The camping champion

Alaska Sebastian Schnuelle accidently won the Yukon Quest on Tuesday morning. The Whitehorse musher glided into Fairbanks four minutes ahead of Hugh Neff. "(Winning) was not in my wildest dreams," said Schnuell


Sebastian Schnuelle accidently won the Yukon Quest on Tuesday morning.

The Whitehorse musher glided into Fairbanks four minutes ahead of Hugh Neff.

“(Winning) was not in my wildest dreams,” said Schnuelle.

“I was camping.”

When Schnuelle pulled into Central on Sunday night, he was in fourth place.

William Kleedehn and Neff were eight and a half hours ahead of him.

“I don’t even know I’m in a race,” he said in Central, at the time.

Running on a consistent schedule since Dawson, Schnuelle avoided hospitality stops and checkpoints, choosing to camp with his team on the trail.

“I love it,” he said. “It’s the most fun I’ve had on a race.

“And the dogs are keyed in, because we’re always running and eating at the same time of day.”

Schnuelle left for Eagle Summit at 4:30 a.m.

The last time the race went this direction, he ended up running into stalled mushers on the steepest part of the mountain.

Schnuelle made trip after trip up the hill packing gear, sleds and hauling up dogs to help them out.

“I was sore for days,” he said with a laugh.

“I hope I don’t see anyone up there this year.”

The run from Central to Mile 101, over the summit, only takes about five hours.

So, leaving more than eight hours after the three frontrunners, Schnuelle thought he was safe.

He was wrong.

Before he even got the mountain, Schnuelle ran into a team going the wrong way.

It was Kleedehn.

“The only dog who knows the trail well went into major league heat,” said Kleedehn.

“My males were insane; I couldn’t go backwards or forwards – it had nothing to do with the mountain.”

After two failed attempts at the summit, he turned around and headed back to Central to drop his bitch in heat.

But Schnuelle convinced him to turn around.

“I told him we would try and get him up,” said Schnuelle.

He didn’t know Neff and Jon Little were still blocking the way.

Neff couldn’t find the trail up the steepest part of the mountain in the dark.

“I took a good hour looking for it,” said Neff. “I was pissed. Where were all the reflectors?”

It was blowing like crazy, and there were huge drifts, he said.

Eventually, Neff got in his sled and hunkered down.

Little caught up to him, threw down a sleeping bag and joined him.

“Hugh was shivering,” said Little. “He said, ‘I think I’m hypothermic, dude.’”

There were no visible reflectors, said Little.

It wasn’t until daybreak that the pair saw the tripods.

“They only had one or two little reflectors,” said Neff. “Those things should be lit up.”

Every year mushers complain about it, added Neff.

“I’m not so much worried for myself as all those rookie mushers.”

Neff and Little worked together and managed to get both teams up the mountain.

That’s when Schnuelle and Kleedehn arrived.

When Schnuelle saw Neff and Little taking off, he realized he was in the race.

“I said, ‘Sorry William, this is it,’” he said. “I will only help you for half an hour.” Kleedehn was in front of his team pulling and Schnuelle was behind pushing the sled, but they made little progress.

It wasn’t until Brent Sass came over the mountain a couple of hours later, that Kleedehn finally made it up the summit.

“I saw the wind blowing and this lone dog team up there,” he said.

Sass snow-hooked his team at the top of the hill and ran back down to help Kleedehn.

“It took about an hour,” said Sass.

“It was on the steepest of steepest parts where he got stuck.

“I can’t imagine being up there all night, or as long as he was.

“It was terrible.

“I’m just glad I was there to help him out.”

Kleedehn got into Mile 101 more than 16 hours after he left Central. It took Sass five hours to do the same run.

By this time, Schnuelle was in third place, chasing Little and Neff over Rosebud Summit on the way to the last checkpoint at Twin Bears.

“I thought I would see nobody,” said Schnuelle. But he caught up to Little on Rosebud.

“He was oblivious to the fact I was there,” he said.

When Schnuelle came up behind him, Little “literally jumped off his sled.”

