Early Visits to Mount Sir Alexander
Frederick K. Vreeland
THE year 1929 witnessed the first ascent of the most northerly outpost of the higher Canadian Rockies. The conquerors of the peak are Messrs. A. J. Gilmour and N. D. Waffl and Miss Helen I. Buck. Its location1 is long. 120° 26', lat. 53° 56' 30?.
This unfortunate mountain has labored under several aliases in its brief public career. Ever since its first discovery it has been known locally as Mt. Kitchi. This is a Cree Indian name meaning “big” or “great”. The linguistic root is the same as that in “Gitchi Manitou”, the Great Spirit. The peak is very appropriately called the “Great Mountain”, for it is a noble mass of rock and ice, towering above the lower mountains which surround it.
Later a traveler who saw but did not set foot on it, proposed the name “Mt. Alexander Mackenzie”. The mountain is certainly worthy of the name of this great pioneer explorer, but the application of his name to it seems hardly appropriate, since Mackenzie was never at any time of his historic journey near enough to see it and presumably he never knew of its existence. A chain of high rugged peaks intervene.
The matter was finally settled by the Canadian Geographic Board, which gave the mountain its official name, “Mt. Sir Alexander”, but it will always remain recorded in the hearts of those who struggled in the early days to reach it and climb it, as “Kitchi”.
It is a very prominent and noteworthy peak. It dominates the mass of rugged mountains which feed the several branches of the Big Salmon River and which were noted by Dawson as “high mountains capped with snow in August”. From the top of the northwest glacier at the base of the main peak, one looks down on the tops of the mountains to the south and southeast as far as the Robson group. Looking north and northwest is a tangle of jagged peaks, of which Mt. Ida is a fitting consort to Sir Alexander. This rough sierra extends northwest for 61 miles to the head of Parsnip River where it dwindles to a rounded range with only one outstanding peak south of Mt. Selwyn, and these are conspicuous only because of their lone-someness. Northwest of the Peace River, the range rises to about 8,000 feet at Laurier Pass and continues to rise to the Lloyd George group, still imperfectly known. When the writer began his work in the Big Salmon group in 1912, the sum total of reliable data was found on Dawson’s map, based on Mackenzie’s traverse of the Parsnip and Big Salmon Rivers and Jarvis’ discovery of his pass. Within these boundaries was a most alluring blank space which the writer proceeded to investigate. This occupied four seasons.
The writer is unable to say who first saw this mountain.2 Mackenzie certainly did not. E. W. Jarvis, an intrepid explorer for the proposed Canadian Pacific Railroad, passed within ten miles of it in February 1875 when he discovered the pass which bears his name just north of Mt. Sir Alexander. But there are only one or two locations on his route from which the mountain can be seen, and as he made the trip in the dead of winter it is quite probable that the peak was wrapped in clouds, as it is a large part of the time, and that he had no knowledge of its presence. This conclusion is borne out by the fact that he described the next highest mountain in the region, a very conspicuous peak eight miles northeast of Mt. Sir Alexander, and named it, for reasons best known to himself, “Mt. Ida”. This name happily has not been changed.
The building of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway over Yellowhead Pass in 1912 gave access to this country and soon Kitchi, the “Big Mountain”, became known. The story of these early days is clearly and tersely told by Donald (Curly) Phillips of Jasper, who is probably the best informed man regarding the country that lies between Jasper and Mt. Sir Alexander and Jarvis Pass. His account is as follows:
“I first saw the mountain the fall of 1912, while on a hunting trip to the headwaters of the Jackpine River. I trapped and hunted in there several winters, but it was the summer of 1914 that Miss Mary L. Jobe, and Miss Margaret Springate, of Winnipeg, got interested in it, and decided to try to get to it. There was no trail down the Smoky those days, but I had opened one down the Jackpine and knew I could get pretty close to the mountain via that route although it was a rough one”.
[Mr. Phillips led the party including Bert Wilkins, north, along the mountains above treeline until they reached the Black Bear River where they left the horses and covered twenty miles to the mountain on foot. They ascended the east glacier of Kitchi to the snowfields and made two attempts to climb it but were frustrated by bad weather and failing supplies.—Ed.]
“The following year (1915) Miss Jobe got another party together, consisting of herself, and Miss Caroline Hinman of Summit, N. J., and the three Tyler boys, John, Arnold and David. We had sixty days ahead of us and with twenty-three head of horses and plenty of supplies were able to do quite a bit of exploring around the mountain. I had Frank Doucette as assistant packer, and Joe Soper as cook.
“We utilized the same route to the head of the Jackpine, and then worked more to the east across the head of the Muddy and Sheep Creek and there picked up and followed the old Indian trail, known as “the mountain trail to the Peace.” When we got opposite Kitchi we left this trail and crossed over a low divide into the B. C. side, and camped in a big meadow, at the Northeast side of Kitchi, the same place the party camped this year when they climbed the mountain.
“We made an attempt on the N. W. corner first, Doucette, John Tyler and myself, but it was too steep and dangerous, and after getting about half way up decided to give it up. A week later we tried the N. E. ridge, and got up to the cornices close to the top, when a storm came on and drove us down again. Those cornices all overhung on that corner, and we could not have gotten over them anyway, but we might have made a traverse along the slope and found a break some place if the storm had not come up when it did.
