‘Send help now’: Two mushers describe the events that led to their rescue from the Kobuk 440 race trail

Jeff King feared freezing to death. Philip Hanke was out of food and bogged down in snow. Both pressed the SOS button in the season-ending sled dog race.

After he lost the race trail, Jeff King stopped his dog team and draped his sleeping bag over his head to block the battering wind and blowing snow. He was somewhere between the villages of Ambler and Shungnak in Alaska’s Arctic northwest competing in the Kobuk 440 Sled Dog Race. Conditions ranged from howling to furious.

The last few hours took exhaustive effort to move straight into fierce headwind. So when King stopped seeing trail markers, he thought better than to guess about how to correct his course.

“If we’re not going towards the trail, it means we’re going away from the trail, and this is going to get bad,” King said to fellow racer Gunnar Johnson.

Under the sleeping bag, King strained to see a satellite messaging device through iced-over eyeglasses. He wanted someone back home tuned in to his whereabouts as he struggled.

“Hey we are in a pickle,” he typed to his handler.

King normally enjoys the Kobuk 440 for its mild conditions. This year all 12 racers took a beating from the get-go on April 2. A storm caused officials to delay the scheduled start by a day, and it wasn’t over when they got underway.

In the end, only one musher, Ryan Redington, traveled all the way to Kobuk, the original turnaround point, back to the finish line in Kotzebue. He was declared the race’s winner. The finish order for the rest of the field was determined by run times that discounted the nightmarish Ambler to Kobuk dogleg on the course’s east end. It was an unprecedented on-the-fly solution, but hardly the biggest problem race organizers faced.

Last Sunday, Easter, proved most chaotic. Some mushers retreated to Ambler. Trail crews and village-based rescuers dispatched into the dark to check on mushers and guide dog teams into Shungnak in low-to-no visibility conditions.

Later that day, race officials halted the event in hopes of corralling most participants in Ambler until the weather improved. The race was also rerouted to keep responders from being stretched too thin should they be needed again.

“This race was just one thing after another from start to finish,” said Robin Gage, a trail crew volunteer.

By the time it was over, King and Philip Hanke — one among the sport’s most veteran and winning racers and the other a mushing upstart — would both push the “SOS” distress signals on their SpotTracker devices, actions that set in motion a search and rescue response. Another musher, Nic Petit, pushed the help button, which typically indicates a less dire situation, according to race association president Paul Hansen. All three were withdrawn from the competition.

In the days after they returned home, Hanke and King shared the story of what led to their rescues during the last major sled dog race of the season in Alaska.

Fits and starts

Hanke’s race had barely begun before his plans started to buckle.

Four years ago, he was an engineer in Oklahoma when he packed up his Jeep for a road trip north. When he reached Fairbanks, he felt like he found the place he belonged and stayed. He’s been mushing for about two years.

This is his first season of racing and the Kobuk was his third race. Running Olivia Shank and Hugh Neff’s dogs this time, Hanke lined up on his 28th birthday in unfamiliar conditions in Kotzebue. KOTZ radio reported the temperature was minus-6 degrees at the race start, but the windchill reached 34 below.

“I’ve never been in wind like that before,” Hanke said.

Hanke made it about two miles before he returned to Kotzebue to drop two dogs that concerned him. The rest of the team balked at restarting. It took him two hours to get moving again.

“You can’t fault the dogs for not wanting to run into a headwind like that,” he said.

Though the race pack had pulled far ahead, things improved for Hanke. His team seemed to rebound after a rest in Noorvik. Hanke decided to pass through Kiana and camp further up the trail to make the most of his momentum.

“This is my opportunity to pull farther ahead and catch up a little bit,” he said he thought, unaware that a second storm was approaching.

He stopped east of Kiana to camp for more than five hours. Afterward, the wind picked up and his team slowed as snow drifts grew. The team needed another break after just 10 more miles.

“They were getting really demotivated, and I thought this would be a good opportunity to rest, just because, I mean, I wasn’t really sure what else to do,” he said.

Nowhere to hide

As Hanke was shutting down for the night, King and the other racers fought the intensifying wind toward the trail’s eastern reaches. The run from Kiana to Ambler, which King said typically takes about 8.5 hours, took 13 hours this year.

Rest for the weary was not in the forecast. Word at the checkpoint that the wind had calmed up ahead proved false. Ten miles out of Ambler, King moved from one trail stake to the next as darkness fell. Another racer, Gunnar Johnson, caught up to King and the two decided to stick together in the storm.

After dark, King saw a headlight approaching. Strangely, he interpreted the sight as an indication of better conditions ahead, because he assumed the racer had gone all the way to Kobuk and was returning from the out-and-back leg. But the musher was Tony Browning, who was retreating from the storm.

