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Riding into the sunset

DAWSON CITYKing Solomon’s Dome: elevation 1,201 metres.The dog team looked like a little string of ants creeping along the mountain’s…


King Solomon’s Dome: elevation 1,201 metres.

The dog team looked like a little string of ants creeping along the mountain’s side heading towards the summit.

From there, Quest musher Gerry Willomitzer could see the jagged, ghostly Tombstone Mountains to the northeast and the Black Hills, where he was headed, to the south.

It had only been four hours since he left Dawson, but Willomitzer decided to camp.

“I’m setting the tone,” he explained.

“I don’t want to burn (the team) out for the second part of the race. You get higher speeds from shorter runs.”

Sitting on a foam mat, munching crackers and leaning against his sled, Willomitzer enjoyed the onset of evening.

“It’s nice up here if there’s no wind,” he said.

He was refreshed from the mandatory 36-hour layover in Dawson, and was planning his racing strategy.

“I was afraid if I started with a long run right away, I would lose speed right away,” he said.

“I don’t have the kind of team where I can just floor it — I don’t have that spiffy of a dog team this year.”

Shoulder and wrist injuries have forced Willomitzer to drop four dogs so far and the remaining 10 take a lot of maintenance.

Curled up under pale pink and blue fleece blankets, his team looked like a bunch of sleeping babies.

Willomitzer bent over one small black and brown husky, opened her neoprene coat and pulled zip-lock bags of snow from where they were packing her shoulders. He replaced them with hot hand warmers.

“You never put the socket set away with this (team),” he joked.

Beside his sled, a methanol dog-food cooker was warming water and slowing melting a circle into the snow.

In the water, Willomitzer was heating a sealed packet of minestrone soup.

“I made it just for the trip,” he said with a laugh.

“At least it’s warm.”

He was resting on the mountain for four hours, using this shorter run to boost his dogs’ spirits and to readjust his schedule.

“Eventually, I want to be stopping around 10 p.m., so tomorrow I should be back on schedule,” he said.

“It was getting too warm going up that hill with the sun out.”

By then, the sun was setting, casting pink shadows over Willomitzer and his sleeping team.

“I’m not enjoying it as much as last year,” he said.

“Last year I was in the front group. This year things didn’t go very smooth. I’m running more in safe mode, not at full capacity.”

Willomitzer, who hopes to run the Iditarod next year, isn’t planning to run the Quest again for a while.

There isn’t enough money in it, he said.

“Some see this race as a get-rich-quick scheme, but the winner only gets $30,000, and whoever wins will have already put more than $30,000 into it.”

In fourth place, Willomitzer is still in the money, and could win $12,000 if he holds his position.

But he is playing leapfrog with Sebastian Schnuelle.

Willomitzer left Dawson 20 minutes ahead of Schnuelle, but Schnuelle passed him when he camped on the summit.

“I can’t start trying to outrun him and not see him,” said Willomitzer.

“If I ran seven hours to Indian River, he’ll do the same, then he’ll end up sitting with me and leaving with me.”

This is another reason Willomitzer decided to camp after only four hours.

“Times have shown I have the faster team,” he said.

“And if I am moving eight miles an hour and he is moving only seven and a half, then this will start to add up over time.”

Still stiff from a tumble suffered shortly after the Angel Creek checkpoint, Willomitzer took his time standing up.

He walked up the line of sleeping dogs, checking on shoulders and feet.

“And if Sebastian and I are still close together towards the end, I am not beyond cutting a deal,” he continued.

Fourth place is worth $12,000 and fifth place is worth $8,000, he said.

“We could just split it down the middle and each take home $10,000 — assuming there is still a gap between Dave Dalton and us.

“People might ask, ‘What kind of racing is that?’” he said.

“But I do like my dogs.”

And he doesn’t want to push them.

The sun had dropped completely behind the Black Hills by now and the sky was bright red.

It was time for those who didn’t have dog teams, big parkas and food cookers to start heading down the mountain.

Willomitzer was watching the sun set. One of his dogs had an eye open too, his nose tucked under his tail.

Yes, it’s a race. There’s prize money and clocked times to worry about.

But on King Solomon’s Dome, Willomitzer and his team look pretty peaceful — a string of dark silhouettes resting on the pink snow.