- Associated Press - Saturday, March 15, 2014

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) - Tok musher and former Yukon Quest champion Hugh Neff has been in big trouble before during a 1,000-mile race. He has lost a dog on the trail. This time, he thought he might lose his life.

“The … words I kept repeating to myself was, ‘I want to live. I want to live. I want to live,’” Neff said in a phone interview from Nome, where he is recovering from a dangerous night stranded for 10 hours on frozen Golovin Bay.

The nine-time Iditarod finisher’s tale is one of several horror stories emerging this week as mushers describe the final hours of one of the toughest Iditarods in memory. What started as a sometimes snowless gauntlet of rocks and trees ended in a battle with surging winds that bullied mushers to their knees.

Four-time winner Jeff King, all but assured a victory when he left White Mountain with a one-hour lead, was forced to scratch when the winds shoved his team from the trail. Second place Aliy Zirkle said her race stopped being about winning the Iditarod and became a game of survival by the time she reached Safety, 22 miles from the finish.

Neff’s problems began Monday afternoon, when he was one of four mushers to leave Elim within a 28-minute span.

He was the first to go, leaving with only eight dogs, Neff said. By 1:40 p.m., Jessie Royer, Ray Redington Jr. and Hans Gatt had also launched for Nome.

The bay was like a hockey rink of glare ice, Neff said. Even with no booties on their paws, the dogs couldn’t scratch out enough traction to move steadily forward in what the musher described as 60 mph winds.

“I could barely stand,” he said.

Mushers start the Iditarod with 16 dogs. Neff was down to half that number on the ice and didn’t have the power to advance against the wind. Maybe he should have traveled around the bay, a path chosen by at least one other musher, he said. Or the trail should have been routed that way all along.

Another ex-Quest champ and past winner of the Iditarod dog care award, Sebastian Schnuelle, wrote that responsibility for Neff’s safety ultimately rested with the musher himself. Zirkle, he noted, made a cautious choice in similarly difficult conditions that night. Her decision to seek shelter likely cost her a first Iditarod win but ensured she and her dogs were safe.

“What has happened to responsible racing?” Schnuelle asked.

Neff tried walking in front of the team, leading the dogs a quarter mile or so at a time, he said.

He was moving too slow, getting too cold.

“I was stuck, man,” Neff said. “Nature had me in her grasp and she wasn’t going to let me go.”

The musher stopped trying to reach the end of the ice and set about surviving the night. He wrapped two headlamps around his handlebars, lights blinking as a distress signal to any passing snowmachines. Sweating, he climbed in his racing sled and covered himself in a sleeping bag.

The huskies snacked on fish. They appeared unhurt, the musher said. “That’s one thing about this race, it seems the dogs fared a lot better than the humans.”

Neff began pushing the S.O.S. button on his beacon at about 9 p.m., he said. Hours passed as he shivered in his sled, wondering why no one had come.

“It really felt like I was abandoned,” he said.

Every two minutes he plucked a jelly bean from his bag, chewing to stay awake.

“My legs and my arms, I could literally start feeling them freezing on me … I could really feel my body dying.”

Iditarod veteran Dave Branholm - who Neff’s girlfriend on Facebook called a “guardian angel” - got a call about 5 a.m. to search for the missing musher.

Neff said Branholm saw his blinking headlamps and rescued him. He believes he might not have survived many more hours in the sled.

“When Dave picked me up, he said, ‘Dude you’re about a half an inch from the end of your candlestick,” Neff said. “Pretty much saved my life.”

This is the first year that mushers have taken beacons equipped with an emergency button to call for help. It was not immediately clear if and when Neff’s signal was received by Iditarod officials. Neff said he was later told that he might not have correctly activated the S.O.S.

“Perhaps by not pushing it down long enough, that’s why they didn’t get the signal to come and get me,” he said.

Race officials issued a news release Monday saying that Neff had scratched at 7 a.m. in White Mountain after the race sent a volunteer out to do a welfare check on the musher.

For now, Neff said he and his dogs are fine. He and Branholm are talking about writing a book about this year’s race.

“Usually the trail is a roller-coaster ride where you have your highs and your lows. But this whole race has been one test after another,” Neff said.


Information from: Anchorage (Alaska) Daily News, https://www.adn.com

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