Alaska Mountain Guide Kevin Quapp lowers client Christine Castro.

With butteflies in my belly: New rock climbing tour a good introduction to the sport

The grandeur of the location makes it easy to see why people would want to be in the area. Across the valley chugs the train up the historic White Pass. Down below, through the Sitka spruce, western hemlock and lodgepole pines, looms the congested Klondike Highway. But up in the mossy granite crags of the mountain side, peace prevails.
Peace, that is, except for the ever-pounding thump of my heart as adrenaline rushed throughout my body. You see, I was clinging to handholds the size of hotel soap chips, looking up beyond my umbilical cord of protection, a rope the diameter of my big toe, for another nubbin of rock to reach for. It seemed that up is the only way to climb.
Of course I might have been more comfortable sipping Alaskan Ambers down in the relative safety of a local saloon, but I chose to put myself in that situation, along with six other people from as far away as Chicago.
We were participating in Alaska Mountain Guides’ rock climbing adventure, one of Skagway’s newest shore excursions. It is located on a picturesque trail six miles up the Klondike Highway, below the looming summit of AB Mountain.
The tour started with AMG’s dock representative Derek Elliot driving us through town, pointing out various points of interest as we rolled by. Derek is a climber like the rest of his co-workers, but was driving us because he is one of the few employees of the Haines-based company who was “lucky enough to have an Alaska chauffeur’s license,” he said.
Upon arriving at our destination, a pullout just before the U.S. Customs Station, Elliot launched into the first of several safety talks. We were told that helmets were to be worn until we arrived back at the road. He proceeded to properly adjust our “lids,” as he called them, and off we went.
The hike to the climbing wall was short and scenic with little elevation gain. Fresh cuttings of brush and the construction of erosion deterrents showed evidence of the work put into the area. The spongy moss under foot gave with every step, lending mute testimony to how new the trail was.
A large tarp over log benches greeted us at the climbing site. It was here that we first met our climbing guides, Kevin Quapp and Sean Gryzb, who prefers to be addressed as “Grizz”. The importance of safety continued with a short lecture on rock climbing etiquette.
“If you kick or pull a rock loose, the thing to do is yell ‘ROCK!’” said Quapp. “What you don’t want to do is look up, though, otherwise you might get a nice rock sandwich in your teeth.”
Harnesses were then passed out to everyone along with rock climbing shoes, which have sticky rubber soles designed to find friction on even the smallest of rock protrusions. Quapp and Grizz carefully inspected the buckles on everyone’s harness to ensure that they were “double-backed,” or buckled twice.
“We double protect everything,” said Quapp.
AMG’s general manager is Jason Gaffney. He’s a gregarious individual dedicated to the success of the operation here in Skagway. Not only is he excited about the chosen site of the tour, but of its potential for accomplishment for the clients.
“There are so many features on the rock that people can get to the top, and that’s success. Success is what it’s all about,” said Gaffney.
So with success in our heads and butterflies in our bellies, we were tied in to the rope. We were climbing a 100-foot-wide cliff, which varies in height from 40 to 60 feet, using one of the safest climbing methods available: top rope.
The basis of a top rope design is a ring-shaped anchor at the top of a climb through which a rope passes, leaving two hanging strands of the stretchy climbing rope dangling to the bottom. The climber’s harness is tied into one end of the rope while the other end of the rope passes through a friction device attached to another person’s harness who’s on the ground, known as the belayer.
Ideally, as we climb up toward the anchor, the ensuing slack in the rope is taken in by the belayer. Should one of us fall, the belayer will use the friction device, known as an A.T.C. (which stands for Air Traffic Controller), to lock the rope off to their harness, preventing the climber from falling.
Christine Castro, an outdoors store manager from Chicago, elected to go first. It was her first time rock climbing, which is typical of more than 90 percent of the excursion’s clients, Gaffney said.
Castro picked an easy route around a wide crack which she walked up like stairs. Her brother Homer, who had also never climbed, went next up the same route. Homer’s struggle up the route showed us on the ground how much of a natural his sister was.
Eventually is was time for this reporter to tie in. Scrambling for a non-existent handhold 40 feet above sharp granite allows one to fully appreciate cool terra firma between the toes.
After we had all climbed several routes while being belayed by the AMG guides, it was time for the opposite of climbing: rappelling.
A 10-minute walk through the coniferous forest led us to the top of the cliff we had been climbing. Quapp had a safety rope stretched out like a railing, preventing us from getting close to the cliff until it was our turn.
The necessary redundancy of safety continued as Homer attached his harness to the rope with an A.T.C. He was then to step off the 60 foot cliff, passing the rope through the friction device as he descended. Allow the rope to freely flow through the A.T.C., you go fast. Maintain pressure with your hand, you go slow.
Because Homer could plummet to the ground if he let go of the rope, Quapp tied a safety line to him which would brake any unexpected fall. In addition to the back up rope, another guide stood below in what’s called a “Fireman’s Belay.” This pulls the rope taught, creating friction through the A.T.C., which brakes the rappeller.
Homer reluctantly stepped off the climb, and down he went.
“I looked down twice while rappelling,” said Homer, “Which was two times too many.”
After more than an hour of climbing and rappelling, Elliot returned with his chauffeur’s license to whisk us back to town.
We all knew each other a little better. Everyone had cheered, clapped and whistled with encouragement after each move on the rock wall. It hit me that this really was more about accomplishment that rock climbing, which is a rare goal for a shore excursion.

