Eagle Summit scares away some mushers

It wasn’t rolling down the mountain with her team, or giving mouth-to-mouth to a choking dog that turned Michelle Phillips off Eagle Summit.

It wasn’t rolling down the mountain with her team, or giving mouth-to-mouth to a choking dog that turned Michelle Phillips off Eagle Summit.

The Tagish musher has “been an advocate for taking it out of the race” for quite some time.

On Sunday,  the wind was howling over the 1,105-metre mountain.

When Phillips reached the top, her team headed off in the wrong direction.

There was no snow and she had trouble stopping her 14 dogs.

When Phillips realized they were headed over a cliff, she tipped her sled, ran up and undid the team’s tuglines.

After descending off the mountain, things got worse.

Phillips hit severe glaciation just as a rabbit ran across the trail.

The team took off, she couldn’t stop them and one of her dogs slipped.

“The dog was dragging and almost choked,” she said.

“I had to give it mouth-to- mouth.”

Phillips won’t run the Quest coming from Fairbanks again, she said.

“That section between Mile 101 and Central is really treacherous.

“Maybe I’m fussy or something, but I like a bit more control.”

Phillips was planning to blow through the Central checkpoint — about 270 kilometres into the race — but after rolling down the mountain with her sled, things changed.

“With all the rolling around, my dog food broke open,” she said.

“So I thought I better stop and regroup.”

Phillips sits on the Quest trail committee with Dawson musher Peter Ledwidge, whose wife Ann is in the race.

“The Quest on the American side has a reputation of being hard on dogs,” said Ledwidge.

The Canadian side is lucky the rangers maintain the trail, he said.

The Americans rely on volunteers and it’s hard to do something to certain specifications if they’re not being paid, he added.

Ledwidge would like to see Eagle summit cut from the race.

“On the trail committee, I run into mushers all the time who say they’d run the Quest if it wasn’t for Eagle summit,” he said.

“It scares mushers away.”

Five years ago, Bill Pinkham lost a dog on the Eagle descent.

“He couldn’t stop his team, they got tangled and one dog got strangled,” said Ledwidge.

“Everyone knows it’s a problem — they should deal with it.”

Coming up to the mountain, Quest rookie and former executive director Julie Estey “would have paid anything to have it taken out of the race,” she said over french fries at the Central checkpoint.

But after making it over the mountain, she isn’t so sure.

“It is part of the race,” she said.

“And would I take it out, now, after climbing that mountain? I don’t know.”

Veteran Bill Cotter had some trouble on the summit this year.

His leaders got confused and the team “balled up” on top of the mountain.

Rookie Phil Joy, who was airlifted off Eagle during the severe storm two years ago, helped Cotter out.

“He lost his runner plastic, I caught it, helped him get it back on and untangle his dogs,” said Joy.

“Then I went first to guide him down.”

Heading up the mountain, Joy was scared.

“More than half my team had spent the night up there before.” And they remembered it, he said.

“It’s a dangerous trail, with nasty rocks and no snow,” said Joy.

“It’s something I would never take dogs over by choice.

“But after what happened two years ago, I felt I had to do it.”

“I’m glad it’s done,” said Cotter.

“Dealing with the cold is not as bad as going down that mountain,” he added, citing the minus-50-degree weather.

Heading from Fairbanks to Whitehorse, Cotter would like to see the Quest take a different route.

Although she had an excellent run over Eagle this year, Whitehorse musher Kyla Boivin would also like an alternate route coming from Fairbanks.

“But they shouldn’t cut out Eagle altogether,” she said.

An alternate route coming from Fairbanks would make sense, said Ledwidge.

“There could be a north and south route like the Iditarod.

“There is always talk not to be like the Iditarod, but if they have good ideas, why not take them?

“They run a successful race.”

Ledwidge also wanted to see volunteers at the road crossing roughly half an hour after the drop off Eagle Summit.

“That way if there’s problems, they can initiate a rescue,” he said.

“But the American (Quest) board was not into it.”

Ledwidge and Joe May, who stepped down as race marshal in January, had set up the crossing crew.

“But unfortunately it involved him,” said Ledwidge.

“And now that he’s gone …”

However, not everyone wants to see Eagle Summit cut.

Some years, mushers ran over the road or tried to go down the other side of the highway, said Whitehorse’s Frank Turner, who has run all but one Quest.

“But it’s Eagle that defines the race,” he said.

“You have to train and prepare your team and yourself for it.”

Eagle summit doesn’t “freak out” Fairbanks’ veteran Brent Sass, who was munching on a burger at the Steese Roadhouse after making it down the mountain on Sunday.

“I look forward to it,” he said.

Sass ran over the summit a few days before the Quest began as a training trip.

“I love Eagle Summit,” he said.

“I have fun out there.”

And it’s a huge part of the Quest, said Sass.

“It adds that wild card — it’s important to stay in the race.”

Dawson musher Cor Guimond agrees.

“It should definitely stay in; it’s the essence of the race,” he said.

Guimond was not out of control coming down the mountain. He put chains over his runners to help slow down his descent, he said.

“I’m not hyped up over Eagle,” said Guimond.

“And I don’t know why everybody else is — I could never figure it out.”

The next checkpoint is Circle City, a 118-kilometre run from Central.

Contact Genesee Keevil at gkeevil@yukon-news.com