Iditarod 2022: Trapped in the Topkok Hills
March 30, 2022
For most mushers, in most years, White Mountain is the last real checkpoint on the Iditarod trail. Nearly 70 miles from Nome, mushers are required to take a minimum of 8 hours of rest in White Mountain. Once completed, very few teams find it necessary to make another stop in the checkpoint of Safety – just 20 miles from the finish line. When I pulled into White Mountain on Thursday evening, the sun was near to setting, and I told myself that my team needed at least 10 or 12 hours before getting up and making that last long push to Nome. The Coast had been tough for my young group. (“The Coast” refers to the last 250 miles of trail from Unalakleet to Nome, trademarked by its strong winds, sea ice crossings, and hills.) Seven of my nine remaining team members were rookies to this 1,000 mile event, and some had never done a race over 60 miles. While firmly in the “back of the pack,” and generally well-rested after taking many 8+ hour stops in checkpoints, I could see my team was starting to get beat by the strong winds that had plagued us since leaving Shaktoolik.
I told Jeff right away I wanted to take at least 10 hours of rest, and he responded with “Your team isn’t going to get anything more in 10 or 12 than they are going to get in 8.” This is a very old adage in mushing – one that you will hear a lot. But I winced. “You know,” I said, “If I take more than 8, then I get more sleep, too! That’s something.” Jeff couldn’t argue with me there. But we did the math, and realized that if we left after only 8 hours of rest, that would put us into Nome in the early afternoon on Friday. This meant we could mostly avoid mushing during the hottest part of the day (approximately 12 pm to 4 pm), which was fresh on our minds after an extremely warm mid-day run leaving Elim. I told Jeff I was concerned that my leaders couldn’t handle any more brutal wind, so we planned for our teams to stay tight together on this final run to the finish line, essentially using his team to lead mine. Before heading into the checkpoint building to get some shut-eye, Jeff pointed to the Topkok Hills in the distance. “See that?” he said. I did. The peaks appeared fuzzy, and blown out to the side. This is what strong winds look like on mountain tops. “Yikes,” I said. “It’s windy up there.” Then we went inside. We ate some food, set our alarms for 1:00 am, and forgot that conversation about wind in the mountains ever happened.
Before I go on, let me stop here and point out some of the major mistakes that I made up to this point. They are easy to see now in hindsight, and also now that I’m well rested… First off, I should have accepted the leader problems I was having, and taken them more seriously. Maybe a 10 or 12 hour rest wouldn’t have “fixed” my problems, but then again, maybe it would have. Or perhaps I should have taken that 10 or 12 hour rest several checkpoints ago. There was a whole group of mushers still about a day behind me, so I had no fear of being ejected from the race for being “too slow” (as does sometimes happen to pokey racers).
Mistake #2: Jeff and I hardly ever train together – let alone race together – because we don’t run at the same pace. Jeff is always, consistently faster than me. He’s got the better, stronger dogs in our kennel, and he just naturally likes to move faster, taking fewer and shorter stops, and demanding a higher level of performance from his team. We only happened to be together in White Mountain because he had been making a persistent effort to stay with me. After several injuries to key dogs early on in Jeff’s race, he decided to stay behind in the checkpoint of Cripple and wait for me to catch up to him. But upon leaving Cripple we found we just couldn’t stay together. We quickly separated on long hill climbs, and I routinely stopped to take pictures or adjust my clothing. Eventually we adopted a rhythm in which we’d leave checkpoints together, but each move at our own pace along the trail. Even though we left Elim together, Jeff got into White Mountain over an hour ahead of me. For us to plan to “stay together” on this last run to Nome should have been inconceivable.
Finally, we saw the wind blowing in the mountains! If I had it to do over, I would have, at the very least, noticed the wind that night and said, “We should stay here until daylight to make sure it’s not still blowing like that when we go to leave.” Duh.
Our last fatal mistake would come upon waking. I was first out to the dog yard, although there was a group of six of us all planning to leave around the same time. I heated water for the dogs, prepared their last meal, packed my sled, and assessed a couple of dogs who had come into the checkpoint with some small orthopedic issues. Eventually I was joined in the dog yard by Bridgett, Sean, Sebastian, Gerhardt, and Jeff. We all attended to our sleds and our teams. During this time I do not recall seeing any race personnel other than a vet or two, and a woman with a clipboard who told us our official “out” times. While I didn’t consciously consider it at the time, I guess I had always assumed that if there were some kind of extreme weather event up ahead on the trail that race personnel would let mushers know that. But of the very few people up and about at 3:00 am, none of them said anything about weather or trail conditions, and I didn’t ask. Later on Bridgett Watkins would tell me that she did get a weather report from her husband via satellite phone for Safety, and that there was nothing serious to report. But there is likely a reason they call that place Safety – because it’s a whole hell of a lot safer than all the crazy shit that comes before it. The Topkok Hills and the two blowholes below them don’t have weather stations. This is some seriously remote country, with no human inhabitants and perhaps most of the time, no need for real-time weather forecasting.
