Four-time Iditarod champion Rick Swenson was the first sled-dog racer to reach the highest checkpoint in the grueling race as leading mushers made their way through the rugged Alaska Range early today. Swenson, driving 18 dogs through the darkness, arrived at Rainy Pass checkpoint at 5 a.m. He was followed four minutes later by Joe Runyan of Nenana. Three-time champion Susan Butcher arrived at 5:22, and DeeDee Jonrow of Bethel arrived four minutes later.
The weather plagued mushers early today. In some spots wind had blown the trail clean of snow, and the ice underneath was wearing the dogs’ feet. None of the four leaders have taken the 24-hour layover required during the race. Three other mushers were on the trail from Finger Lake to Rainy Pass, which is 226 miles into the race and at 3,400 feet elevation. The 1,168-mile race began Saturday when 49 mushers left Anchorage amid 46-m.p.h. gusts and a wind-chill reading of 22 degrees below zero. Two mushers, Roger Roberts and Jan Masek, dropped out 151 miles into the race. From Rainy Pass, the mushers have 942 miles to go before reaching the finish on Nome’s historic Front Street.