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For rookie musher, Iditarod proves painful but good experience

Craig Medred
Cindy Abbott suffers from a rare disease called “Wegner’s granulomatosis” that can cause a fair bit of day-to-day discomfort. But that didn't stop her from climbing Mount Everest in 2010. Still, compared to the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, Everest was relatively easy, she says. Loren Holmes photo

As Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race rookie Christine Roalofs from Anchorage mushed down Nome’s Front Street on Sunday, collecting the traditional red lantern and bringing the last great race to an end, the sad story of another rookie musher who didn't make it was finally starting to emerge.

In what might go down as the most understated press release in the history of Alaska public relations, the Iditarod Trail Committee on March 13 reported that “rookie Iditarod musher Cindy Abbott of Irvine, California scratched in Kaltag at 23:00. Abbott made the decision to scratch due to a muscle strain and the best interest of her team. She had 12 dogs in her team.”

Aside from the fact Abbott did have 12 dogs in her team at the time, the reality was far different. To start with, she never made it to Kaltag. She was hauled in there on a snowmachine after an Iditarod official and the village health aide went out to check on her because her team had been parked on the Yukon River for nearly 24 hours. It was parked because the driver was in a fair bit of pain and the dogs were done.

X-rays taken in an Anchorage hospital would later show the 54-year-old mother of one had cracked her pelvis early in the race, and as she worked her way up the trail, the two ends of the break were daily banging together and smashing bone. Abbott, in an interview with Alaska Dispatch, said she was never really all that concerned about the injury until a medical technician in Anchorage looked at the X-rays and gasped.

“It’s a pretty radical looking X-ray,” she said when reached by phone.

Now, this Californian by way of Nebraska is wondering just how much damage she might have done to herself pursuing her $200,000 dream.

Yes, that’s right, “in the neighborhood of $200,000” is what Abbott -- a health science professor at California State University, Fullerton -- calculates it cost her to get to the Iditarod starting line in Anchorage March 2, and from there another 620 miles north along the 1,000-mile trail in the 11 days that followed.

What happened to her out on the Yukon came out after her husband contacted the The Orange County Register, and columnist David Whiting, as he reported it, “tracked down Abbott on Thursday afternoon as she was being evacuated by bush plane from a remote area.” Obviously unfamiliar with life in Alaska, Whiting got a few things laughably wrong, including the “two snow cats and a medical team” supposedly dispatched from Kaltag to rescue Abbott, but he got the crux of the story right -- Abbott did have to be rescued.

Kaltag, for the record, is a community of only 186 people where the westward flowing Yukon bends sharply south. Snowmachines, not snow cats, constitute the normal means of winter travel, and the medical team is a lone health aide. And, according to Abbott, she wasn’t suffering from “extreme hypothermia,” as reported in The Register; if she had been, she wouldn’t have been able “to assemble her team and get going,” as was also reported.

But then she never did get the team going, which was part of the problem.

High pain tolerance

Abbott said her serious struggles began after she left Eagle Island, a remote outpost on the Yukon north of Anvik, for the 70-mile run upriver to Kaltag. Although things don’t sound like they were so good in Eagle Island either.

By the time she got there, she was not only in pain -- she couldn’t stand up. She did her dog chores -- feeding, watering, taking off booties and putting on new ones, examining the dogs to make sure nobody had any troublesome injuries -- while crawling around on her hands and knees. With the chores done, she said, Abbott crawled into a heated tent provided for mushers and took a two-hour nap.

“After that,” Abbott said, “I could pick up my leg again” and stand up. So she loaded herself up on ibuprofen, got back on the sled runners and hit the trail north, still chasing that dream of making it to Nome. The dream drives people in ways hard to believe.

“There was quite a bit of pain,” she said, “but I have a high pain tolerance.”

Abbott suffers from a rare disease called “Wegner’s granulomatosis.” It can cause a fair bit of day-to-day discomfort. “...Early symptoms include a fever that continues without an obvious cause, night sweats, fatigue, and a general ill feeling,” according to the National Institutes of Health, which also lists chest and joint pain among the symptoms.

Abbott was diagnosed in 2007, and responded by climbing Mount Everest in 2010. She reached the 29,029-foot summit of the world’s tallest and deadliest mountain on May 23, 2010.

Compared to the Iditarod, she said, the climb was relatively easy. But then Abbott endured a really, really bad Iditarod.

She injured herself on the first real day of the race. She was only about 20 miles out of the race restart at Willow, she said, when she slipped on frozen overflow and went down hard. Overflow is fresh water pushed out atop ice for any number of reasons. It freezes fast and for hours after it freezes is among the slickest surfaces imaginable.

Abbot said she knew as soon as she landed she’d hurt herself badly. She was in enough pain she contemplated quitting the Iditarod at the Yentna Station Roadhouse, the race’s first real checkpoint. She could barely stand on the runners of the sled, she said, but she made up her mind that if she could reach Yentna, she could try for Skwentna. And so it went day after day for hundreds of miles.

“Basically, I took it one checkpoint at a time,” Abbott said.

