Weather soaks, blows away Quest leaders

Beth Bragg

In a race that is producing one heroic rescue after another as mushers put aside their own ambitions to help others, Sebastian Schnuelle went from savior to race leader in a matter of hours Monday in the Yukon Quest International sled-dog race, while hard-charging Dan Kaduce abandoned his race in order to help Hugh Neff, whose quest for an elusive victory appears to be gone with the wind.

Early Monday morning, Schnuelle came to the rescue of defending champion Hans Gatt, who then dropped out of the race. On Monday night, Schnuelle was the first to reach the Mile 101 dog drop, 127 miles from the finish line in Fairbanks. He arrived at 6:29 p.m.

Schnuelle's lead didn't last long, though. Fox musher Ken Anderson, driving a team of eight dogs, arrived at 7:58 p.m., but unlike Schnuelle, he didn't stop. He was back on the trail by 8:11 p.m., a move that put him in first place. Rookie Dallas Seavey zipped in and out without stopping at 8:53 p.m., grabbing second place.

Behind them, help was on the way for Neff, who spent the day either hunkered down on wind-swept Eagle Summit or trying to get his team over the pass. Twice other mushers tried to lead Neff's team across the summit, according to race reports of the Quest's website and Facebook page, but each time Neff's dogs turned back.

Neff had led the 1,000-mile race since it began Feb. 5 in Whitehorse, Yukon. Though he started Monday with lead of more than eight hours, the Tok musher was buffeted by winds that halted his climb up 3,683-foot Eagle Summit, which rises sharply from its base at 935 feet.

Race reports say Neff, who was third in last year's race and second in 2009, was eventually joined by Kaduce. Kaduce eventually mushed to the highway, flagged down a vehicle and hitched a ride back to the checkpoint at Central to get help, according to race reports.

"There is a crew on snomachines currently on Eagle Summit locating Hugh Neff and his team," said a race report posted at 830 p.m. "The report received from Ken Anderson when he came into Mile 101 is that Ken led his team and Hugh's up the summit by hand -- but Hugh's team turned back-- Hugh was okay as was his team."

Race officials said a rescue crew found Neff and both he Kaduce were driven to Mile 101. They are not expected to continue racing.

Howling winds, deep overflow and bitter cold have turned the Quest upside-down in recent days. The elements thrown at Neff on Monday upended what was looking like a wire-to-wire run for the veteran of eight races.

Neff reached Central at 9:45 p.m. Sunday night, almost seven hours ahead of Schnuelle, who arrived at 4:35 a.m. Monday. By then, Neff was back on the trail following a six-hour rest.

Kaduce arrived at Central at 5:23 a.m. and hit the trail at 12:30 p.m. At that point, he was in second place.

Schnuelle gave chase 30 minutes later. "It's now or never," he said upon his departure, according to race reports.

Earlier, Schnuelle's run to Central included a detour to rescue Gatt, who fell victim to deep overflow and bitter cold early Monday morning.

A four-time champion, Gatt and his entire team broke through a thin layer of ice and fell into chest-deep overflow at Birch Creek, according to the Quest reports.

Gatt's sled got stuck in the overflow, but the Whitehorse musher managed to free his dogs. Race reports said Gatt was covered with ice when Schnuelle arrived.

Schnuelle helped hook Gatt's dogs to his sled, helped retrieve Gatt's sled from the water, and then tended to Gatt.

"Sebastian made a fire, took off Hans' soaked boots and jerry-rigged new boots for him out of dog blankets with burlap bags over top, tied down by neck lines and tug lines," according to a race report. "The dogs dried by rolling in the snow. After about an hour beside the fire, they continued into Central."

Whereupon Gatt scratched.

"I had no choice; my fingers have level two frostbite. If not for Sebastian, it could have been much worse and all my dogs are OK," Gatt said in comments posted on the Quest's Facebook page. "Twice this race, I was in situations that were out of my control; both times, other mushers helped me. I'm not used to that."

A couple days earlier, Brent Sass of Fairbanks rescued a potentially hypothermic Gatt high on windy American Summit, where Gatt got soaked trying to break trail for his dogs. Gatt retreated and was hunkered in his sleeping bag when Sass came along. Sass hitched Gatt's team to the back of his sled and pulled both teams over the summit.

Besides Gatt, two other mushers scratched Monday - Josh Cadzow and Didier Moggia -- whittling the original field of 25 to 16.