Neff arrived in Twin Bears first, an hour and a half ahead of Schnuelle.

All mushers must wait a mandatory eight hours at the last checkpoint, but Neff was forced to wait 10.

The Annie Lake musher received a two-hour time penalty after running about eight kilometres on the road, instead of the trail, outside Central on Sunday.

“I saw poo on the road,” said Neff. “So I thought another team had gone up the road.

“But when I saw William on the trail, I pulled over (to the trail).

“I went about five miles.”

Neff would rather have gotten a $2,000 fine for breaking the rules.

“I got a fine last year with Lance (Mackey) for blocking the trail,” he said.

“And I have no issue with getting a penalty – I messed up.

“It’s just what it was – for gaining about five minutes, two hours seems a little bit out there.

“They found out what could hurt me the worst and basically took the race from me.”

A time penalty like that, at the end of a race, also affects the dogs, said Neff.

“They forced me to do a huge run.”

Neff ran all the way from Eagle Summit to Twin Bears, more than 160 kilometres away, without stopping.

Time penalties are tricky, said Little, eating at Twin Bears on Monday night.

“It allows someone to finish ahead of someone else even though they have a slower run time.”

And winning on a technicality isn’t satisfying, said Little. “I don’t like it.”

“Hugh actually won,” said Schnuelle, at the finish line.

“He clearly had the better team.”

Schnuelle, who spent most of the 70-kilometre run into Fairbanks sitting on a seat built onto the back of his sled, left the last checkpoint half an hour before Neff.

“Listening to AC/DC the whole way,” he didn’t realize Neff was gaining on him so quickly.

“People were telling me he was 13 minutes ahead, then he was only five minutes ahead,” said Neff.

“I was working my butt off.”

“Thank God, I didn’t know that,” said Schnuelle with a laugh. “I probably would have had a heart attack.”

After learning about the time penalty, Schnuelle was actually thinking of approaching Little to see if all three of them should wait an extra two hours with Neff at Twin Bears – to make it fair, he said.

“Hugh was technically an hour and a half ahead of me, so he has the best team,” said Schnuelle.

Neff also made up half an hour in 70 kilometres, which is a pretty tough feat at the end of a 1,600-kilometre race.

“This is the best Quest I’ve ever run, except for one moment,” said Neff.

“It was like living in a fantasy world for a week and a half.”

Neff is leaving the penalty issue behind.

“I’m thinking about the future and the Iditarod,” he said.

“And I’m happy for Sebastian.”

Neither Neff or Schnuelle plan to run the Quest again.

Neff is going to focus on the Iditarod and Schnuelle is retiring.

“I have a six-year plan,” Neff said in Central, before winning became a distinct possibility.

“This is my last Quest and next year is my last Iditarod.

“There are other things in life than looking at dogs’ butts.”

But Schnuelle is not getting out of the dog world.

“I’m not selling the dogs; they’re staying,” he said.

“The dogs are my children.”

Schnuelle will continue to run his wilderness tourism business.

Racing is a rich man’s sport, he said.

“I realized that by doing so well, I was actually financially in a horrible position.

“And selling and breeding dogs is not my thing,” he said.

It costs more than $30,000 to run the race, if all the gas and miles of training and food are added up, said Schnuelle.

“I sold property and set money aside for my six-year plan, but once it’s gone, it’s gone, and it’s going to be gone.”

Schnuelle won $30,000 for winning the Quest. Neff pocketed $26,000 and Little earned $18,000 coming in third.

“This is the only race with old-time hospitality,” said Little, talking about the cabins along the Yukon River.

“I had such an incredible time – it was really cool.”

Little called Schnuelle’s win in Dawson, halfway through the race.

“After seeing him with his dogs, they’re such a nice unit,” said Little.

“I’m one of Sebastian’s fans.”

Schnuelle had a good cuddle with his team before driving out of the finish chute on the Chena River in downtown Fairbanks.

“I’m stepping off on a good note,” he said with a grin.

“It’s perfect.”

Contact Genesee Keevil at