Lost dog team spends night alone in storm

CENTRAL, Alaska The No. 1 rule in mushing is, never let go of the dog team. If the sled happens to tip over, then drag along behind.


The No. 1 rule in mushing is, never let go of the dog team.

If the sled happens to tip over, then drag along behind.

If the team takes off downhill, then hang on for dear life.

But never, ever let go.

Texan musher Randy Chappel broke this rule during the Quest 300.

A qualifying race for the Yukon Quest, this race follows the first 300 miles of the Quest trail.

And this year, it wasn’t easy.

Dealing with the same glaciation, overflow and lack of snow as the Quest mushers, some of the 14 teams racing in the 300 ran into trouble leaving the first checkpoint at Angel Creek.

But things didn’t get really bad until several of the frontrunners attempted to cross Eagle summit in a raging blizzard that trapped five Yukon Quest mushers on the mountain.

“It was the worst weather I have ever seen in my life,” said Chappel.

“On the Iditarod, I have been in minus 85 with the wind-chill, with icicles hanging off my beard and that was only 10 per cent compared to what I saw on Eagle summit,” he said.

Chappel left the Mile 101 dog drop shortly after Alaskan 300 musher Brent Sass Sunday night.

As they climbed the summit, the weather got progressively worse.

“I couldn’t see beyond my first six dogs; it was blowing like crazy up there,” said Chappel.

The two mushers decided to stick together.

“There was no trail and neither of us had been up there before,” he said.

They made the decision to return to 101. But, when they tried to turn around, the snow whipped and blinded them.

“We had all this snow in our face — a wall of snow,” he said.

“We couldn’t see five feet in front of us.”

With no idea where to go, Sass and Chappel decided to wait out the storm.

They hunkered down in their sleeping bags.

“Then I heard this dog bark, and this voice,” said Sass.

It was Quest musher Regina Wycoff.

“‘What the hell is going on?’ she asked us. Then she said, ‘Let’s get going — I’m going down,’” said Sass.

They started inching down the hill, taking turns moving their teams down.

It worked for a while, but it was steep and their brakes and snowhooks couldn’t grab the exposed rocks and frozen ground.

“I was holding onto the snow hook with both hands, dragging behind the sled,” said Chappel.

“I was trying to dig it into something, but it was all ice and sugary snow.

“I was bouncing along behind the sled for what felt like hours, but when I started hitting these big rocks I couldn’t hold on anymore.”

His team disappeared into the night, the sled bouncing and crashing behind them.

“We couldn’t see anything and it was blowing so hard we couldn’t hear any barking,” he said.

“But the dogs are good at taking care of themselves; they’ve descended from wild animals.

“People have lost dog teams for three days before and everything was OK — it almost always works out fine.”

Not all mushers would agree.

Further down the mountain Chappel found his sleeping bag, tossed out of the runaway sled.

Whether the dogs were hit by the sled, became tangled in their lines or just ran full out is unknown.

It is dangerous if a lost team becomes tangled and begins to pull, choking dogs, breaking legs and causing panic and fights.

“But they are well behaved dogs,” said Sass.

“This helps with tangles and I don’t run neck lines.”

It was also lucky his sled only weighed 13.5 kilograms, making collisions between sleds and dogs less likely to be fatal.

Chappel, Sass and Wycoff decided to continue down the mountain without the team.

“It was a survival thing to get out of the weather,” said Chappel.

“I was worried I was going to get lost too; 13 people were lost on the summit and that is a bigger story than the dogs.”

He rode down the mountain with Wycoff.

“We just kept going further and further down till we hit the bottom,” said Sass.

With snow up to their thighs the mushers and dogs began struggling out of the valley, with Sass’ lead dog Silver breaking trail.

“Silver is the bomb; he got us out,” said Sass.

“The wind and conditions were extremely extreme, but I thrive in conditions like that. There was never a doubt in my mind that we were going to get down that mountain.”

Sass, who has camped and mushed in the Arctic, was hoping for bad weather, he said.

“I was sitting up there (on the summit) loving it; that’s why I love mushing,” he said.

“My dogs are not necessarily the fastest, but I have the utmost confidence in their ability to get through tough times and tough spots.”

Sass went on to win the 300, finishing in Circle, Alaska, yesterday.

“This is my first race ever,” he said.

But he already plans to run in next year’s Quest.

And plans to mush on Eagle summit next season as training.

“I want to go up when it’s clear and see where went,” he said.

Chappel’s lost team was found Monday afternoon, almost a day after they disappeared down Eagle summit.

All the dogs were in good condition and were flown by helicopter back to Mile 101 with the five lost mushers and their teams.

Three Quest 300 mushers were caught in deep drifts and blowing snow between Angel Creek and 101, but the planes spotted them, and trailbreakers had left Angel to guide them back to this first checkpoint.

Three more had already scratched at Mile 101 and two who had begun to climb Eagle summit turned around and returned to 101.

The remaining five had all arrived in Central by Monday afternoon and were continuing with the race.

The Quest 300 mushers carry the same mandatory equipment as the Quest mushers, but are allowed a maximum of only 12 dogs.