Commentary

Save a life

shelter

Shelter from the storm – Prairie Bilt “Easy Rider” dog sled/Prairie Bilt photo

Alaska “Mushing Mortician,” Scott Janssen, and pathologist friend Jim Lanier are now fully recovered from their near-death experience of March, and the 2018 Alaska Iditarod Trail Sled Dog seems already ancient history.

 

But before The Last Great Race is forgotten for the year, the Iditarod rules committee needs to take note of the latest near death and take a simple step to make the event safer:

Order mushers to use a sled with a 6-foot basket and equally sized sled bag when making the run along the Bering Sea Coast from Unalakleet to Nome.

Five-time Iditarod champion Rick Swenson says five and half feet would do, but he might be over-rating some of the people racing the Iditarod these days. Swenson, who is as comfortable on the trail in life-threatening conditions as you are in your office, also thinks a shorter sled and a tent would suffice.

So would a bivy sac and a good sleeping bag for some people. You don’t need much of a wind break when you’re down at ground level in a bivy, but you do need a certain bit of competence.

If you’ve never spent time in winds gusting to 60, 70 or 80 mph, you don’t understand how easy it is to lose the bag to the wind. That’s what makes a dog sled that is its own bivy a potential life-saving piece of equipment:

Zip the sled bag open. Dump gear. Crawl into the sled. Zip the bag shut and start getting into your sleeping bag inside where nothing can blow away.

Or, as in the case of Lanier this year, if you find another musher in rough shape on the trail, get them into the sled bag, help them get into their sleeping bag, tell them to settle in while you go for help, and zip up their cocoon rather than compounding the problems of search and rescue by boosting the people needing help from one to two.

Yesteryear

Zipping in used to be something of an Iditarod norm when things got bad.

Former Anchorage Daily News sports editor Lew Freedman recounts a familiar scenario in his 2004-book, “More Iditarod Classics: Tales of the Trail from the Men & Women Who Race Across Alaska.”

The year was 1992, and Freedman writes of a group of mushers that included the late Bob Ernisse, veteran musher Bob Hickel from Anchorage and rookie Debbie Corral from Eagle River. They lost the trail in a ground blizzard in the notorious Solomon blowhole between White Mountain and Nome near the end of the race.

Ernisse found himself in  bad shape and told the others he couldn’t go on. The story picks up there with Freedman recording Ernisse’s narrative:

“So we decided we were going to wait out the storm. Bob helped me get all of the gear out of my sled so I could climb inside….I got inside the sled and inside my sleeping bag. But the zipper on the sleeping bag was broken. Bob tried to help me, and finally I said I would just hug it to my body and zip up the sled bag. I went to zip up the sled bag, and the zipper was solid ice, just frozen solid. There was a Velcro strip, and I pushed from inside the sled and Bob pulled from the outside, and we finally got it closed.”

With Ernisse saying he was safely tucked away, Hickel went to his own sled and climbed inside. Ernisse went to sleep and woke the next morning to find himself covered in two inches of snow that had blown inside the incompletely sealed sled bag.

Ernisse went to climb out of the sled, but found his legs wouldn’t work. He screamed for help and Hickel, who had been sleeping comfortably, finally answered. Hickel went to assist Ernisse, but ended up at Corral’s sled.

“He unzipped her sled bag, and she looked at him, and said, ‘What?’ Freedman writes. “He said, ‘Are you alright?’ She said, ‘Yeah, I’m fine.'”

Hickel then went to assist Ernisse, who did need help. With the help of Hickel, Corral and a local musher Ernisse and Hickel met on the trail, the injured musher made it to the Safety checkpoint and was evacuated from there. Hickel and Corral went on to finish the race.

Today

And now, when a musher gets in trouble as Lanier – a 77-year-old from Chugiak – did this year, there is not much others on the trail can to do to help because on the “sit down” or “tail dragger” sleds in use today, the basket and sled bag in front of the driver are barely big enough to hold an injured dog or two, let alone a musher.

It’s a dangerous situation. Just ask Hugh Neff, a former winner of the bitterly cold, 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race from Fairbanks to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Canada.

What was it his girlfriend Nicole Faille wrote on Facebook after Neff nearly froze to death near the end of the 2014 Iditarod?

“With hypothermia setting in, he climbed into his sled and sat contemplating that his sled might become his coffin.”

The keyword there is “sat.” Neff would later describe sitting in his sled feeling his body dying in the cold. By the time rescuer Dave Branholm found Neff, whose team quit out on exposed and windswept Golovin Bay east of Nome,  Neff was seriously hyopthermic.

