A wall of bad weather kept planes out of Rainy Pass for much of Monday, but the storm didn't stop the dogs on the first full day of racing in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
Mushers sailed through one of the most notorious stretches of trail and reported terrific conditions as they poured in and out of the Rainy Pass checkpoint on Puntilla Lake and pushed onto Rohn on the other side of the Alaska Range.
A pair of mushers running dogs seasoned by last month's thousand-mile Yukon Quest led the way in and out of Rohn, 188 miles into the 975-mile race from Anchorage to Nome.
Aliy Zirkle, running a team of 16 that includes a number of dogs who finished second in the Quest for her husband, Allen Moore, seized the lead from Hugh Neff, whose team of 16 includes many of the animals who pulled him to victory in the Quest.
Neff was first to reach Rohn, but Zirkle was first to leave. She raced the 35 miles between Rainy Pass and Rohn 19 minutes faster than Neff and spent just nine minutes in Rohn before leaving for Nikolai, another 75 miles away.
Kelley Griffin was the second out of Rohn, putting a pair of women at the front of the race. She left at 8:15 p.m. with a team of 13 dogs, leaving one behind.
Mushers are expected to encounter more snow on the way to Nikolai, according to a weather advisory that predicted three to six inches of snow overnight and into Tuesday morning.
Snow has been par for the course so far in the race. Besides all the snow that has already piled up this winter, snow fell at Skwentna, Finger Lake, Rainy Pass and beyond on Monday, slowing and sometimes stopping airplane traffic into Finger Lake and Rainy Pass.
But deep snow didn't impede the dog teams, and it even helped make the usually gnarly Happy River Steps comparatively tame.
The notorious switchbacks almost weren't part of the race from Anchorage to Nome. As recently as last week, race officials planned to reroute the trail to a mining road that parallels the Iditarod trail, but too much snow made the road unsafe, putting the Steps back into play.
"The rookies that were so worried about not doing the Steps and getting the full experience? Well, they're not gonna get that experience 'cause it's so nice. But I'm not complaining," DeeDee Jonrowe told Iditarod Insider after reaching Rainy Pass with a full team of 16 dogs. "It's been a long time since I've gotten all 16 to Rainy."
Veteran after veteran delivered glowing reviews of the Steps, infamous for battering bones and sleds, as they reached Rainy Pass after 150 miles of mushing.
"Beautiful trail," four-time winner Jeff King told Iditarod Insider. "It seems like a real easy trail. The snow has made it pretty smooth sailing. The temperatures are nice and the moisture in the air is making it easy to keep (the dogs) hydrated."
"There's so much snow that the stuff that could be difficult wasn't. The Steps are real easy," said 71-year-old Jim Lanier, who owns 14 Iditarod finishes.
The pace of the race is a little slower than last year's, which produced a record run to Nome by John Baker.
Neff, who put red-and-white-striped coats on his dogs before leaving snowy Rainy Pass, reached Rohn at 7:06 p.m. Last year, Robert Bundzen lead the frontrunners into Rohn at 5:17 p.m. on Monday.
In 2010, the third-fastest race on record, Sebastian Schnuelle led the way into Rohn at 6:52 p.m.
And in 2002, the year Martin Buser set the record Baker broke last year, Buser reached Rohn at 7:25 p.m.
Neff made the run from Rainy Pass in 4 hours, 8 minutes. Zirkle did it in 3:49 and arrived at 7:17 p.m.
Griffin, a 52-year-old from Wasilla whose best finish in three races is 26th last year, was the seventh to reach Rohn, arriving at 7:54 p.m. She made the run from Rainy Pass in 4:17 and spent just 21 minutes at the checkpoint before leaving for Nikolai.
By 9 p.m. Monday, no musher in the field of 66 had scratched and 53 racers had made it past the Steps and into Rainy Pass.Sled Blog: Follow 20 Iditarod mushers on Facebook
By BETH BRAGG
Anchorage Daily News