“I never once thought of turning around. And now I’m just going ‘Why didn’t I?’” King said.

Conditions deteriorated. King said he tangled with Johnson’s team as both mushers slipped on glare ice. King’s dogs seemed dejected when they lost sight of the trail markers, he said.

“I remember telling Gunnar, ‘This is about as much fun as I care to have right now,’” King said.

After he sent the text to his handler, Amanda Otto, he lay next to Johnson, each in his sleeping bag. At the time, he hoped the storm would ease up so he could look for the trail again in the morning.

While King and Johnson hunkered down, trail crew volunteers Robin Gage and Clay Beck scrambled to improve trail markers near Shungnak. They cut willow branches and added reflective tape to create dozens of makeshift stakes.

Gage got a call from race headquarters at 1:20 a.m requesting that he and Beck backtrack to check on King and Johnson. GPS tracking indicated the mushers were off trail and no longer moving. The snowmachiners found them at about 2 a.m.

“Even though they were okay where they were, it was not a place they wanted to stay,” Gage said.

Although the mushers were only three-tenths of a mile from the trail according to Gage, it took most of an hour to get them back on course.

“(King) made it very clear that he did not want to scratch, and we didn’t want to interfere to that level,” Gage said.

Again, King and Johnson struggled to maintain progress. After one slip and fall, he recalled laying for a moment with his back flat on the ice and his headlamp pointed at the sky.

“My fitness is not what it has been in years past, and I was really, really exhausted, between falling, slipping and pushing the sled,” King said.

After a couple miles, King told the trail crewmen he intended to stop again to rest. Johnson continued five more miles to Shungnak with guidance from two other snowmachiners from Shungnak’s search and rescue crew.

Gage felt conflicted when he and Beck left King alone in the blizzard.

“I did feel some guilt about leaving him …, Gage said. “What am I going to do though? Am I going to talk him into scratching? Who am I to talk Jeff King into scratching a dog race?”

On his own again, King fed his dogs, then piled them up to let them sleep. They looked like a beaver lodge, he said. “It was very reminiscent of my little camp spot outside of Safety years ago,” he said, referring to the 2014 Iditarod. That year, King nearly won his fifth Iditarod title, but a windstorm ended his race near the final checkpoint before Nome. He scratched when a snowmachiner offered to help him and he jumped on.

King lay down with his team. He cuddled a dog named Twister and tried to sleep. That’s when a flaw in the plan rattled his bones. The work of getting there had caused him to sweat, dampness worsened by blowing snow that found its way inside his clothing.

King started to shiver. He’s unsure if he slept, but remembers that when he stood up, he stumbled like he was drunk. With no dry gloves, he had trouble bending his cold fingers. Pain grew in his right hand.

Over the years, King said he occasionally remarked to family and friends that a person might as well die doing something he loved. As he grew colder, the possibility didn’t seem like mere banter.

“I’m actually thinking, ‘Son of a bitch, I’m going to freeze to death,’” he said.

With hours to go before daylight, King wondered what to do. That’s when he saw another musher’s headlamp on the trail. This time it actually was the race leader, Ryan Redington. But strangely, Redington was pointed toward Shungnak, the checkpoint he recently left. King said Redington was confused about which way to go.

King pointed the way to Ambler and told Redington to let the checkpoint crew know he needed help. But once Redington was gone, King realized it would be hours before that message was passed on. He picked the SpotTracker from the bootie on his sled to signal for help, something he had never done. Again, he still struggled to see the device through icy glasses.

“I couldn’t read the damn letters on the thing,” King said. “I thought there was an SOS button, and it was blinking green, but since I couldn’t read what button was what, I’m just pushing them all.”

Lights flashed once he properly uncovered the “SOS” button and he launched the transmission. He also sent another text to Otto back home. “Send help now,” it said.

Conditions never improved as he waited.

“I had absolutely no remorse at this point or regret, except maybe not doing it sooner,” he said. “I was really, really cold.”

At 6 a.m., Gage got another call from race headquarters. This time, he and Beck joined members of the Shungnak-based search and rescue team to respond. When they reached King more than an hour later, he had one arm pulled up into his sleeve to protect his frozen hand. He seemed somewhat symptomatic for hypothermia, Gage said.

“He definitely seemed a little loopy, so we just had to be very direct and clear with him,” he said.

Gage leaned his weight against King as they rode on the snowmachine, hoping to keep the wobbly musher from tipping off as they rode over the bumpy trail.