Neff and Faille accused Iditarod officials of dillydallying to rescue the freezing musher, but rescuing someone from along the Iditarod Trail in a storm is not as easy as driving a few blocks to the supermarket in Seattle or Minneapolis.

When Branholm found Neff, he was sitting on the bag of his dogsled with his sleeping bag down around his knees and the cotton undergarments beneath his parka frozen stiff because he couldn’t get into his sled.

The basket was too small. The situation was the same for Lanier and Janssen this year and for Janssen again in 2015 when he said, “I almost froze to death on the ice outside of Koyuk….When they found me, I had a sleeping bag draped over me and my 11 dogs.”

He had a sleeping bag draped over him because, again, he couldn’t get into the sled bag. This has become a dangerous Iditarod new norm.

One might think safety the first priority of anyone undertaking a 1,000 mile winter journey across the frozen wilderness of the far north, but the Iditarod is a race and racers do whatever necessary to go as fast as they can.

This is why the Iditarod since near its very beginning in 1973 has had a list of required “mandatory items.”  Without such a requirement someone interested in saving weight would be almost certain to shuck his five-pound sleeping bag, or her ax, snowshoes and dog-food cooker with it’s heavy fuel.

Sled dog racing is no different that any other kind of speed racing; winning is about maximizing the power-to-weight ratio. A musher gets faster, stronger dogs to gain power and throws out every last ounce of unnecessary gear to save weight.

Bigger sleds have disappeared because they’re perceived as heavier and because late in the sleep-deprivation competition called Iditarod, it’s nice for the dog driver to be able to sit down and rest, maybe even lean his head on the handlebar to grab a few minutes of sleep.

Liability

However nice some mushers might think this, Iditarod needs to protect them from themselves, and it needs to protect the race.

A dead musher on the trail would get the Iditarod a lot of attention. No doubt about that. The near-death stories already get a lot of attention.

At first, too, and sadly, the reaction to death of a musher on the trail might be less than the reaction to the death of a dog. But when questions start getting asked, and it becomes obvious a lot of people have known for years that a very real safety issue has been consciously overlooked, what then?

And yes, some mushers are sure to complain about being required to use a sled with a 6-foot basket (or even a five and half-foot basket) for the coast run, but some of them would complain if they won the Nenana Ice Classic.

And yes, a long sled might be slightly heavier, but not burdensomely so.

Four-time Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race champion Hans Gatt, a top-10 Iditarod finisher from Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Canada, builds a beautiful tail dragger.

“The Tail Dragger,” as he simply calls it, “is a sit down sled for the ultra-serious competitor. With only 4-feet basket length out front it is very lightweight and features excellent handling and extreme flexibility. The seat assembly offers  lots of room for storage and it can be used in many different ways to carry food, gear and straw.”

Gatt says the sleds weighs 44-pounds.

Jim Miller at Prairie Built Sleds in North Dakota builds sleds for quite a few Iditarod mushers. His “Easy Rider” comes with a 62-inch or 72-inch (6-foot) basket and weighs 40 to 48 pounds, according to the Prairie Bilt website. 

“The 72-inch model is a popular wilderness adventure sled often found on the Iditarod Trail,” he writes.

It’s matching sled bag can be had with “an expendable nose” to make more foot room if anyone ever needs to crawl inside in an emergency. It has full length zippers to make it easy to access and compression straps to hold gear tight against the frame of the sled when the load is small or to make it possible to close the bag if the zipper fails.

It’s the kind of sled bag that could save someone’s life.

 

 

 

 

 

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36 replies »

  1. Hi Craig,

    President Jefferson calls into the White House the 25 greatest, toughest, gnarliest drivers whoever raced a NASCAR track. “Boys,” he opens, “we just bought this huge part of North America from France, but we don’t know what’s out there. Earnhardt and Andretti, I’m placing you in charge and the rest of you in a Corps of Discovery. I want you to make your way any way you can to the far-away ocean and back. Along the way keep journals, make maps, collect flora and fauna samples, and establish PR with the local inhabitants. As soon as you get back from your recon, report in to me.

    Jefferson waits and waits. His presidency ends and he goes home to Monticello, still waiting. The years roll by and yet he waits, wondering. Finally, as he nears death he writes to his friend Adams, with the question, “Those guys were the most skillful, expert drivers who ever coursed a track. Counting training they had hundreds of thousands of miles on them. Surely they could have made just the few thousand I tasked them with, so what could have happened?”

    “Tom,” replies Adams, “You remember how strained our relationship was for a number of years. I could have told you, but I didn’t want to widen our rift. You sent the wrong men. You expected too much from the type you chose. They lacked the right preparation. I hate to inform you, Tom, but your tough runners of the paved-track were not Boone. So here’s why they never showed back up: THEY ALL DIED OUT THERE! they had the wrong skillset.

