30,000 stampeders survived hardship or lost their lives along the Chikoot Pass in 1897 and 1898.
30,000 stampeders survived hardship or lost their lives along the Chikoot Pass in 1897 and 1898.
30,000 stampeders survived hardship or lost their lives along the Chikoot Pass in 1897 and 1898. (Photo: E.A. Hegg/Wikimedia Commons)

The Couple in Trouble

How an eventful anniversary trek on "the meanest 33 miles in history" saved a marriage

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Mist consumed the last of the daylight and swallowed up the steep sides of the narrow Chilkoot Pass that cuts through Alaska’s Coast Range. It obscured even my husband, Thomas, whose boots occasionally sent down bits of ice and scree onto my head.

We hadn’t spoken to each other for miles. We arrived at Sheep Camp late the night before, missing a critical ranger talk that warned hikers to be on the trail by 6 a.m. in order to cross the pass before noon and cover four miles through avalanche country to Happy Camp. Not knowing this, we took our time eating breakfast and breaking camp, then left leisurely around noon. After all, we needed to cover just 7.5 miles. What we didn’t account for was the fact that there was a 2,500 vertical feet climb to the summit followed by snowfield crossings on the Canadian side, which typically took folks 12 hours to complete. At the moment, we were tackling the final approach to the summit, a 45-degree vertical rock scramble. But the tension had already begun yesterday, when my husband hurt his back from using an ill-fitting pack not long after setting out on the Chilkoot Trail. Between curse words, he grumbled, “So this is how you wanted to celebrate our ten-year anniversary?”

I said nothing then, just as I said nothing now, though I was in desperate need of a water break. In my head, I repeated a mantra: murder, suicide, disease, malnutrition, hypothermia, avalanche, and heartbreak—the hardships that plagued 30,000 Klondike Gold Rush stampeders along this trail in 1897 and 1898.

(Courtesy of Leslie Hsu Oh)

The Chilkoot Trail stretches 33 miles from Dyea, Alaska, to Lake Bennett, British Columbia. Hikers follow in the footsteps of Tlingit Indians who used this trail for trade and Gold Rush stampeders who carried a year’s worth of supplies over the pass on their backs, up to 80 pounds at a time. Some lost their lives. Many left evidence of their passage in the form of boot soles, canvas boats, and tin cans that can still be seen along the trail.

Over seven years of living in Alaska, I’d heard single friends and couples without kids talk about their adventures on the Chilkoot. Though the route now takes three to five days to complete compared to the three months it took the stampeders, unpredictable weather conditions and rangers discourage novice hikers from attempting it. I had set my sights on this trip as a perfect metaphorical journey for our ten-year anniversary. I wanted to reaffirm our solidarity: Our life journey together might be fraught with struggle, but wouldn’t we, like stampeder Walter Curtin, who did not make a cent during the gold rush and witnessed men going mad on this trail, also “turn the clock back” and do it over again if we could? I wanted to get perspective that at least we would never live through anything as awful. I wanted to return briefly to those precious days before kids, when we had time to wade into glacier-fed rivers and cast a line.

But mostly I hoped that we would find what Stanley H. Pearce, a mining engineer who was one of the first to begin the stampede, wrote to his mother on August 9, 1897: “Last night while looking up at the stars rolled snugly up in my sleeping bag I saw the grand Northern lights shooting up from a semicircle above the mountain and looking exactly like huge search lights shifting and cutting into space. It made me feel that now we were nearer the presence of our Maker than I had ever been before and I felt how small and trivial our small troubles and pleasures had been.”

When Thomas proposed to me beneath heavy snowfall in Denali National Park, I thought we had found where we belonged. We bought a log cabin nestled along the Eagle River to raise our two children, now nine and 12 years old.

Then, the year before the hike, Thomas announced he was done with Alaska. After his father’s sudden death, he wanted to return to the East Coast. I fully understood and supported that reasoning, but at the same time I worried that Alaska had changed our characters. I had allowed the wild parts of myself to take root and wanted to subsist off the land, but after years raising a family in the harsh elements, he’d become more appreciative of city life. Could we stay married if we didn't agree on where we wanted to live?

In the end, Thomas made me choose: Alaska or my marriage. I chose him. Today, we live in a big city on the East Coast. I needed this return trip, but nobody understood why we were going to such lengths for our anniversary. We nearly had to cancel our trip because relatives were unwilling to watch our kids. I was told I had my priorities wrong, that I should spend more time being a role model for my children. Because Thomas resented me for being tempted to choose Alaska and I resented him for giving me an ultimatum, we didn’t train together or coordinate our gear. Now we were paying for it.