In addition to a weather forecast that may or may not have existed, there would have been other indicators that morning, too. Riley Dyche left White Mountain the previous evening, just as I was arriving. That morning, as I was doing my chores, I could have asked race personnel to see Riley’s online GPS tracker. Did he make it through the Topkoks, which were so windy the night before? Did he make it through the notorious blowhole between the Topkoks and Safety? Had I been able to replay his tracker, I would have watched Riley struggle to make it through the Topkoks. Stopping and restarting, and finally shutting down in the Topkok shelter cabin, between the hills and the blowhole… I would have seen that it took Riley five and a half hours to cover a distance that normally only takes three.
With all of these mistakes now made, Jeff and I departed White Mountain around 3:30 am into an immediately strong wind. Right away I had doubts about our plan to stay together as I could feel Jeff’s team quickly moving away from me. At the same time, I saw that Chippewa was not going to be able to stay in lead with Knox. He threw me glances over his shoulder, and basically stopped pulling altogether. On this race Chippewa had proved to be a brilliant and trustworthy leader on ice or deep snow – even preferring to run alone in those conditions – but he was not one to face the wind. So I tried my other go-to leader, Jae Bird, who along with Knox, had taken me from Shaktoolik to Koyuk, and through Golovin – some seriously windy sections. But she had had enough. She would go – but not in lead. With Jeff now out of sight, I made another stop to put Yentna in lead. Unlike Chippewa and Bird, Yentna had not done much leading so far on the race, but she had done a great job leading with Knox through a wind storm between Koyuk and Elim. Some dogs just like a challenge. I put Yentna with Knox and we were off! I was relieved. The cross-wind became stronger and stronger, but the terrain was flat and so far I was still able to see the trail and at least one trail markers ahead. However, the blowing snow was starting to sting my eyes, and I struggled to find a way to position my fur ruff so that it didn’t crowd my face and block my vision. Eventually I caught up to Jeff who had stopped to wait for me. I told him about my leader troubles, and reminded him we needed to stay together – especially if this wind was going to keep up. He yelled over the wind: “In my experience, this flat section out of White Mountain is sometimes the worst. We may climb into the hills now and it will get better all of a sudden.” Looking back, this is the point at which I may have turned around and returned to White Mountain, had Jeff not been with me. But he was, and I didn’t. And hindsight is 20/20.
Conditions did not improve. As we climbed, the winds became unbearably strong. The trail began to tilt on its side – no longer flat, but now side-sloped, and also icy from the warm days of this year’s early spring. I eventually opted for wind burn and frost bite on my face as opposed to fighting my billowing fur ruff. I had to see, God damn it. At one point Jeff stopped, walked back to my sled and gave me a double high-five: “OK! This is now the most challenging mushing I’ve ever done!!” He was stoked. I was … terrified. But his confidence gave me strength, and I loved seeing him having fun – especially when I knew his race hadn’t gone as he had planned. I was happy for him, even though I was now totally out of my own comfort zone. But we were also still managing to keep our teams together, so I also told myself “If he can do it, I can do it.”
Perhaps my first real moment of doubt about our ability to complete our run to Nome came upon crossing a frozen creek. The ice was glass – no traction at all for the dogs. Jeff’s timing was perfect. His team and sled hit the ice at the same time that a particularly giant wind gust came up. It sent him sailing sideways, knocking his sled and body down onto the ice. Later he would tell me that in his mind’s eye he saw the entire team and himself flying down the frozen creek, propelled by an unstoppable wind; too far off the trail to ever be recovered. Ironically this is almost exactly what would happen to Gerhardt Thiart soon after we made it through. Somehow I crossed the ice sheet with more grace – unscathed. But that was only luck. For sure, I thought, there would be more of this to come.
The run through the Topkok Hills soon became a series of big climbs and little drops. A sort of “three steps forward and one step back.” Overall we were gaining in elevation, with the winds ever increasing, and the challenge of the trail becoming surreal. Like many alpine trails, the Iditarod trail in the Topkoks transects the sides of the peaks. This means the trail is not flat or level beneath your runners, but instead, is “side sloped” as it runs along the sides of the mountains. In addition to the general annoyance of being on a side-sloped trail, this particular trail had also been baked in the heat and sun of an early spring, and conditions were extremely icy. Instead of our sled runners biting into soft snow and allowing us to hold the side of the mountain, we were instead on giant skating rink, tilted on its side as if in one of those horrific “fun houses.”
Jeff and I were now fully immersed in a world dominated by icy, side-sloped trail combined with 80 mph winds and so much blowing snow that we could barely see our lead dogs – small though our teams were. At one point I could only see my single wheel dog, Whiskey, and the trail beneath my runners. Suddenly though it occurred to me that we were no longer following any sled tracks. The snow beneath us was unmarked; my dogs had veered up hill and off the trail! Whether in search of better (less icy) footing, or just truly disoriented, I didn’t know, but I was forced to call my leaders back down to the dangerously icy, marked trail for fear of getting lost otherwise. Realizing their vision may be impaired (as mine was) by the blowing snow, I stopped the team and walked up to my leaders. Sure enough, their eyes were mere slits. The blowing snow was engulfing their heads, and the heat of their bodies and breath was instantly melting it, turning it to ice. I took my glove off and scraped the ice away from their eyes and noses. This was no longer just “out of my comfort zone.” This was insanity.
