Three Mushers, One Impenetrable Blizzard, And The World's Hardest Dog Sled Race

Three Mushers, One Impenetrable Blizzard, And The World's Hardest Dog Sled Race
Illustration: Angelica Alzona (G/O Media)
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Everything was going to be decided within the next five minutes. Three mushers and their dog teams were on top of Eagle Summit, a 3,685-foot tall gap that runs through the White Mountains in central Alaska. They were stuck in a blizzard, huddled together with their dogs as winds up to 40 miles an hour mercilessly dumped snow on them, making it impossible to see anything more than a few feet away.

The mushers, Rob Cooke, Andy Pace, and Jason Biasetti, had come to the Alaskan wilderness to participate in the 2019 Yukon Quest, an annual nearly 1,000-mile dog sledding race that runs between Fairbanks, Alaska, and Whitehorse, Yukon. The Quest’s defining feature is that it is much more remote and much less commercialized than the Iditarod—there are only 10 checkpoints at the Yukon Quest, compared to 25 at the Iditarod—which is another way of saying that it’s far more treacherous.

By the time the three mushers reached Eagle Summit, they had already traveled 850 miles through the snowy Canadian and Alaskan wilds, and had just 136 miles and three checkpoints—Mile 101, Two Rivers, and Fairbanks—left in front of them. They had already spent about 11 days willing themselves and their dogs through the snow and the cold, and months of training and preparing before that. But up on Eagle Summit, their journey was on the brink of collapse.

There were more immediate concerns to think about, though, the main one being getting the hell out of the blizzard. That goal could be reached a few ways: They could turn around and go back the way they came, ending their race prematurely; they could forge ahead and try to find the next trail marker in the blinding white; or, if either of those options failed, they could be airlifted off Eagle Summit, as six mushers and seven dog teams were during the 2006 Yukon Quest.

Finishing the Yukon Quest is never easy, but the conditions these mushers found themselves battling on Eagle Summit threatened to turn an arduous journey into an impossible one. They were at one of the most difficult points in the race, dealing with the most punishing weather imaginable. The situation couldn’t have been worse.

The trio considered their options, then gave themselves five minutes to figure something out.

Rob Cooke leads his dogs through the storm.
Rob Cooke leads his dogs through the storm.
Photo: Seth Adams

The Yukon Quest was started in 1984 by four mushers—Roger Williams, Leroy Shank, Ron Rosser and William “Willy” Lipps—who wanted a race that adhered to the roots of dog sledding history. The idea had been floated in the 1970s, but some people were not sure the Quest was possible. As Shank put it to Newsminer in 2015: “We wanted more of a Bush experience, a race that would put a little woodsmanship into it.” They wanted to create an international race that would largely follow the Yukon River and retrace the path of the 1898 Gold Rush to Klondike (and subsequent gold rushes).

Today, the Quest winds its way up through the Yukon and Alaskan wilderness, passing villages and remote houses along the way. The middle point is historic Dawson City, the capital of the Klondike Gold Rush, filled with casinos, dance halls, hotels, banks, and luxurious shopping back in the day. It was even once called “The Paris of the North.” The first musher to Dawson City wins a few ounces of gold, a nice nod to the city’s heritage.

The first race was won by Sonny Lindner in 12 days and 5 minutes; the fastest finish was by Allen Moore in 2004 in 8 days, 14 hours, 21 minutes. Aliy Zirkle was the first woman to win the race in 2000. The closest finish was in 2012, when Hugh Neff beat Allen Moore by only 26 seconds.

The Yukon Quest is a smaller and younger race than the Iditarod. The latter is better known and is much more commercialized, bringing bigger sponsors and media attention. There’s also a bigger prize for mushers who win or place high enough. It therefore attracts greater numbers of mushers: the Iditarod had 52 mushers participate this year while the Quest had 30. Some feel that the focus on money in the Iditarod has moved it away from the real stars of the show: the dogs and the mushers themselves.

