Archive for the ‘outdoors’ Tag

The Meanest 33 Miles of History: Part II

We continued on the second day, as the trail wended its way further north through coastal rainforest. We began to see the occasional artifact, left over from the gold rush, rusting by the side of the trail.

Chilkoot Trail tram boiler

The boiler from an old tram line. Those who could afford it, could have their ton of goods delivered to the summit.

We stopped for the night at Sheep Camp. This was the old prospector’s base as they hauled their goods over the pass; to carry one ton of goods, they made (on average) forty trips, carrying a fifty pound (22kg) pack each time.

I was planning on making one trip, carrying a 16kg pack. Not that I was going to let that stop me from complaining about how heavy my bag was. 

In the early evening, a US Park Ranger came to the camp and talked us through what to expect on our trail summit day.

“You will be cold. You will be wet. You will be miserable. There are many river crossings, and your socks will be soaked by the time you finish tomorrow. And to make things worse, your camp tomorrow night, Happy Camp, is cold, exposed, and doesn’t have a stove in the warming hut. It’s only called Happy Camp because you’ll be happy you get to stop hiking.”

US Park Rangers really know how to lift your spirits.

She continued with more good news. “The area past the summit is prone to rock falls in the afternoon. I recommend you leave by 6am to get past that section before lunch.”

Oh, good.

So, the following morning, we awoke at the irritatingly early hour of lets-not-get-killed-in-a-rock-slide-o’clock, packed up our tent, and hit the trail.

The hike started out with the aptly named “Long Hill”. Here the ground rose slowly but steadily, finally leaving behind the boreal forest (and its many, many mosquitoes) and entering alpine tundra.

Chilkoot trail river crossing on Long Hill

The US Park Ranger wasn’t kidding about the river crossings

No longer a well-worn path through the forest, the way forward was picked out with orange poles, and the silhouette of hikers cairns appearing through the fog. Even though it was mid-summer, stretches of snow still covered the route. We made our way forward with care, the snow icy and slick from the daily freezing and thawing cycles.

Chilkoot trail hiker's cairns showing the route

Cairns showing the route through the rocks

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Across the snow

Eventually, we reached the Golden Scales. This marked the end of Long Hill, and the start of the Golden Stairs,* the most treacherous and difficult part of the trail.

Here, the North-West Mounted Police weighed the goods of every prospector heading to the Klondike, and anyone with less than the required ton was turned back. Some failed prospectors, not really wanting to carry almost-but-not-quite-a-ton of goods back down the mountain they had just carried them up, abandoned them at the scales.

These days, the area is littered with artefacts from the gold rush. And, oddly, bones. Hopefully horse bones, but I’m not an expert.

Pick axe on the Chilkoot Trail

Abandoned pickaxe on the Chilkoot trail

This was also the site of one of the deadliest accidents on the Chilkoot. On Palm Sunday, 1898, several avalanches roared down the pass, killing between sixty-five and eighty people. All trips over the pass were cancelled for the next three days as prospectors, packers, and Mounties frantically dug to recover, at first, survivors, and then bodies.

There is a cemetery in Dyea where those victims whose family couldn’t be found, or those whose family couldn’t afford to ship the bodies home, are buried. It’s haunting to walk through and see every grave with the same date of death: April 3rd, 1898.

I began the Stairs with some trepidation. Unlike most hikes that like to spread their climb out over the entire length, the Chilkoot prefers to cram it all into one short half kilometre. The trail suddenly becomes almost vertical as it climbs up and over a rock field, filled with loose scree and boulders that you have to clamber up on all fours. It’s like an easy rock climb. Except, with no rope. On wet, slippery rocks. That move and occasionally like to fall half a kilometre down the cliff below you.

I began slowly making my way up, moving cautiously, making sure of my footing before shifting my weight. Mostly, I focussed on the few metres right in front of me, but at one point, apparently deciding to taunt gravity, I looked up to where the rocks vanished into the mist above. Unfortunately, this involved tilting my head back and straightening my back, pulling my centre of gravity backwards. Immediately, I felt my heavy backpack begin to pull me off the mountain. I threw myself forward, suddenly very fond of the boulder in front of me.

My boyfriend enjoyed this part of the hike. Because apparently my boyfriend is part mountain-goat.

The Stairs – because being steep and dangerous isn’t enough – also has two false summits, sections where you crest the rise thinking you’re done, only to see more rise ahead of you.

