Billed as the toughest race in the world, this year’s Yukon Quest is living up to its name.
In fact, “tough” may be an understatement.
The lack of snow made the trail marginal, leaving severe glaciation, stumps, snags and barren, rocky, exposed patches on the summits.
And so, when five mushers failed to show as expected at the Central checkpoint, handlers and family members began to grow uneasy.
Yukoners Saul Turner and Kiara Adams, Yuka Honda, of Japan, and Alaskans Phil Joy and Jennifer Cochrane were lost in the storm. All were rookies.
The five were crossing 1,105-metre Eagle Summit, the second of three summits in the race.
At the Mile 101 dog drop, just before the trail begins to climb, there was a scrap of loose-leaf paper tacked on the cookhouse door.
It read, “severe storm warning in effect, winds on the summit could reach 40 miles-per-hour, expect blowing snow.”
Mushers were inside eating chili, fired eggs and ham.
Nobody seemed concerned about the piece of paper gently flapping on the door outside.
The frontrunners headed out in the early afternoon.
The rookies and those firmly in the back of the pack left in the early evening.
As the first teams began to arrive in Central, on the other side of the summit, the harrowing tales began.
“Someone could die up there tonight,” said three-time Quest champion Hans Gatt.
“I’ve never been so scared or so out-of-control in my life,” said standing champ Lance Mackey.
Handlers who were still waiting for their mushers to arrive, began to look uneasy.
And when dawn broke over the Steese Roadhouse in the tiny hamlet of Central, there was serious tension in the air.
No one has come over the summit highway all night, someone said.
Soon after, Alaskan musher Regina Wycoff arrived.
She had left several hours after the missing mushers.
“I made it up to the summit and the wind was blowin’ real hard — it was wicked up there,” she said.
“Once you were up there, there was no going back — it was like being in a sandstorm.
“The snow was pelting me and the dogs so hard you couldn’t even look into it — you couldn’t see anything.”
And conditions on the summit still hadn’t changed.
“It’s not safe up there,” said Roadhouse volunteer Sheila Symons.
“If you’ve ever been up there in a whiteout before, you know you can’t see anything.
“You can be standing beside your truck and you couldn’t even see it — you’re just blind.”
Everything is white, agreed missionary Nathan Smoot, who was stranded in Central waiting for the summit road to re-open.
“And if you get a bit of light in that, a headlamp, headlights or dawn, it’s even worse.
Smoot got partway up the pass Sunday night before he was forced to turn around.
“Snow was drifting over the road; I couldn’t see the guardrails — I couldn’t see anything,” he said.
“And you don’t want to stop in that, because if it drifts around your tires, you’re camping.”
Whitehorse photographer Derek Crowe, who is following the Quest, ended up doing just this.
After a bite to eat in Central Sunday night, he and a friend started the two-hour drive back to Fairbanks.
“I was driving up the hill and it started to drift in real bad,” he said.
Crowe got caught in one of the smaller drifts, and got stuck.
“I probably could have gotten out, but there were some huge drifts and even if I got unstuck, I would have had a heck of a time turning around,” he said.
So, he and his friend hunkered down for the night.
“We had to keep cleaning the grill so the engine wouldn’t overheat, and we had to keep clearing the doors, he said.
“They would drift in so fast we kept having to climb out the window. The car became a snow cave.”
But Crowe wasn’t worried about himself.
“All I could think about all night was the teams up on the summit,” he said.
“I’ve been up on there taking pictures before. I know the terrain and the trail, and the way the snow was blowing, I kept having fear attacks.
“If we opened the door the car would fill with snow, and I kept thinking of mushers trying to open their sled bags or their sleeping bags,” he said.
Six vehicles, including Crowe’s car and three dog trucks were stranded on the summit overnight.
“Some of the vehicles had drifts right over their hoods,” said race marshal Mike McCowan.
In the morning search crews went out by snowmachine from Central and Mile 101 to look for the mushers and teams.
But both search groups had to turn back.
“It was pretty darn bad out there,” said local gold miner and searcher Jack Hendrickson.
“There were huge drifts, and the snow was blowing right in my face. I couldn’t see anything.
“I got stuck about 20 times; my snow machine was standing vertical.”
By mid-afternoon the checkpoint at Central was a flurry of activity.
A major rescue operation was in effect and Quest officials were racing against the coming night.
The road was still closed and all Quest 300 mushers, who hadn’t already left Mile 101, were being held at the dog drop.
The US military put a C-130 Hercules in the air and the Alaskan state troopers sent a fixed wing Cessna 208 Caravan, a 860 Blackhawk helicopter and a Robertson R44 helicopter.
The Blackhawk was equipped with infrared sensors to detect any heat sources.
“As far as we know, it is still blowing and ugly at the summit,” said McCowan.
“But we are going to find everybody.”
It didn’t take them long to spot teams, but the rescue efforts took a little longer.
And there was some radio-relay confusion.
“We have discovered six drivers and teams and they are being medevaced, probably to Fairbanks,” said McCowan.
But a few minutes later the facts had changed.
They had discovered four teams and the Blackhawk was ferrying the drivers and their dogs to Mile 101.
In the end, all five teams, the mushers and a team Quest 300 musher Randy Chappel lost on the summit were flown to 101 safely.
There were no serious injuries to the mushers or the dogs.
“All the dogs are doing well,” said head race vet Kathleen McGill.
“Some have a few dings and bings from being packed in the helicopter, and there were some sore feet, but there are none on IVs or antibiotics.”
“I am just thankful that everybody is accounted for right now and the dogs are accounted for and it’s a good ending,” said Quest veteran Frank Turner, Saul’s father.
“It could have been written a lot different.”
It was hard to know what was going on, he said.
“And then it sounded like there was going to be a medevac, this was my worst fear.”
A number of years ago on the Quest, Frank got stuck on Eagle summit with six or seven other mushers.
“We were up there for two days and that was because of the wind,” he said.
“But we were in the trees and there was lots of snow; the thing about this time was just the absence of snow.
“You can get dragged down snow and maybe your feelings get bruised, but you get dragged down rocks and something can get broken pretty quickly, so that was always the biggest concern for me, the lack of snow.”
As it turns out, they just got lost up there, he said.
“It’s pretty easy to get lost on top, if you don’t really know where you’re going,” said Frank.
“Even when it’s not blowing, you’ve got to really look pretty carefully, but when it’s blowing and it’s just like going into a wall and your dogs are unsure, it’s extremely easy to get lost.”
This experience will be imprinted in their memories forever, and those who spent the night together up there will have a special bond now, he said.
“And how many people get to fly their dogs out in a Blackhawk helicopter,” he joked.