As race leaders left the Rohn checkpoint and approached Nikolai late Monday night, Kasilof's Paul Gebhardt held the lead in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog race.
Rohn is 272 miles into the race, which is 1,100 miles long.
Gebhardt, who finished second in the race last year, checked out of Rohn at 6:45 p.m. Monday.
Hot on Gebhardt's tail were a pair of past champions -- Denali Park's Jeff King and Montana's Doug Swingley.
King, who won the race in 1993, 1996 and 1998, left Rohn at 7:27 p.m. Swingley, who won the race in 1995, 1999 and 2000, left Rohn at 7:52 p.m.
Swingley covered the 48 miles from Rainy Pass to Rohn, which is the highest portion of the trail, in 3 hours, 46 minutes. King covered it in 3:50, while Gebhardt took a break en route and took 8:24.
Rounding out the top five were Seward's Mitch Seavey and perennial front-runner DeeDee Jonrowe of Willow.
Monday night, the leaders in the race were set to encounter a challenge as they passed over Farewell Burn en route to Nikolai.
Joe Runyan, the 1989 Iditarod champion who is reporting on the race for the Web site of the outfitter Cabela's, reports that the trail from Rohn River to Farewell Burn is completely without snow.
With exposed rocks and roots, not to mention the possibility of a buffalo blocking the trail, Runyan writes, "This is Ricochet Rabbit country, site of more broken sleds than anywhere in (North) America). This 20-mile segment is a sled-busting nightmare."
Late Monday, it remained to be seen how the leaders would deal with this problem.
Earlier in the day, Willow musher Linwood Fiedler was the first musher to make his way through treacherous Dalzell Gorge and into the Rohn checkpoint. He arrived at 2:55 p.m. Three-time champion Martin Buser was second into Rohn, arriving nearly two hours after Fiedler.
By early Monday evening, 41 of the 69 mushers entered in the race had reached the Rainy Pass checkpoint. Many of the mushers chose to take advantage of balmy temperatures in the low 30s Monday and rested their dogs at Rainy Pass before heading on to Rohn.
At that point in the race, the ever-confident Swingley was not worried about those ahead of him.
''A couple of these guys are jumping the gun,'' Swingley said of the teams out in front.
The mushers had a fast run on a good stretch of trail Monday, but were uneasy about rough trail ahead.
''We just got to get through the rough stuff,'' Swingley said. ''You just got to keep on your toes.''
Between Rainy Pass and Rohn, the trail drops 1,000 feet through the Dalzell Gorge and then another 300 feet over the next six miles. Mushers must contend with hairpin turns and blind corners, open water and ice bridges. The stretch is particularly hazardous this year because there is glare ice and bare dirt in places.
''We're going into the black hole here,'' Mitch Seavey said. ''Cross your fingers and decide what you want to bounce off next.''
Five-time champion Rick Swenson of Two Rivers was 12th into Rainy Pass. He said the trail was so good the challenge was to keep his team from going too fast.
Swenson also wasn't looking forward to the trip from Rainy Pass to Rohn.
''It is always bad. I've never seen it when it wasn't scary,'' said Swenson who is competing in his 25th Iditarod.
The mushers are vying for their share of the $550,000 purse. The first-place finisher gets $62,857 and a new pickup truck.
Associated Press writer Mary Pemberton contributed to this story.
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