As you may have heard by now, the musher who won this year’s Quest300 and bested the harrowing Eagle Summit storm was in his first race. “This was never a race I thought I was going to win. I had no idea if we were gonna go 150 miles and those guys (the dogs) weren’t gonna get up.” claims Brent Sass, who now knows better. We sat down recently and Sass described his first race, including the storm on Eagle Summit. Up to the 101-mile dog drop, conditions had been passable, although overflow was a problem. Coming up Rosebud, the team had enough power that Sass, who jogged the ascent, picked up two 10-lbs. slabs of meat that had been discarded by Quest mushers. Once above treeline, Sass snacked his dogs (see photo), and experienced his “Rocky (Balboa) moment” when Chena Hot Springs pilot Zach Knaebel buzzed tourists so close that they made eye contact with Sass. It was a date that Knaebel and Sass had arranged one week earlier (noon on Rosebud), and Sass was right on schedule. He dropped off of Rosebud and rested the dogs as he watched heavy clouds consume the summits behind and ahead.Coming through the 101-mile dog drop, Sass counted the only four teams ahead of him in the yard and realized that if he could push over the summit and stay on schedule, he would have a good chance of winning the race. With the wind at his back, he dropped two dogs and blew through the yard. Soon, treeline was left behind, winds increased, and the ascent on Eagle Summit became progressively more insane. But the winds remained consistently from behind, and Sass “never got off the runners once going up to Eagle Summit.” The trail was well-marked, and the dogs – with Silver (named after local microbrew “Silver Gulch”) in the lead – wanted to pull through the conditions. At that point, Sass encountered a musher coming down off the summit, one who had turned around at the top after reportedly seeing Phil Joy and Jennifer Cochrane drop off the backside. The musher communicated the severity of the conditions, but Sass kept ascending, one marker at a time, until he spotted a headlight behind him that turned out to be two-time Iditarod finisher Randy Chappel. Sass was grateful for the company of a stranger, knowing that, “In this situation, two is better than one.”At this very moment (11:30 pm Sunday night), less than one mile away, I was stranded in my car, on the road, at Eagle Summit. I had aspirations of photographing mushers as they crested the summit that night, but that plan was now beyond optimistic. The drifting snow, zero visibility, and gale-force winds granted me my desert island. About that time, Brent’s dad, Mark Sass, crept up to the pass in the dog truck and invited me to join the small caravan of handlers.Mark, who broke trail on snowmachine for last year’s Quest, was Brent’s handler for this year’s Quest300. He and I had watched at the 101-mile dog drop as teams came through and conditions deteriorated. As I sat in my shaking car at the pass, I wondered how any musher could make it through under the prevailing conditions. What Mark and I didn’t know, was that at that moment Brent was cresting Eagle Summit. Brent has been mushing for three years now, and a couple seasons working with Trail Breaker Kennel afforded him a glimpse of the experience and skill necessary to be a competitive musher. Both winters included 1500+ miles behind the dogs, and a speedy 700-mile training run from Manley to Nome last year. Brent is currently training and giving mushing tours and tutorials out at Chena Hot Springs Resort. His dog yard – Wild and Free Mushing – now numbers 28 strong, with lineage from Trail Breaker Kennel and Goldstream Valley resident Kurt Wold. Six of Sass’s twelve dogs in the race, including leaders Silver and Madonna, were direct descendents from Wold’s bloodline. Back on the Quest trail at Eagle Summit, Silver and Madonna followed Chappel’s team marker-by-marker the remaining distance to the crest, before dropping off the back edge into oblivion. At this point, the wind direction changed from consistently behind to swirling. Immediately they lost the trail markers and Chappel’s team got tangled. They decided to turn the teams around and travel back to the top for a trail marker, but Chappel’s team wouldn’t follow. They decided to hunker down. As they settled in, rookie Quest musher Regina Wycoff of Healy came by and convinced them to brave the conditions and continue down the face. “That is why we went down the mountain,” Sass recounts. “She never had a downer moment out there.” All three mushers proceeded down, with Silver in the lead. It was 30 yards