Survival Is the Ultimate Goal in World's Toughest Sled Dog Race

Yukon Quest is 1,000 bone-freezing miles across northern Canada.

Tamra Reynolds slumps on a faded pink loveseat in a community center in Carmacks, in Canada’s northern Yukon, and stares steadily into space.

The area around her is a bustling checkpoint for what many view as the world’s toughest dogsled race—a spot where mushers like Reynolds who are trying to navigate a 1,000-mile race through the brutal cold can grab a hot meal and a nap, and check in with race veterinarians. And, in many cases, contemplate whether they and their dogs can go on.

Parka-clad race officials and checkpoint volunteers come and go, and local reporters and photographers hunch over their MacBooks at the rows of long tables that fill the room. But Reynolds's corner is a little pocket of calm.

In her early 40s, with dark hair and eyes, Reynolds looks hollow-eyed, exhausted. She's been sitting on the couch for hours. She and her dog team arrived in Carmacks at midnight, a day and a half after they crossed the start line and launched down the trail.

Since their arrival, Reynolds has fed her 14 dogs and bedded them down in straw outside, and has tried to get some rest herself. But as the low sun creeps over the southern horizon, and daylight filters through the icy windows and lights up the couch, she realizes she hasn't had any real sleep in more than 48 hours. For the past two days, she has mushed her team through a wilderness frozen solid at -40°F (-40°C), and she faces many days more of the same.

Finally, as the morning inches toward noon, she signs the paperwork to officially drop out of the race. 

(Later, Reynolds clarified that she dropped out not because of her own exhaustion, but because four of her dogs incurred injuries during the race and she was concerned about the health of several others.)

Her support crew, a young couple, begins loading her dog team into her truck: a pickup with a series of small wooden compartments, one for each dog, built into the bed. Her fellow competitors, 24 of the 26 teams that started, have more than 800 miles (1,280 kilometers) to go.

For 31 years, the Yukon Quest 1,000 Mile International Sled Dog Race has been run between Whitehorse, the tiny capital city of the Yukon, and Fairbanks, in the heart of the Alaska interior. Grittier and lesser known, the Quest plays underdog to the more famous Iditarod. Both races cover 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) of frozen northern terrain, but the Quest is widely accepted to be the more difficult of the two. Its competitors drive teams of up to 14 dogs—lean, bright-eyed Alaskan huskies, a mixed breed unique to the region, which pull sleds loaded with food, kibble, and survival supplies.

The teams travel as many as 200 miles (322 kilometers) between checkpoints, through some of the wildest backcountry in the world: rivers and creeks frozen, not into smooth byways, but into chaotic, broken fields of "jumble ice"; treeless mountain summits that can offer clear views for miles one day and vanish into a howling whiteout the next; and hour after hour of dense boreal forest, the trees blocking out the moon and starlight, the musher's vision limited to the tunnel-like scope of his headlamp boring through the 16-hour night.

The dogs themselves are unbelievably resilient, bred and trained to run in harness for hours and to sleep outside in the snow. A couple of teams run purebred Siberian huskies, but the vast majority run Alaskan huskies, a particular style of mutt that has been around so long it's now a designated breed. Various hounds and other southern breeds are mixed in to make them faster and more people-oriented, since Siberians and Malamutes don't generally feel the same need to please humans that most dogs do.

Most often the dogs trot into the next checkpoint with tails wagging, smiling wide dog smiles. But their mushers face frostbite, sleep deprivation, isolation, and fear. The Yukon Quest is a daunting physical, emotional, and mental challenge in any given year.

<p>Musher Ed Hopkins and his dogs leave Whitehorse, the starting point of the 2015 Yukon Quest, a thousand-mile sled dog race to Fairbanks, Alaska. Hopkins, a longtime veteran of the race, finished third, a personal best.</p>

Musher Ed Hopkins and his dogs leave Whitehorse, the starting point of the 2015 Yukon Quest, a thousand-mile sled dog race to Fairbanks, Alaska. Hopkins, a longtime veteran of the race, finished third, a personal best.

