American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Alberta and the Silver Ice-Axe

  • Feature Article
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1949

Alberta and the Silver Ice-Axe

JOHN C. OBERLIN

“WE CAME from Japan so far called by this charming great mountain.” The paper was carefully folded and tucked in a recently emptied tin can to be placed in the hurriedly constructed cairn on the summit of Mount Alberta. The date was 21 July 1925, and the time 7.35 in the evening. Yuko Maki carefully ascended the summit cornice and looked silently about him at the ring of great peaks. His mission was accomplished.

As the party of six Japanese and three Swiss guides began to work their way slowly back along the knife-edge arête, something on the peak flashed with silver and glittered with gold in the last waning light of the sun. An ice-axe had been left standing proudly in the cairn.

Twenty-three years later, almost to the day, Fred Ayres and I were sitting in his car at Jasper, glowering at the steadily descending drizzle. It was not a new experience, and it brought a feeling of frustration. We had both been giving thought to Mount Alberta, and for several years past had collected photographs and read what scanty descriptions of the mountain we could find. Bad weather and back luck had beaten off all attempts by various parties to reach the summit of the sixth highest peak of the Canadian Rockies, and the cairn remained unvisited. In the meantime, the legend of the ice-axe was assuming fantastic proportions. It was of silver, the gift of the Crown Prince, now Emperor, of Japan. In a few more years it would have been of gold set with rubies.

From a study of photographs I had convinced myself that the northwest ridge might be the answer, but Rex Gibson assured us that both it and the large gully to the west were out of the question, judging from a near aerial reconnaissance. This left the route of the first ascent as the only possibility, which was far from encouraging, since that party had taken 16 hours to reach the summit and had indulged in such feats of acrobatics as three-man ladders on the way.

When, much to our surprise, July 28th dawned clear, we hurriedly broke camp, bought supplies, and bumped down the highway en route to Milepost 57. After stopping at Warden Brennan’s cabin for a final check-out, we turned the car off the road at the gravel flat by the old log shanty and made up our packs. While we were so engaged, Ray Garner and his party, on their way back to Arizona after accomplishing the first ascent of Brussels Peak, stopped by to wish us luck. Ray, most optimistically, advised us to take a jar of silver polish along.

The Sunwapta was forded with some effort, as the water was high, and we made things unnecessarily difficult for ourselves by going a bit too far upstream. We then followed the gravel flats south, crossing the tributary stream where it flows into the Sunwapta, and hung our wading shoes in a tree to be reclaimed later. A handsome falls thundered into the little box canyon, but a fine game trail was easily found ascending through the woods to the left, as promised. It was now after 5.00 P.M., so we shouldered our frame packs and started doggedly uphill. The trail followed close along the crumbling edge of the cliff for a considerable distance; and, when this finally petered out in the upper reaches, it was not difficult to make our own way along the bank.

Reaching the point where the entire valley is blocked by the snout of a glacier coming down from the left, carrying a load of huge morainal boulders, we decided to make camp at timberline just beyond. It took us an hour to work our way through this barrier, and we became thoroughly disgusted at such practical jokes. A grassy knoll decked with small spruces led us to a level spot protected by a large boulder. Here we quickly pitched our tent. It was about 8.00 P.M. and beginning to rain again. Fred fought a winning battle with the damp firewood I collected, and we retired to the soporific patter of raindrops on the tent roof.

It was still pattering steadily next morning, and we lay in our sacks until Fred was driven by hunger to tackle the breakfast problem. When I eventually crawled out, large clouds of smoke and steam were rising from the “fire,” and some time later breakfast was ready and quickly consumed. Fred scrambled up to investigate a small hanging glacier, while I gathered more firewood and amused myself by building a cairn. When the rain freshened I would retreat to my sack. It began to look as though we should not even see Mount Alberta, much less climb it.

After lunch the rain stopped, and we decided to break camp and move into position for attack in case, by some amazing stroke of good luck, the weather should perhaps clear. At 3.30 P.M. we were again on our way, and a short stroll took us to the moraine of the glacier below Mount Woolley. The ice was reached via some easy slabs to the left of the stream coming from its tongue, and we ambled up the gently sloping debris-strewn surface with the medial moraine to our left. This moraine leads to a steep scree slope crowned by a broken cliff, and we debated which gully was the true route. None looked too attractive to us with our heavy packs.

