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How I Became the First Woman to Complete the 1000-Mile Iditarod on Skis

Sunny Stroeer skiing the 100-mile Iditerod

What do the desert and the frozen vastness of Alaska’s winter have in common?  From extreme heat to extreme cold, both environments come with their own challenges, and yet both feel like home to me. I live in Southern Utah, in a small high-desert town perched right between Zion, Bryce, and the Grand Canyon - and for the last several winters, I have chosen to pursue adventure in Alaska.  

But here’s the real connection between the desert, and winter in Alaska: in both places, extreme temperatures are not (usually) what kills you; water does. I believe it was Craig Childs who once wrote that "water in the desert comes in two quantities: not enough, or entirely too much," because flash flooding will kill you just as easily as heat and dehydration. In the Alaskan winter, the threat of water is more subtle and yet just as serious. When the mercury lingers in the negative teens, negative twenties, and even lower, every bit of moisture is a hazard. Water conducts heat 23.5 times more efficiently than air, and in the cold that means that being wet will turn you into a human popsicle before you can say "the cold never bothered me anyway." With proper clothing and precautions, -40 degrees Fahrenheit in dry conditions can be eminently manageable.  But introduce moisture into the equation and all a sudden those same -40 degrees Fahrenheit may become unsurvivable.

Sunny Stroeer in the frigid cold on the Iditerod trailSunny Stroeer in the frigid cold on the Iditerod trail

That’s why staying dry weighed heavy on my mind while I competed in the Iditarod Trail Invitational 1000 Mile Race in March 2024. For 30 days and 30 nights I traversed the frozen beauty of Alaska’s winter, vying to become the first woman to finish the Iditarod Trail Invitational on skis. For those thirty days I wanted nothing more than to avoid getting wet – and never managed. During the very first night on the trail, some twenty miles into the race, I lost control while skiing down a steep embankment onto a frozen river. As I crashed and pitched forward, my right hand punched through unconsolidated snow just beyond the firm trail’s surface – and straight into overflow.  (Overflow is a condition where the icy surface of a solidly frozen river floods, usually due to changing pressure and cracks in the ice that allow water from the unfrozen body of the watercourse to push onto its icy cover.) I was barely eight hours into a thirty day race, still hours from the next checkpoint, and my right glove was already soaking wet.  The temperatures were far below zero. I hastily, clumsily, took off the sopping glove and fumbled to replace it with a spare while the cold air burned my bare wet fingers.

This early episode set tone for what would be ahead.  Over the course of the next thirty days, I found myself battling moisture from all sides. Sometimes I was falling into overflow; sometimes I had to ski through it. During the rare ‘warm’ days on the trail, when temperatures reached into the thirties, I had to contend with sleet and freezing rain. On days where there wasn’t overflow or rain, I was forever guarded against sweating underneath my heavy layers - a surreptitious way to get yourself in trouble.  

Sunny Stroeer skiing the 100-mile Iditerod trail invitationalSunny Stroeer skiing the 100-mile Iditerod trail invitational

The threat of getting wet is real, and serious, in the Alaskan winter.  That’s why most travelers carry an insurance policy: a set of spare clothing, sealed in a waterproof bag - I use the Nite Ize RunOff Packing Cube for mine. It’s what gave me peace-of-mind when I crossed the Norton Sound, a thirty mile section of the Iditarod Trail that goes straight across the sea ice of the Bering Strait.  It was late March by the time I reached the Norton Sound; spring breakup was around the corner.  "Hurry up - you have to get across tomorrow" is what I heard from locals. There was mounting concern about the sea ice flooding and rendering the trail impassable - possibly until next winter.

I encountered overflow shortly after setting out. The flooding was too extensive to avoid, so I had one option - go straight through.  I pulled on waders, double checked the waterproofing of my sled bag and the seal of the RunOff bag guarding my survival kit. I could feel my heat beat in my chest as I pulled my sled straight into the overflow. The ground was solid, the water clear, and my sled was floating. I exhaled. 

Overflow on the Iditerod trailOverflow on the Iditerod trail

Hours later, I got off the sea ice and back onto solid ground, though not before more mandatory wading and excitement. I did not think twice about the solidity of the flooded ice that I had to cross, yet I was grateful when I reached the safety of the shore and the small coastal village of Koyuk. We slept at the village school, one of Koyuk’s largest and most modern buildings.  

In the morning I joined a throng of elementary school students at their cafeteria tables for school breakfast. The young boy next to me happily chattered away about his dad, though in a way that made the dad seem distant.  I asked what happened. "Oh," the nine-year old said, not missing a beat.  "He went through the ice with his snow machine. He drowned." 

I was lucky: I did not go through the ice. I did not get fully immersed in overflow, or become completely soaked from sweat or rain and sleet. I did make it to Nome after 1000 miles on the Iditarod Trail, becoming the first woman to finish the race on skis.

And after thirty days and nights in the cold of Alaska’s winter, I now know emotionally what I had previously understood only intellectually: extreme temperatures don’t kill you; moisture does. So the next time someone tells you about their latest winter adventure, don’t ask them if they were able to stay warm. Ask them if they were able to stay dry…or better yet, get them a RunOff bag to keep their emergency gear dry!

Sunny Stroeer is the first woman to complete the 1000-mile Iditerod trail on skisSunny Stroeer is the first woman to complete the 1000-mile Iditerod trail on skis
Map of the 100-mile Iditerod trail invitationalMap of the 100-mile Iditerod trail invitational