[Side note: Brent Sass experienced similar conditions while mushing through this same section of trail several days before us. Warning: The videos he shared in this article have been described by many dog mushers as being “too much.”]
Was it then that I started to get somersaulted on my sled? Surely it happened at least a few times before this. It’s funny the times and the ways that you will allow yourself to get bashed around on your dog sled, and you will just breezily attribute it to the reality of dog mushing. It is only eventually, after you start breaking pieces of your sled, or pieces of yourself, or you no longer have the strength to stand back up again, that you start to think “this is not normal. This is no longer just mushing.” So no, I don’t remember how many times I got blown over in this storm. But I do remember the ferocity. The wind had an agenda, and I either wasn’t on it, or it was to kill me. Either way, I was in a place I didn’t belong. My sled was not simply getting knocked over in the wind. I was getting legitimately somersaulted in a winter hurricane.
It starts by getting pushed to the edge of the icy ribbon on the side of the mountain that we call a “trail.” Once on the edge of the trail, the sled runner will catch an edge, and the wind takes its advantage. Flipping the sled upside down, around and around, forcing the dogs to dig in deep to the ice beneath their paws, and grip the hillside, lest we all go tumbling down into the abyss. So many times this happened. And for a long time I was able to keep going. I would get flipped, and rolled. And I was able to stand up, force the sled back upright into the wind and uphill, and get back on the trail. And I could ask the dogs to continue forward, and they would. Until finally I couldn’t, and they didn’t.
Perhaps the wind had increased, or perhaps I was just too worn out. Eventually I got flipped and rolled, and could not get myself back up. I struggled for several minutes unsuccessfully, trying to get my sled upright and back on the trail. Every time I would stand it up, the wind would immediately knock it back down, taking me down with it, the icy hillside sliding out beneath my boots. The wind was so strong it became impossible to stand up without using the sled for balance. Eventually I looked up to see my team rushing back to me. Covered in ice and snow, and annoyed from all of the stopping and starting, and needing to grip the trail as if their life depended on it (it did), they were ready to seek the shelter of my sled, and the comfort of me. When a team rushes back to the sled like this it results in a giant tangle of lines. Still fighting the wind, and now dealing with a team of unwilling canines, I tried to untangle the mass and quickly realized that unhooking everyone was going to be the only way to get the line straightened out and back on the trail. I couldn’t fight my sled and undo this tangle. I shuddered at the thought of releasing my nine companions into that dark and ghastly ground blizzard. In normal circumstances I have 100% confidence in them to stay with me while loose. But this truly felt like a life and death situation. Would they stay with me if released from the line, or would they run off into the darkness and the wind and the blowing snow in search of shelter, never to be seen again? I was going to find out. I released the dogs one by one and watched them run out of sight – not hard to do when my headlamp range was severely limited by the blowing snow. They ran down the trail until the darkness swallowed them, and then suddenly came rushing back to the light; back to me. I was filled with relief, but it was miniscule compared to the panic now rising in my chest. This was no longer sustainable. I was not going to make it to Nome on this run. I was not going to make it to Safety. And unless that famed Topkok shelter cabin was at the bottom of this peak I was currently on, I wasn’t going to make it there either. Around that time Jeff appeared out of the darkness. He must have turned his team around to come look for me. God, I thought, I appreciate that. But that’s not going to be good for his dogs. “What’s going on back here?” he said. “What the fuck does it look like is going on!?” I screamed. “What in the hell are we doing out here!?” We exchanged all kinds of thoughts on whether or not my dogs should be running loose, and how I had gotten myself into that particular predicament. I remember him telling me not to panic, or spread fear to the dogs. And I remember thinking he was right, but that it was also kind of an unfair ask. I had never been so afraid in all of my life.
Clearly Jeff was not yet at the same point of panic and fatigue that I was, so he helped me get my sled back on the trail and my team reassembled. He told me that the shelter cabin was only a few miles away. So we continued on. What choice did we have? The White Mountain checkpoint was now almost 20 miles behind us, and the trail here had almost killed us. Certainly this was as bad as it could get.
So we mushed on. We started climbing the final series of peaks separating us from the shelter cabin, but we immediately saw these were going to be even more side-sloped, icier, and far more treacherous than anything we had done yet. And the wind was stronger than ever. Not far up the first peak, I flipped my sled. Jeff came back to help. We pulled off our runner plastic, hoping the hard aluminum would help to better hold the trail. Maybe it did, maybe it didn’t. Jeff flipped, and somersaulted. I flipped, and somersaulted. Jeff came back to help me. Now the starting and stopping was becoming too much for even Jeff’s veteran team. His multi-time finisher, super-star single leader Braavos gave him a look that said I am nearing my limit. We somersaulted again. How far off the trail would I go this time? Would those little paws be able to hold me, or would I finally, eventually slide all the way down to the Bering sea below? Even if they could hold us to the hillside, the dogs would eventually tire of the starting and stopping, and would no longer be willing to start again. The eventualities laid out clean and bare before us in a line far more obvious than the trail we were following. We had taken our teams to limits of fairness. It was time to rest and see if the wind would break.
