American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

The Canadian Rocky Mountains

  • Feature Article
  • Publication Year: 1911

THE CANADIAN ROCKY MOUNTAINS

BY Professor Charles E. Fay

I. Physical Characteristics

QUITE different task awaited the writer of the second issue of Alpina Americana from that so successfully accomplished by the author of the initial number. The High Sierra of California offered to its most assiduous explorer a practically virgin field. In presenting the Canadian Rockies we are undertaking to treat within very inadequate limits a large region already admirably presented by others in monographs and volumes readily accessible, while there is danger, so wide is the circulation that has been given to numerous characteristic pictures of the region, that our illustrations will furnish but few surprises. And yet it is upon these, rather than upon words, that we must depend in setting forth the charms of this Switzerland of the Western Continent.

We cheerfully assume the risk incurred in thus challenging a comparison with the Swiss Alps, which are still for most persons the acme of all that is grand and beautiful in natural scenery. Character rather than degree being considered, and certain proper reservations being made, the comparison is legitimate. Here, too, are dark beetling crags and lofty summits crowned with dazzling snows; glaciers with the same detail of ice tongue and névé, crevasse and schrund, fall and sérac, moulin, glacier table, and moraine; torrents leaping from sheer precipices in magnificent cataracts, or finding temporary repose in lakes of exquisite beauty; silent forests, through whose shade the path ascends the lower slopes, as if to attune the soul to the proper mood in which to be ushered into the Presence that fills these high sanctuaries of nature. Here, however, the path may still be awaiting him who will fray it, for these are the forests of the scarcely trodden wilderness; it is the Dantean “selva selvaggia e aspra e forte,” yet alluring rather than repellent to the more strenuous modern man.

None of the Canadian summits rise to such an altitude above sea level as the highest Swiss Alps. That, however, is not a proper criterion of sublimity, but rather the height above the valley from which the mountains spring, combined with impressiveness of form, their noble and aspiring architecture. The Swiss Alps culminate in Mt. Blanc (15,781 feet), with numerous peaks ranging above 14,000 feet. Comparatively few of these peaks exceed 11,000 feet. The height of the great peaks about Zermatt, itself 5,300 feet above sealevel, is from 8,000 to 9,000 feet — Monte Rosa nearly 10,000. Laggan, at the eastern base of the Bow range of the Canadian Rockies, lies at 5,037 feet, at practically the same altitude as Zermatt; but here the principal mountains rise only 5,000 to 6,000 feet higher, attaining their maximum relative elevation in Mt. Temple, 11,626 feet. The majestic form of this noble mountain, with its crown of gleaming snow lifted above almost vertical cliffs 3,000 to 4,000 feet in height and several miles in extent, largely compensates for this difference in altitude. Beyond the Continental Divide, where the valleys have been eroded more deeply, the relative height is correspondingly greater. The baselevel at Leanchoil, near the great bend of the Kicking Horse, is only about 3,500 feet, above which Mt. Vaux springs 7,000, and if, in passing the side valley of the Ottertail creek, one has caught sight of Mt. Good sir (11,676 feet), he has raised his glance fully 8,000. Yet farther northward peaks like Mt. Columbia (12,740 feet) and its fellows tower still higher; while the maximum is attained, and Monte Rosa’s record surpassed, at Mt. Robson near the Yellow head pass, which lifts its mighty form to 13,750 feet above a baselevel less than 3,000 feet. To the readily friable character of the crumpled and sometimes overturned strata of the lime stones, quartzites, and cretaceous rocks, of which the Canadian Alps are mainly composed, is due their marvellous variety of architectural forms and varied shades of color, features which combine to render them among the most attractive of mountains.

In another particular, also, the Rocky Mountain landscape must now, and probably always, yield the palm to Switzerland,— the absence of those elements of beauty which are due to the long continued presence of civilized man: the picturesque village or solitary chalet; the cultivated field in the level bed of the valley, or the highlying green alp with its grazing herd: all these are quite wanting here. Everywhere it is the wilderness skirting the base of the more or less desolate mountains, at the best the unmown meadows of wild grasses in the level bottoms, or waving in glades upon the slopes,— natural parks or pastures teeming with the variegated subalpine flowers, where the shrill call of the pica or the marmot is the only sound to break the silence. Marring rather than beautifying, for the greater part, has been the hand of man hitherto, gashing the face of nature with the yellow line of the railway and rearing the unpicturesque hamlet to house its busy operators. Yet, thanks to its unpoetic aid, thousands are now able to reach with ease, and even luxurious comfort, scenes that less than a generation ago were to be attained only at the cost of months of time and varied hardships. Here and there along the line of the Canadian Pacific railway the simple inns, erected primarily to provide meals for the passing travellers, have given place to finely appointed hotels with attractive surroundings. The new Grand Trunk Pacific is doubtless destined to perform a similar service for the more northerly region of the Athabasca. Mindful too, from the beginning, of the value of scenery as a national asset, the Dominion government has not only set apart several reservations as public parks,— at Banff, Laggan, the Yoho Valley, and more recently the Jasper Forest Park Reserve (5,000 square miles) near Yellow head pass,— but in the older ones has expended liberal sums in the building of roads, paths, and even baths and a museum of natural history. Thus the way is made easy and the sojourn delightful for the thousands of summer guests who have followed in the wake of the pioneers, who but a few decades since were cheered in their toilsome journeys by the first sight of all this grandeur.

