American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Sierra Club Ascents in the Canadian Rockies

  • Feature Article
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1929

Sierra Club Ascents in the Canadian Rockies

Norman Clyde

FOR its summer outing of 1928 the Sierra Club of California decided upon a trip to the Canadian Rockies. Two base camps of about ten days each were contemplated: one in the Tonquin Valley, the other in the vicinity of Mt. Robson.

On the day of our arrival at Jasper the first climbing party set out for Mt. Edith Cavell. After leaving the road about a mile below its terminus at the Glacier of the Angel, we contoured around the mountain for a few miles, eventually camping for the night near timberline on its western flank. The ascent on the following morning did not prove a difficult one, although, through lack of acquaintance with the country, we did not follow the most direct route. It was essentially a rather easy rock-climb with some snow and ice near the summit, which consists of a narrow arête somewhat over a half-mile long, on this occasion deeply covered with snow and heavily corniced with it to the north. Owing to its height—11,033 ft. above sea-level—and its somewhat isolated position, the summit commands a magnificent view, especially to the south and southeast. On the day of our ascent, heavy clouds hung low over the snow-clad mountains, which displayed an impressive chiaroscuro effect of sunlight and shadow. The descent was down the south face. The route followed in the ascent is a good one, provided that one has other climbs in prospect on the upper Astoria River. Otherwise it is better to utilize an eastern arête which is more accessible and affords a more interesting climb.

On the ensuing day we ascended the Astoria River for a few miles, forded it and then followed an old trail westward to the Tonquin Valley and onward to Moat Lake at the upper end of the latter, where the remainder of the club was encamped. We were greatly impressed by the Ramparts springing up sheer for thousands of feet above the verdant expanse of the Tonquin Valley in a magnificent array of battlemented peaks. We could compare them with no other mountains with which we were familiar except the Tetons of Wyoming. Both rise abruptly from a broad valley to great elevations in spire-like peaks that for sublime ruggedness have few parallels in America.

Of the more difficult peaks of the Ramparts we climbed only Mts. Bastion (9,814 ft.) and Geikie (10,854 ft.). Both being unscalable from the valley in which we were encamped, it was necessary to cross a pass about midway along the series for the first and to flank it by going around Mt. Barbican for the second. Mt. Bastion proved to be an excellent rock climb, not extraordinarily difficult, but sufficiently so to render it attractive to an expert alpinist. The panorama which its summit commands is very magnificent. On one side is the wide expanse of the Tonquin Valley; on the other, the deep gorge of a tributary of the Fraser River, some miles of its upper reaches being occupied by the Bennington Glacier. This is flanked on one side by the jagged Ramparts, on the other by a line of dark peaks terminating in Postern Peak, a tapering pyramid directly south across the valley. In every direction broken, snow-clad peaks extend to a distant horizon.

The ascent of Mt. Geikie, the highest of the Ramparts, was considerably the more difficult of the two. The starting point was Geikie Meadow, several miles southwest of the base of the mountain. Under the leadership of Hans Fuhrer, an expert Swiss guide who had already made two ascents of the peak, we set forth shortly after dawn, going eastward until we came abreast of the Inkwell— a small, circular lake of a peculiar deep blue. Turning northward, we trudged over loose material until we arrived at the base of a steep snow-filled couloir. The route of the first ascent of Mt. Geikie was up this long, steep chute to a notch, and thence along the crest of the summit—an arduous and rather perilous climb. Hans, however, had discovered another way entailing a great variety of rock- work and involving a certain amount of hazard from falling rock, but on the whole much easier.

After ascending the frozen snow of the couloir for perhaps 500 ft., we scrambled up the rocks to the left. There we roped up in two parties of five and four each. Having surmounted several hundred feet of ledges, we came to a chimney, the lower portion of which was obstructed by heaps of loose rock; the upper, for a distance of perhaps 50 ft., approached the vertical and contained none too many holds. This behind us, we walked along a shelving ledge for several rods to a pitch demanding a rather long reach, up which we hoisted ourselves. Before long we came to a strip of rock sloping up steeply and possessing nothing in the way of holds except a few rounded protuberances—a type of surface best negotiated with rubber or rope soles. Having neither, we rather gingerly picked our way up it with our nailed ones. We then swung westward along a horizontal shelf running in spectacular fashion above sheer cliffs and narrowing on several occasions to slightly embarrassing traverses. This passed, we proceeded up a succession of couloirs, gradually working to the left until we rounded another shoulder and went along another level shelf perhaps a hundred yards in length. The summit was then within view and apparently only about 1000 ft. above us.

