American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Mount Sir Alexander

  • Feature Article
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1930

Mount Sir Alexander

Newman D. Waffl

MT. SIR ALEXANDER has been the subject of considerable notice, partly because of its isolated location and partly because of the difficulties which seemed to surround its ascent. Situated almost at the northern end of the truly Alpine part of the Canadian Rockies, it stands out in a striking way over the surrounding territory and at once challenges the attention. The Indians called it “Kitchi” which might mean either “Big Mountain” or “Big Chief”. The Canadian Geographic Board however named it after Sir Alexander Mackenzie, who made his famous journey across that part of the continent in 1793 and passed through neighboring valleys to the north and west.

However many times the mountain was seen from a distance, it was unknown to the world of mountaineers at large until Mr. S. Prescott Fay and Miss Mary L. Jobe (now Mary Jobe Akeley) wrote simultaneously about it in the Canadian Alpine Journal, Vol. 6. Mr. Fay saw Mt. Sir Alexander in 1912 from the summit of Casket Mountain near the head of Sheep Creek and two years later in company with Mr. C. R. Cross, Jr., approached and photographed the mountain from a distance of only six miles. During the same summer (1914) Miss Jobe in company with Donald Phillips, penetrated the outer defenses of the massif and came to the head of the northeast glacier which begins at the edge of the snow-field about the peak itself. They built a cairn there which we found this summer (1929).

Again in 1915, Miss Jobe and Phillips headed an expedition to Mt. Sir Alexander and it was on this occasion that three men of the party, Phillips, Tyler and Doucette, climbed the northeast arete until they struck the tremendous ice cornices which guard the top. Less than 200 feet separated them from that end of the summit ridge.

In 1916, Mr. Frederick K. Vreeland of Montclair, New Jersey, who was following up the original Alexander Mackenzie route, turned aside and visited this section from the west. There was less difficulty from this direction and after a long glacier climb of some hours, he reached the foot of the west face. The pictures and information which he freely gave us were of great importance. In fact it was Mr. Vreeland who discovered the vulnerable part of “Kitchi” and it was his suggested route that we followed for the most part.

Further piquancy was given to the quest by Mr. H. F. Lambart of the Canadian Geodetic Survey who flew over Mt. Sir Alexander in 1922 and from his study of the ice crest concluded that it was a real specimen of a mountain which could not be climbed. All these things added to its attractiveness and when the chance came, chiefly through the initiative of Dr. Mary Goddard Potter, we were only too glad to make Sir Alexander the goal of a summer’s vacation achievement.

There were seven in the party, Dr. Mary G. Potter, Miss Helen I. Buck, and Messrs. Mortimer Bishop, Benjamin S. Comstock, Andrew J. Gilmour, Frank N. Waterman and the writer. Some were there to extend their trail riding record, some to climb Sir Alexander and some were like that famous bear that “went over the mountain to see what he could see”. The staff was provided by Donald Phillips and consisted of Adam Joachim, Indian guide, David Moberly, Arthur and Kenneth Allen, wranglers, and Jack MacMillan, cook. It was a fine crew and they served loyally and well.

The route chosen was longer than that via the Jackpine valley but the trails were better and we saved time in the end. It followed up the Snake Indian River to Willow Creek, then to Rock Creek and by a new cut-off to the government trail from Entrance. This leads up the North Hay River over Eagle’s Nest Pass, down the Sulphur, up Kavass Creek and thence to the Smoky River just above its junction with the Muddy. After crossing the Smoky and shortly after the Muddy, the trail continues through Dry Canyon to Sheep Creek. Near the headwaters of Sheep Creek, we turned to the right over Surprise Pass to Surprise Lake, then to the west over Providence Pass, crossed between Wapamoon and Porcupine (Kakwa) Lakes to Lake Mariel, then over the divide to the headwaters of the South Branch of the Big Salmon and finally up Thunder Creek to the foot of the talus slopes at its head.

