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The Northern Selkirks

The Northern Selkirks

Arnold Wexler

NORTH of the Canadian Pacific Railroad, within the big bend of the Columbia River, are the rarely visited northern Selkirks. A casual glance from the highway that parallels the river, or from the railroad in the Beaver and Illecillewaet Valleys, can do no more than hint at the alpine country hidden behind the bulwarks of bush, cliff and torrent that guard the approaches to the interior. It is only from such a high point as Mount Rogers to the south or Mount Columbia to the east that a distant, tantalizing picture of this region is unfolded.

Such a picture excited the enthusiasm of Sterling B. Hendricks; and his interest, communicated to several climbing companions, resulted in 1946 in a successful expedition to the Sir Sandford and Adamant regions.1 Not since 1912, when Palmer and Holway, after five years of effort, conquered Mount Sir Sandford (11,590 ft.),2 had anyone returned for a second attempt. Now an easier approach to the mountains, along Swan Creek, was evolved. From the summit of Sir Sandford, a panorama of the Selkirk wilderness inspired the notion of an alpine crossing of the northern mountain groups.

In the spring of 1948 plans were made to bring the idea to fruition. It was proposed that a traverse be made from Flat Creek in the Illecillewaet Valley to the mouth of Swan Creek on the Columbia River, and that along this route a number of base camps be established, to serve as focal points for attempts on some of the major peaks. The decision was made to utilize airplane support. The personnel of the party numbered six: Sterling B. Hendricks, Donald Hubbard, Alexander C. Fabergé, Alvin E. Peterson, Chris G. Scoredos and Arnold Wexler. Andrew J. Kauffman, who had persuaded Benjamin Ferris and William Putnam to join him in a trip into the Adamant Group, suggested that the two parties cooperate on the air drops. The result was an arrangement whereby one plane supplied both parties.

Early on the dull morning of July 5th, the train discharged Hendricks, Peterson and Scoredos at Flat Creek, while Hubbard and I continued to Vernon, 125 miles to the west. Hubbard and I had been chosen for the air task because, presumably, we were the most expendable. I had a few vague doubts about the logic behind this, and the long trip to Vernon did little to allay them.

Thursday the 8th had been selected as the day for making the drops. Sufficient time had been allowed for our advance party to reach Tangier Pass, and for the Kauffman party to be on Gothics Névé in the Adamants. It rained on Wednesday. On Thursday the two-engine Anson took off, but since storm clouds hid the upper half of Tangier Valley, no drops were possible. Friday dawned clear, and the mission was accomplished. My mental reservations as to low-level mountain flying, especially as to skipping 150 feet above the drop areas, persisted until I saw the pilot take his five- year-old youngster along for the ride. I then relaxed and enjoyed every moment of the flight. Pilots Peter Dyck and Dan McIvor did an excellent job.

We flew to Tangier Creek and followed its course to the head of the valley. A smoke signal pinpointed the target. It took 14 passes to drop 21 packages. From Tangier Pass we winged down Sorcerer Creek, turned northeast, crossed the Centurion Glaciers, and intersected Gold River. The summit of Mount Sir Sandford was hidden under a white banner. On reaching Palmer Creek we veered directly toward Gothics Névé. On the gentle swells of snow, three figures waved their arms. After one dry run, we rapidly pushed out parcel after parcel in seven successive passes. Kauffman, Ferris and Putnam immediately began collecting the supplies, prompted no little, I suspect, by an anticipation of special refreshments.

With the work over, the return trip was pure enjoyment. We flew across Granite Glacier toward Edfalls Mountain, sighted Kinbasket Lake, joined Austerity Creek and traced it to its source, followed Stitt Creek to Goldstream River, then went south to Carnes Mountain, met the Columbia River above Revelstoke, and headed back to Vernon. The southern wall of the Adamant Group, with its steep rock faces, was the most impressive sight we had during the flight.

