Looking down from the helicopter that rescued him, Sean Underwood could see a storm had flooded a swath of Norton Sound coastline.
Wind and seeping water had turned snow and ice near the Solomon River into a series of small lakes for miles. That was his view as he was lifted above the Iditarod Trail and away from a 975-mile race he was only about 34 miles from finishing last March.
Each overflow lake would have been a treacherous slog had he tried to continue. He made it through one, soaked and shaken, but the next might have swallowed his sled and soaked his survival gear. He and two fellow mushers would’ve had to forge through water, over and over, as hypothermia danger grew more severe.
So from above that day, it seemed like the right call that he activated his emergency beacon and ended his race to Nome, even though he was 96% of the way.
“At least that’s what I tell myself to sleep at night,” he said recently.
Still, since that day Underwood can’t escape the thought that if he had rested and regrouped before scratching, his race might have ended differently.
“It’s haunting,” he said. “I’ve always been a sore loser, so it doesn’t feel good to come up short, especially when you conquered so many different obstacles along the way.”
In addition to the obstacles created by the onset of the pandemic, the 2020 Iditarod was a string of unlikely, character-testing experiences for Underwood. But for all the curveballs and hard-won miles, one thing remains about his status heading into this year’s race: He’s still considered a rookie.
“It’ll be a well-earned belt buckle, if I get it,” he said.
Five days prior to the 2020 Iditarod start, Underwood found out he’d be subbing in for Jeff King, one of the sport’s most accomplished mushers. King needed emergency surgery for a perforated intestine. With a race team ready and drop bags in place, it made sense for his understudy to fill in. Underwood had worked and trained dogs at King’s kennel near Denali Park for four years.
When this year’s race starts Sunday at Deshka Landing, Underwood will again run a race champion’s dogs, but it won’t be the same one. Underwood left his job with King last summer when the pandemic halted his tourist-related work.
Dallas Seavey, who will return to Iditarod for the first time since 2017, offered Underwood a chance to train and run a team from his Talkeetna kennel. Unlike last year, Underwood has spent months getting ready.
A year ago, Underwood had completed qualifying races with Iditarod 2021 in mind when King fell ill. The four-time champion called Underwood from the hospital to propose a schedule change.
“I was just dumbfounded,” he said. “It was just super surreal, and you don’t really believe it, and you don’t know what to do with yourself afterwards. You’re like, ‘How do I proceed?’”
Underwood’s unexpected entry required special approval from the race and captured the attention of mushing fans. In the rush to make last-minute preparations, there was little time for worry, he said, but panic and excitement caught up on the drive to the restart in Willow. He showed up with tears in his eyes.
“I was just overcome with emotion, like ‘Oh my gosh, it’s starting in like three hours,’” he said.
Happy to leave the crowds and interviews behind, he settled into “travel mode” on the trail. There were rookie moves, he said. His sled was overpacked with unnecessary items, like too many extra coats, socks and headlamp batteries. On the Yukon River he burned time changing his sled runners, only to realize it didn’t matter for the deep snow conditions. But mostly, his run times were better than expected, and his confidence increased as days went by.
He recalled one memorable moment between Kaltag and the Bering Sea coast that he gained on another team that was silhouetted up ahead in the setting sun. He marveled at his dogs along the coast. Some were so playful during a rest in Shaktoolik that another musher questioned why he wasn’t in motion. And when he cut rest to head onto the Norton Sound ice, he hardly noticed the wind because it had been at his back.
By the time Underwood left Elim, Underwood enjoyed the camaraderie of running with veteran mushers Matthew Failor and Tom Knolmayer.
Soon after, dark clouds approached from the west. His steady progress and good fortune ended with an unsettling quiet at the base of Little McKinley, a 1,000-foot climb between Elim and Golovin. There, a dead calm gave him no peace of mind.
“This is scary,” Underwood recalled thinking.
A headwind and a tailspin
Failor and Knolmayer were nowhere to be seen once Underwood reached the ridges and peaks near Little McKinley. He could barely see his own lead dogs.
“Once we got up top, it started blowing and snowing like nothing I had ever experienced,” Underwood said. “Visibility was like it hurts to open my eyes because I’m getting slapped in the face with ice.”
