Holiday on the Icy Golden Hell-Staircase

Thousands of Gold Rush prospectors climbed the Chilkoot, and many lost their lives. In the grand tradition of Dark Tourism, I decided to join the 2,500 people who now hike it for fun every summer.

Rhiannon Russell is a freelance journalist based in Toronto. She’s written for The...

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A rumbling in the mountains was the first warning. It had snowed heavily overnight, following weeks of storms that kept hundreds of prospectors holed up at Sheep Camp, in coastal Alaskan forest. Warm winds blew in that Palm Sunday, April 3, 1898, and some of the stampeders hit the trail. They were headed to the gold fields in Dawson City, Yukon, and were eager to get moving again—they had hundreds of kilometres yet to go. The Tlingit, the local Indigenous people, who occasionally packed goods for the white men, refused to go up into the mountains that day. They knew the risk.

When two snow slides came tumbling down the valley, people began to flee, clinging to a rope as they moved single-file down the icy slope. At noon, an avalanche came with a roar, burying everything in its path with thirty feet of snow.

“The scene was a weird and terrible one,” writes Pierre Berton in his book The Klondike Fever: The Life and Death of the Last Great Gold Rush. “Small air holes sometimes appeared in the snow to mark the spot where a man or woman had been buried, and somewhere beneath them, the searchers could hear the muffled cries of the victims… Relatives above called out their last good-byes to those entombed below.” Many people were saved, pulled from the depths by their fellow stampeders, but approximately 70 died. “As the hours wore on, those who were not rescued at once slowly became anesthetized by the carbon dioxide given off by their own breathing; they began to feel drowsy, and drifted off into a dreamless sleep from which few awoke,” writes Berton. It was the deadliest avalanche to hit the Chilkoot Trail during the Klondike Gold Rush. The bodies were dug up in the following days, many of them frozen in running position. They were moved to a makeshift morgue—a tent—at Sheep Camp, and later buried in a hollow not far from the site of the avalanche. By summertime, though, the snow had melted, and those making a belated trip through the mountains came upon a lake full of floating corpses.

Eventually, the bodies were moved down to sea level, and buried in Dyea, Alaska, an inlet off the coast. In the gold rush days, Dyea was a bustling hub, packed with tents, log cabins, and false-fronted hotels, but today it is a ghost town. Wooden tombstones are scattered in a clearing in dense, mosquito-infested woods, the spindly-branched trees straight out of The Blair Witch Project.

The Chilkoot trailhead is less than one kilometre away. It was here that thousands began what would be the most challenging stretch of their journey to the Klondike: a months-long trek through forest and mountains to Lake Bennett in what is, today, northern British Columbia. On Bennett’s shores, they built boats and sailed some 800 kilometres down the Yukon River to Dawson City.

Today, at this trailhead, 2,500 people from all over the world begin the same hike every summer, trading in horses, crates, bulky clothing and thin leather boots for modern wonders like freeze-dried food, Gore-Tex, merino wool, and lightweight stoves.

I hiked the Chilkoot this past summer. My first day on the trail, I felt like I was dying. I had left from Dyea that morning with four friends. We felt fresh and eager, stepping around steaming piles of bear scat as we gossiped about guys and sang pop songs and shouted to scare away the animals. It was my first backpacking trip. We’d be hiking the trail’s 53 kilometres in four days, with 20 kilometres slated for day one. My pack was a monstrosity. For the first few hours, I felt like Cheryl Strayed, a badass hiker chick. But then I started to hurt. My shoulders ached. My back was sore. And then my stomach started to turn. At the 12-kilometre mark, I had to rush into the trees to shit in a hole I’d hastily dug in the moss. I was inexplicably nauseous, dizzy. (I hadn’t drunk any river water yet, so giardia wasn’t the culprit.)

When we finally made it to Sheep Camp that night, I threw up in the rickety outhouse then feebly sipped blue Gatorade while my entire body broke out in hives, red bumps creeping across my arms, stomach, and legs. I seriously doubted whether I could last three more days. When we’d picked up our permits in Skagway, Alaska, the park ranger had warned us that a helicopter evacuation, in the event of illness or injury, would cost $28,000 U.S. Implicit in her message: Unless you’re actually dying, you better hike out. Curled up in my sleeping bag that night, feeling pitiful, I wrote in my journal: Why did I want to do this?

