‘It’s pretty much everywhere’: Iditarod mushers should prepare for deep snow, race officials say

Snowmachine crews carve out a trail in the Happy River steps area ahead of the 2020 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. Race officials say Iditarod teams should expect deep snow along much of the trail. (Courtesy Iditarod trail breakers)

Iditarod race director Mark Nordman said the theme for this year’s sled dog race may be “patience” as teams navigate deep snow along much of the trail.

“It’s going to be a discussion amongst mushers, you know, just how they’re going to deal with it,” Nordman said. “As I told a couple people, I said, ‘You probably should be able to make sure you can get at your snowshoes if you want to get off the trail,’ which has not been the norm.”

The 2020 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race kicks off Saturday in downtown Anchorage. Starting at 10 a.m., 57 mushers and hundreds of sled dogs will parade along city streets and trails for the ceremonial start. The race officially begins the next day in Willow at 2 p.m.

[Related: Listen to our Iditarod trail updates and race analysis on the Iditapod podcast.]

In addition to snow over the next nearly 1,000 miles, Iditarod mushers will also likely encounter below-freezing temperatures, said Nordman, who has worked with the race for more than three decades.

“I’ve seen this amount of snow over all my years with it in different areas, but it just seems like it’s pretty much everywhere,” he said.

That’s in contrast to recent years, when little to no snow marked long sections of the trail, with occasional rain and overflow.

[Related: Follow all of our coverage of the 2020 Iditarod.]

Last year, the coastal stretch of the trail was almost totally free of sea ice, a rarity for mid-March when the ice is generally reaching its largest extent. This year, according to Nordman, that’s not the case, with thick and consistent ice conditions from Unalakleet heading north and west toward Nome.

Nordman said trail breakers on snowmachines have been busy this year cutting a trail through the snow, creating a trench for teams to travel on. A photograph of one of the trail breakers shows him standing in chest-deep snow in the area of the notorious Happy River steps between Finger Lake and Rainy Pass.

“I think it’s just like if you were to get six feet of snow and you had to shovel a path to your house, that’s what we’re looking at right now,” Nordman said.

Snowmachine crews break trail through chest-deep snow in the Happy River steps area ahead of the 2020
Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. (Courtesy Iditarod trail breakers)

Nordman said the snow could impact when some teams reach the finish line in Nome.

“So is it going to be slower? Possibly some, but really with these people that are trying to win it, nothing really stops them anymore. I think patience is the word,” he said.

Past race champions Pete Kaiser, Joar Leifseth Ulsom, Mitch Seavey, Lance Mackey and Martin Buser are entered into this year’s race. There’s plenty of other competition, too, such as Aliy Zirkle, Jessie Royer, Nicolas Petit and 2020 Yukon Quest champion Brent Sass.

[Related: Musher Jeff King pulls out of Iditarod because of health emergency, rookie handler will run his team]

Nordman also said the coronavirus is “definitely on my radar.”

“We have a lot of people coming from out of state, going through all these rural communities,” he said. “We’ve been in very tight contact with the state.”

The race is stepping up sanitation, and will be distributing information about best practices to avoid getting sick, including washing hands, he said.

“We’ve dropped a bunch of money on stuff,” he said. “We want to make sure that people can feel safe out there.”

Reporter Zachariah Hughes contributed to this story.