In a surprising victory over the elements, a 23-year-old rookie from Willow, Alaska won the 2011 Yukon Quest dog sled race Tuesday.
Dallas Seavey, whose previous mushing experience includes an eighth-place finish in the 2010 Iditarod, crossed the finish line at Fairbanks just after 11:00 Tuesday, claiming $28,395 in prize money and becoming the youngest person ever to win the epic cross-country race.
Musher Sebastian Schnuelle, who was the Quest champion in 2009, came in second place, 33 minutes behind Seavey.
Devastating snowfall and fierce winds made this one of the toughest Quests yet for reigning champ Hans Gatt and other competing mushers.
When the race began on February 5th, there were concerns about how the trail would hold up amid unseasonably mild weather. But a week later, a sudden wintery blast forced some mushers to abandon the race.
By Friday (February 11), most mushers had reached Dawson City, which is the halfway point of the journey, but conditions deteriorated significantly. On Saturday, bitter cold and blizzard conditions overwhelmed Gatt, a four-time Quest champion. The harsh weather stranded him for almost five hours on the American Summit near the Yukon-Alaska border. Gatt was forced to huddle in his sleeping bag just to survive.
Fellow musher Brent Saas caught up to Gatt as he was contemplating pressing the emergency button on his dog sled. The two rode to the next check point together.
Gatt ultimately pulled out of the competition after a second brush with death when his dog team fell through ice and ended up in chest-deep water southeast of the finish line at Fairbanks. Schnuelle helped to pull the team to safety.
The heavy snow and strong winds also slowed the progress of Christine Roalofs, who was disqualified on Thursday for accepting outside assistance.
Monday night (February 14) proved to be the pivotal moment in the 1,600-kilometre race. Hugh Neff, a Whitehorse musher who had held the lead since the start, surrendered. His dogs were unable to climb the steep, blizzard-swept Eagle Summit in Alaska. Both Neff and Alaskan musher Danny Kaduce were eliminated after accepting help from snowmobile teams.
Schnuelle told local media difficult weather can sometimes work to a musher's advantage, but not storms like the ones that were seen along the trail this year.
“If I would have known we’d get all of this, I probably would have withdrawn; I would not have signed up,” he said. “In a way I hope for a little ugly weather, but not this much, not for days on end.”
The Yukon Quest has been run every year since 1984. The race covers over 1,600 km of demanding terrain between Whitehorse, Yukon and Fairbanks, Alaska.
With files from CKRW, the Associated Press, the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner and Andrea Stockton