We backtracked down the peak we had just started to climb, and found a place where the ground leveled out. We pulled our sleds against a wind drift and tipped them onto their sides. Or maybe we let the winds blow them over and didn’t fight it this time. I don’t remember. I unhooked all of my dogs and they scrambled to get in the lee of the sled. I was amazed at their instinctiveness. I reached into the sled and pulled out a tarp, my sleeping bag, and my parka. I considered trying to create some kind of burrito shelter with the sled and the tarp, but it flapped so maniacally in the wind, that I was instantly dissuaded. Instead I laid the tarp on the ground to semi-insulate myself from the cold snow. I unzipped the sleeping bag and threw it over as many dogs as I could. Then I threw my parka over myself and the remaining dogs. I closed my eyes and thought to myself “This cannot be happening. I’m having a nightmare. Any minute I will wake up and still be in White Mountain. Still be in the checkpoint.”
Jeff’s team was parked some yards away from me, but he didn’t lay down yet. “Sebastian is up there somewhere.” He pointed to the hillside we had just come down. “I’m going to go check on him.” I marveled at the selflessness of my husband then. Part of me was blaming him for getting me into this situation, but the other part of me knew I wouldn’t survive without him, and I was grateful he was there. Jeff walked back up uphill to tell Sebastian where we were hunkered, telling him it was slightly more sheltered than the side of the peak. But Sebastian stayed put, sled wrapped around a spruce tree, and Jeff returned to his team.
I don’t know how many hours we laid there. I don’t think I slept. Eventually Jeff shook me and shouted “We have to get up. We have to find a better shelter.” Daylight had come while my eyes were closed, but the weather had definitely not improved. I tried to stand up and was instantly knocked over. Jeff grabbed my arm to stabilize me. “What do you suggest?” I asked. He yelled, “There was a small little A-frame cabin about a mile and a half back. It doesn’t have a stove, and it barely has four walls, but it’s a wind break. Do you think we can get there?” I was floored. I’m sure my mouth dropped open. THERE WAS A CABIN!? I didn’t see that, although that was no surprise in the blowing snow. I could barely see my dogs in front of my sled. Later on Jeff would say that the cabin was located in a sort of “lull” in the storm – no doubt strategically built there in a place that is often calm during fierce weather. He saw it, but the break in the wind filled him with the confidence to push on to the much nicer, better-equipped Topkok shelter cabin a few more miles ahead. “No,” I said. “That’s too far to walk. We can barely stand up as it is! And we are already so wet and sweaty. We’ll never make it. We’ll have to make shelter here.”
Jeff agreed and took off into the blowing snow to find a more protected place to hunker down. He disappeared from my sight almost immediately in the white haze of the world. God, I thought, I hope he can find his way back here. While he was gone I roused by dog team. They appeared seemingly out of nowhere; popping up from beneath a dense layer of snow. My veterans, Knox and Whiskey, were not particularly phased by the awful weather – frolicking and exploring their surroundings like this was all just part of the regular ol’ Iditarod experience. My younger dogs seemed more ill at ease, but still got up and shook off as much snow from their fur as they could. I was horrified to see the way it still clung to them in giant clumps, and had imbedded itself beneath their fur. A driving wind will do that, I guessed. I cleared the ice from their faces and tried my best to smile and encourage them to get up and explore the area like the older dogs. It’s fine, guys. We’re fine. But Jae Bird was slow to stir. Beneath her dog jacket I could see that she was shivering, and I instantly registered this as a potential serious problem. While her eyes were bright and alert, her level of lethargy and apathy was different than the other dogs. Whether experiencing a serious medical condition like hypothermia, or simply in psychological shock from the events of the past 6 hours, it didn’t really matter. In my mind, our situation had instantly just gotten worse.
Jeff came back from his exploratory mission, and said that he found a slightly better spot up against some willows, in a sort of depression. I went with him to check it out and agreed that it was better. We used our avalanche shovels to increase the size of the depression, and then encouraged all of our dogs to free run over to their new “camp” spot. No need to use attachment lines of any sort. The dogs enjoyed a chance to stretch their legs and then immediately hunkered down in the places we made for them. Unfortunately the wind continued to blow snow into the depression, and the dogs became covered again nonetheless. While there is a part of my brain that understands how insulative and comfortable snow can be, there is another part of my brain that really wanted true shelter for my dogs. I watched the ice continue to shutter their eyes and noses, and watched the snow getting packed into their ears and under the fur, and I knew it wasn’t right. I had messed up badly, and they were paying the price. For Jae Bird, I unwrapped several heat packs and loaded them into a shoulder vest. I put the warm vest on beneath her dog jacket, and wrapped her in an emergency blanket. Then I laid my parka over the top of her. I checked on her every 20 to 30 minutes – shoveling the blowing snow off of my parka with my hands. She was definitely warm under there. Maybe too warm. Now instead of being covered in snow and ice, she was wet. How long could we stay like this?
