In the summer of 1897, news of the Klondike gold strike turned the intermittent trickle of hardy prospectors into an uncontrollable flood of fortune seekers. More than 30,000 men, women, and children scaled the daunting Golden Stairs during the Klondike Gold Rush hauling one ton of supplies to sustain them for a year. The hardship and drama is very much unimaginable by today’s standards.
Today: the queen’s stage, or hors catégorie, as the French would say. From Sheep Camp to Happy Camp in about 8 miles and almost 3000 feet of climbing.
Another crisp morning. In the summer the ranger will kick you out of camp at 6 in the morning, because of avalanche danger. Not so today. The snow from last winter is gone, the new accumulation is harmless, and most importantly, there is no ranger. I am slowly getting into a rhythm. It takes me an hour in the morning to stow all my belongings into my backpack and get ready. Although it’s day 3 and I have already consumed some food, there is still not enough room for all of my stuff inside the backpack. So I am stuffing socks in my pockets, the camera bag houses the gas, waterbottle, sleeping pad, and raingear go on the outside of the backpack. I am looking like a traveling salesman, but it works. I also think, all the dangling makes enough noise to keep the bears away.
I make it above the treeline. It is pretty straightforward to follow the trail. Shortly before the Scales I run into snow. Luckily I see the footprints of Sam and his dog. The scales were used to weigh once more the gear of the miners. Packers would charge by the pound. At some point there was also a tramway heading up Chilkoot Pass. Until a couple of years ago a wooden tower from the tramway was still standing nearby. Now the towers have been reduced to a pile of rotting beams. Rusty cables on the ground are great trail markers. A couple more inches of snow and the cables will disappear. Around the pass turns out to be the most challenging section of the trail this time of the year. Big granite boulders are covered with a couple inches of snow. It is impossible to see where the rock ends and where the hole begins. I don’t want to twist my ankles here.
After a number of false summits I reach the top of Chilkoot Pass. It is winter up here. Most artifacts are hidden beneath the snow, except for some massive iron wheels. The Golden Stairs… Go look up the historic images of this place with a thousand miners crawling up the pass. Like an ant hill, simply amazing. I am sitting by myself at the same place almost 120 years later. Humbling.
I spend some time in the emergency shelter, which would be a great place to spend the night. No wood stove, no wood to burn, but a nice shelter. This would be an amazing place to watch the Northern lights! It’s too early to call it a day, and it is easier to stay warm walking than sitting around in the shelter. Who knows what the weather will bring tomorrow? So, I keep going, descending to Crater Lake. What a sight. Glassy surface! How often does this happen? Frozen waterfalls and creeks make for an interesting descent.
Passing a few piles lumber (Stone Crib), I finally make it to Happy Camp, another fine warming hut. “Happy to see you!”
I don’ t expect any other visitors, so I make myself comfortable attempting to dry out socks, boots and whatnot. There is a big poster on the wall showing Happy Camp during the Gold Rush. What a miserable place it must have been compared to today. Still, the miners called it Happy Camp for a reason: They had made it over the pass! In the flickering light of a candle they were served coffee, stale bread with some butter and a piece of canned beef – happiness.
Well, it’s freeze-dried Pad Thai and the last can of beer for me tonight and I call it a day.
At 3 AM in the morning I hear voices outside, flash lights flickering across the room. Two ladies and a dog made it across the pass, coming from I have no clue where. They have been hiking for 12 hours straight and are to put it mildly out of their mind happy to have found this place in the last glimmer of their fading head lights. An hour later it’s all quiet again. Everybody is settled in for the night.
This time for good. When I leave the cabin in the morning the two night walkers are stlll sound asleep. Only their company, Nugget, is growling at me.
Good bye Happy Camp!
“Look, when do the really interesting things happen? Not when you’ve brushed your teeth and put on your pyjamas and are cozy in bed. They happen when you are cold and uncomfortable and hungry and don’t have a roof over your head for the night.”