Into the great white open
For someone who likes to ski at Interstate speeds, the Iditarod is just too slow of a race for Sacha Gros.
By Nate Peterson
Daily Sports Writer
The former nine-year U.S. Alpine Ski Team vet and Vail local is fascinated with the wonders of Alaska – its desolate tundra and windswept coasts, its jagged mountains, its hearty, native inhabitants – but an 1,100-mile trek through the heart of the last great frontier at a slug’s pace is not exactly Sacha’s cup of java.
Instead of dog power, Gros wanted horsepower. Instead of treading along the frozen Yukon River at 15 mph, Gros wanted do 110.
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Which is why he entered into Alaska’s other vaunted sled race that snakes along the Iditarod trail, the Tesoro Iron Dog – the world’s longest snowmobile race.
“It was an amazing experience,” Gros said from his cell phone in Alaska last week after finishing sixth in the 1,838-mile, 29-team snowmobile competition that started Monday, Feb. 16. “We started in Fairbanks and went up to Nome, before coming back on the Iditarod trail to Anchorage. I did it to see Alaska, and for the challenge, obviously, because it’s known as a really difficult race. I have some memories that will last a lifetime.”
Gros’ reminiscences read like a list of A-plus adjectives, ranging from the breathtaking to the bizarre, from surreal to sub-zero. He nearly became a grease spot when he was weaving his way through a forest at 40 mph and a moose stepped in front of his sled. In between solitary miles in which he and teammate, Chet Williams, felt like they were the only humans on earth, the two would find shelter and food, and most importantly smiles, when they entered into the tiny villages that dot north-central Alaska.
“The people you meet are just awesome,” Gros said. “When you stay in these little villages, you stay with the people in their houses. You learn about their culture and how they live. In some places, they are only supported by the river or by air. It’s eye-opening.”
A unique journey
More amazing, though, than crossing the steeps of the Alaska Range on the trek down to Anchorage while sizing up 20,320-foot Mt. McKinley or surveying across the Bering Straight towards Russia while stopping over in Nome is the fact that Gros and Williams covered the nearly 1,900 miles of terrain in 45 hours and 34 minutes, arriving in Wasilla (just outside of Anchorage) on Saturday, Feb. 21.
“I think the average speed is 70 mph,” Gros said “There’s points on the (Yukon) River where you’re going 110, but there’s other parts where you’re struggling to go 40.”
There were three mandatory stops which didn’t count towards their total time – two six-hour furloughs along the trail as well as a 24-hour holdover at Nome before heading back down to Anchorage – but otherwise, Gros and Williams spent the rest of the time on their sleds.
Or fixing their sleds, when one of the two broke down on the trail.
A plane followed them with supplies, such as extra shocks (they blew out five pairs), engine parts and food, although they weren’t allowed to communicate with it along the way. With trips between gas stops ranging from 43 miles to 120, and with only a GPS to guide them, Gros and Williams had to work together to manage alone in the daunting Alaska wild, fighting the sub-zero temperatures, the biting wind and the deep snow.
“You have to carry a minus-30 bivvy sack, five pounds of tools and two days of food,” Gros said. “Sometimes, you’re lost. The trail’s not really marked that great and it’s all desolate and white out there. Being a veteran, now, I’ll probably know my way better next time, but we were both rookies. We were loosing the trail quite a bit and just getting lucky.
“You have to modify the snowmobiles to carry extra fuel. We had to add about four extra gallons. We had an external tank, but a lot of people just put their extra tank under the seat. You stop for gas about every hundred miles, and you make little repairs here and there, but you are also breaking down a lot on the trail. It’s tough because there’s not a lot of stuff up on the other side of Alaska.”
An Arctic calling
Gros initially became enthralled with the idea of running the Iron Dog while competing in another “only in Alaska” race, The Arctic Man Ski and Sno Go Classic in Summit Lake, Alaska. Run at the beginning of every April, the two-man Arctic Man features a skier and a snowmobiler and more speed than a Hunter S. Thompson bender.
The skier starts off by skiing a 17,000-foot drop on a downhill course, before grabbing onto the tug line of an already zooming snowmobile, which then pulls the skier up another slope – at speeds as high as 86 miles per hour – before the skier drops over the other side of the slope and races to the finish line.
Part alpine, part skijoring, part water-skiing and all craziness, it’s a race that Gros and his snowmobiling partner Tyler Johnson own, being the current course record holders at 4 minutes, 4.46 seconds.
“It’s what I first came up here for,” Gros said. “It’s about three hours north of Anchorage. Every spring, about 1,000 to 2,000 people, they camp out on this parking lot to watch it.”
Gros met Williams at last year’s Arctic Man and the two got to talking about doing this year’s Iron Dog.
“I just wanted to do it for fun because I don’t really compete besides the Arctic Man anymore,” Gros said. “Chet, he’s from Alaska. At the Arctic Man, he came and helped us make the snowmobile go really fast. (The Iron Dog) just really sounded like an interesting race.”
Like the Arctic Man, for the two even to think about competing in the Iron Dog, they needed financial backing from sponsors to cover the hefty price tag.
There was the plane and the snowmobiles to pay for, along with food and fuel and parts and arctic survival gear, a shopping list to top all shopping lists, so to speak.
But Gros, being a battle-tested, ski-team veteran and former Olympian, knew that he could win possible sponsors over with his impressive competitive resume.
“We had a bunch of sponsorships,” Gros said. “The whole thing ending up costing around $20,000. Petrostar, an oil company up there in Alaska, they were the ones that funded most of it, but we also had a lot of help from a number of people.”
The two also had to hash out all the necessary details, being that such a race is as much about survival as it is about finishing with a good time.
While it may not be as tough as the Iditarod, whose moniker, “The Last Great Race on Earth” lives up to its billing, snowmobiling 1,838 miles across Alaska is still a very dangerous undertaking – a full assault against an unforgiving countryside.
As good as it gets
It was all worth it in the end, though. For Gros, the odyssey of the Iron Dog was everything he had ever hoped it to be – achingly beautiful, thoroughly challenging and completely rewarding.
Too many adjectives to fit in this story.
“It was an amazing experience,” said Gros. “Just the sheer bueaty of the line that you travel through. You are on the ice of the Norton Sound, and you could go over to Russia from there. It’s just 90 miles away. You have the tundra on the coast which is the worst land in the world, so desolate. But then there were also beautiful aspen forests, which felt like Colorado. We saw huge herds of elk, like 70-80 head at a time. It was just incredible.”
The only thing Gros wouldn’t say about his journey is that it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
“I guess I’m hooked, now,” said Gros. “I’m already planning for next year.”
Contact Nate Peterson at 949-0555, ext. 608 or via e-mail at email@example.com