Before long we saw a figure headed towards us through the blowing snow. Sebastian. He made his way to us slowly, nearly knocked off his feet multiple times in the gusting winds. As he approached us he raised his hands – sunk deep into large beaver mitts – and said something about frostbite and needing help. A Frenchman, Sebastian’s English wasn’t great, but we were able to discern that in addition to frost bitten fingers, and some dogs with frost bite, Sebastian also had no drinking water, no human food, and only a small amount of dog food. Aside from his beaver mitts, he was dressed in light winter gear – a far cry from the cozy, custom parkas that Jeff and I had. We asked Sebastian if his dogs were able to free run down to our camp, and he said Yes. Good, that would make things easier. Jeff told Sebastian to go back to his team and he would soon be there to help with his sled. Sebastian turned to walk back to his dogs and Jeff looked at me. Without speaking, we exchanged the deep understanding that we absolutely did not want another person or group of dogs to look after in these conditions. But that is exactly what we were getting, and what choice did we have?
I suddenly broke the exchange with Jeff and my eyes widened. I pointed: Sebastian was nearly out of sight – blurred by the blowing snow – and was headed in the opposite direction of the trail and his dogs, obviously disoriented. This is how people die out here, I thought. The Iditarod may be about to have its first human casualty. “Oh, Jeff! You need to go get him right now.” Jeff hurried away from me, but through the pounding wind and deep, punchy snow, wasn’t able to run to catch Sebastian. Instead he darted over to the trail, hoping for better footing and to catch Sebastian’s eye from the side. Before they totally disappeared from my vision I saw Sebastian halt – perhaps now realizing that something was amiss in his trajectory. He stopped and looked in all directions. Jeff waved, and Sebastian saw.
As Sebastian’s dogs came through the blizzard to join our group, I quickly noted that they were friendly and well-mannered. Good. There would be no issues between the packs. His dogs quickly bedded down in a stand of willows. Not exactly shelter, but surely better than where they had spent the last several hours. I gave Sebastian a small aluminum avalanche shovel and encouraged him to keep warm by digging deeper depressions for himself and his dogs. “Be prepared to spend the night here,” I said. I took a second shovel and did the same.
Meanwhile, Jeff was communicating with Mark Nordman, the race marshal, via our Garmin inReach. In order to use his bare hands for typing in the storm, Jeff would pull his arms and head completely inside his parka – disappearing from view. When he popped out I could see he was stressed. He worried about the coming night and dropping temperature, and how wet and cold he already was. He worried about running out of drinking water. We had been able to melt some snow into a small amount of water by using our alcohol-burning stoves. But despite setting the stove down into a deep hole, it still took a ton of fuel to create heat in these windy conditions, and it was a constant, nearly non-winnable battle to keep the burner from getting packed full of blowing snow. “I’m wet, too” I said. “But we can keep warm by just keeping moving. And I think humans can survive for something like three days without water, but it’s not going to come to that. We’re just going to have to keep moving. We’ll stay awake all night if we have to.” I would remember this as one of my bravest moments, and probably only possible because it was one of Jeff’s weakest. He needed me to be strong then, but most of the time it was to be the other way around.
Jeff relayed Mark’s latest messages to me: “Mark says a group of snowmachiners are on their way over from Nome to check on us and bring us supplies.” We squinted at each other, wind driving the world’s smallest and sharpest snowflakes into our eyes. And that’s when it hit me. I said to Jeff, “We don’t need supplies. We need to get the fuck out of here.” We later learned that this group of snowmachiners would get turned back to Nome when they couldn’t make it through the infamous Blowhole – a notoriously windy and unforgiving piece of trail between the Topkok Hills and Safety. They weren’t coming for us. In a press release that evening Mark Nordman called these conditions “as bad as it gets.”
I told Jeff I was ready to push my button. Each Iditarod musher’s sled is equipped with a GPS tracker and an SOS button to be used in case of emergency. The push of this button is an automatic disqualification from the race. While I genuinely appreciated that Mark has dispatched a group of snowmachiners to “check on us and bring us supplies,” I worried that not all resources were being marshalled for our rescue, which I now realized was exactly what I wanted.
I thought about Jae Bird shivering and wet beneath my parka and the relentless, hammering, drifting snow. l glanced over at my snow-buried dogs with their ice-encrusted eyes and noses. I felt my fingers in my gloves, going stiff with cold and frost. How many dry pairs did I have left? How many hours – how many days – would it be until this wind stopped? We had no way of knowing. Yes, I thought. I could survive out here. It would be brutal, but I could hunker deep in my sleeping bag and survive. I could let my dogs get buried in snow, and most of them – maybe all of them – would survive. I could wake them up every few hours for a small snack and a leg stretch, and clean their eyes and noses and ears. They may never trust me again, or want to run again, but we could survive. Hell, with a fresh supply drop of dog food, human food and water, we might even go on to make it to the finish line. I would be an Iditarod finisher. But that would be all there was: A finish line, at a potentially very high cost. I thought about all of the other mushers who had come before me. Men and women who had survived similar conditions and gone onto finish. I knew the stories. Maybe they were better than me. They were better than me. They carried tarps and avalanche shovels and extra dog food, and survived, and made it to the finish line. But that wasn’t going to be me. I was doing my best, but I was beat. And the finish line didn’t seem that important. I looked at Jeff and said, “I don’t care about the finish line. I care about these dogs. I care about Jae Bird. As far as I’m concerned I did the fucking Iditarod! So I didn’t get to mush through the Blowhole. So what? I did everything else, and then some, and it was great, but now I’m ready to be done. I want out of here. If we push our buttons it sends the message to race officials that we want a rescue, not just supplies. I want them to marshal all of their resources.”
