The Meanest 33 Miles of History

The Yukon.

A place on the edge of the world, where men and women flocked in the thousands to stake their fortune. Vast wealth could be made here, and lives lost in the pursuit of it. A land of -40C winters, endless sunlight, and instant riches, it called to the reckless, the daring, the brave, and the adventurous.

In 1898, over 100,000 people undertook the gruelling, often fatal, journey to the gold fields of the Klondike in the northern Yukon. It was a stampede like no other. Only one third of them* reached their destination; the rest either gave up, or died from starvation, suicide, murder, or avalanche.

It’s known as the Meanest 33 Miles of History.**

And now, we were going to hike that trail.

But, first: a little history about the gold rush, a two year frenzy that changed the face of the Yukon and Alaska forever.

In 1896, the US was in the grips of a great depression that had begun in 1893. Although there had been periods of economic uptick in the last five years, by 1896 much of America was broke, unemployed, and desperate.

Further north, three prospectors in the Yukon found gold, and, almost a year later, on July 14th 1897, the steamer Excelsior landed in San Francisco carrying their haul – three quarters of a million dollars of Klondike gold.

And just like that, the Klondike gold rush was on.

People swarmed in from all over the world – particularly from the cash-strapped US – drawn by the promise of rivers running yellow in the far north. The only problem was that back in 1898, Alaska and the Yukon were still wild, untamed places. There were no roads to the gold fields; those going there would have to make their own route.

Most prospectors began in Seattle, boarding ships bound for south-east Alaska. This worked out great for Seattle; the city quickly discovered its entrepreneurial side and made a lot of money selling mining packages to the throngs of people who passed through the city on their way north.

Once in Alaska, the prospectors faced their first challenge. Since the entire country is mostly mountains, with a few glaciers and some bears to keep things interesting, the prospectors had to find their way over the coast mountain range to get into the interior Yukon.

Fortunately, there were two already-established native trading routes that they could take through the mountains.

The first was the White Pass. Initially this was the more popular route. It was longer, but the pass wasn’t as high, and, critically, it was advertised as suitable for pack horses.

This was a big deal, as the Canadian government had taken one look at the thousands of prospectors coming from places like California and Australia, and realised that they probably had no clue what was in store for them in a northern Canadian winter.

Since the North-West Mounted Police didn’t really feel like spending October rescuing 100,000 freezing, starving prospectors, they stipulated that those wanting to enter the Klondike needed to bring a years worth of supplies with them. The total packing list weighed in at roughly one ton (900kg). That was one ton that the prospectors needed to carry up and down over those mountain passes.

Unless they could use a pack horse.

These days, the train from the Yukon down to Skagway runs along the old White Pass route. It passes by a place called “Dead Horse Gulch” where the bones of over 3,000 horses lie.

Jack London was one of the prospectors to travel to the Klondike. He wrote about the treatment of the horses along the White Pass:

The horses died like mosquitoes in the first frost and from Skagway to Bennett they rotted in heaps; they died at the rocks, they were poisoned at the summit, and they starved at the lakes; they fell off the trail, what there was of it, and they went through it, in the river they drowned under their loads or were smashed to pieces against the boulders; they snapped their legs in the crevices and broke their backs falling backwards with their packs; in the sloughs they sank from sight and were smothered in the slime; and they were disemboweled in the bogs where corduroy logs turned end up in the mud—men shot them, worked them to death and when they were gone went back to the beach and bought more. Some did not bother to shoot them, stripping the saddles off and the shoes and leaving them where they fell. Their hearts turned to stone—those that did not break—and they became beasts, the men on the Dead Horse Trail.

The White Pass trail soon became known as the Dead Horse Trail, and by late 1897, had deteriorated so much it became impassable, and was closed down.

This left the other option, the Chilkoot Trail.

This route left from Dyea, a town a few miles to the west of Skagway that had sprung up almost overnight as a stepping off point for the trail. The Chilkoot was shorter – only 33 miles compared to 40 miles – but higher and steeper, with a final climb so steep it is impossible for pack animals to make it.

This was the trail we had decided would be fun to spend our summer vacation hiking.

Fortunately for us though, the Chilkoot is now a well-maintained historical trail, co-managed by the US and Canada, with camp-grounds, bear lockers and warming shelters. It’s actually now (hopefully) pretty hard to die on the Chilkoot.

From Whitehorse, we caught the White Pass train down to Skagway. Even though it was apparently the middle of summer, rain and fog haunted our trip through the pass, turning the high mountain landscapes into eerie alien wastelands.