At 5.30 A.M. on Saturday, Hubbard and I arrived at Flat Creek (3094 ft.) to join Fabergé for the trip to Tangier Pass. We tarried until seven to eat breakfast and chat with Jimmy Durant, the local ranger, before shouldering packs. Bostock Summit (6000 ft.), a distance of six or seven miles, was reached in three and a half hours. Here the trail ends and the bush takes over, with a vengeance. The height of land is the hydrographic apex for three streams: Bostock Creek, up which we had just come; Farm Creek, down which we had to go to reach Tangier Creek; and Mountain Creek. We spent the rest of this day and all of the next in an excursion down Mountain Creek and back up to Bostock Summit.3 Farm Creek claimed our attention on Monday. At four in the afternoon of Tuesday the 13th, drenched after four days of rain and wet bush, we tramped into camp at Tangier Pass (5760 ft.).

Tangier Pass is an ideal base from which to climb and explore. Immediately above the pass are the peaks of the Sorcerer Group. Rolling meadows, scattered stands of fir, and many small tarns form an esthetic setting for a camp.

In spite of persistent bad weather, Hendricks, Scoredos and Peterson succeeded in ascending Sorcerer Mountain (10,376 ft.) the day after the drops. The climb was a battle rather with the elements than with technical difficulties. The west arête provided the natural approach to the twin summits, a snow ridge connecting the two. Whirling snow and mist reduced visibility at times to a scant few feet. The cirque south of the west arête was used for the descent.

The patter of rain in the early dawn of July 14th discouraged any thought of activity, but by seven it had stopped. Grabbing rucksacks, we turned to the westerly peaks above the pass. The first glacial basin south of the pass provided a convenient avenue for gaining altitude. After climbing 1000 feet of scree and moraine, clambering over a patch of cliffs onto névé, and continuing southwesterly, we rounded the base of a shoulder to attain Candy Col (8200 ft.) on the Smallfry Ridge at 11.10 A.M. Smallfry Ridge forms a two-mile arc of rock, punctuated by four peaks. A glacier on its west feeds Downie Creek. A corniced arête curves gracefully upward and southwest from Candy Col to Mount Eric (9200 ft.), the southern end of the ridge. We kicked steps up the snow, climbed its quartzite defenses, and gained the top by 1.00 P.M. A small cairn was erected.

Mount Martha (9300 ft.) is the northern terminus of the Smallfry Ridge. Since it was a tempting prize, we started across.

The entire ridge and two peaks, Mount Station (8760 ft.), with its survey stoneman on top, and Obstacle Peak (9000 ft.), intervened. We retraced our steps to Candy Col and from there had a steady rock scramble that eased off only on the last hundred feet of Martha. Snow flurries, mist and clouds enveloped us from time to time, but fortunately did not linger long or appreciably hinder progress. We paused on Martha to build a cairn and went on to the next col. This connects with Martha Glacier, which flows down the first lateral trough north of Tangier Pass. We followed the glacier, then contoured over moraine and alps to a point above the pass, and finally descended between two cliff bands to reach camp at 9.00 P.M. in semi-darkness.

Most of us felt that a day of rest and relaxation was in order, but Fabergé and Hubbard thought otherwise. While we loafed, they climbed Mount Sorcerer via the west arête, completing the round trip in twelve hours.

Sorcerer Creek originates as a modest trickle, quickly picks up volume and drops down the northern slope of Tangier Pass. Augmented by the drainage from Martha and Holway Glaciers, it cuts a deep canyon in its dash to join Downie Creek. The eastern escarpment above Sorcerer Creek is a long battlement with only one near breach, a high saddle (7200 ft.) between Sorcerer Mountain and Bachelor Peak (9058 ft.). This gap is the portal to the inner recesses of the range. On the 16th, Hendricks, Peterson and I set out to reconnoiter the Bachelor Pass area. From camp to Waverly mine, the old wagon road is still discernible. Beyond, the shaft bush forms a thickly matted barrier, and we struggled for three hours to force a way to the alps of the pass. At last the eastern shoulder and upper snow field gave access to the summit of Bachelor Peak. On the return, instead of repeating the morning’s battle, we contoured high along meadows and open timber, and then descended to the mine road.

