2009 Iditarod Trail Invitational: Finger Lake to Rohn (aka The Rainy Pass Adventure)

This is part two of a three part story. Part one is here. I went a little overboard in my account of the Rainy Pass section of the race, putting together timelines and maps, because I think some people had false impressions about what actually happened. The information that was reported during the race was great for easing the minds of family and friends, but it wasn’t completely accurate. That is to be expected when you are in a storm in the Alaska Range without any communication with the outside world. Each one of us who was out there has a unique story to tell. Here is mine.

Tuesday – Day 3 (continued)

Finger Lake to Puntilla Lake (Rainy Pass Lodge) – 35 miles (165 miles total)

The first hint of what was to come in Rainy Pass was dropped while I was resting at the Winterlake Lodge on Finger Lake. I was trying futilely to get some sleep on the damp floor of the tent when Billy Koitzsch came in and started chatting up John Ross and me. He said that the trail over Rainy Pass was still not in, and that the lead racers were piling up in Puntilla. Usually, there are two ways to get from Puntilla to Rohn. Rainy Pass is the shortest route and is used by most of the racers in both the ITI and the Iditarod sled dog race. The alternative route is through Ptarmigan Pass and Hell’s Gate. This route is 30 miles longer, but is usually well-packed by the Iron Dog snowmobile racers who came through a few weeks ago. If Rainy Pass looks to be difficult, it can be much faster to go the Hell’s Gate route. But now I flashed back to a conversation I had in Skwentna. Another racer (come to think of it, it might have been Billy, man that guys’s got sources…) had told me that the Ptarmigan/Hells Gate route was blocked off this year by open water. The Iditarod Trail crew going to Rohn via Hell’s Gate had a snowmachine submerge in open water on the Kuskokwim River and barely made it to Rohn. We had to go over Rainy Pass. At the time, it didn’t mean much to me, because I was planning on going over Rainy Pass anyway. Thirty extra miles? No thanks. But now, I was wishing I had the Hell’s Gate option. I was definitely not falling asleep after this news, especially since Billy kept talking. So I prepared to move on. After all, there was a full day until I would get to Rainy Pass. Plenty of time for a trail to be put in, either by snowmobile, or by other racers.

Pete and Ed finished their rice and beans meals and came to the tent to lay down as I was getting ready to leave. We chatted a bit. I really enjoyed that we three skiers were able to interact so much along the trail. We all skied at different paces, but because we took different amounts of rest, we were moving down the trail at almost the same pace.

I went through my re-supply drop bag that I had sent to Finger Lake before the start of the race. As I restocked my food supply, I was shocked at how little I had eaten. Because I was spending extra time at checkpoints to let my knees and feet recover, I was eating two full meals at each checkpoint, rather than the one I had planned on. This meant I was eating much less of my own food. I still had my appetite and was getting plenty of calories, but I was carrying a lot of food weight with me because I wasn’t making a dent in the cache. I had very little need to resupply with food.

This picture shows all the food that was in my Finger Lag drop bag. The pile on the right is what I took with me. The pile on the left is what I left behind. I hope someone ate that stuff. I left Finger Lake just before noon, in 12th place.

By this section of trail, it was finally beginning to sink in that not only would I not be skating very much on this trip, I wouldn’t really be classic skiing either. Instead I would be shuffling. The new snow that had fallen earlier in the week had only been packed down by a few snowmobiles, so the crystals were still sharp. And the trail was also windblown in most places, making it even slower. And now, as I started the ascent towards Rainy Pass, I knew I wouldn’t be getting any glide on the uphills. I resigned myself to shuffling – still mostly without kick wax because it wore off so quickly – until I was over Rainy Pass. Maybe once I got to the other side and the trail flattened out I could do some striding or even (dare to dream…) skating. But for now, the Iditarod Shuffle continued.

My second meal of beans and rice at Finger Lake was not sitting well in my stomach, and I was having a hard time keeping it down. For the first four hours of the ski to Puntilla, I was unable to eat anything else. Finally, as I approached the Happy River, I was able to force down a Snickers bar, and my stomach gradually felt better as the day went on.

About twenty miles from Finger Lake, I encountered the notorious Happy River steps. Here’s how the Iditarod Sled Dog race website describes the steps:

After a mile or so of dropping down toward the valley and zigzagging through the forest, you’ll plunge down a short but very steep hill; directly in front of you will be one of the warning signs and the trail will vanish over the edge of what looks like a cliff. It is a cliff. This is the entrance to the Happy River Steps. Stop the dogs at the top, say your prayers, revise your will, and then see how gently you can get the dogs to creep down the hill. Of course, you will be standing on your brake for all you’re worth.

I took off my skis and walked down the steps. This was tricky in its own right because my sled was pushing heavily on my back as I walked, and my ski boots had minimal traction on the icy snow. But I took it slow and made it down with only a couple spills and out onto the Skwentna River. Aidan Harding caught me during the short section on the Skwentna. But then to get off the river, we had to climb up a nearly vertical embankment. I was able to throw my skis up to the top, then claw my way up on my hands and knees while still pulling my sled. Aidan had to remove every bag of gear from his bike and carry each piece up one by one. I was gone by the time he had to haul the bike up, but I can only imagine what a trick that must have been. I breathed a sigh of relief for having made it through the steps. But as I soon found out, that was the easy part of today’s trail for anyone hauling a sled.

The trail between the Happy River steps and the open expanses of Rainy Pass was twisty and turny, with lots of ups and down and wavy bumps created by snowmobiles. This was difficult terrain to navigate a sled through, but the worst part was the alder branches and stumps that were sticking up through the snow the entire way. The smaller branches were constantly catching on my sled cover. Each time I would have to stop, turn around and give the sled pole a quick tug to break it free. The bigger branches sometime got under the cover, or snagged on the sled itself. This required that I stop, unbuckle myself from the sled, ski back and de-tangle the sled, then re-buckle and move on, only to do it all again in a few minutes. Some of the bigger stumps would flip the sled over completely, which meant an even longer stop before I could get going again. The sled cover took its toll in this section, as seams began to unravel and snaps popped off. This is where I began to think that Pete’s elevated sled frame was a brilliant idea. It was a beautiful sunny day and the trail was incredibly scenic as it passed across alpine lakes and through the woods, but I wasn’t enjoying the trip because I was fighting with the sled.

After passing by the Long Lake Hills, the valley widened and the brush gave way to open meadows. The mountains were spectacular, and for the first time all trip, I started snapping a lot of photos.

The last five miles to Puntilla were a slow uphill shuffle, but at least I wasn’t stopping every three minutes to de-tangle my sled. I arrived at Rainy Pass Lodge on Puntilla Lake at 7:30 PM, along with John Ross, Billy Koitzsch, Robert May, and Aidan Harding. I was surprised to find only two other racers at the checkpoint, Eric Warkentin and Louise (Lou) Kobin. As we ate Chef Boy-R-Dee ravioli straight from the can, the checkpoint worker informed us that there was a trail over Rainy Pass, and that everyone else had started their trip up and over. This was good news, and it put my mind at ease as I fell asleep on a bed in the extremely warm cabin.

Wednesday and into Thursday – Day 4 and 5

Puntilla Lake (Rainy Pass Lodge) to Rohn – 45 miles (210 miles total)

Having heard plenty of horror stories about Rainy Pass and the Dalzell Gorge, I was hoping to travel with other racers for that section. Billy, Robert, Aidan, and John departed at 5:00 AM. I knew I would be faster than the bikers, at least on the climb up to the Pass, so I decided I would follow them by about half an hour. I was a bit sad leaving Puntilla, because I thought it might be the last time I saw Pete and Ed. We’d seen each other at every checkpoint, and I enjoyed the fact that the skiers were sticking close together despite our different skis and sled/backpack arrangements. But the time gap between us was steadily growing at each checkpoint, and it was now about five hours. I thought that a long trip up and over Rainy Pass would increase the gap, and I would leave Rohn before they arrived. Of course, it turned out I shouldn’t have been too worried about that.

About an hour after leaving Puntilla, I encountered Robert who was on his way back down to Puntilla. “I don’t feel quite right,” he said. “I’m overheating. I’m going to go back and rest some more.” I continued on the gradual six hour climb, passing John and then Billy and Aidan along the way.

Just after passing the bikers, I crested a small hill and saw a dark-haired creature scurrying up a hillside about half a mile away. It was too big to be a fox or a porcupine, and too small to be a bear. Wolverine? It’s loping gait sure made it look like a wolverine, but I was too far away to know for sure. I’ve seen lots of wolverine tracks in the snow over the years, but they are elusive creatures and I had never seen the actual beast the wild before. I watched it disappear over a small ridge. It had to be a wolverine. Other than one moose and some birds, it was the only wildlife I saw the entire trip.

[To view full size map, click the map, then when it expands click it again in the lower right corner. Same for any of the photos.]

In the morning, we were teased with sun and blue sky, but as I left the Ptarmigan Pass Valley and entered the narrower Rainy Pass side valley, the clouds moved in, the light got flat, the wind picked up and it started to snow. There were a lot more alders in the side valley, and I had trouble guiding my sled between them. Soon, I came across a snowmobile that was stuck in deep snow and alders. The machine was a rental and it was identical to the machines being used by a couple of Italian guys who appeared to be shadowing the race on snowmobile. They had passed me the day before, about 10 miles before Puntilla. I had also seen them in Skwentna and Shell Lake, and it seemed like the Italians were up to no good (It is illegal for any racer to have external support or accompaniment out on the trail). I later found out that they were illegally providing support to racer Marco Costa who was disqualified and banned from the race. When I saw the stuck snowmachine, I immediately assumed it belonged to the Italians. I shook my head and moved on.

The wind was now howling, and it was all I could do to follow the footsteps of the bikers as they led me to the pass. Any snowmobile trail that might have existed was blown in with new snow. But I knew that the other side of the pass usually gets less snow. If I could just make it up and over, I was sure the trail on the other side would be better.

As I shuffled across Rainy Pass Lake, about a half mile below the pass, I had my head down, trying as best I could to follow the footsteps in the drifting snow. Just then a voice called out, “Hey Cory!” I looked to my right to see a man standing in front of a cabin, maybe 200 yards away.

“How’s it going?” he asked. Based on the voice and the fact that he knew my name, I figured it had to be Bill Merchant, the race director and the person putting in the trail for us.

“Well, I’m slogging along, but I’m still moving,” I replied.

“Okay, there’s a group of bikers up ahead of you,” Bill said.

“Great, thanks.”

And with that, I continued on my way. I guess I should have known at that point that something was not right. Bill was supposed to be ahead of us, packing down the trail. Why was he still here, on this side of the pass? But I was still operating with the information we’d been given in Puntilla – that there was a trail over the pass. So I just figured that Bill must have gone up and over, then came back up to pack it down better. Sure, I couldn’t see any sign of a trail where I was, but this snow near the pass was all rock-solid sastrugi, extremely firm wind-blown snow. A snowmachine would barely make a mark in it. I figured the trail would pick up again after I dropped down the other side of Rainy Pass and out of the wind.

The light was extremely flat as I crested the pass. Starting down the other side, it would have been good skiing on the firm snow, except that I couldn’t see a thing. It was all a giant white sheet. I couldn’t make out any definition. I was afraid that I would drop off a cliff or run smack into a snowdrift (and snap a ski), so I went really slowly. The slope was just the right grade to cruise slowly without having to work too hard, or pick up too much speed. It was the easiest mile of the race. “I’ll be down to Rohn in no time,” I thought.

