American Heritage Book Selection: Off To The Klondike!

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The climb was no challenge for an alpinist; women and children crossed the Chilkoot with no complaints other than shortness of breath. But to carry packs over it from twenty to forty times, with the weather changing, the food getting no better, the expenses mounting, time running short, and each load seeming heavier than the last—that was the challenge of the Chilkoot and the reason that those who met it were left with the memory of a unique experience.

The first stopping point above Sheep Camp was the Stone House, so called, said the veteran prospector William Haskell, “because nature seems to have arranged the rocks here with more symmetry than usual, which is saying very little.” Next came the long climb to The Scales, where the Chilkats paused to weigh their loads on a crude balance before starting straight up the mountainside to the notch opening onto the interior. Back and forth from Sheep Camp to The Scales the stampeders trudged until they had their gear assembled below the pass.

Many, looking up, despaired. Equipment was discarded by the ton. Men gladly sold out at a dime on the dollar. The final climb was forbidding enough in summer, when men could zigzag up the mountain. In winter it was hell on ice, a lock-step procession up a flight of 1,200 steps cut into the frozen snow, the pace of the line determined by the slowest man.

There is something of Hieronymus Bosch in Hegg’s photograph of the scene: the bleak valley, the dark line of men moving up the slope bent under the weight of their packs, the scatter of returnees walking or sliding down the slope to the right on their way back for new burdens. Yet Canadian customs officials, who waited at the summit to check the amount of supplies each stampeder carried, reported that forty thousand persons checked through the Chilkoot during the stampede. And in spite of the dangers of the trail, there was only one major disaster. A continuing blizzard in late March and early April of 1898 added two yards of wet snow to the pack on the summit. The Indians saw the danger and withdrew to Dyea. The more knowledgeable Klondikers waited at Sheep Camp. The bold and the foolish camped at The Scales, while those in a desperate hurry struggled up the ice steps in the coldest hours of early morning, when slides were less likely. But not everybody took the time to be cautious. It was just before noon on April 3 that the anticipated avalanche poured down from a peak overhanging the trail.

Tons of wet snow covered an area of ten acres to a depth of thirty feet. Several hundred stampeders were entombed. Most clawed their way out, but others found themselves held motionless, cast in the cold concrete of snow, denied even the distraction of pain as they awaited rescue—or death by freezing.

Men by the hundreds scrambled up from Sheep Camp and Stone House or down from the summit to dig out those who were trapped. Hegg, rushing up from tidewater, made the climb to The Scales in a day and photographed the last of the rescue operations. Most of those buried under the avalanche were saved, but sixty-three bodies were taken from the snow. When the ground thawed they were buried in an alpine draw just off the trail. The rush resumed.

Beyond the summit of Chilkoot Pass it was downhill most of the way to Dawson, though not without danger. Stampeders found the first part of the descent a delight. There was a well-stomped trail to Crater Lake, an expanse of clear ice held in a volcanic goblet. A bar at the lake provided an opportunity to celebrate with supplies somebody else had packed over the pass, while the lake itself offered easy sailing. Men raised blankets as sails on the sleds they had lugged through the pass, and they made a strange, brave sight as they moved out across the frozen water (see page 41). Hegg himself obtained a team of trained goats that pulled a long sled, encumbered not with a blanket sail but with a canvas streamer advertising “Views of Alaska.”

Beyond Crater Lake lay Lake Lindeman, where many of the early stampeders camped, awaiting the thaw. Those who reached Lindeman first cut down the trees big enough to provide lumber for boats. Since boats were the next necessity, most of the Klondikers who followed went farther along the frozen river to Lake Bennett. There they created a community, built their boats, and waited for the Yukon—which descended northward to Dawson City and the golden Klondike—to thaw.

There was another way to reach Lake Bennett. This second route started at Skagway, like Dyca a debarkation point, and led through the mountains across White Pass, which—at 2,900 feet—was lower than the Chilkoot. White Pass had no upward tilts comparable to the Chilkoot’s scramble from Stone House to The Scales, let alone from The Scales to the summit. Moreover, in theory it was open year-round to pack horses and even wagons.

Only two things were wrong with the White Pass trail, Hegg was to discover as he followed the stampeders up it. First, it hardly existed. Second, what trail did exist debouched from the pass into bogland that slushed swampily toward Lake Bennett. When deeply frozen, it was difficult enough; after the thaw it presented frustrations undreamed of by the tormentors of Tantalus. A man in a race toward a gold field who found himself slowed to a mile a day had cause for dismay: