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The First Ascent of Brussels Peak

The First Ascent of Brussels Peak

Raymond C. Garner

IN THE SUMMER of 1947 my wife and I spent two and one half months making movies in the Canadian Rockies. We travelled the Banff-Jasper highway many times, and became quite familiar with the view just south of Athabaska Falls, where we could see the black tower of Brussels off to the west. Its position and topography alone presented a challenge, but the real challenge lay in the stories of the attempts to climb it, for some of the very finest British, Canadian and American mountaineers had come to grips with the mountain.1 In addition to reported attempts, there must have been scores of others. Frank Wells, packer and outfitter at Athabaska Falls, told us that he had been packing parties into Brussels for over twenty years. Here were both a challenge to quicken the pulse of any mountaineer and a story worth photographing. When we decided to make a 16-mm. film called “First Ascent,” to be used for lecturing purposes, the Harmon Foundation of New York City agreed to finance the project.

In early July of 1948 we left Phoenix and drove to the Tetons in Wyoming to pick up two members of the Kachinas (Kachina Mountain Club of Phoenix, Arizona) who were just finishing their climbing program. Here we were greeted with the tragic news of Win Akin’s death on Nez Perce.2 Ed George and Ben Pedrick had intended to go with us to Canada, but Ben had been with Win on Nez Perce, and he decided to go back to Phoenix with Win’s parents. We needed a third climber for our film, since my wife Virginia would do some of the shooting but would not appear in the pictures. Jack (“Jiggs”) Lewis, of Glencoe, Illinois, had planned to spend the summer guiding for Paul Petzoldt and Glenn Exum in the Tetons. Jiggs jumped at the invitation to join our party.

We left the Tetons on July 14th and on the 16th made camp near Jasper. We learned that Fred Ayres and Don Woods had been in to Brussels, but had had bad weather. We also heard that Fred Beckey and his party were still in at the peak. Our hearts sank. As we had read many accounts of Beckey’s climbs, we figured that our mountain—and our film—were gone. But Beckey’s party finally came out, and the mountain was still unclimbed. We were just about to sigh with relief when we heard that John and Ruth Mendenhall had been up Fryatt Creek for a week—with Brussels as their objective! It looked very much as if we should have to change the title of our film.

On July 18th we packed into the old A.C.C. camp in Fryatt Canyon. We four (Ed George, Jiggs Lewis, Virginia and I) walked in carrying the movie camera (EK Ciné-Special) and accessories, plus clothing and some food. The bulk of the food, and all of the climbing and camping equipment, rode in on two pack horses. We were prepared for a long siege of the mountain.

The next morning we started up toward our objective, carrying all climbing and camera equipment. Before reaching the base of the mountain, Jiggs and I took all four loads in two tremendously heavy packs, so that Virginia and Ed could go back to the A.C.C. base camp and bring up the camping equipment. At Lake Fickle, so named by us because of its tide-like rise and fall, we met the Mendenhalls. John and Ruth had reached the base of the first “step,” but could not find a safe belay point to justify climbing the black chimney to the east. At long last we could relax: the mountain was ours—if we could take it.

Jiggs and I went on to the Christie-Brussels saddle. We left the movie and climbing gear in a cache near the stone windbreak erected by Ayres and Woods last year. Then we descended to Lake Fickle to find that Ed had pitched a tent and had supper cooking. Virginia had gone down to the A.C.C. camp again after carrying up two loads of gear. Fortunately, the Mendenhalls had warned us of the vagaries of Fickle, and so we moved the tent a good 12 feet higher than the platform where Eddie had pitched it. After supper Ed descended to the A.C.C. camp.

The next morning Jiggs and I left the lake at 8.00 A.M. and reached the saddle shelter in two and one half hours. It was a beautiful, warm, sunny day. We traversed the first portion of the Northeast Ridge by walking the snow atop the glacier up and into the second broad chimney. This chimney of shale and loose boulders brought us to a sloping shelf where we changed from “Bramanis” to sneakers. Here we roped up and climbed a narrow chimney 40 feet to a notch on the ridge proper. We found an old sling rope around a boulder at this point.

