American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

The Ascent of Mt. Grenville

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  • Publication Year: 1942

The Ascent of Mt. Grenville

Polly Prescott

MT. GRENVILLE, located about 15 miles as the crow flies N. E. of the head of Bute Inlet in the Coast Range of British Columbia, rises to a height of 10,200 ft. to dominate the vast Homathko snowfield and the surrounding unnamed peaks. The mountain was named for Sir Richard Grenville, an English privateer of the days of Queen Elizabeth by Capt. R. P. Bishop, B. C. Lands Surveyor, who had a great affection for naval nomenclature. Mt. Grenville, referred to as Mt. Memeia, “Cloud Soarer,” by Mr. T. Fyles,1 was first sighted by Mr. and Mrs. Don Munday in 1925 from the summit of Mt. Rodney at the head of Bute Inlet. An attempt on Mt. Grenville was contemplated by Mr. Fyles’s party in 1930, but an accident to one of its members eliminated any serious attempt. A fine panorama view of the district taken from Bute Mt. by Mr. Fyles greatly assisted us in selecting the proper approach, which was hidden at close range.

An invitation to accompany Mr. and Mrs. Munday on their attempt of Mt. Grenville reached me by wire at Lake O’Hara. Believing that good fortune knocks but once with such a longed- for opportunity, I joined them in Vancouver on July 31st. Preliminary arrangements had been carefully made and food and equipment were assembled ready for an immediate departure. Their 22-ft. gasboat took us safely to the head of Bute Inlet, located about 150 miles north of Vancouver, a beautiful trip and a saga in itself. I shall limit myself to the climbing adventure proper which began when we left the friendly logging camp of Mr. J. E. Andersen, opposite Needle Peaks on Bute Inlet. Through the kind cooperation of the Campbell River detachment of the Provincial Police, Mr. Munday was given a sketch map of the location of a safe anchorage for our boat—a hole which proved to be 11 ft. deep at low tide in a slough three-quarters of a mile from the mouth of the Southgate River.

Our first problem was to establish a beach camp on the N. side of the river above the reaches of high tide. Because of whirlpools and rapids it was only possible to cross the river near high tide and so it was 6.40 p.m. before we started our moving. There was, also, risk from the continuous procession of debris, stumps, and whole trees in full dress, branches and roots intact, carried by the swift waters of the glacial stream. Several dilapidated old shacks opposite the slough marked our point of debarkation. Supplies were landed from the gasboat and while she was being safely moored, I was left to move the equipment to a safe location. The highest, driest and most accessible campsite was the floor of one of the old shacks and here we pitched our tent and used our air mattresses for the last time. We had decided to leave them behind for the sake of a radio.

We left our beach camp on August 10th, expecting to make high camp within five days. The Coast Range does not perform on a Rocky Mountain time schedule. It actually took us 12 travelling days before we finally pitched camp in the woods at 4500 ft. on an outlying spur of Mt. Grenville above Elliott Creek. Six camps were established above our beach camp, representing double relays—food supplies for 20 days on the first trip, and camp and personal equipment on the second. The trip in was a thorough course in camp craft—camp making, cooking and trail-breaking carried to a degree of efficiency never experienced, or found necessary in the Rockies. The problem of making a distinguishable trail was a serious undertaking. Believing that we would save time and energy in the long run, we took time to cut a trail through the worst slides and blaze a trail in the dense woods. In the worst slide we proceeded at a snail’s pace, the first trip taking two and one-half hours, while we made the second trip in 50 minutes. While Mr. Munday cut trail, Mrs. Munday and I would relay the three packs in an effort to save time. We literally tunneled through the dense undergrowth, encountering swamps, talus slopes and slides covered with rank vegetation composed of devil’s club, slide alders, ferns, salmon berries, nettles and all other known varieties of prickly bushes. Along the Southgate we occasionally found blazes, the remains of an old trapper’s line, which was frequently washed out and difficult to follow. Bear trails, also, abounded although they invariably disappeared where we needed them most. We walked logs, crawled continuously over and under logs and literally wormed our way up the valleys of the Southgate River and Elliott Creek. We were fortunate to have fine, clear weather, but so dense was the foliage that we seldom saw the sun and when we did, found it to be a warning of trouble ahead—a slide, a glacial torrent to be bridged or a swamp. We hoped to come out on open gravel bars, but they were non-existent until we reached the very- head of Elliott Creek near the snout of the West Grenville Glacier. Elliott Creek is a rocky gorge in its lower reaches and we followed the top of the ridge on its true right bank.

Great was our excitement when we finally saw the head of Elliott Creek on August 18th, with the ice low down in the valley. But it was August 19th before our base camp was established at 2400 ft. in view of the double waterfall and the great icefall which barricaded the head of the valley. The icefall itself took a sharp turn to the right and completely blocked any distant view of the mountain and offered an impossible route of approach. On the S. side of the valley, a series of broad, misty waterfalls were seen descending in steps through the trees from the high hanging valley above. To the north were slabby cliffs with more waterfalls. August 20th was spent reconnoitering. We crossed the lower tongue of the glacier and scrambled up over the miserable hard- baked moraine and slabs on the north side of the valley in the hope of a view of the surrounding country. From this vantage point the cirque walls on the S. side stood out in relief, undistinguishable from below, and we were able to identify the hanging valley on the S. as the one in Mr. Fyles’s panorama which would lead to the southern approaches of Mt. Grenville.

Our time was dwindling fast, the clouds began to blow up on the 21st and we were afraid that the usual August break in the weather had arrived. On August 23rd we forded Elliott Creek just below the snout of the glacier where the stream divides into several channels, and struggled up the steep moraines to establish high camp in the rain 30 minutes below the ice tongue of the South Grenville Glacier. The glacier ascends at an easy gradient and we had high hopes of an easy and speedy approach to the mountain itself. August 23rd was spent in camp in the rain. Nevertheless, we went ahead with preparations for the climb and made up triple lunches ready to start should the weather clear. The stars came out during the night and by daylight, 6.00 a.m., on the 24th we left high camp. At the point where the South Grenville Glacier bends N., we first saw the great mass of Mt. Grenville, nearer than we could have hoped. Mt. Grenville was completely surrounded with glaciers and a series of parallel ridges descend its southern flank. While the final summit was hidden in a cloud, and in reality behind intervening ridges, the line of attack seemed obvious and practical.

Ten-ten a.m. found us on the moraine at the foot of the massif itself, the start of the real climb. A precious hour had been lost exploring an icefall to avoid some disagreeable-looking moraine and slabs which we eventually followed to our present position. Our route of ascent led over loose moraine and smoothly rounded cliffs on the left of the icefall above the South Grenville Glacier to the névé above, which we called “Revenge Glacier” after Sir Richard Grenville’s famous ship. Revenge Glacier was rimmed on the W. and N. by a wild-looking rock ridge, “Galleon Ridge,” a miniature Chamonix nightmare, a series of perpendicular gendarmes resembling the steeples of a church or the sails of great boats. Looking down on the South Grenville Glacier from above we could count nine feathery medial moraines traced down its four-mile length. We lunched on the glacier at 1.15 p.m. below the second series of crevasses at about 8200 ft. Step-cutting was necessary at intervals because of icy conditions which in many instances would not have been necessary earlier in the season. Another icefall to the E. appeared to connect with a second snow basin which we hoped would lead to the elusive final summit. However, we could not resist looking over a gap in Galleon Ridge to the W., or crossing an easy bergschrund to a 9000-ft. col on the N. to try and get our bearings. The views were magnificent and from this N. col. At 3.00 p.m., we saw the final summit entirely cut off from us by steep snow slopes, topped by tremendous bergschrunds and sheer cliffs. And as seen from the summit by huge cornices as well. The long W. ridge did lead to the summit if it could be reached by a tributary glacier W. of Galleon Ridge. Our only choice was to drop back into basin No. 2 and cross over or around the intervening ridge to a third snowfield which led to within easy reach of the summit. Some time was consumed in getting down to basin No. 2 for we hated to retrace our steps and took a short cut through another gap via a large bergschrund. To our great relief the ridge above mentioned was cut by an ice and rock gully which, though unpleasant, was climbable. Above this we found three inches of fresh snow on ice and hasty niches were cut for surer footing. At 6.00 p.m. we came out on the third large snowfield which was comparatively level and saw an easy snow gully leading to the S. ridge about 300 ft. below the actual summit. From the ridge the climb was a scramble up easy rocks to an eerie summit composed of two towers. The first one proved to be a few feet higher than the second and we were content to sit there and gaze upon the magnificent and vast panorama which stretched below us. The great Homathko snowfield, covering about 200 square miles, lay at our feet and on the northern horizon Mt. Waddington remained hidden in soft clouds. As our eyes completed the circle, we picked out Bute Mt., Mt. Rodney and Mt. Gilbert from the endless sea of unnamed peaks.

It was 7.00 p.m., an unorthodox hour, when we reached the top, but we had had no choice if we hoped to make the peak. Time did not permit us to consider a second attempt after the long trip in, and with no serious difficulties at any one point, we never discussed the question of turning back. There was no time to linger; the sun was rapidly dropping and soon all the glories of a vivid sunset with its flaming colors and electric green afterglow lit up the vast expanse of snow and rock. We were only 20 minutes below the peak when a pea-soup mist blew in from the N. E. obliterating it once more and making us realize how close we had come to not having any view at all. We descended from snow basin No. 2 to Revenge Glacier via the icefall noted on our ascent, delayed by necessary step-cutting. As we descended, the great glaciers and precipices to the S. of us seemed to contract and shrivel in the fading light and we felt very much alone when we finally lit our lanterns at 9.30 p.m. down on Revenge Glacier. There had been very little melting during the day and we were able to follow, at a halting gait, our steps of the morning. From 10.30 p.m. to 1.30 a.m. we hunted a way down the rocks and moraines, missing our morning route, but finally getting down by following the edge of the icefall. Having reached the moraine, it seemed foolish to try and descend further in the darkness. We found some shelter in a hollow of scrub firs and moss and tried to sleep. By morning light the difficulties of the rocks disappeared and we were back at high camp by 9.30 a.m.

The weather clouded up that afternoon and broke the next day. We left for home in the rain on August 26th, covering the distance to beach camp in three days, only stopping to pick up caches of food en route. Wet weather could not dampen our spirits although it did grease our trail; the peak was ours. Our last view was one of mountains shrouded in clouds as we steamed down Bute Inlet.

1 C. A. J., xix (1930), 92.

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