Underwood concentrated on searching with his headlamp for the next reflective trail marker, knowing that straying too far could spell disaster. Each one he passed brought a small measure of relief.
“It’s totally within the realm of possibility that those markers could’ve disappeared under the snow,” Underwood said.
The dogs, led by a confident veteran named Lightning, leaned into their harnesses from marker to marker, even in stretches of deep snow, he said.
“A lot of things could’ve gone wrong on that run, but the dogs, that was the best run they did,” he said.
Strong wind and temperatures in the 20s and 30s wreaked havoc on many other teams. Nic Petit activated his distress beacon. Fourteen-time finisher Robert Bundzen scratched as well. Eleven teams retreated to Elim, where they were pinned down for 30-60 hours. Race officials took the unusual step of rerouting the trail away from overflow for the “Elim 11,” as they came to be known.
Underwood worried about Failor and Knolmayer as he approached White Mountain after his seven-hour run through the storm. When the mushers met him there, the three downplayed the weather event in classic musher fashion, he said.
“I think I just kinda said, ‘That was a little windy out there, wasn’t it?’” he said.
Being in White Mountain meant much-needed shelter, a mandatory rest and only 77 miles to go until Nome, but Underwood knew better than to think his troubles were over. Weather forecasts showed 40-60 mph winds with no letup in sight, Underwood said.
He was also aware of how conditions between White Mountain and Safety once upended a near-win for his team’s owner, Jeff King, in 2014. King led the race with a one-hour head start from White Mountain that year, only to be battered by a windstorm in the dark of night. King ended his race by accepting a snowmachine ride near the last checkpoint before Nome.
Underwood tried to rest, but braced himself.
“I knew for a fact that somehow this next run was going to be even harder,” he said. “I know that that (run from Elim to White Mountain) was the hardest run of my life, but I’ve got a bad feeling about this next one.”
Overwhelmed by overflow
Underwood, who was raised in Atlanta and studied economics and Spanish in college, first came to Alaska in 2015 looking for a job he would love. Two seasons of commercial fishing with his aunt and uncle near Kodiak hooked him, and in 2016 he sought more work that would allow him to stay in the state through the winter. His aunt and uncle suggested he reach out to King.
“They said ‘We have a friend named Jeff, and he runs the Iditarod.’ And I was like ‘That’s pretty cool. What’s an Iditarod?’” Underwood said.
Underwood had the benefit of several years of mentorship with one of the sport’s most experienced racers. He also began to compete himself, finishing several mid-distance mushing races prior to Iditarod.
But none of those experiences could deflect the knockout punch that landed in the dark, early hours of his 12th day on the Iditarod Trail.
“We get to the coast, and it’s flat and straight, and I’m like ‘We are on the homestretch,’ ” Underwood said. “A dangerous thought.”
Back in White Mountain, a snowmachiner who had traveled the trail near Safety had reported conditions were passable, Underwood said. That’s why he, Failor and Knolmayer decided to make a move after trying to wait out the storm for more than 20 hours.
“Let’s do it. I’m all about it,” Underwood remembered saying.
Underwood was the first musher to reach the coastal flatland west of the Topkok Hills. There he saw snowmachine tracks that dissolved into a dark, ominous spot in the snow. That told him the water had surged in from Norton Sound after the traveler had passed the spot.
He put garbage bags over his legs and tied them above his knees. Then he walked the team in front of his lead dogs, doing his best to steady his footing on the slippery ice beneath the water. The slush sucked the bags down then filled them as the team pulled the sled into the overflow.
“My sled gets in there and it does not budge,” he said. “At this point I feel like, ‘Is there some incompetence on my end? Am I making a poor decision going through this? Am I being reckless?’”
Knolmayer and Failor caught up as Underwood struggled.
“It’s dark, so you can only see as far as your headlamp shines,” Underwood said. “As far as the eye can see in either direction, there’s water.”
There seemed to be no good options, but together they found a slightly shorter crossing. Failor led his team through the overflow first, then he repeated the task two more times to assist Underwood and Knolmayer. Underwood said Failor’s steady leadership and tough love boosted his own confidence.
“I remember telling him we had a belt buckle to go get,” Failor said.
