American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

An Ascent in the Seven Sisters Range

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  • Publication Year: 1942

An Ascent in the Seven Sisters Range

Neal M. Carter

THE Seven Sisters Range is a lone chain of seven connected summits and one separated peak lying between longitudes 128° 10' and 128° 14' W. in latitude 54° 58' N., visible across the Skeena River at intervals between Hazelton and Pacific stations on the northern line of the Canadian National Railways through British Columbia. The striking northern escarpment culminating in the 9250-ft. snow-capped summit (second nearest the railway) is seen to best advantage from near Woodcock station at mile 81 W. of Smithers, though the highest peak stands out more majestically from mile 86 near Cedarvale station where, only 5 miles away, it towers 8750 ft. above the railway. Henry S. Hall, Jr. has described the Seven Sisters Range as being . . . easily the outstanding sight W. of Mt. Robson.”

The lower slopes of the range have been well known to hunters, miners and prospectors for years and mining developments for silver, lead and zinc were undertaken between 1926 and 1929 at timberline on the southern slopes, leading to the establishment of a good pack trail to a group of log-mining cabins at 4100 ft. Yet despite the ready accessibility of the range, careful enquiry failed to reveal any record of ascents of the actual peaks. A party of local people attempted to climb the outlying peak some years ago but found the steepening ridges above timberline somewhat beyond the scope of their hiking experience. It is also said that an Indian goat hunter lost his life on the cliffs of one of the peaks and this incident may have proved a detriment to would-be climbers.

The range must have attracted the attention of many mountaineering enthusiasts passing between Prince Rupert and Jasper on the train, and it is strange that before 1939 no serious designs seem to have been made on the group from a mountaineering standpoint. Dr. Thorington states (private communication) that he photographed the peaks from the train in 1916, and the locality interested Henry S. Hall, Jr., in 1923 and on other occasions. The writer first saw them in 1929 and made a mental resolve to explore them if ever opportunity permitted, though at that time resident in Vancouver with little expectation of realizing the ambition. Allen Carpe also mentions the range.1

Some time after finding that my occupation took us to Prince Rupert to live, Mrs. Carter and I in the spring of 1939 laid plans for a trip to the Seven Sisters that summer. In March I had hiked along the track near Cedarvale to secure a more leisurely view of the peaks, but clouds hid most of the tops; from Miss Edith Thompson, postmistress at Cedarvale, I secured much valuable information as to the trail and possibility of securing packhorses, and was supplied with several interesting snaps taken from various places during different seasons. Enquiry from the Dominion Surveys Branch disclosed that although distant views of the range from the N. E., E. and S. E. were available, the 1935 topographical survey stopped at the 128th meridian and no maps showing any topographical detail between that meridian and the Skeena River to the W. existed. The “westerly peak” of the Seven Sisters had been triangulated from the railway, but there appeared to be some confusion as to which peak was meant. The elevation given was 9100 ft.

From the above information and a study of all available photographs, including two incomplete aero views of the range supplied by the B. C. Forestry Branch, we decided to leave from Cedarvale, where a ferry was available for crossing the Skeena to give access to the pack trail up to the disused mine cabins. Mr. and Mrs. W. E. Martin of Vancouver, fellow-members of the Alpine Club of Canada, arranged to accompany us and our two youthful sons who, with a companion, George Baker of Prince Rupert, were to be a “supporting party” with activities confined to the vicinity of the cabins. While awaiting the arrival of the Martins from Vancouver, a telegram was received from Hall asking whether I had any information on the Seven Sisters as he was in the vicinity and thought of climbing them. On being advised of our imminent plans, he and Hans Fuhrer most courteously refrained from interfering and transferred their activities to the next main massif to the S., Mt. Sir Robert, whose highest peak they successfully climbed2 on August 10th.

Our own party left Prince Rupert on August 21st and with the assistance of a genial Indian packer, Douglas Marston, and his two horses, became established in one of the mine cabins by the afternoon of August 22nd. Mr. and Mrs. Martin, my wife and myself made our assault on the highest peak (No. 2) the following day. Ascending an obvious approach which appeared to develop 6000 ft. we obtained our first close-up view of the southern glaciers. We still had but an imperfect idea of the exact relation of the easterly peaks as the summits and heads of the glaciers were hidden in clouds, though it appeared that they could be reached from here and that a possible alternative route to No. 2 lay in this direction. The following morning we broke camp and back-packed our stuff down to Cedarvale, determined to return next summer.

August 3rd, 1940, found Mrs. Carter, Capt. R. H. Durnford, Sgt.-Major Charles Gilbert, myself and the two boys with their chum, George, again encamped at the mine cabins. The following day was rainy, but on the 5th we all made an early start on the traverse around to the ridge above the glaciers, believing that the S. E. face of Peak No. 2 might be ascended from the underlying glacier to give access to the high skyline ridge of snow seen from Cedarvale, at a point beyond the difficulties encountered on the previous year’s trip and close to the final rock face of the peak. The three boys accompanied us across the easy part of the glacier and were then sent back to enjoy themselves glissading and exploring around two morainal lakes while we addressed ourselves to our task.

A short stretch of exposed icefall, then mildly crevassed névé, brought us to the base of the cliff where some trouble was experienced in making contact with the rock. The climbing was steep, though on a fine day would have been enjoyable; but with lowering fog we could not choose in advance our route up the steepening slabs and at an altitude of about 8000 ft. it commenced to rain. After a somewhat dispirited debate, we turned back here at 4 p.m. hoping as before to make another attempt on a succeeding day. Our descent was somewhat impeded by inexperience of one of the party and it was getting dark as we topped the ridge beyond the glacier in a pea-soup fog, still a long way from camp. We somehow got tangled up after vainly trying to recognize landmarks amid the confusion of snow patches and rocky outcrops as we attempted to cross the broad crest of the ridge in the growing darkness and fog, so we retreated by “bug”-light to a deep vertical crack we had noticed in the rocks. And here, well above timberline (5850 ft.), we passed an uncomfortable night with little shelter except from the wind.

Next morning it was still foggy and after another abortive attempt to get our bearings we retraced our footsteps and ice-axe marks to where we had left the glacier. Then, turning around, we made another attempt to visualize our proper route and succeeded in crossing the ridge. We were still puzzled as to the location of our bivouac! Rifts in the fog as we descended revealed glimpses of the ridge ahead leading to the cabin, and Mrs. Carter and I pushed on to assure ourselves that the boys had returned to camp before the fog settled on the previous afternoon. We were delighted to hear calls from the still foggy heights of the ridge which the boys had ascended from the cabin with thermos flasks of coffee and some food, hoping we would soon turn up. Reluctantly and somewhat disgusted, we had to leave for the train the following day in the rain.

A third trip was planned for August, 1941, and believing that bad weather could not always prevail, we arranged to stay a few extra days. Our climbing companions on the two previous trips were unable to join us, but Mr. Jack Cade of Prince Rupert, who had had considerable experience with the B. C. Mountaineering Club in Vancouver, was available. George Baker also had by this time proved himself worthy of being graduated from companion to a member of the climbing party. Our sons David and Bruce considered this year they could look after themselves while we were climbing.

Packer Douglas again landed us at the cabins on the afternoon of August 7th and on the following day we all left with three days’ food to establish a subsidiary camp beside the farther of the two little morainal lakes (5700 ft.) previously mentioned. It was our intention to try again the cliff route attempted in 1940. The morning of the 9th appeared promising and after an early start we gaily donned crampons and the rope on a sunny miniature nunatak. But the unusual mildness and slight precipitation of the previous winter had so altered the surface of the glacier that we were unable to turn the buttress of the peak owing to the shattered condition of the icefall. We tried to gain a likely-looking ledge on the buttress by crossing a higher branch of the glacier but after spending two hours in a maze of criss-crossing crevasses we were forced to retreat. Clouds were gathering on the peak so we decided to spend the rest of the day in ascending an arete which joined at right angles the skyline route of 1939.

In spite of the fog on the higher levels, it was fun pointing out to the two new members of the party the exciting places encountered two years ago—“hobbyhorse ridge” (traversed à cheval), the “balancing rock” (over which one must climb and which miraculously was still in place) and the overhanging wall of the rock bump which had previously stopped us. Through glasses we studied the possibilities of passing the bump without resorting to the unpleasant prospect of cutting several hundred steps across the steep ice wall forming the upper slope of a glacier to the left. Still uncertain whether it would be possible, we determined to try this route once more since it avoided the long climb up the rock cliff whose base was now inaccessible, and allowed starting from the comfortable cabin instead of a rocky bed on the heather at the subsidiary lake camp. We accordingly made an early return to the lake and next day leisurely went back to the cabin, taking in on the way a climb up to a rocky prominence (7000 ft.) to give the boys an idea of the route and to do a bit of surveying.

The following morning (August 11th) the four of us left the cabin at 6 a.m. and making good time over the now familiar skyline ridge reached the overhanging block of rock by noon. A reconnaissance revealed a narrow ledge leading around to the right and ending at the foot of an ice gully. An hour and a quarter later the last step up the gully had been chopped and we stepped back onto the skyline to find that we had just passed the overhang. A short steep climb up an extremely rotten arete brought us at 2.15 onto the near end of the coveted skyline of snow (8725 ft.) that had been our objective for two years. Viewing it from a distance, we had fondly imagined that once gained, it would allow us to amble along its gently rising half mile of length, admiring the view, until we reached the peak’s final rocks which might then present some difficulty. Alas! Our promenade turned out to be a sharp crest corniced in places, crossed transversely half way along by a wide crevasse, and evidently solid ice for quite a stretch. To the left the snow rapidly steepened into the upper ice slopes of the glacier seen from Cedarvale, while on the right a very steep pitch of snow about 30 ft. high gave way to the top of a band of unseen cliff. Far below at the base of the cliffs lay the glacier on which we had played around a few days before.

