American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Ascents Along the Athabaska

  • Feature Article
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1937

Ascents Along the Athabaska

Francis S. North

THE highway from Jasper toward Lake Louise runs southward through the jackpine forests of the Athabaska River, past the great falls with rainbows in its spray, and on to the Sun- wapta Canyon. Near Milepost-29 sharp peaks rise in the S., and Mt. Columbia for an instant is visible in blue distance.

Early in the summer of 1936, E. Cromwell, E. Cromwell, Jr., J. M. Thorington and the writer made a four weeks’ trip into the region at the Athabaska and Chaba river-sources, to obtain additional information concerning it and to climb as many peaks as time and weather permitted. The results of exploration have been described elsewhere,1 the present paper covering the mountaineering in greater detail.

Setting out from Sunwapta Falls on June 27th behind Curly Phillips’ efficient packtrain we crossed the burned-over ground toward the Chaba-Athabaska junction. After a long day’s march, the latter part in cold rain, we established camp 1300 ft. above the main river on the W. shore of Gong Lake, a narrow jade-green expanse of water more than a mile in length, its valley in the N. part of the Athabaska-Sunwapta angle, almost E. of Fortress Lake pass.

Two days later, when weather cleared, we reconnoitred the head of our valley, finding that the lake is fed by a large snowfield possibly fifteen square miles if its tributaries be included. On June 30th we left camp at 6.15 and followed the inlet stream to the glacier at the valley’s head, our way being made somewhat easier by a faint game trail. Nevertheless, it was slow work, and the sun was high when we roped, E. C. leading, and set out across the snow-covered glacier. Our objective was an unnamed peak (10,300 ft.), second highest of the mountains hemming in the valley. We reached a col at the foot of its W. ridge, weather turning bad, redoubling our efforts and forgetting weary legs unused to such exertion. At 3.00 we were on the summit, with light snow falling. Icy rocks made the descent hazardous, but the clouds broke away for an instant and, across a narrow hanging glacier, the green meanderings of the Sunwapta could be seen. In cold rain and gathering darkness we raced to camp.

At 5.30 on the morning of July 2nd, E. Cromwell and the writer set out for an attempt on the fine rock peak (10,000 ft.) named ‘Mt. Confederation’ by A. J. Ostheimer who, with Hans Fuhrer, made an abortive attempt on it in 1927. From this fact and our examinations with binoculars, we anticipated more than ordinary difficulty and were not disappointed. Skirting the W. end of Gong Lake, we climbed straight upwards through fallen timber and then grass slopes into a large couloir which descends from the W. ridge of the mountain. After examining the ridge, which is broken by two smooth, vertical steps, we decided in favor of a traverse E. along a broad, upward-slanting ledge, which crosses the S. face about 1000 ft. below the summit. This ledge, for the most part easy and well-defined, in places peters out, forcing rather ticklish traverses beneath vertical chimneys, which at this early date had become waterfalls. However, we continued our course without incident, and after a traverse of approximately two miles found ourselves below the E. ridge of the peak. At this point we abandoned the ledge and climbed a buttress directly above, coming out on the E. ridge about 500 or 600 yds. from the summit and 500 ft. below it. The arête here is very narrow and steep; traverses on either N. or S. faces are out of the question. So Cromwell, who was leading, attacked the first problem, a vertical pitch 25 ft. high with very few holds. He conquered it after a stiff struggle, the sacks were hauled up, and afterwards the writer. Here we paused to take stock of the situation; it was noon, we had been climbing steadily for six and a half hours, and the difficulties had only begun. Before us, the ridge stretched level to the base of an overhanging tower, but unfortunately the ridge was not continuous; directly in front of us was a five-foot gap, whose farther edge was some three or four feet lower than the tower we stood on. To go across would have been easy—a jump and the thing was done—but to return was a different matter. With an extra rope we could have constructed a bridge, but we had none. And even if we could be sure of returning across the cleft, the difficulties beyond looked even worse. There was but one thing to do, and after building a small cairn we drove in a piton and roped off down the vertical pitch. Retracing our route with some difficulty, we reached camp at 6.30 p.m., two steps ahead of a heavy rainstorm. Having inspected Confederation from every angle with binoculars and having had one “close-up,” both of us are convinced that our route offers the best hope for success, not only because the difficulties on the E. ridge seem less formidable than elsewhere, but also because of the stratification.