But before we undertake the story of their exploration let us briefly outline the natural features of the region.

The great Cordilleran Belt, of which the Canadian Rockies form one unit, traverses North America with a general trend from southeasterly to northwesterly. Its western bound is parallel with and sometimes indeed in the Pacific ocean. Its eastern limit, as it advances northward, makes a larger angle with the meridians, whence it results that at the latitude of .50° the breadth of this series of approximately parallel ranges or “systems” is hardly half its breadth at 40°; in other words, from the Front range in Colorado to the Pacific coast the airline distance is a thousand miles, as against something over four hundred measured to Vancouver island from where the Canadian Pacific railway enters “The Gap” in the Fairholme range of the Rockies. But it is precisely here that we find the largest number of constituent units of the Cordillera: first, the “Rocky Mountains proper,” — not a single range, but comprising numerous approximately parallel sub ranges on either side of the main chain; then follow, in the great bend made by the Columbia river, the Selkirks; just beyond the southerly flow of this great river lies the Gold range; next comes the great Interior Plateau, a semiarid region of rolling country, through which pass the tributaries of the Fraser, and which has to the west the principal coast ranges, topographically though not geologically forming a continuation of the Cascade range of the United States; while still beyond, in part drowned in the Pacific ocean, yet emerging high in the islands that fringe the coast of British Columbia, is an outer coast range, the true limit of the Cordilleran Belt. This entire zone is crossed in a devious pathway in about thirty six hours in present day transit from “The Gap” to Victoria.

The nomenclature of this great complex of ranges is as yet by no means established. We have followed Dawson,the Canadian geologist, in applying the name “Rocky Mountains proper” to what lie between the great plains and a vast depression, or trench, which runs from the international boundary more than 600 miles northwesterly and in which flow important streams: some northerly, as the earlier course of the Columbia, the Fraser, the Peace; others in the opposite direction,— the Kootanie, Canoe, and Finlay rivers. To the several ranges between this trench and the Interior Plateau, the Purcell, Selkirks, and Gold, Dawson gives a common name of “the Gold ranges”—a suggestion which has not found general acceptance. Popular nomenclature is also much vexed, many persons still using “Canadian Rockies” and “Selkirks” inclusively or interchangeably — a quite unnecessary confusion, yet giving evidence of the need of a common term in which to comprehend those two distinctively alpine ranges of the new North American Switzerland.1 For the purposes of this article the term “Canadian Rockies” will be restricted to the southern portion of the “Rocky Mountains proper,” limited on the south by the 49th parallel — the international boundary — and extending merely far enough north to take in Mt. Robson and its sister peaks, or to about 53°, 20’. This embraces a region some 300 miles in length, with an average width of 50 miles, including therefore an area of 15,000 square miles, or approximately that of Switzerland. The region immediately to the north as far as the Peace river (Lat. 56°) is slightly known, and even within the limits of this southern district there remain considerable regions but superficially explored and a multitude of unvisited and still nameless peaks.

We have already referred to the approximate parallelism of the main range and the subranges lying east and west of it, which suggests one of the most striking topographical features of the region: longitudinal valleys, in which flow the streams, the largest of which break through the ranges transversely to their axes by ways predetermined by geotectonic processes not yet understood. The heads of the streams flowing north confine with those flowing south in watersheds sometimes quite low, as in the case of the Beaverfoot and the Kootanie (4,200 feet), or high, as in that of the Siffleur and Pipestone (8,364 feet). This hydrography furnishes natural highways in the direction of the ranges,— routes ready at hand for the mountaineer, affording a rich variety of scenery and experiences in his camp life.

East of the Continental Divide the gradient of the streams is comparatively slight, and in their middle courses they meander swiftly, to be sure, but not as torrents — through broad, swampy meadows with quagmires dangerous for packanimals, the socalled “muskeags.” Often marshes, and sometimes pretty lakelets, occupy the height of the land, while at other times a dryer condition and the presence of numerous fine evergreens scattered over grassy meadows give a peculiarly parklike appearance to these passes.

In the passes of the main range a marked difference exists between their eastern and western sides, the slope of the former being gradual; of the latter, sudden and precipitous. A peculiar situation renders the appreciation of this less obvious to one crossing the range by the Canadian Pacific railway. Approaching from, the east, one would be quite oblivious to the fact that he is at “ The Great Divide ” but for the big sign in rustic work announcing the spot. Indeed, the grade is still upward for a short distance, avoiding the marshy land, and it falls in three miles only about 125 feet before reaching Hector station (5,207 feet), where the railway crosses the torrent of the south fork of the Kicking Horse (Cataract creek) at the point where it enters Wapta lake.1 After leaving Wapta lake, the river descends in the next three miles over a thousand feet in an impetuous torrent, gleaming white through the green of a dense forest, as it is churned among the impeding boulders. The railway seeks a more dignified descent at this its most remarkable section, with its superb engineering feat of loops and tunnels.