White Pass Route

The view from the train near the summit of the White Pass route

Once in Skagway, we headed into the US Parks Service to pick up our trail passes and register. The ranger gave us a rundown on the trail.

“This is a challenging hike. It is not for beginners. If you get into trouble, we can helicopter you off the mountain, however that will cost $2,500.” Okay, that wasn’t too bad. A little pricey, but it wouldn’t bankrupt me.

“The helicopter will bring you back to Skagway. Now, we don’t have a hospital in Skagway, so if you need one, you will be airlifted to Juneau. That will cost $20,000.”

I made a mental note not to get hurt until we reached the Canadian part of the trail.

Once we were done being terrified by the US parks service, we caught a shuttle to Dyea. At the height of the gold rush, this was a bustling town of 9,000 people. Now, there are only a few rotting planks and a graveyard left to show where the town used to be. Everything else was abandoned as soon as the gold rush ended.

I was worried about our schedule; our train had been delayed, meaning it was already 3pm, and we still needed to hike twelve kilometres to our first campsite.

“Do you think we should make camp earlier along the trail?” I asked my boyfriend.

“I don’t know. What time does it get dark here?”

“August.”

“Yeah, we should be fine.”

On that note, we started the hike. The trail wound north through coastal rainforest, crossing streams and beaver ponds on suspension bridges and wooden planks; low-lying fog continued to hug the rivers and hills around us, giving the trail a quiet, preternatural feel.

Chilkoot trail fog along the river

Low-lying fog along the hills and rivers of the Chilkoot trail. In the distance, river rafters braved the cold waters.

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Crossing one sketchy looking suspension bridge. In fact, it wasn’t just sketchy looking… US Parks had a notice saying it was sketchy and to cross with care.

Our first night we camped at Canyon City campground; I had expected the campground to be full, but we were the only ones there. It’s a little unsettling trying to sleep inside a tent when you’re alone in bear country; you realise very quickly just how thin the fabric of the tent wall that’s keeping you separated from the bears is. Especially compared to how sharp the bear’s claws are.

Instead, we unrolled our sleeping mats inside the warming hut, lit a fire in the pot-bellied stove, and went to sleep. This is frowned upon by the Park Rangers, but I was a little less scared of them than I was of a grizzly.

We had completed the first day of our hike in good shape, but our hardest day, the push over the summit, was still to come.

To be continued… 

*ish. There are no exact numbers, so I went off the population size of Dawson City, which was estimated at 30,000. Either way, a lot of folks didn’t make it.

** Okay, I’m pretty sure that things like the Trail of Tears, and the Road of Bones were meaner, but this is probably one of the most fatal 33 mile treks that anyone voluntarily undertook.

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The Geeks in the Basement

VFX artists tend to be seen by the rest of the film industry as the geeks in the basement.

Okay, so admittedly, we are all pretty nerdy and into computers. And, I guess our desks do tend to be covered with Lord of the Rings figurines and light sabres. And, sure, due to the light sensitive nature of our jobs, we do work in blacked out rooms… So the name isn’t all that inaccurate.

But it still says something about how the rest of the film crew sees the VFX artists.

And that comes down to how the films are made.

Okay, bear with me here as I go into a little bit more detail than anyone ever asked for on how a film gets crewed, but it is relevant.

You see, when a film is greenlit by a studio – say, Paramount – the producer doesn’t just go out onto the Paramount lot, grab the Paramount film crew, and start shooting.

Instead, the film will be crewed by freelance crew members, brought together by the production just for that one film.

The first person to join the film will be the director (often having a known director attached – along with some big name actors – is part of getting a movie greenlit). Once he or she is on board, the production will start to bring on the heads of departments, people such as the director of photography, the editor, the art director, and so on. These are the people responsible for the creative vision of the film, and they’ll often be people the director likes, has worked with before, or has heard good things about. This will be done in consultation with the studio and producer, who ultimately have final say, but generally want to keep the director happy.

Once the creative HoDs are in place, they’ll start filling in their departments, hiring assistant editors, camera assistants, gaffers, grips, chippies, sparkies and woofies.* As these will often be local talent, most of this round of crewing will happen after the production decides where to shoot the film. These people will be found through networks and friends – hire the 2nd Assistant Camera in Vancouver, and they’ll know someone who can come on as the focus puller. 98.75% of the time, this is someone they’ve worked with before that they like. The other 1.25% of the time, it’s someone they know from film school.**

And that’s it. We come together, spend 4-6 months making movie magic and getting heartily sick of each other in the process. Then, once the film is complete, we have a massive wrap party, grab our crew swag (which is useful, since we probably haven’t done laundry in the last month), and go our separate ways. Until the next film, where we’ll either know half the crew already, or figure out who we know in common.