Picking the last wide gully to the right, we found that it took us to the scree saddle above without any difficulty other than the usual treadmill antics. The view which suddenly greeted us was most dramatic. Although we had climbed 4000 feet from the Sunwapta, Mount Alberta now towered above us, black and threatening, with clouds covering the upper portion of the summit ridge exactly as in one of A. O. Wheeler’s old photographs I had brought with me. The Twins and Mount Columbia rose from the gloomy depths of the Athabaska Valley in unbroken precipices, their flanks ornamented with snow and hanging glaciers.

A few hundred feet below us and in the direction of Mount Woolley was a black area of rock with a snow patch above and scree and the glacier below. Having dropped down to this, we cleared a place for the tent and built a rock wall windbreak, as the breeze was anything but gentle. Water was obtained from the snow patch drainage, and we heated chicken noodle soup over Heat Tabs, It was after 8.00 P.M. There was no reason for optimism about the weather or the mountain, and we retired without much hope of a real attempt on the peak next day.

When the luminous dial read 3.55 A.M., I informed Fred, who grunted but nevertheless promptly crawled out of the tent. His announcement of a clear, starry sky brought me out after him, and we hurriedly breakfasted and made up our packs. In addition to the 120-foot nylon climbing rope, we took 150 feet of nylon line, sling rope, pitons, extra clothing and food. We were destined to use them all.

At 4.40 A.M. we were on our way across the glacier, rounding the north end of Little Alberta and dodging several large sink-holes en route. At 6.10 A.M. we left the glacier behind and swung south around the mountain up easy scree below a series of snow fields. The view from the col yesterday had suggested a roundabout route which might avoid most of the difficulties with the lower cliff bands.

As soon as we were beyond the last of these snow fields, we turned up easy scree ledges until these steepened into a cliff, and then followed the base of the latter to the left and around a corner to the west. This brought us to the flank of a large snow field on the south end of the mountain. A short climb up its near edge took us to a little gully, which brought us out above the cliff, and we continued angling steeply to the right up a series of scree ledges to a wide scree bench. This in turn led to the right (east) around a corner and into the foot of a long steep gully which was ascended by its left side, the last few feet providing the first real climbing of the day and bringing us out on a little, semi-detached spur. Stepping across a narrow gap, we clambered up onto a broad scree shelf or slope beneath the ominous black cliff which bands the entire upper portion of the mountain. A few small rocks came bounding down to greet us.

Since we were still a bit too far south, we followed the shelf to the right beneath snow patches and low rock steps down which water dripped. Here, at about 8.20 A.M., we had a snack at an altitude even with the summit of Little Alberta (9700 ft.), quite pleased with our progress but keeping a sharp lookout for the falling rocks.

Continuing around the base of the south tower, we scrambled up to the foot of the first gully to the right (9.10 A.M.), which seemed to offer an opportunity to continue angling right. The rock was steep and somewhat wet, and its rottenness gave me a feeling of considerable exposure.

Several uncomfortable pitches brought us to a long horizontal ledge about six feet wide and pretty well covered with snow, which we traversed right until we could climb to a similar, but narrower, ledge 20 feet above. Fred believed he could climb the very nasty “gully” overhead, but I was certain that I could not do so safely, as it was very steep, shallow, wet, rotten, and completely exposed without any chance for a belay. I therefore voted for dropping back down to the wider ledge and following it around the corner into the next real gully to see what might offer. This we did, and after a short pitch up the intervening rib came out on a little knob decorated with a very old rope sling hanging down on the gully side. Whoever had left it there must have had an experience comparable to rappelling down an elevator shaft.

A long, narrow, upward-slanting ledge leading into the gully was followed without much difficulty; but it was obvious that our real troubles were about to begin, so we roped up. When this ledge petered out, Fred led up the convex side of the rib to his left, where he found a good belay, and I came up protected by the rope. This was one of the more difficult and delicate pitches of the climb, although I took a route slightly more to the right, which appeared to be a bit easier.

We now traversed out into the gully to the foot of a narrow chimney backed by snow. I struggled up, using the snow for the most part, and eventually broke through below a chockstone waterfall, going practically out of sight. After I had dragged myself out of this hole, with a certain amount of bad language, we continued up the chimney for a considerable distance until it opened out into a more broken section of the gully. Again traversing up and to the right, we entered another narrow snow- and ice-backed chimney, where I kicked a ladder of toeholds while Fred preferred the steep rock rib to the right. Several more pitches up the rib and slightly to the left found us perched on the summit arête at the third point from the south end of the mountain. It was 4.05 P.M.

