On the first full day of the Iditarod, mushers ascend the Alaska Range in fuzzy conditions

Most of the 38 teams competing in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race made steady progress into the Alaska Range on Monday as the leaderboard was still taking shape on the first full day of racing.

As of Monday evening, more than a dozen mushers had departed the Rainy Pass checkpoint and were heading toward Rohn, nearly 190 miles into the race.

Among the group of mushers leading the way were several perennial contenders as well as the race’s three past champions: five-time winner Dallas Seavey of Talkeetna, 2019 champ Pete Kaiser of Bethel and defending champion Ryan Redington of Knik.

Also clustered at the front of the pack as the teams passed through the Alaska Range were veterans Mille Porsild of Denmark, Matt Hall of Two Rivers, Jessie Holmes of Brushkana and Matthew Failor of Willow.

By Monday evening, several teams were resting at the Rainy Pass checkpoint, which was gray and hazy as nighttime loomed.

Earlier in the day at Finger Lake, steady snow made for slightly slower, sugary trail conditions. Farther up the mountain range, Puntilla Lake by the checkpoint at the Rainy Pass Lodge was just slightly above zero degrees under overcast skies. Holmes and Redington were the first to reach Rainy Pass late Monday morning in light snow.

The most dramatic activity Monday occurred before 2 a.m. around 14 miles up the trail from the Skwentna checkpoint, where Seavey shot and killed a moose in defense after it got entangled with his team, according to Iditarod officials. It turns out that another musher, Holmes, had a close encounter with a moose earlier on his run from Skwentna to Finger Lake; he reported that he punched the animal in the nose to rebuff it.


[Wildlife encounter leads Iditarod racer Dallas Seavey to dispatch moose on trail]

Typically, mushers will push up the front of the Alaska Range and try to reach the Rainy Pass checkpoint, 153 miles into the course, so they can rest during the high midday temperatures. The scenic alpine lake is popular with tourists and mushing fans, though, making for a noisy, active environment as planes zoom in and out and spectators crowd around teams as they try to rest. To avoid the hubbub, some mushers opt to travel another few miles down the trail and rest in solitude around Ptarmigan Pass before making the run over Rainy Pass and down toward the Dalzell Gorge en route to the Rohn checkpoint.

At this early stage, even if a team is running out in front of the others, there is no clear leader. Mushers will leapfrog one another repeatedly as they try to stick to their own team’s target run-rest schedule, strategizing on when to make long runs and when to recuperate on big chunks of rest.

By Monday evening, a little over 50 miles separated Porsild at the front of the pack and rookie Lara Kittelson of Battle Ground, Washington, at the rear.

As mushers move through the pass Monday evening and overnight, they were likely to encounter challenging conditions. The National Weather Service forecast snow showers and freezing fog around Puntilla Lake with winds from the south up to 15 mph — conditions that were set to last through the evening, likely making the technical sections of trail all the more treacherous. After reaching the summit at Rainy Pass Lake, 3,160 feet above sea level, the trail has some fast drops before it narrows and gets twisty.

Though race director Mark Nordman reported last week that conditions in the area were excellent, there are steep downhills heading into the Dalzell Gorge, and on the way toward the Rohn Roadhouse there are sections of the Tatina River often wind-blasted down to glare ice and gravel. It was that part of the trail where, in 2022, veteran musher Aliy Zirkle fell from her sled and suffered a severe concussion.

After Rohn, teams descend out of the Alaska Range and cross the Buffalo Tunnels and Farewell Burn, which this year are largely snow-free for some 30 miles, according to Nordman.

Front-pack mushers typically begin arriving in the small community of Nikolai on Tuesday morning.

Zachariah Hughes

Zachariah Hughes covers Anchorage government, the military, dog mushing, subsistence issues and general assignments for the Anchorage Daily News. He also helps produce the ADN's weekly politics podcast. Prior to joining the ADN, he worked in Alaska’s public radio network, and got his start in journalism at KNOM in Nome.

Chris Bieri

Chris Bieri is the sports and entertainment editor at the Anchorage Daily News.