The Iditarod is an annual sled dog race in Alaska. It’s an appalling challenge for both the animals and the humans. In Manchester I met Max Hall, a Briton who entered the race and – only just – survived to tell the tale. This piece appeared in FHM in March 1997.
In this weather your spit turns to ice before it hits the ground. The locals say, ‘It’s cold enough to piss and lean on it.’ And tonight Max Hall was in the middle of it, on a windblasted plateau in central Alaska. Marooned with his dwindling team of husky dogs he sought refuge in a ruined hut. Once inside, he stared grimly at his snowboots, knowing that his feet were encased in glass slippers of frozen sweat. Frostbite could not be far behind. It was, he says, ‘the most miserable night of my life.’
The abandoned shack known as Don’s Cabin was an unscheduled stop on Alaska’s notorious Iditarod, the annual dog race that is reckoned among the toughest sports events in the world. The only British entrant, Max Hall doubted his own sanity as he fed the huskies in darkness and tried desperately to thaw his feet. ‘At temperatures below -40,’ he recalls, ‘I found the sweat off my feet was forming a layer of ice inside the boot. I was aware that I had to deal with it and I spent all night in that cabin trying to light a fire and sort it out.’ Only when daylight came could he see the futility of his efforts. Bears had wrecked the cabin during summer, ripping great holes in it. ‘It was like a lettuce crate. I’d been trying to heat the whole of Alaska.
‘You know you’ve frozen your feet. But you don’t know how far it is to the next place where you can make a fire and deal with the problem. It’s a gamble. Do you strip down to your bare flesh or do you carry on? If you strip down at those temperatures you’ve probably got less than a minute to deal with it. It’s a big decision.’
Hall’s horrific choice was typical of the Iditarod’s dangers, and one of many moments when he thought his first race would be his last. That was in 1995. But this year he’ll be back on the starting line for another go. The Iditarod’s followers call it The Last Great Race On Earth, and it’s addictive. ‘It’s like a fever,’ Max confesses. ‘You get sucked into this big black hole of wanting to be involved.’ Every year it attracts about 60 qualified competitors – called mushers – who’ll spend between 10 and 20 days driving their dogs across the most challenging landscape in North America. Named after a ghost town on its route, the Iditarod’s 1160 miles follow the old sled trails of gold prospectors across mountains, snow plains and frozen rivers. There are few worse places on earth.
‘The dogs will burn 8,000 calories per day,’ he says. ‘Before the race ends, the mushers will lose five or ten pounds in weight. Some will fall asleep on their sleds. Some will run into trees. Some will be blown over by the wind. Some will get lost. Some will get hurt. Some will get frostbite on their faces and hands. A few will fail to finish, and more than one will hallucinate on the trail and see swords falling from the sky, or trees turning into sharks’ teeth. Yet all will tell you that running the Iditarod beats doing taxes.’
Merely to finish the Iditarod is a victory. The $50,000 prize money is almost always won by Alaskans, who have all year to train. For Max Hall, a businessman from the North of England, running the Iditarod can only be a part-time labour of love. Iditarod entrants have been described as ‘just a bunch of weirdos looking at the south end of dogs going north.’ But Hall had an unstoppable urge to join them ever since visiting Alaska in 1991.
His dream became a reality on 4 March, 1995, in the pandemonium of Start Day in downtown Anchorage: ‘They close it down for the day. You’ve got 1200 dogs all barking their brains out with excitement. People who’ve spent the winter clearing snow from the streets of Anchorage suddenly have to bring snow in.’ Hall and his 16 dogs shot off like a bullet from the .44 Magnum he carried in case of a showdown with hostile wildlife. (Teams of up to 20 dogs may pull the sleds, there must be minimum of five left at the end. Tired and sick dogs are dropped off at checkpoints along the way.) There was a near disaster as soon as he left the city limits. Hurtling down a snowy river bank to ride the ice, Hall found something jamming the footbrake of his sled – it was someone else’s gun, dropped along the trail. ‘The mind boggles if it had gone off. I nearly changed my trousers…’
At the Skwenta checkpoint came a taste of hazards to come. Fetching buckets of water from a hole in the river ice, he’d find the first bucket frozen solid by the time he got the second. He made do with melted snow.
Whatever hardships he faced, though, Hall’s first concern had to be the dogs, who are the real athletes of an Iditarod. ‘At the end of the day,’ he says, ‘dog care is the thing that everyone is interested in, and quite rightly, because the people have chosen to be there and do this, but the dogs have not had a choice.’ Alaskan huskies, he explains, ‘aren’t a pure breed, but a bit of everything that happens to be passing the kennels – including wolf.’ They’re prodigiously hardy, sleeping under the snow if necessary, and highly intelligent. What’s more, he adds, ‘Their sole purpose in life is to run.’
His only way of controlling them was to shout commands. ‘There are no reins, and your lead dog can be 70 feet away. “Gee” is for right, “Haw” means turn left. “Woah” means stop – if you’re lucky. The popular conception is that you say “Mush” for go, which comes from the Canadian Mounties when they used to say “Marchez”. But very few mushers actually say that. It’s usually “OK” or “Let’s go”. Mush is not a hard enough word for the dogs to relate to.’
Keeping the dogs fed and rested meant frequent delays, and strength-sapping labour for Hall when he was cold and exhausted himself. ‘You need to get around 10,000 calories a day into each dog. They won’t eat much in dogfood, so they’re on beef, salmon, chicken, liver and beaver.’ Dogfights were a constant danger. Max chose his own team for their placid temperaments, but any contact with a neighbouring team could flare up into war. And dogs in teams have their equivalent of the office romance: females in heat are a perpetual source of conflict.
Above all there was the cold. Given the windchill factor – when Arctic gales strip away the body’s ambient heat – temperatures could hit -130°F. ‘Dogs have a problem with getting frostbite on the testicles,’ Hall frowns. ‘That’s something you’ve got to look out for. It may sound like Mrs Fifi’s poodle, but there are conditions when you’ve got to put windproof jackets on them. You can usually get through the cold, but the wind will kill you.’
Mushers themselves depend on their endurance rather than brute strength. The Iditarod is frequently won by women. ‘You don’t have to be big and tough,’ says Hall. ‘I’m not, but I’ve got a lot of determination on my side, and you need an immense amount of willpower. There are many points along the route when you think, “Enough’s enough, forget it.” You need to cope with yourself in the wilderness, because that’s the real beast of it. You need to build a strong relationship with the dogs. If you’re stuck 300 miles in the middle of nowhere and you meet a moose in the middle of the trail, you’d better know what dog number 13’s quirks are. And if you’re going to cook a hot meal for 16 dogs on the Yukon River at 50° below zero, you’d better have your brain in gear, because you’ll damage yourself. If you touch anything metal at those temperatures you’ll just leave the skin behind. You have to think every move through, even a simple operation like changing your boots.’
The hardest part, for Max Hall, was sleep deprivation. He averaged one-and-a-half hours a night for 15 days. ‘You fall asleep on the sled and you wake up by banging your head on a tree. The guys who win it can hardly be taking any sleep at all. At times it does cause you to hallucinate, I think any musher would tell you that. One guy reported seeing taxis going by in the opposite direction.’ Other mushers speak of pausing to rest in imaginary cabins, or battling with a phantom animals. One remembers watching the horizon turn into a giant stick, coming to hit him. Another, more fortunate, gave a ride on his sled to a naked woman.
‘My own hallucinations,’ Max reports, ‘were always from following the lead dog’s bottom. Norway, his name was. You’ve got your headlight on in the night and you’re zooming in for mile after mile on this dog’s bottom. For me it would become a man, and the tail was his beard, and the patches on the dog became the man’s eyes. I would see Norway’s bottom disappearing into chasms. It wasn’t happening, but in my mind I’d see big holes opening up in the ice and the dogs falling down. Then suddenly I’d jolt myself awake.’
The race sled is a light wooden frame, packed with gear, resting on ski-like plastic runners. Gripping his handlebar the musher stands perched at the back. In the Iditarod’s roughest sections, says Hall, ‘it’s like riding a bucking bronco over a rollercoaster… The Dalzell Gorge is the one I feared the most, where you’ve been climbing for the first three days and suddenly you’re dropping out of the Alaskan mountain range. The sled turned over and I lost loads of equipment, but there’s nothing you can do because the dogs are pulling you down. Theoretically, the golden rule of dog mushing is Never Let Go. You hang on whatever.’
