March 08, 2012

A short-lived decision to remove a treacherous stretch of trail known for busting up sleds and mushers alike has one former champion accusing race officials of "dumbing down" the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

The accusation from 1979 Iditarod champion Dick Mackey arose after race officials decided to change the race trail to avoid the Happy Steps and have mushers instead use an adjacent mining trail, thereby avoiding having to send teams down a series of steep canyon switchbacks.

The Happy Steps have chewed up some of the best. Five-time champion Rick Swenson broke his collar bone in a crash last year. DeeDee Jonrowe went airborne.

The decision by race officials was short-lived. The teams in this year's Iditarod ended up going down the Steps after all when race officials reversed their decision because of deep snow on the mining trail.

The decision still rankled some.

"All I can say, in the early days there was no such thing as the Steps. It was just hold your breath and hope you made it to the bottom," said Mackey, father of four-time champion Lance Mackey and 1983 champion Rick Mackey.

Dick Mackey said he considered the Steps a section of trail that challenged the musher's ability to control his team.

"I know someone broke a shoulder, and there's a half a dozen that tipped over, but you know, that's happened in other places along the trail also," Mackey said. "I just personally feel it's a dumbing down of the race."

Sixty-six teams started the Iditarod on Sunday. Three have scratched, including Wade Marrs, Ryan Redington and Silvia Furtwangler.

By Thursday night, four mushers who have already taken their mandatory 24-hour breaks had left the race mid-point of Cripple en route to the next checkpoint at Ruby, on the Yukon River.

Aliy Zirkle was listed in the lead, followed by 2004 champion Mitch Seavey, defending champion John Baker and Dallas Seavey.

Burt Bomhoff, who finished the nearly 1,000-mile Anchorage to Nome race seven times, said the Iditarod has become more like "a NASCAR event instead of a traditional Alaska challenge."

He said the decision to remove the Steps diminished the reputation of the Iditarod.

"It is a symptom of a lot of other things that have happened that I think takes away the flavor, the personality and challenge of the race," Bomhoff said.

Bomhoff said he was driving his team down the canyon Steps in 1985 when his lead dog and then the next two pairs disappeared. He secured his team and walked to the front and couldn't believe what he saw.

"I get up to the edge and it is just sheer, straight down," he said. "My dogs are literally hanging from their harnesses."

Fortunately, the feet of his dogs were just touching the rock face. He whistled up his lead dogs and they got the team turned around and the dogs scrambled back to the top.

Race director and marshal Mark Nordman said Thursday that the race trail has been changed many times over the years and still has plenty of challenges. This year's decision to remove the Happy Steps and then put them back was made on his advice and based on information received from the race coordinator working closely with trailbreakers before the race start.

"You take the best trail that there is," Nordman said. "Would we run people up the side of a mountain just because it was there?

"What I want to do is provide them the safest trail that wilderness travel allows," he added.

That logic appeals to Mitch Seavey.

"If we can avoid something that is hazardous to our dogs, I would gladly do that for any kind of nostalgia," he said.

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