So, that’s how the film crew works. VFX is a little different.

You see, our software is pretty complex. And, our software also doesn’t like to talk to other software. Even other VFX software. And since every department in VFX uses different software, this can make things tricky.

Say we’re doing a shot where a CG dinosaur runs through a CG river. On a high end film, each step in the pipeline – from building the dinosaur, to adding the CG water, to lighting the shot, before finally putting all the elements together to fit seamlessly within the plate – will be done by a different specialist.

Most of those highly specialised jobs also have highly specialised software packages, and none of them talk to each other. Because apparently that would make too much sense.

So, we have to write a lot of code to move shot information from one department to another. It’s expensive, time consuming, and constantly changing as software packages get updated. All VFX companies have a dedicated pipeline department whose job is to make sure information gets from one place to another.

Another thing that happens along the pipeline is something called rendering. The computer scenes that we work with are very complex, and require a large amount of computer power to process.

Take, for example, a lighter working on the scene with the dinosaur: the lighter will add light sources to mimic the on-set lighting, and then the computer has to go away and think about just what exactly that means. How hot is the kick off the water? Where are the shadows, and how long are they? How do the dinosaur’s scales react to this light? Is there anything causing a bounce light in the scene? These calculations can take hours per frame, so when you’re dealing with a 200 frame shot, that’s a lot of computing. Especially since it takes multiple (and I mean, in the hundreds of) versions to get a shot pixel-perfect.

If we were to just render on the machine we were working on, we’d basically get one render of one shot done every couple of weeks. Oh, and because it would take the entire computing power of that machine, we wouldn’t be able to work in that time. Which sounds like fun, until you have to pay rent.

So, instead, we send all of these scene off to the render farm. This is a stack of computers dedicated to rendering. They have no keyboards or monitors, and their only job, all day, every day, is to render shots. Companies can have hundreds, or even thousands of these dedicated, high-spec computers on a render farm (although still never enough come crunch time). And of course, once you put hundreds of processing computers in a small, enclosed space, putting out a massive amount of heat, you also need to add some heavy duty air conditioners to make sure they don’t do something silly like catch fire.

All of this adds up to one big, expensive nightmare that film studios don’t want to deal with.

Fortunately, they don’t have to. Instead, they can outsource it to a VFX studio that is  already set up with a pipeline, render farm, and artists, and have them make the whole VFX problem go away.

This does, however, create an interesting situation. It means that when I sign on to a film, I’m actually signing on to work for the VFX company, rather than the film production. And this leads to a couple of problems.

The first – and the one that often rankles VFX artists the most – is film credits.

The film studios determine how many credits each VFX company will get. Because credits add to run time, and run time in the cinema costs money, the film studio wants to keep the number of credits to a minimum.

Everyone on set is guaranteed a credit.

No one in VFX is.

I’ve worked on shows with almost one hundred artists, only to be told that we get twelve credits. I know everyone thinks that credits are already waaaay too long, but they mean a lot to people that worked on the film.

But that’s not the worst problem that the division between VFX and the production can cause.

Because VFX and the film making process have become so separated, the director often has no exposure to the process of VFX. After all, it’s not like building a film set where you can walk on the stage day after day and see it take shape. VFX often happens in a different country, and the director only sees a few select stages along the way.

This means that when the directors asks for a change, they don’t always know what they’re asking for. If the director walks on to set and says “yeah, I know I asked for a library, but what I’m actually thinking would work well is a bedroom. Can we change this to a bedroom?” they know just how much of that set is salvageable, and how much is going to be torn down and thrown away. They can see a tangible cost in terms of materials and time.

A lot of directors don’t know that in VFX. Is the change something as simple as loading in a prebuilt bedroom, or is it something much harder? (Hint: it’s something much harder). And, unlike on a sound stage, where the director would arrive at set the following morning to see the haggard, sleep-deprived faces of the set department who had worked through the night to change the set around glaring at him, with VFX, the director often won’t know what the human cost of their changes will be.

(A side note: sometimes, if the revision is large enough, the VFX studio will issue the production with a change order. This is basically something that says “So, you paid us to build a library. We built a library. Then you decided you wanted a bedroom. Now you need to pay us to build a bedroom.” This can also cause problems, as the director, without having a real library to touch and feel, doesn’t understand why a second virtual set costs more money. It’s hard to argue the value of something that – to many people – isn’t real because it only exists in a computer.

Also, this isn’t applicable to all directors. Some, like Peter Jackson, George Lucas, and James Cameron are very VFX-savvy, having owned their own VFX houses, while others, like Neill Blomkamp used to be VFX artists themselves.)

It’s hard to say how this ignorance of the biggest department on most films has come about. I suspect it’s a combination of the directors not being able to be a part of the process, and the VFX houses wanting to shield the director from the daily crazy that is VFX.

I would like this to change, but it will be tough. Ideally, the director would be embedded with a VFX studio for post so they could see the daily rhythm of visual effects, but the director is already spoken for by editorial, sound and music in that time. Besides, with multiple VFX studios in different countries working on the same film, which studio would the director go to?

Maybe over time, as more directors come of age in a time where VFX is as common on a film is as sound, things will start to change; directors and film crews will see us more as equal contributors to the film, and less as anonymous geeks in the basement.

I’d like that. I really would.

Just as long as we don’t have to give up our lightsabers.

*Okay, that last one isn’t really a job, but the others actually all are.

**Which leads to the big catch-22 of the film industry – how do I get a job in the industry without knowing someone, and how do I get to know someone in the industry without working in it? I have no idea, sorry.

The Grouse Grind

I may have mentioned this once or twice, but Vancouver locals are a little on the insane side when it comes to sports. Whether it’s doing the Tough Mudder – a 20km obstacle course with such fun challenges as electric shocks and tear gas – or cycling 200km from Whistler to Vancouver, or partaking in one of the weekly marathons that the city hosts, Vancouverites seem to spend most of their free time trying to find their limits, and then waving cheerfully to them as they blow right on past.

And nowhere is this better evidenced than on something called “The Grouse Grind”.

Grouse mountain is one of three mountains on the north shore of Vancouver. The Three Sisters, as they’re known, provide endless hours of playtime for the locals. In winter, we spend our evenings, weekends (and the occasional sick day) downhill skiing and snowboarding, cross-country skiing, or snow shoeing. In summer, we head to the mountains to hike and mountain bike, while the top of Grouse mountain is also host to kinda-cheesy-but-also-really-fun tourist activities that out-of-towners flock to, with lumberjack shows, bird of prey displays, and two resident grizzly bears.

There’s no public vehicle access to the top of Grouse mountain, so most people take the skychair, a 6 minute gondola ride to the top of the mountain.

That’s most people.

If, however, you like your exercise with a side of crazy, you can join the locals and do something called the Grouse Grind.

The Grind is a pleasant three kilometre hike that climbs the one kilometre vertical height of the mountain. It is known (quite rightly) as “Mother Nature’s Stairmaster”. It is three kilometres and almost three thousand steps of seemingly never-ending up. 

If you’ve ever wanted to know what it’s like to walk to the top of the One World Trade Centre  – twice – then this is the hike for you.

Doing it is a ridiculously popular past time here in Vancouver.

I managed to avoid it for the first three years I lived in Canada. The stairmaster had never been my favourite exercise, so I didn’t really see why I would trek up the side of a mountain when there’s a perfectly good gondola.

Then, I somehow ended up agreeing to climb a mountain in Alaska in July, something that will probably require a staggering amount of fitness. Since the last eight months of my life have consisted of sitting in a dark theatre watching dailies and snacking on candy from the reception desk, I needed a way to get in shape, fast.

Hello, Grouse Grind.

At the start of the climb, I passed a timing station. If you’re that kind of person (and most people in Vancouver are), you can buy a card containing a radio frequency chip which will time and log your climb. And because Vancouverites are not only annoyingly fit, but also annoyingly vocal about their annoying fitness, these times are then auto-published to the Leaderboard on the internet.

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The timer at the start of the trail. Nope.

 

On the day I went to hike the grind, the fastest time was 32 minutes, with most people clocking in around an hour. Some people had done it four times that day.

Yeah, I decided not to time my hike.

I started off feeling positive. After all, I’d done plenty of hiking, how hard could this be?

Mmm. That optimism didn’t last long, as the toll from trying to hike up 233 flights of stairs quickly became felt.

I started passing little signs stuck to the trees. They appeared every hundred meters or so, and seemed to be counting down the distance.

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I thought the “GG” stood for “Good Going”.

It does not.

It stands for “Grouse Grind”.

I am not a smart woman at times.

