Hougen Group

chilkoot

A famous photo of the climb up the Chilkoot Pass.

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Men digging bodies from snow slide near summit of Chilkoot Pass. Date: April 3, 1898. Yukon Archives. Anton Vogee fonds, #69.

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Hauling dead bodies on sleds from the snow slide near summit of Chilkoot Pass. Date: April 3, 1898. Yukon Archives. Anton Vogee fonds, #71.

The Great Chilkoot Avalanche

It wasn't the first time that an avalanche had claimed lives on the trails to the Klondike. But on April 3rd, 1898, a natural disaster of monstrous proportions claimed the lives of more stampeders than any disease or crime.

For two months, during February and March of 1898, an intermittent storm had been raging in the mountain passes leading to the Yukon. On most days, travel was impossible. Snow that fell on the glaciers was wet and heavy weighing down the monster glaciers which overhung the rocks of the rugged peaks. Those who dared travel did so only at night. There were literally thousands of men and women waiting for the area to clear.

Then there was a lull in the storm and anxious gold-seekers decided to try the climb from Scales in spite of the obvious dangers. Experienced climbers and packers would not attempt the climb. On the morning of April 3rd, the distinct rumble of tumbling snow could be heard. Still the ravines leading up the Chilkoot were filled with travellers.

Then, at noon, it happened. First, loose snow from the glaciers began drifting down and people raced for cover. Then the main body of the avalanche rumbled down the ravines with snow thirty feet deep. Within 20 minutes, it was over. Thousands of people, who had not been caught in the slide, began a frantic search for survivors. They dug furiously in the snow. They could hear the cries and moans from those entombed below.

A handful of people were rescued from their icy graves. Some were buried in 30 feet of snow. But as the hours wore on, it became apparent that a tragedy of massive proportions had occured. As the digging continued over the next few days, nothing but bodies were brought to the surface. Sled after sled carried corpses down the mountainside to a make-shift grave.

When the search ended, over 60 bodies had been recovered. And then the long line of gold-seekers again began the climb up the Chilkoot and on to Dawson leaving behind a grim reminder of nature's devastating power.

A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin