Iditarod racers face another day of brutal wind

Mike Campbell
Dallas Seavey and his team drive over the hill country between Unalakleet and Shaktoolik on Monday afternoon, March 16, 2009.
Jeff King leads the way for his team, one of which got tripped up in the lines, as he leaves the Shaktoolik checkpoint on Monday afternoon, March 16, 2009.
Jeff King leads the way for his team, one of which got tripped up in the lines, as he leaves the Shaktoolik checkpoint in strong wind on Monday afternoon, March 16, 2009.
Jeff King, foreground, and John Baker depart the Shaktoolik checkpoint of the Iditarod on Monday afternoon, March 16, 2009.
Jeff King mixes feed at the Shaktoolik checkpoint shortly before he left there on Monday afternoon, March 16, 2009.
Hugh Neff rests inside the Unalkleet checkpoint after being the third Iditarod musher to arrive on Monday, March 16, 2009.
Marc Lester / Anchorage Daily News
After filling up with coffee, John Baker heads out of the checkpoint room in Shaktoolik preparing to head out of the coastal town on Monday afternoon, March 16, 2009.
John Baker heads out of Shaktoolik on Monday afternoon, March 16, 2009.

Wait out the wind.

That's what dozens of mushers along the Iditarod Trail were doing today as fierce headwinds combined with subzero temperatures to make pushing forward fruitless at best and dangerous at worst for some of the best mushers in the world.

But as it warmed to near zero in Shaktoolik this afternoon, mushers were stirring.

Dallas Seavey of Seward returned to the trail just after 10 a.m. after holing up in Shaktoolik for more than 18 hours -- but still holding 10th place. Jessie Royer of Fairbanks followed him out an hour later, ending her 13-hour stop.

And two of the savviest mushers to ever drive a sled -- Sonny Lindner of Fairbanks and his friend and five-time champion Rick Swenson of Two Rivers -- hadn't moved in nearly 24 hours. Lindner was waiting out the wind in Shaktoolik, with Swenson farther back in Unalakleet.

Between them, Swenson and Lindner have 48 Iditarod starts dating back to 1976 -- including Swenson's dramatic 1991 victory, in which he walked his team through a ground blizzard to seize the championship.

At the front of the pack, though, mushers were creeping toward Nome.

Two-time defending champion Lance Mackey left Elim at 10:57 this morning and was expected to reach White Mountain by suppertime, where a mandatory eight-hour rest awaited him.

His closest chasers were Yukon Quest champion Sebastian Schnuelle of Whitehorse and John Baker of Kotzebue. They left the pervious checkpoint of Koyuk before 6 a.m., arriving in Elim a little after 1 p.m., with Schnuelle in second place.

Behind Baker was a large pack of chasers out of Shaktoolik. Five of them -- Aaron Burmeister, Jeff King, Mitch Seavey, Hans Gatt and Hugh Neff -- left the Norton Sound checkpoint between noon and 5 p.m. Monday but had yet to complete the 50-mile run to Koyuk. All experienced mushers, they may have camped rather than push on into the wind.

Swenson, who has been in Unalakleet since 2 p.m. Monday, got beat up making the Kaltag Portage trip from the Yukon River to the Norton Sound coast.

"I was really proud of them going up the river and going up here," he said. "Last night coming over here from Kaltag I just started getting cold and sleepy-eyed. I fell off my sled once and lost my team.

"They stopped when I fell into a snowbank and I yelled 'Whoa.'

"I was just getting really cold and I said to myself, 'You're gonna have to stop at that cabin (Old Woman), get a fire going and warm yourself up.

"That's really only halfway. I really didn't feel it was a good risk to take to try to come from Kaltag to here without stopping."

By this morning, Swenson was ready to push forward, but fellow veteran Ed Iten of Kotzebue reported 55 mph winds on his way to Shaktoolik and advised mushers to sit tight.

Despite the weather, Swenson was proud of how his dogs had performed.

"It's almost the same team I had last year," he said. "They deserve a way younger driver that's able to help them more. I'm the liability."

"I've used one wrist wrap the whole race. Put foot ointment on a couple times. They're a really good group of dogs."

The National Weather Service said that the Norton Sound winds won't die down until Wednesday night. for tonight and Wednesday morning, it looks like more of the same -- winds to 25 mph with wind chills reaching minus 45.

Former Iditarod musher Bruce Lee on the Web site reported even stiffer winds of up to 40 mph blowing into mushers' faces.

"Mushers .... have to run directly into this wind. So you increase the wind speed by the speed they're traveling another 8 mph.

"It's not that they can't get through this . . . it's more just a difficult situation. This is definitely going to sort out some of the teams that maybe don't have better wind leaders that can handle this stuff. Guys that train their dogs in this are at a definite advantage.

"For everybody else, it's going to be cold, miserable long run.

Photos: Day 10
Video: Mackey leaves Unalakleet in the lead
Live standings: Musher leaderboard