    Today’s racers are too busy preparing for today’s style race to have the time to learn wilderness trail and survival skills. You can run a hundred miles of wilderness trail every day in training and come back to your warm, sheltered training headquarters and all you get good at is running a hundred miles of wilderness trail every day and coming back to your warm, sheltered training headquarters.

    If you can make an average of about three checkpoints a day over today’s trails, that are, as Raymie Redington once described them, “buffed like a dance room floor,” it seems to modern competitors there is too little chance of being caught in between by any condition bad enough to keep them from making the next checkpoint. So why take time away from preparing for high percentage conditions to prepare for contingencies they are unlikely to encounter? Why pull five extra pounds of sled and tote five extra pounds of survival gear? Why mess with designing a closure on a sled bag that you can close tight from inside and won’t lock you in after hours of respiration that would naturally ice up a zipper?

    Craig, as I raised my family, my kids were so used to Dad harping, “Don’t Do Dumstuf” all I had to say was “D-D-D!”

    A former workmate, a veteran of Desert Storm, told of a dufuss in their unit aptly named Stubendik. He so routinely did dumstuf it became such a proverb that if anything was found broken, spilled, or messed up, the cry was instantly lifted to call the expected screw-up forward, “STUBENDIK!”

    It already seems like so much of the race has been turned over to OSHA that I hate to see something like a required sled length enforced. Instead, maybe they should just create a STUBENDIK Award and require the recipient to wear a fur-ruffed dunce cap forever after on future Iditarods.

    Of course, those who ran the 1974 race would be as lost trying to compete in today’s hi-tech event as Boone would have been on a NASCAR race. But in ‘74 everyone was caught to one extent or another in the greatest blizzard to ever hit the Iditarod, known as the 50-50 storm. For three nights and two days it stayed below minus 50 degrees with winds over 50 mph that held the chill factor off the C-F chart that stops at minus 128. Every ’74 competitor had stories of the battle they had with the elements. But to this day I have never heard one mention experiencing anything close to being in a life threatening pickle where they were unprepared skillwise or gearwise. Not one tells of being the least out of control beyond ability to overcome—on their own. In those race pioneering days the race was run by experienced wilderness travelers. And with fewer checkpoints, rougher trails, and slower dogs, the camping between checkpoints characterized the passage. Every participant was prepared to sleep—and sleep warmly—in their sleds in any circumstance.

    A few of my observations of today’s race as I look on from my distance:

    · Those in the back half of the race spend too much in mimic of the frontrunners. Those with no prayer to place in the money spend way too much on the latest and greatest and most expensive sleds and on sending racier (shorter, lighter) models out to switch to for a stretch run—when the only difference they might gain is placing 44th instead of 45th. They would be far better off to spend that racier sled money on a racier dog or two.

    · Except for the up-hills requiring lift—and there are not all that many up-hills on the coast, the team is only sliding the sled, not carrying it. On the level, put a pull scale on the towline and measure the extra needed to pull a 6-foot basket sled laden with contents and musher over one of 4-feet and the difference would be so near zero it’s not worth consideration for those not contending for the big money.

    · Not saying that racers should shrug off going as light as they sensibly can, but if weight being pulled made all the difference, some of the bigger racers like Swenson would have never had a chance. This year Joar and Nick would have given up before even starting, knowing Mitch he had them by 40 pounds.

    · Quite a few, when scheming and spending to cut five pounds of sled weight and a couple more for survival insulation, should instead just shove themselves back from the table early a few more times.

    Rod

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  2. This “mushing bag” is designed fo rsituations just like the ones described. It can lay on the bottom of the sledbag, has flaps with which it can be attached to the sled so it won’t blow away and is 3 items in one: insulation mat, sleeping bag, bivvy bag – all large enough to get in with full gear. Just open up sled bag, dump gear on top, unroll the mushing bag inside the sled and get in. Tested and highly recommended: http://brenig.co.uk/index.php?id_product=53&controller=product&id_lang=1

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    • Good idea . But it looks to small for full gear particularly big boots . Zippers are generally not preferred during storms or ice / moisture snow conditions. This bag Would need modified. Can it fit a sleeping bag inside it ? As well as a person with gear ? In bad storms it’s preferable to have something you can just climb into . A person cannot leave it in bottom of sled like picture shows because as I found this year from making that mistake with my parka . Carry a dog who decides to pee in the bag and you will be way more careful! It took me 800 miles to get my block of urine parka dry ! Not happy! The bag is an Interesting concept at any rate . I have something similar I took with me this year , my wife made but it’s bigger or appears so . Dallas also carries something much larger or used to .

