Per Wikipedia (a most reliable source)- In 1916, Hudson Stuck, who was one of the first people to climb Mount McKinley's South Peak, wrote, "The Eagle Summit is one of the most difficult summits in Alaska. The wind blows so fiercely that sometimes for days together its passage is almost impossible. ... The snow smothers up everything on the lee side of the hill, and the end of every storm presents a new surface and an altered route.
Since signing up for the Quest 300 in October, I had successfully ignored Eagle Summit. Not once did I think about the monstrous descent that’s known for howling winds, blinding whiteouts, heroic rescues, broken sleds, broken mushers, and terrifying stories. I was able to laugh and giggle as the trail breakers described the rock and tundra swept summit at the Mushers Meeting. “You need to at least unhook the tugs of half your dogs, if not bring chains to wrap around your runners,” they said. I smiled and nodded my head but made sure the true meaning of their warning didn’t sink into my mind. I’d say my ability to compartmentalize and completely disregard uncomfortable events is one of my strengths. It keeps me happy in the here and now.
Well, at Mile 101, I could no longer ignore the inevitable. Eagle Summit loomed massive and hazy just a short distance away. As my dogs lay resting on a knoll in the sunshine, I sat in the Mile 101 cabin, eating bacon and chatting with Kristin and Andy from Hey Moose! Kennel. Trying to ease concerns, Kristin said, “I heard the drop is only like 3 seconds long. That doesn’t sound too bad. You guys will be fine.”
Fast forward 1 1/2 hours and 1500 feet elevation. The dogs and I stood atop Eagle Summit with the sun setting. A light breeze swirled around us with deep reds and fading light on the peaks to the south. It was one of the most beautiful views I’ve ever seen. If I wasn’t so concerned about descending with my dog team still calm and composed from the long climb up, I would have stayed to witness a photographer’s dream sunset. Seeing as the last thing I wanted was an amped up dog team on the steepest trail EVER, I crested the summit and started down.
The first pitch was as the trail breakers had described. It felt like the team leapt off a cliff, floated briefly, then flattened for a nice long runout. Whew, ok, we survived that slope. After regaining control of the team, we side-hilled over to the next pitch. Right before reaching the top, I quickly stopped, ran forward and unhooked a half dozen tug lines, raced back to the sled, then hollered “Ready!...Alright!” With only half the normal pulling power, our pace slowed as we climbed the small hill before ‘the big one.’ I felt like a little kid on a roller coaster. Slowly, methodically, creeping up the hill before the cart dumps over the other side, sending your heart into your throat. Giddy and tense, you feel like screaming with excitement. So I did, “OOOOOOOOeeeeeeeee!!!!” My dogs all stopped dead in their tracks, turned around, and stared as if to say, “What’s your problem?” I felt rather ridiculous. Ok, continue on.
Whoooosh. We hurtled down the final pitch. I focused all my energy on pushing hard on the claw break and keeping the sled upright. We raced down the trench left by mushers before us, jolting us left and right. My flexible sled bent and torqued as it bounced on tussocks and patches of sugar snow. I thought of Kristin... Kristin said three seconds, ok, one....two....three... four. Oh, focus, don’t tip. Counting, right... one... two...three...
Well, I have no idea how long we flew down the final pitch. I remember feeling elated as the terrain smoothed out. I hollered another “OOOOeeee!” and I think this time the dogs understood why I was so ecstatic. I stopped the team and all the dogs stood happily, wagging their tails. With perfect weather and good trail conditions, we survived our first descent of the infamous Eagle Summit. Until next time, o treacherous one.