Then, finally it happened. The fluorescent orange hiking poles that the US Park Rangers use to mark the trail changed to silver poles with an orange flag – the markers used by Parks Canada. We were in Canada. The summit was mere metres ahead.

Thank god. We were back in the land of free health care.

Chilkoot trail summit

Arriving at the summit pass, rocking the dorkiest hat ever.

We stopped at the summit for a quick bite to eat before pushing onwards. We’d been hiking for five hours, and still had another three to cover before reaching camp.

Hiking down one snow-covered slope, too lazy to get my hiking poles off my backpack, I slipped and fell on my butt. I reached out a hand to stop myself from sliding to the bottom of the hill on the slick snow before deciding eh, what the heck and just went with it.

At the base of the hill, I picked myself up with nothing more than a wet behind, checked no one had seen my unique approach to descending, and continued on to Happy Camp.

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My boyfriend, taking the boring “walk carefully” style of descending

Happy Camp was everything the Park Ranger had said it would be, but I didn’t care. I was cold, wet, and my feet were definitely not loving anything in life any more. I staggered into the warming hut, kicked my boots off, and made dinner.

Rehydrated pasta never tasted so good.

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Hiking across alpine tundra in the fog

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Refilling our water bottles by Lake Lindeman

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Nearing Bennett Lake

From Happy Camp, we continued on to Bennett Lake, the end of the Chilkoot trail. Here, those prospectors who had made it over the pass spent the remainder of the winter building boats** while they waited for the ice to thaw. Once spring arrived, over seven thousand boats launched from Lindemann and Bennett Lakes, ready to undertake the remaining 800km trip to the Yukon by river.

But… if the prospectors thought it would be all plain sailing from there, they were wrong.  Between them and the Klondike goldfields lay several incredibly dangerous rapids. And, given that most of the prospectors were farmers, clerks, and factory workers, boat building and sailing were not exactly their strong points.

Several hundred people drowned before the North-West Mounted Police decided fine, they should probably do something about this as well, and introduced a number of safety rules, including vetting the boats before they could travel, and only allowing skilled captains to take boats through some of the most dangerous rapids. They also wrote a number on each boat, and carefully recorded the list of passengers in each, in order to more easily notify the next of kin if the boat sank.

Eventually, after almost a year of travel, the prospectors found themselves at Dawson City, ready to make their fortune from the rivers running with gold… only to find, by now, all of the good claims had been staked, and many of the reports of big strikes had been exaggerated.

The Klondike gold rush was over.

As news made its way back to Skagway, Bennett Lake and Dyea, prospectors abandoned the new towns overnight.

Most of those that reached Dawson City never made a penny from gold mining. On average, they had spent $1000 – a small fortune in those days – on the trip, only to turn around and head straight back home.

But even though the gold rush only lasted two years, it changed the face of the north forever. It opened up routes into the interior, and painted Alaska and the Yukon as the land of daring and adventure, where the brave go to seek their fortune.

We reached Bennett Lake in the evening of our own adventure. Tired, footsore, and hungry, we lit a fire in the warming hut and watched the calm waters of the lake as the mid summer sun considered setting.*** It was hard to imagine this quiet, remote place as a bustling town, complete with saloons, hotels, and a population in the thousands.

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Evening at Bennett Lake

Today, Bennett Lake is not connected to any road system – this is, after all, still the wild, untamed North. The White Pass train from Skagway comes through on some days, but not all, which left us with the interesting question: how do we get home from here?

Fortunately, being still the wild, untamed, mostly-roadless-North, they’re pretty used to getting people out into the middle of nowhere and back again: they use float planes.

As I stepped onto the pontoon of the plane, ready to say goodbye to the Chilkoot trail, I understood that call of the wild that had brought so many people north.

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Best way to end a hike. Ever.

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Bennett Lake from the air, looking back at the mountains we’d come through

*Prospectors may not have been terribly imaginative when it came to naming things.

**And completely deforesting the surrounding area. By the end of the gold rush, there were no trees left for kilometres around Bennett Lake. As these are northern, slow-growing trees, it’ll take approximately another hundred years for all the forest to grow back. Hiking through the area, the soil suddenly becomes sand, and you see first hand the results of deforestation on an environment.

*** It ultimately decided against it.

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.

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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