Climbs and Camps in the Whirlpool Mountains
Julian G. Hillhouse and J. Monroe Thorington
Serafin aveva un sifulo,
Sifulava tanto bene,
Che quand’era nivolo,
FAR on the Upper Athabaska, a spell has been cast—if one have faith it will never again rain for long. For, crouched by a rock at midnight, at the edge of an icefall, eerie figures in the mist, we have shouted the Song of Seraphin and made the stars come out:
Seraphin once had a piccolo.
He could play it so divinely,
That when the sky was covered up,
He would make sunshine again.
We are on the Athabaska trail again after four years,1 camping on a bluff beside the rushing Whirlpool. Nearby is a tree with our old blaze, now half hidden by pitch. Pungent wood-smoke from the crackling fire wafts over us, smudging the mosquitoes dancing above the rainpools. It is evening, a day out from Jasper, and we are sitting at the river’s bank, sketching the outlines of Needle Peak, while rose and purple shadows deepen and lift toward the golden light flooding its crest.
Early next afternoon we came to Simon Creek. The “North Whirlpool,” a boiling milky torrent, swept down logs and branches, with dull rumbling of displaced rocks in its bed. We unloaded the horses at a point where the stream was partially bridged by a log extending to a rocky isle. With cat-like balance we chipped steps in the bark, and strengthened the log with a handrail of brush and braced it with packropes. All our baggage, nearly two tons of it—food, tents, saddles—was relayed over on human backs. Then the horses were gathered on a bit of sandy beach and driven, with stones and shouting, into the water. We watched them not without misgiving, for a fall would have dragged down one or more, to catch and drown in the sweepers and tangled logs below. But, starting in a compact group, their mutual pressure and momentum supported them and, although the water broke and sprayed above their backs, they came through.
Soon the Middle Whirlpool was crossed, a friendly stream with three clear and sparkling branches, bordered with tiny orchids, dwarfed in the dense stand of timber.
Far up on the Whirlpool we turned our tired horses at last to the flat that spreads below the Scott icefall. Three goat stood spectre-white against a bit of wooded moraine and climbed deliberately along a band of cliff. The glacier, fluorescent and glowing in evening green, a gigantic cascade closing the side valleys, sends wave upon wave of ice five thousand feet down from the twisted strata of Mt. Hooker. We pitched came in the twilight of a long day.
In the morning, with loaded packs, we followed our route of 1924, traversed a mile of glacier tongue,2 then ascending the eastern lateral moraine for several hundred feet, climbing through a corridor of winter snow below Mt. Scott to reach the lower ice plateau. This is the reconsolidation basin for the circle of icefalls which pour in from the névé and lateral alcoves of the Hooker icefield, a stage with tier upon tier of séracs—a ruined coliseum of ice.
We roped and for more than an hour cut a circuitous way, balancing our heavy loads, through the eastern labyrinth of pinnacle and chasm, a route strictly delineated by obvious boundaries of avalanche lines. The ascent brought us under the northern wall of Mt. Ermatinger to an upper snowfield; we crossed to a ridge of moraine below Mt. Scott which serves as a natural jump for spring slides. The rocks are backed by a tumble of snow-blocks and débris; on the southern exposure the shale is dry.
Our bivouac was built against a rectangular boulder, to which we stretched a slanted wall of two light tents, weighting their outer fan with stones. We dug a drainage channel without, and, within, leveled a platform for sleeping-bags. On the far side of “Hotel Hooker” one circle of stones protected our provisions while another sheltered the alcohol burner. A gentle slope of angular stones led to the nearby snow, where, in a little hollow, the tiniest of frozen lakelets served as our water supply.
The cliffs of Mt. Scott loomed behind us. Shortly after noon we were off, climbing through a snowy corridor that leads past a black cliff with threads of silvery waterfall to a higher plateau between our objective mountain and Mt. Oates. The weather was changing, and sweeps of fast-moving cloud rose behind Mt. Serenity and threw trailing streams across Mt. Ermatinger. We turned up the scree slopes of Mt. Scott, shifting shale that cracked and clinked beneath our nails like breaking china-ware.
Unroped, we separated on the face, selecting our own routes. Masses of low cloud swung in from the direction of Fortress Lake into the valleys of the Alnus glaciers. We climbed higher, until Alberta and Columbia rose distantly above Mt. Oates. The mist closed in with flurries of snow. A traverse of a short snow-slope brought us to the higher portions of the southeastern ridge, shouting to each other for direction. We met on a rising cap of névé. There was precipice beyond, with jagged descending ridges, and spiked pinnacles that tore the driving fog. It seemed to be the summit of Mt. Scott. There was no time to be lost; we placed a record in a small cairn and raced to lower levels.
