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What's tougher, finishing Iditarod or climbing Everest?

  • Author: Bonnie Post
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published March 13, 2015

Guiding 16 dogs from Anchorage to Nome in sub-zero weather is not a piece of cake. Neither is climbing to near cruising altitude straight up a treacherous mountain that has killed 250 or so people.

Steve Watkins of Topeka, Kansas, an Army captain who served in Afghanistan, is trying to do both this spring, starting with the Iditarod. He was running 58th out of Ruby on Friday.

Both events are grueling, mentally taxing, physically exhausting and a few other unpleasant adjectives. But which is most difficult?

That depends on how you measure it.

Far more people have summited Everest. That is largely because recent innovations in weather forecasting, equipment and communications have made it possible for expeditions to pinpoint the best weather windows and get hundreds of people to the top in some years. On the other hand, no human has ever died in the Iditarod. That brings us to …

Ways to die: Advantage, Everest

More than 250 people have died in storms, avalanches, falls and from two types of fatal altitude sickness — and those are the just the main dangers. Sixteen Sherpa guides died on the mountain in the spring of 2014, shutting down the climbing season. The top reasons mushers drop out of the Iditarod, according to media coordinator Julie Busch, are injuries, frostbite, sleep deprivation, dog welfare and breaking a sled. But no one has died from any of those during the race.

Exclusivity: Advantage, Iditarod

Entry requires 750 miles in qualifying races, references, evaluation of mushing and dog care skills and a test of physical and mental abilities, such as being able to tolerate sleep deprivation. Some Everest expeditions require little more than writing a very large check (up to $125,000 or more).

Locomotion: Advantage, Everest

You have to schlep up Everest on your own two feet, as opposed to the 64 or so paws that cart you across Alaska – paws that, admittedly, need a lot of attention. Suze Kelly of Adventure Consultants, the expedition Watkins joined for his Everest quest, said climbers burn 6,000 to 10,000 calories per day on average and up to twice that at high altitude, where the heart pumps at near-maximum capacity. Iditarod dogs burn as many as 12,000 calories per day, the equivalent of about 22 Big Macs. Mushers? Not so much. Watkins said mushers often consume protein drinks, candy bars and smoothies.

Isolation: Advantage, Iditarod

All responsibility for getting yourself and your dogs from checkpoint to checkpoint is yours. Mushers go it alone on miles of barren tundra in icy winds and sub-zero temperatures. On Everest, you are never alone. Expeditions plan the menu and monitor the weather. Guides and Sherpas handle the navigating and technical parts, not to mention the heavy lifting. On summit day, you may have to wait hours in a theme-park-worthy line to take your final steps to the peak.

Opinion of those who have done both: Draw, for lack of a data sample

Only two people have done both, according to a woman who hopes to become the third.

Cindy Abbott, 56, of Irvine, California, summited Everest on her second try in 2010; on Friday she drove 15 dogs out of Tanana on her third attempt at reaching Nome after scratching in the past two Iditarods. In 2013, a broken pelvis forced her to withdraw when she was 630 miles into the race. Last year it was the lack of snow, which sent her sled careening down a mountain gorge over boulders and tree stumps. She considers the Iditarod tougher.

"Everest is more deadly, but the Iditarod is more difficult," Abbott said. "On Everest, all I had to worry about was myself. All decisions, whether to stop or keep going, were based on me. On the Iditarod, all my decisions are based on the safety of my dogs. Do I continue on a long run or in bad weather, do I rest longer or do I stop? … And it's a lot of work."

Watkins, on the other hand, said he believes Everest will be more difficult for him – though, unlike Abbott, he's never competed in the Iditarod before.

"Mountaineering is largely an endurance sport with endurance athletes," he said. "I can pretend I am one, I can pull off endurance feats on occasion in my life. But … I've never been a cross-country guy, never been a guy who excelled at endurance sports. But I can do dogs, I can do the cold, and I can do orienteering and chaos management and fearlessness. I can do that all day long."

So which is more difficult? Apparently, it depends on your skills and strengths and what you can do all day long.

Bonnie Berkowitz is a reporter in the infographics department at The Washington Post.