PUNTILLA LAKE -- It's a thin margin that separates a musher's chances of having a good time on the descent from a bench above the Happy River to the valley below or having a harrowing, maybe painful experience.
Worst-case scenario: An injury or broken sled can knock a musher out of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
The three steep ramps that make up the infamous drop to the river -- called the Steps -- is one of the most dangerous sections of the Iditarod Trail.
This year, concern over the Steps was heightened, with a hard and icy trail that made it difficult for mushers to slow down or brake even on flat ground. But whether the Steps, which come just before teams begin the climb over the Alaska Range, were a dream or a nightmare depended on the musher telling the tale.
If the musher made it without crashing, it was the best they'd ever seen the Steps, and they commended the trail grooming crew.
A wipeout meant it had been the worst.
"Made it!" shouted Kristy Berington, once she was safe on the flat ground. "Better than last year. They really did a good job on the third step."
Minutes later, Wade Marrs came by. "That was sweet!" he said. "Not too bad."
A while later came Scott Janssen, balancing as his sled bounced off a berm at the bottom of the third step. He pumped his fist and yelled, "Yeah!"
John Baker's sled rolled at the same spot, stopping his team before Baker righted it and kept going. Next was Ralph Johannessen, whose sled tipped toward the hillside, dragging him into it while he held on and yelled for his dogs to stop. He, too, was able to continue.
At the next checkpoint, Rainy Pass, other mushers nursed their wounds while Dallas Seavey prepared to take a nap. The Steps had been fine for him, the 2012 champ and six-time finisher said.
"About as good as I've ever seen 'em," Seavey said. "Somebody put a lot of work into those. It was a definite workout to get through it, but at least it was better than it would've been."
Asked if he crashed, defending champ Mitch Seavey -- Dallas' dad -- said simply, "I got up."
A crash created a setback for two-time champion Robert Sorlie, returning to the race after seven years. A trailer on the back of his sled fell off and he lost a cooler and feeding pans for his dogs. Some snowmachiners recovered the trailer on the second step, but they were not allowed to give it to Sorlie, because race rules prevent most forms of outside help.
Sorlie didn't know he lost the gear, said Mike Madden, race judge at Rainy Pass. He was allowed to buy a pot at Rainy Pass to replace the cooler, used for mixing dog food and hot water, and pans to put the food in because the items would have been available to any other musher, Madden said.
Race officials decided to fine Sorlie $100 for littering, Madden said.
Musher Rick Casillo hoped the snowmachiners who recovered Sorlie's trailer would be able to give him back his GoPro, which they also found.
"That was the worst the steps have ever been, that I've seen," said Casillo, who is in his fifth Iditarod. "You could've done the biggest Iditarod blooper reel of me."
"I dragged and I didn't let go. I hit my head on the ground, and it kind of whiplashed everything off," he said.
Other casualties included Jake Berkowitz, who said his sled got caught on the wrong side of a tree. The gangline snapped and most of his team kept running down the trail, detached, he said. Someone caught them, and Berkowitz was able to hook them back to the sled.
Jim Lanier, who at 73 is the oldest musher in the race, was also dragged when his sled tipped on a hill just before the Steps and the helmet he was wearing smacked a stump, he said. There was a scrape on the left side of his face.
"I crashed a few times," Lanier said. "I hurt my Achilles' tendon. It went 'pop.' "
Madden had a long, serious conversation with Lanier, who later said the race judge was telling him to think hard about whether he should continue.
The Dalzell Gorge after Rainy Pass was expected to be "extremely technical," Lanier said. From the air, the trail through the gorge in places looked as narrow as a single dog sled, with steep cliffs on the right side.
But Lanier is no stranger to pushing through injury in the Iditarod. He's broken his ankle, separated his shoulder and suffered frostbitten toes.
"I don't feel terrible," he said of his latest injury. "He didn't say I should scratch, but he said I should think about it."
Lanier wore a worried look. As the sun went behind the mountains around Puntilla Lake, he said he was still thinking.
Reach Casey Grove at email@example.com.
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By CASEY GROVE