The next day, June 30, was fair. We crawled from our sleeping-bags at an early hour, to find the sunlight glowing on Mt. Hooker and throwing a brilliant pattern through the thin clouds that billowed on the rim of the ice-basin. We walked out on the crusted snow, roped, and started for Mt. Ermatinger. The plain spread from our bivouac toward a colossal gendarme, springing like a huge black tooth from the hollow of the basin. Foreshortened as we approached, this monstrous spike, with smooth and polished sides, seemed nothing subordinate to the mass of ridge it terminated. We looked up, as if from below the prow of some great ship.
Bending our steps a little to avoid crevasses, we passed the cliff, into the shining basin between the prongs of Ermatinger and the templed mass of Hooker. It was a vision to draw an advance guard to its feet. Flat white flanks and sweeping skirts of snow slipped to the basin from the narrow draws and couloirs up aloft. A broken line of coping followed the skyline of Ermatinger with persistency and warned that ours must be a back-door policy.
Over the snowfield, through levels of rising mist, we came to a narrow neck of splintered rock, above a cliff that dropped to the southern Alnus glacier, lined with the approaches to Mt. Serenity, whose arc-like bands of black rock, in nearly vertical position between bands of snow, swept the whole face in a series of astounding curves. We gazed down the long flow of the glacier to the forested slopes near the outlet of Fortress Lake. A sharp breeze Hipped our faces and we were glad to turn to the shelter of warm rock. A long, narrow chimney gave full play to the rope; there were tight squeezes and a little overhang in the middle. With the loose masonry rattling down we landed like flapping fish on the upper level.
We doubled back to parallel our tracks on the snowfield far below and walked along the rising shoulder in a half-circle to the summit. The rope was no longer required; we were free to walk carelessly and to revel in the splendid panorama. Mt. Hooker, with its northern face in profile, lifted a soaring snowy peak, behind which, and a little to the southwest, a flat bank of lighted fog was pierced by the precipice of Bras Croche and other summits beyond Wood River. Sitting on the stones from which jutted the curled cornice of Ermatinger we looked across at Mt. Scott, and saw that the clouds had deceived us—that we had reached the southern point and that the slightly higher northern summit lay beyond. But the day preceding was not one on which to be caught out on a high mountain and we had done everything possible under the circumstances.
Soon we were glissading down into the broad basin between Ermatinger, Oates and Scott and were back at camp. The afternoon was fiercely hot; most of our clothing was put out to dry, and we sat by the edge of the snow, in more or less nakedness, enjoying life to the full. The sun went down in a blaze of color, with clouds quickly covering the sky.
June 29 opened with a melancholy drizzle which soon stopped. Strumia and Hainsworth found energy enough to start for Mr. Scott, and were favored by a short break in the weather about noon which lasted long enough to allow the now obvious passage of the arête from the south peak to the highest point. They were back early in the afternoon, having seen little except their route.
Mt. Evans was the setting for our next ascent. It had towered above our base camp with an aggressive tilted thrust, cut along its entire flank by a narrow slanting line of snow in the stratification. On the morning of July 1 we arose shortly after midnight, taking down the tents by lantern light. Wind blew from the south and there was a spatter of rain. A glimmering transparency of ice was visible amid the shadows. Someone brewed chocolate as the loads were packed. From far below came the hollow roar of an avalanche among the séracs, scattering the quiet and sending a thousand clapping echoes along the skyline. We consumed the remaining provisions, as one is apt to do when wondering about the weather. In the half-light, as we stood by the rock, a voice, almost smothered by bread-crumbs, was raised in throaty song. It was the “Song of Seraphin,” verse from the pre- Alps of Lombardy, that had many a time before cleared the skies. We shouted the chorus until the crags resounded :
Ohi Serafin sa fé zu 1i?
So mi si fo, sifulo!
Ohi Serafin, ohi Serafin,
Ohi Serafin, sifula bin!
Believe it or not, there showed a patch of light behind Mt. Hooker and a pale moon looked out in moist surprise through the scudding clouds. A star—one, then two—peeped faintly through the thinning mist.
The rope was put on at once. We struck across the glacier above the icefalls in the eastern basin and deposited our bulky dunnage. Straight ahead we rose to the higher level, that which holds the Hooker icefield proper, and, veering always to the right, kept along the rim of the cascade. Down the glacier we could see the mirrors of the little lakes at the base camp, and, beyond the Whirlpool valley, the spire of Needle Peak and the distant Fraser group, just touched by morning. Wreaths of mist arranged them- selves into level bands that hung above the gulf down which the glacial tongue has wormed its way. These caught fire in the descending sea of light and trailed from the cliffs like blood-stained belts. Green shadows, over the lower reaches of the ice, mingled with wavering lines of blue. Northward the clouds began to lift: puffed, dark, of lowering aspect, clinging to the higher summits, with patches of turquoise sky between. Quite suddenly, it seemed, the rays of the sun swept through the Whirlpool valley. Across the northern buttresses of Scott towered the battered shape of Mt. Fryatt, edge-on, with astounding upthrust.