Photograph by Katie Orlinsky, National Geographic

And this year, with temperatures expected to remain between -40°F and -50°F (-45.5°C) throughout the first 500 miles (805 kilometers), it will be even harder.

Frozen Plastic and Dog Massages

It's tough for outsiders to grasp just how difficult it is to care for yourself and 14 dogs when you're outdoors at -50°F. Plastic snaps when it should bend, liquids freeze solid in minutes, and nothing seems to work the way it should.

"Everything takes longer, things break, you lose things," says Ryne Olson, a young Quest rookie. "Everything is so fragile when it's that cold, it just shatters."

At these temperatures, the cold sucks the moisture out of the fallen snow that the dogs snap up as they go, making it harder for them to keep hydrated. After a rest, the mushers have to massage each dog's muscles, working out the stiffness that the cold brings. And when frostbite can set in within minutes, every tiny task a musher has to complete with his or her gloves off becomes a risk. Fine motor skills get fuzzy. Even your brain seems to numb, your thoughts coming together slowly.

Exhaustion and the long nights of the northern winter also play mental tricks—mushers spend two-thirds of the Yukon Quest racing in the dark.

"I wouldn't say it's really hallucinating," Olson says, "because you know you're not seeing what you're seeing. But your mind definitely jumps to conclusions. If there's a speck of light off to your side, it's like, oh, that's a butterfly. But no, there's no butterflies out here … Your mind just picks something out of the vault of memories. Especially at night, because your whole world is just that scope of your headlamp, and everything around it is darkness."

Tamra Reynolds is the second musher to quit the race that morning. By the end of the day, two more will join her. At the checkpoints, the reluctance of some competitors to head back into the frozen world is palpable. "I'm just trying to get psyched up for this next stretch of trail," says one.

One of the longest, most daunting stretches of uninterrupted trail runs from the village of Pelly Crossing into Dawson City—the old Klondike gold rush town that marks the Quest's halfway point.

For 200 miles, the mushers and their dogs travel through a roadless wilderness: down the frozen Pelly River, over the ups and downs of the Black Hills, and through a maze of old gold rush trails before climbing the tallest mountain of the race, 4,000-foot (1,219-meter) King Solomon's Dome, and dropping down into Dawson for a much-needed 24-hour mandatory rest.

During this long stretch away from the checkpoints, with the temperature still holding steady below -40°F, musher Brent Sass takes the lead. He arrives in Pelly Crossing in second place, with a third musher close behind him. But while the other two teams rest, he charges ahead, building a lead and holding it.

Sass, although he's just 35 years old and has never won the race, is already a Yukon Quest legend.

He's a three-time winner of the Quest's annual Sportsmanship Award, which is voted on by the mushers after the race is over, and he's developed a reputation for selflessness and acts of heroism, both large and small. In 2011, he guided a hypothermic musher and his team down off a mountain in a blizzard. Two years later, after passing another team on the long climb up another mountain, he anchored his dog team at the top and descended again on foot to help his competitor to the summit.

He finished third in 2013, fourth in 2011, and fifth twice—2008 and 2012. Last year, he was running a close second to defending champion Allen Moore, nearly 900 miles (1,450 kilometers) into the race, when he dozed off while riding on his sled's runners and fell backward onto the frozen surface of the lake his team was crossing.

Concussed, Sass eventually managed to activate an emergency beacon to call for help. The rescuer became the rescued, and Moore won his second straight Yukon Quest uncontested.

This year, Sass—who now mushes with a helmet strapped to his head—seems determined to be something more than the heroic also-ran. By the time he reaches Dawson City, 36 hours after he left Pelly Crossing, he is ahead of his old rival, Moore, by six hours and 17 minutes.

"I've got some frostbit fingers, but I love the cold weather so I'm not going to complain at all," he says as his team steams in the cold air and the media cluster around him on Dawson City's snowy Front Street. "We're dog mushers, we're supposed to embrace the cold, right? There's no room for complaining when it's cold out. I'm glad to be here."

Twenty-four hours later, after his mandatory rest period, Sass and his dogs charge out of Dawson City with 500 miles ahead of them.

"You know what to do, guys," Sass says. "Let's go to Fairbanks."