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      • Ramey,
        Not sure what is best if you are sleeping in your boots?
        You could still crawl in the BD Bibler tent (weighs 4lbs 8 ounces with 2 poles).
        I just saw BD discontinued the “winter bivy” that I love.
        I bet there are still some down at BD’s HQ in SLC…if you called you can probably find one…here is what it looks like.

        https://www.campsaver.com/black-diamond-winter-bivy-sack.html

        I prefer the dense foam mats like “Ridgerest” over inflatables like “Thermarest” which can get punctures or ice crystals from breath.
        I also prefer a smaller synthetic bag (say 20 below) over any type of down.
        The synthetic keeps it’s loft better when camping for extended winter trips…with mosture build up, I have seen down collapse on the glacier.
        The 20 below synthetic bag (like North Face) packs well, is not too heavy and if it is really cold out, you can always toss in a hot Nalgene water bottle when going to bed…wrapped in the lightweight BD “winter bivy” sack, the system is awesome (with or without tent)…the tent helps with boiling water and drying gear though.

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      • The outer (black) layer is waterproof, so if it is properly folded over the inside sleeping bag, your dog may even pee on it 🙂 It IS designed (by a musher!) to get in with boots and full gear but you can even have it made a larger size if you ask! It doesn’t need a sleeping bag inside it, its already there: lightweight and super warm. And the idea behind it is exactly that: just climb into it in a bad storm! 🙂

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      • The Mushing Bag is 45″ wide at the shoulders and 32″ wide at the foot section. It is designed for people to get in wearing all their trail clothing. People upto 48″ chest, ( that is circumference, not width), and size 12 boots, with winter clothing on, have been inside it and found it more than big enough. I don’t know anyone bigger so don’t take that as a size limit. If you want to fit a sleeping bag inside, it will fit in easily,(and you, and your gear) but why would you? To get in a normal size bag, you would have to take off you -20/30/40 Parka and hence get cold. Try to get into the normal bag wearing big clothing and the zip will break. You say that “in bad storms, it’s preferable to have something you can just climb into”, which is exactly what this is designed for.
        I don’t know if you are suggesting that any closure is to be avoided or if velcro closure is better than a zipper, but cold and moisture is a problem for all closure systems. It’s really a case of each having unique problems, and you can choose which problem to have, but you can’t have zero problems. Zippers provide best all round usage and flexibility.
        And if your dog pees on the bag? Sorry, that is out of my control. Don’t blame the product and don’t blame the dog.
        We work with a lot of mushers and a lot of Polar expeditions, so all feedback is appreciated and it gets fed into customised design for people who want something bigger, smaller or more specialised.

        Graham Ogle
        Brenig

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  3. Hi Steve . I’m very interested in the tent you describe. Particularly if everyone was required to carry it . I will try and look it up . To my understanding snow can work in a pinch . Keep in mind a lot of climbers die and get frost bit .they all use new fangled gear . Not a good endorsement. Also keep in mind climbers tend to be in groups so help can at times be available. Climbers also generally use a tent most days and get very proficient . They at times tent up for hours or days alowing for some degree of drying and sleep . By the time a musher will tent up in a storm chances are he is very tired and at times sweaty or iced up in heavy gear . Unable to manipulate his equipment very well. To my understanding climbers try to stay on top of their personal status a bit better . I think there is a wider range of skill and health level among mushers than climbers. Correct me if I’m wrong. That means a very simple shelter becomes more nessasary . Thus a sled bag usually suffices . I like your idea of birch bark and spruce needles though ! Hah ! Perhaps a caribou hide bag like first guy to south pole used for his crew is better though . Yes yankee bill my dad took a team in the sled early 80s . 36 dogs . 3 abreast with special separators . 26 pulling 10 resting .Not a good story for Iditarod officials. My dad had vets and officials sighn off on his gear configuration prior to start . I am told he had fastest time anchorage to eagle river that year . At that point officials recognized he was about to change the race . They thought it was a gag prior . as my dad was known for such . (Finished the race as first Russian vasiily zamidtkin . ) no one knew till years later . So anyway they told him at settlers bay he couldn’t use his configuration. He went on anyway. When he got to finger lake they had just finished burning his dog food . The checker came and told him , bud everyone up the trail has been told to burn your food . Don’t go on . There is no supplies . At that point he had no choice but to call it a wrap and drive the team across to forks road house and contact his wife for a pickup. You can imagine how much work and money was invested to get 36 dogs ready . Not fair as officials had come and inspection prior and signed off on it . They were not right .welcome to Iditarod mistakes ! My dad had tested in training with 90 mile runs for 10 days straight so he knew it would work. The idea was developed by bud and George Attla who used to borrow his dogs for sprint racing and would have dad drive his team when George was ill . Another era of great men for sure .

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    • Ramey…
      That is crazy how ITC treated you dad back then.
      Why such conformity in a “non conformist” sport?
      Jack who finished back in the early 80’s said the ITC deliberately did not advance his food bags to checkpoint, since they did not want him in top finishers…when he got to White Mtn, he said there was no food for his team.
      He had to take “hand outs”, but it made his dog team sick and I am not sure if he finished that year.
      He was so discouraged, he never raced again…just what “they” wanted.
      As for tents…
      The BD Bibler is the ticket…
      Not cheap, but well worth the price when needed.
      I know some guys at BD and I am sure they would give mushers a “pro deal” on pricing.

      https://www.blackdiamondequipment.com/en/tents-and-bivys/i-tent-BD810050.html

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    • That “configuration”, as you call it, was the craziest thing I’ve ever seen pulled by dogs and also the first time (and only time) I’ve seen a single-tree system with dogs three abreast. If you could post a picture of such it would be a hoot but the bunny huggers on here would come unglued.
      Speaking of coming unglued, that was my impression of spectators observing that spectacle.

      I can see where Bud was upset as he had put in a lot of time and effort to making that work.
      The position of race officials was something that had to be seen to be believed. I can only describe it as “imagine the cartoonist Gary larson drawing those dogs inside that contraption” moving along the trail at about 10 mph. They were stuffed into that thing and frankly I expect that whomever signed off on it to begin with must have been paid off. Heheh!

      I’ve heard a few other Bud Smyth stories over the years but this one I got to see, first hand. Thanks for the “rest of the story” as I had just assumed that Bud had scratched like he was told.

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      • Bill interesting to hear your take on the sled / configuration. The sled was large deep toboggan aprx 12 + ft bed ? and double layered I think . AstroTurf on bottom. Plenty of room . Good ventilation. It had a special split brake for incredible turning like a dozer . Yeah the dogs wanted out to run pretty excited. Pushing against the fence . When sleeping it looked like you could fit 10 more . They just trot over and jump right in . Us kids used the cages to play in for fun and keep livestock later . The team configuration was extremely efficient. My dad used 4 abreast when Cart training to reduce team length and increase power massively. Dogs pulled perfectly straight so ergonomic was better . My dad was preparation freak . Used to prepare all dog food on kitchen table cook and wrap each dogs meal individually . He drove people literally insane who helped him each meal in a little baggie twist tied up . 7 different kinds of food per dog . That’s why it took him to long to get to nome . To many twist ties . Also to many friends on trail . Just this year a native guy in Kaltag regaled me with a story of how my dad saved his life at 50 below. 40 years ago he abandoned his sno go on Yukon black out drunk dying of exposure. Dads team ran into him . Got tangled. Saw how impaired the guy was . (A Huntington ) threw the drunk into the sled pulled him 30 miles to kaltag brought to his house . The guy is eternally grateful 40 years on and has a wonderful family I met this year . My dad had an ability to stay grounded to what’s important in life . Although he never won he has more friends on the trail than anybody and I wish I could match his ability Which is impossible for me .

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      • Ramey,
        It sounds like your Dad was able to think outside the box and that was truly why the ITC refused his “3 a breast” system.
        The sled also sounds neat.
        More practical it seems.
        It sounds to me that when you look back on your dad’s Iditarod experience, you can see “winning is not everything”.
        That is why your dad had time for other people (friends along the trail) and to help the Alcoholic out on his way to Nome.
        These bonds are lost when a corporate dog driver only thinks of winning and “get out of my way”.
        It does not help to segregate trail user groups along the way.
        More solidarity is needed in AK!

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      • Glad to hear about all of Bud’s friends and I certainly thought of him as friendly guy, the one time we met. Wasn’t it Bud who lost his Iditarod belt buckle, in a fire, and someone trying to get him one from the earlier mushers that ended up with more than one?
        My impression was that those dogs, in the fencing, had to have been put in there with a plunger. I used the cartoonist thing because that’s how it looked, to me. Other spectators were horrified and that is what forced the officials IMO.
        As long as we are on Bud stories, here is my favorite: This is hearsay, so I’ll try to keep with the theme and the setting is a sprint race around Fairbanks. Bud drives up in his dog truck and jumps out with a beer in hand while several women get to dropping the dogs and getting his sled ready as Bud is shooting the bull with folks in the area. As the women bring up the dogs and sled to the starting line the marshal is counting down the seconds and at the last second Bud hands his beer to one of the gals, steps on the runners, and is off. When his team gets to the finish line the women take over and hand Bud another beer as they put the dogs away.
        Now that is the way to drive dogs!

