EAGLE SUMMIT — Musher Hans Gatt stopped his sled dog team Sunday afternoon in the middle of the trail in a mountain pass here. Then he dropped to the snow.
He put one hand over his forehead, and used the other to pet one of his lead dogs.
Gatt and his eight sled dogs had just climbed one of the steepest trail sections of the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race. And, it was terrible, he said.
“I’m not 25 anymore,” he said, after he stood up, handed out snacks to his dogs, ate part of a chocolate bar and started fastening booties to his dogs’ feet.
(Gatt, of Whitehorse, Yukon, is in fact 60. He’s also a four-time Quest champion. His last win was in 2010.)
The climb up into the mountain pass at Eagle Summit — roughly 120 miles from this year’s Fairbanks finish line — can make or break a race.
At the top of the uphill, Gatt gave up his third-place standing. At least until the next checkpoint.
About 15 minutes after Gatt collapsed into the snow, musher Michelle Phillips walked across part of the mountain pass next to her 10 sled dogs, holding onto the line that connected her team together. Then she got back onto her sled runners.
She had to become the lead dog as her team climbed, she later said.
“We were doing it as a group effort,” said Phillips, of Tagish, Yukon.
Hemmed in by mountains, Phillips and Gatt exchanged a few words, appearing to commiserate over the brutal trail. Both had wind-burned faces. Phillips then maneuvered her sled dogs around Gatt’s team. An inhospitable wind tore through the pass with temperatures in the teens.
Phillips took over third place.
Behind her, 24 mushers including 2017 Quest champion Matt Hall.
Hall was in Central Sunday evening, a community and a Quest checkpoint before Eagle Summit. Hall had ordered a grilled ham and cheese sandwich and talked about the trail ahead.
He said he planned to lighten his sled in Central to prepare for Eagle Summit.
Hall, 27, said age should be on his side when it comes to steep climbs but, “All the old guys are kicking my ass right now, so I don’t know.”
Sunday was the 9th day of the Yukon Quest, a race between Whitehorse, Yukon, and Fairbanks that’s known for long stretches of trail through the wilderness.
A 2019 Quest champion is expected sometime Monday.
At stake: $21,769.50 for first place.
Jason Severs, a race judge, said this year’s Quest is notable for its warmer-than-usual temperatures and hard-packed trail.
Also this year: Mushers raced fewer miles. Race organizers cut a 77-mile stretch of the 1,000-mile trail, between the Yukon checkpoints of Braeburn and Carmacks because there wasn’t enough snow. Mushers drove between the checkpoints instead.
This year’s top teams are traveling fast, Severs said.
“There are four teams right now that are in the top positions and anything can happen,” he said late Sunday afternoon.
By Sunday night, Sass was in first place, Moore in second and Gatt had hopped in front of Phillips, taking back third.
[Watch the race tracker here.]
Story by Tegan Hanlon, photos by Marc Lester.