But as I descended out of the wind, the new snow started to settle in on top of the old. I could now see the footprints and bike treads ahead of me that I assumed belonged to Eric and Lou, the two bikers who left Puntilla seven hours before me. But there was no sign of a snowmobile track! It wasn’t until this point, about two miles down the other side of Rainy Pass, that it occurred to me that there was no trail. Maybe that stuck snowmobile did belong to Bill and he never made it over. But what about the Rohn crew that was supposed to be coming up this side? Shouldn’t they have been through here by now? This was a bummer, but I wasn’t overly concerned. The snow wasn’t deep, and I was still averaging between two and three miles per hour. With about 10 miles to go before I reached the Tatina River, this meant it the section from Puntilla to Rohn would take about 12-14 hours, rather than the optimistic 8-10 I was shooting for, but not a big deal.

I continued following the bike prints as they entered a narrow creek bed in the couple of miles before Pass Creek spilled out into the Dalzell Creek valley. Here the valley was narrow. So narrow that a few racers I talked to thought this section was the infamous Dalzell Gorge, even after they had made it through the Dalzell Gorge (which is actually the last descent before we hit the Tatina River). The snow was getting deeper. I was trudging through snow up to my knees in places. I tried to think positively by telling myself that I was still better off than the bikers, but I had my own unique issues to deal with. Much of this section looked like this:

Yes that is the trail. You can see the markings on the trees. Now tell me how you would get a through there on skis, while pulling a sled? I don’t know the answer either. All I know is that somehow I made it by detaching and reattaching to the sled many times. I was mystified by the fact that the Iditarod Sled Dog race would be coming through here in four days. How would they buff out this trail in that short amount of time? Surely, it would take the trail crew a full week to clear all the brush. But as I discovered when I read Lou’s blog, I should never underestimate a man with a snowmobile and a machete. Words to live by, actually.

Because of the alders, doing this section on skis wasn’t much easier than pushing a bike. Sometimes the alders necessitated traveling on the creek, while hoping that I wouldn’t bust through into open water (I didn’t). Later Jay Petervary would tell me how the lead group of bikers came through here, taking turns leading the post-hole parade. Frequently, someone would take step and the snow would collapse into the creek, taking the person’s leg with it. Then everyone would hold their collective breath until the person announced “Wet!” or “Not Wet!”

Sometime around 2:00 PM, after traveling 3 miles in two hours, I knew I was getting close to where Pass Creek was about to spill out into the Dalzell Creek valley. I sensed that the vegetation above the creek bank was thinning out, and I popped up to see if it was any easier to travel on the banks. It turned out to be much easier. The snow wasn’t as deep (only just above my ankles) and the trees were spaced wide enough to ski through. I hadn’t gone more than 20 feet on this bank, which felt like a superhighway compared to the creek, when I looked down and saw a group of seven bikers in the creek next to me. My first thought was, “Oh crap, not now. Why do they have to see me now?” They were going to see me glide by, in relative ease, while they slogged through every step. They were going to absolutely hate me, and there was nothing I could do about it. I gave them a sheepish wave and and a meek “Hey.” The looks of frustration on their faces told the whole story.

“Is it any better up there?” a woman I later figured out was Tracey Petervary called out.

“Yeah, the snow is not as deep,” I replied.

“Do you see any trail markers?”

“Yep – two right in front of me.”

We had a brief conversation as they extracted themselves from the creek and climbed up the bank. They asked how the skiing was, and I tried to explain that, despite appearances at the moment, I was having my fair share of trouble with the sled in the alders. But they were having none of my excuses, and I agreed that it was still better than pushing a bike. Jay Petervary asked where Eric and Lou (the other couple on the trail, and Jay & Tracey’s main competition) were. I told them I had no idea, I had assumed they were in front of me.

“Maybe they are still at the cabin,” Jay said.

“Maybe. I didn’t stop there.” I replied.