While the Yukon Quest and Iditarod are each about 1,000 miles, Cooke noted some significant differences. The Quest begins the first week in February, whereas the Iditarod starts the first week of March. This puts the Quest in a much colder and darker part of the year. Because there are fewer checkpoints in the Quest, there are longer distances between checkpoints—the largest is 210 miles between Pelly Crossing and Dawson City. For the Iditarod, 85 miles is the largest distance between checkpoints, Kaltag and Unalakleet. “On the Quest you can literally go days without seeing another team,” Cooke said. “On the 2015 Quest I left Dawson, unbeknownst to me, in last place as every other team behind me had scratched, I did not see another dog team the whole race—550 miles.”

What unites the two races is that mushers and dogs endure bone-chilling temperatures, ice and snow obstacles, blizzards, crushing winds, illnesses and injuries. Mushers frequently camp out on the trail in these conditions, but are perpetually sleep deprived, only grabbing a few hours each day. Many mushers will run the races several times and spend their lives focusing on training their dogs. The race also is one of few sporting events where men and women race against each other.

On the day of the race, the temperature dropped to -32 degrees, so cold that frost formed on eyelashes and exposed hair. The starting line was adjacent to the Yukon River, which periodically steamed from the changes in temperature. A giant chute, covered in banners from sponsors, marked the start line for the mushers. Each musher would pull up their sled with their line of 8 to 14 dogs, where handlers and other volunteers would keep the sled still until the countdown to departure finished.

Those hands holding the sled line are necessary, because inside the chute the dogs go nuts. They jump forward, howl, bark, and raise all kinds of hell because they want to go, now. Once the sled leaves the chute, those dogs quiet down and begin the hard work of pulling the sled. The sidelines are filled with adoring fans howling, clapping, and cheering on the mushers and their dogs. Every two minutes, the next musher comes up to the chute and the cacophony begins again, until all 30 have begun their nearly 1,000 mile trek.

The first checkpoint was at the Braeburn Roadhouse, known for its dinner-plate sized cinnamon rolls and posters from prior Yukon Quests on the walls. Volunteers for the race, handlers, and spectators awaited the mushers coming in. Everything was subsumed in an icy fog while an aurora borealis began forming overhead.

The temperature made it impossible to be outside for much more than a few minutes, which onlookers spend waiting near the trail, hoping to see one of the mushers come in. It was dark save for the lights from the Roadhouse and a few cars. Sometimes people warmed ourselves by the giant fire pit next to the trail, hoping to regain some feeling in frozen toes and other limbs. Then someone would yell “Musher!” and as if summoned by a magic spell, everyone would see a musher and his or her team of dogs pull up to the checkpoint. Even there, the dogs were champing at the bit, though ready for food and some rest.

Brent Sass, a veteran 39-year old musher who came into this year’s race with a Quest victory already under his belt, stopped by the Roadhouse about 11:30 that night, on his way to winning again. In 2013, he described the trek over Eagle Summit as “the essence of this race.” Cooke and his crew of mushers were about to find out exactly what Sass meant by that.

Cooke, a 52-year old veteran musher and former UK navy technician and engineering officer, heard that a storm was on its way when he reached the seventh checkpoint of the race. The road across Eagle Summit was going to be closed to all traffic, so handlers had to leave before the storm to get to the next checkpoint at Mile 101.

His first instinct was fear. “I started getting really concerned and scared. I don’t really want to face this,” Cooke said. He immediately thought of the 2017 Yukon Quest, during which he’d gotten caught in “a gale force storm” on Rosebud Summit. Cooke described it as “a hellish place to be. It is completely exposed and you are on top of the summit, climbing and going around four or five different peaks for about two miles.” He ended up getting dragged under his sled while the dogs kept going off the trail. He didn’t want to go through something like that again.

