There are only two people on the planet who can say they’ve won the Yukon Quest 1,000-mile (1,600-kilometre) race four times.
One of those mushers, Hans Gatt, is returning to the Quest this year after eight years of “semi-retirement.”
By his own admission, Gatt isn’t out to make a statement with his return to the race this year.
“Obviously, I used to race to win for the last 30 years, but this is a little different,” said Gatt. “I mean, I haven’t raced it for like eight years and I don’t have that drive anymore. I don’t have to prove anything.”
What he does want to do, however, is see what his team can accomplish.
“I’ve got a very young dog team — my two oldest dogs are six years old and all the rest are two, three and four. I just want to get out there and have fun,” he said during an interview at his kennel outside Whitehorse.
Gatt got his start in mushing like so many others, spending time around dog teams.
A friend of Gatt’s invited him to a sprint race while he was still living in Austria.
“He just asked me if I could come on the weekend to watch him race – I guess he had Samoyeds back then,” said Gatt with a chuckle. “So I went there not knowing anything about it and it immediately fascinated me.”
He said he soon had a couple of Siberian huskies he took skiing with him and just months after attending that first race he had a team of huskies.
“It all kind of went really fast,” said Gatt. “I got the bug, absolutely.”
Gatt started building sleds — he said he’s never bought a sled in his life and built more sleds than he can count — and was racing the next season in Europe, ultimately winning the European sprint championships four times and the International Federation of Sleddog Sports World Chamipionships once in the open class sprint.
“After two years racing in Europe, I decided I wanted to turn this into a profession and obviously you’ve got to move to where the big races are, and that’s why I moved to the Yukon.”
Once in the Yukon, Gatt said he only raced the Quest because he was tired of being asked about it.
“The Yukon Quest, actually when I moved to Canada, wasn’t even in my mind because I was doing sprint racing back then,” said Gatt. “The reason I got into the Yukon Quest was every time when (you) travel around here with your dog truck, everytime you stop at a gas station, people ask, ‘Are you doing the Quest?’ and I always had to explain, ‘No, I’m a sprint racer’ and they were kind of disappointed. It started to piss me off and I said, ‘OK, I’m going to run that Yukon Quest.’”
Gatt won the open class sprint racing world championships in 1992 and entered the 1993 Yukon Quest with the same team.
“I just switched completely from open class sprint racing to train the same dogs for the Yukon Quest,” said Gatt. “It went very well — the dogs did great. I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. After the race, I said, ‘Never again’ and it wasn’t until 2002 when I actually ran the Quest again and started winning it.”
He won the race three years in a row — from 2002 to 2004 — becoming the first European to win in the process.
Lance Mackey won the next four races — from 2005 to 2008 — but Gatt wasn’t ready to be outdone, winning his fourth Quest in 2010.
“The last one in 2010 kind of stands out,” said Gatt. “Lance previously had won the race four times in a row and I just said this is not going to happen again. I probably put more effort into training and preparation that year than I have ever before, and strategically I think I ran the best race I had ever run before. That was kind of the perfect race.”
That year, Gatt broke the record for the fastest finishing time by 23 hours.
Gatt said he originally signed up for this year’s race after being approached by an Austrian television station looking to produce a documentary about him.
“It was kind of an accident really,” said Gatt. “They kind of talked me into it.”
Unfortunately, the station wasn’t able to get the logistics in place in time so the project was scrapped just a couple of weeks before the start.
Already registered, Gatt wasn’t going to withdraw.
“Well, I’m in the race — they’re not,” said Gatt, adding that a return is also his way of showing support for the race organizers.
“I really support the decision the Yukon Quest board has made about finally banning people who just don’t take care of their dogs,” said Gatt. “It’s kind of a supportive move from my part to run the race again because they did the right thing.”
Musher Hugh Neff was banned from competing following the death of Neff’s dog, Boppy, in last year’s Quest.
And so, Gatt finds himself preparing for another Quest with a very green team compared to years past — he said half his team has completed the Iditarod, which he raced in 2014 and 2017.
“Probably half the team has run the Iditarod and the rest of them, they have never raced anything in their life,” said Gatt. “I was supposed to go to the (Copper Basin 300) with those dogs, but I was simply just too busy here.”
If that inexperience concerns Gatt, he isn’t letting on.
“We’ll see, but I don’t worry about that at all,” said Gatt. “We had some really good training runs out on the Canol Road this year and I’m pretty confident in my team.”
There is one thing Gatt isn’t looking forward to, and it’s the extreme cold.
“These days, I start with the hardest part — it’s probably the cold,” said Gatt. “That’s because I froze too many times, simple as that. I remember races where it went to down -45C because that’s really when I did the best, but that has changed a lot. My fingertips are all frostbitten and my toes are frostbitten, so if it gets down to -40C I have a hard time staying warm.”
What he loves about the race though, hasn’t changed.
“On the Quest there are such big distances between checkpoints and I really like that, just being out there with my dog team, travelling with my dogs, looking after them,” said Gatt. “That’s the part I like most.”
Contact John Hopkins-Hill at firstname.lastname@example.org