Alaska News

Musher Neff nearly died before Iditarod rescue, says girlfriend

In an emotional public Facebook post published on Thursday, Nicole Faille, girlfriend of veteran Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race musher Hugh Neff, criticized the race for failing to respond for more than 10 hours after Neff activated the SOS button on his SPOT tracker.

From Faille's post:

Hugh is here in Nome finally, arrived safe with the dawgs last night. After hearing Hugh's story told from our guardian angel Dave Branholm, and from Hugh himself....I think it should be told...

In Golovin Bay, at 9pm at night Hugh and his team were blown out onto the sea Ice by fierce winds of up to 65 mph. Not being able to get back on trail, fighting against wind and Ice, Hugh knew it was the end of his race and pushed his emergency button. Without any sign of rescue, he continued to push the button throughout the entire night, stuck in the winds blow hole. With hypothermia setting in, he climbed into his sled and sat contemplating that his sled might surely become his coffin.

Not sure what they were thinking in White Mountain that night, or what kind of musher they think can camp in 65 mph winds for 10 hours. Hugh is a hero in my eyes....but he is not superman.

At 5am our friend Dave Branholm gets the call to head out to search and rescue for Hugh. My guy was on his way out of this world when they found him around 6am and left another few hours he would not be here with me now. I understand there was much excitement elsewhere at this time, with the fight at the front for the win, but I feel they should know at Iditarod, that if they did wait a few more hours....10 hours being insane enough. You let my guy die out there and you will have a lot more to worry about than logistics and who won... standings list Neff as scratching in White Mountain after arriving at 7 a.m. on Tuesday, March 11 with a run time of 17 hours, 48 minutes from the previous checkpoint of Elim. In a March 11 press release, the Iditarod Trail Committee provided its version of events:


Neff indicated to Race Officials that his team was having difficulty traveling well on Golovin Bay. Race Officials sent a volunteer out to do a welfare check on Neff, at which time he made the decision to scratch. Neff and his team were transported to White Mountain.

The Iditarod's statement did not mention Neff's SPOT tracker or the SPOT's emergency features. The device allows users to push one of two buttons. One alerts authorities to launch a search and rescue operation. The other informs designated lifeguards that help is needed. It is unclear which button Neff pushed. The SOS button should have alerted the Rescue Coordination Center in Alaska. The "Help'' button was likely set to alert Iditarod, though a number of mushers told Dispatch they were never given any instructions in how to use either of these features at the mushers meeting before the race.

Conditions on Golovin Bay ice were extreme Monday, though there is no evidence the winds ever reached 65 mph. Still, 40 mph over glare ice where you can't stand up might as well be 65 mph normal conditions. Musher Kelly Maixner scratched as well as Neff, and Golovin school principal Gay Jacobson told Alaska Dispatch it was "horrible" watching mushers try to cross the ice.

In his own public Facebook post Thursday, Neff expressed his relief this way: "We are family, the Dawggies and me. Feels Good to be Dancing in Nome again. To be Alive."

Neff is currently marketing a self-published book, "Tails of the Gypsy Musher: Alaska and Beyond."

CORRECTION: This story was corrected on March 14 to reflect that it is unclear what button on the Spot device Neff pushed and to correct an inaccurate report of 65 mph winds on Golovin Bay.

Craig Medred

Craig Medred is a former writer for the Anchorage Daily News, Alaska Dispatch and Alaska Dispatch News. He left the ADN in 2015.