We tried to imagine what a rescue would look like. I dreamed about a Blackhawk helicopter – a rescue vessel that had been used in several recent races I could think of – but I knew they couldn’t land in this ground blizzard. I couldn’t really picture how exactly we’d be saved, but I knew I was done mushing, and I wanted to get my dogs into real shelter as soon as possible. Jeff, Sebastian and I all pushed our buttons.
While we waited, I heard a helicopter overhead. Looking up I could tell it was beautiful day up high – above the ground blizzard. The chopper flew at such a height I knew it probably wasn’t for us, but I waved frantically nonetheless. Within a few hours (I think; I had lost all track of time) five snowmachines magically appeared through the swirl of blowing snow. We were saved! Or were we? Immediately I noticed the machines were not pulling the giant dog boxes that would be needed to transport our dogs out of the hills. The pod of snowgos pulled into our camp and turned off their machines. White Mountain Search and Rescue was printed on their clothing. The crew leader took of his helmet and shouted: “We’re here to help you! We’ll take people first and come back for dogs if we are able.” We were floored. This is not the rescue we had in mind. “That’s not going to work for us,” Jeff said. “The dogs are the ones that need help.” The crew leader said “Do any of you believe you are in danger?” We thought about Sebastian with his frostbitten fingers. “He has frostbite,” I said. “But the two of us are fine. We really just need to get our dogs out of here.” The crew leader said, “Well, you just tell us what you want us to do. But we need to hurry. We can’t leave these machines parked here long or they’re going to get packed full of snow and not start again.” So that’s how it was going to go. We were going to have to quickly orchestrate our own rescue, and we had five snowmachines with which to do it. Jeff and I and Sebastian put our heads together. Jeff suggested reassembling our teams. We’d have to mush to the safety cabin a few miles away, but we could use the snowmachines to hold tension behind our sleds (hopefully keeping us from somersaulting). We could also use the additional machines at the front of the teams. This would give the dogs something fun to chase, and it would help us find the trail, which was now severely drifted and disappeared in many areas. I immediately balked at the idea of mushing my team to the cabin. I told Jeff, “I can’t do that… I’m too scared.” Without arguing, Jeff said that was fine and he would just put our two teams together. He made an 18 dog gangline and started instructing the snowmachines on how to assemble themselves. Tow straps were unfurled and attached. Snowhook lines were repurposed and repositioned. Dogs were gathered and assembled in team. They seemed genuinely happy to be back at something familiar and meaningful. Their rest was long enough. I was grateful once again for my amazing husband. The calm in the storm.
Jeff signaled to the machines to start their engines, and the teams slowly moved forward into the blinding snow, and quickly out of sight. I attached my sled to the back of a snowmachine with a 6 foot length of rope. I knew we likely wouldn’t get far before a wind gust would hammer my sled down to the ground and roll me like a barrel. And so it did. Again and again. The patient snowmachine driver stopped to help me many times – at one point saying “I’m worried you’re going to hurt yourself!” Later I learned that Bridgett and Gerhardt each broke bones during their rescues – a collar bone, and an ankle, respectively. Finally tired of getting hammered down to the ground, I had an idea. “Can I put my sled on the uphill, up-wind side of your machine?” I asked. “Maybe we can tie ourselves together like that.” My willing escort quickly tied the front of my sled to the right ski of his machine. We were now side by side. “Great,” I said. “That should work.” I climbed back on my runners and we took off, but before long a wind gust grabbed me and throttled my sled over sideways – knocking me onto the seat of the snowmachine. Ok, I thought. I can make this work. I settled myself onto the machine and wrapped my left arm around the stranger. I used my right arm to hold my sled, allowing it to stay tipped up on its side, leaning against the snowmachine. If that’s what the wind wanted, that’s what the wind would get. No more fighting it.
We made good progress then, and caught up to Sebastian, his dogs, and their snowmachine guides. Although now relatively safe and secure in my position behind a large man on the back of the snowmachine I was shocked by how brutal the weather still seemed. The wind had definitely not died down in the last 12 hours of our entrapment, and the blowing snow lashed hard against our faces, pulling the breath out of our noses before we had really even exhaled. The peaks we were now summiting were indeed the steepest, iciest and most side-sloped I had yet seen. I watched Sebastian and his sled get blown over many times. I could only guess at how hard it must be to drive with frostbitten fingers. But our plan worked, and the weight of the snowmachine behind his sled was enough to keep him from full-on somersaulting, and the team stayed lined out straight behind the first machine. Although it was only a few miles, the journey to the Topkok shelter cabin seemed to stretch on forever. Each passing moment marked by the impossibility of the weather and the trail. This was truly unmushable. We never would have made it on our sleds.
