July 7th chilkoot trail - happy camp we set ...

Trip Start Jul 06, 1999
Trip End Jul 11, 1999

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Flag of United States  , Alaska
Thursday, July 8, 1999

July 7th, Chilkoot Trail - Happy Camp

We set out from Sheep Camp at 8 am this morning and were the second last group to leave. It seems that pretty much everybody took the warnings about the sun softening the snow to heart. We figured that, even allowing the recommended 10 hours for the 7.5 mile hike, 6 pm was still a reasonable time to make it into Happy Camp for setting up and making dinner. We didn't regret that decision. It allowed us to get a good rest, not hurry through breakfast and the added bonus was hiking through the best part of a beautiful day without seeing another soul for the entire morning.

It was forest when we started but within an hour we sighted our first small patch of snow and within 15 minutes of that first sighting we ascended above the timberline and the trail was marked by stone cairns and long red poles where it crossed the longer stretches of snow. It was about this time we also saw the more ominous site of a small grave marker, bringing home to us how treacherous the trail could be. We needed no reminding, however when we reached the steeper parts ourselves.

In the late morning we reached a point called the Scales, so named because it was the spot where goods were weighed just before the final climb to the summit, and, according to the brochure, a lot of would-be gold seekers gave up at this point and turned back, abandoning their equipment. There was indeed a large pile of artifacts rusting here. From here to the summit the slope is 45 degrees and a set of steps was carved in the snow during the winter of the gold rush and those pressing on toiled up them in a long line. It often took over half an hour of standing around with their loads on their backs just to break into the line and people then cached their goods and returned to do it all over again, and again, until all their supplies were hauled in and accounted for. I do believe, however, that shuffling up those ice steps in winter would have been easier than hiking that stretch in summer like we did.

From the scales to the summit was a beast of a scramble up a scree slope of sharp-edged rocks. Every step slid backwards before the pressure wedged the stones together into a solid footing. It was so steep that much of the time I was teetering on all fours with my 50 pound pack swaying above me as I fought for balance and upwards leverage. I understand that it normally rains along this trail and I'm sure I would have made it if it was wet because there's really no alternative if you're most of the way up a mountain but I'll say this... I honestly can't imagine doing that stretch of the hike in the rain or even when it's wet after the rain has ended. I'm not someone who's afraid of heights but I did not at all like the feeling of scaling that loose rubble on precarious footing when it was so steep that I knew a bad slip would send me tumbling onto those sharp rocks. Perhaps it's that edge of fear that makes people extra-cautious and keeps them clinging to the rocks so that there aren't more mishaps than there are, especially when it's combined with the knowledge that there's really no way to access help quickly. The closest radio is all the way up at the summit at the Canadian Park Warden's hut and if my Dad or I had actually fallen the other would have had to hike all the way up to the top to summon help. Imagine how much worse the situation would be for a lone hiker who would have to rely on someone coming along the trail behind them... and since there is such a limited number of hikers, they'd have to hope they weren't the last one hiking that stretch that day.

But enough of that grim line of thought, WE MADE IT TO THE TOP! :)

And wow, is the scenery beautiful from the summit. We stopped for a well-deserved late lunch (where we treated ourselves to some of my mother's excellent fruitcake to celebrate) at the shelter at the top (our rallying cry up the slope had been "Canada for lunch!" ) and, now that I didn't have to worry about plunging to my death, a new concern made itself known - my feet had started to seriously blister on the hike to the top... and we hadn't brought along an adequate supply of blister pads and bandaid-type bandages rubbed right off. It was a shame because it really distracted me from enjoying the terrain we were passing through on the next leg of the hike. The slope down was actually much easier than expected because large parts of it were still under snow and we could half-stride, half-slide along at a good clip rather than pick our way down the rocks. We had to spread out at this point because we were passing through during the tail-end of avalanche season and when we looked up we could indeed see huge snowfields hanging above us on the mountain slopes. The theory is, I suppose, that if you're spread out and an avalanche does happen, it won't carry away everybody so there will be someone to sound the alarm and try to dig people out.

It had been such a hard slog to the top that it seemed we must be further along than we actually were on the day's journey and so every time we crested a new ridge we were disappointed that the camp wasn't in sight yet. It was in fact, another four miles and the summit, while the hardest to get to, wasn't even half-way along the distance we were doing.

We reached Happy Camp (now I know where it got its name - was I ever happy to finally see it) 9.5 hours after setting out and congratulated ourselves on beating our projected time. I was pretty sore - my muscles and knees were tired and my feet had started blisters at most of the points where they contacted my boots. I also noticed at bedtime that the area around my ankles was swollen up to where the top of my hiking boots came. I figure this was from knocking against the sides of my boots when I was walking across sloped or shifting rocks. We set up camp and after I'd soaked my feet and rinsed off in the snow-fed stream (as much as I could while remaining decently clad), put on clean, dry shirt and socks and my running shoes I felt much better. We made a good dinner (corned beef, instant mashed potatoes and green beans if you're interested) and hit the hay. Everyone so far seems to follow the routine of getting up really early, hiking like fiends, eating and then crawling into their tents by 8 pm.

We've pushed hard up to this point and covered 20.5 miles (33 km) which is over half the total trail distance of 33 miles (53.1 km) and includes the worst of the terrain and a rise of around 3750 feet (1141 meters) from the trailhead to the summit. I'm looking forward to what I hope will be a more easy going leg of the trip over the next two days.
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