ROHN -- Two-time Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race champion Robert Sorlie came in here wide eyed and pale on Monday, visibly shaken by the gnarly descent down out of the Alaska Range mountains to the ice of the Tatina River.
The Norwegian musher struggled with tasks like unwrapping a cord on a plastic sled mushers use to carry water back and forth from South Fork Kuskokwim River, about a half-mile walk from the checkpoint. Frustrated, he grabbed a plastic bucket and headed for the water.
Minutes later, he came back, even more frustrated that he had taken a wrong turn on the nearly snowless gravel runaway near this outpost, log-cabin checkpoint in the heart of the Alaska Range. He was not the only flustered musher here.
Many who made it through the Dalzell Gorge on the way to the checkpoint couldn't believe they made it through alive. The gorge has long been known as tough and unforgiving, but in the snow-short winter of 2014 it was worse than normal.
A slew of top contenders with 20 or more Iditarods under their belts said it was the worst they'd ever seen the gorge. It was particularly shocking given that the trail from the Rainy Pass checkpoint for a dozen miles up to the 3,160-foot pass was near excellent.
Everything changed on the descent.
The narrow, winding trail that parallels Dalzell Creek in the final miles before Rohn was completely bare of snow. Steep, icy downhills led to sharp turns, all while mushers tried to dodge trees and boulders.
Some, wary of the conditions, came prepared. Paul Gebhardt of Kasilof, running his 17th Iditarod, showed off an armor-reinforced sled. Prior to the race, he wrapped aluminum sheeting over some of the wooden beams that hold the sled together in preparation for navigating the rocky course.
He remembered blasting over a big rock he encountered in the middle of the trail. Normally the rock would be covered with snow, but not this year, and there was no chance of navigating around it.
"You just smash into it," he said, while flipping his sled over to inspect his runner plastic while his team nestled on mossy ground between the tall spruce trees that surround the checkpoint. "That's no fun."
No fun was a particularly apt description of the Dalzell.
Willow musher Justin Savidis' team made it out of the gorge only to take a wrong turn when it emerged onto the smooth, glare ice of the Tatina. Savidis had a hard time getting the team stopped on the glare ice. It took several miles before he could stop his team and turn them around.
He described conditions through the gorge in vivid terms.
"Imagine a deer trail that winds through the mountains, up and down, with rocks and trees and stumps on all sides of you," he said. "Then you hook up a dog team and try to go through it."
Some mushers came in swearing and angry. Travis Beals struggled to set his snow hook in the icy ground outside the checkpoint cabin, flipping his sled over in the process, and cursing the trail the entire time. Abbie West, in her rookie run, asked if anyone had lost a sled brake, then pulled one out of her sled.
The brake had been torn cleanly off another musher's sled. West handed it to a race volunteer.
"That was the most dangerous thing I've ever done," said Jessie Royer, an Iditarod veteran from Montana. "I've never prayed so hard in my life."
Tough trail, not too many injuries
As mushers made their way to the Rohn checkpoint, which was also snow bare except for a few shallow patches, it became clear that most were battered but not broken.
Two-time runnerup Aliy Zirkle from Two Rivers complained that her right side was going to be "black and blue" after hitting a rock in the gorge. Some other mushers sported scrapes and scratches. A few dogs had bumps, too, though the worst appeared to be a cut on the forearm on a dog in Rick Casillo's team that required stitches.
Behind the leaders, things just got worse as the condition of the trail deteriorated with the passing of every sled.
The Kenai Peninsula's Kristy Berington arrived about an hour before her traveling companion -- twin sister Anna. Worried about what had happened, Kristy stood by the lone cabin in the spruce forest, watching and waiting. The Beringtons had departed Rainy Pass together, but became separated while navigating the steep gorge.
Kristy knew Anna had to sort out her dogs at one point after the team got wrapped around a tree.
Anna eventually made it in one piece, but it took nearly two hours longer than her sister. Anna was disappointed race officials made the decision to stick to the traditional Iditarod Trail instead of moving the race restart to Fairbanks.
She had heard the trail was going to be bad, but never expected it to be terrible. She said trail crews should have tried running a dog team through the area before the race.
"I'm (the team's) guardian and I hate to put them through this," Berington said.
Veteran Iditarod musher DeeDee Jonrowe from Willow called the decision to race through the gorge "foolish." She lost her team three times and required assistance to walk them out of the gorge. With no snow to use the sled brakes, she was unable to manage the power of 16 dogs as they pulled her downhills.
Jonrowe officially scratched Tuesday morning. She didn't think the worst of the trail was over, and while she didn't like making the decision, she knew it was the right one for her.
"You don't take off somebody's chest and not lose some strength," Jonrowe said, referring to the mastectomy she had 2002 while battling breast cancer.
"DeeDee and I are the weak link in our teams," added Linwood Fiedler, a longtime racer who placed second in 2001. Fiedler, 60, also decided to scratch in Rohn after losing his team four times going down the trail. With a bad ankle that required surgery several years ago – compounded by being run over on this Iditarod – he didn't think it would be best to continue.
"We should not have run this," Fiedler said, looking up toward the pass.
It was a sentiment echoed among many.
"If I had known it was going to be this bad I wouldn't have gone," Gebhardt said.
Alaska Dispatch Publishing