Even the visitor little versed in physiography cannot fail to notice certain striking characteristics which differentiate the Canadian Rockies from the other mountains of the Cordilleran ranges, and even from their next neighbors, the Selkirks. First their markedly different shape, due primarily to their different geological structure. The forces of nature, frost and heat, the erosion by ice and rushing water, have produced startling effects upon these uplifted and more or less contorted strata of sedimentary rock, once deposited in an ocean bed. Where can one see such precipices, not only those that rise vertically three, four, or even five thousand feet and for miles in extent, but those, architecturally more beautiful, retreating by stages, their tier upon tier separated by narrow inclining shelves covered with unstable screes? Not only in detail on individual mountains, but from some high outlook where the eye ranges over large spaces, one is impressed by the sight of vast synclinals involving peak after peak in their sweep. Occasionally, where the strata are still horizontal, as in Mt. Molar, an actually perpendicular cliff some hundreds of feet in height follows entirely around the mountain, save where, on one side, Nature has shattered a way of access. Dante might have found here models for many a detail of his Mount of Purgatory. On such walls as this Heaven might have deigned to display its moving pictures. Again, where the dilapidating forces have worked more destructively, are weird castellated effects or threatening uplifted fingers, also hundreds of feet high, such as those on the side of Mt. Temple visible from Paradise valley.

From these high stations, too, one appreciates the amount of snowfield and glacier still active in the ancient work of mountain sculpture, an amount of which one gets but a faint hint in the valley routes. Alpinists of much experience in other countries have been impressed by it. Here, too, one can best observe, spread out in the valleys below, the traces of a once far greater glacial energy. Thus from Mt. St. Piran, easily reached from the Chalet at Lake Louise, the valley of the Upper Bow is at one’s feet. That a great glacier once filled its entire breadth is testified by the high river terraces, which the railway skirts on either side of the Bow, and by the great moraine on the eastern side that reaches its dead arm for miles out into the valley.

The rivers as they burst forth from the foothills already bear witness to their origin in existing fields of ice, varying their summer color from a transparent pale green to a turbid yellow, according as a cool period or a heated term has stayed or accelerated the melting of their icy sources.

But the most beautiful heritage of those former conditions are the exquisite lakes, or rather lakelets, perhaps unrivalled anywhere in number, grandeur of setting, and rare beauty of hues. Even the Selkirks have nothing comparable. Sometimes they are mere tarns and seldom more than two or three miles in length, though the more northerly ones near the head of the Athabasca are longer, Fortress lake being estimated at eight miles and the more recently reported Lake Maligne being even larger. They lie at different levels, sometimes in stages one above another in close proximity. The railway skirts only those of lesser beauty in the principal valley. At the next higher plane, say at 5,000 to 7,000 feet above the sea and still below treeline, lying in cirques whose outlet has been blocked by morainal detritus or other barrier, are such gems as Lake Louise, Moraine lake, or Lake O’Hara,—to mention out of scores but a few of the most accessible,— wonderfully grand in their surroundings and beautiful in their tints of amethyst, turquoise, emerald, and those iridescent blues and greens of the peacock’s tyrian plumage. Then still higher, above the limit of trees, in regions of barrenness and solitude, are those that fill rocky basins once hollowed out, it is believed, by the resistless tool of the glacier,— jewels like Lake McArthur in the Bow range and Turquoise lake in the Waputik mountains. Nothing can surpass for exquisiteness of color the soft mazarine blue of the former in the late afternoon of a bright midsummer day. The remnant of the once energetic glacier still rests in the cirque of Mt. Biddle at its upper end, its forefoot submerged in the transparent water. Miniature icebergs slip away from it and float for their brief hour amid the reflections of the over brooding peaks. The lake has no visible outlet, except as it is suggested by an eddy at the lower corner, which indicates where the waters set out on their journey to the Pacific.

And here may be mentioned another feature wherein the Canadian Rockies are almost without a peer,— their remarkable waterfalls, the existence of the more important of which was unsuspected, or at least unappreciated, until as recently as the year 1897. In that year Jean Habel, a German traveller of some note, made the first expedition into the now famous Yoho valley. He may be regarded as the discoverer of the great Takakkaw fall, which rivals the Yosemite in height and surpasses it in volume, as well as of the Laughing falls and the beautiful Twin falls, nearer the head of the valley. This lastmentioned cataract instantly arrested the attention of the Anglo American party of that season at the moment of their first attaining the summit of Mt. Gordon, although at an airline distance of five miles. It seems remarkable that the Canadian topographer, McArthur, failed to see the Takakkaw fall in 1892, when, from a camp on Emerald lake, he occupied a station overlooking the Yoho valley, and hence apparently in full sight of it, and probably within a distance of two miles. Cool weather and a correspondingly slight volume of water from the melting of the glacier might account for it. Within a radius of a few miles from these there are several other noteworthy cascades on either side of the watershed. It is therefore not strange that to travellers familiar with Norway this Waputik district should seem to resemble the alpine portions of that country. Easy of access from Lake Louise are the beautiful Giant Steps falls in Paradise valley. The Japanese wonder of cascades bursting forth from the face of a cliff1 or mountainside is more than once repeated in these regions. So in the stream descending from Lake Oesa — a rockbasin tarn below Abbot pass on the west side of Mt. Lefroy. “ Oesa” means ice, and its surface is often still frozen over in late July. Its waters are dammed at the foot of their hanging valley by a high obstructing moraine, and form here a new lakelet. Descending from the pass on a hot day, one wonders what becomes of the flood of water rushing in: a mystery that is solved when, passing beyond the barrier, one sees it gushing out for a hundred yards or more along the face of the slope and descending in a braided cataract, to gather at the foot and pour once more as a single stream into the adjacent Lake O’Hara.

