Three Iditarod mushers rescued 25 miles from finish line
On Friday morning, three Iditarod mushers, Matt Failor, Sean Underwood and Tom Knolmayer were rescued via Blackhawk helicopter about 25 miles shy of reaching the finish line in Nome. They scratched from the race.
According to Nome Volunteer Fire Department and Search and Rescue Chief Jim West Jr. he received a request from Iditarod on Friday morning that the three mushers activated the distress signal on their GPS. Nome SAR reached out to the Alaska State Troopers to authorize the search and rescue. West said they had little information in what kind of shape the mushers were in, so they utilized the Alaska Army National Guard’s 1st Battalion, 207th Aviation Regiment’s aircrew and Blackhawk to get the mushers. West sent a ground crew of four snow machiners, Jake Stettenbenz, Chugie Farley, Benny Piscoya and Roy Walluk Jr. out. Additional snowmachiners were sent out with sleds and dog boxes. Two dog handlers and two EMTs boarded the Black Hawk.
At 10:15 a.m. the UH-60 Black Hawk launched from Nome, said Chief Warrant Officer 3 Josh Claeys, the pilot in command of the helicopter that performed the search-and-rescue mission.
In addition to the COVID-19 threat and the ensuing gradual shut-down of life as usual in Nome, a series of warm blizzards, strong winds and wet snow complicated the Iditarod race even further. The southerly winds caused significant overflow along the coast and river mouths, destroying the trail and turning it into treacherous wet holes and sections of deep overflow. The three left White Mountain and encountered significant overflow in the creeks that run like veins through the Topkok Hills. One of the rescuers, Chugie Farley, said the mushers said they had been wet since traversing waist deep overflow at the Koocheblok (Kloberblok River).
The SAR team found the mushers at the Solomon River mouth. Farley said one sled was stuck in the overflow, the dogs were on the eastern side of the river, and rested on dry ground and out of the wet hole. The other two teams were still on the western side of the river and hunkered down there.
Claeys landed the helicopter about 200 yards clear of the overflow waters. After the emergency medical technicians provided brief on-site triage, the ground SAR team shuttled the three mushers to the Black Hawk via snow machine.
“They were inside of sleeping bags,” said Claeys. “The medics got them on oxygen and warmed up inside, and the dog handlers and some of Nome rescue stayed with the dogs and had plans to get them back to Nome,” Claeys said.
According to Farley – who is the son of Howard Farley, one of the race founders and first mushers of the Iditarod in 1973 — they rerouted the trail from Solomon River mouth north toward the Train to Nowhere, got them on the bridge and then escorted them on the Nome-Council Road toward Safety. There, at the last checkpoint about 22 miles east of Nome, the Iditarod veterinarians checked every dog and feed them a meal. They were then mushed to Farley’s camp, about four miles east of town, and then transported via dog trucks to the Nome Iditarod dog yard.
The mushers were flown to the National Guard Nome Army Aviation Operating Facility and arrived Friday morning at 11:15 a.m. Two ambulances awaited their arrival and transported them to Norton Sound Regional Hospital.
West said musher Underwood noted that he couldn’t feel his legs.
According to Jim West, some of the snow machiners who went to aid with the rescue, themselves ended up stuck in overflow at the Nome River, but self rescued and became unstuck.
Later that afternoon, Matt Failor was at the Iditarod dog yard, saying he was fine. An Iditarod statement said that all sled dogs and mushers are in good health. “Because of these rescue efforts and in accordance with rule 31, all three mushers did scratch from Iditarod XLVIII.”
At the same time, eleven mushers who were sitting out the storm in Elim had left and were on their way to White Mountain. According to Nome SAR Chief Jim West Jr., he monitors the situation closely as Golovin Bay is reportedly full of overflow and the trail between Elim and White Mountain was rerouted to the overland trail. However, the mushers were turned back to Elim. “They took the inland trail out of Elim, and then lost the trail on top of Little McKinley and turned back to Elim,” West said. On Saturday morning, they left Elim again. By Saturday afternoon, Grayson Bruton, Martin Buser, Magnus Kaltenborn, Riley Dyche and Deke Naaktgeboren arrived in White Mountain.