PELLY CROSSING, Yukon -- Denali Park musher Jeff King scratched from the Yukon Quest in Pelly Crossing Tuesday afternoon, according to the race's website.
A former race winner, "King initially left Pelly and got as far as Stepping Stone (the next checkpoint), but made the decision to scratch. After a lengthy rest, King cited concern with the amount of dog food needed to travel the distance to Dawson City at these extreme temperatures."
This is the second-consecutive 1,000-mile ultramarathon that King has scratched from in the last 12 months. He was on his way to a fifth Iditarod victory last March when a fierce ground storm stopped him about 20 miles from the finish line, and he eventually scratched.
This year, King decided to enter his first Quest in a quarter-century. He's also signed up for the Iditarod that begins in Anchorage on March 7.
Meanwhile, Brent Sass of Eureka was the first Quest musher to arrive Dawson City on Tuesday afternoon, where he started a mandatory 24-hour layover. In previous Quests, the Dawson stop was for 36 hours, but race officials reorganized the mandatory rest stops this year.
Earlier in the race, at the Pelly Crossing Community Centre on Monday, a whiteboard featured the scrawled names of six mushers who had arrived overnight, including four champions: Hugh Neff, Allen Moore, King and Lance Mackey. They were chasing perennial Quest contender Brent Sass and joined by the rising Norwegian musher Joar Leifseth Ulsom.
Neff arrived first at 1:20 a.m., proclaiming "We're almost to Dawson" as he entered the checkpoint. But as he slept inside, Sass blew through the checkpoint two hours later to take the lead in the race. Neff didn't give chase for two hours, 35 minutes, and by 9 a.m. Tuesday 21 of the 22 racers had left the checkpoint.
GPS trackers showed Sass with about a 30-mile lead over Neff as he closed to within 35 miles of Dawson City Tuesday morning. But at midday Tuesday, a SpotTracker, which every musher carries in his or her sled, showed King off-route and heading back toward Pelly Crossing. Yukon Quest officials were in transit Tuesday and couldn't be reached for comment.
Expect one of the leaders to arrive there today and lay claim to the traditional midway reward of 4 ounces of placer gold.
The contenders emerged in Pelly after a much-anticipated tangle with jumble ice on the Yukon River. Canadian Rangers had warned about the brutal 3-mile stretch of trail outside Carmacks during the pre-race report, and several of the leaders said it didn't disappoint.
Sass told the checkpoint crew the trip was "fun" after his team flew through in good shape, but Moore offered a different summary: "It was not pleasant."
He said the experience was like jumping from one block of vertical ice to the next while trying to keep his speeding team under control.
"The dogs thought it was great," he said. "When you were screaming, they thought you wanted them to go faster."
Mackey said he spent the trip trying desperately to hold onto his sled as it bounced along the trail.
"I am very amazed at how dogs go through as fast as they do and seem to come out fine," he said. "You're in the back bouncing around like a ping-pong ball."
After enduring jumble ice on the way to Pelly, mushers must navigate the most isolated portion of the Quest trail to get to Dawson. The 210-mile stretch includes only a pair of hospitality stops at Stepping Stone and Scroggie Creek, giving mushers a chance to break up their journey with a hot meal.
Race Marshal Doug Grilliot said many dog teams will haul a sled weighing 200 pounds or more on the leg, since it offers no checkpoints where mushers can resupply their food or gear. It ends with about 20 miles of climbs and descents through the Black Hills before hitting 4,002-foot-tall King Solomon's Dome just before Dawson City.
"It's beautiful, but you will literally see miles and miles and miles of nothing," Grilliot said.
Moore said such terrain could prove interesting as it becomes more common in the second half of the race. With less mandated rest time in Dawson City this year -- the mid-race layover has been reduced to 24 hours from 36 -- Moore said he's boosted his rest during the opening legs of the race.
He believes mushers making longer runs early in the race could struggle over Eagle Summit and during other climbs.
"My gamble is it will not benefit them," he said. "That's why I'm doing what I'm doing. That's their gamble, this is my gamble."
Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reporter Jeff Richardson contributed to this report.