The weather now seemed to have set in definitely for the worse, and we employed the time in moving to camp at the head of the E. fork of the Chaba River, only a few hundred yards from the snout of the beautiful Chaba Glacier. On the way to Fortress Lake one passes marshy acres, brilliant with sprays of orchids. The packtrain came upon a startled bear, coal-black against emerald grass, the tips of his hairs glistening from the wet. Along the upper course of the river elk were frequently seen in the willow thickets.

From excellent campground we set out at 4.45 a.m., July 6th, for Chaba Peak (10,500 ft), highest point of the district, which we believed to be unclimbed. The Chaba Glacier,2 level and not badly crevassed, provides a perfect highway to the foot of a magnificent icefall, which constitutes the greatest problem of this climb. E. Cromwell, keeping close to the true right bank of the glacier, did a fine job of route-finding and in addition chipped several hundred steps in the hard snow. The slope is very steep, and near the top of the icefall unusually large névé crevasses complicate matters. Nevertheless, in little more than three hours we were through, and no further difficulties intervened. We stood on the chilly, windswept summit rocks shortly before noon, and found to our surprise a neat stoneman with the cards of E. Schoeller, of Breslau, and Julius Rähmi, of Pontresina, who made the first ascent the autumn of 1928, while on a hunting trip.3 However, we had the honor of being the first guideless party to make the climb.

Two days later the same party made the second ascent of the 10,300-ft. peak just E. of Chaba Peak. This mountain was climbed by Jean Habel in 1901 and was named ‘Chaba Peak’ by him.4 To avoid confusion we called it Chaba Minor. Our route lay up the main Chaba Glacier and then up its E. lateral tributary, Habel’s route. The only difficulties were a short but steep icefall, and a steep couloir leading to the W. ridge of the mountain, which was filled with powder snow on the surface and lined with ice beneath. Surmounting this we reached the level summit at 11 a.m. and found there, after some searching, Habel’s card in a round metal box.5 Perhaps the most remarkable feature of his ascent was his inducing his cook and packer, who had never done any mountaineering, to accompany him. After a pleasant hour on top we descended by the same route, reaching camp for tea.

Our work in this district now was finished, and the next day we struck camp and moved in two long marches to camp at the head of the W. terminal fork of the Athabaska, where Thoring- ton and the Cromwells had camped in 1931,6 across the valley from the cliffs of Mt. King Edward. The nearby tongue of the Toronto Glacier affords convenient access to the mountains forming the watershed between the Athabaska and Tsar Creek. After a day of rain we left camp at 4.45, on July 12th, and made our way in threatening weather up the Toronto Glacier to Toronto Pass, on the watershed. Here virtue was rewarded: the weather cleared. Proceeding rapidly across the glacier which gives rise to the E. fork of Tsar Creek, we mounted a steep icefall, crossed a difficult bergschrund, and at 11 a.m. stood on an unnamed summit (9600 ft.) overlooking terminal forks of Tsar Creek. After a short rest, E. Cromwell still leading, we descended a short distance and then followed a long, undulating snow arête S. to a second unnamed peak (10,100 ft.) in two hours more. From this summit we had a fine view S. to Bush Mountain across a wilderness of glacier-hung ranges, extremely difficult to reach from either side of the watershed. After a short halt for photography we turned our attention to the descent, which was effected by a different route as far as Toronto Pass. The distance we had covered from camp was, however, so great that it was not until 8.30 that we stumbled into camp.

July 13th was a fine, clear day, but the party was not up to another climb so soon after the “double-header.” But on the 14th we were off at 4.45 again and made better time, thanks to a trail which we had cut through a particularly dense stretch of undergrowth. Instead of crossing Toronto Pass we turned S. up the broad, gently rising surface of the S. W. branch of the Toronto Glacier. Walking was good on the hard snow, and we made rapid progress. With no difficulty save a huge cornice on the summit, which made us walk gingerly, we sat down for lunch at 11.15. A cold wind soon drove us off, however, and retracing our steps, we plowed painfully down the six miles of glacier in a blazing sun and so back to camp in time for dinner. The peak we had ascended has an elevation of 10,000 ft. and, although not outstanding in appearance, is commanding in position, being located on the main watershed at the junction of the Bush-Tsar divide.

