Trouble in the Topkok Hills: How a violent windstorm trapped a Fairbanks couple on the Iditarod Trail, and what it took to get out

Furious weather ended the Iditarod for six mushers on March 18. Here’s how the misadventure unfolded for Jeff and KattiJo Deeter as they neared the race’s finish line.

KattiJo Deeter, Jeff Deeter, Iditarod, rescue

KattiJo Deeter lay with her sled dogs as a windstorm raged across the ridges and drainages of the Topkok Hills. Her dogs surrounded her as they huddled in the lee of her tipped sled. She was about 60 miles from reaching the finish line of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race for the first time, but progress had stopped.

“I was thinking ‘This is not happening. This is not happening. I’m having a nightmare,” said the rookie in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. “Any minute I’m going to wake up and still be in White Mountain.”

Her husband, veteran racer Jeff Deeter, equally unable to stay upright on his sled, parked his team in front of her. He walked to check on another musher who he feared was also in trouble at the next hilltop.

In good weather, White Mountain, the closest village on the Norton Sound coast, would be hours behind them by dog team. Caught in the hellish storm of March 18, the Deeters could no more head back there than they could advance. Hours of trying, hoping to reach a break in the weather or a shelter cabin, had only proven to repeatedly tumble the mushers and increasingly threaten their safety.

“I’ve been mushing for close to 20 years and I’ve never been in a weather situation where I’ve had to stop,” Jeff said.

Weeks earlier, before the Iditarod got underway, KattiJo peppered Jeff, a five-time finisher, with questions. How would she know if she needed to scratch from the race? That’s not going to happen, he said. But if it did?

“It would be obvious,” he advised her. “It’s going to be apparent.”

“And he was right,” KattiJo said, recalling the way her race ended. “But it was still very difficult.”

The Deeters were two of six Iditarod mushers whose run ended in the ferocious ground storm in the Topkok Hills that day. Three days after Brent Sass reached Nome to claim the championship, rescuers scrambled to reach the teams pinned down on the trail during their final runs of the nearly-1,000-mile race.

For hours, the Deeters hunkered with their teams behind a snow drift, working to stay warm and hydrated and uncovering their dogs from the blowing snow. KattiJo told Jeff she was ready to push the SOS button on her GPS tracker, a move that would signal their distress to emergency responders and disqualify them from the race. In such hostile elements, she was under no illusion that help could come quickly, but at least it would communicate their need.

“I felt like an idiot that I had gotten myself into that situation,” KattiJo said. “I felt guilty for using those search and rescue resources when I was supposed to be this tough Iditarod musher. I felt hypocritical for everyone else that had ever pushed their button that I had sat and judged in the comfort of my own home.”

Jeff agreed that it was time to push the button.

“It was either both of us were going to make it or neither of us were going to make it,” he said.

Jeff told a third musher, Sebastien Dos Santos Borges, who had joined them at their emergency camp in the shrubs, of their plans to signal for help. One after another, all three mushers pushed their SOS buttons. Then they waited in the storm for hours, unsure what to expect next as the storm roiled on.

The fine line between a challenge and a disaster

That they had been traveling together meant that Iditarod plans had already changed for the Deeters. Jeff, 33, placed 12th last year. KattiJo, 36, a race rookie, ran a team of less experienced dogs from their Fairbanks-area kennel. Her goal was only to finish.

In hindsight, marrying their races was a mistake, they said. Jeff had given up his hopes of mushing competitively by Cripple near the Iditarod’s midway mark. By there, he had needed to drop several dogs that were key to his ambitions. He slowed to keep pace with KattiJo. But even with a diminished team, he moved quicker than the less experienced mushers with whom she ran near.

Had Jeff not waited at checkpoints for KattiJo, he likely would have moved fast enough to stay ahead of the harshest weather. If KattiJo hadn’t been running to stay near Jeff, she might have either remained in White Mountain longer or turned back as weather deteriorated. Instead, pointed west, the couple rode into trouble together.

KattiJo Deeter, Jeff Deeter, Iditarod, rescue

White Mountain conditions foretold none of the fury that lay in store that morning. Four other mushers — Gerhardt Thiart, Bridgett Watkins, Sean Williams and Dos Santos Borges, all rookies — followed shortly behind the Deeters for the final 77 miles to Nome.

“I think everyone, as we’re getting ready, is like, ‘Great. It’s a beautiful, clear night in White Mountain. It’s zero degrees. We’re going to be mushing into the rising sun,” Jeff said. “How much more perfect can this get?”

They had reason for optimism. Over the years, relatively few mushers who have made it to White Mountain fail to later reach Nome. But it’s hardly a slam dunk. The run from White Mountain to Safety has proven a plot-twisting game-changer on numerous occasions.

