The Chilkoot Trail at Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park is one of the most challenging hikes anywhere in the country, and it's a tough place for a medical emergency. Last weekend, the Trail was the scene of the park's longest-ever litter transport and ground-based rescue.
In the late 1890s, tens of thousands of gold-seekers flooded into Canada's Yukon Territory via the small Alaskan coastal villages of Skagway and Dyea, and one of the most difficult parts of the 600-mile trip was up and over a grueling mountain route known as the Chilkoot Trail.
The hike isn't much easier today for anyone tackling a 33-mile segment of the historic route which runs through parts of Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park and the Chilkoot Trail National Historical Site in Canada. Information about the trail on the park website notes, " Hiking the Chilkoot can be highly rewarding; however, unlike many hikes, taking on the Chilkoot means crossing an international border, and hiking 33 miles of isolated, physically challenging and potentially hazardous terrain."
A Route for Experienced - and Fit - Hikers
Hikers are cautioned that, "The Chilkoot is not a novice trail and should only be attempted by persons who are physically fit and experienced in hiking and backpacking." In places there is no trail at all, simply a "route" through very rugged terrain, and it's not hard to lose your way in fog and rain. The hike includes an elevation gain of 3,500 feet, of which 2,500 feet are gained over just 3.3 miles leading to the summit.
When trouble occurs, just getting the word for help out to the authorities can be a challenge. There is no cell phone coverage along the trail, although Iridium Satellite phones may work in some areas. A park video notes, "Although National Park Service and Parks Canada staff patrol the trail during the summer months, help from rangers and wardens might be many hours or even days away."
It's against that backdrop that rangers learned on the evening of July 26 that a 65-year-old man was reported to be immobile and complaining of frequent activations of his implantable cardioversion defibrillator (ICD). Due to the time of day, the potential severity of the victim's condition and the lack of available helicopters for the rescue, the incident commander decided to organize a litter evacuation.
A Demanding "Boots on the Ground" Rescue
The rescue was a cooperative effort by rangers, other park employees and Skagway Volunteer Fire Department Search and Rescue. When completed, it was the park's longest-ever litter transport from the Chilkoot Trail.
According to a park spokesperson, ten responders hiked six and a half miles of the trail to reach the victim. An off-duty trail maintenance employee, who just happened to be staying at the nearby Canyon City Campground, was the first to respond and provided the rescue team with an initial assessment and vital signs during the team's hike-in. A physician traveling with the hiking party assisted at the scene.
Rescuers reached the man and began the all-night litter transport just before midnight. The evacuation involved moving the man five miles over mountainous terrain for six hours during the night, transferring him to an inflatable watercraft for a swiftwater river crossing, and then transferring him to an ambulance for transport to Skagway's Dahl Memorial Clinic. The patient was treated at the clinic and then moved to Whitehorse Hospital in Yukon Territory, Canada, where he reportedly recovered and was released.
You can gain a little insight into the terrain and challenges involved in a hike on the trail and in this rescue from "Preparing to Hike the Chilkoot: Things You Should Know," an excellent six-minute video on the park website. You'll find the link to that video and additional information about the hiking the ChilkootTrail at this link.