So, how cold is it on the Yukon Quest?
Well, cold enough to freeze a dog’s privates.
Over the weekend, temperatures plummeted as low as minus 57, and mushers running the Yukon Quest fear for fingers, toes and dog appendages. All dog appendages.
When he pulled out of Circle Sunday night, Hans Gatt was running belly protectors and heavy jackets on his team.
The trouble is, urine freezes to the belly protectors creating tiny, doggy glaciers that rest against the animals’ penises while they’re running.
It’s just too cold, said Sebastian Schnuelle holding his beard.
The Whitehorse area musher made it to Circle, but most of his beard didn’t.
“I keep pulling my face mask off and my beard goes with it,” he said, referring to the ice that continuously coats his beard.
After spending the last 34 hours shivering his way down the Yukon River, Schnuelle was ready to call it quits.
“My decision was, if I made it to Circle in one piece I was going to scratch,” he said.
Still planning to run the Iditarod in a couple of weeks, Schnuelle was worried about his team and himself.
“I want to take some of these dogs, and some of these fingers, to the Iditarod,” he said.
But after warming up, he decided to wait and see how his dogs looked in the morning before making any rash decisions.
Schnuelle arrived in Circle at dusk and plans to stay until daylight. He is no longer worried about his position.
“It’s really too cold,” he said. “If I drop in the standings, so be it.
“My fingers, feet and the dogs are worth more to me than money at this point.”
Hugh Neff, who arrived about 30 minutes after Schnuelle, was starting to question the safety of the race.
“I’m worried about those young mushers out there,” he said.
“It makes you wonder if there should be any parameters to delay a race.”
“I was scared last night,” added Schnuelle.
Neff is also planning to wait until morning to leave Circle.
“When the weather turns like this you lose your desire to race,” he said.
William Kleedehn and Gerry Willomitzer were heading out at dusk.
Both Yukon mushers had originally planned to run the 119 kilometres from Circle to Central in one shot, but the cold changed things.
“In this type of weather you don’t take gambles,” said Willomitzer, shaking baby powder onto paws before putting on each dog bootie.
If mushers push their teams in the cold and don’t rest enough, the dogs slow down to a crawl or quit altogether.
And dogs lose weight fast in this weather, said Kleedehn.
To put on booties and care for the team, mushers often have to work without gloves and, at minus 40, it can be painful.
“I almost got frostbitten fingers,” said Kleedehn, baring hands again to bootie dogs.
It was so cold Gatt had trouble seeing his lead dogs through the team’s frosty breath.
“They looked like a steam locomotive,” he said.
Gatt had been travelling with Kleedehn and Willomitzer, but pulled away from Slaven’s Cabin, 93 kilometres from Circle, with a two-hour lead.
He cut rest and left early, said Willomitzer.
“Hans is competitive,” he added.
“And I’m not that competitive — I’m playing it safe.”
Even in the cold, Lance Mackey is continuing with long runs, and has maintained a 5.5-hour lead.
“I’m in a hurry, so I can sleep,” said Mackey with a grin.
In Eagle, after a cold-to-the-bones run up the Forty Mile River, he was taking advantage of the hospitality.
For much of the race the reigning champ has been running from one heated checkpoint or dog drop to the next.
“I’m pretty physically beat up,” he said, showing off a peeling, red finger.
Recovering from throat cancer, Mackey needs lots of water and has trouble staying warm.
And he’s already had one of his index fingers removed after doctors couldn’t figure out why it was incredibly painful.
“I had four hand-warmers in each mitt last night and I was dancing around on the sled,” he said.
Mackey stopped at the end of the Forty Mile at a wall tent set up by Eagle’s Quest veteran Wayne Hall.
The tent was equipped with a stove, but Mackey couldn’t get it going.
Too cold to split the wood, he threw fuel on the round logs, but it kept sputtering out.
After five long hours, dancing and jumping around, he roused his team and headed on to Eagle.
“And once I learned it was minus 42, it made it that much worse,” he said.
When not thinking about the cold, Mackey worried about Eagle Summit.
“If I continue with what I’m doing, I might be going over Eagle Summit in the dark,” he said.
Being the first one over is a challenge in itself, and Mackey is “a little intimidated.”
“But if that’s what it takes,” he said.
“I’d love to hang out and wait for my buddies back there, but I’m out to make a point — and I’m in a hurry.”
Eagle Summit was also in the back of Kleedehn’s mind.
Sporting an artificial leg, the Carcross musher has struggled on the 1,105-metre summit in the past, and this year he’s missing his main leader.
Bandito was injured before the race, and didn’t make the team.
With only one leader left, and some young dogs that will run up front, Kleedehn hopes he has a team “that will march up that hill.”
“Before Eagle there’s always room for disaster, but after I’m not worried,” he said.
Running just in front of Willomitzer’s experienced team, Kleedehn plans to wait for him if there’s trouble.
If it’s still 40 below, Schnuelle won’t go over the summit in the dark, he said.
Maintenance has replaced racing for many mushers, including Iditarod veteran Aaron Burmeister, who is down to eight dogs.
It’s easy for the dogs to get dehydrated when it’s this cold, and he’s been stopping to feed his team extra meals.
“It’s such a small group, so I’m not pushing them much,” he said, mixing dog food in Circle on Sunday night.
“The cold makes it not fun — everything’s harder to do.”
Burmeister and Tagish musher Michelle Phillips pulled in to Circle well after Neff and Schnuelle, but plan to leave in the dark, which will move them up two positions.
Phillips, still running 11 dogs, has a two-hour lead on Burmeister, which could place her in fifth.
“She’s got a strong team,” he said.
Heading out of Eagle Sunday afternoon, onto the fiercely cold Yukon River, back-of-the-pack mushers Regina Wycoff, Tom Benson, Benedikt Beisch and J.T. Hessert were dreading the weather.
Leaning over, Benson asked if there was frostbite on his nose.
The Minnesota musher loves the race, but finds the cold a bit “ridiculous.”
“I’m going to race so fast to that Trout Creek cabin, it’s going to spin your heads,” Wycoff told officials on her way out.
“I’m going to be kicking hard (on the sled) and yelling at those dogs to get me the hell out of here,” she said with a laugh.
By Monday morning, Mackey had conquered Eagle Summit and was resting at the Mile 101 dog drop, 227 kilometres from Fairbanks.
Gatt, Willomitzer and Kleedehn arrived in Central, and Gatt gained a four-hour lead.