An extract from Mary Hoods book 'a fans guide to the Iditarod' reads
"Along the cost, Hall got pounded by winds up to fifty miles per hour and numbed by a wind-chill of -70°F. Commenting on the weather between Safety and Nome, Hall admitted, "This is bad but you should have seen Topkok." Three other Mushers who had been running with Hall were holed up in a cabin just past Topkok. As Nan Elliot relates in an Anchorage Daily News article on Halls ordeal, the three heard a knock at the cabin door:
"A polite little knock," said [Kjell] Risung, a transplanted Norwegian.
The Mushers opened the door and there was Hall looking like the ice man cometh. When Risung later told the story to fellow Scandinavian Lena Astrom, she burst out laughing.
"I can't believe he knocked - that's so British," she said. "Anyone else would have flung the door open and fallen in."
Although the storm followed him all the way to Nome, Hall gave it the stiff upper lip and finished his rookie run in forty-sixth place.
…Iditarod. The dogs will burn eight thousand calories per day. Before the race ends, the mushers will lose five or ten pounds in weight. Some will fall asleep on their sleds. Some will run into trees. Some will be blown over by the wind. Some will get lost. Some will get hurt. Some will get frostbite on their faces and hands. A few will fail to finish, and more than one will hallucinate on the trail and see swords falling from the sky, or trees turning into sharks' teeth.
The Iditarod Trail is a legendary journey of epic proportions across frozen wastelands. Crossing mountain ranges and running on sea ice, the trail follows original mail routes to the interior Gold Rush settlements which have since become ghost towns. The trail encompasses 1160 miles of snow, a deep unimaginable cold, winds beyond belief, roaring waters and deadly dreams - a whole world beyond peoples knowing.
The teams leave anchorage on the first Saturday in March and (some) reach the finish line in Nome, usually between ten and twenty days later.
Consider the magnitude of the Iditarod journey for a few minutes, and the demands of training of the sled dogs will be immediately apparent. I was well aware from the start how inadequate was the training period I could afford to spend with my own dogs : seven visits of approximately three weeks each over a period of two years.
The amount of work (to say nothing of finance) in the preparation for food-drops may not, however, be so obvious. The hours of planning, preparation and packing are positively monumental. Work began in November to pack socks, gloves, batteries, hand warmers and other non-food items, following the detailed plans made over the previous twelve months. During a further visit in January more work was done on the preparation of the dog snacks, but it was not until my final trip in February - just prior to the race start on March 4th - that many of the food bags could be assembled. I delivered the 375 small sacks of dog food and human supplies, repacked into 95 extra-large sacks, to Anchorage. Meeting the food-drop deadline represented both a final commitment and a load off my mind.
The days from then until Start Day ticked by and were spent both out with the dogs and attending a variety of necessary meetings and commitments: vet checks, rookie meetings; a Mushers full-day gathering and the pre-race banquet. As Start Day approached, so the adrenaline increased, and the arrival of my six-strong send-off crew from England added to the emotion.
On the Start Day every Musher had been allocated a passenger for the first seven miles, from 4th Avenue in Anchorage to Campbell Airstrip. The passengers had bid in an auction for the privilege to travel, thereby raising much needed money for the race which had lost Timberland as its main sponsor earlier in the year. I had my reservations about this arrangement. A few hundred yards from the start there is a 90 degrees right hand corner to negotiate at Cordova Street. Taking this bend with sixteen race-trained dogs so soon after the start had been concerning me for some months. I had confided in my wife Lena that 'if I can get around Cordova, I can get to Nome'. To carry a passenger - a lady from New York celebrating her fortieth wedding anniversary who had never met a husky before - seemed to me nothing short of foolish. In the end however, all went well and only one successful bidder was dumped on Cordova Corner.
Parting company with my passenger at Campbell Airport, I was soon away from the road system and bound for the great Alaskan wilderness. After four or five hours we dropped thirty feet down a steep river bank to the Yentna river. Braking on the drop, something snagged the mechanism. Once on the river I stopped to investigate and was bemused to find a loaded .44 Magnum revolver trapped in the foot brake! Since I was already adequately armed I handed it in to the checker at Yentna station, an uninhabited cabin which serves as the first race checkpoint. This was the only contact with my friend Doug McDonald, a vet with the British Army with whom I had run the Knik 200 race the previous year. Doug looked over the dogs and proclaimed them fit. I hauled water, cooked for the dogs and then retreated to the cabin to savour the peculiar, local version of spaghetti bolognaise which was on offer.