While none of the glaciers of the Canadian Rockies compare in size with the largest icerivers of Switzerland, such as the Great Aletsch and the Unteraar — respectively fifteen and ten miles in length, and with areas of fifty and fifteen square miles — they are very numerous and present individual features of great interest. True glaciers manifest themselves even in the Rockies of Montana, but they increase in size and manifest the distinctive features more noticeably as one proceeds northward along the main chain and upon the loftier outlying peaks. Upon the lower subranges real glaciers of considerable size seldom occur, though the drifted snows of the previous winter may persist in sheltered places until snow falls again. The usual types of the hanging and piedmont glaciers are common; but most characteristic are the vast uplifted névés, which at several points cover the high watershed as with a blanket, and which send down numerous short icestreams by the gorge like valleys which dissect the range. These lie principally north of the line of the Canadian Pacific railway, though an interesting, minor example is found in the Washmawapta snowfield, resting at 9,000 feet upon a high terrace east of Mt. Helmet of the Ottertail range, a terrace the eastern face of which presents a sheer escarpment 2,000 feet high for a distance of three or four miles. It is as yet unexplored. The first of the larger ones north of the railway is developed upon the high plateaus of the Waputik range, spanning the Great Divide. It may be seen at various points from the train between Laggan and Ottertail stations: first, a mere suggestion of its extensive eastern portion, in the scalloped wave of white breaking at the foot of the escarpment of Mt. Daly; later, after having crossed the Divide, one has a view of its snows up the side valley of the Yoho; and, best of all, in retrospect when approaching Ottertail station. It is very irregular in shape, the part west of the watershed being divided into two great lobes; its extreme length is about fifteen miles, while its breadth varies from two to eight; it may be assumed, therefore, to have an area of fifty square miles, that of the Great Aletsch glacier. In impressive effect, however, it is not to be compared with that superb glacial unit. This great névé sends down no single river of ice, but only minor tongues in various directions: to the north Peyto glacier, the source of Mistaya creek (the most southerly source of the North Saskatchewan) and, west of the Divide, one tributary through Blaeberry creek to the Columbia; to the east descend the Bow, Balfour, and Bath Creek glaciers, chief tributaries to the Bow river; while its largest contribution, that from the Habel, Wapta, and Daly glaciers, goes out by the wild stream of the Yoho river to swell the waters of the Kicking Horse. This type is repeated in the Fresh field and the Lyell glaciers, in the course of the next thirty five miles along the watershed, and reaches its maximum, so far as is known, in the great Columbia icefield, out of which rise the finest array of lofty peaks within the domain of our study,— Mts. Columbia, The Twins, Bryce, and Athabasca. It sends its tribute to three oceans,— the Arctic, Atlantic, and Pacific. Twice visited, it can hardly yet be said to be explored, and its extent can be only approximately stated. Dr. Collie, its discoverer, calls it merely “ bigger than the biggest in Switzerland — that is to say, than the Ewige Schneefeld and the Aletsch glacier combined,” while Outram, who traversed it more completely in his ascent of Mt. Columbia in 1902, estimates it to contain “ an area of about 200 square miles of solid ice at a mean elevation of nearly 10,000 feet above the level of the sea.” This latter estimate would seem to be borne out by the plotting of the field on Collie’s map.— The largest thus far reported of such névés not on the main range is the Brazeau icefield,2 visited by Professor Coleman in 1902.

The glaciers of the Canadian Rockies, as in other parts of the world, are at present retreating, and in most cases, so far as observed, at a rapid rate. A single, very interesting case of very recent and possibly continuing advance is that of the Wenckchemna glacier in the valley of the Ten Peaks, first reported by the Vaux brothers. Dead trees, but still retaining their boughs and bark, are here seen standing in the morainal detritus that borders the icefront. An exhaustive study of the Victoria, Wenckchemna, and Yoho glaciers was made between the summers of 1902 and 1905, by Professor W. H. Sherzer, under the auspices of the Smithsonian Institution, the results of which were published in a valuable monograph.3

Many of the larger lakes and remoter streams still teem with fish, principally lake trout (Salvelinus namaycush), which commonly run from six to ten pounds and occasionally attain extraordinary size, one weighing fortyseven pounds having been taken in Lake Minnewanka, near Banff, in 1899. Large ones are also found in Hector and Bow lakes. The higher, colder lakes (when they are the habitat of any fish), and the clear streams, furnish only the smaller varieties. They may generally be relied on to help eke out the larder of the camper.

