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Iditarod musher: 'It really felt like I was abandoned,' but race official says SOS signal never activated

Musher Hugh Neff gets ready to race near his truck. Racing began for the 2014 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Willow Lake on Sunday afternoon, March 2, 2014. Sixty-nine teams started this yearÕs Iditarod.
Marc Lester
Hugh Neff drives his dog team out of the Cripple checkpoint during the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Thursday, March 6, 2014.
Bob Hallinen
Hugh Neff drives his dog team out of the Cripple checkpoint during the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Thursday, March 6, 2014.
Bob Hallinen

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From Kyle Hopkins in Anchorage --

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Tok musher and former Yukon Quest champion Hugh Neff has been in big trouble before during a 1,000-mile race. He has lost a dog on the trail. This time, he thought he might lose his life.

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“The ... words I kept repeating to myself was, ‘I want to live. I want to live. I want to live,’” Neff said in a phone interview from Nome, where he is recovering from a dangerous night stranded for 10 hours on frozen Golovin Bay.

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The nine-time Iditarod finisher’s tale is one of several horror stories that emerged this week as mushers described the final days of one of the toughest Iditarods in memory. What started as a sometimes snowless gauntlet of rocks and trees ended in a battle with surging winds that bullied mushers to their knees

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Four-time winner Jeff King, all but assured a victory when he left White Mountain with a one-hour lead, was forced to scratch when the winds shoved his team from the trail. Second place Aliy Zirkle said her race stopped being about winning the Iditarod and became a game of survival by the time she reached Safety, 22 miles from the finish. 

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Neff’s problems began Monday afternoon, when he was one of four mushers to leave Elim within a 28-minute span.

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He was the first to go, leaving with only eight dogs. By 1:40 p.m., Jessie Royer, Ray Redington Jr. and Hans Gatt had also launched for Nome.

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Golovin Bay was like a hockey rink of glare ice, Neff said. Even with no booties on their paws, the dogs couldn’t scratch out enough traction to move steadily forward in what the musher described as 60 mph winds.

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“I could barely stand,” he said. 

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Mushers start the Iditarod with 16 dogs. Neff was down to half that number and didn’t have the power to advance against the wind. Maybe he should have traveled around the bay, a path chosen by at least one other musher, he said. Or the trail should have been routed that way all along.

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Race director Mark Nordman said routing the trail around the bay was never considered. Local travelers were going straight across the ice, he said, so the race followed the same route. 

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“The used trail was the way we went,” Nordman said. “Thus we did not have any indication that the trail would be considered impassable by any musher.”

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Sebastian Schnuelle, another former Quest champ and a past winner of the Iditarod’s dog care award, wrote that responsibility for Neff’s safety ultimately rested with the musher himself. Zirkle, he noted, made a cautious choice in similarly difficult conditions that night. Her decision to seek shelter likely cost her a first Iditarod win but ensured she and her dogs were safe. 

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“What has happened to responsible racing?” Schnuelle asked. 

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Neff said he tried walking in front of the team, leading the dogs a quarter mile or so at a time.

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But he was moving too slow and getting too cold.

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“I was stuck, man,” Neff said. “Nature had me in her grasp and she wasn’t going to let me go.”

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The musher stopped trying to reach the end of the ice and set about surviving the night. He wrapped two headlamps around his handlebars, lights blinking as a distress signal to any passing snowmachines. Sweating, he climbed in his racing sled and covered himself in a sleeping bag.

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The huskies snacked on fish. They appeared unhurt. “That’s one thing about this race, it seems the dogs fared a lot better than the humans,” Neff said.

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He began pushing the S.O.S. button on his beacon at about 9 p.m., he said. Hours passed as he shivered in his sled, wondering why no one had come.

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“It really felt like I was abandoned,” he said. 

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Nordman said Iditarod officials did not receive an S.O.S. or any other kind of notification from Neff’s tracker. He said race officials discovered later that it had been turned off.  

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“Hugh turned it off,” Norman said. “I would think he wasn’t familiar with the tracker itself ... so we never received any notification.”

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As Neff waited for help, he plucked a jelly bean from his bag every two minutes, chewing to stay awake, he said.

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“My legs and my arms, I could literally start feeling them freezing on me,” he said. “I could really feel my body dying.”

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Iditarod veteran Dave Branholm — described as a “guardian angel” in a Facebook post by Neff’s girlfriend — got a call about 5 a.m. to search for the missing musher. Norman said he called Branholm after checkpoint officials in White Mountain grew concerned about Neff’s status.

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Neff said Branholm saw his blinking headlamps and rescued him. He believes he might not have survived many more hours in the sled.

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“When Dave picked me up, he said, ‘Dude you’re about a half an inch from the end of your candlestick,” Neff said. “Pretty much saved my life.”

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This is the first year that mushers have carried locators equipped with an emergency button to call for help. Nordman said that once Neff and Branholm reached White Mountain, a race judge there discovered Neff’s locator in the bottom of his sled.

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“There was no visible light,” Nordman said. “Normally you’d have a blinking light there. When they brought it up to the checkpoint, it was confirmed that the tracker had been turned off.”

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For now, Neff said, he and his dogs are fine. He said he and Branholm are talking about writing a book about this year’s race. 

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“Usually the trail is a roller-coaster ride where you have your highs and your lows,” Neff said. “But this whole race has been one test after another.”

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ADN's Beth Bragg contributed to this post.

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