Roped together, we gingerly kicked steps along the top of the crest. The afternoon sun was already giving dislodged snow an interesting habit of avalanching out of sight over the top of the cliff to the right, thus discouraging excursions onto the slope stretching down to the ice on the left. But the day was perfect, we and our hopes were high, and when we came to the crevasse a narrow rocky ledge appeared, formed by the right-hand snow wall having receded a foot or two from the top of the cliff. We climbed down to it, passed the crevasse, and resumed the crest until it became ice. Here the ledge formation obligingly reappeared and continued, with a few exciting gaps, until it was time to cross over the crest to gain the base of the rocks of the peak.

The 300-ft. exposed portion of the peak pleasantly proved to be nothing more than a steep scramble up loose, frost-riven rocks abounding in fossils, and at 5.15 we stepped onto a narrow rim of rock running part way around the peak at the base of its 150-ft. snow and ice cap. Fifteen minutes later we stood on the summit, which proved to be the nearest, and barely the highest, of three humps on another narrow snow crest. The aneroid read 9400 ft., but corrections gave a probable height of 9250 ft.

After 11.5 hours of practically continuous climbing from the cabin, we were admiring a panorama unmarred by any higher peak within a radius of at least 50 miles. The nearest competitor was the 42-mile-distant highest peak of the Howson Range (54° 25' N., 127° 45' W.), shown as 9000 ft. on the 1938 Smithers Sheet (West Half) of the Dominion topographical survey that ceased at the 128° meridian. The complete massif of Sir Robert was fully appreciated by us for the first time. The well-known Hudson Bay Mtn. (8500 ft.) above Smithers and the Rocher Deboulé (7790 ft.) above Hazelton appeared far less interesting than several unnamed and unmapped higher peaks to the S., S. E. across the Skeena, and to the far N. towards the Naas River. Peaks Nos. 3 to 7 of the Seven Sisters extended below to the E., but Peak No. 1 and the outlying peak were mostly hidden by two lower humps of our summit. Through glasses, people could be seen moving about Cedarvale station 8750 ft. below.

Huddling together for support on the narrow crest at 6 P.M., there was neither time nor space for establishing a much desired camera station for my survey, so a round of snaps was taken for later interpretation with the assistance of data from lower stations. We carefully backed down to the rocky rim and built our cairn on the only available projecting platform, visible from the mine but unfortunately not from Cedarvale. A bright yellow, aluminum container for “Kodak 35” film was pressed into service to hold the record, thus becoming lost as salvage for war effort. Our route of ascent was exactly followed on the return. The tedium of slowly backing down the footsteps along the long crest was relieved by spirited conjectures as to how many steps there would be to certain landmarks. George lost count somewhere in the 600’s before reaching the descent around the crevasse, owing to a little excitement. From the end of the crest (8 P.M.) it became a race against darkness with certain objectives such as “balanced rock before sunset!” “Plum Pudding hump by 10,” and so on. Finally, after wearily slithering and stumbling down the heather slopes of the final ridge by “bug”-light, we reached the cabin just 5 minutes after midnight. Two sleepy boys awakened to learn relievedly that we finally “had made it at last.”

Easy access to the attractive remaining peaks of the range was cut off by the broken condition of the glaciers this year, so we left them for the future and spent our remaining three days lazing around, photographing, and completing the survey from surrounding ridges. The weather was still ideal, but we had achieved our object and after all, was this not our summer holiday for a rest?

Note.-—One of the peaks of the Seven Sisters (presumably the highest) has erroneously been referred to as “Meanskinisht,” a former Indian name for Cedarvale and meaning, according to the vagaries of its spelling, “at the foot of the mountain” or “at the foot of the pine trees.” An old illustrated Grand Trunk Railway (now C. N. R.) folder pictures the Seven Sisters, calling them “Weanskinisht,” a name also shown on a fingerpost at mile 79. I am informed this is a variation of spelling of the local Indian dialect word meaning “top of the mountain” and it is proposed to submit the correctly spelled name for the official adoption as the name of the peak ascended. Appropriate names will be chosen for the two glaciers we traversed, but I prefer to leave the remaining peaks merely numbered until someone climbs them. Peak No. 3 should make a fascinating climb.

The rocks of at least Peaks Nos. 1 and 2 are of sedimentary origin, strongly folded, and include conglomerate, sandstone, greywacke and argillite, with interbedded volcanic tufts and small dykes of quartz diorite porphyry. Tree-fern fossils abounded in the vicinity of the lakes and along the exposed portions of the rocky skyline ridge as well as near the top of the peak. One of the rocks of our cairn includes a large fossil imprint. Similar fossils are found in the valley at Cedarvale, and fossilized clam shells form part of a collection at the mine.

1 A. A. J., iv (1940), 142.

1 A. A. i (1931), 425.

2 A. A. J., iv (1940), 142.

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