From neighboring peaks and cols Mount Holway (10,002 ft.) is seen to fine advantage. The steep southeast face is completely clothed in a mantle of snow. A sharp rock face, towering above Holway Creek to the northeast, was first ascended in 1911 by Holway, Butters and Palmer. Since then it has remained inviolate. At dawn on Saturday, July 17th, we were scrambling up the westerly cliffs above camp. Martha Glacier brought us to the col west of Mount Martha on the Smallfry Ridge. A wind-swept schrund, about 35 feet wide and equally deep, curves in a huge semicircle around the south side of a small bastion just west of the col. We entered the schrund and walked its length. Upon emerging we were greeted with the striking prospect of Holway, its southeast face a white wall rising out of a sea of snow. The névé, still firm, provided a level walk before it steepened into the face proper. For 1500 feet steps were kicked in the high-angle snow. A bergschrund was crossed on a narrow bridge. On the top at noon we gazed appreciatively at a horizon that extended from the Adamants and Sir Sandford in the north to the Battle Range in the south. Across Downie Creek, the sprawling form of Carnes Mountain, with its five parallel hanging glaciers and its long summit ridge, almost filled the western quadrant. To the northwest, beyond the Columbia River, the Monashee Mountains displayed extensive snow and ice; but the peaks are subdued and gentle compared to those in the Selkirks. After an hour we retraced our steps and walked into camp at 5.30 P.M.

On the 18th camp was broken, equipment and rations for five days apportioned, and loads packed. It was our hope that in three days we would traverse the 20 miles that separated us from the Sir Sandford area. Scattered views had indicated that the travel would be high and open for a considerable distance. One major question still had to be resolved. Beyond Bachelor Pass to the north, a gap in Sicklebar Ridge, so named because of its saw-toothed crest, gave promise of a short cut to Argentine Pass. This would circumvent a tedious tour into the valley of Bachelor Creek to the confluence with its north fork and up the latter to the pass. There was considerable doubt as to whether the far side of the gap was climbable or terminated in a sheer wall. It was a calculated risk.

It took three hours to reach Bachelor Pass. We crossed the east arête of Bachelor Peak 500 feet above the pass, walked along ledges and moraine, traversed Bachelor Glacier to a prominent cliff band, and ascended to high névé. A cold rain forced us to crawl under a tarp. After an hour it slackened, enabling us to proceed. First a delicate passage over bare ice, then a climb up vertical rocks, and Sicklebar Col was ours. Not until we stepped over the divide and looked at the gentle snow field on the other side did our fears of an impasse vanish. As evening approached, we reached the buttress overlooking Argentine Pass. In the shadow of twilight we chose an airy patch of heather at 8000 feet as a campsite. Supper was eaten by the light of the camp fire.

The next day we travelled seven miles from Argentine Pass to Moberly Pass. This section of the route is the finest of the entire crossing. The eastern ridge above the south fork of Goldstream River stretches northward through virginal alpine wilderness. The crest, three to ten feet wide, at an elevation of 8000 feet, provides easy walking along a skyway that offers an open view and superb scenery in every direction. We took time on the way to climb Centurion Mountain. Hendricks, Hubbard, Fabergé and I romped up the 1000-foot west arête to the summit in 45 minutes and down the west face in 30 minutes. It was a delightful scramble. Late in the afternoon we left the snout of the west Centurion Glacier and made camp above Moberly Pass (5825 ft.).

The heather-covered alp on which our three little tents were pitched overlooks the divide between the east and west drainage of the region. The valleys of the Gold and Goldstream Rivers are deep gorges that extend diametrically opposite to discharge their waters into the Columbia. From our high-level home we could look across the trench at the streams of ice that send their glacial waters cascading down thousands of feet into the verdant forests of the valleys. The Sir Sandford and Goldstream Glaciers, even though obviously retreating and exposing naked rock, are still large bodies of ice. The southern reaches of Mount Sir Sandford rise abruptly from the depths of Gold River in an attractive sweep of limestone cliffs.

