ANCHORAGE - A 53-year-old Australian cyclist competing in a winter endurance race got soaked in a stream and lost his way, but survived by hunkering down in his sleeping bag and building snow caves to block chilling wind.
Rescuers on snowmobiles carried Yair Kellner to safety Saturday.
Kellner was racing in the 350-mile Iditarod Trail Invitational from Knik to McGrath. The race began March 1 with 45 participants. Kellner lost the trail Tuesday but remained confident he would be found.
"I didn't feel psychologically broken down, I knew what I was doing was the best I could be doing," he told the Anchorage Daily News.
Kellner was last seen by another competitor near the Finger Lake checkpoint about 130 miles into the race. Exhausted after 40 hours of pushing through deep snow with little sleep, he went down a wrong trail and into Red Creek Canyon.
Kellner said he had started to turn his bike around when the snowy ice under him suddenly gave way and he found himself in the creek. He tried to pull himself out, but "it kept collapsing," he said.
"It was scary enough that I wasn't scared," he said. "I didn't have time to be scared. The adrenaline kicked in."
He thought about ditching his bike but it had all his gear and he knew he'd be in worse trouble if he walked out with only the wet clothes on his back. He eventually made it to solid ground with his bike.
From mountaineering experience, he knew he was in serious danger of hypothermia. The National Weather Service estimated temperatures last week of zero to 25 degrees. With 30 mph winds, though, the temperatures felt colder.
Kellner removed his wet clothing and got into his sleeping bag to warm his body.
"I stripped down to nothing and wrung out the clothing one piece at time," he said.
No matter what he wrung out, the clothes still grew icicles.
He lit his stove to melt snow to drink and spent the first night trying to dry his clothes, one piece at a time, with his body heat.
The next day, he decided to back track, which meant climbing a steep hill. Using the serrated pedals on his bike to wedge his way along, it took him three hours to zigzag up about 500 yards, he said.
At the top of the canyon, he looked for his tracks but the wind had swept them clean. He concluded he was lost.
Moving kept his body warm, but he didn't know where he was going. The batteries in his global positioning system unit were dead.
For the next two days, he divided his few slices of cheese and four energy bars into squares and fed himself every few hours. He poured orange Gatorade on the snow to mark his location in case someone came by, and propped his bike at the entrance to the snow cave, hoping the bike's reflectors would catch the attention of someone flying overhead.
To stay alert and to monitor possible hypothermia, he sang songs.
"I tried to think of more obscure songs, where I had to remember the words," he said.
Organizers Friday alerted Alaska State Troopers but a trooper helicopter found no sign of Kellner that night.
On Saturday, airplane pilot Michael Schroder, who has a cabin in the Shell Lake area, and Ken Peterson spotted Kellner under a spruce tree about five miles north of the trail.
They dropped the cyclist a note on the back of a flight chart, weighted down by a pack of batteries. The message said, "Stay put, we'll come get you."
Back in Anchorage and in good condition Saturday night, Kellner described his rescuers as "fantastic."
"People here did exactly what people back in Australia would have done if someone was in trouble," he said.
Kellner was not the only racer who experienced problems. Earlier in the week, one competitor dropped out with serious frostbite. Others struggled to fight through deep snow to make it over Rainy Pass.
Fairbanks cyclist Jeff Oatley made it to McGrath on Saturday to win the race and about 20 racers remained on the trail.
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