INTERVIEW: EMIL INAUEN: MOUNTAIN CLIMBER TURNED MUSHER

Mountain Climber Turned MusherWith a second place in last year’s La Grande Odyssee in France, Swiss musher Emil Inauen has sights set on that race and the Wyoming Stage Stop Sled Dog Race this year.Emil Inauen started working with sled dogs in 1991 in Canada where he was working for a touring company and guest ranch. Originally going there to work with horses, he was pulled towards the lure of sled dogs. After this initial window into the world of sled dogs, Emil took a side road to travel the world and climb mountains. Emil eventually became a full time, professional mountain climber, but stayed interested in sled dogs, sometimes combining his two passions. In 1996, he brought some of those touring dogs he had worked with in Canada to Europe. He headed an expedition using those dogs to traverse the Alps with a small team in 2000. “All my knowledge of mountain climbing, safety, and survival definitely helped with that expedition.” The traverse started at the Swiss/Italian border, crossed over the Alps and ended up on the North border of Switzerland. Following no trail at all, the trip totaled 760 miles and took 12 days. “I still have those dogs’ photos on my wall. They were very special dogs for me.” Emil states.During this time, Emil was still 100% a professional mountaineer and guide, and his wife Barbara took care of the dogs while he was away bagging peaks and dreaming big. One of his big dreams was to climb to the peak of Mt. St. Elias in southeast Alaska, and ski down. The expedition, complete with doctors, local guides, photographers, sponsors, film crews, etc., formed in Europe then reconvened here in Alaska. “The morning before we were to leave Anchorage for the climb, I went out for a jog, tripped over the sidewalk and broke two bones in my ankle and foot. The whole expedition ended before it started at 5:30 am that morning. It is still a plan of mine; however I don’t know if I’ll reach it in this life.” Emil states as he goes on to describe his family – 3 kids, and the responsibilities they entail, such as staying alive.After that, with a cast on his leg, Emil decided he might as well see a bit more of the lower elevations of the country, and he traveled into Whitehorse and ended up bumping into none other than popular Yukon Quest musher Frank Turner. “Frank and I talked a lot about the similarities between dog sledding and mountain climbing, and it was the start of a very long friendship.” Emil recalls. I ended up handling for him in the Quest, and he eventually offered me some of his dogs to train and race in the Quest 300 in 2003. “I had a great time, but treated it recreationally. I finished with all of the dogs.” Emil says. “This sparked my interest in putting together a team of quality dogs and racing. I became very interested in the details of long distance racing. For example, I really like to plan things out so I make the minimal number of trips back and forth from the sled to the leaders when we are at a rest stop.” Emil states. A year after that, Emil entered the 2004 Yukon Quest. “It was a big mistake for me, I wasn’t ready. I went there with some of my own dogs, and some I had borrowed from a friend in Germany. I really had no idea at the time what it took as far as quality of dogs, and training to do well in the Quest. I rented a house with my wife and young daughter and trained there in Whitehorse from October up to the race in February and we had a great time doing that. I had to drop my main leader early on, then another leader soon after, and I decided to scratch in Central. I decided to be smart and not get too far into the race where I might have a bigger problem on my hands.” Emil explains.I asked Emil if it was possibly his mental state – having to deal with problems on the trail and being a rookie, that contributed to his scratching more than the capabilities of the dog team he had left. I also wondered if he was able to draw on the same reserves of inner strength, that he surely had when he was climbing, while he was mushing. “ For sure, but I was weighing all the possibilities, trying to be smart and imagining all the scenarios that someone with experience might do. The more experience you have, the better your decisions will be. I didn’t have that experience I had when I was climbing, so maybe I made too much of a safe decision.” Emil says. Those are the kinds of decisions that allow you to live to see another day when climbing mountains. “Someone with more experience with long distance mushing may have tried more. But for me it was way too much all at once – inexperienced musher, inexperienced dogs, injuries – too much.” Emil explains.During the five hour drive back to Fairbanks after scratching, Emil had an epiphany that he really wanted to try his hand at long distance sled dog racing, and give it his all as he had done with mountaineering years before. “I’m sure I will comeback for the Quest again. Maybe it is in two years, maybe ten. I don’t know but I’ll be back for sure.” Since that Quest in 2004, Emil has raced Finnmarkslopet (a grueling long distance race in Scandinavia) and La Grande Odyssee several times. Last year Emil finished 2nd in the “Odyssee” race, his highest finish to date. Emil has a combination of Alaskan Huskies from Frank Turner bloodlines and hound crosses that he has bred for quite a while. “Even in the European style of distance racing we still need the old style of arctic dog (Alaskan Husky) in our bloodlines because there are many high arctic camps and cold conditions. With a full team of only hounds, I feel there is no chance to win. On the other hand, some of the stages in the Odyssee are relatively shorter and faster, and you need dogs that can run fast and pull hard. It is a very specialized kind of dog that can run 100 miles in the morning, then turn around and do a shorter, faster run after a short rest. Some of the stages in the race are exactly the same as in 2005. We are running those stages much faster now. I believe that is due to the top teams developing a very specialized type of dog and a very specialized training for this type of racing. This type of racing requires a world class dog—whether it is 25% hound or 0% hound. I say first it has to be a world class dog. That is how I choose them for my team, not whether they are part hound or not. I will say that in this race (La Grande Odyssee) if a team does not have five to seven extremely fast dogs that like to lope, you will not be able to win. Those fast dogs, you only get from cross breeding.” Emil states.Training for this style of racing is probably more a factor of regional and geographic limitations than anything. Every musher has to find the best way to train his or her dogs depending on the available time and trails near where they live. For Emil, a lot of his summer and early season training is loose running his dogs in the mountains near his home; “Sometimes we go out for an hour, sometimes four hours and sometimes all day,” he tells me. “It is strange that now people are asking me how to train, because I am just learning myself! I’m not sure if it is 100% the right way. Every year we try new things and it seems to be working. Basically my training is based on my feel for how the dogs are doing. I don’t have a very tight and focused schedule. It probably is the only thing in my life I don’t really plan. For sure I have a range of mileage I want to have done by a certain time of year, but how I build those up on specific days, I play it by my feel for how the dogs are doing.” By the looks of things they are doing fine. Mushing Magazine wishes Emil and Barbara best of luck racing this year. Editors Note: Emil Inauen produces BeWe sleds. BeWe sleds was originally started by Bernd Weschle and have won races from the Rondy and Open North American here in the U.S. to many sprint and distance races around the world. They are available in the U.S. through Egil Ellis and Helen Lundberg in Alaska. www.egilellis.com or see www.emilinauen.ch.

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