“For me, my biggest fear was the wind. Not so much the snow. If the snow is coming down heavily, you can still go marker to marker and if you have to, you can walk out in front of the team,” he said. “With strong winds, you don’t know how you are going to react, you don’t know how the dogs will react. So that was my initial fear. Having that wind on top of Eagle Summit made it even more daunting.” He noted that a dog had died on the same trail in 2011, but he was not going to let that happen to his dog or anyone else’s dogs.

To increase his chances at success, Cooke started making plans with Pace to attack the summit and the storm together. “Rob had done it before,” Pace said. “He has a level head. I’ve only been down Eagle Summit twice the other way. It was a no brainer for me trying to seek out someone with experience going up. I was really glad he was game for it.” Cooke and his dogs had traversed the summit several times; this was his sixth Yukon Quest.

Deke Naaktgeboren navigates his way through the whiteout
Deke Naaktgeboren navigates his way through the whiteout
Photo: Seth Adams

They left the checkpoint at 4:00 a.m., when it was still dark but the sky was clear; Cooke with 12 dogs and Pace with 11. The weather was 20 degrees with light wind and no snow; reports suggested the storm might bypass them. Cooke and Pace were skeptical, but they decided that this might be their window to get over the summit. They also heard that there was knee-deep overflow—a phenomena that occurs when water accumulates under snow and above ice—only 20 miles or so past the checkpoint.

They managed the overflow well enough, and began making their ascent at about 7:00 a.m. They first laid eyes on the summit when they were about five or six miles away, and that’s also where they encountered their first sign of trouble. As it began snowing, Cooke and Pace could hear the wind howling down from the terrain above them. “As soon as we heard the wind, I knew we were going to hit the storm,” Cooke said. Ahead of them waited higher elevations and stronger gusts.

While they were working their way up the tree line, navigating with headlamps in the dark, they met Jason Biasetti, a 43-year old rookie musher who had left around 2:00 a.m. with eight dogs to make the ascent. Up until that point, he’d had a mostly pleasant if dark journey through the early morning hours. Biasetti said his initial climb was “really nice,” and that his dogs “looked really good and felt really good.” But then they turned a corner on the summit and hit a “ferocious wind.” Near the top, the wind was blowing at 34 miles an hour, throwing snow down the slope into their faces.

Biasetti and his dogs had almost made it, but couldn’t find the next set of trail markers because the reflectors had frozen. Biasetti had been through wind storms before, but nothing like this. He decided to try to descend to the tree line when he saw that some of his two-year-old dogs were starting to get nervous about the wind. He took his team down a little bit and put the dogs all into a pile, used the sled to protect them from the wind, and hunkered down with them to figure out the next steps. At that point, he was in a complete whiteout. “Nature at its meanest,” he explained. “You felt how ferocious nature can come at you.”

But Biasetti noticed how calm his dogs were, so he felt calm. “That’s when I knew the relationship I had with my dogs,” he said. “They were nervous but they never lost their trust in me. They never tried to turn around. They trusted that I was going to get them out of the situation.” He decided to head to the tree line to get them out of the wind storm.

On his way, he met up with Cooke and Pace, who were climbing the mountain just as it was getting light around 9:00 a.m. Biasetti knew that Cooke and his team had done this climb numerous times before, so he stopped and asked the pair if they were planning on “going for it.” When they answered that they were going to try, Biasetti turned his team around to get behind Pace’s.

The three teams continued their climb up Eagle Summit together. Once they had made it past the tree line, they faced a quarter of a mile of steep, exposed climbing. They turned right upon reaching the plateau, where they got to enjoy a couple hundred yards of flat terrain. Finally, a left turn led them into the steepest part of the climb, and that’s when the blizzard brought its full weight down on them.