In the summer of 1896, three prospectors struck gold on Rabbit Creek, a tributary of the Klondike River. When, nearly a year later, two ships piled with gold sailed into two American port cities—the Excelsior in San Francisco and the Portland in Seattle—it was full-blown, nation-wide Klondike fever. “Gold! Gold! Gold! Gold! Stacks of Yellow Metal!” trumpeted Seattle’s Post-Intelligencer, with a claim that the Portland carried more than a ton of solid gold. (In fact, it carried more than two tons.) “Reports From the Far-Away Land Where the Earth Seems Lined with Gold” was the headline in San Francisco’s The Examiner.

The United States was deep in a recession at the time, and millions were unemployed. News of a gold strike invigorated people, gave them hope—no matter that these riches were thousands of kilometres away, in a region few knew much about. “Suffering seems inevitable,” one newspaper predicted. Men and women piled onto steamers that sailed up the coast, disembarking in Skagway or Dyea. (Others, in smaller numbers, took an overland route, heading northwest from Edmonton. Another option, the most expensive, was to sail further north into Alaska, then up the Yukon River.) Most were clueless about what they’d be up against. One man brought two Irish setters and a lawn tennis set. Another brought a piano.

At the ports, it was utter chaos. Towns were hastily assembled in both Skagway and Dyea. The harbours were packed, and when ships couldn’t make it to shore, horses and dogs were dropped overboard to swim for land. At Dyea, supplies were tossed into massive heaps on the beach. “With people wrangling and fighting over freight, with confusion, great avalanches booming down the mountain sides all about us, and absolutely no one able to give us anything but abuse, my first view of Dyea was accompanied by one long and two thousand short blasts of profanity,” said the American playwright Wilson Mizner, who arrived in December 1897.

There were two routes through the mountains: the Chilkoot, which had been used for centuries by the Tlingit, and the White Pass. The latter earned the nickname the Dead Horse Trail, for the bodies of 3,000 pack animals that littered the forest. The Chilkoot featured a tougher, steeper climb, but it was shorter and cheaper—people carried their own goods—so it saw greater traffic. “Whichever way you go, you will wish you had gone the other,” said a man who had tried both.

The Chilkoot’s infamous climb was the Golden Stairs, 1,500 steps the prospectors carved out of ice up the mountain. The most iconic image from the Klondike Gold Rush shows an unending line of bodies, stark against the snow, toiling up the Chilkoot Pass. “It was like climbing an icy staircase to hell,” said stampeder Ed Lung. Berton described the scene as such: “Up the golden stairs they went, the men from the farms and the offices, climbing into the heavens, struggling to maintain the balance of the weight upon their shoulders, occasionally sinking to their hands and knees but always rising up again, sometimes breaking down in near-collapse, sometimes weeping in rage and frustration, yet always striving higher and higher, their faces black with strain, their breath hissing between their gritted teeth, unable to curse for want of wind yet unwilling to pause for respite, clambering upward from step to step, hour after hour, as if the mountain peaks themselves were made of solid gold.”

Because of the area’s remoteness, the Canadian government ordered that each person must carry a year’s worth of supplies—in total, about 2,000 pounds, including 400 pounds of flour, 150 pounds of bacon, 125 pounds of beans, 75 pounds of dried fruit, 25 pounds of sugar, 25 pounds of dried potatoes, and 10 pounds of coffee, as well as stoves and sleds, knives and blankets, buckets and frying pans, heavy Mackinaw coats and long underwear. The journey took months; the Golden Stairs were too steep for horses, so the stampeders had to make up to 40 trips up the pass, goods piled high on their backs.

Most didn’t make it. Over 100,000 people ventured north, but only 30,000 arrived in Dawson, 22,000 of them via the Chilkoot. Many turned back, discouraged by the terrible hardship. Others died. “I have roughed it for the past fifteen years in Siberia, in Borneo and in Chinese Tartary, but I can safely describe that climb over the Chilkoot as the severest physical experience of my life,” said the explorer Harry de Windt, in 1896. Pain and exhaustion weren’t the only tribulations: people suffered snow blindness, pneumonia, spinal meningitis epidemics, and some committed suicide. “After wearing a pair of socks a few weeks in those high, laced boots so popular then, a man could take them off and hardly recognize what he found at the end of his legs,” writes Archie Satterfield in his book Chilkoot Pass: The Most Famous Trail in the North. “If he was lucky, he would find a pair of awful-smelling feet; if unlucky, he would find them infected, swollen and rotting.”

