This article by Lex Treinen was originally published by Alaska Public Media. It was republished with permission through a partnership with KNOM.
As he sat inside the Nikolai School gym on Wednesday around noon, 47-year-old rookie Gregg Vitello had a dilemma: to take his mandatory 24-hour rest early, or head out on the trail in light rain.
Either way seemed like a bad idea. If he stayed in Nikolai, he wouldn’t have any of his extra gear he shipped to the next checkpoint of McGrath. But leaving in the rain and snow?
“It’s gonna be pretty miserable,” said the New Hampshire musher. “I’m soaking already and it gets pretty dangerous if it gets cold tonight too.”
Just 260 miles into the race, Vitello has already had plenty of misery going through the challenging section of trail. He encountered overflow, moguls and even three buffalo as he descended a fast downhill.
“I put my head up and the buffalo were coming across right in front of us as we’re barreling down,” he said. “Luckily they went up into the hills by the time we got there.”
He’s been tossed over his sled going through the twisty and steep Dalzell Gorge. And Greg, one of his two lead dogs, saved the team from going over a precipice.
“The other leader was going to the left and wouldn’t listen to me, she was going off the edge,” he said. “I have no idea why.”
He said he called ‘gee,’ the command for right, a few times to Greg, who eventually pulled the team away from the ledge.
“Greg literally saved my life,” he said.
Vitello also soaked his boots on the way into Nikolai. He was forced to camp on trail with his emergency parka. His back was aching from the endless moguls. He’s slept just 30 minutes in the past three days.
Still, he said, 90% of the time he’s been having a blast on his first Iditarod experience.
“Even when I was almost dying out there I was still having the time of my life,” he said.
And, for coming into Nikolai last, he got a consolation gift: a beaver hat sewn by elder Oline Petruska.
He said he’s learning why it helps to have some experience.
“Running it once, you have such an education,” he said.
Vitello’s son, 25-year-old Bailey, is also racing in this year’s Iditarod. The younger Vitello is dozens of miles ahead. Vitello said the two overlapped briefly at the start of the race, but since then, they’ve been running separately. He said his son is probably worried about him, but he’s not worried about Bailey.
“In the woods, I’m not worried about Bailey,” he said. “If you drop him off in the city, I might be.”
Eventually, the elder Vitello decided to forge ahead toward McGrath. The drizzle turned to wet heavy snow as Vitello packed up his gear and fed his dog one last time. Temperatures hovered around 30.
His final thoughts?
“I’m thinking I should have done my 24 here,” he said.
Many mushers were settling into their mandatory daylong breaks by Wednesday afternoon, with most teams resting in Takotna and McGrath. Meanwhile, reigning champ Brent Sass, Jessie Holmes and Aaron Peck pushed on to Ophir, at race mile 352, and Wade Marrs was out on the trail beyond that, likely headed for his 24-hour break at the ghost town of Iditarod.
Image at top: Gregg Vitello relaxes in the Nikolai school gym after a tough 260 miles. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)