At this point I started doing math in my head. I left Puntilla in 14th place. I passed 4 people on the climb. I apparently passed two more (Eric and Lou) who were in the cabin. And now I was passing a group of seven. That puts me in …FIRST PLACE?!? How did that happen? Last I knew, the lead biker (Jeff Oatley) was at least a day ahead of me. Only later did I hear the story from these guys how Jeff arrived at the Rainy Pass Lake cabin and found Bill stranded there. Bill had gotten his snowmobile stuck and had been holed up in the cabin (which, by the way, did not have a roof) for a couple of days. His satellite phone was also broken so he couldn’t call for help. Jeff, knowing there was no trail for him over the pass, elected to stay put at the cabin with Bill, as did the rest of the top cyclists when they arrived. Finally early that morning, the first seven decided to make a push over the pass as a group. And here they were: Jeff, Jay, Tracey, James Leavesley, Chris Wrobel, Phil Hofstetter, and Alec Petro.

My excitement about leading the race was promptly quelled when I started breaking trail. Again, it wasn’t bad at first. The snow was only up to my shins and I was easily able to follow the trail markings at a pace between 1 and 2 MPH. I wouldn’t make it to Rohn by dark as I hoped, but I was able to easily put the bikers out of sight. But with each mile, the snow got deeper, the pace got slower, and I swear the trail markings got harder to follow. I took these pictures when I thought I was breaking trail through deep snow. It turned out that this was nothing compared to the deep snow I encountered a couple hours later, but by then I was in no mood to take pictures.

After breaking trail for three miles, the snow was now up to my knees and my pace was about 1 MPH at best. It had started snowing. At this point I hadn’t yet heard Bill’s story of being stranded for days, and I was cursing him not only for not putting in a trail, but for not warning me about what was to come when I saw him near the pass. The snow kept getting deeper. Each step was a monumental effort. After five miles down Dalzell Creek, it was up to my mid-thigh. I could barely pull my skis out of the deep snow to take another step. On each step, my ski would sink through about a foot of powder and hit a layer of crust underneath. And each time I would hope that maybe, just maybe, the crust would hold my weight as I stepped up onto the ski. And each time the crust would collapse under my weight, burying the ski an additional two feet under and sucking all my energy with it. Anyone who has had to ski or walk through breakable crust knows how mentally and physically tiring it is. And did I mention I was pulling a sled? I had stopped keeping track of my pace because it was too depressing, but it was probably about 0.5 MPH. After six hours and about six miles of breaking trail, I couldn’t go any further. I was utterly exhausted. I had kept my motivation high until that point simply because I had faith I could make it through to Rohn before stopping. I was now faced with the reality that I was too tired. I needed to rest now. Besides, if someone else caught up, they could take a turn busting trail. There was no need for me to do it all by myself. I packed out a spot for my sled and bivy sack under a tree next to the trail, crawled in and ate some cookies and pop tarts before drifting off to sleep. It was about 6 PM.

Ed came by at about 11:00 PM. Even with my trail-breaking efforts, I essentially had a five hour lead before I stopped. That was gone now, but I couldn’t have cared less. I was just happy to have help with the trailblazing. We had a brief conversation about how ridiculous the situation was, then he said he was going press on a little further.

The bikers came by around 1:00 AM. I didn’t talk to them, but I did hear a few comments they made as they passed.

“Bivy. That’s what we should be doing.”

“There’s Cory – I thought he’d be long gone.”

That second comment made me realize that the bikers didn’t understand how difficult it was to ski this section. They saw me ski away with relative ease many hours ago and figured it was like that for me the whole way. They never saw me when I was breaking through 3 feet of snow, when it required an explosive full-body lunge and about three contortionist poses just to get my ski out of the snow on every step. I will readily admit that I had it easier than the bikers did, but it still was nowhere near easy.

I couldn’t get back to sleep after the bikers passed, and by 2:00 AM, I was packed up and back on the trail. I was no longer trudging through unbroken snow, but now I had a new problem. The trench that the bikers left in their wake was completely lopsided. One side was very deep from where they were walking. The other side of the trench, where they pushed their bikes, was only half as deep. I simply could not pull my sled through their tracks because it kept flipping over in the uneven trench. It flipped over six times in the first one hundred yards. I had a brief moment of panic when I thought there was no way I could get my sled through that section. Would I have to ditch the sled in order to save myself? Was my best option to leave the sled and gear behind, ski to Rohn and scratch from the race? Would I have to break a parallel trail? No way was I doing that. My only other option was to empty the sled. I took my three drybags, sleeping pad and sled cover and strapped them to my body, my hip belt and on my small backpack. I was able to pull the sled fine when it was empty, but the extra thirty five pounds hanging awkwardly on my body provided yet another degree of difficulty. I was insanely jealous of Ed, with all his gear in a backpack, and Pete, whose ingenious sled design made it possible to carry the load on his back when needed.

After a few hundred more yards, I was just staring to get into a rhythm when I came upon a cluster of bivies. And the end of the broken trail. At first I was in disbelief that they had only made it a few hundred yards beyond my bivy site before calling it quits, but eventually it occurred to me that it probably took a couple of hours to make that progress. Oh well, I was back to being the trail breaker.

I took one stride into the unbroken snow and quickly realized that skis were not going to work. My first step sunk so deep in the snow that my ski wouldn’t move an inch. I simply could not take another step. I reached down, unclipped my boots from my bindings and dug my skis out of the snow so I could continue on foot. With each step I sunk in to at least my waist, sometimes my chest. Each step required an explosive movement just to extract the leg and move it twelve inches forward. Sometimes it wasn’t even a step, it was more of a swimming motion, pushing snow out of the way with both my arms and legs. At this point I began wondering if this is what the Donner Party experienced. I was envisioning us being stuck for another couple of days. Things were going to get worse before they got better. I was fairly certain that we’d all eventually be okay, because we had plenty of food and warm clothes. I was more worried about all the people following in the race at home. What would they think when all the racers simply disappeared for a few days. I’m not sure my mom could take that. I reminded myself of Linda’s Rule #2: Don’t worry about them. I pressed on.

After about an hour and a half of this wrestling match, the trail started to climb up a hill out of the valley. It was 3:30 AM. I had been out here from almost 24 hours. I knew from the trail description in my pocket that this climb directly preceded the trail dropping into the Dalzell Gorge for the final two miles of descent onto the Tatina River. So I knew I had less than three miles to the river, then 5 miles to Rohn. But I didn’t know if there would be a trail on any of that. It could easily be another 16 hours at this pace.

If breaking trail through waist-deep snow on the flats had been exhausting, breaking trail uphill felt impossible. After half an hour and what felt like only 100 yards, I was sure I couldn’t take another step. I was starting to get above treeline where the wind was picking up and the snow was blowing in circles. I paused to assess the situation. I had no idea how big the hill was. With this weather, I needed to either camp right there, or make it up and over the hill and down the other side. I couldn’t camp where it was exposed. And even if I could make it up and over, I was still faced with the daunting task of descending through the legendary Dalzell Gorge, in deep snow, in the middle of the night, without a trail. Stories from last year of people falling in the water while trying to crisscross the Dalzell Creek gorge were fresh in my mind. That’s not a good situation for a race rookie. I decided to camp again. Safe and smart, I told myself. I had plenty of food and a warm (if slightly damp from the falling snow) sleeping bag. I’d be okay.

Ed showed up a few hours later, and also decided to camp for a second time rather than push on. The bikers came by in the morning, maybe about 9:30 AM. We all chit-chatted a bit and shared some stories from the night before. After a few minutes, the bikers started to move on. They hadn’t taken five steps beyond where I was camped, when one of them called out, “Hey, a snowmobile trail!” I was certain it was a joke. No f*%&$-ing way did I just camp 10 feet shy of the trail that would rescue us from this ordeal! Even after they disappeared, I was still in denial. I simply couldn’t allow myself to believe there was a trail until I’d seen it myself. That would be too cruel and too lucky at the same time. I was bundled up in my bivy, and it was a long process to get my boots and outerwear on so I could see for myself. It wasn’t until Ed packed up and took off an hour later that he confirmed for me that there really was a trail.

By the time Ed left, I was already in the process of melting snow for water (my CamelBak was empty) and cooking freeze-dried Mac & Cheese for breakfast, so it took me another hour to finish up and hit the trail. Besides, I knew that I very well might encounter the whole group breaking trail again in 45 minutes. I couldn’t assume that the trail was good all the way to Rohn. By now, I knew better than to trust any trail, no matter how promising it looked.

Pete came by as I was packing up and I followed him down through the gorge. The gorge did indeed have a snowmobile trail the whole way, put in by the Rohn Iditarod crew. The dreaded Dalzell Gorge turned out to be a really fun ski, and a walk in the park compared to the previous day. I arrived in Rohn around 12:30 PM, but I couldn’t shake the thought that I could have been there six hours earlier if I had simply walked 10 more feet the night before.

Throughout the Dalzell Creek ordeal, I thought a lot about my family following the race on the internet. I had estimated before the race that I could do that section in about 10 hours, and it took over 30. I could only imagine how worried they must have been. Fortunately, there was quite a bit of information put out to keep people like my wife and parents in the loop. Most of it was reassuring which was good. However, not all of it was true.

We weren’t all together. We didn’t all have shelter. We weren’t staying put. We didn’t all know what we had gotten ourselves into when we pushed over the pass.

For instance, one article in the Anchorage Daily News said, “Racers who left the Puntilla checkpoint after Oatley were advised to pack extra food because of the conditions.” Maybe some of the racers after us were told this, but I was distinctly told that there was a trail and that things looked good up at the pass. And even so, how would we pack extra food? Our last food drop was at Finger Lake. We only had the food we brought from there. In the same article it also stated, “Meanwhile, Terry Boyle, a longtime Iditarod volunteer and skookum woodsman, was reportedly leading the pack of snowmobiles that apparently managed to open the trail from Rohn up the Dalzell Gorge and over Rainy Pass to where racers waited.” These guys put in the trail up the gorge, true (and thank God they did). And maybe later they did get up and over the pass (although Lou’s blog says they didn’t). But there was no trail in the 10 miles between the Pass and the Gorge when we went through. I don’t think any racers “waited” until there was a trail over the pass. Some waited longer than others, but I think eventually everyone set out from the cabin before any snowmobiles made it up and over. It is a testament to this year’s group of racers that everyone who went over the pass made it to Rohn. There was potential for disaster with the conditions the way they were, but everyone was fit, smart and prepared. It was quite an experience to be out there with such an incredible group of athletes.

In Rohn, we all spent some time going through our drop bags, drying out our sleeping bags and other gear, licking our wounds, and telling stories. We also listened to a Rohn checkpoint volunteer tell stories of going through the ice on the Kuskokwim River on the Ptarmigan Pass route. Someone asked her how the Iron Dog Snowmachine race had gone through Ptarmigan Pass a few weeks ago without encountering any water issues. “Those guys aren’t afraid to ride open water,” she replied. “They just gun it.”

Wow. And I thought we were crazy.

Continue on to Part Three: 2009 Iditarod Invitational – Rohn to McGrath




Cory Written by:


  1. March 18, 2009

    Wow. That’s incredible. I thought I had a good imagination about what conditions might have been like up there, but I really had no idea.

    The guys in Puntilla told us there was a trail up and over Rainy Pass last year as well, and there wasn’t when the leaders went through. I’m guessing it’s safe to assume they’re always wrong.

  2. March 18, 2009

    Hey Cory – this was an excellent report from the iditarod trail. The details are unlimited. You have really captured the trip from the start in Knik to the storm over Rainy Pass. It was a great read even though I knew first hand what it was like out there. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and what you endured. It was great traveling with…or should I say…near you. Cheers!

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