American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Some New Ascents Near Maligne Lake

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  • Publication Year: 1929

Some New Ascents Near Maligne Lake

W. R. Hainsworth

IN 1923 Howard Palmer and Allen Carpe carried out the first extensive climbing campaign in the Maligne Lake district, some twenty miles southeast of Jasper, Alberta. An account published by Palmer1 in the following year called attention to the attractions of the region. Yet this mountaineers’ paradise has quietly awaited new climbers until the summer of 1928, when it was visited by four of us,2 of whom Max Strumia and I remained to climb.

The principal unclimbed peaks near the Lake were Mt. Charlton, Mt. Sampson, Mt. Warren and The Thumb. With the hope that we might be fortunate enough to visit the final cornice of each of these mountains we started out from Jasper on July 6. The road as far as Maligne Canyon was in perfect condition, but from that point on only a portion of the time was spent in and on the automobile, which, under the determined direction of “Curly” Phillips, carried us to the foot of Medicine Lake. The motor-boat trip up Medicine Lake, situated in the shadow of a striking serrated limestone range and bordered by beautiful woods, was extremely enjoyable. After lunch we walked the remaining nine miles to Maligne Lake, where there is a comfortable châlet; but we were disappointed to find the launch upside-down on the shore receiving its final adornment for the benefit of tourists expected later in the summer. Fortunately a good-sized canoe was in sea-going condition, and with the help of Jack Douglas, an employee at the châlet, an outboard motor was rigged to its pointed stern. As there was some question whether the motor would remain in its proper environment throughout the trip up the lake, we wired it in position and attached a rope to it for obvious reasons.

Mt. Charlton

Mt. Charlton constitutes the easterly peak of the Charlton- Unwin massif, which terminates on the west central side of the lake near the narrows. With this objective we started from the châlet in our power canoe on July 7 at 8 a.m. An hour brought us to a little bay beyond the delta at the base of the mountain, in weather that was far from encouraging. We could not see the summits on account of low-hanging clouds and a light drizzling rain. After passing up through half a mile of timber and scrub trees we found ourselves on a very steep lateral moraine on the east side of the Charlton glacier, which centers in the saddle between Mt. Unwin and Mt. Charlton. This glacier is fed by hanging glaciers on Mt. Unwin and a large nêvê and glacier on the upper slopes of Mt. Charlton. From our point of vantage the west side of the glacier now looked somewhat easier, but as it could only be reached by sacrificing considerable altitude, we continued up the moraine— a painstaking task as the rocks and dirt near the glacier had been washed away, leaving a very sharp and hard ridge which gave only precarious support.

The moraine finally delivered us onto smooth ice well above the point where the tongue of the glacier tumbles over a rock ledge, which although passable is hardly practicable. After a brief survey of the visible portion of the glacier, it seemed advisable to cross and follow up the west side on the ice and snow through the gap between a large central buttress and the towering walls of Mt. Unwin. This route was crevassed and showed evidence of considerable avalanche snow from the sides of Mt. Unwin, but would lead directly to the saddle; the only alternative lay to the left of the buttress up very steep snow slopes marked with avalanche paths and with a steep ice traverse just below the northeast side of the buttress—this hardly looked feasible. The cloud level continued to hide the saddle and the summits, making the choice of route difficult.

