This story has been updated
When a trio of Iditarod Trail fat-tire cyclists fighting their way through a Seward Peninsula ground blizzard in the dark of the early moring Friday stumbled upon two mushers huddled behind dog sleds, they thought for a moment the worst.
They feared they might find bodies instead of living, breathing people.
“Nobody stops in the blowhole,” said Phil Hofstetter, who knows well the wind-pounded country between the Safety Roadhouse and the Topkok Hills east of Nome. A five-time finisher in the 1,000-mile Iditarod Trail Invitational that runs north from the old Cook Inlet port of Knik, Hofstetter calls Nome home.
With the wind gusting to 40 miles per hour across the flat, treeless terrain and the temperature near zero, this was not the place Hofstetter expected to find participants in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race stalled Friday.
The dog teams were an ominous site.
“Nobody should stop (there),” Hofstetter said. “You just got to go.”
Four-time Iditarod champ Jeff King from Denali Park knows. He got blown off his sled along this stretch of trail in 2014. He knew how dangerous it was to stop. He hiked through the storm to shelter in Safety to save himself.
“Before making the ride to Topkok from Nome, you have to learn about the ‘blow hole,’ which is this crazy wind funnel between Topkok Head and Solomon,” writes Nome climber Ian McRae. “The blow hole is why the shelter cabin is there (at the base of the Topkoks.) If the weather report says ‘high winds between Nome and Golovin,’ you have good reason to fear.”
Out of nowhere
The winds were calm in the Topkoks on Thursday night when Hofstetter rolled through with Fairbanks riders Jay Cable and Kevin Breitenbach, but “as soon as we came off the hill, it was blowing a bit,” Hofstetter said.
He knew it would only get worse as the trio headed out onto the snow-covered sand spit that runs along the coast between Safety Sound and the Bering Sea for more than 20 miles from the westernmost Topkok shelter cabin to a roadhouse on the Nome-Council Road.
“It just kept getting stronger and stronger,” he said. “We couldn’t ride. It was dark out.”
They were in the maelstrom now, though, so there wasn’t much choice but to push on. It was either that or turn back for the shelter cabin.
Nobody stops in the blowhole.
That’s why Hofstetter was surprised to catch a glimpse of a dog sled and then dogs off to his left on the seaward side of the spit. A closer look revealed another sled. He and the other cyclists went to investigate.
Behind the sleds, tucked down as best one could tuck down, they found two Iditarod mushers. They would turn out to be 56-year-old Scott Janssen, the locally famous “Mushin’ Mortician” from Anchorage, and 77-year-old Dr. Jim Lanier from Chugiak, who ran his first Iditarod in 1979 and was trying to complete his 20th this year.
When the cyclists got to the two men, they were sitting atop a sleeping bag dressed in their trail wear of parkas, snow pants and boots. A satellite tracker on Hofstetter’s bike indicated they were stopped about four miles beyond the last of the Topkok cabins and about two and a half miles short of an empty, partially drfited in cabin that might have provided some shelter.
“We tried to get them up,” Hofstetter said. He warned them “you got to get moving. You can’t stop.”
The cyclists didn’t get much of a response. Lanier, who’d been sick when he left the checkpoint of White Mountain 30 miles behind, was almost unresponsive, Hofstetter said, and Janssen clung to him.
“He kept saying, ‘I’m not leaving Jim,” Hofstetter said. “‘I’m not leaving Jim.’ He kept saying it over and over again.”
Calling for help
Janssen, who Hofstetter did not know, was coherent enough to explain that he had a satellite phone with him. He thought it was in his pocket. Cable emptied Janssen’s pockets and found no phone.
Janssenlater told television reporters he’d found Lanier’s team off the trail and stuck, tried to get the team back on the trail, and wore himself out in the process. The weather in which the two men were caught varied from horrible to not that bad, all depending on experience.
Hofstetter, accustomed to northern coastal storms, thought the wind manageable. Cable, used to the calm of Fairbanks in Central Alaska, said it “was the worst blow I’ve been in.”
Cable was shaken at finding the two mushers stalled in these conditions.
“The one guy (Lanier) wasn’t responding,” he said, “and the other guy was talking. I don’t remember what he wanted” other than the phone.
After Cable emptied Janssen’s pockets, he said, “I was like, ‘OK, it’s not your pockets, where could it be?'”
Cable eventually found the phone in Janssen’s sled bag, and the cyclists dialed up Janssen’s wife waiting in Nome at the Iditarod finish line. Janssen said his hands were so cold he couldn’t push the buttons on the phone.
After Janssen talked ot his wife, there was a discussion about the emergency-locator beacons carried by mushers followed, Cable said. Janssen wanted the cyclist to find one of those and push the rescue button. Cable said he dug through one sled and found nothing. Then discovered a transmitter in the other sled.