A Ten-Hour Lead Is Erased

All through the eighth night of the race, Facebook and Twitter buzz with the postings of concerned friends, family, and fans. The online tracker connected to each team's GPS device shows Brent Sass stopped on a notorious stretch of trail that runs along the frozen surface of Birch Creek. (Another musher flirted with death along the creek in 2011, falling into deep, icy water before being rescued by one of his competitors.)

Sass left the previous checkpoint just before lunchtime with a comfortable ten-hour lead on Moore. But now he sits, and sits. Hours pass.

Memories of Sass's head injury last year are fresh: People monitoring his progress wonder whether he's lying semiconscious out there on the ice again, unable to reach his emergency beacon this time. Race watchers become so concerned that Quest officials issue a statement on social media: "For those of you wondering about Brent, we are monitoring and will post an update as we get more information. We appreciate your concern and your patience."

Finally, about 6 a.m., Sass begins to move again.

Fans peering at phones and tablets can see that he's moving at a decent clip, not the pace of an injured team limping in for help. He arrives at Central, the third-to-last checkpoint, just before 11 a.m. Under a bright, freshly risen sun, with his mustache coated in ice, he spreads straw for his dogs to lie on and explains to the small cluster of media around him that he'd planned on a six-hour rest out on the creek.

"And then I got in my sleeping bag and fell asleep—for ten hours!" He laughs. But the laughter stops two hours later, when Moore's team jogs into Central. That comfortable ten-hour lead has been erased.

Central Corner, the establishment that serves as the Quest checkpoint in this small village, is a smoky, dim restaurant and bar. It sits along a narrow, winding mountain road that runs north from Fairbanks through a frozen moonscape before dead-ending 50 miles (80 kilometers) short of the Arctic Circle.

Out front, a single gas pump—its handle padlocked—is opened only on request. A handwritten sign on a whiteboard posted by the entrance reads: "Please no guns in the bar thanx!"

From inside, Sass looks out the window as Moore takes his turn spreading fresh straw out on the snow for his dogs.

"I haven't seen another team for 500 miles," he says. And then, resigned and wry: "I had to make it interesting."

Mad Dash to a Frozen Finish

Over the final hours of the race, Moore passes Sass, and then Sass passes Moore. At various points in the final mad dash to Fairbanks, the two are less than a mile apart.

In the end, though, Sass is able to pull away. He arrives in downtown Fairbanks just before 11 p.m. on the tenth day of the race, and he and his dogs ride down the frozen Chena River on a wave of cheers from a rowdy crowd. Church bells ring through the darkness, and marijuana smoke laces the cold air.

When Sass crosses the finish line in Fairbanks, just 15 other mushers remain in the race behind him, spread out across more than 250 miles (400 kilometers) of trail.

Since the initial four who retired from the race in Carmacks and Pelly Crossing, five more mushers have sat, like Reynolds, at a checkpoint, staring into empty space, before finally making the hard decision to end their race early. A sixth, Rolland Trowbridge, hit his emergency beacon to request a rescue outside Dawson City and was retrieved by a contingent of Canadian Rangers.

As those remaining in the field work their way toward Fairbanks, the cold loosens its grip and temperatures soar into the 20s—a blessing for the mushers who struggled with the brutal freeze early in the race, but a curse for the dogs, who prefer to run at temperatures below zero.

"It's always something," says rookie Kristin Knight Pace, laughing, at one checkpoint. If it's not too cold for the human, it's too warm for the dogs; if you're not jolting your way through a jigsaw maze of jumble ice, you're dealing with a female dog in heat, a distraction to the rest of your team.

Or, like Sass, you're sleeping through your alarm clock, and nearly letting your longed-for championship slip away.

The race throws up new obstacles every year, every day it's run. There is no one secret to winning the Yukon Quest 1,000 Mile International Sled Dog Race—or even to finishing it.

Eva Holland is a writer based in Whitehorse, the capital city of Canada's Yukon. Katie Orlinsky is a photographer based in New York. 

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to include musher Tamra Reynolds's statement that she dropped out of the race because of concerns about her dogs' health.

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