It wasn’t long before a group passed me on the trail. They were all decked out in proper hiking gear, with no bags, just water bottles tucked into a pouch at the back of their waist. They were obviously dedicated “grinders”; I didn’t feel too bad about them passing me.

Next to pass me was a group of university students chatting about school. I was impressed that they could both hike and carry on a conversation at the same time. I was having trouble just hiking and breathing.

Then a woman ran past me while carrying on a business conversation on her mobile phone. She didn’t even sound out of breath.

Being a considerate hiker, I pulled off the trail to let her pass (and take the opportunity to apologise to my heart and lungs). As I was doing that, another runner passed by – a guy in his late thirties carrying a toddler on his back.

Fine, Vancouver. I get it. Everyone is fitter than me. Stupid city with stupid fit people.

The Grouse Grind

The Grind: 2830 steps of up

 

Eventually I hit the quarter way mark. Yay. Perfect spot to sit down and not-die for a few minutes.

Unfortunately,  Grouse Mountain had other ideas.

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Mosquitos – Grouse Grind’s natural incentive to keep moving

 

Sigh. I struggled to my feet and pressed on upwards. By now, I was being passed by every other person on the trail, from four year olds, to sixty year olds. It was not at all demoralising.

A few years ago, Outside magazine listed The Grouse Grind as one of the ten most dangerous hikes in the world – a listing that caused a fair amount of derision here in Vancouver, with many locals pointing out that kids do it, as well as people in flip-flops and high heels. Although I think that says more about Vancouverites than it does the trail.

Still, the hike has claimed lives; there was an avalanche on the trail in ’99 that killed a man, and since then, there have been several deaths from heart attacks on the trail, but with over 3,000 doing it every day in summer, those statistics seem pretty small.

Hoping I wouldn’t add to the list of fatalities, I continued upwards, slowly putting one foot after another. Not that I had a choice – the Grind is one-way only, no down-hiking allowed.

Eventually I reached the halfway mark, a moment I decided to celebrate by trying to vomit up my lungs.

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This would be a very encouraging sign if it didn’t mean I still had half the trail to go

 

 

Fortunately, I wasn’t the only one feeling the strain. Around me, my fellow hikers now wore looks of grim determination, with many of them bent over double as they slogged their way uphill. There was no talking anymore; the only sounds on the trail were the tramp of our feet, and the rasping of our breath.

You know how most hikes have little plateaus where the trail levels out and you can catch your breath for a beat? Yeah, the Grind doesn’t believe in them. It’s just all up.

 

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A sign at the end of the trail. The signs were put up by Lululemon, a Vancouver-based exercise clothing store. The CEO likes to hold business meetings while doing the Grind. Because that’s normal.

 

Then it happened. I began to see light through the trees. This meant one of two things: either I was near the end of the grind, or I had collapsed from a heart attack and was going to the afterlife.

At this point, it was 50-50 either way.

On the off-chance I was still alive, I pushed forward, trying to dredge up one or two final molecules of energy to get to the top. Finally! I burst through the thick tree growth and out into the open mountain top of Grouse Mountain.

Hallelujah, I had actually made it.

Cruelly, the Grind timer sits a good fifty meters away from the end of the hike, meaning that those timing their climb have to walk the extra distance to have their hike recorded. Fortunately, since I wasn’t doing that, I decided to just collapse on the ground and gasp for breath.

Eventually I made my way up to the chalet where a bar, a grind-themed sporting goods store, and the gondola back down to Vancouver awaited.

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This is the point where I’m supposed to tell you all about the pride and sense of achievement I felt. Yeah, I mostly just felt exhausted. And sweaty.

But… I could see why the grind is so popular. It’s an extreme work out, and incredibly accessible. It’s the sort of exercise you could do once a week and get in pretty good shape. Besides, why go to the gym when there’s a free stairmaster on your doorstep?*

So, because everyone in Vancouver is so proud of their GG stats, here are some to take away with you:

The record for the fastest climb is 25 minutes for men, and 30:52 minutes for women. The record number of climbs in a single day is sixteen, or 45,280 steps. Overall, the most grinds ever done by the same person is 2668 climbs – although, by the time you read this, that number will probably have increased.

In the end, my time wasn’t too bad. The average time to hike the grind is an hour and thirty minutes. I snuck in under that at an hour and twenty. Hopefully, I can get that down to an hour before I head to Alaska in a few weeks.

And then never do it again.

 

*Although, the gym doesn’t have mosquitoes, so that is kind of a bonus.

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