Of animals, the chipmunk and red squirrel, the porcupine, pica, and hoary marmot are the most in evidence. Larger game may still be found in the wilder parts: the Rocky Mountain goat, the much rarer “bighorn,” the black and the grizzly bear, the moose in the broader, wet valleys, and, yet more rarely, lesser members of the deer family. The goat may still be seen by mountainclimbers within a few miles of popular resorts, and the black bear still ventures now and then into the immediate neighborhood of the hotels. A herd of fourteen goats and a grizzly bear were seen by the writer’s party in the Ice River valley in 1901, and a black bear in 1903; yet this valley is within a few hours’ walk of Leanchoil. Mr. H. E. M. Stutfield, a keen hunter, in an extended journey with Professor Collie northward to the sources of the Athabasca in 1898, saw a herd of eighteen bighorn near Wilcox pass, one of which he secured. To his description of the hunt he adds: “During the rest of our journey we never saw a single bighorn or goat, or any description of wild game except one bear;” and in general he found it impossible to recommend the Canadian Rockies as a “really first rate hunting ground.” No great variety of bird life impresses itself upon the unprofessional visitor, though certain species abound: the Canada jay or “ whiskyjack,” too sociable about the camp; the “ fool hen,” or Franklin grouse, ever inviting some deadly missile or cudgel by his preternatural tameness; the tiny waterouzel, tumbling with frightened peep into the swift current of some swift rill by the side of the glacier, on which it tosses like a chip; the ptarmigan, anything but timid, on the snow or barren rocks above snowline. Besides these there are the Richardson and Canadian ruffed grouse, and various species of ducks.

The flora is exceedingly varied and exuberant in its profusion. No garden ever teemed with more of beauty than some of these variegated upland meadows in late June or early July. A wealth of columbines, harebells, pentstemons, gentians, loniceras, anemones, spotted mountain lilies and the pale gold of the snowlilies, the giant false forgetme not (Lappula floribunda), the tiny linnaea, scenting a single square foot of turf with a hundred blossoms, heather, both white and pink, whole mountainsides where the lire has run burning again with the fireweed or, more beautiful still, with a garment of castilleia ranging through a gamut of pinks and reds. We have cited but a few. The flora of the East is here consorting with alpine species unknown upon Appalachian hills. The trees are chiefly conifers: the balsam, Douglas fir, Engelmann spruce, the giant cedar (Thuya plicata), jackpine (Pinus Murrayana), and, higher up, the Pinus albicaulis, while at the limit of treeline thrives the Lyall’s larch. The deciduous trees are represented by the less stately species: the poplar and cottonwood, smooth maple, scrubbirch, wild cherry. Treeline varies from about 7,000 feet in the southern to 6,000 in the more northerly region, the glaciers frequently descending a thousand feet lower.

Of the earlier race that roamed these valleys — the Stoney Indians, said to be a branch of the Sioux — one catches no sight, unless it be as the train passes Morley station, within the reservation of the vanishing tribe, a few miles east of “ The Gap.” In fifteen visits to the mountains, the present writer has never once fallen in with them, though others have been more fortunate. Their old trails may still be followed, with some difficulty, and the poles of their “ tepees ” may be found standing in the remoter valleys, but no other signs of their existence are visible. They are even less in evidence than the large game, the hunting of which furnished these simple children of Nature with their most important means of subsistence. The reports of the Palliser expedition and the later ones of the Dominion surveyors make occasional reference to falling in with their parties. The terrors, therefore, with which his compatriots endeavored to dissuade from his purpose good Peter Sarbach, the first Swiss guide to make a contract for a season here, were quite groundless — the dangers of “ savage beasts and still more savage men ” !

II.

Exploration and Alpinism

Exploration, taken in its broadest sense, began in the Canadian Rockies as early as 1793, when Alexander Mac Kenzie, the Scotch explorer for whom the great subarctic river is named, became the first of white men to make the overland journey. It naturally falls into four periods: that of the casual transit of individual travellers, furtraders and others; that of the governmental surveys which preceded and immediately followed the construction of the Canadian Pacific railway; the era of the pioneer alpinists and conquest of the principal peaks between the Vermillion and Athabasca passes; and the present era, which may be regarded as dating from the organizing of the Alpine Club of Canada in 1906.

