Yukon Quest mushers Allen Moore and Lance Mackey were the first to reach the Braeburn checkpoint Saturday night, 100 miles into a race that got shorter after teams left the start in Whitehorse.
After hearing reports from trailbreakers, race officials re-routed the trail to eliminate American Summit, turning the thousand-mile race into a 950-mile race. The decision came after the 26 teams had already begun their journey.
One of four summits between Whitehorse and Fairbanks, the 3,420-foot American Summit is impassable in several locations, race organizers announced Saturday evening.
The climb is one of three summits between the halfway point in Dawson City and the finish line in Fairbanks. It’s between the Dawson City and Eagle checkpoints.
Instead of making the climb, mushers will proceed directly down the Yukon River from Dawson to Eagle, which will slice about 50 miles from the race.
The decision to remove American Summit from the race course eliminates one of the Quest’s stiffest challenges. It is a notoriously windy place, and in 2011 it was the scene of a dramatic rescue when Hans Gatt got pinned down by the wind and his team wouldn’t budge. Brent Sass came to his aid, hitching Gatt’s sled to his own and, powered by lead dog Silver, pulling both teams over the pass.
That part of the trail is still days away for mushers who left Whitehorse under sunny skies and balmy temperatures Saturday morning.
Brian Wilmshurst of Dawson, who drew the No. 1 bib, was the first musher to leave. Defending champion Hugh Neff started fourth and four-time champion Mackey started sixth.
Moore, last year’s runnerup by a painfully narrow 26 seconds, started 11th but was the first to reach Braeburn. He arrived at 10:31 p.m. AST, followed by Mackey at 10:57 p.m.
Neff got there at 11:23 p.m., in third place.
Mushers departed Whitehorse in three-minute increments, meaning Wilmshurst had already been on the trail for 78 minutes by the time the final starter, Crispin Studer, started his race.
By the time teams pass the Carmacks checkpoint — 77 miles beyond Braeburn and 177 miles into the race — adjustments for the start-time differential will be made. All mushers must take a four-hour layover at either Braeburn or Carmacks, where their departure times will be adjusted to account for the interval start.
Temperatures were in the 20s when racers left Whitehorse, which is great for fans but not so great for dogs.
“It is extremely warm,” Mackey told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. “For me it’s perfect, but I’m kind of a wimp. For my boys, it’s going to be kind of slow at the beginning.”
“Fifteen below is ideal, zero is OK, 20 above is hot,” musher Cody Strathe told the News-Miner.
Mushers are racing for a purse of $100,000, down $50,000 from last year. While Neff collected $28,395 for last year’s victory, this year’s winner will be awarded less than $20,000.