Animal attacks were another threat. Wolves and Arctic foxes, even bison, will watch but rarely intrude. Bears are normally in hibernation, but a polar bear did chase one musher over miles of sea ice: ‘It put the fear of God up the next four or five teams who were coming through.’ The commonest enemy is the moose, who likes the same trodden trail the teams are taking, out of deep snow. He will not move aside, and tramples the dogs if challenged. ‘The law of Alaska says that if you shoot a big animal you have to gut it while the carcass is warm and take the meat to the nearest village. Consequently, if you see a moose on the trail you’ll do anything to avoid confronting it – even walk a two-mile radius around it. ‘
After Max’s night of misery in Don’s Cabin, his feet froze again on the 130-mile stretch that runs along the glacial surface of the Yukon River. The torrent still flows beneath, and ‘bad ice’ is every musher’s nightmare. Hall relied on his team’s sixth sense to preserve them from catastrophe. Now down to nine dogs, he reached a desolate stop named Shaktoolik: ‘It’s an Eskimo word meaning the place where the east wind blows. It must be the most godforsaken place on the surface of the earth and why anyone would choose to live there I can’t imagine.’ It’s here that the Iditarod leaves the land mass of Alaska altogether, crossing 70 miles of sea ice – a place so treacherous, according to one author, that the native women are often widowed twice over by the age of 25. Of the crossing, Hall says simply, ‘It’s very bumpy. You’d expect it to freeze flat, but it’s as if the waves have frozen solid in mid-wave.’
Back on land, Hall headed for the Iditarod’s finish line in the remote town of Nome. He believed that the worst was behind him, but it was still to come. ‘The last two days was probably the shittiest time. The last 77 miles, the weather really came in. On what should have been the last day I ended in a blizzard on top of the hills. Eventually the dogs just say enough is enough. They turn around and pile on top of each other for warmth, they just make a big bundle of dogs. And once they do that you may as well save your breath, you’re not going to do anything with them.’
Trapped in total whiteout, Hall found shelter in a cabin already occupied by three fellow racers. Covered in snow, he knocked politely before coming in – a quaint act of courtesy that made the local newspaper. (‘I can’t believe he knocked,’ his wife laughed later. ‘That’s so British! Anyone else would have flung the door open and fallen in.’) Later that night he reached the final checkpoint, a place called Safety, just 22 miles from the finish line. Having averaged seven miles per hour through the previous fortnight, Hall assumed the final 22 miles would take him three hours. In fact they took him 36.
Under atrocious conditions, unable to see if he really was on the trail into Nome, or heading out across sea ice to Siberia on the nearby Russian coast, Hall was forced once more to obey his dogs. ‘I spent two hours lying on what was in fact the main street of Nome, waiting for the blizzard to subside. You can’t tell the dogs, “Look, you’re only two miles from the finish line after 1160 miles!” They don’t digest it. And the guy who came in after me, he actually scratched, two miles from the finish.’
Finally, while Gerry & The Pacemakers sang ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ through his Walkman earphones, Hall scraped the ice off his dogs’ eyes (pulling ‘ping-pong balls’ off his own) and staggered into Nome during the coldest Idtitarod finish on record. He was 46th in a field of 48 survivors, but that did not diminish the warmth of his welcome: ‘There is a feeling in Nome that they’ll do their bit, and they all crawl out of the bars no matter what time of day or night. And it’s very satisfying.’ But then, he adds as an afterthought, ‘It needs to be!’
There is a musher proverb: ‘Life is boring after you run the Iditarod.’ According to one contestant, ‘You finish this race and you feel like you could spit in a tiger’s eye.’ Max Hall felt it too: ‘You’ll never be the same again after you’ve done it. It’s made me put things into perspective. It gives you an immense feeling of self-esteem. The sensation of crossing that finishing line is just huge.
‘A lot of people ask me, “Why do you do it?” They’ll say, ‘Have a nice time over there. You must really enjoy it to spend all that time and money.’ But the funny thing is, I don’t enjoy it. To me, there’s nothing enjoyable about sitting on the Yukon River at 50 below zero, cooking a meal for 16 dogs and freezing your bum off. A lot of the time I think, What on earth am I doing this for? And that’s what I find difficult to explain. You’ve got to be odd to mush dogs in the first place. We’re the oddest bunch of people you can put together.
‘It needs a huge commitment. A guy I was talking to the other night said, “Oh, I fancy doing that. Yes, I think I’ll try that.” I just thought, You silly sod…’