In 2014, Jeff King was disqualified from an Iditarod he was on track to win when he accepted help in a fierce coastal storm near Safety. In 2020, three mushers were rescued by an Alaska Army National Guard helicopter, bogged down by overflow. Even this year’s race champion, Brent Sass, said he was “really lucky” that his dogs performed in chaotic wind in the Topkok Hills.

Ten miles out of White Mountain, the Deeters began to gain altitude. The wind, which had increased since they left the checkpoint, only grew stronger as they climbed. KattiJo’s concern grew, but Jeff delighted in the challenge. There were moments he could turn off his headlamp and take in a beautiful sight, he said — the ground storm billowing beneath a starry sky as he traveled by moonlight.

“I went back to check on Katti, and I was like ‘This is awesome. This is the coolest mushing I’ve ever done,’” Jeff said. “But there is that line between awesome and disaster that is fine.”

Stress and distress

About 15 miles outside of White Mountain, the wind roared with such intensity that neither the rookie nor the veteran could keep their sleds on the trail, which had been scoured to an icy strip, leaving little purchase for the dogs and sled to counter the hurricane-force gusts.

“That was kind of the point where we have passed the limit of mushing into survival,” Jeff said.

As Jeff crossed one glassy creek, wind sent him careening downstream and slammed him to the surface of the ice.

Behind him, KattiJo could barely see her lead dogs through the blowing snow as they followed the rising and falling trail. She lost count of how many times she had tipped and somersaulted as the wind batted her off the runners. Sometimes, the wipeouts resulted in a tangle of lines as the dogs, their faces crusted in ice and snow, ran back to the struggling musher.

For a time, she wondered if she was to blame for her difficulties since Jeff seemed to fare better. “When I flipped and watched his headlamp go out of sight, I was like, is this just me?” KattiJo said.

“I was scared and I felt pretty helpless. I felt guilty to be barely surviving on my own and still have a group of dogs that needed me to tell them what to do and be a good role model…,” she said. “I felt really really trapped, long before we decided to actually stop.”

KattiJo would drop out of sight as Jeff concentrated on his own driving. When he could, he would stop to let her catch up, not knowing if she were 100 feet or a quarter mile back. With each pause, he feared his dogs would hunker down and refuse to continue. Once, he turned the team around to find her, a move that also seemed likely to deflate the team’s motivation to press on.

“That’s kind of the last position you ever want to get your dogs in as a musher,” Jeff said.

They peeled the plastic from the runners from their sleds in hopes that the metal edges would better hold to the trail, but difficulty only grew more severe with each sloped and tilted mile. At about 6:30 a.m, roughly 18 miles from White Mountain, Jeff’s sled slammed on his side as Katti’s barrel-rolled off the trail. It was nearly impossible to stand up to return to her team, she said.

“And that was where she was like, ‘We can’t keep going,’” Jeff said.

In that moment, Dos Santos Borges mushed by, solidly navigating the storm, at least it briefly seemed. But Jeff caught a glimpse of his headlamp atop the next hill. He, too, appeared shut down.

KattiJo and Jeff retreated to find level ground. There, KattiJo unhooked her nine dogs, which instinctively huddled against her tipped sled. She laid a tarp on the snow and covered her animals and herself with a sleeping bag and parka. Jeff settled his eight-dog team and walked back up the trail to check on Dos Santos Borges, whom he found in “one big ball” with his dogs, wrapped around the sole tree on the hilltop.

When daylight arrived, the Deeters moved their camp, seeking better wind protection. It helped, but just barely. Nearby brush had created a snowdrift. They used their shovels to shape one side of it into a wall against the weather, but they couldn’t prevent blowing snow from constantly curling around it and covering themselves and their dogs. This wasn’t the sort of snow in which sled dogs could rest comfortably, KattiJo said. It was the sort that seemed to penetrate their fur and encrust their faces.

About 90 minutes later, Dos Santos Borges appeared before them through the blowing snow. Through the language barrier, the French musher communicated that he was low on both human and dog food and had no drinking water.

“He had early-onset signs of hypothermia and his hands were basically immobile,” Jeff said. “He told us he could feel one finger on each hand buried in his beaver mittens.”

Jeff instructed Borges to return to his team, and said he would join him soon to help him move to their makeshift camp in the willows. Then Borges walked off, but he did so in the wrong direction, seemingly disoriented in the swirling white landscape, Jeff said.

“It’s amazing what dehydration can do the mind and it’s amazing how quickly dehydration sets in with the wind and cold,” Jeff said.

Hours passed as the three mushers camped together. KattiJo dug a pit for her cooker, but struggled to melt much snow to drink. She periodically checked on Jae Bird, a lead dog that concerned her earlier on with her shivering and lethargy. She had tucked the dog under heat packs, an emergency blanket and a parka.