Our first reaction was one of relief that the worst was now over, quickly followed by a realization that the actual summit was still far off. We were in fact surprised to discover that the arête was an exceedingly sharp knife-edge, the crest of which had to be followed without the slightest deviation to either flank. Although now at a very considerable elevation, the Twins, Columbia, Stutfield and Woolley were still impressive, and, far below, the myriad channels of the Athabaska River glinted in the sunlight. A small cairn was erected, and we promptly set off up the ridge.

Small cornices were perched here and there, and two rock steps were encountered, the second proving rather troublesome and making me happy that Fred was leading here. The cornices steadily increased in size, becoming substantially continuous and greatly slowing our progress as they capped a rock wall so narrow in places that twice, where the rock was exposed, we proceeded à cheval with our feet dangling on either side. The weather was good, but the peak was condensing moisture from the strong west wind and forming its own cloud cap, which prevented our seeing any great distance ahead. Suddenly I heard an exclamation of dismay from Fred, in the lead.

The ridge here comprised a steep, thin snow crest along which we had been proceeding by kicking our toes into the western side about three feet from the top, while driving the axe shaft down into the apex itself. Joining Fred, I shared his discomfiture.

We had reached a notch in the ridge at least 60 feet deep, with a sheer drop to the west and an ice slope to the east so steep as properly to be called a wall. This latter slope was thinly covered with snow. There was only one thing to do. Fred drove his axe shaft horizontally into the snow about three feet below the crest on the west side while I extracted the 150 feet of nylon line from my pack. The axe was driven in up to its head and the center portion of the line looped about it, with the two ends brought up over the crest and dangling down the other side about six feet from the point where the ridge broke over into the notch. Down I went, kicking toeholds in the overlying snow until they began to break under me. and then swinging almost to the crest itself where the snow was a little deeper. At the bottom of the notch this crest was so thin and frail that I was forced to lop off the top foot or so before I could even sit astride with each foot thrust into space. A boss of snow was next carved out and the ends of the line, which had been tied together, looped about it. Fred now descended, minus his axe but using the line as a handhold.

The other side of the notch was steep, but not so hair-raising as that we had just descended. From here on I belayed Fred over the worst stretches, but he came along steadily, even in sections where the snow was so steep that I felt it advisable to make handholds for him.

The chill west wind kept the ridge ahead obscured with rolling mist, and still the ridge rose, hovering vaguely above us. Suddenly, a hundred yards ahead, I saw the axe, strikingly silhouetted against the snow and fog. Fred was yet considerably below me, and my shout gave him his only fright of the climb. Pushing rapidly on, we reached the summit at 6.15 P.M. The cairn was well buried in the snow with but two or three rocks showing, indicating that conditions must have been rather different at the time of the first ascent.

Removing the upper rocks, we found the record in a rusty inverted tin can, quite well preserved considering the length of time it had been there. It is a most unusual document, as may be seen from the accompanying illustration.

The axe was not silver but a good Swiss make, weather-beaten and rusty. On the side of the pick, in large block letters of gold leaf, were the initials “M.T.H.” Since the spike and ferrule were frozen in solid black ice between the lower rocks of the cairn, our best efforts could not chop them free. Moreover, the shaft was cracked near its end, so that little leverage could be applied. We were determined to take it with us, partly because we felt that it should be preserved in the museum of one of the Alpine Clubs, but particularly because Fred needed an axe for the return along the ridge to the notch. I had no desire to witness a repeat performance of his balancing act, however expert. (As a matter of fact, I had kept constantly in mind the possibility of jumping through the cornice if he should slip.)

What to do with the record was more of a problem. To return it to its rusty can in the snow-buried cairn seemed tantamount to throwing it in the wastebasket, as it certainly would not last there much longer. We remembered our disappointment at the collection of mushy paper, mostly illegible, we had found on the summit of Mount Assiniboine two years before and decided to take the record to accompany the axe. At 6.30 P.M. we started back along the ridge, leaving a scribbled note in the cairn to the effect that we had found the Japanese axe and record and were bringing them down.

It was now a race against time. To spend the night on that windy ridge was not our chief desire. Since Fred had an axe, even though a broken one, we made good time back to the notch. The climb up the steep wall was as spectacular as the descent had been, and the fixed rope proved most comforting.