Adding the daily records gave us 148 miles total distance, which was covered in twelve days, including one day’s lay-off for snow. The last two days were short ones and the route from Providence Pass to Thunder Valley can be covered in one long day. Being new to the trail riding game, I found enough experience in these few days to provide material for a small book which, however, is not germane to this account. Yet one must mention the day that led us over the long alpland approach to Surprise Pass and down the other side, the sudden and unprepared revelation of Surprise Lake with its precipitous slopes, the stretch of unforgivable muskeg at the bottom, and finally the turn over the pass that opened out on the district we were after, showing Mt. Ida, Koona, Thunder, and after a time Mt. Sir Alexander itself. It was the great trail day of the trip.

From the pass and from minor climbs in the next few days we were able to verify the previous descriptions and get a fair idea of the lay of the land. The massif of Mt. Sir Alexander is roughly an irregular mound from 7000 to 8000 feet in altitude with an extension towards the east that gradually loses altitude. The eastern end is distinguished by two rock towers with a small one between and these towers are going to provide someone with an exciting climb some future day. The massif is cut off sharply on the south and southeast so that tremendous and impassible cliffs rise directly from the South Branch of the Big Salmon. North of the eastern extension of the massif lies a long glacier heading in a snow-field and extending to about the 4000-foot level. We knew this as the northeast glacier. North of the glacier and acting as its side wall, there is a rock ridge some 6000 feet in height known as Thunder Ridge. On the north side of this ridge is the deep and narrow Thunder Valley at the head of which was our base camp, and on the other side of the valley another ridge, somewhat higher but not so steep and wooded to about 5500 feet. At the head of Thunder Valley there is a small but very steep rock mountain. Glacial streams come from both sides, the one from the side toward Sir Alexander being the larger. This heads in a glacier called Castle glacier, so named from the ridge of castellated rocks back of it and separating it from the snow-field about the main peak.

The west and northwest sides of the massif sink gradually into the valley of the Big Salmon and, if there were trails leading up that valley, it would be the best way of reaching the peak. Another branch of the Big Salmon goes further north towards Mt. Ida and it is quite possible that horses could be taken within striking distance of that mountain by following this branch to its source.

Mounted on top of the massif is the peak of Sir Alexander itself to which a recent survey assigns a height of 10,900 feet. The effect of much greater height is caused by the deep valleys on each side, the relatively low altitude of neighboring mountains and the low permanent snow-line. One is not surprised to know that the first estimates ran as high as 12,500 feet.

The general shape of the peak is that of a wedge, of which the edge runs in an east-northeast and west-southwest direction. The sides are steep and the arêtes sharp and broken. The distinguishing feature of the mountain, however, is the astonishing ice crest that stretches the full length of the summit ridge. The ice must be from 100 to 150 feet above the rock support and seems to have been built up year after year, while the steepness of the sides has not allowed it to expand sideways. There is very little overhang and what there is, lies towards the north. On that side there are a number of curious wind-carved buttresses, immense in size and arranged in parallel, which look as if they were architectural supports of the cornice. As far as I know this summit formation is unique.

Our approach was from the head of Thunder Valley up a sharp-edged moraine leading to the snow-field below Castle Glacier. Turning to the left before going on top the ice-fall, took us over a low col to the upper part of the northeast glacier which led directly to the upper snow-field. The base camp was on an extension of the boulder-field which was covered with brush and scrub trees. There was not a little dismay to find our camp in such a deep and narrow valley with good sized glacial streams close on either side. Nothing could be seen of the country and movements about camp were strictly limited by the terrain. In these circumstances, the non-climbing members of the expedition exercised something more than ordinary human patience, for it was two full weeks before we broke camp and started back. By that time it was too late to consider an attempt on Mt. Ida, which promises, incidentally, to be an escalade of the first order.

