Updated 9 a.m.: Allen Moore and Brent Sass arrived at the Two Rivers checkpoint this morning only 2 minutes apart, at 5:36 a.m. and 5:38 a.m., respectively. Moore has 13 dogs in harness and Sass has 12.
After a mandatory eight-hour layover, the mushers will head toward the finish line, about 72 miles away. Yukon Quest officials predict it will take the winner about 10 hours to reach downtown Fairbanks and estimate a finish time between 10 p.m. and 1 a.m.
Ed Hopkins of Tagish, Yukon, is running in third place. He left Central checkpoint this morning to tackle Eagle Summit. All other mushers are between Eagle and Central, with Rob Cooke holding down the Red Lantern position.
Weather conditions on Eagle Summit are expected to deteriorate today, with a winter weather advisory in effect over Interior Alaska summits through this evening. Wind gusts of 45 mph are forecast, with limited visibility. Highs in the Fairbanks area are expected to be in the 30s today, with a slight chance of snow or freezing rain.
MILE 101 CHECKPOINT — Two-time defending champion Allen Moore claimed the lead in the Yukon Quest on Sunday night at this desolate Steese Highway checkpoint, saying his team “chugged right over” the daunting Eagle Summit.
Moore arrived at about 10:20 p.m., about two hours after Brent Sass at Mile 101, but chose to cruise through the checkpoint after picking up supplies. Sass had remained behind to rest after arriving drenched in sweat and blanketed in snow but hustled to leave after seeing that Moore wasn’t staying.
Moore said at the checkpoint that the summit was “the best I’d ever seen it” and that his dogs had been able to make the climb with him running behind the sled.
Sass had to work much harder, hoisting his team over the top of Eagle Summit, then surviving a harrowing ride down the far side of the summit. The Eureka musher, who has helped pull stalled competitors over the top in previous races, said it was the first time he’d ever had to carry his own team.
“That was the most work I’ve had to do on that summit before,” he said upon arriving at 8:15 p.m. at the Mile 101 checkpoint, more than five hours after departing Central.
Earlier that afternoon, Sass left the Central checkpoint about two hours ahead of Moore as the race entered its final stretch.
Moore and Sass said they’ve viewed Eagle Summit as a critical point in the race since its early stages. Moore gave his team additional rest to better position it for a strong finish in the mountains, while Sass built a lead of as much as eight hours while heading toward the summit.
Eagle Summit has destroyed plenty of race plans, including Moore’s rookie effort in 2011. He had to carry his dogs individually to the summit after they ran out of power on the way to the top, an eight-hour ordeal that contributed to a sixth-place finish.
“It can take anyone at any time, and it will try,” Moore said before leaving Central.
The first two mushers avoided the summit just before a winter weather advisory was forecast for the area, expected to bring gusty winds and blowing snow starting at 6 a.m. Monday.
On the way to Central, Moore was able to trim a big deficit after Sass overslept during a rest early Sunday morning roughly 30 miles from the checkpoint. He dozed off again after his alarm went off, stretching the Eureka musher’s planned six-hour rest to more than nine hours.
“We’ve got a race now,” Sass said before departing the Central checkpoint. “I don’t know if I wanted it, but it’s what we’ve got.”
Sass decided to take a break at Mile 101, time he said was needed to rest his dogs and allow his clothes to dry.
Moore, of Two Rivers, believes he has a decided advantage once the race shifts to his home turf. He said his final three pre-race runs before the Quest were from Two Rivers to the Cushman Street bridge in downtown Fairbanks, where the finish line is located.
His dogs are so primed for the stretch that they literally try to jump into his dog truck at the end of it, Moore said.
Moore declared that he’d win the race if he was within an hour of Sass at Two Rivers.
“All he has to do is falter the least little bit now,” Moore said. “The least little bit.”
After fretting about Moore’s position for days, Sass said he’s more at ease as he heads toward Fairbanks with a tight race.
“I can’t really worry about Allen Moore’s race anymore,” he said. “I need to worry about mine.”
Follow staff writer Jeff Richardson on Twitter: @FDNMquest.