When we arrived at the shelter cabin Riley was still there. He came out to greet us and I fell into his chest for a big hug. We were safe. “I’m sorry we’re going to have to crash your party, bud. We’ve got three teams of dogs here that all need to come inside. Is that OK?” Riley was nearing nearly 24 hours of alone time in the 12 x 20 cabin and did not seem put off at all by our company. “Come on in,” he said. “The stove is warm, and I’m going crazy by myself.”
Soon we were 32 dogs and four mushers all safe and warm, our gear spread out everywhere, drying quickly in the small space. The cabin, maintained the Nome Kennel Club, was somehow miraculously stocked with enough firewood to last for days, despite the fact that in this windswept part of Alaska there is nary a tree in sight. The cabin even had outlets and lights! Powered by solar power – of which there was plenty. Two bunkbeds took up most of the cabin’s footprint, and all were scrawled with black sharpie – names and tales of the many adventurers who had also been stuck in this cabin. Snowmachine trips and dog races, all gone awry due to wind and ground blizzards. The cabin also had a variety of MRE’s (military issued Meals Ready to Eat). I made a mental note to make a big donation to the Nome Kennel Club when we got back to Fairbanks.
Looking around the cabin at our sleeping dogs, I was perfectly happy with this ending to my race. We were all safe and warm. Jae Bird was dry and delighted with her space on the bunkbed. No lasting medical issues there. What a relief. I didn’t think too much about what might come next. Only that we were going to get a very good night’s sleep, crashed out in our sleeping bags on the floor, piled up with dogs. Some of them mine and Jeff’s, some Riley’s and some Sebastian’s. Everyone here and accounted for, while outside the wind continued to scream.
Somewhere in the dark of early morning Riley sensed a lull in the storm and quickly assembled his team. He, after all, had not pressed his SOS button, and was still very much a participant in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. But the lull seemed to go as quickly as it came, and before he departed the cabin the wind had picked up once again. I snuggled deeper into my sleeping bag and was supremely grateful that I wasn’t the one getting back on a sled. I am never mushing again, I thought.
Later that day though, Jeff started to hint that perhaps mushing to Nome would be our only way out of this. “What are you talking about?” I said. “I pushed my button. I want a fucking helicopter.” I knew I sounded childish and unreasonable. But I allowed it. I was emotionally drained and psychologically traumatized. How could I get back on my sled and go back out into that storm? “Fine,” I said. “I’ll get back on my sled. But that wind needs to be dead fucking calm before I do.”
Sometime soon after we heard the approach of snowmachines. The jolly figure of Mike Owens came through the cabin door, followed by his son Michael and daughter Melissa. Mike smiled widely at our cabin full of canines. “I love it!” He said. “We have rules about this, but sometimes those rules need to be broken.” Mike then apologized for not being able to make it to us yesterday. He felt terrible. This was how we learned how our original rescue crew from Nome, sent by the Iditarod, had suffered in the Blowhole, with their snowmachines flipping wildly. In that moment we knew for sure that if we hadn’t pushed our buttons, we would still be hunkered down in the Topkoks.
Mike explained that the weather conditions had improved slightly in the Blowhole – as evidenced by their ability to make it to us today. But they had only been able to bring one dog box for hauling one team. How was that going to work? I thought. We have three dog teams here. Mike said, “You all decide who is going in the box, but it’s going to be a rough ride for whoever it is. It was hard to keep her upright on the way over here. The wind just wants to roll it. But we’re hoping with the added weight of the dogs we can keep it under control.” Jeff and I exchanged glances. That wasn’t exactly a resounding endorsement for giving our dogs a ride in the box. Besides that, if there was only one team that was going to get transported, it needed to be Sebastian’s. His dogs were underweight and very short-coated compared to ours, and he had reported frost bite to the tips of a few male penises. Sebastian also had frostbite on his hands and it didn’t seem fair to ask him to drive a sled. So Sebastian and his dogs would get out with heavy assistance. Where did that leave us?
“We brought you some dog food,” said Melissa. That was good. But Jeff wasn’t willing to stay until the wind quit, as had been my request. “We could sit here for days, Katti – weeks! — and the wind might never subside. This is the Blowhole. This is just how it is.” I knew then that despite pushing my button, and giving up the title of “Iditarod Finisher,” I would still have to mush to Nome. My heart sank. Somehow, after 900+ miles, I was still not prepared for this particular endeavor.
Before long we were outside, harnessing and jacketing our dogs in the raging wind. Was it calmer than yesterday? I don’t know. I felt that from then on, in my traumatized state, even the slightest breeze would feel like a hurricane. Fear will do that to you. With my team assembled, and body shaking, Jeff took my shoulders and looked me in the eyes. “Are you ready?” “No,” I started to cry. “I don’t want to do this.” Jeff said calmly, “You have to. This is the way out. And it’s going to be good. You need this. The dogs need this. They’re ready, and it’s going to be OK.” I took a deep breath and still really, really didn’t want to get on my sled. But I did. Because that’s mushing. So often we know full well that the trail in front of us is going to be miserable; that it’s going to knock us on our asses. But we still have to get on the sled and go if we want to get to the other side.