The snow began falling in earnest, obliterating the trail over the summit. Cooke’s team was in front, leading the way and breaking through the snow to create a new trail. Sometimes it was hard packed, but other times the mushers found themselves in thigh-deep drifts, needing to hop off their sleds and lead their teams of dogs from the front. In the whiteout and howling wind, Cooke could only see Pace’s team. The only way they could communicate was by shouting over the wind; Cooke would yell to Pace, and Pace would relay the words to Biasetti, and vice versa.

In order to make sure the three teams stayed on the path, Cooke had to get off his sled and undertake a grueling, painstaking routine. He’d walk about 15 feet ahead of the group—any farther and he’d risk losing sight of them—then find the next trail marker and return to his sled to lead everyone to the marker. His dogs would curl into balls and wait for him when he left, and jump up, shake off the snow, and get ready to move when he returned. During one trip out, Cooke found a ski pole that had been lost by another musher the night before. He used it as an additional marker so he could walk a little farther. He repeated this process of stopping the dogs, walking out to the marker, and then walking back about five or six times.

In the middle of all this, Cooke experienced one surreal moment of calm. He remembers being on the trail, near the top of the summit, and looking at his team and Pace’s team and feeling completely at ease. In that moment, he claims he couldn’t even feel the wind anymore. He remembers thinking, “There’s nothing to be afraid of.”

Cooke was amazed at how the dogs performed. He explained that sometimes when dogs are facing a terrible challenge, like a steep slope and wind, they try to turn around and go back. But his dogs never tried. “I was still amazed how they would curl up in a ball and just wait,” he said. “The moment I was ready to move again, they’d get up and start shouting and charge up to the next marker. Then they’d curl up and wait. I was amazed how well they did.”

Throughout the process, all three mushers were constantly monitoring each other’s dogs. The temperature was a pleasant 20 degrees, but the wind was howling it at 40-plus miles an hour. After a few chats, Cooke and Pace decided that they couldn’t go on indefinitely, and that they needed to get out of the wind as soon as possible. They decided that they if they couldn’t find the next marker in five minutes, they would turn back and get the dogs off the mountain. This would mean scratching from the race. Cooke knew they were close to the top, possibly one marker away, but the dogs were their responsibility.

Turning a sled and dog team around is not an easy proposition in the best of circumstances; the trio of mushers would have to carefully turn each team around while dealing with the weather and excitable dogs who are well trained to keep moving forward, not backwards.

So Cooke made his last trek forward, leaving his team behind. He remembers feeling the wind gusts drop momentarily, at which point he saw something surprising: a lone figure that had, as Cooke put it later, “appeared out of the whiteness.” The figure was a photographer named Seth Adams, who had come to the top of the mountain to shoot photos of the Quest.

“What the hell are you doing here?” asked Cooke.

Adams told Cooke who he was, and then said something that the veteran musher had been desperate to hear: “You are almost to the top.”

Then the gusts dropped again, and Cooke could then see the final marker.

Adams had heard about the storm before heading up to the summit, but he enjoyed an easier mode of transportation than was available to the mushers. He approached from the opposite side of the trail on a snowmobile, and then walked to the top.

“It was all white everywhere,” he said. “I could see my feet, but that was it. Sometimes I’d see a blade of grass poking through the snow. It was really kind of reassuring.” While standing in the whiteness, Adams heard shouts coming from Cooke and the other mushers. He decided to walk towards the source of the sound, and stumbled upon Cooke in his bright orange coat.

Adams was exactly the savior Cooke and his crew needed. Because he had come up Eagle Summit from the opposite side, he could tell the mushers exactly where they needed to go. “Our experiences were quite different. They were really close to the exit but didn’t know where the exit was,” said Adams. “I had come in through the exit door.”

Just a few minutes later, Cooke’s group became a beacon for yet another wayward musher. Deke Naaktgeboren and his seven dogs had also been trying to navigate Eagle Summit, zigzagging through the snow, trying desperately to find those trail markers. He kept moving, though, because he knew that the others were out there. “I knew that Rob and Andy had holed up somewhere or at Mile 101,” he said. “If they can do it, I can do it too.”

