Klondike King

Seeking a path to riches along the Alaska-Yukon border

This story originally appeared in the January 2016 (44.5) issue of POWDER.

Alaska’s Laughton Peak stands tall along the trail of riches. ALL PHOTOS: Ryan Creary

Plowing through shin-deep dry snow on the first day of our Alaskan expedition, on a potential first descent, I can’t help but feel lucky. My five trip mates and I make graffiti of the white canvas, slicing and carving the slope into a scribble of tracks. At the bottom, big toothy grins beam, high fives fly, and poles clink.

This is why we’ve come so far north—to find a grand adventure and the search for something rare and valuable. It’s the same allure that has drawn men and women to Alaska and the Yukon for the past 100 years.

When news of a massive gold find in Canada’s Yukon Territory broke in 1897, an estimated 100,000 people—including the mayor of Seattle—dropped everything and rushed for the Klondike. Most knew little of where they were going except that the trail to riches started in Skagway, Alaska, before climbing the Chilkoot Trail over the Coast Range and floating down the Yukon River to Dawson City.

The toils they endured are legendary. More than 50 feet of snow fell on Chilkoot in the winter of 1898, burying the miners’ supplies and killing dozens in avalanches. Temperatures dropped to 40-below. When the lakes and rivers finally thawed, hundreds drowned in rapids. Things didn’t get easier when they finally arrived in Dawson. Early birds staked most of the best ground by the following summer. Even if latecomers found a promising claim, getting at the gold was tedious: Miners used fires to melt tunnels through the permafrost, 18 inches at a time.

The same train that ferried miners' gold provides access to rare wilderness skiing.
The same train that ferried miners’ gold provides access to rare wilderness skiing.

Of the 100,000 who headed out, only 30,000 made it to Dawson. Just an estimated 4,000 of them found any gold. A few hundred got rich. Historians estimate the Klondike yielded a billion dollars worth of gold. One claim alone yielded $18 million (in 2015 prices) in just two years. Big Alex McDonald, the Klondike King, may have emerged the richest with somewhere between $7 million and $27 million.

But how to get it all south? Enter the White Pass & Yukon Route Railway, built between 1898 and 1900. Linking Skagway to the Yukon interior, the train was an engineering marvel of the time, traversing above a canyon and climbing high through the mountains. It still runs today. Cutting through the rugged and rarely explored northern Coast Range, the train shuttles tourists into the mountains and back on a ridiculously precarious track that climbs 3,000 feet in 20 miles. A highway runs parallel, but across the Skagway River, rendering the terrain above the railway almost inaccessible. I had learned of the train, which only runs during cruise-ship season between May and September, while ski touring in nearby White Pass the year before. It sounded like a promising way to access a rarely visited but enticing mountain range.

The plan was to ride the railway deep into a remote chunk of the Alaska Coast Range in Tongass National Forest, jump off and skin into the wilderness. From a base camp, we’d prospect for couloirs, big lines, and, ideally, first descents on nameless peaks along the Alaska-Canada border.

Train approach = dope. Carrying a 65-pound pack = nope.
Train approach = dope. Carrying a 65-pound pack = nope.

In early May, we board one of the first trains of the year. With massive packs, Gore-Tex, and skis, we stand out among the cruise-ship passengers in their fanny packs, university T-shirts, and Skagway souvenirs. The train ticktacks down the track, snowy mountains rising straight out of the ocean, snowfields glaring in the spring sun, budding leaves casting a light green glow across the valley, and the river roaring through a canyon right outside the train window.

Along for the adventure is Andrew McNab, a tireless skier from Revelstoke, BC; Melanie Bernier, the first Canadian to stand on the podium on a world cup randonee race; photographer Ryan Creary; as well as Alex MacKay and Andrew Clark.

After 40 minutes and 14 miles of chugging, the train stops at Laughton Station, a caboose surrounded by snow. We reluctantly hop off and wrestle our packs to our shoulders.

To enter Canada, each Klondike-bound miner had to bring a year’s worth of supplies, about 1,500 pounds. Schlepping 65-pound loads at a time, they carried every ounce 30 miles over the mountains before they could build a raft and float down the Yukon River 500 miles to Dawson. The average miner hiked 2,500 miles up and down the trail before they reached Lake Bennet.

Along the Klondike, shady maneuvers never run out of style.
Along the Klondike, shady maneuvers never run out of style.