As King warmed up in the Shungnak clinic, he worried about his dogs. Beck mushed King’s team into the checkpoint as weather improved that morning. The recovering musher also felt disappointed that rescuers needed to mobilize for him.

“I’m not sure I’ve ever been in any stronger wind in a dog sled situation,” said King, who has been racing for more than 40 years.

In too deep

At about the same time King was being rescued that morning, Hanke woke up covered in snow about halfway between Kiana and Ambler. The trail he had trouble following the night before had mostly disappeared under drifts. It took hours to get to a shelter cabin on the Kobuk River, where they paused again at midday.

Hanke ran low on food for himself and his dogs and persevered with hopes of reaching his drop bags in Ambler. After he left the shelter cabin, he alternated standing on his runners and walking in front of his leaders. But the further he went, the deeper the snow. Sometimes he advanced only by prodding with a ski pole to find the trail as he walked in front of the team.

“Sometimes I would fall off. This was in four feet of snow and I would have to resort to rolling around on my stomach to get out,” Hanke said.

“I think I estimate about 20 miles of walking that day,” he said.

In the afternoon, a snowmachiner headed to Ambler re-broke the trail. That helped, but the snow was still soft. Temperatures dropped as night fell Sunday. Ten miles past the shelter cabin, he looked east.

“I’m on top of a hill. I’m looking out for anything to see if I could see Ambler, like a radio tower or an airport light, and I don’t see anything,” he said. “I bed the dogs down. I’m out of food. They’re out of food.”

He dug a trench in the snow, cut down spruce trees to lay in it, piled his bags on the trees and laid a sleeping bag on top of the pile. Hanke picked up his SpotTracker, but discovered it had died. He put the device inside his clothes, hoping to warm it back to life.

Though the wind had calmed, he struggled to build a fire with green wood to thaw his frozen boots. In the middle of the night, he began to walk in an effort to break some trail for the dogs when they got going again, but after a mile decided against going forward at all.

“I have no clue how far it is to Ambler. I know how long it’s going to take me to get to the shelter cabin...,” he thought. “I need a hand.”

The SpotTracker powered on and he pushed the SOS button. It flashed for a moment and died again. Hanke was unsure it had properly transmitted his signal when he climbed back in his sleeping bag. Then he fell asleep until the sound of snowmachines woke him early Monday, he said.

The three-person trailbreaking crew had already been en route to check on the idle musher. They didn’t know he had pushed the distress button before they found him, Hanke said. Because the race had been rerouted, the whole field of competitors and trailbreakers were headed his way, though Hanke had no way of knowing that when he signaled for help.

Hanke flashed his headlamp to capture the trail crew’s attention. They brought him muktuk and sandwiches to eat, coffee to drink and dry clothes to wear.

“It was very much appreciated,” Hanke said.

The musher hooked up his team and followed the snowmachines back to the shelter cabin. There, he thawed his boots and loaded his dogs into a snowmachine trailer sled with dog boxes, which then brought them all back to Kiana.

After more food and rest, he mushed the dogs the rest of the way back to Kotzebue.

Decisions ahead

The Kobuk 440 was Hanke’s third mid-distance race attempt and his second scratch. He finished last in the other.

King, 65, has raced the Iditarod to the finish line 27 times, placing in the top-ten 20 times and winning it four times. He doesn’t know how many times he’s raced the Kobuk, but he thinks he won it five times.

Both mushers expressed optimism, but uncertainty about their future in mushing, after they returned home from the Kobuk 440.

Despite his troubles, Hanke said he considered the Kobuk 440 his best race yet. It tested his ability to stay upbeat in tough circumstances.

“I never hit a low, if that makes any sense,” Hanke said. “I try to keep a really positive mindset.”

“Even though I scratched, I know I tried my hardest,” he said.

Hanke, who has worked as a field technician with UAF-based researchers, is weighing his options. He might go back to grad school, or he might go all-in with the musher’s lifestyle and start his own kennel.

“I decided I really have to focus on getting my own team at this point, if I decide to continue mushing,” he said.

King sat out the Iditarod this year because he wasn’t keen to camp outside to the extent that the COVID-19 precautions required, he said. He has been enjoying mentoring younger mushers lately, he said. He hasn’t ruled out a return to the race next year, but it’s not a sure thing.

“If I take a break and get some sleep and warm up, I’ve got a beautiful dog team and I know how to drive and care for them,” King said. “But I don’t have the interest or the ability to maintain my own health if I have to camp out for that far,” he said.

When considering his future in racing, King said one factor seemed certain.

“I doubt I’m ever gonna become 30 again,” he said.

Marc Lester

Marc Lester is a multimedia journalist for Anchorage Daily News. Contact him at mlester@adn.com.