Eventually, all three made it safely across, but the water had taken a toll. Though the dogs could shake themselves dry, each soaked musher began to stiffen and slow from the cold. Almost immediately, they encountered another overflow lake, this one deeper than the one they had just struggled to cross.
“I didn’t think there would be another puddle,” Failor said. “I guess that was my naiveness.”
Failor’s team made it to the other side again, but his sled was immobilized by ice midway across. Underwood waded into the water to help him move it, but succeeded only getting even more cold and exhausted.
By this point, Underwood said his lower legs had been numb for two hours and he feared frostbite or hypothermia was setting in.
“I need to get out of the overflow right now,” Underwood thought as his muscles cramped. “I don’t want to lose my feet on this race.”
As Failor bedded his dogs with straw across the water, Knolmayer let Underwood know he was pressing the button on his emergency beacon. He asked Underwood if he should press his button too, and Underwood said yes.
“I felt totally defeated,” he said.
Failor, an eight-time Iditarod finisher who never scratched before, then pushed his button as well. With hours to go until daybreak, each musher removed wet clothes and climbed into a sleeping bag to wait.
Meanwhile, the Alaska Rescue Coordination Center and the Alaska State Troopers responded to the distress signal, according to a statement from race officials. “The Iditarod is reworking this section of the trail so that the remaining teams can safely proceed on to Nome,” a race statement said later that day.
At daybreak, an Alaska Army National Guard aircrew in a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter launched to retrieve the mushers. They passed over a 10-person ground team from Nome Search and Rescue who was already on the way.
Underwood remained cocooned in the dark of his sleeping bag. He didn’t come out until the helicopter landed.
Second guesses and second chances
Underwood said it only took a half-hour for his second-guessing to begin once he was bundled in his sleeping bag to wait for help. That’s how long it took for feeling to return to his feet. A short memory for pain and discomfort can be a valuable asset for a distance musher, but in this case he wondered what might have been if he hadn’t rested so long in White Mountain, or if had given himself time to consider other options.
“In the moment, I was like ‘I can’t do this.’ In hindsight, you’re like ‘It wasn’t that bad.’ You kind of forget,” he said.
Underwood wonders if he would’ve spotted another, or at least a better, path around the overflow ponds in the daylight. A championship-caliber musher would’ve found a way to carry on, he said.
“I really wished I would’ve just taken my clothes off, gotten in my sleeping bag and slept until the sun rises,” he said.
When the helicopter landed, he hopped toward it his sleeping bag with help from crew members. Volunteers retrieved the sleds and transported the dog teams overland to Nome. Underwood went to Norton Sound Regional Hospital, where he received blood tests, a warm footbath and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich before he was released.
He spent much of the spring and summer in a funk, a feeling that’s still hard to shake, he said. “You just constantly kick yourself,” he said “Every single week I’m thinking back to it.”
Failor said he also second-guessed the decision by the time the sun rose that day, though the experience caused him nightmares in the days that followed.
“My cooler, my sleeping bag would just be floating in water, and I would snap out if it,” Failor said. “Maybe for like a week, it was just messing with my mind.”
“At the end of the day, it’s not worth losing a pinky toe or hurting a dog or anything like that, so it was the right move,” he said.
Though Underwood missed out on the feeling of arriving in Nome, he also has plenty of reasons to feel grateful, he said.
“I’ve got my health. I’ve got a healthy family and awesome friends. I’m privileged to be born in an amazing country where you have access to clean water. You just tell yourself, hey, I didn’t finish some silly race. It’s not the end of the world,” he said.
It’s hard to know how many chances he’ll have to complete the Iditarod since he doesn’t own a team. The musher lifestyle is hard to sustain, he said, and the thought of starting his own kennel seems like a remote possibility right now. But this year, he feels lucky for one more chance to complete unfinished business and drop the rookie designation from his name.
At Seavey’s kennel in Talkeetna last month, he took delivery of a borrowed sled. Then he hooked up a team for a short run on a cool, sunny day. For now he’s not thinking about how special it would be to finish the 2021 Iditarod, but he’s been looking forward to the race’s start for nearly a year.
“I feel really ready for this race,” he said.