Worries that he could no longer care for the 13 dogs that pulled him from Fairbanks to within 100 miles of the finish line forced racer Brent Sass to withdraw from the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race, a decision that cost him a shot at his first win in the grueling race.
Sass, who led for much of the race, was airlifted from the Canadian checkpoint of Braeburn to Whitehorse on Sunday following a head injury on the trail. It was a surprising turn of events for the 34-year-old Eureka musher, who was in second place and is better known for saving mushers on the trail than needing rescue himself.
Official reports from Quest officials offered few details on what happened. That changed Monday, with a Facebook post from Sass recounting what led to his withdrawal from the race.
In the post, Sass said he was feeling good and competitive with his team of 13 dogs. Despite being passed by eventual champion Allen Moore of Two Rivers, Sass felt like they were within minutes of each other while traveling the final 13 miles before Braeburn, the penultimate checkpoint of the race.
But the fatigued Sass nodded off, falling off the back of his sled and knocking his head on lake ice. When he came to, Sass's dog team was only a short ways down the trail, "probably wondering why I was laying on the trail behind them."
He untangled them and decided to mush them to a warmer spot to stop and regroup, but immediately felt "not all there" -- as though he was suffering from concussion symptoms.
"My thoughts were cloudy and it was hard to string together a plan, although I could still function well enough to feed the dogs," he wrote. "When I decided to go, I was so slow prepping the team and once we were ready and moving, I was not confident in my ability to drive the team and take good care of the dogs."
Concerned, Sass climbed into his sleeping bag to hunker down and regroup, drifting in and out of consciousness.
At one point, he woke to realize his arm and bare hand were outside the sleeping bag, just laying on the frozen ground in temperatures of 30 below zero.
"I knew then that I could seriously harm myself and my dogs if I didn't get help," he wrote.
He said he held his SPOT tracker -- the GPS locating beacon that also can be deployed for an emergency rescue -- for an hour, trying to figure out whether he would press it or not. He did, and shortly thereafter Canadian Rangers arrived, as well as eventual Yukon Quest runner-up Hugh Neff, who stopped to help feed, bootie and lead Sass's team the remaining 12 miles to Braeburn.
Sass' friend and handler Josh Horst wrote in the Facebook post that Sass is recovering in a Whitehorse hotel. While his body is sore, "his attitude is as good as you'd expect."
Sass is still entered to race in this year's Iditarod, scheduled to begin March 1 in downtown Anchorage.
Moore and Neff were the only finishers into Whitehorse Monday, with 11 mushers still on the trail. Rookie Matt Hall and veteran Cody Strathe were in a battle for third place. Both left the Carmacks checkpoint and were en route to Braeburn on Monday afternoon.