The run through the Blowhole was very difficult. Later, when it was over, I would ask Jeff: “How did this compare to your 2018 run, where you had to crouch behind your sled and use your knife in the ice as a rudder?” He would say, “Oh, this was much worse. Because of the ice. Nothing to stick a knife into this time.”
More gale force winds; more rolling of my sled. And now instead of an icy side-sloped hillside, we were up against bare glare ice. Each new gust of wind spun my sled out to a perpendicular angle with my team. Several times my sled was whipped around at a 90 degree angle so that I was facing my wheel dogs. And we would go like that for a while, until eventually my sled would catch an edge and I’d either be pushed back into place behind my team, or be flipped and rolled onto the ice. But the dogs were patient. Jeff had given me Moose from his team, a multi-time Iditarod finisher and a good partner for Knox. The two of them held the trail easily, despite my crazy sled driving. But eventually I tired. I hadn’t eaten or drank much at the cabin. Our food stores were low, and I thought I’d be getting out of the wilderness in some more gentle way – not on the back of my dog sled, mushing through the Blowhole. I stupidly did not use the last 24 hours to take better care of myself. After one particularly hard crash, I motioned to the snowmachine that had been following me. Michael pulled up next to me. “Ride next to me and try to block the wind for a bit,” I suggested. That worked for awhile, but still I was getting rolled; slammed onto the ice. Soon I handed my snowhook to the Michael. “Hook this to your running board.” He did, and I could finally relax a little bit. The wind gusts still hit my sled, but now I was held upright, attached to the weight of his machine.
At some point the wind died altogether, and I removed my hook from behind Michael’s foot. I could now cruise into Safety unassisted. Unfortunately the mush from the end of the Blowhole to Safety is terribly, terribly boring. Later I would describe this section of the trail like this: “When I was in the Blowhole, I thought I was going to die, it was so difficult. Then when the Blowhole was over, I wanted to die because it was so boring.” Once in Safety, my mood was not improved. My hands and feet were cold. We were seriously going to have to mush to Nome, but I had checked out of this race a long time ago. “Try to make the best of it,” Jeff said. “We’re going to Nome!” I took a breath and went inside to put heat packs in my boots.
Upon leaving, Melissa suggested that we shoot straight across Safety Sound towards Cape Nome, cutting off several miles of the official Iditarod trail. Fine by me. In doing so, we charted a course directly into the setting sun. I put in my ear buds and tuned into the playlist I had made specifically for Iditarod. And just like that, my mood changed. This was my final run of this amazing journey, and it was a gorgeous evening. No wind, zero degrees, setting sun in a bluebird sky. The all-white, treeless landscape of western Alaskan glowed with pink and orange. Small cottages and fishing shacks dotted the horizon outside of Safety. Some really incredible people live here, I thought. Tough people. And today I got to be one of them, too.
I made a conscious effort then to recall each leg of my Iditarod journey. The easy and straight-forward river runs to Yentna and Skwenta. The reality of I’m running in the fucking Iditarod! finally hitting me somewhere on the way to Finger Lake. The wildness of the Steps. Chippewa saving the day in that flat morning light of Rainy Pass. The thrill of the Gorge. The beauty of the Burn. The moguls on the way to Nikolai, and the crazy blizzard on the way to McGrath. Chippewa saving the day there again. That guy in Takotna who was somehow awake at 4:30 am to hand me a sack lunch. The remote and familiar country of Ophir and Cripple. Losing my team coming into Ruby. The endlessness of the Yukon River. Another beautiful sunset leaving Kaltag. So much ice upon reaching Unalakleet. So much more ice to come after. And the coast. It had been brutal and beautiful. It had been challenging. It had fully beaten me, but somehow I was still here: mushing to Nome.
In my heart I kissed my husband, just ahead of me up the trail. Maybe I blamed him for getting me into that mess in the Topkoks, but I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to be in it without him. And I looked at my own beautiful team, lined out before me, trotting nice and smooth as could be. No trace of fatigue or sourness or doubt. This certainly wasn’t how I pictured my race ending, but it was a fine ending nonetheless. My team and I were safe and healthy, and genuinely happy.
Mike Owens picked us up at a road crossing a few miles outside of Nome. The truck bed was tiny for our 17 dogs but somehow we made it work. Knox and Moose went in the truck cab, and the other 15 dogs plus Jeff and I rode in the bed. Not for the first time in the last 36 hours did I thank my lucky stars to have such a good crew. Their ability to go with the flow and get along under stress had been crucial to so much of what we had asked them to do these past couple days. I gave Braavos (our most aggressive boy) a pat on the head and a scratch under the chin. Iditarod number five in the books for him. For me, this had been my first. And what a hell of a First. No, I thought. It probably wouldn’t be my last.
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