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  4. I was chasing Riley through the Topkak blow hole in 79 when my headlight failed and the dogs AND the sled could no longer stay right side up. No way in hell anyone could pitch a tent or perhaps even survive in a sled in those circumstances. Ramey is as close to right as anyone here but there can be conditions out there that defy any simple solution. I found a hard drift, scooped a depression with a dog pan, rolled into a sleeping bag cover, and let the snow bury me. The ground blizzard drifted the dogs over and protected them. I had given my main sleeting bag to another musher the night before who was in trouble and had only the outer shell and emergency down wind pants and parka. I was buried for 7 or 8 hours and dug out the following morning when Don Honea came upon my sled runners protruding from the snow. I’d kept a breathing hole open to the surface and made it without frost bite or serious hypothermia. Went on to finish the race, 7th I think.
    I’m with Swenson on the 6″ basket…and probably a mandatory shovel from Unalakleet on. I would have traded the farm for a decent shovel that night.
    I

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    • yes, a shovel. it has saved me more than once, although i still have bad memories of digging in with Matt Hage in a howler on McKinley. it looked for a long time like we weren’t making any headway against the drifting snow. i know the winds going into 14,000 had to be above 60 mph because Matt got picked up and body slammed twice. i was for once thankful to be fat and glad we had good-size, well-made shovels. the plastic ones are crap.

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      • Craig,
        Yes…
        A shovel is a key piece of the kit, but I am sure you guys had a tent as well out on the glacier.
        Sometimes there is plenty of snow to “dig in” and sometimes you have bare ice or hardened neve’ to contend with.

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  5. My opinion here is that to require any kind of tent makes no sense when all mushers already have something that works as a tent (their sled bag). The only thing that is necessary here is to require said sled bag to be capable of holding the musher. My own bag (82 Iditarod) had an extension that allowed my to fit inside it (I’m 6′).
    Suggestion of requiring something that holds a team of dogs is way “overkill” IMO.

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  6. What Tim white said should be considered for sure .knee jerk decisions usually have repercussions. That said I’m a sincere proponent of longer baskets on sleds . Jessie Royer uses a sled . Flex max pro ? Handling is incredible. Long large basket . Made by hans gatts past sled making partner . Can’t remember name . Maybe he would start making them again if demand went up.

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  7. I think this article is missing a basic issue. The dogs. And their safety. Modern Iditarod dogs are not bred to weather Arctic storms. They need jackets these days, often even when they are running, because of their thin coats. And current dog jackets are not designed for protection in 80 mph winds while dogs are stationary for many hours. So, if you were serious about protecting the dogs in emergencies, the sleds should be 8 to 10 feet long. Long enough to corral the dogs behind and get them out of the wind. Tents, that fit the musher and dogs, are the best protection. But it takes practice to put up a tent in a wind storm and not lose it. Too risky. We used to use a 6-man tent with our team of Malamutes. Would all sleep in a big pile. Super comfy. But problematic when you had to take a pee. When you got back inside the tent you would find that your sleeping bag had been absconded by 600 lbs of dogs that did not want to give it back to you.

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    • Tim,
      I agree with your comment:
       “Tents, that fit the musher and dogs, are the best protection.”
      As for the “pee issue” while stuck in storms…
      Most climbers dedicate an old Nalgene bottle to the task…mark it well, so there is no confusion during the middle of the night.
      It sounds like you took very good care of your dogs…
      It seems the “recreational” side of mushing is getting lost to the corporate race model we are currently seeing across AK.

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    • Tim . Most mushers dogs have adequate fur . The rules specify northern breeds so inadequate fur is rare . You are incorrect as to genetics . Many teams are still well prepared/ bred for cold everyone looks for that as a required trait .They are only 3 generations away from my dads dogs of the early 80s . Aprx 8-10 years between generations. There is always the odd dog out . Most mushers have dogs that are well furred . Yeah mostly not like malamutes that I will give you . Most of my dads dogs of 50s-70s May have had more hair but back then straw was uncommon. Villagers did cut some . Synthetic coats were basically nonexistent. Dads dogs did loose a little fur when he bred to George’s dogs in 80s . The ones I have now do better at 40-50 bellow than they do at 20 above . Anything above 0 isn’t pleasant for them . Certain front runners dogs may have extra hound or sprint blood that helps in the heat . They carry plenty protective gear to weather almost any storm .