Our trip was drawing to a close; so we moved camp to the head of Habel Creek, on the E. side of the Athabaska, for our final objective. This was a big, dome-shaped peak (10,900 ft.) on the watershed between the Sunwapta and Habel Creek, which Collie named ‘Stutfield,’ but which is unnamed on the Survey map. This peak was one of the highest unclimbed mountains left in the Canadian Rockies, and we were most anxious to do it. It lies far back from the nearest campsite; so an early start was indicated. Accordingly, at 3.30 a.m. on July 17th, the four of us crossed Habel Creek on an uncomfortably shaky log and turned E. up the moraine of the glacier which flows down from the N. E. angle of the Columbia icefield. After two hours’ walking over the moraine further progress was barred by a high cirque with seven waterfalls cascading over its walls, beneath the cliffs of Mt. Stutfield. We turned the barrier by scrambling over grassy slopes on the left, followed by a short, steep rock pitch, which brought us out into a high valley with alps, evidently the resort of mountain goat. Following the valley E., we regained the glacier above the cirque and ascended steeply S., where the glacier descends in a fine icefall, E. Cromwell leading through this difficult and complicated barrier. So steep was the slope that many steps were cut in hard ice; crampons would have facilitated the work. Once above this difficulty, however, our troubles were over; nothing remained but a gentle, rounded ridge of broken rock. Easily overcoming this, we reached the summit snow at 12.15. The view was magnificent; we could see the camp of the crew working on the Jasper-Lake Louise highway in the Sun- wapta Valley. But a cold wind again put an end to idleness, and we prepared to descend. Following the same route and only occasionally having to deepen the steps in the icefall, we made rapid progress and without adventure arrived back in camp in time for a late supper.

The next day was, not unnaturally, a rest day, but early on July 19th the two Cromwells and the writer set out for Mt. Woolley (11,170 ft.) which had been climbed in 1925 by the Japanese conquerors of Mt. Alberta. We were anxious, however, to make the first guideless ascent, and it was also our last chance at a climb, for we were leaving for Jasper next day. Keeping near the cascade which descends from the cirque E. of Mt. Alberta, we mounted rapidly over rock shelves to the bivouac site of the Japanese party. Reaching the glacier, we crossed it in a N. E. direction, under the tremendous E. face of Alberta. After a long trudge in soft snow we reached at last the lower rocks of Mt. Woolley and ascended by a route somewhat to the right of the poorly defined S. W. ridge. Two rock pitches here gave some trouble, one especially where the rock is bad and the takeoff is from a shallow cave where an ice-cold stream trickles down one’s neck. Once over this bit, only a snow tramp remains. This time the mountain gods smiled on us, and we lay on smooth rocks in a warm sun, gazing down the breathless precipices of the E. face. Under such conditions time passes in a flash, and all too soon we were skinning our hands and knees on Woolley’s sharp rocks. But once on the glacier we were loath to leave, and cast many a longing glance at the sharp rock towers at the head of Lynx Creek, amongst which we had been three weeks before. Fine peaks are there for the first party to force a way up Lynx Creek, for these mountains cannot be climbed from Gong Lake on the N. But we could not sit gazing forever and must perforce descend past the old bivouac, with the North Twin springing up across the way as dramatically as any mountain in the world. Camp was regained after fifteen hours of glorious sport— a perfect ending to our trip.

On the last day of all, as we rode slowly down the valley toward Sunwapta Falls, Confederation towered up grimly on our right, a reminder that there is always something left undone, always something to bring us back again.

1 ‘The North Wing of the Columbia Group,’ A. J., 48, 291. This article contains a map of the peaks within the Sunwapta-Athabaska angle. For peaks at heads of Chaba and Athabaska Rivers consult Interprovincial Sheet 23.

2 This tongue has retreated 559 ft. since 1927.

3 They also made the second ascent of Mt. Serenity, from Fortress Lake.

4 ‘The Western Sources of the Athabasca,’ Appal., x, 40.

5 “Jean Habel, D. u. Oe. A. V., Germany; Dan Campbell, guide and packer,

Banff; Fred Ballard, guide and cook, Michigan. Climbed this mountain

on August 1st, 1901, on a most beautiful, cloudless day. Vivat sequens.”

6 ‘Up the Athabaska Valley,’ C. A.J., xx, 30.

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