tried to avoid it, the trailbreakers ended up weaving through jumble ice for almost 20 kilometres.
“I was getting cold and tired,” said Mackey.
“Then I got in that stuff and I was wide awake and sweating instantly.”
The trail cut back on itself repeatedly, twisting around tight corners that weren’t made for dog teams.
“I was going around corners on my side,” said Mackey.
“And I wouldn’t even be upright again before I was bouncing off something else.”
It was “morally hard” on the three young dogs in his team.
“They’ve never been through something like that — we don’t train in that stuff,” he said.
“There were ice cracks out there a whole dog could fall into, easy.”
When it wasn’t chunky ice, crevasses and trenches, there were patches of soft snow that felt like wading through a sandbox.
“And that fine stuff goes right through the booties, so I have lots of dogs with rosy feet,” said Mackey.
His sled also took a beating.
“I had to use bailer wire and duct tape to hold the runner on,” he said.
And it was hard on the musher, being “bumped and bruised and beat down.”
“It was a very demanding run, the kind nobody wants to repeat any time soon,” said Mackey.
“And I’m glad I went through it in the daylight, because if I’d been going through in pitch black, I’d probably be getting a plane out of this checkpoint.”
The 64 kilometres of trail to Eagle, after the Trout Creek hospitality cabin, were smooth sailing and Mackey’s team looked OK.
“These dogs are strong and will withstand anything I ask them to do.
“There are just a few wrist injuries.”
But it can take some time for injuries to show up, he said.
“So I kept them pretty slow coming in here.”
Fairbanks Quest rookie Ken Anderson, who usually races Iditarod, was only 20 minutes behind Mackey coming into Eagle.
“There were cracks and holes out there dogs could get thrown into,” said Anderson, who wasn’t as hungry as Mackey, eating only pancakes and ham in the old Eagle schoolhouse.
Anderson would see these boulders of ice on the trail and think, “That one will put me out of the race, or put one of my dogs out of the race,” he said.
“But the sled held up and my dogs are so tough, they just kept going — it was amazing.”
Until he hit the jumble ice, Anderson was beginning to question the Quest’s claim to be the toughest sled dog race in the world.
“I thought Eagle Summit was overrated,” he said.
But once he was out on the river, “wallowing in the soft snow.” and jumble without many trail markers, things got “a bit freaky.”
“I thought (the trailbreakers) were running out of markers,” he said.
“There weren’t many and I could see where they started using big blocks of ice to mark the trail.”
It seems like there wasn’t much preparation, said Anderson.
“I wouldn’t have been surprised if I’d come across Lance (Mackey), and the trailbreakers stopped because it was too tough to get through.”
Anderson was glad it wasn’t snowing.
“There really weren’t many markers, and we were lucky because there was a fresh trail in front of us, but if there was a storm out there, you’d really be screwed.”
Anderson and Mackey left Eagle one minute apart, just after 7 a.m. on Wednesday morning.
“It’s starting to look like a race between Lance and me,” said Anderson before turning in for a few hours just after 2 a.m.
Both men were already thinking about the gold awarded to the first musher into Dawson, 236 kilometres away.
“It looks like the teams behind me are falling apart,” said Anderson.
Annie Lake’s Hugh Neff is slowing down with only 10 dogs and one in the sled bag, he said.
“And when I passed Brent Sass he had one dog in the bag and another one limping.”
But Mackey doesn’t feel much pressure from Anderson, or anyone else.
“The competition’s not pushing me like it has in the past,” he said.
Mackey’s more concerned about the trail, or lack of it.
“It’s frustrating,” he said.
“Maybe those trailbreakers could have started a day earlier.”
Usually, trailbreakers run from Circle to Eagle and vice versa, but in last week’s extreme cold, nobody moved.
“And we got a day behind,” said Mark Backes, who’s been breaking the race trail for more than a decade.
He and his crew were already in Central when they got a call from Quest officials to come back to Mile 101 to reopen the route over Eagle Summit after a storm blew in over the mountain and closed the road.
“And we can’t seem to make up time,” he said.
“If we try and sleep, they catch you.”
The Alaskan trail is always rough, added Backes.
“On this side, the mushers suffer.
The trailbreakers are volunteers using their own machines.
Roaring through Eagle, Backes pointed out the shattered hood and the stitches filling his windshield.
The $10,000 machines rolled numerous times while the trailbreakers tried to navigate through the jumble ice.
Cosmutto actually broke the trailing arm off one of his skis and had to bolt it back together using angle iron.
Although they’re bumped and bruised, and have smashed up their machines, Backes was happy.
“It’s better than sitting home and watching TV,” he said.
The trail out of Eagle, over 1,026-metre American Summit follows a road, but there is severe glaciation.
Former Quest musher Wayne Hall, who lives in Eagle, was briefing Mackey on the glaciers early Wednesday morning.
The first glacier, about five kilometres out, isn’t too bad, he said. If mushers start to slide, there’s a lip that should catch them.
The next, five kilometres further, has spruce poles that Hall placed in it to stop sleds from sliding down the sloping glacier and careening into the valley below.
But the third glacier, 16 kilometres out, is bad, said Hall.
There is a small lip that should catch sliding teams, “but if you miss that, you’re dropping 100 feet.”
Sass arrived in Eagle at 4:24 a.m. about four-and-a-half hours after Mackey.
Tagish musher Michelle Phillips was half an hour behind him, followed one minute later by Neff. Dave Dalton came in at 6:12 a.m.