“I think it was about the summer of 1912 that Fay got out to the little pass beyond Surprise Lake on the Porcupine River, and saw the mountain from there. In 1914 they went past it on their way to the South Pine, and Peace River. They spent a few days in that vicinity, and named some of the lakes and peaks, bestowing the name of Alexander Mackenzie on the big mountain although they had not been on it. When Miss Jobe got back to civilization she attached the name of Kitchi to it, and estimated the height at not over 11,000, while they claimed it as 12,500. We had been on it, and knew that it was not as high as it looked, and the boundary surveys I believe cut it still lower than our estimate. This mountain can be seen from up in the Grand Prairie country and the Indians call it ‘tepee mountain’.”
All of these parties approached Mt. Sir Alexander from the southeast, for most excellent reasons. In that part of the range the rock strata dip sharply to the east, with the result that the eastern foothills are rounded, wooded and comparatively easy to travel with horses. The west slope is broken into a tangle of rugged peaks, separated by narrow valleys, through which travel with horses is well- nigh impossible. While access to the mountain from the southeast is thus easy, the final attack is difficult, for this face is an unscalable precipice, dropping off into a good-sized glacier. From the east the mountain can be reached only by back-packing over very rugged foothills. The approach from the northeast, which was used in the final ascent, is by no means an easy one.
The rough termination of the more obvious line of approach makes it harder than it looks and helps one to understand why Fay and Cross never reached the mountain, why Miss Jobe and Curly Phillips had a hard struggle to get on it at all, and why Phillips himself after years of study of the mountain succeeded only in climbing the northeast arête to a point where an impassable snow cornice blocked him.
The writer’s approach to the mountain was made from the northwest in 1916. This was rendered possible by the fact that we travelled light, just two of us in a canoe, which we worked up the rapid mountain streams as far as it would float and then “siwashed” with back-packs. This 1916 trip was the culmination of four years of exploration in the mountains between the Fraser and Peace Rivers, beginning in 1912.
The first year’s journey included a 1,400 mile circuit, starting from Yellowhead Pass, through the Fraser, Crooked, Pack, Parsnip and Peace Rivers to Peace River Crossing with a side trip to Laurier Pass. The second was a reconnaisance of the canoe route from the Fraser River up the Big Salmon River (now McGregor River). On the third we pushed our way up the Parsnip River to its source in the glacier which Mackenzie saw from a distance and described as “a great valley filled with snow, which must be several hundred feet deep.” From the mountains above this glacier we sighted a great ice dome of very extraordinary formation, practically the whole top of the mountain being covered with ice forming flowing glaciers on all sides. After locating it in long. 121° 9' west, lat. 54° 25' north and following Mackenzie’s route over the “Bad River” divide to the North Fork of the Big Salmon (now Herrick Creek), we succeeded in climbing the great ice dome. Here we caught our first glimpse of Mt. Sir Alexander, 45 miles away to the south east. The dome (7,800 ft.) rises a mile above the river.
The knowledge of the waterways gained on these trips enabled the writer to plan the approach by canoe to “Kitchi.” In the following year, 1916, we started from Urling on the Grand Trunk Pacific Railroad, dropped down the Fraser River to the mouth of the Clearwater (now Torpy Creek) which we ascended to a point where we could make a seven-mile portage across to the South Fork of the Big Salmon River (now McGregor River). We then worked our way up this to the fork. The north branch rises in Jarvis Pass and the south branch drains three sides of Mt. Sir Alexander. The approach to the latter from this side is very impressive. It dominates a mass of exceedingly rugged peaks in the fork of the stream, the entire slope of the mountain almost to timber- line being covered by a glacier. Above this rises the final peak, which is in the form of a truncated pyramid.
My companion, Sigurd Susag, a young homesteader from the Fraser River, was a good canoeman and by dint of prolonged efforts we pushed the canoe up the east fork of the south branch to a point northwest of the mountain and close to its base. We selected for our high camp a spur just at timber-line in a most beautiful location, commanding the slope of the glacier, its cascading and avalanching front and the peak towering above. We spent ten days working from this camp over the entire northwest slope of the mountain, and climbed the glacier to the base of the final peak, 1,400 ft. below the summit. From this point we were fortunate in getting sights of Mt. Robson, tying our four years’ surveying to a base which had been definitely determined by Wheeler’s excellent photographic survey.
We made no attempt to climb the peak, not having even an ice-axe, but the writer was satisfied that a party properly equipped could accomplish the ascent, working their way over the ledges on the northwest side to the ice-cap, which here offered an unbroken approach to the summit. It was therefore with extreme interest that I learned that Messrs. Gilmour and Waffl and Miss Buck planned to make the ascent, and it was a great satisfaction to hear that they were successful. The approach from the northeast, which they chose, is much more rugged and difficult than that which we followed and the achievement is a noteworthy feat in mountaineering.
There is another thoroughly worthwhile climb in that region, namely Mt. Ida. After leaving Kitchi we dropped down the stream again to the fork and followed the North Fork to Jarvis Pass. From there we had a glorious view of Mt. Ida, which from this side is a very sharp and steep peak resembling Mt. Assiniboine. This north face, which rises precipitously from the valley 6,500 feet below, is very impressive but unscalable. There is, however, a way around, and I believe that some day this mountain also will be climbed.
1 The latitude as determined by the Canadian Geodetic Survey is 53° 56' 10.2?.—Ed.
2 R. W. Jones, surveyor for the Grand Trunk Pacific R. R., saw the peak in 1904 and used it in his work, estimating the elevation as 12,000 ft. (Appalachia, Vol. xiii, 253). A paper dealing with this region was read at the meeting of the American Alpine Club held in Philadelphia, January 2, 1915—Ed. A. A. J.