“I asked him if he wanted me to push the button,” Cable said. “He didn’t want to get in trouble.”
Mushers are disqualified from the race if they call for rescue. Cable knew that and said he wanted to make sure Janssen wanted the button pushed before pushing the button. Cable said he checked and double-checked before hitting the SOS after Janssen made it clear that, yes, he wanted the button pushed. Cable pushed it.
“We were getting pretty cold by then,” he added. The cyclists were dressed for travel, not for standing around with Lanier and Janssen. Hoftstetter had already given his big parka to Breitenbach, a skinny guy, and told him to beat it up the trail a few miles to what is known locally as “Tommy Johnson’s cabin” and wait there in the lee out of the wind.
“It was a good thing it wasn’t very cold,” said Cable, who pegged the temperature at 4 degrees. “Phil and I couldn’t figure out what we could do. The fellow who could talk was very insistent he wasn’t going to leave the other guy.”
Hofstetter thought about taking off the sleeping bag strapped to his bike and trying to get one of the men into it, but it was blowing so hard he was afraid the bag would just get ripped away in the wind.
“We didn’t know what to do,” he said, “and we were getting cold. I don’t know anything about dogs or dog mushing.”
Thus, with the SOS button pushed to alert rescuers and Janssen saying his wife was reporting help on the way, the cyclists decided to get moving themselves to avoid going hypothermic.
They didn’t go far before they stopped again, however. They were still worried about the two mushers.
Less than three miles down the trail they pulled into Johnson’s cabin just to the north of the route to huddle with Brietenbach. There they could find enough shelter from the wind for Cable to dig out his In-Reach global communication device with which he could text Hofstetter’s wife in Nome.
They told her to alert Alaska State Troopers there were mushers on the trail in trouble.
“I was really worried about the one, the older guy,” Hofstetter said. “I thought they were gone.”
But he also recognized there wasn’t a whole lot more three lightly dressed cyclists could do. Hofstetter’s wife messaged back that troopers had been alerted and volunteers from the search and rescue team at the Nome Fire Department were on the way, Cable said.
As soon as they got the word that help was coming, the cyclists got moving down the trail again to warm up themselves.
“At approximately 7 a.m. this morning, the Iditarod Trail Committee was alerted that
mushers Jim Lanier and Scott Janssen had requested emergency assistance due to
weather conditions near an area between the checkpoints of White Mountain and
Safety,” the Iditarod said in a public statement.
Judging from the trackers carried by the cyclists, who met up with Lanier and Janssen shortly before 7 a.m., that would be about the time Cable pushed the SOS button.
Hofstetter said he was happy when the group met snowmachines heading east toward Lanier and Janssen. Cable said there was a wide-track with what he thought was a woman driving. That would likely have been musher Jesse Royer from Montana who had earlier driven out to the Safety checkpoint on a snowmachine, according to Iditarod. She was later asked to go to look for Janssen and Lainer.
Cable said there were a “whole bunch of racing machines. Phil told me that was Nome search and rescue.
“I was just so glad to see (Lanier and Janssen) on the backs of the snowmachines when they came back through,” Hofstetter said.
“It was pretty crazy. Luckily, the temperatures weren’t all that bad.”
By Friday afternoon, Janssen was recovered and doing television interviews in Nome.
Reached by phone in Nome Saturday evening, Lanier said he was doing better, too, but that it was a very close call. He’d been battling bronchitis for days as he moved north along the trail, he said. It hadn’t improved any by White Mountain, the penultimate checkpoint.
“I knew if I got in trouble I wouldn’t be able to get out of it,” he said, but with good trail, everything would be fine.
And “it was wonderful,” he said, until he came down out of the Topkoks.
“I got blown off the trail,” he said. He spent more than an hour trying to get the team back on the trail, and in the process pretty much ran his tank dry.
Out of energy and cold, he said,”I finally got to the point that I was just hunkered down by the sled.” He wasn’t thinking about death, but he confessed that as a physician, a pathologist to be exact, he recognized the possiblity.
“If I hadn’t been extracted,” he said flatly, “I would have died.”
There has never been a human death during the Iditarod dog race, but there have been several close calls. Lanier now joins that list. As Hoftstetter noted, everyone was lucky the weather wasn’t worse.
“Earlier today, I still felt sick,” Lanier said on the phone, but by late in the day he was feeling better even if he coughed a few times during the interview. He was a man happy to be alive, thankful for all of those who came to his rescue – Iditarod musher Jesse Royer from Montana was one of those who headed out on the trail on a snowmachine to help rescue Lanier and Janssen – and sorry to have scared his wife.