You get a diminishing number of race spectators until about Skwenta. At Yentna these included Ruth Bomhoff, an acquaintance of mine who had travelled to the checkpoint by snow machine. The journey so far had claimed my spare headlamp with a smashed lens and bulb-holder. Ruth kindly offered me her machine to rob whatever parts I needed. Immediately upon leaving Yentna the dogs picked up a scent which they followed determinedly but which I soon realised was in error. Trying to get them to change direction was a difficult task, but eventually we met two snow machiners who guided the way back to the real trail and we were back in business.
I remember my relief when the overflow on the river was not too severe. Overflow occurs when a rapid change of temperature causes the water flowing beneath the river ice to expand, bursting through the ice and presenting a watery slush on top. This can force the dogs to swim in unbearable temperatures and the Musher to be frequently up to his waist in freezing water - a situation I had endured in the Knik 200 race.
We arrived in Skwenta at about 3am, having spotted a couple of moose a few miles out on the river. Thankfully they were not directly on the trail and did not bother us. Moose are one of the main hazards facing dog teams. The dogs have a tendency to chase the scent, and the moose have a tendency to stand their ground which can result in the dogs' being trampled. A big bull moose can stand eight feet tall and is not tackled lightly. A Musher will resist shooting it as the law of Alaska states that a big game animal killed in self-defence must be butchered before the body freezes and the meat carried to the next village. He will therefore try to avoid such a time-consuming task by putting on snow shoes and diverting for a couple of miles around the obstacle.
Skwenta is situated so early on in the race that the competitors have not yet had a chance to leads and clear positions, and so it was like Grand Central Station for dogs when we arrived. There must have been thirty dog teams hunkered down on the river ice in various stages of checkpoint routine. I found and collected my drop bags (learning the hard way that my child's plastic sled had been an optimistic dream - I ditched it here), found the hole in the ice which had been cut for our benefit by the residents and used my bucket to haul water to the sled. The operation seemed futile for returning for the second bucketful, the first had frozen. I concluded that melting snow was a faster option and elected to follow this practice from now on.
The dog-food had been prepared in bin liners as a means of streamlining the serving speed and clean-up operation. This was to prove advantageous as the race matured. By the time all the checkpoint chores had been completed it was quarter to six in the morning. I took ninety minutes' sleep, a hot breakfast and a visit to the outhouse (go when you can, not when you need). Returning to the river, it was still dark and the dogs were flat out. A few remaining spectators took photographs and asked for autographs. We left at 9.00am for Points North.
A mile out, we ("we" refers to me and my 16 canine companions) met the Russian Nikolai Etyenne coming the opposite way. He had an injured dog and had elected to return with it to the checkpoint rather than continue. The weather so far was holding well with temperatures ranging from -20F to +10F.
Further down the trail to Finger Lake I reluctantly had to put Yetta in the bag. I certainly did not want to drop her at this early stage as she was my no.2 leader. I subsequently walked her, however, to observe her gait and let her stretch out. She was limping and I carried her the rest of the way to the lake where she had to be dropped from the race. King, in the middle of the team, then started to act the goat. He would lie down on his back in the snow and let himself get dragged by his neckline whilst the other dogs ran on. This clearly could not continue and I really did not have the time or inclination to tolerate his behaviour. He too was subsequently dropped.
I saw very little of the checkpoint at Finger Lake, being busy with the dogs the whole time. I put sweat wraps on Yetta and Shelly and spent plenty of time here servicing the dogs' feet with protective cream. Teams were still arriving as I prepared to leave.
Although I would have preferred to travel down the infamous Happy River to Rainy Pass in daylight, this did not suit my schedule and so it was in complete darkness that we travelled the rollercoaster ride through the steep hills, as if on a black run in a ski resort, travelling hell for leather, pulled by sixteen eager huskies. At one point the sled took a serious flip into deep snow on a severe downhill turn and I sank the snow hook two inches into a tree trunk. This required a 45-minute surgical operation with an axe to remove the hook and free the team. After descending the final four infamous steps of Happy River I stopped on the flat to give the dogs a fish each. Several of them would not eat, however, and so we continued after only a five minute break.
At Rainy Pass checkpoint the teams were starting to spread out. Parking spaces were much more plentiful which made resting up easier. I managed to find an area of floor in the checker's log cabin. It was 4.30am.
After ninety minutes' sleep and a good rest for the dogs, our journey over the Alaska Mountain Range and down Dazzle Gorge was to be a daylight (if windy) run. The initial stage out of Rainy Pass was every bit as I remembered it in '93: steep and open, but this time with a fierce wind blowing. I was very glad I had a well designed hood with its fur ruff. The Dazzle Gorge was a daunting prospect of which I had high expectations. These were to be fulfilled as soon as we started to descend. I soon managed to tangle up the whole team on a narrow part of the river bank with a cliff facing and the river flowing. It was my own fault: I had not been sufficiently aware of what lay ahead. Pistol, in lead, did not want to go over the fast flowing water and braked at the alternative of the cliff, resulting in this almighty pile-up. The disentangling procedure resulted in Shelly's getting a dunking and we all ran like hell to get her warm and dried out. Towards the bottom of the gorge, the glare ice took over as a major problem and we were obliged to slide our way forward to get across, sometimes on all fours.
