As we headed to our tent for rest, we made the decision to wake up at 3:30am. This should give us plenty of time to wake up, get breakfast, pack up camp and hit the trail by 5am. Bedtime was around 9pm.
I never really slept that night. It wasn’t the journey ahead that was bothering me, but for some reason my brain would not shut off. I thought about my studio, my family and friends, books I was reading at home, music, food… you name it and it was on my mind. I tossed and turned the whole night, mostly anxious for the hours to tick by so I could get up again and get going. There was a lot of excitement racing through my brain during those 6 1/2 hours of “rest.“
At 3:24am we were awake. Wide eyed and ready to go. The morning was very quiet as the only other people awake were our new trail friends, Bill and Ginger. We had come to adore them and look forward to seeing them at our camps each night. Great conversationalists and outstanding hikers, they were our inspiration.
First order of business was a hearty breakfast of instant oatmeal, protein powder, and some GU. (YUM! DELISH! actually… not really. But the oatmeal was good!) Then it was off to pack up camp, fill water bottles, clean dishes and make sure our packs were ready to roll. By this time others in the camp were starting to stir. I got more than a few comments about the early rising. But we had been watching the weather and we knew our beautiful sun was not going to hang on for long. It was important to us to try and summit before the bad weather hit. That was the goal anyway.
My camera hung on the back of my pack with a carabiner. Whenever I wanted to take pictures it became a bit of a production to get the camera off my pack and into my hands, this took extra time that, normally, was not a big deal. But this early morning we were watching our time, as well as the weather! 9 mile hike began with 3.3 miles ascending to the pass and the waterfalls, boulders, and artifacts along the way were distractions I couldn’t stop photographing! The camera was pulled out quite a bit, and time ticked by as I tried so hard to capture all that I was seeing that early morning.
Unmarked graves were along the trail, particularly the closer you got to the pass.
There was a LOT of boulder hopping and rock scrambling this morning.
About 40% of the trail on this day was on snow. The snow was very soft as it was melting, this made post-holing quite the reality. I post-holed about 3 times, 2 were particularly bad. Having hiking poles on the snow was a huge help as the long ascent up the mountain was slow, slick, and unsteady.
This was a welcome site and a chance to sit and eat a quick bite for energy before the Golden Staircase. This area was where Canada’s Northwest Mounted Police set up scales to weight the goods of the miners. No one was permitted up the staircase and into the pass (into Canada) unless their outfit weighed in at one ton (2,000lbs). This area was absolutely littered with artifacts that were left behind.
The weather was coming in fast by this time. It was still early in the morning and there was not another soul in sight. The clouds were creeping down the Chilkoot Pass at a steady rate and I knew that any window of high clouds for the summit had passed. As we looked up at the pass and the boulder field we were to ascend, I began to remember the words of the ranger at the station back in Skagway;
“People are calling it the Vertical Ladder right now. It’s really nothing like a staircase on the boulder field.“
The miners of the late 19th century climbed this pass in the wintertime. They made 40 trips up the mountain with 50lb packs on their backs. Stairs were carved out of the snow and the miners climbed the stairs into Canada. But today, there were no stairs. There was just a vertical climb on boulders into Canada.
If you look closely at this image, you can see the red gates that mark the right side of the pass. It was boulder scrambling the whole way up, the snow in the middle was much to soft and unsteady to risk trying to climb.
About 1/3 of the way up I stopped to grab a shot of my view. I knew I’d regret it if I didn’t take this shot. Andrea later told me that watching me angle for the shot and balance on the boulders had her certain I was going to fall. But I didn’t, and as I told her… I had faith she’d catch me if I did fall. Her response was just to give me a look that read; “yeah… right…”
Once we got over the boulders we were at what is called the False Summit. (or, as I was fond of shouting out randomly during the climb; “FALSE HOPE!!”) At False Summit we continued on snow. At first the snow was a welcome relief from the boulder climb. But the low hanging clouds, cold wind, rain, low visibility, slipping, sliding, and trying to avoid post-holing to the point of breaking an ankle got really old, really fast.
At the summit there was not much celebrating. We still had about 5 more miles to go before we could break for camp. We were still in avalanche areas and stopping was not wise. After a quick rest in the warming cabin (not that warm), change into dryer clothes, and a celebratory snack of tuna and crackers I packed for Summit Day, it was time to head out again. The first clear view on the Canada side of Chilkoot was Crater Lake. Cold, lonely, desolate and massive. Like the rest of the pass, this lake made me feel small and insignificant. It reminded me of a quote from a miner in regards to seeing the Chilkoot Pass during the gold rush; “…you feel your insignificance as an atom in this universe. No time for dreaming… as dreams are not made here.“
That about summed up my feelings exactly.
Our lone picture at the summit of the pass before heading on.
The longer we hiked, the higher the clouds lifted. The wind was blowing about 50kph (30mph) and we trekked on. The ground was uneven, the rocks were everywhere, snow patches had me cursing, but the views were steadily becoming more breathtaking.
Finally we made it to Happy Camp. We were the second group to make it in (behind our hiking heroes, Bill and Ginger!) and grateful to see level platforms on the edge of the mountain for our tent.
Happy Camp is named so ironically. Normally the weather is terrible in this valley and a camp site on the edge of the mountain meant terrible winds and rains that sweep through the area. We did have the wind, but the clouds had lifted and the views were outstanding. Everywhere I looked I was surrounded by rugged beauty. Words cannot describe the feeling of being at Happy Camp. It was an inspiring end to a day that will turn out to be my most cherished on the trail.
The view from the tent.
This night’s rest was the best I’d had in decades!