Many people claim that the Yukon Quest is much tougher than the Iditarod. Often, I find, these are people who have never run the Iditarod (and in a number of cases never run the Quest either). I think pretty much anyone who has run both will tell you that they both have their challenges and although it may sound very egotistical, no 1000 mile race is ever going to be easy. Undoubtedly the format for the Quest attracts a different type of person than Iditarod; with only 9 checkpoints over 1000 miles and with distances between checkpoints of between 80 and 200 miles there is a lot more reliance on being self-sufficient, more camping out by the trail, sleds have to be packed with a lot more food and gear, you have to be prepared to be on your own and deal with any situations that may arise on your own. With something like 23 checkpoints on Iditarod and a maximum distance of around 80 miles, but more typically 30 to 40 miles between checkpoints, it is possible to run from checkpoint to checkpoint, rarely sleep on the trail and carry much lighter loads in the sled; Iditarod could be classed as a much more sociable race. I have even heard it called a pseudo-stage race or a sprint between checkpoints but none of those descriptions are apt although I have had mushers tell me that they will never run Quest because quite frankly who in their right mind would want to camp out on the trail at -50C – who indeed?? The time of year can also have a major impact: although the Iditarod starts barely two weeks after the Quest has finished, nonetheless the starts of the two races are a month apart, being the first weekend in February and first weekend in March respectively, Iditarod running at a time of the year when daylight is returning fast to the Land of the Midnight Sun. Being a month later can also make quite a considerable difference in day time temperatures with Iditarod being consistently warmer than the Quest. It always surprises me how the sun can still be shining late in the evening on the beach running in to Nome whilst the Quest is run in almost perpetual darkness or at least very gloomy daylight. Many also think that the terrain makes the Quest a tougher race, going as it does, quite literally, over four mountain summits where names such as Eagle and American Summit have become part of mushing lore. The Iditarod is not, however, without its challenging terrain: the climb up to Rainy Pass and the subsequent descent down and through the Dalzell Gorge are not to be sniffed at. The Happy Valley Steps may be safer now than in years past but any descent down the Steps is not without caution or trepidation. The climb off Norton Sound, up and over Little McKinley and back down onto Golovin Bay is not only very exposed, it is called Little McKinley for a reason (I wonder if it is now called Little Denali). Even when you think the race is almost done you still have to deal with the Topkok mountains with its six seemingly endless and ever more steep climbs and descents out of White Mountain. And finally, to add insult to injury, less than 20 miles from the finish line is the short but demoralising climb over Cape Nome, a blip, nay lump, in the otherwise flat landscape of the Bering Sea coast designed, I am sure, to drain the last bit of strength and moral from the tiring musher whose thoughts may have prematurely turned to a warm meal, a comfortable bed and copious quantities of alcohol. For me however it is not the climate, the daylight, the wilderness camping or the mountains that make Quest and Iditarod equally tough, for me it is the forementioned Bering Sea coast line and the storms that can appear and disappear in an instance, the multiple blow holes, that regardless of the weather anywhere else always seem to be blowing a gale (or at least a ground storm) and the fact that there is little or no natural shelter to be sought when one of these storms blow up. I had long known of the reputation of ‘the coast line’ on Iditarod; as with Eagle Summit on the Quest, Iditarods have literally been won and lost due to storms on the coast, in the case of the 2014 race, pretty much within sight of Nome when first Jeff King and then Aliy Zirkle lost the race in the teeth of the same storm. I had been warned by Karen Ramstead that when you are coming out of the Blueberry Hills to drop towards Shaktoolik, or out of the Topkoks to rejoin the coastline towards Safety, and you are looking down onto the coastline, if things look slightly hazy in the distance you are likely heading into a storm and in fact if you are dropping out of the Topkoks and you can see two shelter cabins in the distance all should be great, if you cannot see either, buckle down for the ride of a life. As I made my first descent out of the Blueberry Hills in 2015 I could see the shimmering lights of Shaktoolik some 5 miles or so in the distance; it looked like it was going to be a great run in to the checkpoint although there did appear to be a slight ‘shimmer’ to the coastline immediately below me. The descent from the Blueberries is both steep and sheltered but before you know it you pop out onto the Beeson Slough and whilst you are protected from the open Bering Sea by a natural sea wall nonetheless the trail is often little more than scratches in glare ice and the trail is fully open to the elements. We had been warned just as we were leaving the previous checkpoint of Unalakleet that a storm was coming down from the north and we should hurry to get to Shaktoolik. Nervous as I was about my first coastal storm we still did not make good enough time to make Shaktoolik before the storm hit; as we made our way out onto the ice we were getting battered from all directions: sometimes our progress would slow to a crawl as we ran into merciless head winds, moments later the sled was passing the dog team sideways on as the wind treated sled and musher like a sail, propelling me past the bemused wheel dogs. The fear and trepidation however soon turned to something like awe and, dare I say it, enjoyment as I saw that far from being intimidated by the storm, the dogs were having an absolute blast. They may have never run into a brewing storm like this before but this was what they had evolved for. When we got into Shaktoolik I was ready to keep going, get out there and face the storm again, make that famed 52 mile run across Norton Sound. I was somewhat surprised to see that the checkpoint was full of dog teams, more teams in one place than I had seen since the first few hundred miles of the race. So full was the checkpoint that we were led away from the shelter of the checkpoint building and down onto the very exposed beach where we struggled to both shelter the dogs and stop straw and gear, from getting blown away. Having chatted to a couple of the mushers around me it became clear that the reports of the inbound storm from the north meant that no one was prepared to venture out onto the exposed and featureless Norton Sound with the ever present threat of ice breaking away from the shoreline and drifting out to sea, carrying with it mushers and dog teams. As it turned out over 17 teams were sat there waiting. Shaktoolik is a very small, very remote indigenous community reliant mainly on a subsistence lifestyle based around fishing and hunting. The checkpoint building is a very small building on the very edge of this very small community. Under normal conditions with teams coming and going all the time it is functional and cozy; with 17 teams going nowhere it was cramped, hot and smelly. The pungent atmosphere was not helped by an indoor composting toilet that was failing badly, suffering from over use, and protected from the sleeping area by an ultrathin door that could certainly no longer be considered as functional. For the next 23 hours we sat and waited as more mushers piled in from Unalakleet; as race officials from the safety and security of Nome phoned in to ask why no one was moving; where you fought for any bit of floor space you could grab, away from the washroom door, in order to get a few hours sleep. There was much deliberation going on from the mushers who had been there for sometime and eventually, probably about 10 hours after I had arrived, the mushers who had been there the longest started trickling out to start getting their teams ready to leave. As the first team ventured out towards Norton Sound it felt like everyone else piled out of the checkpoint to watch their painfully slow progress out onto the ice until, after what seemed like just a few minutes, they and their teams were swallowed up by the storm. A bunch of us there were friends and rookies together and so we decided that we would wait until morning and then when the forecasted lull in the storm appeared we would leave together and make our first ever transits of the Norton Sound together. The following morning the winds had dropped a lot and despite hearing stories of one musher going completely off track and hitting his help button when stuck up on the shoreline lost and a long way from the trail and of another musher who had requested assistance from the middle of the Sound and had been rescued when suffering from hypothermia, four of us rookies pulled out of Shaktoolik together and worked together all the way across the Sound, taking turns to lead and to hunt out the next trail marker whilst always looking out for each other during that most challenging of phases in one of the toughest sled dog races on the planet.