With a week’s worth of food and fuel, plus ski gear, our packs weigh the same as the miners’. Groaning under the load, I’m glad I only have to do this once and don’t have to schlep nearly as far.

We slide along smartly for about two miles and then the Alaskan mountains awe us. In the lead, I round a corner to view the Laughton Glacier. A 5,000-foot-high, two-mile-wide wall of snow and rock rears up at the head of the valley, dripping with fractured glacial ice, arêtes, and plumb-line couloirs. We stand around pointing out potential lines for several minutes. All look like dead ends, but the setting’s epic beauty sears itself in my mind, and we push on.

About six miles and 2,000 feet of elevation gain later, we are weary and sore under the loads, frustrated at the endless bushwhacking, soaked in sweat, and decorated in spruce needles. We finally find a good place to camp. As we hang our food—bear tracks dot the snow—we notice the Northern Lights dancing in the dark. Something about the way they shift and shimmer reminds me of a Las Vegas light show. It’s fitting. At the turn of the century, Dawson was the Sin City of its time. Saloons were open 24 hours, poker pots routinely hit $140,000, and champagne sold for $1,600 a bottle. Dance halls raged and the stars were spoiled; one dancer used her golden tips to make a $9,200 belt.

Trash that slope like it's never been skied.
Trash that slope like it’s never been skied.

The day is already hot when we finally begin bashing our way toward the end of the upper Skagway River valley and onto the flank of an unnamed peak. We’re a ways off the route to the Klondike now and there are no signs of humanity.

Eventually, we climb into a huge basin. Mini-golf lines drip off two sides. A tongue of a glacier draws us higher, leading to a large snowfield. Out front breaking trail, I traverse across an invisible aspect line and the snow suddenly goes from crusty corn to dry powder. “Oh, yeah!” I call out. “This is what we came for.”

Soon I leave my mark down the shadow line and then the others follow, trashing the slope like it’s never been skied before. The line benches and then drops again, this time in a series of couloirs. I find the easiest line and hack my way down in telemark jump turns. Creary follows my tracks but carves it with style, picking up speed and then cutting hard and blasting through the wake. MacKay finds the steepest line and delicately threads through cheese-grater rocks. McNab raises walls of white in powerful, high-speed carves, a childhood of bashing gates shining through. Bernier makes precise and controlled turns, top to bottom. Clark tries to find a line he spied on the way up, gets lost, spots an alternative, and straightlines.

The next morning is another cloudless one with a warm sun promising slush to come. We explore a different valley, climbing high above our camp into a glaciated playground and more powder, sheltered in twin couloirs. We bootpack to the summit of a nearby peak, taking in the view of a sea of mountains that spreads out 360 degrees around us. I wonder if anyone has stood here before and, as we slash our way down the couloir, if this is a first descent.

After three days in the upper valley, we can’t forget the possibilities of Laughton. With a 7,300-foot summit, it has the potential for a 5,000-vertical-foot run on a three-mile-wide face. While the peaks we’ve bagged are challenging, they are not the Alaskan epics you see in films. But Laughton is, and then some. We pack up and ski back down the valley and set up an aesthetic camp at the toe of the glacier, the wall of ice filling the tent door.

The White Pass & Yukon Route Railway was built in 1898 for dreams of many kinds. Some of them choose to bring skis.
The White Pass & Yukon Route Railway was built in 1898 for dreams of many kinds. Some of them choose to bring skis.

The next morning, roped up, McNab leading, we sneak through the broken glacier and onto a steep face above. We climb a bootpack and top out on a huge plateau, a short distance from the summit. At the pinnacle, we look straight down, 6,000 feet to the train tracks below and on to Skagway and the ocean. In the other direction, our tent is a tiny dot in the white landscape. In between stretch a couple miles of turns through the most rugged terrain I’ve ever skied. Even though the snow is a mix of spring consistencies—corn, ice, slush, crust of every flavor—it ranks as one of the most memorable runs of my life.

After five hard days of skiing and hiking, my legs ache the next morning, but I ignore the pain. One more day and we head for home. Again we explore another area, finding tough skinning and fun turning. And then it’s time to catch the train. We stumble down the valley to the tracks and climb aboard, the cruise-ship passengers staring at us. Could that be envy on their faces? Probably not, but as I take a seat and the train jerks away downhill, I think it should be. I feel as rich as the Klondike King.