The sun had risen high on the morning of Tuesday, the 20th of July, before we reached Moberly Pass. By keeping to the meadow slopes along the true left edge of Sir Sandford South Glacier, we avoided the lower morainic debris and gained the ice just below the main fall. In the lee of a boulder we weathered a storm, and then turned to the job of surmounting the icefall. In a few minutes we saw three men and a dog come into view and weave down the center of the glacier. Greetings were soon exchanged with Kauffman, Ferris and Putnam, who were on their way south to Flat Creek.

Having parted company, we resumed climbing. The weather took another turn for the worse. Mist and snow swooped down as we topped the height of Sir Sandford Glacier. Four miles of steady trudging brought us onto Silvertip Névé, then two more miles took us to Silvertip Glacier, and finally another mile landed us on Azimuth Mountain. Here the campsite of 1946 was relocated and tents erected on a platform levelled into the 30-degree slope of the mountain 300 feet above the snout of Silvertip Glacier at an altitude of 6400 feet.

The following day was decreed a holiday. On Thursday we located the provisions cached for us at Thor Pass. We left camp at 5.10 A.M., contoured west along the slopes of Azimuth, climbed to Azimuth Col, descended the north side, crossed knee-deep in the slush of Adamant Glacier, and ascended to Thor Pass. As it was still early, Pioneer Peak (10,660 ft.) was selected as an objective. Gothics Névé is a high glacial basin on the east of the Gothics and discharges its drainage into Tabernacle Creek. From the pass a path was chosen through a network of crevasses of the névé to the summit pinnacle of Pioneer. A tricky traverse of 20 feet over glare ice, followed by 250 feet of rotten rubble up the east arête, brought us to within 50 feet of the summit. To reach the top, we cut steps across a 50-degree ice slope. The summit has four distinct peaks, each of which we investigated. On the high point is the original cairn left by Palmer, Holway and Butters in 1911.

The weather had been acting up for some time, and now clouds rolled in, shrouding the mountains in a veil of grey. From time to time the wind tore away this covering to reveal the granite spires of the Adamants. Since we felt no desire to tarry long, at one in the afternoon we commenced the return trip. At Thor Pass provisions for six days were collected. A drenching rain caught us on Adamant Glacier; but at 7.30 P.M., thoroughly waterlogged, we were back in camp.

The next three days were wet, in typical Selkirk fashion, and confined us to tents and tarp. It was not until Monday, July 26th, that the weather improved sufficiently to justify a climb. At 5.00 A.M. we left camp, turned west, and moved toward Silvertip, one of the remaining virgin peaks in this region. Silvertip Glacier was crossed above the icefall to the east arête, and the latter followed, over snow and rock, to the summit (9450 ft.), which we reached at 8.45. (Just below the summit on the north arête are several hundred feet of rotten rock.) We proceeded down the north arête to Silver- tip Pass (8500 ft.) and without pause ascended the ridge to Belvedere (9839 ft.). This is an excellent location from which to view the northern faces of Turret and Austerity and scrutinize the southwesterly approach to the Lower Blackfriar. Although only 700 feet separated us from the top of the Lower Blackfriar, the sheerness of the rock and the lack of any obvious route was discouraging. The black granite has the boiler-plate appearance that is so characteristic of all the Adamant Peaks. A mixture of snow and rain forced us to retreat at 1.30 P.M.

Mount Sir Sandford was in an ugly mood during our stay at Azimuth Camp. Bare ice on the “long slope” and “hour glass” made our 1946 route impossible. An attempt up the west arête was contemplated, but rain and fog stymied plans.

