Circle checker Andy Pace, left, counts the dogs in Allen Moore's team as he prepares to sign out and leave Circle on Saturday, Feb. 9, 2013. Moore lead Tok musher Hugh Neff into the checkpoint by three minutes. Neff rested for three and a half hours before pressing on to Central. Moore left two hours behind Neff. Photo by Sam Harrel/Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.
CENTRAL — The leaders in the Yukon Quest are still in front and the second tier is still behind. But the gap between the two is getting tighter.
While Hugh Neff and Allen Moore continue to lead the pack in the Yukon Quest, the next two mushers, Jake Berkowitz and Brent Sass, have steadily sliced time off their lead in the past few days.
The fate of those teams, as it often does on the Quest, could be determined on Eagle Summit. The 3,685-foot-high summit is up next, the most treacherous peak in the race.
As Hugh Neff pulled first into Central at 10:27 p.m. Saturday, he admitted Eagle Summit has been on his mind.
Two years ago, after arriving first in Dawson, his Quest unraveled here.
After a failed ascent in brutal weather, his dog Geronimo died. Neff never finished the race.
“I’m completely nervous,” he said. “It’s just a mountain, but it’s a mountain I have a lot of history with. ...I don’t care what place I come in, I’ve just got to get over this mountain.”
Neff said he’d take extra rest and food stops before tackling the summit.
Brent Sass, meanwhile, who departed Circle in fourth place, also has a history on Eagle Summit. While others have struggled, he’s built a reputation in the Quest’s high country for tirelessly rescuing mushers in distress.
Sass was cagey about his plans for the second half of the race while in Eagle but said there wasn’t any reason to hide them by the time he’d reached Circle. He’s going to make his move on Eagle Summit. There are already reports of blowing snow atop the 3,685-foot summit, but in his seventh Quest, Sass said he’s not concerned.
“You have to have respect for that mountain, but I’m not afraid of it,” he said.
Both Sass and Berkowitz made it into Circle on Saturday as Moore was preparing to depart, an encouraging development for mushers who have rarely encountered Moore and Neff on the trail.
“We were 10-12 hours behind in Dawson,” Sass said. “Now we’re in Circle, right here with these guys.”
Berkowitz said he wasn’t concerned about anything but the performance of his own team for the rest of the race and figures Sass isn’t giving him much thought, either.
“I don’t think Brent’s looking at me,” Berkowitz said. “I think he’s looking at Hugh. He’s got a team that can win it.”
Two days after one of his dogs died during the Dawson layover, Berkowitz sounded as if he’d be taking a cautious approach the rest of the way. Although the death of General, a 2-year-old male, wasn’t linked to race stress by Quest veterinarians, Berkowitz said several times that he’d be paying close attention to cues from his dogs.
Although he ran the race last year, Berkowitz said he feels like a rookie again. Running the Whitehorse-to-Fairbanks route has been a new experience.
He’s run a tightly scripted race so far, barely deviating from the plan in his race sled, but Berkowitz said he’s prepared to move to Plan B if a win appears possible in the final stages.
“If there’s a shot at winning this race and my dogs are up for it, we’re definitely going to go for it,” he said.
Although Moore closely trailed Neff heading into Central, Berkowitz said Neff has been dazzling while remaining in front for most of the Quest.
“He’s running a great race,” he said. “If he continues to run it, it’s going to be a pretty incredible win.”