Thursday, August 4, 2016

Lessons of the Chilkoot Trail #2

Two hours into the Chilkoot Trail, we stopped for a snack break. I sat in a lovely spot under a tree … in a pool of sap. My pants were a sticky mess, soaking through to my underwear. When I pulled them down to go to the bathroom, it tore from my skin like duct tape. For the rest of the trip, I carried bits of the Trail with me, stuck to my pants.

This was not a problem on the Trail. This was a “funny anecdote.”

The river had reached flood stage and the ranger warned us at the outset that waters were waist high. Fortunately, by the time we got to the worst part, the river had crested and people had laid out planks of wood to traverse the miles-long swamp. We had to climb over rickety debris to figure out the next path through the muck, tilting and turning, stretching to reach the next foothold. One false step and we’d be soaked and filthy.

This was not a problem on the Trail. This was an adventure. We called it the “jungle gym.”
The last thing on my to-do list before going was to sew and secure the buckle on my backpack. I didn’t get to it. After stopping at our first camp, Gwen approached me with a found buckle: mine! The trip would have been impossible without it.

This was a potential problem on the Trail that didn’t materialize.

The Trail includes a long suspension bridge. My fear of heights rose up and lodged in my throat. The bridge swayed, the slats looked rickety, the river below roared. I had to keep moving and force my way forward. Somewhere in the middle, I thought I’d throw up, but then I’d have to lean over the side or look through the slats. I made it over. I have steely resolve, after all.

This was a problem that foreshadowed a far bigger problem: the Golden Stairs.
When I'd looked at the pictures of the stampeders going over the Golden Stairs in winter, all lined up, it didn’t look bad: they were standing on two legs, there were a lot of them in a line. That’s winter, when 1,500 steps were cut in the snow. This is summer, when there are only boulders up the steep, 35-to-45-degree slope with orange wands planted intermittently so you can find your way.

This is what you have to do to climb the Golden Stairs: you reach up with your hand and find a stable boulder that holds its position. You search your feet around to find supports for them. You look ahead for the wand. Sometimes your head can’t lift because a jutting boulder blocks your pack; you have to reposition with a shifting 37-pound pack on your back. At all costs, you DO NOT look down. Your whole world is just your next step: choose a rock, test it, step up, fight off fear, don’t look down. Choose a rock, test it, fight off fear.
Hysteria nipped at my psyche. By then, I knew I was nimble and strong. On any other rocks, I would be scrambling like a monkey, sure-footed in my trusty, beloved new boots, but here I was high up on a steep slope.

I made it to the first false summit. There are three. It levels off for a bit so I calmed because now I couldn’t fall the whole way down anymore. Then it started raining. Then I became trapped behind a guide and an extremely fearful, slow-moving woman. Then the wind picked up.

The summit is less than halfway on that day’s hike, and there’s a hut at the top. I’m sure I read something once about a ranger there, about hot chocolate. It turned out to be a freezing closet that could barely hold eight people. When my teeth started chattering, I knew I had to get going. The next camp is four miles away over more difficult rock scrambling; shifting, eroding paths on the steep edges of water; hazardous creeks and icy snowfields to negotiate; yes, beautiful wildflowers and waterfalls.

It took 11 hours to go the eight miles from Sheep Camp to Happy Camp.

I walked into Happy Camp and two women offered me hot tea. “Do you have a cup?”

I stared. Cup?

“Here, use our bowl.”

After three bowls, I set up the tent in the pouring rain. Later, when Barbara and I were lying in the tent, she asked, “What exactly was the point?”

Tomorrow, the point. Or not.

1 comment:

  1. Holding comment until 'the point', in due respect to the adventurer and her reflected wisdom of the trail. (smile)


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