Yukon Quest mushers recount hairy times on stormy mountain pass

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Whitehorse musher Rob Cooke, seen here spreading hay for his dogs in the 2015 Iditarod sled dog race, is being praised by a fellow musher for helping guide the way through a bad storm. (Alaska Dispatch/Loren Holmes/The Associated Press)
Whitehorse, Yukon musher Rob Cooke is being lauded for helping guide some fellow Yukon Quest mushers safely over a stormy mountain pass on the race trail this week.

“Rob was like our captain, and led us over,” said Alaska musher Andy Pace, speaking to reporters at the Quest finish line in Fairbanks, Alaska, on Thursday.

“He did an extraordinary job. It was hands-down one of the most commendable things I’ve seen.”

In video posted on the Yukon Quest’s Facebook page, Pace described whiteout conditions on Eagle Summit, in Alaska. The mountain pass is one of the last major hurdles mushers face before reaching the end of the 1,600-kilometre sled dog race.

Pace says he and Cooke, along with two other mushers, found themselves working together to find their way through the storm.

“We couldn’t see each other from our sleds without our headlamps, and so we kind of had to figure out how to communicate and make a plan and then execute it while risking losing each other visually,” he said.

‘It was something that I would not like to repeat, but something that demonstrated to me what this race is all about,’ said Alaska musher Andy Pace, seen here at the Carmacks checkpoint last week. (Jane Sponagle/CBC)

“It was something that I would not like to repeat, but something that demonstrated to me what this race is all about — which is that camaraderie that you get with fellow mushers on the trail.”

‘We just couldn’t see’

Cooke arrived in Fairbanks shortly after Pace on Thursday, and he also described how tough it was to get over the summit. Finding the trail was almost impossible, he said.

“The visibility was so bad we just couldn’t see any markers,” Cooke says, in another video posted online by the Yukon Quest.

“We had a choice. Andy and I talked about it and we were either going to go over the top, or we were going to turn around and scratch [from the race] — and neither of us wanted to turn around and scratch.”

Elevations along the route of the Yukon Quest. Eagle Summit is one of the last major hurdles for mushers, before reaching Fairbanks. (Yukon Quest)

Cooke brushed off any idea that he saved the day, though.

“We all just worked together, there was no heroics. Anybody would have done the same thing,” he said.

He said Pace was “incredible” through the ordeal, and maintained some calm as they struggled to figure out what to do.

Cooke also praised his “amazing” team of dogs.

“I’ve never been in a situation like that before, it was just incredible to see how good the dogs were.”

Dogs in musher Rob Cooke’s team in the 2015 Iditarod. Cooke choked up on Thursday, as he spoke about two of dogs being retired from racing. (Loren Holmes/Alaska Dispatch News/Associated Press)

Cooke also teared up at the finish line in Fairbanks, saying it would be the last race for two of his dogs. They’d been running with him since 2011, he said, over thousands of miles of trail.

They lead his team into Fairbanks on Thursday.

“They weren’t just in lead because this was their last race, they were in lead because they’re such special dogs and they deserve to be in lead — and they did such a great job,” Cooke said.

“The thought that this is their last race just breaks my heart.”

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: France’s Thierry Corbarieu wins Yukon Arctic Ultra race in northwestern Canada, CBC News

Finland: Ice fishing World Championships latest in Finnish series of odd sports events, Yle News

Norway: Swedish musher wins Finnmarksløpet, The Independent Barents Observer

United States: Alaska’s Brent Sass wins Yukon Quest sled dog race, CBC News

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