In the morning the sky had been perfectly clear, but now clouds were rapidly gathering in it. With the peak almost within our grasp, we quickened our pace. Up snow slopes, along rocky protuberances, over several vertical pitches we hurried until the summit arête was reached. A few minutes later we stood on the highest point, a mound of snow corniced to the north. By this time rolling masses of clouds were sweeping over the Ramparts, and we were enveloped in driving snow. Far below us lay the green basin of the Tonquin Valley, dimly descried through the vapor. Through rifts peered the craggy summits of Mts. Turret and Bastion, while scores of snow- clad peaks loomed obscurely in the distance. Within a few minutes we had begun the descent. Although we went along steadily and with fair speed, darkness overtook us in the last couloir. Eventually reaching the base of the mountain, several continued on to camp, while the others sat about a fire until dawn—at this latitude and season about 2 a. m.—before completing the descent. By the route followed, Mt. Geikie is almost entirely a rock-climb, and although it does not present any extraordinarily dangerous passages it does possess an unusual amount of rather difficult climbing.

Several days later the Sierra Club party alighted from the train at Emperor, a few miles from the base of Mt. Robson, the next goal of our endeavor. From a study, through binoculars, of the second ice-fall, the chief obstacle to be overcome in an ascent by the south face, it seemed possible to flank it by going along a shelf to the left. There was some likelihood also that there might be a negotiable crevice somewhere along its face. Hoping that one or the other of these alternatives would prove true, a group of about fifteen climbers was organized with Hans and Heinie Fuhrer as guides.

On the afternoon of the next day we reached the first ice-fall, an elevation of about 8,000 ft., and made camp on a shaly limestone ridge immediately below it. The weather being delightful, the greater part of the evening was spent in scrambling about the ice-fall or in leisurely surveying the magnificent sweep of profound green valleys and lofty snow-capped mountains commanded by our campsite. Shortly after dawn, on the ensuing morning, we were picking our way up a ridge of loose limestone followed by a snow slope and a narrow snow-covered arête. About seven o’clock we arrived at the second ice-fall. Somewhat to our dismay we saw that the ledge along which we had hoped to pass the fall was completely covered by an overhanging wall of ice, and to our disappointment also there appeared no feasible crevice along the vertical ice-front. After a futile attempt to surmount it at one place, Hans cut his way around a bulging mass of ice and discovered a narrow ice-shelf beyond it. Less than 2 ft. in width and dropping away sheer for 100 ft., he cautiously made his way along it, cutting steps, until he succeeded in scaling a less steep portion of the wall. After some time, his brother joined him, and together they hewed their way to a crevice in the ice where they made an “anchor” of an ice-ax. As several hours had elapsed, the sun was now shining warmly on the ice, and there was some danger from falling séracs. Three of us followed on the rope.1 Although there remained about 100 ft. of the ice-cliff to be surmounted, no especial difficulty was encountered until a cornice projecting from its upper margin was reached. Hans, however, found a way over it, and the others followed. From there we pursued a zigzag course up the face of the mountain, now veering to avoid a yawning crevasse and again to go around a menacing ice- cliff. Cutting our way up a steep ice-slope, trudging steadily up ever-steepening snow, we came to the base of a snow chimney filled with loose snow up which we made our way as best we might. Finally we emerged on a narrow crest with great cornices projecting to the north, and after following it for a few hundred yards, reached the summit, a snow mound near its western terminus.

There was scarcely a cloud in the deep-blue sky. The panorama of rugged snow-clad mountains was the most magnificent we had yet seen, but we could linger for only a few minutes unless we chose to shiver all night above the ice-fall, since it would be impossible to descend it by night. It was already nearly 4 o’clock. We were therefore soon threading our way down the face of the mountain. It was dusk when we arrived at the ice-fall. Dropping down over the cornice, we descended to the anchoring place and waited for Hans. When the anchor was ready, Heinie went down first, and three of us followed him. After doubling the rope over a projection, Hans came last. He descended steadily and safely until he reached the worst part of the shelf. There his rope gave out, and it was already too dark for him to see his way clearly. He pulled down the rope, but was almost swept from the shelf by the force of the impact. Eventually he attached to it a small rope which we had gotten to him, enabling us to draw the larger one around the projection and, a little later, Hans himself. A few hours later we arrived at camp.

On the following day we leisurely made our way down the base of the mountain and, on the next, joined the main camp situated on the margin of Lake Adolphus, a few miles northeast of Mt. Robson. For a week we had ideal weather in which to climb the nearby mountains. Those who wished a very easy ascent and a good view, climbed Titkana Peak; those who desired something more arduous and still finer views, ascended Mt. Mumm or Mt. Lynx, while those who were eager for a snow climb walked up the Robson Glacier for a few miles and onward to the summit of Mt. Resplendent—one of the most beautiful snow mountains in the Canadian Rockies.