We mention here merely pro memoria the earliest recorded expeditions: besides that of MacKenzie, the nearly contemporaneous visitations (17991814) of Alexander Henry, a hunter of the Northwest Company, and David Thompson, its “ official geographer and explorer,” whose manuscript journals were not published until 1897 ;1 the ascent of the Saskatchewan to its source in Howse pass and descent of the Blaeberry for a little distance, by A. McGillivray, an associate of Thompson, in 1800; the exploration of Fraser river by Simon Fraser, Jules Quesnel, and John Stuart in 1809; a journey by Gabriel Franchère from Astoria, over the Athabasca pass, to the Saskatchewan in 1814; the visit in 1827 of the Scotch botanist David Douglas, who crossed the Athabasca pass, named Mts. Brown and Hooker, and to whose strange misapprehension of his baselevel was due the exaggerated altitudes until lately attributed to those peaks; then comes in 1841 the overland journey of Sir George Simpson, first to report,2 though vaguely, on a region now best known of all, for in reaching the Vermillion and Kootanie rivers by the pass which bears his name, he at least crossed the Bow valley at the base of Cascade mountain; and Father de Smet’s journey eastward over White Man’s pass and through the mountains northward of the Bow to Mountain House. Here, too, may be mentioned a hunting trip of Lord Southesk in 1859, reported in his Saskatchewan and Rocky Mountains, and the journey in 1863 of Viscount Milton and Dr. Cheadle, who crossed the range by the Yellow head pass and made their way to Kamloops by the valley of the Thompson.3

The second period — and the first of serious exploration — begins with the Palliser expedition, authorized by the British government in 1857 for a very practical purpose: “ to ascertain whether any practical pass, or passes, available for horses exist across the Rocky mountains within British territory and south of that known to exist between Mount Brown and Mount Hooker.” The expedition was organized immediately, and took the field, continuing its work until 1860. The first year was largely spent in exploring the still little known territory between Lake Superior and the foothills of the Rockies. The major part of the work among the mountains was accomplished in 1858 and 1859.

Several of the principal valleys were traversed by the several parties into which the expedition was divided, and the Kootanie, Kananaskis, Vermillion, Kicking Horse, and Howse passes were crossed.

The most active of, all these explorers was Dr. (afterwards Sir) James Hector, to whom we owe our first definite knowledge of the section now most familiar. On August 11, 1858, he entered the Bow valley at “ The Gap,” proceeded up the stream on the north (true left) side as far as the base of Castle mountain, forded the Bow river, and made his way by Little Vermillion creek to the Vermillion pass. He descended the river of that name to the Kootanie; then, in order not to trench on the ground of his chief, who was exploring the Kananaskis pass, he turned north, crossed over the low divide into the Beaver foot valley, peered as he passed by into that of the Ice river, and shortly afterward came upon the turbulent flow of a strange stream equal in volume to the Bow. The misbehavior of one of his pack animals while encamped near its banks, which nearly resulted in the untimely ending of an important career, gave the new stream its dubious name, the Kicking Horse. A few days of quiet restored the energetic victim sufficiently to warrant the continuance of the journey, which was up the course of this stream and over the now famous railway pass back to the Bow valley. Turning north, the party proceeded over Bow pass and down to the forks of the Saskatchewan. After a detour to the west to explore Glacier lake and glance at the Lyell glacier, he passed down the Saskatchewan to the rendezvous at Fort Edmonton (now Edmonton), arriving there on October 7. In midwinter, starting on January 12, he undertook a sledgingparty to the sources of the Athabasca, passed the mouth of Whirlpool river, and went some ten miles beyond. Late summer of 1859 found him far to the south in the Cypress hills, from which point he was dispatched to cross the Divide by Howse pass, and, after reaching the Columbia valley, to seek a passage through the Selkirks. He again (August 17) entered by the Bow river, turned north by the Pipestone, crossed the pass of this name, and proceeded down the Siffleur to the Saskatchewan, thence entering Howse pass. On September 6 he visited what is now known as the Fresh field glacier, and that same day crossed the hardly noticeable height of the land. For the next ten days he wrestled with the various difficulties of the illreputed Blaeberry valley, and reached the Columbia on the 17th.

The intensive character of Hector’s work as compared with that of the other leaders is witnessed by the large number of names given, and in particular to the mountains, though unfortunately the discrepancy between his journal and the first map of the expedition, which appeared in 1865, renders it difficult to identify many even of the most important ones. This is true of Lefroy, Vaux, Goodsir, and Balfour.1 The most interesting region, between the North Saskatchewan and the Athabasca, where are congregated the largest number of lofty peaks, was left unvisited, and so remained until the coming of the alpinist explorers a full generation later.

The situation underwent a new phase with the building of the Canadian Pacific railway, which greatly facilitated, while it rendered necessary, the work of the two surveys (Geological and Topographical) of the Dominion. The activity of both is of the greatest interest in its relation to mountaineering, and it is a pity that the story of an almost incredible number of ascents, told frequently with all the enthusiasm of the climber for sport, should be hidden away in voluminous government reports. The great majority of these ascents were, it is true, of rock peaks between 7,000 and 9,000 feet, but the occasional attainment of rather difficult rock summits surpassing 10,000 feet, like Wind (originally “ Windy ”) mountain, and of peaks involving a certain amount of snow and ice work, such as Mts. Aylmer, Stephen, and Owen, bears witness to no small degree of enterprise and skill.

The Geological Survey was first in the field in 1883, with its energetic director, Mr.G. M. Dawson, observing a multitude of details in the valleys, and later with Mr. R. S. McConnell as its most active representative on the heights. In the season of 1885 the latter surveyed 5,000 square miles from the watershed east and between the Canadian Pacific railway and the Saskatchewan, carefully triangulating the ranges bordering upon the principal streams. In 1886 his “ work was begun on the 24th of May at the Gap of the Bow river, and during the summer all the subordinate ranges between that point and Golden City were ascended and examined, involving altogether climbing to the extent of 200,000 feet.”

