Whitehorse Daily Star

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HEADING TO THE FINISH – Yukon Quest musher Hugh Neff is seen Monday on Eagle Summit. Photo by WHITNEY MCLAREN/YUKON QUEST

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Eagle Summit living up to notorious reputation

Hugh Neff’s dogs turned around on him twice Monday afternoon during the climb up Eagle Summit,

By freelancer on February 14, 2017

MILE 101 STEESE HIGHWAY — Hugh Neff’s dogs turned around on him twice Monday afternoon during the climb up Eagle Summit, which, by the standards of this steep mountain pass, is considered a pretty good run.

The rolling hills of the Interior become jagged along the Steese Highway and this part of the Yukon Quest trail.

Eagle Summit is considered the steepest uphill pitch in the race, particularly on years like 2017, when the race is run in the Whitehorse-to-Fairbanks direction.

Neff looked exhausted Sunday night when his dogs led him to the Central Corner bar and grocery store after 16 hours of travelling along winding Birch Creek between the Circle and Central checkpoints.

The Tok musher and his dogs took a nine-hour rest in Central — their longest non-mandatory rest of the race — before attempting Eagle Summit between the Central and Mile 101 checkpoints.

On Monday afternoon at Mile 101, Neff sat drinking coffee in his Tanana village hoodie and Grinch Who Stole Christmas pajamas. He looked rejuvenated from the rest and even from the 5 ½-hour climb up the summit Monday afternoon.

The Yukon Quest created a checkpoint on this blank section of mountain highway to give mushers a place to rest between Eagle Summit and Rosebud Summit, another mountain pass that’s considered almost as treacherous.

At 3,685-feet, Eagle Summit is the second-highest point on the Yukon Quest trail.

It’s a bit shorter, but it’s steeper than King Solomon’s Dome near Dawson.

In odd-numbered years, when the race starts in Whitehorse, Eagle Summit falls more than 800 miles into the race, a time when dogs and mushers can be exhausted. Over the years, it’s spoiled the race for many dog teams.

It’s also been the scene of heroic rescues, like in 2006, when an Army helicopter lifted several teams off Eagle Summit in a snowstorm. And it’s seen a number of instances in which mushers help each other to get to the top.

Monday, Eagle Summit was calm, with overcast skies and no wind. Neff described the ascent as a workout.

“As a musher, the dogs key into what you’re doing, so if you’re going to work hard, they’re going to work hard,” said Neff, the Quest winner in 2012 and 2016.

“I look at the climb as a little Jenny Craig workout.”

Neff said the snow conditions were perfect over the pass. He said he stripped down to a sweater in temperatures that reached above zero, some 40 degrees warmer than the temperatures Neff and his team travelled through the day before.

But the climb wasn’t without incident. During a steep section, Neff’s dogs turned around to face down the hill, a not-uncommon problem on Eagle Summit.

“They’re like, ‘Why do we want to go up there when it’s so much easier to go back that way?’” he said.

Neff said he took the lead to bring the team back up the slope.

“My buddy Ken Anderson taught me years ago that if you attach a leash or whatever to the back of your leaders tug lines, you can literally walk up Eagle Summit. I tried it and it worked perfectly,” Neff said.

Neff finished the climb with his dog George Costanza — a leader who pulled Neff to victory in last year’s Yukon Quest — at the front of the team.

George helped the team up the hill but will now take a ride back to Tok in a dog truck, Neff said. He decided to drop George from the team at the Mile 101 checkpoint because of a continuing problem with a cut on one of his feet.

Neff prepared to leave the checkpoint with young leaders Mojito and Havana at the front of the team.

Neff was the second dog team over Eagle Summit, after Matt Hall, of Two Rivers. Allen Moore, another Two Rivers musher, had made it over the summit behind Neff as of Monday evening.

By Sam Friedman
Fairbanks Daily News-Miner

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