The motivation of the quest

By John Owen | Aug 04, 2011

As first-time entrant Jan Steves acknowledges, the winner of next year's Iditarod dogsled race in Alaska will cover the 1,150 mile distance in about nine days. It will take many other entrants as many as 20 days.

I was aware of that, but didn't begin to comprehend the effort and sacrifice involved before I met Susan Butcher several years ago.

She was a four-time winner of the Iditarod and I interviewed her in Seattle after one of her victories.  

She recounted her many races including a memorable one when she was pursued by a male musher.

His name might have been Jim.

Butcher recalled that at one point she was exhausted, almost to the point of collapse.  

Suddenly  her team rounded a corner and was confronted by a forest of poplar trees.  

She pulled the reins this way, that way and realized her team was becoming hopelessly entangled in the lines.

At that point Jim, her pursuer, pulled into view and  hailed Butcher, asking if she was OK.

"No," she gasped and described how the grove of trees stopped her as effectively as a 12-foot brick wall.

Jim shook his head.  "Susan," he hollered, "you're not in a poplar grove.  Your dogs are OK.  There are no trees!"

Actually, there were trees, in her mind, she acknowledged later.

Only then did I realize the depths of exhaustion involved in an event like the Iditarod.

"Pushing the envelope," is also a term common to long-distance bicycle riders.  

On another occasion I interviewed one of the entrants from a recently concluded bike race-across-America.  

He recalled that they started in Santa Monica and took their first rest stop in the Colorado Rockies.

He told us about some weird hallucinations.

The morning Jim Whittaker set out on his attempt to become the first American atop Mt. Everest; he had a splitting headache, his throat was too sore to swallow, 60 mile an hour winds were creating blizzard conditions.

And at 26,000 feet it was almost like trying to breath through a pillow, he recounted later.

Why climb "unclimbable mountains?"  Why race virtually non-stop across America on a bike?  Why enter an Iditarod like Jan Steves of Edmonds?

I posed that question in 1988 to Lute Jerstad who followed Whittaker by three weeks to the summit of Everest.  

An Oregon guy, he made adventure travel his profession, leading treks to India, Nepal, Tibet and China.  

He also led white-water rafting tours and cross-country horseback expeditions in exotic lands.

Jerstad explained it as a human trait, to seek a new adventure or a different route whether it is to the summit of Mount Rainier or an ice wall in Tibet.

Or to Alaska, to challenge the elements and exhaustion in a dogsled race.

Jerstad suffered a fatal heart attack at the age of 62 while leading nine trekkers up Mount Kalapatar in Nepal.

The trekkers included his step daughter and his 12 year old grandson.

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