at a time, with no trail and no visibility. The three mushers – strangers before meeting each other moments earlier on top of the mountain – now stuck closely together. Still well above treeline, the trail entered a rocky section and Sass, still leading, decided to walk ahead and see what awaited them. “I don’t know if there are any cliffs on Eagle Summit or not, but at this point there could be anything.” Once below the teams and out of sight, he heard commotion carried to him in the gusts. Little did he know, Sass’s dogs had pulled the snow hook and were headed down the mountain. As he looked through the darkness, wondering what the problem was, he saw his team through the blowing snow, and Silver veered sharply, bringing the team to him. “I love you Silver!” Sass yelled through the blizzard.As they descended through the blizzard, at some point Sass recalls seeing Chappel’s headlight assume a low bouncing trajectory for a considerable distance. Chappel was hanging on. Eventually the light stopped in the darkness. Despite a valiant effort, his team had gotten away. All three mushers were deeply concerned about the dogs, but they realized after a futile search that they needed to get to Central for everyone’s safety. Wycoff rode double with Chappel for miles after that, while Silver broke trail ahead. Silver managed to find the Quest trail after somehow descending into the correct valley. Sass is quick to admit that this outcome was a combination of an experienced and unstoppable lead dog, and a good bit of luck. Pouring over the map later, he has only a vague idea of where they traveled.Because the trail was continually disappearing in deep and extensive overflow, Sass reports, “It was stressful all the way to Central.” The group of three mushers and two teams pushed on. Although cold, Chappel remained willing and active in his own rescue, handling the emotional trauma of the situation with remarkable composure. After a considerable distance with Chappel, Wycoff decided to rush ahead to Central and sound the alarm, leaving Chappel to ride with Sass the remainder of the way. After a short wait, Sass and Chappel decided to go for it. Crossing one of the countless sections of overflow, Silver found the correct trail where Wycoff’s team had erred. As a result, Sass and Chappel made Central before Wycoff, at which point it became clear that many teams were unaccounted for. Silver and the team, with Sass at the helm, had completed a 12-hour, all-night, 45-mile run. Meanwhile, Denny and the snow plow arrived to escort my Subaru to the stranded dog trucks (including Wild and Free’s Mark Sass), and eventually down to Central. Brent greeted us upon our arrival, having beaten us by five hours.Roland Waldispuehl arrived in Central six hours behind Sass, and Waldispuehl had traversed the summit alone. As Sass said, “He had his own crazy story.” Indeed, Waldispuehl thought he was returning to 101-mile from an unsuccessful summit crossing, when he encountered a group of snowmachine rescuers who informed him that in fact, he was on the trail to Central. Not all mushers were as lucky as Sass and Waldispuehl, and several had to be airlifted from Eagle Summit or nearby valleys. Fortunately, all mushers and dogs survived the ordeal. With the Summit drama behind him, the rest of the race contained merely the background noise of wilderness dog-mushing: fatigue, paranoia, a broken sled, overflow, and the like. Amidst those obstacles however, Sass recalls serene moments on Birch Creek, “The moon was out, the northern lights were out, and the dogs were movin’.” The run out of Central was 10-hours, followed by another 10-hour run to the finish, winning him the qualifier.Upon learning that dogs from his yard had broken trail over Eagle Summit, Kurt Wold purportedly felt like “a proud father.” And if I remember Kurt correctly, he’s not much for current events, but I’ll bet he’s got a few newspapers from this year’s Quest squirreled away. Sass had faced storms of similar magnitude on Norton Sound, but the steep topography and swirling winds of Eagle Summit made this a more severe situation. Sass attributes much of his success to maintaining a positive attitude with the dogs, something Kurt Wold has stressed repeatedly. “The positive energy between me and the dogs the whole race is what totally saved us,” says Sass. “I never let them know that we were in any peril.” Ken Tape is a lifelong Alaskan scientist and photographer. He currently lives in Goldstream Valley, outside of Fairbanks. www.arcticcirclephoto.com.
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