For a whole day, a man lay on the trail with a broken leg, moaning and pleading for help. Hundreds passed by, not so much as turning their heads in his direction. “It was as if each was pulled by invisible strings from whose insistent tug he could not free himself,” writes Berton in The Klondike Fever. “The worst hardships, the most racking personal tragedies often failed to dampen the fanaticism which impelled each one.”

We reached the snowy base of the Golden Stairs on day two. Rangers advise leaving camp early in the morning, because the risk of avalanche rises with the temperature. We’d woken up at 4:30 a.m. My stomach seemed to have settled overnight—I’d eaten some oatmeal for breakfast and managed to keep it down—but my back and shoulders ached, my quads burned. We’d been climbing up, up, up for the past four hours, past the tree line and across the river, until it was just us, mountains, and sky. I’d pored over photos taken at this exact spot 118 years ago, and it looked just as it did then, though today, the imposing mass of grey boulders was bare of snow.

Climbing them was like playing a delicate game of Twister: step with my right foot, place my left hand down for balance, step with my left foot, find a stable hold with my right hand. I started to almost enjoy the methodical movements, the singularity of thought they required. With my body tilted forward to meet the mountain, the weight of my pack was more bearable. A couple from Seattle was clambering up at the same time we were, and they were annoyingly chatty, peppering us with questions and cracking corny jokes. I was in no mood to talk to anyone. About halfway up, breathing deeply, I turned around and looked out over the landscape: rocky mountains dappled with mossy greens, patches of snow, and blue peaks off in the distance. Then I stared up at the grey wall still towering over me. I felt panicky; my mind started to tally up how much further we had to go. From the summit, six more kilometres until we reached camp, plus two more days of painful, achy movement with this completely inhibitive pack. I started to cry, quietly and quickly.

My friends reached the summit before I did. Crater Lake, and its impossibly deep blue, welcomed us to Canada—at the top of the pass lies the international border. We were now in British Columbia. About 15 other hikers had gathered at the top, taking photos. The sun came out and blinded us as it reflected off the snow. We had each packed a beer—a can of Chilkoot by Yukon Brewing—to celebrate reaching the summit. From here, most of our mileage would be downhill. We stuck the cans in the snow to chill before cracking them open. At the base of the mountain, we had been sweaty in T-shirts and shorts, but here, we quickly pulled on fleece and windbreakers. The girls were chatty, feeling victorious, but I was quiet, negative thoughts still swirling around inside my head. I climbed up a rocky slope to a Parks Canada cabin, where you could write a postcard to yourself and it would be mailed to you in a year. It was part of an art project running that summer. I wrote what was, in hindsight, a very cheesy pep talk, but at the time, I needed it. Seizing on a quote I’d seen on a placard when driving through the Rockies last year, I jotted it down: “There are beautiful, beautiful mountains everywhere, the sun is warm, I’m with friends, and right now life is good.” I was desperate to make myself appreciate this moment, this hike, for what it was.

“As mortal finite beings, as we shall live so we shall die,” writes Dr. Philip Stone, in a 2006 research paper A Dark Tourism Spectrum: Towards a Typology of Death and Macabre Related Tourist Sites, Attractions and Exhibitions. “It is this very premise of the human condition that lies at the crux of the dark tourism concept. It could be argued that we have always held a fascination with death, whether our own or others, through a combination of respect and reverence or morbid curiosity and superstition.”

Stone heads the Institute for Dark Tourism Research, based at the University of Central Lancashire in England, and, as such, has become one of the world’s leading experts in dark tourism, the act of travelling to places associated with death, suffering, and tragedy. These include sites of war, natural disaster, and genocide. The term was coined in 1996, by John Lennon and Malcolm Foley in their book, Dark Tourism: The Attraction of Death and Disaster. But the concept dates back to ancient civilization—the Colosseum and its gladiators could be considered one of the first dark tourism sites. Some of the most famous locations today are where truly evil acts took place: Auschwitz, the Killing Fields in Cambodia, Rwanda.