Native view of Klondike Gold RushTour shows history, perspective and plant use
By Dimitra Lavrakas

Gordon Cook loads his clients in front of the Mining Co. store on First Avenue and motors down Broadway pointing out significant buildings along the way. Appreciative passengers ooh and ahh when he singles out the Moore cabin. This is a good, solid audience!
“Skagway was built on greed and it’s alive and well today,” he says when discussing the root reason for the Klondike Gold Rush.
Cook says that Cree packers guided the Hudson Bay fur traders from the bay all the way across northern Canada into the Yukon. In fact, the Hudson's Bay company built their historic fort in York Factory, Manitoba in 1740. As Cook is Cree, he says that’s how the tour got its name – Creeation Tours.

Gordon Cook on tour. Guests peer deep into the Denver Valley. DL

He tells the familiar tale of George Carmacks, Skookum Jim and Tagish Charlie and their discovery of gold in the Klondike in 1897. A little discussed fact revelead is that Carmacks, who married a Tlingit woman named Kate, kidnapped his daughter after he made money and Kate never saw her again.
George Schwatka, a Tlingit man who took the last name of a white man who owed him money, Cook says is the inspiration of the portrait of the man painted on the tail of Alaska Airlines planes.
Alexander Mack, who made a fortune in the gold rush, used his pet bulldog who was with him in the Klondike, as a symbol on the front of his trucks, Cook says.
Passing by a field of devil’s club, Cook talks about the prickliness of the leaves and traditional medicinal uses of the plant, and his audience is enthralled.
For more information on the tour call 983-2575 or visit the Web site at www.tlingitcreeations.com.

The “Klondike Experience” – a thrill for young and old alike

It’s hard to classify the Klondike Experience. It’s part theatrical presentation, part virtual reality ride, part historical movie, part goldpanning presentation. As a whole, one could genuinely call it an “experience.”
Participants follow the attempts of Jed, a young stampeeder from Illinois who leaves his fiancé in search of gold.
“I’m gonna do it, Annie Mae, I’m going to the Klondike to strike it rich,” he says to his forlorn lover.

Jesse Harward as Soapy Smith diverts young Jed’s (Casey Sanderson) attention, while Rev. Bowers (Andrew Nadon) picks his pocketwatch. DL

Jed’s character, played that day by Richard Lopez (the actors exchange roles at will), is brimming with eager enthusiasm when he meets Rev. Bowers on the docks in Seattle, waiting to board the S. S. Portland bound for Skagway.
Bowers, played by Jesse Harward, tells young Jed how superior the White Pass trail is over the Chilkoot, and that he must seek out his “God fearing” friend in Skagway: the infamous Soapy Smith.
From here, the audience is turned into participants as we “board” the Portland with Jed and watch a movie about his journey north and the hardship to come after arriving in Skagway.
The short film, which is a compilation of actual old news footage, slides and reenactment scenes, does a good job in setting the stage for our arrival in Skagway.
Following the film, the screen lifts to reveal a turn-of-the- century scene of bustling Skagway, complete with dirt streets and false-front buildings.
Outside Jeff Smith’s parlor stood the character of Soapy himself, played by Nate Kluthe. He, with the help of Rev. Bowers (who periodically nipped off a flask he kept hidden in his Bible), convinced the naive Jed to send a $5 telegraph home. Those familiar with this scam know that the telegraph wires only made it a few hundred feet into the bay before stopping.
Soapy proceeded to con more of poor Jet’s cash away with a shell game, all the while touting the excellence of the White Pass. More attempts by the charlatan to mine the miner’s pockets were then thwarted by the arrival of Sgt. Porter of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. The Mounty’s character is played by Hollywood’s Gary Benedetti, who once had a speaking role on “Allie McBeal.”
He steered Jed and the rest of us clear of Soapy, as well as informing us of the amount of gear required to enter Canada and the gold fields.
The group was then led off the street into a room with a large screen. Here we saw, and felt, the hardships encountered while climbing the passes. The room shook as an avalanche swept down over us, complete with cool mist. We experienced boat building, then it turned our stomachs as we navigated the rapids on the way to Dawson City.
Following the simulator, we were led into the Malemute Saloon, complete with a Ragtime piano and peanut shells on the floor. Here were introduced to more cast members as they performed an exceptional rendition of Robert Service’s “The Shooting of Dan McGrew.”
After the Lady known as Lou picked Dan’s poke, we were ushered down a dark ramp into a simulated mine shaft where we were introduced to Goldpan Gary digging paydirt. He described the conditions and techniques of mining for gold, then took us outside for a gold panning presentation.
Each of the guests were given their own poke of paydirt to sluice in a real goldpan. Each pan had about $5 worth of Yukon gold among the gravel and dirt, and for a small fee at the gift shop, one could have it placed in a bezel necklace.
The show is a pleasant change from what one would generally expect from a theatrical presentation, and with entertainment geared for grandkids to grandparents, it’s sure to please all.

Cheyanne Harris plays a newsie. DL