Iditarod Trail will be a little tamer for this year's race

THE STEPS: Mushers will be able to avoid the steep switchbacks this year.

Anchorage Daily NewsFebruary 2, 2012 

Iditarod officials plan to snip one of the most dangerous sections of the Last Great Race from this year's trail.

For the first time, the race route will include a short detour bypassing the notorious Happy River Steps, said race marshal Mark Nordman.

Feared by rookie mushers and respected by veterans who meet the steep switchbacks with a rush of adrenaline, the Steps live in Iditarod infamy. A place of busted sleds and broken bones.

"I was completely airborne last year getting down the Steps," said Willow musher DeeDee Jonrowe. "(Five-time Iditarod champion Rick Swenson) hit the tree and broke his collarbone."

This year, the route will change, Nordman said.

A Vancouver company is exploring for gold, silver and copper along the nearby Skwentna River, and last year created a winter mining road parallel to the Iditarod route. That path had to be gentle enough for bulldozer travel and side-stepped the Steps. It gave race organizers the chance to redraw a short section of trail and avoid the historical hazard.

"It's not changing the mileage or anything. It's just giving us a safer access (up to Rainy Pass checkpoint)," Nordman said.

To some fans, holding an Iditarod without the icy bobsled ride spilling on to the Happy River is like running the Boston Marathon without Heartbreak Hill. Not all mushers are happy about the change.

"Part of the specialness of Iditarod is that the race, the whole thing, is a challenge," said 17-time Iditarod finisher Ramey Smyth of Willow. "I think it would take away from some of the intrinsic value of the event to just make it an easy thing for everybody."

The son of two Iditarod veterans, Smyth said he crashed along the Steps last year while trying to avoid a cameraman. He later arrived in Nome in what would have been record-breaking time, finishing second only to champion John Baker of Kotzebue.

Jonrowe, another perennial Iditarod contender, said her dogs have been hurt at the Steps and it was only after she finished last year's race that she realized she had separated her shoulder there.

"I'm still rehabbing it," Jonrowe said after a three-hour training run Thursday.

The Iditarod -- a race inspired by Alaska's survivalist roots and the skookum woodsmen of the 1925 serum run to Nome -- shouldn't be a simple racetrack, Jonrowe said. But skipping the hazard is a good decision, she said, one that will protect sled dogs.

"The Steps are what I consider to be the most dangerous trail that we could possibly fix," Jonrowe said.

The Steps are found between Finger Lake and Rainy Pass. Mushers typically encounter the switchbacks on their second day on the trail.

Here's how Iditarod.com describes the encounter to prospective mushers: "The trail will vanish over the edge of what looks like a cliff. It is a cliff. This is the entrance to the Happy River Steps. Stop the dogs at the top, say your prayers, revise your will, and then see how gently you can get the dogs to creep down the hill."

'A SAFER ROUTE'

Whether the turns are a breeze or a burden depend on the weather, the snow pack and how many other mushers are in front of you. Those in the middle or back of the pack run the risk of encountering a deep trench dug by the brakes of earlier teams.

"I've went down there when (the Steps) are a piece of cake. I've went down them when you're not going to make it to the bottom without crashing," said Paul Gebhardt, of Kasilof.

Nordman says the race has always included the Happy River Steps as far as he knows. The only time the trail bypassed the area was in 2003, when the start was moved to Fairbanks due to a lack of snow, said Jonrowe, who has competed in the majority of Iditarods since 1979.

A 100-mile winter trail built for the mining company last winter is gone now, but Iditarod officials knew the effort -- which involved some clearing work -- might offer an alternate race route west of the Steps, Nordman said.

A crew visited the area last week, he said. "I got a text from Finger Lake after they had come back and said they all felt it was a safer route and we should go ahead and use it."

That decision could always be reversed, he said, but for now, the Steps are out.

The path used by the mining company was suggested by someone who lives in the region and provides a gradual decline to the river below, said John Lamborn, Alaska manager for Kiska Metals Corp.

The company is exploring a project about 100 miles northwest of Anchorage, with drilling showing signs of at least 3 million ounces of gold in the area, Kiska says. The trail was built to bring equipment and fuel to the site and is not being maintained this year, Lamborn said. The company is keeping its permits active and may use it again in the future.

Gebhardt has been racing the Iditarod since 1996. The path has become less challenging as organizers push to improve the trail year after year, he said. "I can't remember the last time somebody had to get their snowshoes out to break trail and hardly anybody gets lost, because of trail marking," he said.

OBSTACLES REMAIN

Zack Steer, who finished third in the 2007 Iditarod, says eliminating the Steps will make for a safer race.

"Iditarod probably never had the resources before to make that kind of trail improvement, and now that it's available, they're taking advantage of it," he said.

Steer sees the new route as part of a series of evolutions in the 40-year-old Iditarod, similar to building better sleds or pioneering new breeding techniques.

"Any time you have an easier trail that you can maintain and reliably mark and groom on a year-to-year basis, that is an improvement that is probably worthwhile and probably worth the loss of the historical part," he said.

Mushers must still cross the Alaska Range, Nordman said, and with challenges like the Dalzell Gorge, out of Rainy Pass, plenty of obstacles remain.

"We're trying to give our competitors the safest trail we can in a wilderness setting," he said.

The Iditarod begins with a ceremonial start in Anchorage on March 3.

First comes the Yukon Quest, sometimes billed the "world's toughest sled dog race," which has a controversial stretch of trail all its own. For years, some mushers have called for Quest directors to eliminate precipitous Eagle Summit from that race.

Five-time Quest finisher Brent Sass has opposed that change, believing it would trample the extreme spirit of the event. While he respects the Iditarod's decision to change its own route, it will be a bummer to bypass the Steps this year, he said.

The 32-year-old is racing in the Iditarod for the first time.

"I would have loved to have gone out and seen what the hype was all about," he said.

Twitter updates: twitter.com/adn_kylehopkins. Call Kyle Hopkins at 257-4334 or email him at khopkins@adn.com.

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