With brutally cold weather hammering teams, the complexion of the Yukon Quest shifted dramatically Tuesday.
Gone: Jeff King, the 1981 champion and one of the best mushers in Alaska history. Citing "extreme temperatures" that have dipped to nearly minus 50, King scratched at the checkpoint of Pelly Crossing.
Gone: A tightly bunched lead pack chock-full of former champions. Instead, up-and-coming Eureka musher Brent Sass forged a yawning 50-mile lead over his closest competitors on the icy trail leading to the halfway point at Dawson City.
"Dogs are absolutely amazing," Sass told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner after arriving at the largest town along the 1,000-mile trail from Whitehorse to Fairbanks.
He arrived at 3:01 p.m. to stake his claim on the four ounces of gold awarded to the first musher to reach Dawson, about 450 miles into the race. If Sass reaches the Fairbanks finish line, the gold will belong to him. But as Sass learned last year, it's too early to think about what that gold might buy.
A year ago when the race went from Fairbanks to Whitehorse, Sass was the first musher to Dawson. But two-time defending champion Allen Moore chased him down in the second half of the race and on the penultimate day, an exhausted Sass dozed off on his sled runners, tumbled onto the ice and suffered a concussion. Victory was gone and so was the four ounces of gold -- Sass was out of the race.
Moore was the second musher to reach Dawson on Tuesday, arriving at about 9:18 p.m., more than six hours after Sass.
King was the Quest's early leader, but the cold got to him. The scratch is his second in a row in 1,000-mile races -- in last year's Iditarod, King forged a seemingly comfortable lead before a ground blizzard stopped his team about 20 miles from the finish line and he scratched at the Safety checkpoint.
Until recently, King's resume, which dates back to the early 1980s, was nearly scratch-free. In 24 Iditarods, he has scratched twice – both times in the last three years. In seven previous Quests, he scratched once.
King told the News-Miner he was quickly going through the supply of dog food on his sled after spending 18 hours at the Stepping Stone checkpoint, hoping for the cold to subside. When it didn't, he turned back to Pelly Crossing.
King said his dogs have thin coats and are not trained for cold-weather endurance. "I haven't trained for that, and I never will because that's not the kind of conditions I want to excel in," he told the News-Miner. "We can't all be good at everything, and I think it's important to know what you can do and what you're good at."
Correction: This story has been changed from its original version, which stated Moore was about five hours behind Sass into Dawson City.