Naaktgeboren found the others because he started hearing the low barks of a dog, which turned out to be one of Cooke’s that has a very distinct bark. So he followed the sound, which gave him the confidence to keep going. He relied on his lead dog, Jasmine or “Jazz,” to keep the sled moving in the right direction. He kept telling her to “haw,” or go left towards the sound of the other dogs.

Pace and Biasetti could hear Naaktgeboren calling out directions, and they started calling to Jazz as well to direct her towards them. They managed to get Naaktgeboren’s team lined up behind Biasetti’s team just in time for them to all finish ascent of Eagle Summit. Once at the top, they knew they were going to make it through the storm.

As they made their way down the summit, the conditions improved. The wind was still blowing hard, but not as bad as during their climb up the mountain. Spirits were high as they made their way to Mile 101. Pace described the four of them “hooting and hollering” as they went down the mountain. Naaktgeboren explained the emotional rush: “We all felt like bad asses. We just felt like we conquered Everest or something. Obviously, the dogs were incredible and I think we were all still amazed at what our dogs did.”

The mushers make their way to Mile 101 after getting over Eagle Summit
The mushers make their way to Mile 101 after getting over Eagle Summit
Photo: Seth Adams

The windstorm continued even after they got into the checkpoint. The four mushers and another musher at Mile 101 helped construct barriers with sleds, wood, and snow to help protect the dogs from the wind, and the mushers hunkered down to wait out the storm. Pace said they spent about 21 hours at the checkpoint waiting for the storm to pass. During that time, the mushers fed the dogs, enjoyed eggs and bacon, and slept in six-hour cycles. Mushers, especially toward the end of the race, are very sleep deprived, not getting more than a few hours any given night. Pace explained that they slept on cots in an arctic oven tent that was heated with a propane tank; the tent was pummeled throughout their time at Mile 101 by the wind. Once the weather cleared up it was on to Rosebud Summit, and then the finish line in Fairbanks.

The four mushers continued on and finished the race: Naaktgeboren in 16th place, Biasetti in 17th, Pace in 18th, and Cooke in 19th.  Cooke described the whole experience as “The worst conditions I’d ever been in.”

At the Finish & Awards Banquet in Fairbanks, Brent Sass awarded Cooke The Sportsmanship Award for his actions on Eagle Summit. Sass had won the award himself in 2009 for leading another team off the same summit. The award is voted on by the mushers and the prize is a handcrafted beaver-lined hat. During his acceptance speech, Cooke cut a humble figure. “It wasn’t just me up there. Everybody who was there would have done exactly the same thing as me,” he said.

The other three mushers didn’t have any problems holding back praise for Cooke. “If one of the rest of us had been up there, it wouldn’t have been bad but it would have been more floundering,” Pace said. He praised Cooke’s humility and modesty for his role in their adventure: “We all looked to him as our leader from the get-go.” Biasetti described Cooke as the lead dog of the group that reached the summit.

But Biasetti went on to emphasize that the dogs were the true heroes of the journey. “We get the interviews but it’s them,” he said. “They curled up in that storm, while we tried to figure out stuff. That’s the most incredible thing that I remember from that. Their durability, the trust those dogs had in us that we’d get them out. That’s the most emotional adventure. A bunch of dogs, lying down, so they are covered in snow, and we’d say, ‘Are you guys ready?’ And they get up and shake themselves off and were ready to go through the storm. That is the most beautiful connection that you’ll ever find.”

Pace agreed with Biasetti: “Our dogs are at the bottom of everything that happens, and every inch we moved forward was because they wanted to.”

Elisa Shoenberger is a freelance writer and journalist in Chicago. She has written for the Boston Globe, Chicago Reader, Book Riot, Curbed Chicago, Best Lawyers, and other publications. When she isn’t obsessing about dogsledding, she plays alto saxophone and makes cheese.