Jeff pulled his head and hands inside his parka to send and receive text messages, using a satellite device, with race marshal Mark Nordman. In Nome, Nordman coordinated with Alaska State Troopers, Bering Air, local residents who had launched by snowmachine, Iditarod trail sweeps and others — all of whom played a role in gathering information and responding to the six mushers who left White Mountain that morning, all of whom needed help and ultimately scratched from the race.

“It was one of the longer days I’ve had with Iditarod for sure,” he said.

Nordman communicated to Deeter that three other mushers who departed behind them in White Mountain had all been halted too. He also said that snowmachines were headed their way from Nome with supplies.

Jeff and KattiJo exchanged a look. They didn’t need supplies, they thought. They needed to get out of there.

“I reached a point of fatigue, and Jeff was getting worried about hypothermia,” KattiJo said. “He was really wet. He was really cold.”

At about 1 p.m., all three mushers reached for their tracker devices to firmly indicate their level of concern, hoping help might arrive by nightfall.

“Everything that looked like a button, I was pushing it,” KattiJo said.

A call for help

In the hills, there was no telling when help would come or from which direction. The Deeters would later learn that the Nome-based snowmachine group had been thwarted by wind in the “blowhole,” a stretch of coastal flatland notorious for its funnel of wind from the mountains to the sea.

While he waited, Jeff tied dozens of neon booties to willow branches along the path from the main trail to their camp in the brush, lest snowmachiners pass them due to poor visibility.

Nordman said troopers reached out to potential responders in White Mountain. Jack Adams, a White Mountain School teacher and a chief of the volunteer fire department got a call from the Village Public Safety Officer. He quickly rounded up other volunteers to help.

Jack Adams, White Mountain

“We were told that a human life was in danger, so we got ready within 20 minutes,” said Adams, who said he has about 25 years of experience assisting with rescue operations in the region. At the time it was questionable that they’d be able to reach the mushers. Blowing snow can sometimes reduce visibility to zero or infiltrate snowmachines to the point that they won’t run, he said.

“There’s been times we’ve had people stuck in that same area that we could not get there, and we’ve had to somewhere between beg and demand the National Guard to try to do something with their helicopter,” Adams said.

In the hills, the five-member snowmachine team faced sustained wind speeds of 50 mph, and gusts from 60 to 70, Adams said.

“When we wanted to talk to somebody we had to put our mouth right by their ear and yell,” he said. “We were having to lean real hard on our snowmachines or the wind would’ve blown the machines over.”

The Deeters said they found them at about 5 p.m., roughly four hours after they pushed their SOS buttons. Adams said they appeared to be in good condition. They had made the right call by signaling for help, he said. Considering the extreme windchill and the blowing snow, things could have gone downhill fast.

The first thing the Deeters noticed was that the rescuers brought no cargo sleds to transport dogs. Adams said the wind made that impossible. “The sleds become incumbrances at best, and then also dangerous because the sleds can actually blow up and whack the driver or whack an adjacent snowmachiners,” he said.

“We have to get the dogs off the mountain,” Jeff said. The rescuers would help move dogs, they said, but they would need to quickly figure out how to make that happen with the equipment on hand.

“We were originally going there to save people first and worry about dogs second,” Adams said. “But they were OK, and they were also not really anxious to be evacuated without their dogs, because I couldn’t guarantee we could come back. If conditions deteriorated, it might’ve been impossible.”

Jeff considered the core of the problem: The dogs would run, he said. It was that the mushers couldn’t keep the sleds upright. They needed only to reach the Nome Kennel Club’s shelter cabin about 3 miles away.

They connected both his and KattiJo’s 16 dogs to a gangline strung between the back of one snowmachine and the front of another. He tied his sled to the side of the rear snowmachine. Riding the runners, he could monitor speed and hand-signal instructions to the driver. Jae Bird rode in Jeff’s sled.

The group configured Dos Santos Borges’ team in the same fashion using two other snowmachines.

KattiJo started out being towed on her sled behind a fifth snowmachine, but, once again, she couldn’t stay upright in the wind. Fearing injury, she tied her sled to the side of the machine, and rode on its saddle behind the rescuer.

After 11 long hours, the mushers were finally in motion once more. They slowly traversed the last treacherous pitches in weather no better than when they first shut down their teams.

Reaching calm

KattiJo Deeter, Jeff Deeter, Iditarod, rescue

It took about 30 minutes to reach the shelter cabin from the emergency camp. There they finally found respite from the wind. Inside was Riley Dyche, a fellow Iditarod racer and the Deeters’ neighbor back home near Fairbanks. He too was waiting out the storm, though he hadn’t scratched from the race.