In my head, I repeated a mantra: murder, suicide, disease, malnutrition, hypothermia, avalanche, and heartbreak—the hardships that plagued or killed 30,000 stampeders along this trail in 1897 and 1898.

As I got closer to the pass, I collapsed, not so much from the physical pain but the emotional. In that moment of confusion, Thomas materialized out of the mist. He grabbed the pack I was carrying and disappeared before I could tell him he was right: I was not having fun either. I got up to follow him and realized that Thomas, despite injuring his back and nursing several water blisters on his swollen feet, had been hiking one pack up at a time: a men’s North Face pack from my backpacking days in Europe, the same one that injured him yesterday because it didn’t fit, and a Granite Gear award-winning pack that he’d spoiled me with on my birthday. Suddenly, I heard from ahead of us: “Are you okay?” Two hikers appeared from the distance.

“Yeah,” Thomas hollered. “Are we close to the summit?”

“Yes,” the woman answered.

“Where are you heading?” I asked, happy that we weren’t the only fools who had underestimated the difficulty of this 33-mile hike.

The man chuckled. “We’re Parks Canada wardens out looking for you.” After every hiker that day reported that they never spotted us on the trail, the wardens became concerned.

We had all the right gear. Most of the hikers we’d seen so far on the trail were about ten or 20 years older than us, and we were experienced long-distance backpackers. This was so embarrassing. Still, we let the wardens lead us to the summit’s emergency shelter. The male warden hiked in front of us, and the female warden took up the rear. We arrived at the shelter in less than 15 minutes. The wardens offered us two thermoses of hot water and insisted that we stay in the shelter that night. Before I could protest, I read the sign on the shelter: “Rest briefly, then move on. Leave backpacks outside.” Next to that, a warning that we would soon have to pass through the Stone Crib avalanche path—“the most hazardous area during the hiking season.”

We shed our wet jackets and packs on the warm benches, thanked the wardens as they left to return to their station on the summit, and shut the door on the flurry of wind, rain, and mist outside. It would be the only night during this four-day trek that we stayed dry.

Thomas pampered me that night with the best cup of hot cocoa I’ve ever tasted, my favorite Mountain House beef stroganoff, a massage, duct tape on my blisters, a flask of rum, and Backpacker’s Pantry dark chocolate cheesecake. He joked about how I liked to make his life difficult, that it was my evil plan to cripple him—my ultimate revenge for making me leave Alaska. We laughed and laughed the way we’d forgotten to. We realized that when all the resentments, responsibilities, and stress of raising a family together are stripped away, there is still a solid foundation of love.

With the happy babble of a stream winding past my feet, I felt what Pearce described. In the same letter, Pearce wrote that the Chilkoot Trail “will make a man of me, and should I get through this trip I shall be able to undertake anything in the world.”

In the morning, as much as I wanted to bury my face in his chest and hide from the world, I couldn’t wait to see the view from the summit. I crept out of my sleeping bag and slipped outside just as the sun rose, looking down at a lake so still that it mirrored the sky above. I think I felt what Pearce had described.

In the same letter, Pearce wrote that the Chilkoot Trail “will make a man of me, and should I get through this trip I shall be able to undertake anything in the world.”

Over the next two days and 16.5 miles, the wilderness sorted out our affairs. We shared meals with couples who had figured out how to live with their differences. One woman explained that she completed these long-distance hikes with her sibling rather than her husband. We met one man at the end of the trail who confessed that he had started with his wife but then faked an injury so she would have to finish on her own. He hoped a bottle of champagne at the finish line would help her forgive him. And Thomas and I talked about how we’ve become polarized over the years. He preferred to retire on a beach, the bustle of a city, somewhere warm. I wanted Alaska, the cold, remote places. We tried to brainstorm compromises.

At the Bennett train station, where all the hikers celebrated surviving the trip with beef stew, someone pointed at us and said, “Oh my god, you guys are ‘The Couple in Trouble.’” Apparently, we’d become well-known among everyone on the trail on that ill-fated day, when the wardens had asked any hiker who crossed the Chilkoot Pass whether they had seen a “couple in trouble.”

Yes, we were. And maybe that was OK. When Thomas woke that morning in the emergency shelter and joined me on the edge of a cliff overlooking Crater Lake, I asked for his forgiveness.

“What do I need to forgive you for?” he asked.

I had not expected that reply. “Um, I thought you’ve been mad at me for not wanting to leave Alaska.” It was the first time in our marriage that we hadn’t agreed on a big-ticket item.

Thomas shrugged. “You’re here, right?”

Yes, I’m right here.

Lead Photo: E.A. Hegg/Wikimedia Commons

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