We placed a tamp-in ring bolt for protection. (This method was developed by Ben Pedrick, of the Kachinas. A hole, one half inch in diameter, and about one inch deep, is drilled with a spiral-type steel drill. This goes in much faster than a star drill. Then the lead-sheathed tamp is set in place with a special tamp tool. A 5/16-inch eye bolt is then screwed into the steel core of the tamp. Four of these bolts were placed at various points along our route, but for protection only. No direct aid was used.3) Jiggs led up a nearly vertical face, about 15 feet, to the base of a narrow chimney. He continued on another 35 feet and emerged on the summit of one of the main pinnacles of the ridge. Here he found a sound piton in place and worked a secure belay through a karabiner.

It was little more than a scramble along the top of this ridge to the base of the first “step,” but the exposure and looseness of the rock made it quite sporting. At one point it was necessary to step across a yawning void to the shoulder of a delicately balanced pinnacle. At another the way led across a split cat-walk with a drop of several hundred feet on either side. We climbed to the accompaniment of falling rock. When we reached the base of the first “step,” we found the rock quite firm.

From all the information we had been able to gather, this was as far as previous parties had gone. Mendenhall spoke of the black chimney on the left (east). This apparently would go for about 80 feet, but it was blocked by huge chockstones farther up. If good climbers, over the years, had been unable to find a safe way up this chimney, it was only logical to look for an entirely different route. The face on the right (northwest) was vertical, seemingly overhanging in places, but the rock was as firm as any we had ever climbed on. This might prove to be the key to the mountain.

We placed a “tamp-in” for a belay near the base of this pitch. I led out on a diagonal traverse to a small ledge about 40 feet from the starting point. An insecure piton gave some degree of protection while I drilled a hole for another “tamp-in.” Anchored to this tamp, I belayed Jiggs up to the small ledge, where we both sat and rested. The ledge was barely large enough to support us, and the exposure made us feel like flies on a wall.

We tried a courte échelle up the slightly overhanging brow above this ledge, but I was still unable to reach a secure handhold. With Jiggs belaying through the tamp, I finally was able to by-pass the overhang to the right. I continued up and found a narrow chimney which led up another 40 feet before it was stopped by a chock- stone. Jiggs joined me. Then I worked out to the right, entered another vertical chimney, and so reached the broad platform at the top of the first “step,” a total distance of 130 feet from the base. We now stood higher on the mountain than anyone had ever been before. Above us, apparently less than a rope length, were pinnacles of the summit ridge. (Later, on actual measurement, this proved to be a good 200 feet!)

It was now past 5.00 P.M. We could go on and finish the climb, for Jiggs had found a possible crack on the left; but we decided against it. We did not have enough nylon to leave a fixed rope here, and we should have to climb it a second time for the movie.

On the descent we left a fixed rope the length of the first “step,” tying an extra 60 feet to our 120-foot rope to make it reach. Farther down, we left another fixed rope from the old piton on the ridge to the sloping ledge where we had left our “Bramanis.” Later in the evening we reached Lake Fickle, to find that Virginia and Ed had packed up more equipment and had established camp for all four of us there.

The 21st was a day of rest. The weather was glorious. Ever since, we have regretted wasting it. In the afternoon Jiggs and Ed went down to the A.C.C. camp again and brought up air mattresses and more food.

At 5.00 A.M. on the 22nd all four of us started up to the saddle camp, carrying sleeping bags, two air mattresses, food, and a poncho. At 8.00 A.M. we reached the saddle shelter, where Virginia remained, for three could move faster than four. She watched the entire climb through binoculars. Ed, Jiggs and I—lugging all the photographic equipment—retraced our route of the 20th up to the base of the first “step,” taking a few movie shots en route. The face climb, which I had led two days before, now proved too much for me even with a fixed rope! I got up to the small ledge where the tamp was placed, but could not negotiate the overhang. So steep was the angle of the face that my feet would not remain in contact with the rock when I tried to go up hand over hand. Jiggs joined me on the small ledge and caught me as I fell back three times. Then he took over and went up on the sheer strength of his arms.

Belayed from above by Jiggs, I hoisted up the heavy camera pack, and then brought Ed up to the ledge. Jiggs again belayed me as I worked up to the top of the first “step,” dragging the camera pack all the way. Then Ed joined us. Since skies had clouded over, we were not able to take any movies of this portion of the climb, but we planned to carry the camera to the summit and get some shots on the descent, weather permitting.

