RANDY CHAPPEL INTERVIEW
Shortly after the rescue on Eagle Summit, I had a chance to sit down with Randy Chappel, Aliy Zirkle, and Alan Moore and discuss the events. Randy was driving a team comprised of about half of his dogs and half Aliy’s. Randy is a veteran of 2 Iditarods, and many other long distance races, and is a very experienced musher. Here is his account:G. Sellentin: Randy, had you ever been over the Quest trail before? Randy: No I hadn’t. I think if I had known which way the trail went from experience, I would have had a better chance. If I had been over it with Aily, for example, she would have known generally what the right direction was. I mean the three of us, Brent Sass, Regina Wycoff and myself, were actually having debates about which way was down. That is how bad it was blowing. GS: Did you have any inclination of what you were in for before you departed the last checkpoint?Randy: Just hours before leaving the 101 dog drop, we could see there was a little bit of wind and it was just barely spitting snow.Aliy: That was part of the problem, they were actually trying to get down off the mountain, and the trail doesn’t actually go straight down the mountain, it actually goes sideways for a while. They were in life preservation mode and trying to get down the mountain. As it was they were not on the trail for 4-5 miles. They only hit the trail because the valley ends.Randy: We stopped at the top of Eagle Summit, Brent and I, and couldn’t see a thing. We decided that we should work together. Brent was to the top first, and I think he was really relieved to see another musher. We couldn’t see any markers, there were none anywhere. We went down about 500 feet and decided we should go back up, and we tried. We couldn’t see a thing because of the wind and blowing snow in that direction either. It was like a wall of snow. We didn’t know if we were going in the right direction. The dogs had no interest in going in that direction so at that point we just hunkered down. I tipped the sled over and got into the bag for about 30 minutes. The wind was blowing like crazy.GS: What did you do with the contents of the sled bag, didn’t you think you would need those things?Randy: At that point I wasn’t worried about that, it was survival at the moment. I did put the stuff on the uphill side, so the wind would push it back in the sled.GS: How did you string out the leaders? Did you have another snowhook.Randy: Greg, there was no way, they weren’t going anywhere. The dogs just hunkered down, curled in a ball. They were fine at that point, they just weren’t going anywhere. Their lives weren’t in danger there – it wasn’t cold, and they were covered in snow in a second. We both (Brent and I) came to the conclusion that this wasn’t going to work, staying here all night. We didn’t know how long it would last, and there was no shelter at all. It actually felt like it was getting worse. Right about that time, Regina came along and basically asked: “Are you guys lost too?”. We all decided to get the hell out of there.I’ve never in my 3000 miles of long distance racing, and countless more miles of training worn anything other than those big Cabelas boots. I mean I wore them in Iditarod in 40F weather. But because of these hills, I wore an arctic high-top hiking shoes. It was way better, especially with the Neos Overshoes. After the overflow previously, the Neos got coated with ice and I put them in the sled bag and just wore the hikers going up the summit. When I lost my sled the overshoes were in there.At this point we really didn’t care about the trail, or the race, we just wanted to get down off the mountain. The problem was we had heard all these horror stories about how steep it could be, but we couldn’t see anything. One option was just to let the dogs run, but we were worried we might go off a cliff! All there was was exposed rocks, ice, and loose sugary snow.We started to inch our way down. I would go out in front of the team look around, move them up a bit, then do it again.GS: How did the dogs handle all that starting and stopping. Were they banging in their harnesses, or confused?Randy: The dogs were fine. It took a little while to get them up and out from under the snow, because they thought they were bedded down for a while. You couldn’t get them to go in any direction but down. I think they wanted out of it too. They were pretty fresh, we had just rested at 101 for 5 hours, ran another hour, then rested again for an hour.It was really hard to get the teams stopped after just moving one or two team lengths. There was just nothing to grab into. A lot of the times we had the sleds on their sides. At the time I lost my team, the sled was on it’s side, but it had slid down hill from where the hook was. I was dragging the sled up the hill to where the hook was, and got pretty close, but, I mean one step you were up to your waist in loose snow, the next you were on glare ice. The dogs were slamming at the harnesses wanting to go down hill and just as I got my hand on the hook, it broke loose. We were flying down hill, I was screaming and yelling, over ice, over deep snow. Then I started bouncing off rocks, eventually I lost it. I never let go, it just tore out of my hand. Brent said I looked like a rag doll going down the hill. SDS: How far did the team travel without you. Randy: I honestly don’t know. I don’t think it was really very far, I just had no way of knowing. GS: Were you in the helicopter that went out and got the team?Randy: No. So my team ran off, and 20ft later you couldn’t see them anymore. I chased after them and followed the trail of debris from my sled bag. I could see a spare headlamp, and some other stuff, but I didn’t know how far away they were, and I didn’t have any survival gear with me. My inclination was to go get the team, but the two other mushers I was with thought that it wasn’t a good thing to do. We looked around as much as we could, but eventually had to leave for our own safety. I rode most of the way with Regina, but it was a lot of not riding. We were breaking trail, there was nothing, no trail where we were. We hadn’t seen a marker since the top, and at the bottom we found a random marker that had been blown off the side of the mountain. We also found my sleeping bag there. At that point I thought we might be close to my team, but never saw them. If there was any place that had some shelter we would have stopped. There was nothing, it was just as bad as back up on the hill.Alan Moore: During this whole event, we were stuck on the road to Eagle Summit, and the dog truck was completely covered with snow, up over the roof. I had to get out every hour to make sure I could still open the door and get ventilation. I thought I was the only one up there, but there ended up being six vehicles. As soon as Randy left 101, I got in the truck and drove up the highway. It wasn’t that bad at first, then it got progressively worse, and when I crested the summit and started down the other side it got really bad. I thought it would get better, but I was wrong. After, when I talked to the head of the road crew that plowed us out, he said he had never seen a storm come in so fast and so ferociously in all the time he had worked up here.We were up there from 10pm to 11am the next day before they came to get us out.GS: How did you get out?Allen: They have these big snowblowers and they came up the mountain, but it was still blowing in right behind them. They cleared up real close to our truck, and then pulled me the rest of the way out with a chain. They told me not to leave because I wouldn’t make it down the mountain, it was blowing right back in after they cleared it. It would blow in 4ft. of snow within 30 minutes. He didn’t know there would be anyone else, but there were five other vehicles. He cleared us all out, then followed him back down the mountain in single file, while he cleared a new path. Then they closed the road.Randy’s team was later located by using heat sensing technology from a fixed wing aircraft. A blackhawk helicopter was then used to retrieve his team. All of the dogs were found bedded down, completely safe and sound.