Continuing carefully along the snow and rock knife-edge, I was intent on the next step when Fred called out and I turned to look back. A long narrow black cone of shadow shot out from beneath me onto the cloud of mist blowing away toward the east. On the tip of the cone was my own black and gigantic figure encircled by three concentric halos of most brilliant rainbow hues. The Spectre of the Brocken! I had never seen it before but promptly recalled Whymper’s graphic description of his descent from the Matterhorn when a similar spectacle completely unnerved his guides shortly after the famous tragedy. To the west the sun was about to drop below the horizon. Fred, of course, saw his own figure instead of mine, and we both gazed spellbound. When the colors faded, we moved on, but 50 yards farther the spectacle was repeated with the colors more dazzling than ever.

At 7.45 P.M. our little cairn marking the point where we had come up onto the summit ridge was regained. Even without this marker it would have been difficult to proceed many steps more along the ridge. A short scramble, a 120-foot rappel, a bit of climbing, and a 90-foot rappel brought us to a series of very small ledges on the rib Fred had ascended while I came up the narrow ice gully alongside. Since it was becoming rather dark and we could recall no equally comfortable (!) spot in the next thousand feet of descent, Fred started clearing off the snow while I argued with the recalcitrant rappel rope which had hung up somewhere. It finally came down, along with a few rocks, and I joined Fred on his very scenic perch.

The perch consisted of a ledge just long enough for us both to sit on—me with my feet waving gaily in the breeze. We tied ourselves tightly to a fairly solid block behind us and also secured our packs with rope. After putting on dry socks and everything else we had with us, we fished food out of the packs and had supper, speculating meanwhile on the meaning of the rather cloudy sky overhead.

We had succeeded in getting down far enough to be out of the wind and were not unduly cold, but the time passed unbelievably slowly. In the early morning the clouds disappeared and a cold north wind came up. It made us quiver whenever a puff blew upon us. No exercise was possible, and from 4.00 to 5.30 A.M. we were quite uncomfortable. Fred had been boasting that he was not shivering, but shortly after sunrise he began to vibrate like a tuning fork. We waited until the sun had climbed high enough to provide real warmth before we began, rather creakily, to continue our descent.

Except for several traverses and short descents, we rappelled most of the way down to the old rope sling. The ropes were stiff and wet, kinked badly, and would not run freely about our bodies; we used them merely as handlines, except in the steepest bits. Considerable care had to be taken to dislodge as few rocks as possible. The hot sun, however, was rapidly melting the snow, and numerous small rocks kept coming down of their own accord. Several pitons were employed to take rappel slings, as belays are few on this cliff.

After traversing the large horizontal ledge, we cautiously descended a series of nasty wet steps and with one more rappel arrived at the big scree bench below the black cliff band. More rocks came whizzing past as we traversed the bench to the head of the steep gully. The cairns we had built on the lower part of the route were of considerable assistance in guiding us down. Crossing the glacier in the hot sun was a slow and sleepy business, and it was not until 5.30 P.M. that we regained the tent. A large and elegant meal was prepared over Heat Tabs, and we retired to a night of very sound slumber.

On the morning of August 1st we arose late, breakfasted well, and strolled across the snow toward Mount Woolley, which we would have liked to climb if time had permitted. Here it was possible to photograph Mount Alberta without interference from Little Alberta in the foreground. At about 11.00 A.M. we packed up, broke camp, and quickly scrambled up the scree to the col, where Fred traversed a considerable distance toward Mount Woolley for more photographs, returning at 1.10. The descent of over 4000 feet to the Sunwapta was easy except for the rock-strewn glacier tongue, which blocks the route; but when we arrived at the river we decided to take advantage of the lovely campsite and cross over the next day. Mount Athabaska up the valley was gorgeous in the light of the setting sun.

This time, on crossing the Sunwapta next morning, we picked a spot considerably downstream, where it breaks into many channels, and we had no trouble at all. Arriving in Jasper, we lunched with the Ed Brennans and reported in to the warden. After a chat with the Superintendent, who remarked that he had been told the story of the silver ice-axe on Mount Alberta when he first assumed his duties in the Park, we had a visit with Mr. J. A. Weiss, who still corresponds with one of the Swiss guides who took part in the first ascent. Fred and I then climbed into the car and set off to Maligne Lake for a rest cure.

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