Eagle Summit: Helping Each Other Forward

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Jason Biasetti closed his eyes, but couldn’t shut down his mind.

“I couldn’t get that wind out of my head,” he said. “It was stuck there.”  

The rookie musher in the Yukon Quest 1,000 Mile International Sled Dog Race said he thought a lot about his time atop Eagle Summit before an exhausted body gave way to sleep.

The sound of the wind kept reverberating in his head because he couldn’t see anything on the exposed mountain pass in Alaska’s White Mountains. With wind gusts exceeding 30 mph, snow from above and all around just kept pelting him.

Jason’s memory of the event was simply that of a sound file containing a timbre of wailing he had never heard before and hoped to never hear again.

”You really felt insignificant compared to the force of nature coming at you,” he said. 

The storm came in fast as the frontrunners were crossing the finishing line. The mushers who received the brunt of the storm were in the middle and back of the pack. 

These mushers had a decision to make - do they go it alone or do they approach Eagle Summit as a group and help each other along the way. 

Two groups of mushers - the last 11 of the race - decided to team up to cross the pass. Four, including Jason, were already on the trail and seven were waiting in the Central Checkpoint before Eagle Summit.

While mushers can’t accept outside assistance in the race, they can assist fellow mushers in need.

Most every year sees examples of good sportsmanship, but this year one-third of the 30 YQ participants worked together to stay safe on the trail and help each other reach the finish line. 

Here are their stories.

Four on the Trail 

Jason had left in the darkness on Tuesday, Feb. 12 at 1:30 a.m. to cross Eagle Summit on the 28-mile stretch of trail between the Central and Mile 101 checkpoints. 

The summit, which is a gap between mountains, is more than 3,600 feet in elevation and is notorious for high winds, snow drifts and a steep pitch near the top.

A winter storm pounded the trail, which was blown in with snow from the raging wind. Jason followed the stakes marking the trail as best he could. 

He gathered his dogs and reflected on the situation.

“Then I saw Rob’s freight train of huskies come up and Andy behind him. They stopped and said ‘We’re going to give it shot.’”

Veteran YQ musher Rob had crossed Eagle Summit several times before in other YQ races and felt he had a good chance of finding the markers. Veteran musher Andy Pace has also crossed the summit once. 

As the three headed up, they heard another voice  in the abyss, yelling “Jazz, haw. Jazz, haw.” 

Andy and Jason began yelling to Jazz so that she would guide her human, rookie Deke Naaktgeboren, and his team of dogs to them. 

She listened. Then it was four approaching the summit. 

Rob said the markers were impossible to see unless you were near them. So his dog team would lie down, curl up and bed in the snow while he would locate the next marker. Then all four mushers would move to that marker and the process would begin again. 

Rob said the dogs were amazing. 

“Every time we asked them to go - not just my dogs but the whole four teams - every time we asked them to go, they got up and went,” he said. “… I’ve never been in a situation like that before, and it’s just incredible to see just how good the dogs were.”

Eventually the four crested the summit, picking up speed going downhill. They arrived at Mile 101 around noon on the same day they started, just in time for lunch.

Rob gave a shout out to Andy and his calm, pragmatic demeanor throughout the stressful situation. Andy in turn, said the teamwork on Eagle Summit helped him view the race through a different lens. 

“It’s something that demonstrated to me what the race is all about, which is that camaraderie that you get with your fellow mushers on the trail and the leadership that people take and the roles that people take for each other,” he said.  

Meanwhile there were seven mushers at the Central Checkpoint still deciding whether to start mushing toward Eagle Summit.

The Central Seven

Chase Tingle was one of the seven mushers waiting at the Central Checkpoint on Feb. 12. He was cautious from the start as he had mushed Eagle Summit during a YQ300, which is a qualifier race for the longer one. 

“It’s no-joke country out there,” said Chase. “It’s big mountains and lots can happen in big mountains when the weather’s bad. We don’t want to put our dogs or our ourselves in that situation.”

Jim Lanier was the first of the seven to arrive at Central, followed by Chase. After monitoring the weather, they decided to wait until the wind gusts died down and then travel together.  

Jim said it was a good idea to travel as a pair, regardless of the weather.

“At the top of Eagle Summit, your dogs have to pull your sled up this very steep crest,” he said. “There have been mushers that have had to stop in the past. They just weren’t able to get up there.”

As Jim and Chase waited for conditions to improve, the last four mushers of the race - Remy Leduc, Laura Allaway, Isabelle Travadon and Hendrik Stachnau - arrived in Central and decided to join the two mushers. All mushers were rookies.

Veteran musher Misha Wiljes, who left shortly after Deke, stalled out before Eagle Summit. Chase and Jim were hoping to catch her on the way to the summit, but she returned before they left.

“The wind started picking up pretty badly,” she said. “I stayed there past the overflow and was waiting for the wind to calm down a little bit. When it did, I moved farther up and then there was another snowstorm. I just turned back.”

The plan to tackle Eagle Summit as a team evolved among casual conversations, laughter and meals at the checkpoint eatery. Handlers were nearby, wondering if the mushers would beat them to the next checkpoint since the road that connected the two checkpoints was shut down. 

After some sleep for both the mushers and the dogs, the Alaska trail coordinator Mike Reitz held an early morning meeting on Feb. 13 with the mushers, briefing them on weather and trail conditions. 

The wind gusts had died down but the trail was still less than ideal as a lot of snow had filled it in. There was also some water to pass through.

The mushers decided to take no chances, The seven still wanted to approach Eagle Summit as a team.

“The most reassuring thing is knowing that there’s another musher out there like you that is going through the same issue,” Remy said. “They know what you’re going through, and they will help you out.”

Hendrik and Isabelle left first since their teams were running slower. Misha Wiljes soon joined them. Then the last four mushers left together around 8:30 a.m., traveling in pairs, as the horizon lightened.

Remy traveled with Laura and Jim traveled with Chase. Remy and Jim found themselves traveling a bit faster than than their partners, which meant they were riding their brakes to slow down. 

So the four switched up teams with Remy and Jim traveling together and Laura and Chase bringing up the rear. 

Once the seven reached the tree line, everyone went at their own pace up Eagle Summit until they reached the steepest part.

Isabelle was starting the pitch, but her dogs were apprehensive. Remy passed her, parked his dogs at the top, and then went down to help her. Remy pushed her sled uphill, lightening the weight the dogs would have to pull. This prompted her team to crest the summit.

The mushers took turns helping each other push sleds and guiding their teams uphill until all seven mushers were at the top. 

The seven then continued their journey to Mile 101, with each team filing in shortly after the other around 2 p.m. Their handlers had made it, although they had a few harrowing stories to tell of driving the Steese Highway.

The dogs curled up into fluffy balls. The mushers ate another round of meals and then they all continued to the finish line. 

Laura said she was glad she joined the Central Seven to help ensure the safety of her own group of seven - her dog team.

“I think sportsmanship is vital to the Quest,” she said. “This isn’t just a race. It’s so much more than that.” 

Meghan Murphy