We arrived at the southeastern arête of Evans, and the ascent began an earnest. It was a long pull up the shale, and along occasional outcrops of rock where structural veins broke through. We held to the edge of the ridge, as if climbing a staircase from which the balustrade had been plucked. There was ample opportunity for gazing down on the glacier, its flat snout more than five thousand feet below. As we neared our summit, the northern snowy face of Mt. Kane, seen across an intervening ridge, sheerly above the Whirlpool, was dazzling in the brilliant sunlight. Through a little notch we could see McGillivray’s Rock and the woods on the western slope of Athabaska Pass.
A curious little horn of rock near the top of Mt. Evans caused some consternation because of its resemblance to a cairn, but it had not been built by human hands, and soon our own adorned the highest point. Our shadows, in curious fashion, were thrown out on a cornice as we stood there looking at an astonishing panorama. Sections were intermittently visible from Columbia to Robson; the swinging clouds now hiding, then revealing group after group in incredible color and radiance. It was a triumphant morning.
In descending, a slight variant of route took us to snow, and we glissaded the immense white slopes to the basin. By this time Hooker, Serenity and Ermatinger were islands in a serene sea of cloud in which we were soon immersed. There was no difficulty in retracing our tracks to the baggage pile, then down through the icefall, where airy bridges that served for the day would be gone on the morrow. Base camp was reached shortly after noon.
On July 2 the outfit moved to the picturesque lake in the higher reaches of the Middle Whirlpool. Trail rises with inconsiderate steepness through a rocky, forested glen, with a turbulent cascading stream ever at hand. Trout were rising at the lake when we made camp, and enough were taken to fill the pans to overflowing.
A reconnaissance of a mountain is comprised in those events during which one wrenches a way through alders and pine-forest, toils over moraine to the base of a new peak, looks up and remarks, “This is too much for today,” smokes a pipe, and returns with the rope still neatly coiled. So it was with our visit to Needle Peak.
From Needle E. Station it is quite cut off by an abyss and a hanging glacier. Cliffs rise at high angle from the depths of Simon Creek.
We skirted the slopes and rounded to Needle S. Station. Here one is closer to the mountain, but it is quite forbidding. A saw- edge of rock-needles does not invite a traverse along the main ridge to the summit. Neither do the stone-swept slopes and the encircling band of smoothest limestone impel one to a direct assault from below the peak.
So the pipes were brought out and we sat down to look into the upper stretches of Simon Creek, with its wheel of ice-tongues, and the showy peaks of Fraser and Erebus. In the late afternoon we wandered down the alpland, with a view over a low ridge to the Whirlpool peaks and Athabaska Pass; one could see right through this gateway to the Columbia, the “Height of Land” of the fur-trade days. On piles of angular morainal boulders marmots sunned themselves and pikas were squeaking; there were pools beside melting snow where avalanche lilies stood in little regiments and giant anemones forced their way up like a crop of bayonets. There is something to be said for a reconnaissance.
We brought the horses to the main Whirlpool. Continued high water made a crossing to Divergence Creek unthinkable without the building of a craft. We had much to do in other places. Through the last night clouds gathered and a drizzling rain increased to steady downpour. Smoke from our campfire filled the tents and spread in a hazy layer beneath the dripping jackpines. In the grey morning we packed sodden loads on bedraggled horses and slogged through thirty miles of trail to Jasper.
The Song of Seraphin could help us no longer—its miracle had been for the heights.
1 See ‘‘The Mountains of the Whirlpool,” A. J. XXXVI, p. 299. The 1928 party, guideless, consisted of Mr. William R. Hainsworth, Mr. Julian G. Hillhouse, Dr. Max Strumia, and Dr. J. Monroe Thorington. David Moberly was again in charge of the horses. We left Jasper with the outfit on June 26, some three hours after arrival by train, and reached Scott glacier on the evening of the following day. The high camp was established in Hooker basin on June 28 and the S. peak of Mt. Scott ascended. A complete summary of the ascents will be found in A. J. XL, p. 382.
2 The glacier has not retreated perceptibly in four years. The ice terminates some 550 paces behind the enormous boulder standing toward the
eastern side of the gravel plain, much as it was in 1924. Comparative photos of the lower fall show increasing exposure of rock in a hot-plate band, through thinning of the ice in the eastern third.