We arrived at camp on July 19th, but owing to a fall of snow, it was not until the 22nd that we reached the upper snow-field, visited the foot of the northeast arête and found a good site for a high camp on an outcrop of rock at the head of the northeast glacier. From an aneroid we estimated the altitude of high camp at 7400 feet and base camp at 4300 feet, but in view of the surveys, I fancy they were somewhat lower. Their relative difference stood however at 3100 feet.

On the 24th, we carried supplies up and four of us, Miss Buck, Dr. Gilmour, Mr. Waterman and myself, stayed the night through a vicious wind with intervals of pelting hail. The next morning con- dirions were impossible for climbing and down we went leaving supplies and tents anchored with stones. This storm lasted until the 29th and it began to look as if we would not even get a fair try. It did clear finally and on the 30th, although we expected to find things in pretty bad condition after such a siege of weather, we again left for the high camp.

On the 31st Miss Buck, Dr. Gilmour and I made a start just before 5:00 in the morning. The weather was fine, rather sharp and with some wind but not bad. The northeast arête is the logical route but its condition was poor and there was the question of the huge ice cornices that had stopped the 1915 party. We had counted through the glasses four distinct ice mounds on this arête just below the summit ridge which promised a lot of hard cutting; also the highest part of the top ridge appeared to be nearer the westerly end and this meant a long traverse which might prove impossible. Further, Mr. Vreeland’s pictures mentioned above, indicated that the west face was climbable, even with full allowance for foreshortening. So, although there had been no chance to scout that face, it seemed best to make the attempt there and trust to finding our way as we went.

The route carried us past the north face and over the upper part of the northwest glacier. Below the northwest arête of the peak, there is a break in the base cliffs through which ice and snow piles down on the glacier and this furnished us with a lead to the snow-field on the west side. We started up this lead at 6:30 and ran into some stiff cutting right away. It took a discouragingly long time to surmount the lower ice terrace. After that one could kick steps for the most part and we made better progress. Still it was 9:30 before we turned the northwest arête and started up a long snow tongue which grew steeper and steeper. Presently we came to outcrops of rock and these were all covered with a glaze of ice, so we stuck to the snow wherever we could. It was slow work, for the pitch was steep and every step had to be prepared. The wide cutting blade of the No. 1 Chamonix piolet with its heavy head, was just the thing for this work. One slash carried away the surface ice leaving an easy place to kick in. The under snow was not well consolidated and the slope being what it was, we ordinarily used finger holds cut in the crust to help draw ourselves from step to step.

At about 10,000 feet there is a wide band of hard rock which juts out as a cliff and this is the real problem of this route. We could have traversed to the right across the face to find a place where the stratum broke down and, as the event showed, this would probably have been the best course. However, we had seen from below, while passing the northwest corner, a line of white reaching without a break from the bottom to the top of the cliff and since this was shortly cut off from view, we knew there must be a chimney or narrow couloir where some part of the rock had broken away from the main body. This was a sure lead, barring some unexpected obstacle, and we made for that general direction, which meant keeping further to the left than we otherwise would have done.

So slow was our progress on this line, that it must have been 1:30 p. m. before we turned the corner of the rock and could look up the couloir. The rocks were too perpendicular and too much covered with ice to be of any use, but the ice was continuous in the center. A little later, we began to surmise that a straight up-and-down part of the lead might make trouble. It did. It was just an ice wall backed by rock so that you couldn’t even cut through it as a last resort. First, steps, or rather niches shoulder high, had to be cut rising towards the left. Then by chipping the ice off the rocks for a shoulder brace and making a side step for the right foot as a brace in the opposite direction and with a high finger-hold cut for the left hand, one could raise himself so that the head was above the ledge. Then holding that position, uncomfortable as it was, one had the right hand free to cut holds for the pull over the edge. We must have taken well over an hour and a half to overcome this small section. Anyway it was 3:20 when we climbed out on the side rocks and it took some ten minutes more to surmount the whole ledge to the snow on the upper west face. We could see the top now and as the way was clear, we took out ten minutes for refreshments. Except for a momentary halt at 10:45, we had worked steadily from the start; yet so absorbing was the climbing that none of us, I think, was conscious of either hunger or fatigue, or the time that had elapsed.