Near the end of our sojourn the weather changed. However, we would not be satisfied without at least an attempt on Mt. White- horn (11,101 ft.), a few miles to the west, and, next to Mt. Robson, the most difficult mountain in the vicinity. The clouds appearing about to break away one afternoon, we shouldered our packs and followed the trail to within a few miles of its base. Early the next morning we were on our way, although the weather prospects were anything but favorable, the summits of both Mt. Robson and Mt. Whitehorn being wrapped in thick cloud. Arriving at the foot of the mountain, we began to zigzag up the glacier, gradually veering to the right until the northwest shoulder of the mountain was gained. We then dropped several hundred feet, rounded another shoulder and commenced to make our way up another glacier on its western face. After crossing the bergschrund, we scaled a 30-ft. wall, cut our way up a steep ice-slope and then followed a ridge several hundred yards to the left, to be confronted by an almost vertical wall perhaps 150 ft. high. Hans, however, succeeded in clambering up the narrow shelves of its disintegrating limestone. The remainder of the party ascended behind him, the lower ones regaled with a shower of rock fragments, one of which found Heinie’s nose, very much to his discomfort. Ail reached the top safely, although it was the most precarious bit of rock-work encountered on the trip. A few minutes later we plunged into cloud; several more, and we stood on the summit by the cairn, unable to see more than a few yards through the thick vapor and falling snow which enveloped us.

A quarter of an hour later we were on our way down the mountain. To avoid the shaly cliff we went directly south and swung around a shelf under a rather embarrassing overhang to the ridge up which we had come. We continued in the same direction, hoping to be able to reach the base of the mountain and go down a valley to Kinney Lake. We were, however, confronted by one obstacle after another. After being thwarted by a sheer drop, we ran along a shelf beneath an ice-fall, only to be stopped by the stream issuing from the snout of the glacier. Our next move was to cross the glacier above the ice-fall, continue southward over a ridge and down a chute. The latter, however, suddenly terminated in a steep wall. Veering to the left along a narrow shelf, we dropped down a very steeply sloping pitch having few holds, then along another shelf and finally down a broken rock face to the foot of the cliff. By nightfall we had reached timberline, where we bivouacked for the night. In the morning Hans went out to recon- noiter, but soon returned, reporting an apparently unsurmountable cliff below. As it was our last day and we were without food, rather than take further chances, we decided to retrace our way around the northwestern shoulder of Mt. Whitehorn. About ten hours later we arrived at the Dennison and Brittain ranch, somewhat weary and most ravenously hungry.

Mountaineering in the Canadian Rockies Compared with That in the Sierra Nevada and Certain Other American Ranges

Methods used in climbing in the Canadian Rockies differ greatly from those in vogue in the Sierra Nevada. The formation of the mountains, the nature of the rock of which they are composed, their climate and vegetation all tend to differentiate them. The Sierra is essentially a great massif faulted up to a great elevation, sloping gently to the west, but breaking off abruptly to the east in a great escarpment some 8,000 ft. in height in the vicinity of Mt. Whitney, but gradually becoming lower to the north. On account of this structure, many peaks that drop away sheer on the east decline rather gently toward the west, thus affording an easy means of ascent. There are, however, about a score of peaks in the Sierra, ranging from 12,000 to over 14,000 ft. in height, which are difficult to climb, and a considerable number of others generally regarded as being easy climbs, but which afford interesting scrambles up their more precipitous faces. Being composed for the most part of granite and various kinds of firm metamorphic rock, the peaks are generally comparatively free from loose and friable material. This, of course, conduces to safety in climbing them.

In the Canadian Rockies, on the other hand, the prevailing quartzite, limestone and slate possess much less dependable hand and foot holds, and the danger from rock slides and ricocheting fragments is much greater than in the Sierra. The stratification in the highest part of the range is not far from horizontal, and this, together with the less durable nature of the rocks, tends to the formation of large, roughly symmetrical masses, of which Mt. Robson is an example.

A still greater variation exists in the climate. In the Sierra, during summer, storms are, as a rule, seldom encountered, and those which do occur are usually of short duration. There is also little hazard from snow and virtually none from ice during that season, for the winter snow has by that time largely disappeared, and although there are numerous small glaciers scattered about in the range, only two are of any consequence—the one on the north slope of Mt. Lyell, and the series to the north of the Palisades—and no danger is incurred in traversing either of them. The only difficult ice climbing available in summer is found in the steep couloirs running up the north face of the Palisades and a few other peaks in the Sierra. Ice-falls are unknown.

Generally speaking, the peaks of the Sierra can be readily approached, especially from the west. This is due to the abundance of trails, to the absence of swollen streams and dense timber, and to the comparatively open character of a strip a few miles wide to the west of the crest of the range. For a distance of 100 miles along the highest portion of the range, one can follow the latter with ease on foot, and for a great portion of it, with no great difficulty on horseback. Timberline averages about 11,000 ft. above sea-level. One can therefore usually reach a Sierra peak and camp well up on its slope with comparative ease. In the Canadian Rockies, however, lack of trails, heavy forest, turbulent streams and a low timberline sometimes render the approach to a mountain almost as strenuous as its ascent.

In consequence of these varied divergences between the mountains of the two regions there is considerable difference in the technique followed by climbers in them. That used in the Canadian Rockies is similar to methods current in the Alps and other northerly ranges, while mountaineers in the Sierra have developed a rather unconventional one.

Owing to the comparative absence of snow and ice, alpenstocks and ice-axes are seldom carried. The shoes worn are generally provided with ordinary hobnails, and basket-ball or other rubber-soled ones are often used in rock climbing, or in following the trails. Although light ropes are generally carried, members of climbing parties very infrequently rope together, even where this would undoubtedly be done in more northerly ranges. The result has been more or less individualistic climbing practices, having both strong and weak phases. On the one hand, it has rendered the typical Sierra climber rather self-dependent; on the other, it may be responsible for casualties which might not have occurred were the rope more commonly used, and were solitary climbing not engaged in to so great an extent, especially by inexperienced or rash persons. The difficulties and dangers of climbing in the Sierra are therefore to a large extent limited to loose and glaciated rock, and to the scaling of steep chimneys and faces and narrow knife edges.

In going from the Canadian Rockies to the mountains of the northwestern United States, one finds there more snow and different rocks. Usually a number of routes of varying difficulty are available up the great volcanic cones. Steep snow on ice-slopes, crevasses, ice- falls, walls or pinnacles of lava render some of them more strenuous and hazardous than others. In the Cascades of Oregon the rock is often friable volcanic material; in the Cascades and the Olympics of Washington it is usually granite or other forms of igneous rock of a dependable character. The climbers of both States have a highly developed snow and ice technique following Alpine models.

In the American Rockies, the Tetons have some resemblance to the Ramparts of Jasper Park. The Grand Teton is an unusually majestic mountain. Its ascent is primarily a rock-climb, and although a difficult one is not extraordinarily so. Its rock is everywhere firm, and the holds are usually fairly abundant. Mt. Moran, although considerably lower, is a more hazardous peak. Two routes are available: one up a long steep couloir, the other up a rock face and along a shoulder of the mountain. The former is somewhat like, but not so long as, the one by which the first ascent of Mt. Geikie was made. It is so steep that a slip would be very dangerous to an unroped climber, and if the snow should be so firm as to prevent one from “kicking-in,” a great deal of step cutting would be necessary. There is also danger from rock-slides, the snow often being deeply furrowed by them. The “rock route” is generally conceded to be difficult. The climbing of Mt. Geikie involves more arduous rock-work than that of the Grand Teton and the route is much more intricate. The ascent of the Grand Teton is, however, a harder climb than that of Mt. Bastion.

Mountaineering in Glacier Park is more nearly like that in the Canadian Rockies than any found elsewhere in the United States. The rocks—chiefly limestone and argillite—resemble each other in composition and stratification. However, in Glacier Park, on account of the relatively low altitude, the glaciers, though numerous, are with one exception small. The climbing is therefore, on the whole, a matter of rock rather than snow and ice work. Two ranges, the Livingstone and the Lewis, traverse the park in a longitudinal direction. The former has a moderately steep fault scarp to the west; the latter a very precipitous one to the east. Consequently the western face of the Livingstone and the eastern one of the Lewis are steep and often unscalable, while the opposite ones are frequently quite easy of ascent. There is, however, an abundance of moderately difficult and some really difficult rock-work. The majority of the peaks, particularly in the Lewis Range, being readily accessible from excellent trails, afford interesting excursions without the hardships attendant upon mountaineering in a great portion of the Canadian Rockies. The equipment and technique employed should be similar to those in vogue farther north, but there is not so much occasion for using a rope.

1 Norman Clyde, Marion Montgomery, Don Woods.—[Ed.]

This AAJ article has been reformatted into HTML. Please contact us if you spot an error.