Klondike Apparitions
August 28 - September 8, 2022

The Tombstone Mountains are located way far up north in the hinterlands of the Yukon near the Arctic Circle. I’d been dreaming of this place for years and set a reminder to wake up early on the day permits became available for the season back in January 2022. Within a minute of the permit site opening I’d secured a permit for twelve days out here, timed for optimal fall colors on the tundra. Since there is no way to predict localized weather conditions eight months in advance, and since it can be hard to get these permits, I decided to secure a long block of days to improve my chances of being there with good conditions. This foresight paid off and it turned out to be probably the best trip I’ve ever done anywhere.


After an awesome backpacking trip in the Talkeetna Mountains, I spent about a week in pseudo-civilization near Glennallen running errands, doing some work, and preparing for this upcoming trip. Driving from Glennallen back into the land of kilometers via the Top of the World Highway was sublime. I camped on the west side of the Yukon River after an easy border crossing and took the free ferry across the river into Dawson City the next morning. I’m usually quite disinterested in spending more time than necessary around civilization but Dawson City was actually pretty cool and I spent a day there and even learned a little about its history in the Klondike gold rush. After this uncharacteristic cultural extravaganza I drove up the Dempster Highway (“highway” is very generous – it’s a gravel road filled with potholes) to the Tombstones.

Back in Canada near the Alaska/Yukon border

Top of the World Highway
Top of the World Highway
Ogilvie Mountains in the distance
Ogilvie Mountains in the distance
It's big out here
It's big out here

Crossing the river into Dawson City

Day 0

I started driving up the Dempster in the afternoon and stopped first at the visitor center to pick up my permit, and then drove a little further north to see what I could see just from the road. Right on cue, a brilliant rainbow appeared. I headed to a viewpoint where Tombstone Mountain, the range’s namesake mountain, was just barely visible in the distance beyond layers and layers of hilly tundra. God beams were shining down and I quickly snapped some shots before they disappeared. Rainbows and god beams and I’d only just arrived! I was stoked. I made dinner and started the task of packing everything I’d need for twelve days into a backpack. This took an unreasonably long time but I finished at about 2am. I looked up at the sky and saw that a beam of green light had come out to play. I knew seeing the aurora was a possibility here but I was surprised and elated. The aurora increased in intensity over the next hour or two and I lay down on the ground by my car to take it all in as shimmering pillars of green and purple light flashed across the sky. Spirits high, I found a pullout off the road to go to sleep at about 5am.
Driving up the Dempster Highway
Driving up the Dempster Highway
Day 1

My day started by being woken up at 8am by trucks driving past on the nearby road. This would have been entirely predictable but I was surprised and annoyed nonetheless. After shooting some photos in the nice but unremarkable morning light and making a large portion of oatmeal for breakfast/lunch, I went back to the visitor center to rent a second bearcan to fit all my food for trip. I weighed my pack at the trailhead and was quite scared to see that it weighed 80 pounds. Resigning myself to the oncoming sufferfest, I shouldered the pack and started along the trail. “We’re here, we’re doing it,” I said to myself excitedly, letting it sink in that I was about to go explore this mountain range that had occupied my imagination for so long. I gashed my shoulder on a sharp tree branch about ten minutes later. I didn’t think much of it at the time but spent a fair amount of effort treating the cut over the next few days after realizing it could become a real issue if infected. Anyway, the first day of hiking was mostly just plain miserable— about eight miles and 4,000 feet of vertical gain with an 80 pound backpack on three hours of sleep. The scenery was epic but I was not very pleased with the situation and at one point started voicing my frustrations into a rambling voice memo (listen below). As it was getting dark with a discouragingly long walk still to the campsite, I sat down and started crying. I felt broken but I wasn't actually about to bail on the trip, and the campsite was closer than the car anyway, so I gathered myself and kept walking. Finally I made it to the designated campsite by Grizzly Lake and set up my tent in the dark. The northern lights came out again, preventing an early bedtime.

Dappled light on a hillside near the start of the trail

Semi-coherent rambling strewn with expletives

Day 2

I woke up at about noon, long after everyone else had already vacated the campsite. I ate and packed up while dreading another day of hauling my pack over sketchy terrain. Going over Glissade Pass was by far the worst section, and I had to stop frequently to stretch and massage my hip. I tried to just focus on the treasures that lay deeper in the range to remind myself that this sufferfest would probably be worthwhile in the end. I was struck by the rugged beauty of this place that seemed to resemble Mordor. I made it to the next campground at Divide Lake shortly before dark and scouted compositions along the lake for the next morning before setting up my tent. Someone else camping there saw me and asked if I was “the solo night hiker who shows up to the campsites after dark." Apparently I’d already gained a reputation among the people out here. We chatted for a while and he told me about some of the awesome rafting trips he’s done throughout Northern Canada. He was hiking back to the road the next day and kindly offered me a bunch of extra cheese and trailmix. The northern lights were out again that night but it was too cloudy to see anything besides a faint green glow through the clouds.​​​​​​​
Day 3