Not all sites have the same level of “darkness.” William F.S. Miles, a professor at Northeastern University in Boston, has suggested that there is a “dark-darker tourism paradigm,” and that an important distinction exists between sites of death and suffering and sites associated with death and suffering. For instance, Auschwitz is “darker” than the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. Generally, cemeteries and monuments dedicated to tragic historical events are considered “lighter.” Commercialization plays a role in this spectrum positioning—namely, the presence of a gift shop or cafeteria. For instance, Ground Zero has a gift shop, as does the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, which also houses a bistro. Compare that to Auschwitz, where crackers and coffee can be purchased in the visitors’ centre, but one must leave the grounds to have a meal, writes Laurie Beth Clark in the 2014 book Death Tourism: Disaster Sites as Recreational Landscape.

On this spectrum, the Chilkoot would be considered a “lighter” site, comparable to a museum or cemetery. Indeed, it has been called the world’s longest museum due to the artifacts scattered along the trail: a steel boat frame, boot soles, rusty chains, and other metal bits and pieces that have disintegrated so much they’re no longer identifiable. It is a historical location, one that witnessed death and significant struggle. But neither the trail nor the Klondike Gold Rush as a whole is uniquely associated with death. Most people today don’t visit the trail to pay respects to the dead, but rather for the challenge of a strenuous mountain hike that is central to the Yukon’s history and identity. It provides, literally, a glimpse into the past.

Stone has said that our interest in dark tourism sites has to do with “learning about history, learning about the past, mediating with yourself, looking at your own mortality, because the dead often look back at us. And what we see is ourselves, our families…”

In 2010, a Canadian reality show called La ruée vers l’or (“The Gold Rush”) was filmed on the Chilkoot Trail. The premise was that ten contestants would travel the route just as the prospectors did in 1898. They wore period outfits, carried 500 pounds’ worth of goods, ate corned beef and rice, and foraged for plants—no newfangled instant oatmeal or protein bars allowed. (For safety, they were allowed to bring bear spray and avalanche gear.) Things went horribly wrong when several contestants inadvertently ate a poisonous plant and became deathly ill. Luckily, a park ranger came upon them, and they were taken to hospital in a helicopter. They all survived, and returned to the trail to finish filming the show.

Re-enactment at dark tourism sites is not uncommon. At the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum, “an immersive installation uses flashing lights to recreate the moment of the blast and represents victims using mannequins with melting flesh,” writes Laurie Beth Clark, while at South Korea’s Seodaemun Prison History Hall, “visitors walk down a hallway listening to soundtracks of prisoners screaming from behind closed doors, crawl inside an inhumanely small isolation cell and sit in a chair in front of a mannequin jury whose verdict causes the visitor’s chair to drop beneath them.”

Most people don’t hike the Chilkoot Trail in 19th-century garb. But there are many rules in place to keep the wilderness in comparable condition. Hikers must book in advance—often months before; only 50 people are allowed onto the trail each day, and eight of these spots are for walk-ons—and purchase a permit. All garbage must be carried out, and camping is only allowed at the designated sites. Each one has an outhouse. To avoid conflict with bears, fragrant items—food, sunscreen, fuel—have to be placed in lockers at each campsite, and meals must be eaten in the small wooden cook shack. There’s no cell service. The only source of water along the route is the river. For hours at a time during our days on the trail, we’d see no one else at all. When I shit in the woods, I had to gingerly place the used toilet paper into a Ziploc bag and stuff it into my pack. Not everyone cares to have the real experience, though. Some companies offer packers. One charges $1,500 for the ultimate luxury hike: someone who’ll carry your stuff, along with gourmet foods like garlic bread, smoked salmon, steak, and wine.

Two days in, I understood the desire for some comforts. Everything hurt—chafing from my pack rubbed the skin off my shoulders, I pulled a muscle in my groin that made me wince every time I took an uphill step, my legs were sunburned, my feet blistered, and my mind continued to tumble into dark, discouraging places. Accordingly, I had a meltdown a few hours after we summited. We were crossing a creek—one of many—and I slipped on a rock and fell in. The water was shallow and I wasn’t hurt, but I had hit breaking point. This time, the tears were not discreet; I sobbed. “I’m not really having fun!” It was almost a relief to say it out loud. My friends sat down around me, gave me a pep talk. The landscape was rocky, peppered with patches of slippery snow and wildflowers and alpine lakes the colour of the Mediterranean.