At 3:40 we started on the last part and now we could walk. Our aim was to get on the southwest arête just below the top ice crest and from there mount the cornice from the windward side. Except for a few small steps cut, it was walking all the way. We reached the west end of the ridge and at once proceeded across to the high point. The time there was exactly 4:52 and the elapsed time from the start just short of twelve hours.

Despite the late hour, the conditions were good for a long distance view. Mt. Ida and the Three Sisters stood out in the near distance to the north and beyond them a mass of lower mountains, covered lightly with snow, stretched out as far as one could see. Far to the south along the horizon, there were very large snow fields broken through by mountains that were obviously of major caliber. Not familiar with these mountains, I could not identify any of the groups, but Dr. Gilmour and Miss Buck pointed out Mt. Robson definitely and the Cariboos to the right. Far beyond in the distance were other ranges and they both felt sure that they could see Mt. Edith Cavell. Neither to the east nor west were there any groups to challenge attention.

It would have been fine to have traversed the whole ridge and it appeared to be easy. There were no bad breaks visible and it was not narrow enough to cause trouble. But five o’clock seemed fairly late to be on top of this particular mountain and the descent weighed on our minds. None of us thought it wise to attempt the same route down. Apart from difficulty the sun had been shining for some time on the steep snow slopes and it could not help being distinctly unsafe below the big cliff. So at 5:15 we started back for the west end of the crest and followed down the southwest arête. We determined to continue on that line until the rocks broke away and then work out on the southwest face and down if possible. We had not seen this face, but it was not likely to be any worse than the route up. It turned out to be much easier. The general pitch was less and there was snow only on top of the ledges and not enough to be troublesome. We descended three or four ledges and then traversed to the right well across towards the center. Lower down we traversed back to reach a snow tongue which led us down to the snowfield without further trouble. Then it was nine o’clock and forty-five minutes later we were back to the break in the ice cliffs up which we had come in the morning.

Three quarters of an hour more were used up on this part of the descent and if it had not been for three rappels which we used to hasten progress down the last ice terrace, the time would have been much longer. Thinking that some such occasion might arise, I had been carrying some wooden sticks all the way from base camp and now was a first-rate time to use them as pitons. In the growing darkness it would not have been easy to locate the steps and fingerholds in the ice.

It was too dark to find our steps of the morning or even to see the steps of the man ahead and since we were traversing a moderately steep slope and hopping crevasses on the glacier our progress was slow. We found that the conversation of tired people in these circumstances was not very enlivening at the time but afterwards it seemed funny enough. Finally at 2:40 a. m. we did get back to high camp and sleeping bags and had the satisfaction of seeing the moon rise at the same time.

In conclusion, Mt. Sir Alexander is a first-rate climb by any standard. The southwest face offers the easiest route unless the rocks are ice covered, but the sun acts to keep this face in generally good condition. The difference in snow and ice between the northwest and southwest faces was remarkable. One day’s sunlight had practically cleared the rocks. The northeast arête fairly cries to be climbed and anyone reading Donald Phillip’s account will be convinced that it offers a fine opportunity. Once on top, the traverse of the ridge will be easy unless conditions are radically different than they were this year.

We used a hundred-foot rope for three of us and in a few places that length was none too much, but for the most part, it was a trouble to handle. In three different parts of the route crampons would have been very useful but we found at Jasper that we had different types and unless the party is equipped alike, there is very little use in carrying them at all. Much of the route had to be cut, anyway, and a large part was easy enough without them. However the hour or more that they would have saved us in the morning, might have allowed us to go across the whole ridge and perhaps tried the descent of the northeast arête if the top did not look too formidable.

The principal thing that one needs in going after these northern mountains is time and lots of it. The weather conditions are too unreliable to depend on rushing matters and if one hangs his whole summer on such an expedition, it would be grevious to fail because of a bad spell of weather at the critical time.

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