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Rookies will take another stab at the Quest

For some of the mushers plucked off Eagle Summit in what has been touted as the worst storm in the Yukon Quest’s 23-year history, the 2006 experience has left them a little sour.

HEALEY, Alaska

For some of the mushers plucked off Eagle Summit in what has been touted as the worst storm in the Yukon Quest’s 23-year history, the 2006 experience has left them a little sour.

But for two, Japanese driver Yuka Honda and Whitehorse’s Kiara Adams, the unpleasant memories aren’t enough to keep them away from the 2007 race.

Of the five 1,600-kilometre Questers airlifted off in a Pavehawk helicopter (one Quest 300 musher was also evacuated from the summit), Honda and Adams are the only two who will compete again in February.

For Honda, a 34-year-old teacher from Niigata, Japan, completing the Quest has been a dream for several years now and, she said recently, storm or not, she’ll finish the 2007 race.

Recounting past events, Honda said she wasn’t scared last year on the 1,095-metre summit.

She knew she could make it to Central, the next checkpoint, and she did not want to get pulled off the mountain.

Leaving the Mile 101 dog drop at around 6 p.m. on the evening of February 12, Honda knew the weather was bad. And it only got worse. Fast.

By the time she neared the top of the mountain, she couldn’t see anything. Saul Turner was right behind her and together they would stop every few feet to scan the snowy darkness for a trail marker.

As they began the plummet down the other side, Honda and Turner, both rookies, hit huge snowdrifts that stopped them in their tracks.

With trail markers strewn about from the gale-force winds, they weren’t sure which way to go and after approximately seven hours of struggling through the blizzard, they decided to hunker down and wait out the storm.

Honda secured her dogs and built a snow shelter around her sled. That was when they spotted a headlamp through the raging storm.

It was veteran Jennifer Cochrane who stayed with the pair of rookies and huddled with Honda in her makeshift shelter to stay warm.

There wasn’t one moment when she was frightened, Honda said in broken English at the home of Todd and Anne Capistrant, where she trains.

When she’s out with the dogs, she doesn’t get scared, she added.

The next morning, the storm still raged, but the trio decided visibility had improved enough to continue.

Though they were not on the trail, they were close and would realize the next day they were less than .8 kilometre off the marked route and only 32 kilometres from the Central checkpoint.

Though they were moving at snail’s pace, they were moving and between the three of them had enough food for the dogs.

That’s when the helicopter thumped overhead.

Honda gave a wave to let those above know they were OK, but the chopper landed and the mushers were ushered in.

Even though she tried to tell the race judge on board that they were fine and wanted to continue, the judge decided that they had no plan and not enough food. That’s when Honda realized her race was over, like it or not.

After battling the blizzard for 17 hours and finally making progress in the right direction, her chance at finishing was snatched away in a matter of minutes.

She felt frustrated and disappointed, she said.

Physically and mentally, the dogs were fine, added Honda.

Later, she filed a protest to try and recoup some of the money lost in her first Quest effort, but was denied any compensation by the rules committee.

Fairbanks’ Phil Joy was one of the mushers lifted off Eagle Summit and also filed a protest, but to no avail.

He’s still trying to pay off the 2006 race and lacks the money to compete again in 2007.

“Doing the Quest again is in the back of my mind and I’m still mushing, but right now the focus is on paying bills from last year,” said Joy from his Fairbanks home.

Like Honda, Joy’s first Quest experience ended in disappointment.

“I realized once the helicopter came that it was over,” he said.

“It was a bad situation and I think they made the best of a bad situation.

“Things happened and we all made mistakes. I was bitter about it for a while, but I’ve moved on. That’s just the way it went down and I’ve accepted that.

“It’s always disappointing when you build toward something for years and fight for it and to have it go down like that is hard, especially when you put so much of yourself into it.”

After seeing Eagle Summit at its worst, Joy tends to agree with the mushers who think the trail should be re-routed around the mountain.

On the other hand, he said, Eagle Summit is a huge climax of the race and “organizers seem pretty set on keeping it that way.”

But for Adams, the 19-year-old owner of Baskerville Kennels near Whitehorse, re-routing the trail seems like an obvious solution to any future Eagle Summit woes.

“Regardless if Eagle Summit is part of the trail or not, the Quest is still the toughest race,” said Adams from her home recently.

“I know I’ve only done it once, but even without the storm there was no snow up there. I wouldn’t have taken my dogs on a straight stretch with that little snow, much less a steep pitch like that. There’s a difference between tough and unsafe.”

For Adams, the decision to take on the Quest again in 2007 was a tough one.

She had only planned on undertaking the race once, but because she didn’t get to finish in 2006, she realized it would only continue to eat at her unless she tried again.

“But looking back, I feel like there wasn’t much we could have done,” she said of her Eagle Summit escapade.

Adams was traveling with Joy and together they inched their way through the blinding storm by moving one dog team forward a few feet together, then going back and bringing the second team forward.

“We couldn’t move our teams alone, but I was pretty sure we were heading in the right direction,” said Adams.

In fact, they were, she added.

“We didn’t know until the next day when we went back to get our sleds, but we were really close to the trail.”

When the helicopter approached Joy and Adams, they too were moving.

And when they were ushered into the aircraft, Adams felt a little confused about what was happening.

“There wasn’t enough information, not enough time for us to decide,” she said, adding that they weren’t forced into the chopper, but were also not given any time to weigh the options.

“I guess, looking back, we made the right decision. It was just an unfortunate situation.”

Permanent tripod markers have been added to the trail over Eagle Summit, but the question of whether or not the path between Central and Mile 101 will be re-routed around the mountain in the future remains up in the air.