As Jeff King moved toward the finish of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race race Monday, the only thing standing between the four-time champion and a record-tying fifth win was the brutality of Mother Nature.
He left the White Mountain checkpoint less than 100 miles from the end, confident of victory, and then disaster struck.
"It smacked of quite an irony to have such a perfect execution and dominant position for winning, only to feel like the thumb of God pinned me to the ground and said 'not so quick Bucko, you're not in charge,'" he said in his first post-race interview with the media on Wednesday.
A fifth win would place King in an an elite status shared by only one other musher, the legendary and semi-retired Rick Swenson from Two Rivers. Fierce winds and icy conditions, however, forced the Denali Park musher first out of contention and then out of the race.
Speaking to Alaska Dispatch by telephone from Nome, King detailed the events that unfolded in the final 80 miles to the finish. It was along the Bering Sea coast outside that city that winds stalled his team.
That opened the door for 2012 champ Dallas Seavey of Willow to notch his second win in a come-from-behind fashion. He held off challenger Aliy Zirkle of Two Rivers in a raging storm just miles from the finish line.
Horrendous winds, blowing snow in gusts that allowed visibility only in pulses, coupled with an icy trail that provided no traction for the 11 huskies in King's team, made the going tougher than ever after more than 900 miles of some of the roughest Iditarod trail in recent years.
"(The dogs) did not bail," King said. "They did not quit. They just could not go in those conditions, and we needed to wait for (conditions) to change."
Unfortunately for King, however, the conditions stayed the same.
On the trail to Safety
For King, win number five, which would have been his first since 2006, seemed a sure deal when he left White Mountain, the second-to-last Iditarod checkpoint, on Monday afternoon. He was almost an hour ahead of Zirkle.
His team had proven significantly faster than hers coming into the mandatory eight-hour rest required of all the teams. As long as he kept moving forward, the odds of Zirkle catching up at that point seemed insurmountable.
King looked ready to shatter the race record, nab his fifth win, and earn back the title of oldest Iditarod champion.
As he left the little community on the banks of the Fish River, King said everything seemed on track. The first 15 miles of trail through the Topkok Hills were windy, but manageable. As he traveled with his canine teammates over the rolling hills, he figured his run to Nome was going to be a great one.
Then he came down out of the heights into a nightmare. It was the windy coast that would prove to be his most vicious foe.
A nasty crosswind immediately picked up once King hit the coast. The sled bag acted like a big sail. As it was buffeted by gusts, the sled fishtailed back and forth, jerking about his dogs, some of whom did barrel rolls in the wind. The 58-year-old musher himself took a few bad falls while trying to keep the sled upright and not run over the dogs. A few times he slammed into wooden tripods that mark trail along the coast, but he somehow managed to not break his sled or his neck.
At one point, the winds blew so fiercely that the cooker on the back of his sled was knocked off, he said. There was no chance of getting it back.
"(It flew off) not like a rolling piece of tumbleweed in a western, but more like shot out of a cannon," he said. "My cook pot just headed out to the ocean, barely touching the ground as it blew away."
Despite the conditions, his lead dogs -- Skeeter and Zip -- kept moving, desperately searching for better traction, moving back and forth from the marked trail to the beach to find footing.
Somehow, they managed to drag King past an area famously known as "the blowhole" and on toward Solomon, a former mining community now abandoned, only 5 or 6 miles from Safety.
It was here that things turned south for King. He was unable to see Cape Nome, a distinct landmark, ahead. What he saw instead was a "brown, telltale streak" of blowing dust and ice. With the winds gusting, he described visibility as "pulsing." There were moments of clarity where he could see the next tripod down the trail, and moments when he couldn't see 100 feet ahead.
In one of the latter moments, he narrowly missed colliding with a giant fuel truck driving down the Nome-Solomon Road. It appeared quickly and looked like "something out of 'Star Trek,'" he said.
At another point he was horrified to be able to see the carabiner attaching his sled to his gang line -- the rope to which the dogs are attached -- wide open, its locking mechanism unlocked. He managed to stop and close it, grateful he hadn't lost the team as the sled jerked back and forth.
The dog pile
Despite the battering everyone was taking, he said, they kept trudging ahead, hoping to make it to Safety before sunset, knowing things would only become more difficult in the dark.
King said he could tell his dogs were frightened by the ferocity of the wind. They were sometimes barking and whining as they moved forward, his leaders steering the course, trying to find a better foothold on the glare ice.
Then, about 3 miles before Safety, came a giant pulse of wind that just didn't stop, King said.
His faithful lead dog, Skeeter -- the same dog who led him across the Golovin Bay skating rink that foiled several mushers trying to get to White Mountain -- was blown off the trail, over the road between the trail and the beach and out toward the ocean ice.
He was tempted to let the team follow, he said, but a giant pile of snow and driftwood between him and the trail looked worrisome. He thought if he was to somehow get injured, a possibility given the way his sled kept getting knocked over, people coming down the trail might not be able to find him.