She decided that if she could make it down the infamous Happy River steps, a luge run along the side of cliffs, on the stretch of trail from Finger Lake to Rainy Pass she’d be ready to tackle the zigzagging trail across all the ice bridges in the Dalzell Gorge between Rainy Pass and Rohn. She made Rainy Pass. She made Rohn. The Dalzell convinced her she could make it across the rough trail of the snow-short Post River country and the frozen tussocks of what was once the Farewell burn on the way from Rohn to Nikolai.

And so she kept going.

Icy water, bad trail and more agony

Abbott admits she probably looked like hell, but nobody pays much attention to how Iditarod mushers look. All that matters is whether they can take care of their dogs. Nobody much cares how beat to pieces the people might be. There are teams of veterinarians at every checkpoint to care for the dogs. There is not one human doctor on the trail. Mushers have completed the race with all sorts of injuries -- broken arms, broken hands, concussions, broken noses, slipped discs in their backs.

To checkpoint checkers and race volunteers, Abbott probably didn’t look all that different than a lot of other back-of-the-packers chasing the dream, a beat-up mess of a human determined to nurse a bunch of dogs to Nome.

North of the Alaska Range, the trail never really cut Abbott a break, either. There was too much snow in some places, not enough in others. There was a lot more overflow, much of it unfrozen. Abbott waded through, filled her boots, watched them freeze, thawed them out so she could take them off, and generally just suffered her way to Eagle Island to crawl around on hands and knees tending those dogs, which by now were her best friends.

“After I left Eagle, it’s a 70-mile run,” she said.

She believes she would have made it if she hadn’t encountered another team stopped in the trail. To get around them, she had to lead her dogs off the trail through deep snow. Wading through the deep snow at the front of the dogs did it, Abbott said, “that really ended up tweaking it more.”

She was quickly in agony. She didn’t get much farther down the trail. Rough snow drifts followed. “They were the hard, bangy kind,” Abbott said.

That beat her up even more. On top of that, the bad trail and persistent head wind discouraged her team. About 25 miles out of Kaltag, she decided to take a break. “The dogs were having trouble in the wind,” she said.

She was suffering. It was clear everyone could use a break. “I decided to shut them down for four hours,” Abbott said. “I knew a cold start was going to be hard” on the river. But she trusted the dogs. She’d trained them under the supervision of the legendary Lance Mackey from Fairbanks, a four-time winner of both the Iditarod and the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race from Fairbanks through the old Dawson stomping grounds of author Jack London to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Canada.

As it turned out, the four-hour stop stretched on and on and on.

Abbott managed to get up from the sled and pull things together enough to try to make a go, but the dogs weren’t ready to move. They didn’t want to go, and “I couldn’t rally the team, I was in too much pain to keep trying.” She rested some more and let the dogs do the same. She thought maybe they could all get it together enough that they could make Kaltag. She was thinking about scratching there.

Smashing bones

When she hadn’t arrived in Kaltag within 20 hours after leaving Eagle Island -- the run between the two checkpoints usually takes about half that time -- Abbott’s husband back in California and others started to worry. Abbott said she’d told him not to get excited unless she was off the charts for more than 24 hours between checkpoints, but search and possible rescue efforts were being mobilized before then.

Abbott said the health aide from Kaltag came out with a driver for her sled and an Iditarod official to tell her she was in no condition to continue.

“The vet said the dogs are very perceptive,” she said. “They probably perceived I was in a lot of pain” and didn’t want to go on.

She was told to get on the snowmachine and was hauled to the clinic. The volunteer brought her dog team in behind to be later flown back to Anchorage. Abbott was sent to a hospital for examination much sooner than she’d expected.

“I could tell by the pain manifestations it was getting worse every day,” she admitted. “I knew I had a serious injury. I didn’t know what it was. I figured I’d deal with it when I got to Nome. But apparently I kept smashing the two bone ends on each other.”

Still, “if it were me, I probably would have just continued on,” but Abbott was now at a point where it was becoming difficult to take care of the dogs. And while the Iditarod doesn’t much care how mushers treat themselves, if their dog care falls below the bar they get withdrawn from the race.

Abbott knew it was over. The real suffering began shortly thereafter.

“It’s hard to even walk now,” she said Friday. “The adrenaline is gone. The priority is gone. I had tasks I had to do. When they took the team and sled away, the pain really started.

“Right now, I can’t even dress myself. I need a friend to put on my shoes and socks. I’m on crutches. I’m basically worthless.”

She’s under orders not to put any weight on her legs. She’s to consult with her California orthopedist to decide on a plan for what to do next. The one thing she knows is that it won’t be the Iditarod.

That’s now all over.

“I can’t afford it again,” she said. “My husband would probably kill me.”

She expressed deep regret at the worry she’d already put him through. He spent a lot of time “frantically worried about me,” she said, while “I had a really amazing experience. I started getting a little depressed at one point, but then I realized I got to do 620 miles of the trail. I had a great experience. It was fabulous. It’s all good.”

If it was easy, it wouldn’t be the same.

“No question this dog race is a lot harder” than climbing Everest, which might be why it is such a select group of people who start it and an even more select group who finish the Iditarod.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com