Eagle Summit lived up to its reputation as one of the most notorious stretches of the Yukon Quest trail on Feb. 12 when a group of four mushers encountered winds gusting up to 65 kilometres per hour, blowing snow and near-zero visibility.
“It was something I don’t really want to experience again,” said rookie musher Jason Biasetti of Dawson City. “I don’t think anybody can understand what we went through and how that wind was howling and how that snow was blowing unless you were there. I still can hear the wind in my head.”
Veteran musher Rob Cooke said this was the worst he has ever seen the summit.
“It’s by far the worst,” said Cooke. “The visibility was so bad and it got to the point we didn’t know what we were going to do, whether we’d have to turn around or whether we’d stick it out.”
At 1,113 m high, Eagle Summit is the third of four major summits along the Yukon Quest trail.
Storms on the summit have been the end of many attempts to run the Yukon Quest.
Biasetti said he left Central, Alaska, headed for the summit and onwards to Mile 101 on his own in the early hours of Feb. 12 — tracker data pinpoints the time at 1:34 a.m.
“Earlier on, we were told that it wasn’t going to be blowing that much up there, but we knew a storm was coming,” said Biasetti.
After dropping his main lead dogs earlier in the race, Biasetti said he has been relying on a pair of two-year-olds since the Eagle checkpoint and using his eight-year-old leader, Inca, for particularly difficult sections.
“I’d been keeping her in the middle of the team for most of the race,” said Biasetti. “Only pulling her out when I needed her in the technical areas. I just know she’s good on the ice and stuff like that.”
Biasetti said he had Inca out front of his team in single lead as they started to climb Eagle Summit.
“We were pushing through the wind and the snow and it was kind of hard to see those (trail) markers,” said Biasetti. “You’d see them and they’d disappear.”
He said his two-year-olds were ready to stop, but that Inca sensed the urgency of the situation.
“She knew we were in trouble so she kept going to the top,” said Biasetti. “She was literally trying to push them up.”
He said he thought the team was nearly at the top, but conditions were deteriorating and he had a choice to make.
“Do I go down or not?” said Biasetti. “Now it was getting worse and worse and you really couldn’t see those markers.”
Biasetti said he bunched his dogs together and used his sled as a windbreak before waiting to see if conditions improved. He said he probably waited a couple hours or more before he decided it was time to head back down towards the tree line.
“It’s pretty steep and you can’t see nothing, so I used my snow hook to slow my sled down but then I caught a marker. The marker was way over there and we were headed way over here,” said Biasetti, gesturing in opposite directions. “I had my old leader up there and I led her in the right direction and I shined my headlamp on the marker and I just talked to her: ‘Do you see it Inca? Do you see it?’ I know she understood me, so we went for it.”
He said after they reached that marker, they went another 15 metres and the team lost the trail again, but Biasetti again caught sight of a marker and repeated the earlier process.
Misery loves company and Biasetti and his team weren’t alone much longer.
“I started going down and I saw Rob’s (Cooke) freight train of Siberians come up and Andy (Pace) behind him, and I thought OK, Rob seems like he’s confident he can get us up there.”
Cooke said he and Pace had decided to travel together after hearing about the conditions on the summit.
“We had been told that there was a winter weather advisory warning that was effectively going to mean it was bad weather over the slopes, so Andy Pace and I decided to team up and go together,” said Cooke. “It was kind of intimidating knowing we were going to go out into some pretty bad conditions once we break the tree line.”
Getting over Eagle Summit requires covering two climbs with a small plateau in the middle. Cooke said he and Pace ran across Biasetti halfway up the first climb.
“We decided that we were going to have another go to try to get to the top,” said Cooke, adding the teams got up to the plateau fine but had difficulty spotting the markers on the second phase of the summit.
“We’d stop at a marker and then walk ahead and try to find the next marker, but always try to keep the dogs visible as best we could,” said Cooke. “We were just below the summit. The wind must have just been whipping over the top and blowing all the snow down onto us — there was no visibility whatsoever.”
By that point, Deke Naaktgeboren had joined the group, making four teams near the summit.
“We couldn’t even work out how we were going to turn the teams around safely,” said Cooke. “Andy and I chatted about whether it was safe for the dogs to be up there and we decided there was still no risk to the dogs – they were still OK – and I got up for one more look to try and find a marker.”
Cooke said he didn’t want to lead the teams onto the summit without knowing exactly where the markers were.
“I’ve heard of people getting lost up there,” said Cooke. “Winds were gusting up to (65 km/h) and I”d keep turning my back on the wind and if the wind would drop, I’d turn around and quickly scan to see if I could see a marker at all.”
Amazingly, after Cooke and Pace had put the group on a five minute clock to find their way, Cooke saw a figure through the snow and haze.
“The one time I turned around, there was somebody walking towards me and I just couldn’t believe there was somebody else up there, let alone somebody actually walking down towards me,” said Cooke.
That figure was Seth Adams, a photographer for the Yukon Quest. He was able to point out to Cooke where a trail marker was.
“As soon as he said there’s a marker there, the wind dropped and we could see the marker in front of us,” said Cooke. “We regrouped and got the dogs up onto the summit.”
On the summit, Cooke said the wind was still battering the teams but that the visibility was better.
The trail down the mountain into the Mile 101 checkpoint was just as blustery, but Cooke said the dogs knew they were headed down and were more than willing to push on.
“The dogs knew they were over the top and were on their way down,” said Cooke. “They were struggling to a certain extent, but they kept going and going to the different markers.”
In the valley, the snow was deep but Cooke wasn’t complaining.
“It was slow going, but it was a relief for all of us to be off of the summit and for the wind to have dropped,” said Cooke.
Biasetti echoed Cooke’s feelings.
“Rob led the way and got us down over the summit and we got out of that chaotic storm,” said Biasetti. “Rob took the lead. Just like a dog team, right? And everybody took their roles.”
Cooke said the temperature was what made the whole thing possible — and safe — for the teams to even attempt.
“It must have been below freezing, but not much,” said Cooke. “That was a real saving grace. When Andy and I chatted, the dogs were hunkered down and they would just wait until they got another command from us to move and as soon as we told them or tugged on the rope, they’d stand up and start pulling to the next marker.”
Although an uncomfortable, disorienting situation, Cooke explained there wasn’t any immediate risk.
“We knew it was fairly warm and although we were getting battered by the wind, there was no immediate risk of danger,” said Cooke. “We knew we couldn’t stay there forever. We couldn’t just wait – we had to potentially get back into the tree line for safety.”
Both Biasetti and Cooke said Rosebud Summit was relatively uneventful in comparison and all four teams crossed the relocated finish line on the Chena River the morning of Feb. 14.
Contact John Hopkins-Hill at email@example.com