The names of W. S. Drewry and J. McArthur are most in evidence in the work of the Topographical Survey, carried on between 1886 and 1892. Triangulation and camera stations were annually occupied by the score. For 1889 McArthur reports “ 25 ascents from 8,000 to 10,000 feet above the sea; ” the year following, “ 38 mountains ranging from 7,000 to 10,000 feet;” and makes his record in 1891 with “ 43 ascents from 8,000 to 10,000 feet and 400 miles over pack trails.” In this same year Drewry claims to have reached 10,900 feet on some peak at the head of Sawback creek; he also made the ascent of “ Mt. Russell, the highest peak of the Van Horn range” (the present Mt. Deville) and of the peak now bearing the name of his associate, but until recently known as Station XVIII, “ after climbing four lesser peaks in its neighborhood.” Yet more interesting, he reached a height of 10,400 feet on Mt. Hector (11,125 feet) before abandoning it — not as inaccessible, but too unpromising for his purposes. In connection with the survey the names of Klotz, St. Cyr, and Bourgeau also deserve more than passing mention, and no record of this period would be just, not to say complete, that failed to appreciate the splendid auxiliary work of Thomas E. Wilson, pathfinder, hunter, prospector, Indian trader, and dependable friend, whose numerous expeditions through these wild valleys gave him a most accurate knowledge of their topography and of their special difficulties, and made him the wise adviser, also, of those who were shortly to appear.

With such wholesale assaults it would seem as if nothing could have been left unconquered; but, thanks to the great number of these serried peaks, and yet more to the lesser interest of the snow crowned ones for geologists and topographers, even this region of “ the railway belt ” remained practically a virgin field for real alpinism. As late as the early summer of 1894 not one of the principal peaks of the nearlying Bow range had been ascended.

But now the day of the alpinist dawned for the Rockies. The fame of Mt. Sir Donald had already allured English and Swiss alpineclub men to the Selkirks in 1888 and 1890, and W. S. Greene in this latter year had published his Among the Selkirk Glaciers. In their hasty return through the Rockies, he and his companion had devoted a day to the perfectly wild and as yet almost unknown beauties of Lake Louise, soon to become the most favored goal of tourists and explorers. To this spot came in 1893 the little party of Yale students who first aspired to scale the surrounding snow peaks. Chief among these were S. E. S. Allen and W. D. Wilcox.

They made a disastrous trial of Lefroy, one of their party being injured by a falling rock, and were also turned back on Mt.

Temple. Returning in 1894. they accomplished the first ascent of this latter peak. Endowed with the qualities of the explorer even more than of the alpinist, both these gentlemen entered with spirit into the closer investigation of the Bow range, and later (separately) extended their excursions to the base of Mt. Assiniboine. Both gave to the public the results of their labors,— Allen on the pages of The Alpine Journal and Wilcox in his Camping in the Canadian Rockies. A sad visitation early closed the promising career of the former; the latter returned again and again to this fascinating field, extending his studies south to beyond Kananaskis pass and north to Fortress lake, whose waters he was first to traverse. These later explorations, illustrated, as was the earlier volume, with the exquisite products of his camera, are recorded in the two editions (1900 and 1908) of his Rockies of Canada.

The advance guard of the coming delegation of the Appalachian Mountain Club, to whose activities the historiographers of Canadian alpinism have accorded generous recognition, were also on the ground in 1894, and heard the story of Mt. Temple from the lips of its victors. The next year saw them here again, reinforced, and Mt. Hector became their first conquest. Mt. Lefroy was also reconnoitred by them, and Mt. Stephen ascended, before they passed on for new climbs in the Selkirks. The year following (1896) they were again at the foot of Lefroy, hoping for success. The fatal fall of their leader, Philip Abbot, a few hundred feet below the summit, tragically ended the climbing for that season. The subsequent winter witnessed the formation of the “Alpine Section ” within the larger society, whose enthusiastic members continued to make the Canadian Rockies their principal field of activity. When later the Section was disbanded, its members became identified with the American Alpine Club (1902); wherefore the conquests credited to either of these two societies are shared by the other. They are recorded in the appended table.

The death of Philip Abbot had an important sequel in the assembling in the following season (1897) of an Anglo American party. Besides Professor H. B. Dixon, a friend of Abbot, with whom he had climbed in Switzerland, and Peter Sarbach, who had been their guide, this notable party also included Professor J. N. Collie, then making his first visit to the region. Mts. Lefroy and Victoria were climbed, and shortly afterward Mt. Gordon. On the breaking up of the party, Collie and G. P. Baker made a vain trial for Mt. Forbes, returning by way of Howse pass and a ruder one, named for Baker, which led them out to Field. This was the first of the five visits of Dr. Collie, whose explorations on both sides of the Divide in quest of Mt. Hooker place him among the most energetic and successful of the pioneers of the region. They are most interestingly presented in his Climbs in the Canadian Rockies. It was in this same year that Jean Habel made his first visit, to which we have already referred. In 1901 he came again and pushed his investigations northward to Fortress lake, in connection with which he made the first exploration and the sources of the western branch of the Athabasca.1

The year 1901 brought Mr. Edward Whymper and his contingent of Swiss guides, who accompanied the veteran of English alpinism upon many interesting trips, including several first ascents. It is to be hoped that the wealth of varied material which he accumulated in this and later visits may yet see the light in permanent form.