We roped and continued the climb. Progress was slow until we reached avalanche snow which partially closed the crevasses, at the same time making walking difficult on account of the soft snow between the hard lumps. The source of the avalanches was very evident: above us on the right stood many large séracs ready to tumble over the rocky cliffs. As the day was cold and cloudy we thought it safe to proceed and soon succeeded in passing through the gap to a basin below the col. Through the clouds, far above us on the left, appeared a few bleak rock patches silhouetted against snow and fog; we thought we were looking at the top, but, as usual, later found this point to be far below us. It was a relief to walk without the continual necessity of watching for hidden crevasses. However, the respite was of brief duration, as we soon came to a steep slope leading to the saddle, with a half-covered berg- schrund at just the steepest point. This proved troublesome, but was finally passed, and another half-hour found us at 10,000 ft. in the col between Mt. Charlton and Mt. Unwin, both of which were still in the clouds. Looking across the route of our ascent and beyond the lake, we welcomed the opportunity to study the face of Mt. Sampson and decide on the best procedure for a forthcoming attack. A short excursion across the col then brought us to the top of the towering cliffs forming the cirque between Rock Tower3 and Charlton. The walls plunged straight down almost to the shores of a small ice-lake. So completely protected, it seemed as if this little recess must have been chosen by the lake as a special hiding place from inquisitive eyes. Fortunately the clouds were lifting, and after taking readings with a small Abney level and ascertaining the bearings of several of the main peaks and ridges, we turned to the northeast and continued up the easy slope to the summit, arriving at 2.30 P. M. A moderate snowstorm followed us and prevented observations from the top. As the entire ridge was corniced, a cairn was built a little below the summit and our names deposited there in an aluminum tube. Black storm clouds on the summit of Mt. Unwin contrasted vividly with the brilliant sunshine on the lower glacier slopes, but we were not destined to linger, as the uncertainty of the weather necessitated a speedy retreat.

The return followed essentially the same route as the ascent. We found, however, that the west side of the glacier and the stream bed offered a more convenient route than the sharp eastern moraine. As pre-arranged, Jack Douglas met us at the delta with the canoe and we returned to the châlet in short order.

Mt. Sampson

Mt. Sampson rises sharply from the north side of the lake opposite Mt. Unwin and Mt. Charlton. After a day of rest at the châlet, a position at its base (about a mile and a half west of the summit) was attained by motor canoe, at 8.30 on the morning of July 9. Imagine the luxury of starting a first ascent at 8.30 after an exhilarating ride through a scenic wonderland in a motor boat! We started up via a convenient talus slope covered with flowers and small shrubs. Unlike Mt. Charlton, there was no preliminary timber and practically no snow. Passing to the left over the ledge at the top of the first talus slope, we crossed another, then, turning to the right, a rocky ridge led us to a third scree patch. Here the angle of the slope increased, and we soon found ourselves on rock ledges which afforded convenient paths toward the summit, ascending at about 15° diagonally across a face having an angle of about 45°. In some places the ledges were only a few inches wide with loose rocks under foot, in others a foot or more in width. After an hour of this, the strategy of Sampson’s defence became apparent, for we were being led directly toward huge limestone slabs which afforded no holds and which were oriented at a very convenient sliding angle. We therefore decided to try for the ridge. This arête follows an easterly course to the summit. Falling rocks and icicles were annoying in the couloir leading to the ridge, but it was finally attained, only to find that it was impracticable on account of the nearly vertical wall on the opposite side and the many gendarmes along the crest. A traverse was necessary, requiring considerable care, but offering no serious difficulties. For some time only one of us moved at a time, until we arrived at a slope leading directly to the ridge near the summit. This was easily ascended. We were on top (10,000 ft.) at 1.50 p.m. after 5½ hours of climbing, with excellent weather, although the temperature was considerably below freezing. Lunch, movies, observations and just looking around occupied the next hour and ten minutes. In its isolated position Mt. Sampson commands a wonderful panorama of unnamed snow peaks between 10,000 and 10,500 ft., breaking the eastern horizon, and the main range of the Rockies sweeping away in all its glory to the northwest and the south. We could easily identify Mts. Fryatt, Scott, Hooker, Clemenceau, Edith Cavell, the Columbia Icefield, etc.

On the return it was decided to parallel the ridge a little lower than on the ascent. This proved to be somewhat easier, but the route was more exposed to falling rocks and small icicles. The latter part of the descent was accelerated by the sight of a tiny white streak far down the lake. The motor boat won the race to the base of the mountain but not entirely to our displeasure. The descent required just 3 hours and 15 minutes.

Mt. Warren

From Maligne Lake Châlet the formidable walls of Mt. Warren appear as a complete barrier to the country beyond the lake, the massive double peak completely hiding the glistening slopes of its southerly neighbor, Mt. Brazeau. Though lacking the graceful contour of many of the surrounding mountains, it could not help but command our admiration and respect. To find a route to its summit proved to be one of our most interesting problems.

July 10 was occupied in transferring our camp to the upper end of the lake: 14 miles of most enjoyable mountain scenery, always made more interesting by picking out tentative routes to the various summits. Camp was established on a gravel bar at the southeast end of the lake, with Mt. Thumb just north and Mt. Warren south of us across the stream. The same evening a short scouting trip was indulged in to study the possibility of ascending the massive continuous buttress of Mt. Warren by a steep couloir a short distance from camp. A narrowing curve just below the crest of the buttress, hiding completely the upper part of the course, deterred us. Our decision not to try this approach was strengthened when we observed that the drainage from the glacier above did not see fit to follow the couloir from the top, but preferred to enter it from the side via several clefts and long drops, thus indicating some unusual condition at the head. Further reconnaissance up the stream revealed a continuation of the buttress and left no choice but to follow the valley until a suitable approach to the glaciers above the buttress was discovered.

July 11 at 6 a.m. found us on our way: a beautiful day with high cumulus clouds ideal for photography. Not wishing to spend more time on reconnaissance, we traveled up stream for two hours until we came to a point where the stream forked. The right-hand course, in which the volume was only slightly less than the main stream, appeared to be the more direct route to the mountain. A rocky canyon delayed progress, but we eventually emerged on the moraine below a glacier at a level with the top of the buttress. A series of minor peaks paralleling the buttress now separated us from the main summits of Mt. Warren. The ice immediately in front of us was one of five arms which break through from a practically continuous icefield fed by the snows of Mt. Warren and Mt. Brazeau. After some step cutting in the lower ice-fall we found ourselves in the basin beyond the low peaks and confronted with a steep wall scarred with avalanche paths. To the right the foreboding sound of falling stones on a rock wall and to the left a real ice-fall with large séracs in the center made our position interesting, to say the least. The day was hot and traffic in the avalanche paths was heavy, so we chose the ice-fall. The preliminary slope out of the basin was easy, but after cutting up a ledge necessitating hand-holds in the ice, we found that we had been led directly into a trap. Working to the right, Max found too much soft snow in the gaps between the séracs—to the left, we straddled a narrow ice-ridge to another depression, only to find it also closed in. A small crack in the ice above a ledge on a nearly perpendicular wall offered hand-holds, and we finally reached a rounded terrace between large crevasses leading to the main névé.

The wall of the final summit still confronted us and it was necessary to cross the snowfield for about a mile to a point below the col between Mt. Brazeau and Mt. Warren. The bergschrund was easily passed and we were entertained for the next half-hour watching miniature avalanches of snow start from our footsteps as we worked up to the ridge. Once on this, it was necessary to cut steps in the ice below the snow, and progress was slow. The writer tried a zig-zag course, but a better solution was found when Max cut steps straight up the crest—several hundred in all. The arête finally flattened into the summit ridge and it was necessary to take levels to determine which was the highest knoll. Of course it was not the one we were on, so we continued a quarter-mile to the north. Here, about ten hours after leaving camp, we found a convenient rock ledge on which to build a cairn and to shelter us while we made the customary level and compass observations.

The summit commanded a magnificent sweep of mountains, and our sojourn was extremely pleasant, the anticipation of a descent along an icy ridge adding to the feeling that we were standing on the top of a mountain of the first class. Immediately south of us, with its dome-like summit seemingly less than a mile away, Mt. Brazeau presented a truly magnificent spectacle: a steep face covered entirely by glacier with hardly a trace of rock exposed, rising majestically from the yawning chasm in front of us. Beyond, the now familiar but never tiring expanse of the Rockies again greeted us. On the descent we were pleasantly surprised to find that the snow had hardened a little in the short time that the sun had retreated from its daily attack, and it was not at all difficult to move, one at a time, down the steps, facing the slope. Rather than retrace our steps over the long névé and through the maze of séracs we decided to try a direct descent and fortunately found an easier route leading to the lower icefield. Here it was a simple matter to follow the longest of the glacier tongues down to the terminal moraine. The long grind back to camp finally terminated at 10 p.m., just 16 hours after the departure. It was then obvious that the approach to the mountain would have been greatly simplified had we followed the left fork of the stream; this would have brought us onto the glacier at a point from which we might have crossed directly to the base of the col between Mt. Brazeau and Mt. Warren.

The Thumb and Neighboring Peaks

The ascent of The Thumb on the following day proved interesting, but not at all difficult. After the previous day’s exertions it seemed fitting that we should be rewarded by luxuriously reclining on the rocks in front of the camp fire long after the scheduled departing time. But eventually inaction palled, and at 11 A.M. we started for a pronounced couloir about a quarter of a mile up stream from the camp, which appeared to be the simplest and most practical approach to The Thumb. After a short stretch of trees we found ourselves steadily climbing the shale core of the couloir, stopping to take pictures of a beautiful little fall which dashes over the lip of one of the upper basins. The upper rim of the last basin was guarded by a continuous vertical wall of snow about 10 ft. high having some cornice characteristics. A detour to the left up snow fingers and icy rock ledges brought us to the final ridge. Sharp, shaly slabs along the ridge, a steep but firm snow slope and a practically level walk past a peculiarly shaped gendarme finally led us to the summit. On all sides except that of our approach the walls were nearly perpendicular. The shore of Maligne Lake, 4,000 ft. below, is at an angle of just 45° from the summit. The view of the surrounding mountains is somewhat limited by the low elevation, but this is more than compensated by the closer detail of spectacular cliffs and the beautiful expanse of Maligne Lake. After taking the usual observations and building a cairn, we hastened back to the falls and at 7 P.M. were again in camp discussing plans for the following day.

From the summits of The Thumb and Mt. Warren a number of peaks about 10,000 ft. high, just north of The Thumb, appeared to offer attractive climbing possibilities. These peaks form a range running roughly east and west, terminating in a prominent peak northeast of The Thumb, which is visible from the bridge at the lower end of the lake. This and another peak just back of it formed our objective for Friday, July 13. From Mt. Warren it seemed that these mountains could be easily reached by following a branch of Warren Creek in a northerly direction to the region back of The Thumb. Leaving camp at 10 a.m. we followed the stream along game trails through beautiful, moss-blanketed forests at the foot of towering cliffs which are sprayed by numerous falls from the upper snowfields. After several hours, to our right and ahead of us, the tongue of a glacier appeared, warning us to reach the top of the cliffs as soon as possible. A steep draw served the purpose and rewarded us with the sight of a band of 23 goats, but they seemed indisposed to be photographed. The peak ahead did not look familiar, so we continued our climb to the left (west) and ascended a ridge, only to find that our peaks were far away on the other side of a sizeable snowfield. It was now 4 p.m. and obviously too late for both of us to climb both peaks, so we separated after crossing the snow and Max ascended the mountain nearest Maligne Lake, the writer taking the adjoining peak. The climbs were not difficult, although the loose rock was extremely exasperating. The summits were just within hailing distance. We named the peak near the lake Mt. Florence for Mrs. Strumia, and the other peak Mt. Hawley for Mrs. Hainsworth. On the return an injudicious short cut across the snowfield brought us out on a buttress which we could not descend. It was necessary to ascend and return by the original route, our arrival at camp being thereby delayed until 9 p.m., just eleven hours after the start.

That night and the following day it rained hard, and we were quite ready to start for home when Jack Douglas arrived with the motor boat a little ahead of schedule.

1 “Climbs in the Maligne Lake District, Northern Canadian Rockies,” Alpine Journal, May, 1924.

2 Dr. Max Strumia, Dr. J. Monroe Thorington, Julian Hillhouse and myself.

3 Probably identical with the Mt. Mary Vaux of Mary T. S. Schaeffer.— [Ed.]

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