Moods lifted. Dyche and his six-dog team made room for three more mushers and teams inside the 12-by-20 foot cabin. All told, 32 dogs and four mushers packed inside. No one complained. In fact, the scene will likely endure as a bright spot in a dark time.

“We were all so grateful to be out of the wind,” Jeff said.

“Dogs are snuggling with dogs they don’t know. We’re petting dogs that aren’t our dogs. And so that was really special and reminds you why you’re doing this, and the love that we all have for our creatures,” KattiJo said. “It felt like the most luxurious Airbnb I’ve ever been in.”

The following morning, Dyche took advantage of a lull and got back on the trail to finish his ultimately successful run to Nome. Bringing dogs indoors is not allowed by the race, though. Dyche faced a $1,000 fine, according to the race marshal, because he didn’t notify an official that he knowingly violated a rule. He retained his 33rd-place finish, though, his second finish in three Iditarod attempts.

The Deeters rested comfortably, no longer pressured by hopes for an official finish. But when Iditarod volunteers arrived by snowmachine, they towed sled capacity enough to transport only one dog team to Nome.

“It was pretty obvious that Sebastien needed to get the ride,” Jeff said. “His condition was such that he needed a little bit more protection.”

The Deeters might have been drained and traumatized, but they were also healthy and intact. No helicopter was en route to whisk capable mushers off the trail. If they wanted to get to Nome, they’d have to mush there, just as the back-of-the-pack Iditarod racers had resumed doing along the trail outside the cabin.

“I don’t want to do this,” KattiJo told Jeff.

KattiJo Deeter, Jeff Deeter, Iditarod, rescue
KattiJo Deeter, Jeff Deeter, Iditarod, rescue

Once they got running, they continued to battle wind in “the blowhole” that triggered their stress, rolled their sleds and slammed them to the ground, this time on the glare ice of the coastal flats. KattiJo employed snowmachine assistance to keep her upright until the wind finally died down near Safety.

As the sun set before them, they headed straight toward Cape Nome. The hard-earned calm was a balm to the wounds of the previous days, Jeff said. “It was really good for us all, the dogs included, to get back to it and get back to running, and not have our final memory from the trail be the hellacious wind and the rescue,” he said.

KattiJo said her last run was much like the one she had hoped for. The peaceful moments gave her an opportunity to reflect on the entirety of her first Iditarod attempt, even if no belt buckle would be awarded for her efforts.

“I really tried hard to go back to all the runs I had done up to that point and remember that my Iditarod had been so much more than just what had happened since White Mountain,” she said.

Jeff wasn’t quite ready for the run to end, but his feelings were complicated. In the final miles, he thought about his late father, whose ashes he had carried to spread along the trail. And he felt badly for affecting his wife’s race with his presence.

Jeff sometimes doesn’t hear what he doesn’t want to hear, KattiJo said. “But once we were in trouble, he never made me feel bad or guilty like I wasn’t doing enough to help or that I wasn’t strong enough…,” she said. “He did as much work as he possibly could and was just very brave for me and the dogs.”

Jack Adams, the White Mountain fire chief, said he typically responds to one or two rescue situations in the Topkok Hills each winter, “not always with such good results.” This instance was the first time he helped Iditarod racers.

“Those three mushers we helped over by Topkok, they were totally with it,” he said. “They really helped save themselves once we were there to give them a little bit of help.”

Race marshal Mark Nordman said he expects the experiences from that storm will feature in the future discussions at mandatory rookie musher meetings. He said that he feels “blessed” that the Iditarod has not endured a human tragedy, considering the number of people who have run in over the years and their time spent on the long wilderness trail.

“We’ve been very fortunate for this many years, just in that many people, that many hours, that many minutes and seconds, that something hasn’t really tragically happened,” he said. “Very fortunate.”

Back home, about 20 miles outside of Fairbanks near Murphy Dome, the fraught run lingers in the Deeters’ conscious and subconscious thoughts. If her lowest moments during the ordeal seemed like a nightmare, now KattiJo actually dreamed some nights about mushing along a coast looking for shelter. In her dreams, she’s not in a panic though.

“(It’s) almost like my mind can tell there’s unfinished business there,” she said.

KattiJo said she is likely to attempt Iditarod again, though not necessarily next year.

Jeff, too, is regrouping and taking time to reassess his mushing future.

“I have very mixed feelings about returning to Iditarod in this moment,” he said a week after returning home. “I’m sure that will change as we get into summer.”

KattiJo said they’ve spent time at home trying to process what occurred, each appreciating the other’s experiences in an unspoken way that would’ve been impossible had they been apart in the most perilous moments.

“If either of us had to go through it, thank goodness we were together,” she said.

KattiJo Deeter, Jeff Deeter, Iditarod, rescue

Marc Lester

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