It took only a moment for Eureka musher Brent Sass to slip from his dog sled and smack his head, causing the injury that ended his bid for a win in the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race. But the difficult decision to quit and call for a rescue was much longer in the making.
Sass, 34, and his team were in second place in the 1,000-mile race and in a close chase with the eventual winner, Two Rivers musher Allen Moore, from the Carmacks checkpoint to Braeburn when disaster struck.
"I'm tired, stupid and haven't slept in days," Sass said before leaving Carmacks, according to a Yukon Quest Facebook post.
In his own Facebook post, dictated to friend and dog handler Josh Horst and posted Monday, Sass explained what happened:
Just 12 miles from Braeburn -- the final checkpoint before the finish about 85 miles farther -- Sass "nodded off" and fell backward, hitting his head on the lake ice he was crossing. He soon realized he was "clearly not all there" and had symptoms of a concussion.
After getting up and straightening his team, Sass drove the dogs to a warmer spot off the lake and cooked food for them. During this time, it was difficult to think clearly, Sass said in the Facebook post. His preparations to start running the dogs again were slow, and his confidence lagged once they were moving.
"I was worried I could get them hurt by keeping going, so I stopped again and did all I could for the dogs, collected wood for a fire and crawled into my sleeping bag to hunker down for a while," Sass said. "As I drifted in and out, I woke at one point to realize I had my arm and bare hand outside the sleeping bag and just laying on the frozen ground. I knew then that I could seriously harm myself and my dogs if I didn't get help."
Sass said he held a rescue beacon for an hour without pressing the alert button, questioning whether he should quit the race. It would not be safe to continue, he finally decided. He pressed the button, and Canadian rangers were soon there. Once they got to Braeburn, Sass was airlifted to Whitehorse, and a ranger stayed behind with his team of 13 dogs.
With the help of Quest competitor Hugh Neff, race official Scott Smith drove Sass' team into Braeburn.
"I can't thank those guys enough for what they did. It feels good to have a couple friends like them taking care of the team," Sass said on Facebook.
Sass also forfeited the four ounces of gold valued at $5,000 and set aside for him after he was the first musher to reach the race's halfway point, Dawson City. Moore, who had been second to Dawson, now gets the gold along with the win.
"Back here at the hotel in Whitehorse, Brent's body is sore, but his attitude is as good as you'd expect," wrote Horst, to whom Sass dictated his story. "It's hard for him to fight the feeling that he let the team down, but as he said to me, 'At that point there were 14 of us in the team. If one of them can't go on, they ride in the sled, but when I can't, they don't get to load me up and carry me to the checkpoint. Someone has to drive the team.'"
Within two hours of its Monday posting, Sass' Facebook message had received several hundred likes, along with dozens of comments from supporters. He remains listed as a musher in the 2014 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, which starts March 1.