No musher has ever died during the Iditarod. As a matter of fact, I have never heard of a musher dying during any dogsled race. 

It’s amazing to think about considering the terrain and weather we endure for up to 14 days in the wilderness of Alaska. Temperatures of minus 60 degrees, 40mph winds, narrow tree-lined switchbacks, glare ice and open water are all constant threats, not to mention the chance encounter with a moose.

This isn’t to say mushers haven’t come close to mushing their final mile during the race. Mushers have broken arms, legs, and clavicles during races. 

A few years back, a musher even sustained a serious concussion that forced him to withdraw from another race. Less than halfway into this edition of the Iditarod Jeff King trumpeted his awareness of the knife’s edge musher’s can walk at times.

“I keep close tabs on making sure I don’t kick the bucket out here," King said.

Just this year, shortly after leaving the Ophir checkpoint, Jeff and Larry Daugherty mushed into the teeth of a relentless storm that hasn’t been seen during this stage of the race in years.

Iditarod Insider Bruce Lee referred to the storm as being “coastal storm hard.” Those aren’t words thrown around lightly in the mushing world as the coast is renowned for fierce storms. These are storms that can catapult a team to victory like Libby Riddles in 1985, or knock them out like King in 2014.

These storms are as legendary as the race itself and while they haven’t claimed the life of a racer, they have taken the lives of too many people who travel these trails as part of their daily lives. 

It wasn’t until I felt the power of one of these storms in 2015 did I truly understand the power. Day or night when these storms rage you can feel helpless and lost.

In the Iditarod checkpoint Jeff spoke of the impact of the blowing snow and having zero reference as to where things were or where he was during the storm after leaving Ophir.

Without the protection of trees any track left by teams or snow machines are quickly obliterated by drifts. If the team steps off the hard pack trail they wallow in deep snow searching to find the trail again. It is an exhausting game of wandering, zig zagging back and forth searching for the trail that used to exist between the reflective trail markers. 

There gets to be a point when either trail markers or the trail itself is no longer visible and you start to question the sense in inching forward vs. stopping and waiting out the storm.

Rarely in recent years have snowshoes been used even though they are a required piece of gear, but as the trail disappeared this year at least one musher became the lead dog and lead his team. It’s not ideal to be the lead dog as we are not the athlete.

It’s exhausting enough as a musher to be constantly straining to see the trail and trail markers when you can barely see the wheel dogs directly in front of the dogsled. It has to be doubly exhausting for the lead dogs who are looking, smelling and feeling for that very same trail. 

This time both King and Daugherty erred on the side of stopping and waiting for the storm to calm before proceeding to Iditarod.

It had to be an interesting night for Jeff as later in the race he spoke about what was going through his head. 

“I admit I did think about it. There were moments. Just the little guy in your head, three-quarters of you is just trying to get out of what you're in and one-quarter is going hmm, well, you never know this could go sour and this could be where Jeff spends his last night. And what a place. I always tell tourists if I’m going to croak, it might as well be on the Iditarod sometime.”

Jeff wasn’t exaggerating in his analysis. I’ve walked in his boots after being stuck in a similar ground blizzard on the Bering Sea for nearly 24 hours and thinking I wasn’t going to get a chance to walk away. 

I remember how the wind flung snow into my face like darts. Anywhere I had a zipper, velcro or a flap the snow somehow worked its way through the most minuscule crack and packed tightly against the layers of clothing beneath.

I strained to see the trail or markers through the wall of snow lit up like a neon light by my headlamp. When I finally gave into exhaustion I curled my team up into a ball in the lee of my sled and then burrowed down in the sled bag inside my sleeping bag and shivered as the wind ripped away every bit of heat left in my body. 

It was scary listening to the wind just howl constantly. It was like the sound of an infinitely long freight train racing by. Then a rogue gust would hit the sled broadside, tipping it and me up on one runner. I made my peace that night on the ice and was prepared to spend an infinite sleep there on the Iditarod trail.

To this day I will never underestimate the power of the wind and storms that Alaska can conjure. For the mushers this year they may have persevered through the snow and winds of the interior, but now they must be prepared to re-up their battle should the coastal winds resurrect themselves.

Bryan Bearss trained Iditarod race teams full time from 2003 to 2009 and raced the Iditarod in 2006 and 2015. He is currently an elementary school teacher and marathon canoe racer.

Opinions expressed are those of the author and not of KTVA 11 News.

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