I woke up before sunrise to my alarm but saw that it was overcast and went right back to sleep until late morning, giving my body a chance to partially recover from the previous couple days. I had two more nights at Divide Lake and spent the day not going anywhere too far. A gorgeous rainbow showed up in the afternoon. Later in the evening I walked to the other end of the lake to scout for compositions of a rock formation called Shark’s Tooth. It started raining pretty hard and there was no light breaking through the clouds so I decided to just have fun exploring a meadow and cirque beyond the lake until it got dark.
Day 4

I woke up for sunrise again and shot down by the lake not far from the tents. There were some nice softly lit clouds above the lake. I sat around and napped for most of the rest of the day, and then went back to shoot the Shark’s Tooth from the other end of the lake in the evening. Light briefly broke through the clouds making for a shot I’m really happy with.
Day 5

I slept until almost noon having shot what I wanted at Divide Lake and seeing no good reason to be up for sunrise. As I was packing up and getting ready to relocate to Talus Lake further up the valley, a photography workshop group led by Marc Adamus rolled into the campsite. Marc’s portfolio has given me a great deal of inspiration to seek out some of the planet’s most sublime and remote landscapes as well as to develop my own style of shooting and editing photos that I’m satisfied with. I introduced myself and told him this. He was super friendly and we talked for a bit while his workshop attendees struggled to set up their tents. I tried to pick his brain about trip logistics to the Karakoram and other remote corners of the world. Our conversation left me feeling inspired as I walked to Talus Lake that afternoon. A couple miles further up the valley I got my first view into the incredible basin reigned over by Tombstone Mountain where Talus Lake is located. Somehow I immediately knew that I was entering a powerful and sacred place. I pressed the my palms together and humbly asked Tombstone Mountain for safe passage and a meaningful experience during my time out here, promising to regard this place with the deep humility and respect that I sensed it commanded. After arriving at Talus Lake in the afternoon and setting up my tent, I scrambled up a rocky hillside hoping to get some good sunset light with a view down toward the lake and Tombstone Mountain. The boulders were extremely loose and covered in wet spongy moss, making this feel a lot sketchier than the Sierra granite I'm accustomed to. The conditions weren't amazing for photography but I found a composition that I returned to a few days later. Lightning started striking in the distance as I made my way back down the hillside in the dark. There was a moderate aurora display that night before clouds completely obscured the sky. 

Leaving Divide Lake

First view of Tombstone Mountain and the surrounding area

Lighting strikes over Tombstone Mountain as a big storm approaches

Days 6-8

It rained. A lot. Like nonstop. It was just barely too warm not to be snowing. And it was really windy so the rain was falling sideways. That's really all that happened for about 80 hours. I just sat in my tent trying to stay relatively warm and dry and catch up on sleep. My tent pole snapped and I duct-taped it back together. Talented photographer Rachel Jones Ross and her partner Troy were out here too, and we'd yell at each other to look outside if one of us saw conditions that looked even slightly promising. The aurora forecast was crazy high throughout this whole storm but all we could see at night was a green blanket of clouds. A squirrel pooped on the socks I'd left under a tarp to dry. Marc Adamus and his group came back to Talus Lake at one point and he offered me a bunch of cheese and chocolate after seeing the couscous, frozen olive oil, and cold soaked oatmeal I'd been subsisting on all trip.

My entire existence for almost four days

Sheets of fog drift by above Talus Lake

The most fearsome creature of the arctic tundra

Mmm delicious

KP7 aurora blocked by thick clouds :(

Day 9

The storm finally began lifting in the afternoon, revealing a fresh dusting of snow on some of the higher peaks. I excitedly launched back into photography mode, capturing these ghostly apparitions emerging from the swirling clouds. God beams and rainbows showed up too.
Day 10

