CORVALLIS, Ore. - From his comfortable chair by the fire, Cliff Roberson recalled another night. He spent it with his sled dogs, huddled against a blizzard above the tree line on an Alaska mountainside.
"You couldn't see. It was very disorienting. It got too deep for the dogs to pursue forward," he said.
It was part of his training for his fourth - and, he says, last -entry in the 1,100-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog race next month.
"This is my last chance to do something like this. The question is whether I'm too old," said Roberson, 60, a neurosurgeon on an unpaid five-month leave of absence from Good Samaritan Regional Medical Center.
Roberson became hooked on the sport on a 10-day dogsledding camping vacation in 1990. He scaled back his job and became a "musher" during the 1990s.
He knows what whiteout storms look like. While mushing across a frozen stretch of the Bering Sea he found what a minus-110 degree wind chills feels like.
But he has bonded with his dogs and relishes his time in the Alaska wilderness.
"When you've got your team smoking down the trail, that's when you have the feeling that you're really living. The northern lights are out. It's fantastic," Roberson said. But, he added, "At some point on the Iditarod, you're going to have a bad experience. Count on it."
Since Nov. 1, he's spent most of his time in Alaska working with a team of leased dogs.
His wife Suzanne is less than thrilled. He's been back for a total of only a few weeks since then. But she still supports him, as so does the rest of the family.
"It's in his blood, so there's nothing I could do about it," Suzanne said.
But at 60, Roberson wonders how he'll cope with the mental and physical exhaustion of the night-and-day race. He hasn't competed since the mid-1990s.
When he was younger, a rough night on the mountain might wipe him out for 24 hours. Now it's several days, and he's worried about whether he'll be able to recover during the competition.
He began working with a physical trainer more than a year ago and dropped 30 pounds.
Roberson hopes to finish on the 10th day. His previous best finish, on day 12, gave him the 28th best time in 1995.
Roberson will spend half his time on the sled and the other half resting. Or, at least the 16 dogs will be resting. Roberson has to change their booties, which protect their pads from the snow.
Before he sleeps he has to cook for them and for himself.
Sleep-deprivation is as much a challenge as the cold, he said. There are wolves, and teams can anger giant moose.
Expenses and lost wages this time will cost Roberson about $250,000 but he says it is worth it.
"The thing is positive, despite some rough days up there," he said.
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