Frostbitten hands, chilled feet from Iditarod cold snap test mushers' resolve

TANANA — When Iditarod musher Joe Carson peeled off his gloves, pieces of his frozen skin stuck to the fabric.

He held out his right hand outside at the checkpoint here early Wednesday morning. Temperatures hovered around 30 degrees below zero. His dogs slept on top of straw and underneath red-and-green fleece blankets. A layer of frost coated his hat, neck warmer and sled. Two of his fingers were missing slices of skin, revealing red, raw sores underneath.

"The skin is frozen inside of that glove. It froze there," said the fourth-generation Alaskan who lives in McGrath and who pulled into Tanana at 6:46 a.m. Wednesday.

Overnight, temperatures remained far below zero in town and were lower along the trail.

55 below

While traveling on the Tanana River, Carson said his thermometer read 55 below. He kept water bottles tucked inside of his insulated coveralls to keep them from freezing and to stay hydrated. He kept his sled dog team in jackets and fed them fat along the trail — chicken fat, beaver fat, beef fat and tripe.

"We were going to camp, but it was just too cold," said Carson, a 60-year-old Iditarod rookie. "I've got my thermometer on my sled and I'm looking at it going, 'Oh, baby.' "

While the front-runners raced out of Tanana before dawn Wednesday, Carson and more than a dozen other mushers remained in town by late morning. They fed their sled dogs in a snowy lot next to the community hall, periodically going inside to eat, warm up or try to nap.

To get to the community of about 240 at the confluence of the Tanana and Yukon rivers, all of the teams had to push through the deep chill and a thick ice fog, just as Carson did.

Mushers here said they hoped for warmer weather ahead, which the weather forecast seemed to promise. They were ready to leave the brutal cold behind.

"It's been a challenge," said Iditarod musher Monica Zappa, of Kasilof, as she massaged the back of her sled dog, 3-year-old Big Horn. "We're just hoping it warms up. That would certainly be ideal for everybody."

[How to stay warm at 40 below — tricks of 7 Iditarod mushers]

Nails popping off

DeeDee Jonrowe is spending more time than she would like at checkpoints. She blames her hands.

The brutal cold during the 2015 Iditarod, which also started in Fairbanks, left her fingertips frostbitten, blistered and more susceptible to cold. Now, her fingers turn white quickly in the frosty air.

Outside of the checkpoint here Wednesday, she wore thick gloves but said she had to stop with her dog chore routine every so often to warm up her hands by either going inside where a wood stove burned or staying outside and drawing her hands inside of her clothing.

"I'm doing pretty good, but I've got to say that it's not easy," said Jonrowe, a 63-year-old Willow resident running her 35th Iditarod.

Her hands, she said, were "getting worse."

"They've just started to get into the pop-off-the-fingernail stage," she said. "It's not a lot of fun."

The sun had already risen by the time Jonrowe worked on repacking her sled bag and temperatures crept up to about 10 degrees below zero. Jonrowe searched the ground between scattered bags of dog kibble, frozen meat, hand warmers and bright pink dog booties as she placed different items in sled compartments.

"See how slow I am at my chores?" she said. "I've got to stay somewhere longer to catch up and then that is an issue. I wish I could say it wasn't, but that wouldn't be honest."

Jonrowe headed for Ruby at 4:35 p.m. Wednesday after 14 hours in Tanana.

Frozen feet

Zoya DeNure, of Delta Junction, said she couldn't keep her feet warm during her team's eight-hour run at 50 below to the checkpoint here.

She wiggled her toes inside her heavy boots. She danced her feet on the back of her sled runners. She kicked her foot off the frozen river to help propel her team forward. But she still pulled into Tanana at 7:51 a.m. with aching, freezing feet.

Like four-time Iditarod champion Lance Mackey, DeNure said she suffers from the at-times painful Raynaud's syndrome, which limits blood circulation to her fingers and toes.

"My feet are cold and I've already got circulation issues, so I just have to go slower and take more time and pace myself, which puts me at the checkpoint a little bit longer, but that's OK," DeNure said, standing outside near her sled dog team that rested in straw.

The last time the Iditarod started in Fairbanks, in 2015, DeNure scratched from the race here because of frozen feet and hands. She said this year feels colder, but "now I'm two years wiser. I can deal with it. It's not going to be fun, but I'll deal with it."

DeNure has scratched from five of her six Iditarods, only finishing her first race in 2008 in 53rd place. She said a combination of problems over the years has led to her leaving the race early, including sick dogs, injuries and being away from her two daughters, now ages 3 and 8.

This year, she said she wants to make it to Nome with a strong, healthy sled dog team and, for her, healthy fingers and toes. She also wants to have fun.

"This time I'm looking at it a little different and saying, 'Well there's going to be obstacles and things will come up, so I'm just going to try to problem-solve as I go. Because that's what I do at home,' " she said.

DeNure also said this could be her last Iditarod, at least for a while.

DeNure, who is married to fellow dog driver John Schandelmeier, said the race is costly and takes a lot of preparation, which can be tough when trying to balance that with a busy family life. Apart from racing, she also home-schools her children, and they're involved in church and singing and piano. Her oldest daughter, Jona, asked her why she had to race this year, DeNure said.

"This is a great sport if you're a person without kids," she said.

[Hands down, the Iditarod can be brutal on fingers]

DeNure said she had to finish this year's race for herself, "more than anything," and she's hoping for warmer days ahead.

"Everybody keeps saying it's going to warm up, so we're just looking forward to that and having a lot of faith that it will," she said.