I woke up to the sound of Rachel yelling at me to get out of my tent and see the sunrise. I'm so glad she did as the entire morning was pure magic. In the late afternoon I climbed back up the rocky hillside near the base of Mount Monolith overlooking the lake and Tombstone Mountain. There was a caribou antler up here which added to the powerful aura of the place. I scouted some compositions of Mount Monolith for later that night and then shot sunset looking toward Tombstone Mountain standing guard at the end of the valley. Tombstone Mountain's cold, somewhat sinister row of teeth lorded over the tundra aflame with the last rays of sun. In Tibetan Buddhism there's this idea of a "beyul" which refers to a sacred valley, often heavily guarded by the elements, where the physical and spiritual worlds overlap. If such places exist, I think this is one of them. I don't have quite the right words but it felt as though a veil was lifted between the scene in front of me and something timeless. The northern lights came out to dance not long after, still during twilight. Mesmerized, I walked back to the spot I'd scouted earlier by a stream and started shooting the lights swirling above the sheer rock face of Mount Monolith. Sometime in the middle of the night, maybe around 3am or so, I felt this intuitive urge to leave all my gear where it was and make a pilgrimage of sorts to the base of Mount Monolith. I walked up through a maze of streams and talus slopes and reveled in the sensations of the cold night air on my face and in my lungs. Upon reaching the base of Mount Monolith I accidentally disturbed a couple of roosting birds who fluttered away into the night. We seemed equally startled. I humbly placed my palms on the cold, nearly vertical rock face while craning my neck to gaze up toward the summit. What followed was a powerful experience hard to put into words, but it felt like this all-knowing rock granted me a brief window to exist here and know part of what it knows (perhaps similar to what these climbers describe at the end of this article about knowing the consciousness of Jirishanca and seeing the world as it does). As I'm writing this later it still brings me great joy knowing that Mount Monolith and Tombstone Mountain are standing watch together over the vast tundra currently in deep freeze, and will continue to for eons while heavenly green lights dance above. Rockfall rained down around me after about ten minutes of absorbing Monolith's power and guidance. This seemed to be Monolith's way of telling me it had offered what it was willing to and that it was now time for me to leave. I listened and walked back down to my backpack and camera to marvel at the northern lights some more. Shortly before dawn I started working my way down the sketchy hillside to the lake and figured I'd just stay up and shoot sunrise before going to sleep.
Blazing morning light on the tundra
Blazing morning light on the tundra
Mount Frank Rae
Mount Frank Rae
Tombstone Mountain subpeaks
Tombstone Mountain subpeaks
Mount Monolith
Mount Monolith
Mount Monolith
Mount Monolith

Wild land

An arctic beyul?

Northern lights appear before it's even fully dark (unedited phone video)

The heavenly aurora and earthly stream take similar forms while Mount Monolith serves as an antenna bridging the gap between the two

Day 11

The sunrise was epic— well worth staying awake for. I set an alarm for the afternoon and quickly fell fast asleep after being awake for the previous ~27 hours. Later that afternoon Rachel and Troy kindly offered me a ride on the helicopter they were taking back to Dawson City the next day. After coordinating plans to make sure to meet them on time for the helicopter pickup, I started heading to another spot I wanted to shoot at sunset. Along the way I happened to walk past a small lake right as a brilliant rainbow briefly appeared. I then cut across the swampy valley and started scrambling up a boulderfield into a cirque, and found a composition with a stream flowing in the foreground across the valley from some jagged peaks. I was heading back down during twilight when the northern lights came out to play again. My route serendipitously took me right past a small pond perfect for shooting reflections just as giant plumes of green light began traversing across the sky. There was a full moon sitting just below the horizon illuminating some of the clouds a bright peachy color. While frantically setting up to shoot I promptly dropped a camera battery in the pond. I retrieved the ruined battery, popped a new one into my camera, and tried to capture the quickly changing display unfolding before me. After shooting the aurora to my heart's content, I walked the couple miles back to my tent with numb feet and slept for a few hours.

First light on Tombstone Mountain

Epic conditions this morning

Cheeky little rainbow

Evening light across the tundra

Sunset alpenglow on Mount Monolith and other jagged peaks

Northern lights flow in ribbons across the sky (unedited phone video)

Day 12

I woke up well before sunrise to thrash my way a mile or two down the valley to another lake closer to the base of Tombstone Mountain. After getting my feet soaked while crossing a stream, I made it to the lake just as the tip of Tombstone Mountain was beginning to glow orange. The shot I ended up liking best was a panorama taken about 20 minutes after sunrise. From there I explored a nearby secluded cirque and started howling with glee and gratitude. My shouts echoed loudly off the sheer rock faces. Feeling deeply energized, I hiked back up the valley to the tents, ate some cold oatmeal, and packed up my gear to get on the helicopter with Rachel and Troy. Seeing the landscape from the air was truly awesome. The chopper was equipped with a sliding window allowing me to lean out into the rushing air as we floated high above the tundra. I had trouble believing that this and the last twelve days out here were real. Soon we landed in Dawson City. I usually don't have any trouble readjusting after backpacking trips but this felt a little different. I craved more time in the wild and went out again 36 hours later.

An excellent spot to howl

Hyperlapse shot by Troy

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