We climbed around the base of the second “step” to the east. Here we could see the crack that Jiggs had found on the 20th. I went up about ten feet, placed a piton, and then dropped back to the ledge. Jiggs started up the narrow crack. He placed another piton a few feet higher. Meanwhile a storm was gathering. It began to rain!

Now the section of the cliff containing the crack bellied out into a slight overhang. Jiggs made a wonderful lead past this overhang, using every muscle of his body plus what we like to call the “flesh- crawl” technique. For several seconds, as he rounded the bulge, his legs stuck out into the air. When he finally grunted past the place, he drilled a hole and placed a tamp for security. He then continued up a chimney for another 30 feet. Here he found a belay point and was able to protect me as I climbed up. We pulled the camera pack up past the overhang and tied it securely to the tamp.

When I reached Jiggs, there was not enough room for both of us on the ledge, so he continued up another 20 feet. It was raining quite heavily now. As I started to join him, a bolt of lightning struck with terrifying suddenness. Eddie, 60 feet below, felt his beard and woollen hat tingle with the current. Another bolt struck—all too close for comfort. I scrambled up to Jiggs and we divested ourselves of pitons, karabiners, drills, and hammers. We hung all this iron on a rope and lowered it a safe distance.

Jiggs had a crack he could squeeze partially into, but there was no room for me. I had to stand out on the sloping ledge in the rain —and completely exposed to the lightning. It struck again—much too close. Jiggs stayed in the crack, but I climbed out onto the ridge to the right and up over a block which put me about 20 feet above him.

We stayed here about half an hour. The lightning stopped for a bit, but the rain continued. I was just about to call to Jiggs to join me when the rock I was leaning against began to buzz with electricity. I quickly moved up another 30 feet and crouched under a shallow overhang. We were scared—and that’s an understatement!

Now we had to make a difficult decision. Prudence demanded an immediate retreat, but we should not have been where we were if we had been prudent. Bad weather in the Canadian Rockies commonly lasts a week or more in midsummer. Through rifts in the clouds I could see the beginning of the summit ridge a short way above. It seemed to be an easy scramble to our goal. We should be hours on the retreat, anyhow, so we decided to take a little extra time and make a dash for the summit.

I called to Jiggs to come up. While he was pulling up the iron, I heard him call out in dismay. I soon learned that all of the pitons and karabiners had fallen! This put us on the spot. We were going to need those pitons for rappelling. None of the boulders on this ridge would safely hold a rappel sling.

Fortunately, Jiggs was still in verbal contact with Eddie, who was able to fasten some spare pitons and karabiners to the rope. As Jiggs drew them up, they wedged tightly in a crack from which Jiggs could not dislodge them from above. The rain had turned to sleet, making our problem all the more difficult, but Eddie solved it for us by climbing up and dislodging the iron by hand. Then he climbed back down to his ledge and voluntarily gave up his chance of reaching the summit. Ed knew that two could move twice as fast as three, and time meant everything now.

By the time Jiggs reached my ledge, all precipitation had stopped and we thought we might get a break in the weather. Two more short pitches (which would have been very easy under dry conditions) brought us to the top of the first pinnacle of the summit ridge. About 100 feet farther on rose another pinnacle, still higher. We had to exercise great care here because of the wet rock—and because we were both tingling with the excitement of probable victory. From the top of this second pinnacle we saw the summit, still 100 yards distant; but we knew it was ours.

The third pinnacle was composed of fantastically balanced blocks of rock. These could not be surmounted with the slightest guarantee that they would stay in place. We descended some 15 feet to the right and traversed on a horizontal ledge. The fourth pinnacle was quite easy. From here it was but a short walk to the highest point. We reached the summit at 5.00 P.M., nine hours from our camp on the col.

The summit itself was not a rock pinnacle, but a curving mound of loose shale which looked as if it had just slid out the rear of a dump truck. It was a very unspectacular summit for a very spectacular mountain.

For Jiggs there were two reasons for rejoicing, for this was also his twenty-first birthday. We had little time for celebrating, however, as another storm was rapidly sweeping in from the west. We hurriedly threw up a small cairn, placed the record of our climb in a plastic waterproof match case, and began the retreat just as the second storm descended upon us.

We climbed down to the place where I had heard the rock buzzing and there placed a piton. A short rappel brought us to the ledge where Jiggs had waited out the electrical storm. The wind now was howling around us. We were thoroughly soaked and very cold.

It began to snow. It was very difficult to place pitons with our numbed and bleeding fingers, cut by the sharp rocks. We finally managed to put in two, and had just enough sling rope left to carry a loop over the edge of the ledge. We tied two 120-foot nylon ropes together, and Jiggs went down first. Just above the bulge he stopped and hung on by one hand as he recovered the camera pack. This was quite a feat in the cold and wet. This 100-foot rappel, plus a 20-foot traverse, brought us to the top of the first “step.”

Here we found Ed in terrible shape. He had waited for us on an exposed ledge where there was no protection from the elements, and not enough room to exercise and maintain bodily warmth. He was blue with cold and vibrating like a Model T. He looked like a pneumonia case for sure.

At this point we had our sling already prepared, the one we had hung the fixed rope from on the 20th. The distance to the base of the first “step” was 130 feet. Since it would be impossible to recover the ropes if we used two 120’s, we decided to sacrifice one of them. Accordingly we tied an extra 60-footer to one rope and rappelled down to the ridge. I went last, carrying the camera pack. The wet rope and heavy pack fouled me up, and I slid past the ridge about 30 feet to the right. Ed had to use all of his strength to pull me back. The hauling worked wonders for him. From this point on he took care of me, and so forgot his own condition. I was able to climb up ten feet and untie the extra 60 feet of nylon, abandoning the 120. This rope will mark our route to the summit for future climbers.

The journey down that terrible ridge, in the cold and wet and gathering darkness, was a nightmare. When we reached the place where the first fixed rope had been, we did not have the energy left to fuss with a double rope rappel. We slid down a single fixed rope, abandoning another 120 feet of nylon. At the base of this rappel we changed back to our “Bramanis” and scrambled down the wide chimney to the snow, reaching our saddle camp at 9.30 P.M. Virginia had hot bouillon waiting for us, but had been unable to keep the sleeping bags dry. We spent a wild night in wet bags under a small, leaky poncho, with all four of us wedged between the narrow walls of the shelter.

At dawn on the 23rd a watery sun greeted us. As this soon disappeared behind a new bank of storm clouds, we started down, leaving the cameras and some food in a cache. We intended to make one more attempt to shoot our film. We reached Lake Fickle at 10.00 A.M., but the mountain had had its revenge. The entire little valley was flooded, and just the very top of our tent showed above the surface of the water! All of Virginia’s exposed still film was on the floor of that tent. Fortunately, the other tent was up high on the bank, together with the remainder of our food supply. We were able to dry out some of our things over a fire before it started to rain again that same evening. It continued throughout the night and all the next day.

At dawn on the 25th all four of us again climbed up to the col. Here we found that what had been rain at the lake was snow at this altitude. We had difficulty digging out our equipment from the cache. Despite a chilling wind and snow on all the ledges, Jiggs went on ahead and climbed up to the point on the ridge where we had left the last nylon. He recovered it: Jiggs can not abide waste. We watched him through holes in the clouds. While we waited, we packed up all the equipment that had been left in the cache, including cameras, climbing irons and food. As soon as Jiggs arrived, we started down. It had grown extremely cold, and another storm was threatening.

At Lake Fickle we added all the sleeping bags, clothing and tents to our packs, and continued right on down to the A.C.C. camp. That night we ate all the remaining food in a tremendous feast. The next morning we shouldered light packs for the 12-mile hike out to the highway, leaving all the heavy equipment to be picked up the next day by pack train.

As we drew away from Brussels, we kept looking back over our shoulders, half expecting it to turn into a volcano and deluge us with lava. It had already hit us with just about everything a mountain could throw.

We had climbed our mountain. We had taken the old black devil, and we had taken him under very difficult conditions. But we had failed to make our film.

1A report that the first ascent was made in 1946, and that the climb was repeated in 1947, was in error. The note in A.A.J., VII (April 1948), III, should therefore be disregarded.—Ed.

2Mr. Akin apparently lost his balance or tipped over a slab while taking a photograph from the summit of Nez Perce. He was unroped at the time and was killed instantly by the fall.—Ed.

3See also the note on page 230, below.—Ed.