We arrived at Rohn at about noon which was where I opted to take the mandatory 24 hour stop. I had lost various precious items in the gorge as we bounced down the treacherous twists and turns. Most important of these was the snow machine track brake which had been ripped off by rocks. The time in Rohn, however, was memorable. Mary Lou Vanderbilt Whitney (the New York heiress and socialite) turned up in a chartered 4-seater aircraft in pursuit of Larry Williams, the Musher she was sponsoring, and we chatted for some time. I cooked for the dogs, removed their harnesses, put them all on drop chains, lay down some straw for their beds and tied them to separate trees to try and get them some proper rest. I changed the plastic runners on the sled and made repairs to the track brake. I got a 'mushergram' here from Lena. On leaving Rohn you travel down the glare ice of the Kuskoquim River for a while; then over a glacier with many bare rocks; and then into a windblown area they call the Buffalo Tunnel before hitting The Farewell Burn - thousands of square miles of desolate terrain ravaged by forest fire. After making it down the glacier, the sled was wrecked with the right-hand stanchion completely snapped. As it was turning dark, I elected to rest and use the remaining daylight to carry out repairs. I cut down a tree, selected a straight branch, shaped and notched it out with my knife and tied it all back up (a repair which was to last until the Bering Sea at Unalakleet, some 620 miles further on).
During this operation, in the half light, the dogs all pricked up their ears. I looked up. Five buffalo were observing us about thirty feet away. We escaped conflict, however, and continued on our way. I managed to miss the shelter cabin on the 90-mile stretch over The Burn and camped beside the trail in the early hours, made a fire, fed both the dogs and myself, rested for thirty minutes and then continued towards Nikolai where we arrived at 5.00am.
Nikolai is an Inuit Indian village of 120 inhabitants. It also has a satellite telephone which enabled me to ring Lena. By now I had lost my no.1 knife, my no.1 headlamp, my Swiss Army knife my prescription sunglasses. We were down to spares. The splits in my fingers were getting nasty. The serious cold conditions, however, were yet to come.
The next checkpoint - McGrath - was a morale boost, even though I stayed for only four hours; Lena and several friends had flown out to the town in small planes to see us pass through. I left at 9.00pm and reached Takotna four hours later. This was a super checkpoint where the villagers had an oil drum of hot water going for the Mushers' use; a nice change from boiling snow. I accepted the considerable hospitality of the forty strong population in the form of hot food and claimed a piece of floor space in the village hall-cum-school- cum-library-cum meeting place. Since there was no food drop at Ophir, this was a major refuelling point where the bush pilots had dropped our supplied as requested, and I left laden with drop sacks on top of the already full sled bag at about 6.00am.
Winding up the steep, never-ending hills out of Takotna, Norway and Pistol in lead decided to cut off a corner of the trail resulting in the sled tumbling down the hillside. It took two hours to get the mess of dogs and sled back into action. I later learned that Paual Gmerek had her lead dogs follow my example and go down the same path to disaster.
We arrived to the ghost town of Ophir and I was met to my surprise by Patricia Rae from Anchorage. Not only had Patricia supplied my full team's harnesses but also the ganglines, tugs and necklines. By now, the wear on my gangline was concerning me and I took the opportunity of looking more closely at it in Patricia's presence. I'm glad I did. It was worn virtually down to the metal and would not have lasted long. Patricia felt some sort of unnecessary responsibility and proceeded to dig out a length of spare gangline. I swapped it with my snow hook line and ended up with a good set of lines, even if they didn't match. Fortunately, the dogs are not fashion-conscious.
The delay meant that we started to cross the wind-blown Tibetan Plateau in the dark, freezing night. The Gortex liners in my boots had ceased "breathing" at temperatures lower than -40F and by now a thick layer of ice had formed within my boots. I stopped at Don's cabin to try to thaw out my feet. They would not respond, and I spent the most miserable night of my life in that cabin. Daybreak made me realise why it had been so difficult to get warm. Don's cabin is often referred to as the lettuce crate. The bears had been in and ripped it apart leaving the sheltering wall more like a slatted wind break.
I was sad to have to drop Shelly at Iditarod with a suspect swollen elbow. She had to have surgery but subsequently recovered fully. It would have been a different story if she had been called upon to run on to the Yukon River. Iditarod is the Gold Rush ghost town which marks the halfway point of the race and this is often a low point for morale.
