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Mushers still lost on Eagle Summit

Central, Alaska‘I wouldn’t be surprised if someone gets killed up there tonight.”Hans Gatt had just entered this isolated…

Central, Alaska

‘I wouldn’t be surprised if someone gets killed up there tonight.”

Hans Gatt had just entered this isolated community on Sunday night. The seasoned musher was the first over the 1,100-metre Eagle Summit.

It wasn’t fun.

The Quest teams had to negotiate the rocky, treacherous 1,100-metre Eagle Summit in the dark, amid high winds, blowing snow and freezing rain.

“It’s horrible up there,” said Gatt as he rushed to re-outfit his sled, stuffing straw into a feed sack and grabbing an extra set of runner skins before continuing on his way.

Visibility was near zero on the mountain, said handlers as they arrived after an unnerving drive over the mountain pass.

“I couldn’t even see the road,” said Lance Mackey’s wife Tonya. “I had to drive less than 10 miles an hour.”

Although snow is blowing on the summit, there is very little, if any on the ground, said race marshal Mike McCowan during a trail briefing.

This means mushers will be dropping over the mountaintop with nothing to sink their brakes into.

Even with snow, making the steep descent while trying to hold back sleds that weigh more than 45 kilograms is tough.

Without it, the job is next to impossible, he added.

It will all be loose, jagged rock, said William Kleedehn before leaving Mile 101 dog drop to attempt the summit.

Monday morning at the Steese Roadhouse in the tiny community of Central, handlers and locals anxiously awaited teams.

Alaska’s Regina Wycoff was one of the first off the mountain Monday morning.

Before her was Quest 300 musher Brent Sass, who arrived carrying Randy Chapel, another 300 musher who had lost his team on the mountain.

These mushers left Fairbanks with as many as 12 dogs well after the Yukon Quest mushers.

And that’s only raised anxiety about four Quest mushers still on the mountain.

They include rookie Saul Turner, Japanese musher Yuka Honda, and Alaskan’s Jennifer Cochran and Phil Joy.

“Two years ago I was dragged down Eagle summit,” said Frank Turner, Saul’s dad, from the Roadhouse restaurant on Monday morning.

“But then there was a lot of snow.

“It’s a lot different if it’s all bare, jagged rocks.”

And the rain is making it even slicker, he added.

“Until you see what it’s like up there, it’s hard to imagine we even go down something like that.”

Frank is pretty sure the mushers are lost up there.

None of them have any familiarity with the summit, and the markers are always knocked down, he said.

“Going down the mountain you are trying not to run into your dogs or fall off your sled, you’re not worrying about the markers,” he added.

The trail markers are supposed to stand along the summit at quarter-mile intervals.

But they are often blown away, confirmed race judge Thomas Tetz.

“It should be better marked, the markers are just little sticks,” he said.

“And if you go over there the first time, you have no cue where you are.”

“If the mushers veered off the trail they will have gotten way off the route they need to get to the bottom,” said Frank.

And when Alaskan musher Wayne Hall arrived at Central Sunday night, he told Frank he couldn’t even see his leaders up on the summit.

“Part of the Quest is going into the race and taking what you get, said Frank.

But the lack of snow and rocks up there is a big concern.

“The problem is, it’s steep and the rocks — if someone hurt a leg, arm or back up there, then we have a serious situation.”

A lack of communication between the 101 dog drop and the Central checkpoint is adding to the confusion.

“If they want to run a race, then they better start facing some issues here,” said Frank.

“They had no real plan in place, I asked the Quest officials twice and they no plan.”

It is locals from the area who put the plan in place, he said.

At 8 a.m. several men are leaving on snowmachines to look for the missing teams.

Although Alaska’s Kelly Griffin was the first musher out of 101 yesterday, Atlin’s Hans Gatt was the first to arrive in Central last night.

Yukon musher Sebastian Schnuelle came in just after Gatt.

“The summit, it sucked,” said Schnuelle. “It was terrible — it was scary.”

He parked his team, and began the routine of throwing down bedding straw and readying dog food.

Last year’s Quest champ Lance Mackey was close on his heels.

“I can’t remember the last time I was that scared, or that out of control,” said Mackey, describing his descent down Eagle.

“I went by Kelly, but nobody could stop to help her and, when I went by her, she still had four dogs under her sled,” he said.

Mackey had wrapped chains around his runners to slow the sled and undid most of his dogs’ tug lines before the descent, but it didn’t help.

“It was touch and go, I was out of control,” he said again.

“But it was worth every minute of it — that’s the adrenalin we look for.”

Hugh Neff followed Mackey in and dropped a dog, one his leaders from last year.

He said it was like concrete up there, he said.

Kleedehn arrived shortly after Neff.

“I am so glad I am alive,” he said. “I almost ripped my arm off.”

After asking when Gatt left, he decided to rest his team.

They have done enough today, said Kleedehn.

“It has been a rough day.”

The freezing rain began shortly thereafter.

By 8 p.m. Griffin had arrived safely.

“I had a wreck on Eagle Summit, my worst yet,” she said, looking exhausted.

Her dogs were too excited and she couldn’t get chains on her runners before the team took off down the mountain.

“I couldn’t get my sled on its side fast enough,” she said.

“And I ran over four dogs.”

The team was tangled and, for the first time in her mushing career, Griffin had to cut a dog out of its harness before it choked.

“It was the first time I went over the summit with 14 dogs,” she said.

After fixing the first wreck, Griffin got off the trail and ended up in a gulch.

Stuck in deep snow, she struggled with her sled for an hour.

“It is hard to control the team and get the off the tree with just one person,” she said.

Luckily, Gerry Willomitzer and Eric Butcher ended up on the same trail and helped Griffin out.

“I’m just physically exhausted, I’m so tired,” she said, sitting in the Central checkpoint in her socks and long johns while her clothes were drying.

Tagish’s Michelle Philips came in at 8:05 p.m. Sunday with a broken brush bow on her sled, but fixed it in Central.

After a good dinner, Kleedehn was in good spirits and holding court.

“It was scary,” he said with a laugh.

“Whoever put in that trail is not a dog musher.”

The trail markers were put in on the downhill side of the slope, he explained.

And sleds sliding down the summit trail have knocked almost all of them down.

“So those guys out there… have a nice trip,” he said. “It’s a disaster.”

“I know roughly where to go, but if you’ve never been there before, it’s a disaster,” he said again.

Whitehorse’s 18-year-old Kiara Adams left the 101 dog drop at 6:30 a.m. Monday.