Mr. James Outram, who had previously gained a rich experience in the Alps, a bold and most enterprising climber, had made his first visit in 1900. In the following two years he made an extraordinary record of first ascents, ranging from Mt. Assiniboine to Mt. Columbia, and including the majority of the principal peaks between these limits. In his Heart of the Canadian Rockies he has given to the world in graceful form, not only the story of his own climbs, but a full chronicle of the high mountaineering done here between the years 1894 and 1903.

With this latter date the first chapter may be regarded as closing. A new one began with the founding of the Alpine Club of Canada, under the vigorous initiative of Mr. A. O. Wheeler, then of the Dominion Topographical Survey. The same ardent enthusiasm that inspired those earlier surveyors had descended upon him, coupled with an eagerness to arouse Canadians to an appreciation of their Switzerland and the enjoyment of its pleasures. The patriotic motive proved strong and contagious, and within a phenomenally short period a large and energetic society has been organized. While its activity has been manifest principally in introducing its novitiates to the delights of alpinism upon already conquered peaks in close proximity to the railway, several first ascents at longer range have recently been made by its members, most notable of all the audacious climb of Mt. Robson in 1909 by the Rev. G. B. Kinney and D. Phillips.

What have the Canadian Rockies still to offer to lovers of the sport? The Grand Trunk Pacific is just opening an easy approach to an almost virgin region with great possibilities. Already its aid has been of service to a pioneer party, that of Dr. Collie and Mr. A. L. Mumm, who with the guide Moritz Inderbinen and their “outfit” started in July, 1910, from its momentary terminus at Wolf creek, hoping to make the second ascent of Mt. Robson and “ firsts ” of peaks of lesser magnitude. Forty days of bad weather thwarted their principal object, but they succeeded in ascending a peak (still unnamed) 10,700 feet in altitude, situated “ opposite the end of the Robson glacier,” and a snow peak, which they estimated to be 11,100 feet high, lying north of White Horn mountain. This latter seemed to be some 000 to 700 feet higher. A certain Mt. Resplendent, southeast of Mt. Robson, was also attempted. Already we can foresee in imagination the series of brilliant articles, adorned with impressive illustrations, that the alpine periodicals will in the immediate future have the privilege of presenting from this still virgin field. But the more familiar district will for many years have the advantage of it, excepting for the most strenuous order of alpinists. Numerous fine peaks are readily available for single day climbs from the hotels as bases. Such are Mts. Victoria, Lefroy, Huber, Aberdeen, and Stephen. Others, like Temple, the Ten Peaks, Hungabee, Hector, Balfour, Owen, Vaux, Goodsir, and Helmet require, if the weather be favorable, but one night out, or possibly two. Longer journeys with a packtrain are required for remoter peaks, the arrangements for which can best be made on the ground, at Banff, Laggan, or Field.

Since 1899 the Canadian Pacific railway has annually brought over Swiss guides, who are leased to those desiring their services. Though often they may for several days at a time have no engagements, there is no certainty, of course, that they will be found free by unannounced parties desiring their services.

While the short excursions afford rare pleasure, nothing can surpass the delight of a campingparty of several days or a few weeks in these regions. For those who desire a “ comfortable ” camp the season is comparatively short, the months of July and August. The snow lies late in the higher valleys and the ice may tarry upon the lakes far into June, and yet later in the higher ones. Snowsqualls and quite pretentious precipitations may occur in any month, converting the summer landscape into a scene of rare beauty, while heavy falls with uncomfortably low temperatures may be expected in September. The midsummer weather is, in general, temperate, with warm noons and cool nights. These latter serve to mitigate the one drawback,— the mosquito pest,— which, however, varies greatly in degree with different seasons, and may in a measure be provided against. Rain is less frequent than in the Selkirks, whose chilly summits condense in advance the eastward drifting moisture of the Pacific. Good water is everywhere plentiful, and abundant pasturage for the animals usually not far to seek. The tent by the lakeside or in forest glade and the bivouac at treeline furnish rare treats to the eye, while the peace of the hills prepares one for deep and refreshing sleep.

Copyright, 1911, by the American Alpine Club.

1It is to meet this real need that the present author has for some years had recourse, with others, to the expression “Canadian Alps,” covering thereby the glacier bearing mountains of the two ranges.

1 Dawson thought it probable that these waters originally drained eastward, which would mean that Cathedral Mt. and Mt. Stephen were once peaks of the watershed.

1The Manuscript Journals of Alexander Henry, FurTrader of the NorthWest Company, and of David Thompson, Official Geographer and Explorer of the same Company.

3 vols. Edited by Elliot Coues.,

2Overland Journey round the World. 3The Northwest Passage by Land.

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