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  8. I don’t follow all the argument you present for safety. As commonly happens engineering or design standards are not the best way to fulfill performance goals. If you specify 5′ basket (as Alpirod did on Earl Norris’ recommendation based on the basket length of my early Iditarod toboggan sleds, more for a level playing field than for safety) it’s a poor and arbitrary approach that could limit innovation. Why not allow a bivouac sack instead?
    A tail-dragger with 4′ basket and 9-10′ runners will likely weigh about the same maybe more than a sled with 6 or 7′ basket without the rear storage/seat.

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    • bivy sacks blow away awfully easy; tents, too.
      and there was a lot more room in the sled bags of those old, Tim White tobaggans than in today’s tail draggers with their lack of a toe-box for lack of a better word. a lot of those old TWs had sled bag with big toe boxes. most people could crawl inside and zip themselves in, albeit in a less that perfect sitting position but at least they were out of the weather.
      i don’t see where a 5 1/2′ or 6′ basket would limit innovation per se. a simple standard just helps define the box within which a designer works. if i remember the scuttlebutt right, the TW sled was designed inside a box that said it had to fold up to fit in a Bush plane, or was that just a story someone made upon the trail later?
      and the Earl Norris rule of a level playing field would still apply here, as it should.

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      • Craig,
        They make tents that you can crawl in during a windstorm and “set up” from inside.
        The Bibler model is the best 2 man shelter available.
        It can even be set up on a route with nylon tie in points connected to you anchor.
        Like Tim pointed out above, there is no substitute for a tent in storm conditions.
        The Bibler with two poles weighs just around 5 lbs…
        Well worth the weight.
        I have even cooked inside of these tents with a hanging “jet boil” stove…in “white outs” and high winds….for days on end sometimes.
        It makes the difference between “Self Reliance” and needing a rescue when the storms arrive in the back country.

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      • Steve, Yes the Bibler is a great tent that you can set up after you get inside of it. I’ve camped with 3 Malamutes (350 lbs) in a Bibler. You could fit 6 Idirarod dogs in them with you. The catch with Biblers is that they are very pricey and dog toenails can punch holes in the floor (I learned that one from experience, unfortunately).

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  9. Iditarod! Greatest Race on Earth! Agree with Swenson ( greatest musher ever!) 6 ft minimum bag without to many dividers so it can be easily entered during a storm . 5 ft minimum on coast . It should be mentioned though properly constructed taildragers with small baskets are shockingly easy to drive and make it easier for the dogs . People don’t understand many of the reasons the race is now faster. It’s because gear and nutrition is being developed that makes everything easier- less wasted energy fewer injuries and faster in cheackpoints and on the trail mushers get better rest on a trail dragger ,guaranteeing faster better more efficient dog care in checkpoints the top drivers are perfecting the art of racing and dog care . It’s only fractionally the conditioning or dogs genetics as some claim. The top drivers have same basic bloodlines as before people have trained hard for almost 50 years . My dad used to have a special carasol and cart trained his dogs all summer . All are provable documentable facts . Mushers bred in sprint dogs since before I was born. I’m a proponent of a 95% wood sled as due to historical traditions.I prefer threm as they are easier to fix. Wooden sleds Last way —— longer.Until it was stolen my favorite wooden sled ran in aprx 20 iditarods.roughly 700 miles each time . Composite parts on new sleds degrade. Maybe people using tail draggers / small baskets could pay an extra large fee for additional required rescue insurance and then their use could be allowed. I’m not a fan of current rescue culture. Though if someone I cared about was compromised I would want them rescued ASAP !myself not so much. You deserve what you prepare for . Yes bivy sacks and tents don’t work so well for exhausted frozen mushers in the wind .

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    • I saw an interesting sled of your Dad’s in 81 Iditarod, that was crammed full of sprint dogs, and being pulled by about 25 working dogs (three abreast with single tree). It was quite fascinating-do you remember it?
      Anyway, due to extreme spectator unrest, Bud was encouraged to scratch at the end of Knick Lake. A picture of those dogs in that sled would be worth a fortune today IMO.
      Such a sled, along with a wind cover would be just the thing for musher and his/her dogs going through “Solomon Blowhole,” don’t you think. Heheh!

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    • Ramey,
      I know…tents, bivy sacks…synthetic mummy bags, plastic face shields, helmets, goggles…
      ALL are too much “technology” for the Irod crew.
      Maybe you guys can weave a Birch Bark sack and fill it with spruce needles to keep with the Ludite traditions and “Code of the North” your crew follows.
      I for one am all for these advanced technologies and as far as setting up tents in the wind…well, over 1,000 people do it each climbing season on the West Buttress of Denali…it works.