He realized fatigue -- in both himself and the dogs -- was adding up, too. So he decided to anchor down and calm himself and the dogs in hope that a little rest would get them all back on track.
The dogs hunkered into little balls, their coats whipping up in the wind, as they tried to rest. He spooned with two dogs so frantic they tried to climb into his parka. Eventually he piled all the dogs together, covered by his sleeping bag. He said they were like 4-week-old puppies, climbing on top of each other, trying to stay warm.
He stayed with the dog pile, his back to the worst of the wind, trying to protect them, pelted by snow and ice. He said it was hitting so hard it sounded like rain.
After a while, with the dogs shivering in the sleeping bag, King said it became clear that hunkering down just wasn't going to work. He had on every piece of clothing he brought with him, and he was starting to freeze. He knew there was no chance he was getting his sleeping bag back from the dogs.
So he decided to use what energy he had left proactively. He started walking to Safety.
The long walk
He thinks he must have looked like some sort of escaped convict wobbling down the trail. The strings keeping his mittens together were tangled, forcing him to wear them like handcuffs. The wind was so strong, even at his back, that every step was more like a chain gang shuffle.
He made it about 2 miles, almost to the Safety Roadhhouse, he said, when a group of people came along on snowmachines. He had by then concluded there was little chance he would make it back against the wind to his dogs. The gusts were just too powerful.
When they offered a ride, he opted to accept, knowing full well that he was taking outside assistance in violation of race rules and would need to scratch. He rode the final mile into Safety.
It was not an easy ride. A 14-year-old girl was blown off of one of the snowmachines, he said, when it rolled off the trail in the treacherous conditions.
She was luckily OK, and the group managed to right the snowmachine and make it to the roadhouse. There King met Zirkle in a cold, powerless cabin. With the generator out, everyone huddled around the wood stove, hoping for a little warmth.
Getting them back
King called Iditarod race marshal Mark Nordman, who confirmed that accepting the ride meant King was out of the race. The musher said he readily accepted that and moved on. Now he had to get back to his dogs.
An "Iditarod Insider" film crew, who follow the race in a pack of snowmachines, towing large sleds filled with camera gear, emptied those sleds and quickly set out with King to recover the dogs.
King jumped on one of the sleds and rode with them out to the dog pile, which was quickly becoming more like a snow berm. He said when he touched the first dog in the pile -- he couldn't tell which one, they were all unrecognizable -- the animal felt cold and hard. He feared for a moment it might be dead.
But then the dogs moved, heads poking up from the pile with snow packed on their foreheads like frosting. It was so blown in to their fur it couldn't be brushed off. The crew quickly took the dogs and packed them into the sleds, where they immediately hunkered down again.
The snowmachiners and King headed back for the Safety Roadhouse. It was then that Seavey appeared. The Insider crew, under strict orders to not interfere with the race, stayed back, not wanting to tip Seavey off to the fact that King was out of the race.
They waited so long after Seavey passed through Safety before going in that King, bone-tired from more than a week on the trail, ended up nodding off.
After Seavey went through Safety, he said, the group made it into the checkpoint in time to watch Zirkle leave. King tucked in his dogs, fed them the cooler of food he'd been carrying in hopes of a feeding at the bottom of the Topkok Hills, went inside, laid down on the floor of the cold roadhouse, and went to sleep.
After the storm
As King rested in Nome Wednesday, his dogs already on a cargo jet back to their Denali Park home, he wondered about what he might have done differently. He had thought about unhooking the sled and trudging it down the trail, taking each dog one by one and and reconnecting them, hoping that a little further down they would have been able to continue, he said.
He thought about pressing the SOS button on his GPS tracker -- a new feature in the race this year -- before he left his team, but decided he could make it Safety, hopefully warm up, and head back out to continue racing.
What he might have done, however, is all water under the bridge at this point, he said. In his view, it wasn't about toughness or someone doing a better job of driving their dog team at that point; it was a matter of luck and nature getting in the way.
"It's just like somebody that hit the tree that I glanced off going down the (Dalzell) Gorge," he said. "I made it by, someone else didn't. It's not entirely a reflection of talent. It was just a roll of the dice on that particular challenge."
He maintains that he did everything right, despite some unconventional moves along the way. It comes down to execution at the time it counts, he said. He compared the final outcome to what happens to a ski racer on a Super G slalom course: One small tweak and it's all over.
"You have to do everything right the whole way," he said. "Sometimes it makes it a race for testing our talents, and our fortitude combined with what the environment is pitching at us."
And despite saying two days earlier that when it comes to winning the Iditarod, it isn't about magic -- that it's "just a dog race" -- King conceded a somewhat different view this time. Maybe a little boost from the supernatural would have helped.
"I just needed one more magic trick in my playbook," he said, "and I ran out."
Alaska Dispatch Publishing