So far, conditions had been good for the dogs' feet and I had used very few boots on them. This condition changed upon leaving Iditarod. The snow became like razor-blades and I booted the whole team until Nome, a particularly painful task which would take its toll on the state of my hands before long.
The trek to Shageluk and over to the Yukon River was just hill after hill and very hard work; not a good preparation for the bitter cold and wind that was to hit us travelling the 170 miles up the Yukon River. We spent three nights on the Yukon with temperatures dropping to -60F. I discovered I had severe problems with my feet at temperatures colder than -30F. The vapour barriers were not working in my boot system and I found that sweat was freezing and forming a thick layer of ice inside my boot before the vapour could escape. I froze my feet twice. Very painful but, fortunately, reversible.
I was glad to leave the Yukon and head for Unalakleet on the sea coast. It was here I had my change of sled. I had become so used to driving that mobile sack of dog-food on runners held together with string that I had forgotten what it was like to drive a correctly set-up toboggan. I lightened my load by dumping many supplies no longer considered necessary. I dropped Oosik here as he was not eating well and was holding the team back.
Finding the correct trail out of Unalakleet was tricky amidst the confusion of the snow machine tracks left by the villagers, and so we did a couple of 'city tours' before embarking upon the correct trail. By this time I had wrecked my new set of plastic runners and had to change them at the next checkpoint, Shaktoolik.
This part of the trail necessitated a long, four-hour climb followed by a mere five minute drop down to sea-level, and then a two-hour trip on flat sea ice to Shaktoolik (the word means 'the place where the east wind blows'). I had intended to make the sea crossing to Koyuk in the dark that night. I was so tired, however, and the dogs were also ready to rest, that we enjoyed the luxury of staying through until 6.00am. Here I dropped Pistol and Man with an infected cut pad and sore shoulder respectively. The team was now down to nine dogs. Only Norway is really a leader amongst the remaining dogs and he does me proud all the way from here.
My sea crossing over the ice completed, I made use of a good layover in Koyuk before continuing to Elim (population 260) where we arrived at 4.00am. News was starting to come though of an anticipated storm, so I cut my rest short and tried to get one step ahead. The hills which climb out of Elim and Golovin were no less steep this time than my recollections of '93 and we eventually arrived in White Mountain at about 6.00am, the penultimate checkpoint, 77 miles from Nome. A mandatory eight hour layover has to be taken here to ensure that the dogs get a chance to rest before the final run to Nome.
This should have allowed us to leave at 2.00am with an intention of being in Nome by noon the next day, in time for the Mushers' finish banquet. In the event, we were to be delayed by twenty seven hours.
When the storm descended the race Marshall ordered us to stay put until daybreak and so we could not leave Ehite Mountain until 6.00am. By the time we reached the final summit of Topkok Hill (a notorious place for bad weather) a further blizzard had settled in and I could see only the first four dogs nearest the sled. I considered climbing into the sled bed to sit out the storm but we were close to the top and the prospect of safety was on the other side. We pressed on, laying the snow hook in front of the sled, walking the dogs forward until the hook tightened then repeating the process. We covered just one mile in five hours before finally getting over the top to the shelter cabin at Topkok.
Between here and Safety - the final checkpoint - is an area known as the Solomon Blow Hole because it can attract unusually high winds. This turned out to be case and, although I had never intended to rest so close to the finish, we were so exhausted by the time we got to Safety that we rested for twelve hours, waiting out the storm.
Safety is only 22 miles from the finish line and, after 1,141 miles, you would assume that you were home and dry. Not so. Andy Sterns, the next Musher behind me, scratched only two miles from the finish line. This last stretch was probably as hair-raising as any in the race. It turned out to be the coldest finish on record with the wind chill temperature down to -70F and 50mph winds. I had dropped Tequila at Safety merely because he was tired, leaving me with eight dogs requiring a double leader. I did not know which dog to put up front with Norway as none of them seemed a natural leader. Fortunately, I chose Coho. He was terrific and led into that 50mph wind unrelentingly. Two miles from the finish even Coho concluded that enough was enough and all eight dogs just huddled together in a pile. I lay on the ground using the sled for shelter and waited for two hours for the storm to subside. It did not. Appropriately, Gerry and the Pacemakers were singing You'll Never Walk Alone to me over my Sony Walkman. After several unsuccessful attempts to resume progress, I eventually managed to get the team lined out and scraped the ice off their eyes. Just as I was about to make a further attempt to get them moving, a snow machine passed by. The sound of the engine seemed to catch the dogs' mood and they started to follow the noise. We arrived in Nome, crossing the finishing line in the bitterest of conditions.
The dogs were parked on the sea ice in the Harbour. Their Musher headed for the bar of the Nome Nugget Hotel…