Because of the risk of avalanches later in the day as temperatures rise on the summit, it is recommended that hikers leave camp very early, no later than 6AM. This meant getting up at 4:30. I was surprised to find out that it’s dark at Sheep Camp at 4:30. I haven’t seen much darkness in the past few months!
The morning was damp an a fine rain began to fall just as we finished packing. We all slipped into rain gear and covered our packs then began the long slog to the summit.
This section of the trail is called the Long Hill, a steady ascent through rock fields that was a lot easier than research would have led me to believe. In fact, long slow climbs were never much of an issue for me during this trip; my training worked! We stopped for a brief break at a section of the Long Hill called the Flats and then pushed on to the legendary Scales. This is where packers would drop the miners’ goods, reweigh them, and up their prices for carrying the articles over the pass. Many things were abandoned at this point and a lot of artifacts remain. I would have liked more time to explore this area, but I did get to poke around even as I scrambled to change clothing, have a snack, pee, and try to see the pass for the first time, which I was unable to as it was ‘socked in’, a common occurrence. A sunny day would have been great, but incredibly lucky; Mark only saw the pass clearly once or twice in his twenty or so times over it. We had ‘normal’ weather, not great, but nowhere near a worst case scenario.
The next hour or so was endless…
We crossed a snow field and then started up the field of boulders known as the ‘Golden Staircase.’ I did not feel very confident, so I was happy to let Mark lead me up what he deems to be easiest path, taking much longer than anyone else to climb as we ascended in a zig zag pattern while others climbed directly. He provided guidance with where to step and occasionally offered an arm to get up a particularly tough section, but I otherwise did all the work myself, hauling a 40lb pack up a 45 degree rock cliff. I even took time to turn around and look down. The climb was hard, scary, thrilling, and oh-so-satisfying. I had such a profound feeling of accomplishment when I got up this section that had terrified me so much!
The top of the Golden Staircase isn’t the top of the pass, however. There was another snow field, another rock field, yet another snow field, and a final rock field before we reached the true summit. The site is marked with a cairn indicating the border into Canada. During the gold rush, there was a Northwest Mounted Police outpost here, where the Mounties made sure that all arrivals into Canada had their requisite tonne of goods before being allowed into the country.
Even here, there was no rest for the weary as there was still a brief climb up to the warm up shelter, over which flew a welcome sight: a Canadian flag! The warden on site provided us all with hot water for drinks, a much appreciated gesture. I was happy to tuck into peanut butter and honey wraps, then sip hot cocoa, feeling smug, elated, and a bit daunted by the fact that six hours had passed since we’d left Sheep Camp and we still had six hours left to go…
Again, more info on this section of the trail can be found in my ebook about the Chilkoot.