I felt better after, in the way you always do after a good cry. It was a couple more hours of slogging until we reached Happy Camp—“the happiest of camps!” I wrote in my journal that night. A fellow hiker told us we looked “fresh,” and we laughed because we felt anything but. From then on, we called ourselves Team Fresh. At Happy Camp, we pitched our tents on wooden platforms overlooking the river and boiled water to pour into our packets of freeze-dried dinner. I had chicken and rice and, at the end of a long, hard day, it was the best food I’d ever tasted. That night, we brushed our teeth beside the river as we had the night before, in Alaska. Just as we were about to spit into the current, we remembered that the rules on the Canadian side of the trail were different—you had to use the campsite’s wastewater pit. So we ran up the hill in our flip-flops, mouths full of toothpaste, laughing hysterically.

I shared a tent with my friend, Coralie, and every night, she and I would chat before we drifted off to sleep, a debriefing of sorts about the day and how it had gone. I remember telling her I was disappointed I wasn’t enjoying myself. I like hiking up mountains and I like camping, so what was the problem? (The likely answer: my too-heavy pack.) Coralie, an eternal optimist, told me it was okay to struggle and it was okay to acknowledge that I was fairly miserable. I didn’t want to be consumed by negativity, but I didn’t want to sugarcoat my feelings either. Often people talk about long hikes as life-changing, hyper-positive, spiritual journeys, but it doesn’t mean my experience was wrong, or any less valid, because it deviated from that. I like to think my struggle made it more real.

The gold rush, fervent but brief, lasted about two years. Traffic along the trail slowed when the White Pass & Yukon Route railway was built from Skagway to Bennett in 1899, and, eventually, to Whitehorse. Heartbreakingly, for many who persevered and made it to Dawson, most of the gold was already claimed by the time they arrived. “In that brief period, thousands of men [and women] lived a lifetime,” Pierre Berton writes in The Klondike Quest: A Photographic Essay 1897-1899. “In many ways the great quest was an approximation of life itself, for in its various stages it mirrored the naïveté of childhood, the enthusiasm of youth, the disillusionment of middle age, and the wisdom of maturity… the Klondike experience was as much a quest for self as it was for gold.”

Over the last 30 years, more than 50,000 people have hiked the Chilkoot—more than the number who traversed it from 1897 to 1900. Through the 1960s, the trail was cleared; in 1976, it became a U.S. National Historic Park. Parks Canada began monitoring the other side of the border in the 1970s. In 1993, the Chilkoot was established as a Canadian National Historic Site.

I felt like I had lived a lifetime in those four days, and I am being only a little overdramatic when I say that. After our night at Happy Camp, we hiked through more bear-infested woods and sang more pop songs at the top of our lungs. We swam in a lake that was very likely leech-infested—my friend Steph pulled one off her toe—but I tried not to think about that. We talked openly about our bodily functions. (After my gastrointestinal drama on day one, there were no boundaries among us.) We shouted words of encouragement at each other—“You’re a mermaid!” and “New legs, baby girl!” from this silly YouTube video of American runner Alexi Pappas cheering on her friend Jordan Hasay during a race. “Imagine doing this 40 times?” Steph said as we stepped over rocks and tree roots in 25-degree heat.

I was overjoyed to reach Bennett. As we hiked down the final stretch to the lake, trees lining the trail, tourists snapped photographs of us in our dirty, disheveled glory. The White Pass train still runs, dropping sightseers off to admire Bennett’s gold rush remnants, among them, a since-restored Presbyterian church built in 1899. Chilkoot hikers depart on the same train, seated in a separate car, away from the clean, nice-smelling tourists. We dumped our packs on the porch of the campsite’s cook shack, and I pulled out two large fuel canisters we hadn’t had to use. “Sorry you had to carry those,” Steph said. “You got the real experience. It’s like carrying a piano—the same level of unnecessary.”

During the 1897-1898 winter, Bennett’s shores were crowded with tents, lumber, sawmills, cabins, and boats. Stampeders who arrived after the lake froze up had to wait out the winter here. At one point, it was home to 2,000 people. Today, the place is nearly deserted, save for the train station and two or three cabins. We walked along the beach, where countless pieces of glass, left over from the bottles of booze downed in saloons and hotels, intermingled with the stones.

As I looked out over Lake Bennett, I was once again struck by how identical, how unchanged, the scene was compared to the photos I’d seen. That may seem obvious—mountains don’t move. But I could feel the history that had happened right here, that a prospector had stood in the same spot I was standing, over a century ago, and taken in this exact view: the mountains, imposing and majestic, rising up from the blue-green waters, and I felt stunned. I thought to myself: The things these mountains have seen.

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