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    • “About 60 percent of the urine samples tested positive for trace amounts of substances that the race prohibits, (Dr. Craig) said. He said that’s because the meat the dogs eat is not human-grade.” ADN, 04/13/18

      Is this the result of advances in “nutrition” Ramey?

      What is the stastical probability that 100% of this year’s “positive” drug tests (approximately 141 dogs out of 235) resulted from contaminated meat?

      And as far as sleds go…it would seem the sit/sleep sled has its advantages in terms of racing strategy…but this is very dangerous for the dogs and also for the mushers too.

      “His (Ramey’s) remedy for averting a sleep-induced mishap on the trail? Tying himself to his sled with one of the team’s neck lines.” ADN, 03/13/11

      Then there’s not tying in, and losing the sled and the dogs, which luckily turned out okay in this situation but was not without consequences.

      “He (Ramey) fell asleep early in the race, causing him to fall off his sled and lose his team.” ADN, 03/14/12

      Both the mushers and the dogs need a significant increase in mandatory rest…rather then sleeping on their sleds along the trail. And an all-season tent should absolutely be a mandatory piece of equipment for the safety of all participants.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you for bringing nutrition up Laura ! There was a fad through much of mushing history to use commercial dog food . Bad mistake. Finally we are shifting back to meats ect . I agree many mushers meats are not ultra quality but the understanding of a balanced diet has improved massively after we threw commercial knowledge to the winds and started over . You brought up the elephant- drug residues . You have them in human grade meats as well to some degree . Many mushers myself included primarily feed human grade meats fish fat in the Iditarod. The drug residues . I don’t know what to say as there have been inadequate to no studies on the subject. I have my personal opinions on the subject which I would share with you someday. Statistics on # of dogs . To my understanding it’s 60% of teams. Not 60% of dogs . This obviously opens questions we should all be concerned about . Iditarod is trying to get a handle on it and I bet you and I feel the same on it and have the same concerns. As to falling asleep there is no adequate excuse. That said it was the first night I fell asleep and lost the team . Have you never fell asleep? The race preparations are arduous. Sometimes harder for the human than the race . Because standard life must be fit in with preparation of the team resulting in pre race exhaustion. Monied mushers have less of that concern as they have more resources so they can delegate . That said there is no excuse as it’s life threatening. Another time leaving Nicolai I fell asleep broke my neck multiple fractures on overhanging tree . Didn’t loose the team but it was hard to Finnish and my neck / spinal has problems to this day . Not a good idea to fall asleep. Laura Maybe you can stay awake at all times but most folks fall asleep at work , on the couch wherever. My wife doesn’t but I do . I don’t think it’s fair to attack people on the sleep issue. Everyone deals with it as best possible. I have not heard of dogs suffering from mushers lack of sleep very often. Also it’s not like we are driving a motor vehicle risking other trail users lives . I think most folks would say bottom line Iditarod is a hard testing a race so don’t turn it into a pansy event by requiring more rest for the musher. In my opinion this world has already been softened up to a terrible degree . Shouldn’t man and dog be allowed to show where the toughest excell ? And can adapt ? Obviously an ethical question. But it arguably enriches the human race to have such proving ground. Laura Someday when I have time I will explain to you why it’s more needed now than ever before in history.

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  10. One thing that would be helpful for the mushers and the race is a mandatory artic survival course. Just because they run dogs doesn’t mean they know how to survive the weather. Another thing is that the race officials need to make sure that the mushers have a extremely good sleeping bag. Hard to find a 65 Bellow artic bag but would help save a life.

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    • http://featheredfriends.com/snowy-owl-expedition-down-sleeping-bag.html
      weighs 5 pounds, which is the minimum bag weight set by the mandatory equipment rule. rated to minus-60. better than my Marmot CWM (rated to-40), which is OK at -50, but chilly.
      the 5-pound rule could probably use some updating, given you can buy a 5-pound piece of junk from Walmart to meet the 5-pound standard and then freeze to death. the rule was written back when the Iditarod was run by people who spent their winters living in the cold, and they knew how to survive even if all they could afford was a less than perfect 5-pound bag.
      now the cost of running Iditarod is so high that requiring a bag rated to say -40 shouldn’t make a difference to anyone. and damn but those bags are expensive.
      Iditarod does have a review-panel that can block the entry of anyone the panel thinks lacks the expertise to survive on the trail. they might be a little too lenient at times. in reality, great survival skills are generally not needed.
      as an ailing Jim Lanier observed this year, he would have been fine on the stretch run to Nome if that storm hadn’t blown up.
      it’s the old problem of the Hudson Stuck rule: “everything’s fine as long as it’s fine.”

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