On July 28th we broke camp and headed for Fairy Meadow. At Thor Pass additional supplies were collected from the cache. With ample time at our disposal, Hendricks, Hubbard, Fabergé and I climbed Thor Mountain (9800 ft.) by circling to the east on Gothics Névé, attaining the east arête and following the latter to the summit. On the descent Hendricks made a valiant attempt to pull the mountain down on top of himself, but succeeded only in dislodging a 50-pound slab and cutting one strand of a new nylon rope. With heavily laden packs, we crossed Gothics Névé to Friendship Col, cut steps down 50 feet of ice on the north side of the col, traversed the two decadent glaciers along the northerly base of Sentinel Ridge, and reached Fairy Meadow (6200 ft.) at dusk. Fairy Meadow is well situated as a base for climbing among the Adamants from the north. It is sheltered behind the true right moraine of Granite Glacier, commands a view of the northern exposure of the Adamants, and permits a wonderful vista to the northeast across the Columbia River into the Rockies.

In 1946 we had viewed the bulging icefalls and steep névés that cling to the northern slopes of the Adamants, but had made no attempt to climb any of the major peaks. At that time, two outliers, Unicorn and Sentinel, were scaled. We were now determined to have a try at some of the main peaks.

At 5.00 A.M. on Friday, July 30th, Hendricks, Hubbard and Fabergé set out with Austerity (10,960 ft.) as their goal. From camp they proceeded along the alps and moraine of the true right edge of Granite Glacier to the buttress of Sentinel Ridge. Here the ice was crossed to the base of Austerity; then steps were kicked up the snow to the west arête, just below Mount Ironman (10,000 ft.). Adjoining the rock of Ironman was a patch of ice that had to be traversed eastward. The tricky slope required 50 steps and took two hours. Several cracks and chimneys led to the summit of Ironman, a first ascent. Above 10,000 feet, they climbed in fog over interesting rock patches to the top of Austerity. On the return, Ironman was negotiated by two rappels and the ice traverse avoided. They were back in camp by 7.30 P.M.

The following day was devoted to minor excursions. I clambered solo up the crags of Sentinel Ridge to Observatory Peak (8700 ft.). It was an excellent point from which to observe and photograph the mountains.

When a shout jarred me into consciousness at 2.15 A.M. on Sunday, I realized that big plans were brewing. Hendricks, Hubbard and I left camp at 3.15, took to the alps and rapidly gained Granite Glacier. It was not until this moment that the final decision was made to attempt Turret Mountain (10,910 ft.), the highest unclimbed peak in the Rockies and Selkirks. Turret occupies a unique position in the Adamant Group. On the east, it is abutted by the triple-peaked Adamant Mountain (10,980 ft.), and on the west by the almost equally impressive giant, Austerity Mountain (10,960 ft.). The north face is high-angle ice, heavily laden with hanging glaciers that discharge debris down obvious avalanche tracks, and well broken with crevasses and bergschrunds. The south face is a sheer 3000-foot wall. To climb the south face was clearly impossible. The north face was menaced by active ice avalanches. Two approaches remained. Turret could be attacked either from the east or from the west. If from the east, then Adamant would first have to be climbed to put one within striking distance. If from the west, then Ironman and Austerity would have to be traversed. Obviously, there was no easy route up the mountain. We ruled out the eastern approach because we were not certain whether Adamant could be climbed from Granite Glacier. Since a route had been pioneered to Austerity two days before, it was agreed to use the western approach.

A constant pace over the previously evolved route brought us to the summit of Austerity by 9.10 A.M. Our objective was in sight, deceptively close, its summit 50 feet below us and an eighth of a mile to the southeast. We descended the rock arête toward Turret to the col between the two peaks. It was continuous rock climbing that invited caution because of the high angle to the south. At the col we paused to gaze at what lay ahead. The faces of Turret meet to form a sharp arête. The north face is 60-degree ice that sweeps down for 1500 feet to a bergschrund. The south face is 3000 feet of vertical granite. We marvelled at its polished expanse, but gave it no thought of climbing. The prospect of climbing the ice did not appeal to us. The arête proper seemed to be broken into a succession of steps, with 15- to 20-foot risers. If these risers were climbable pitches, then the ridge might go.

We moved up the arête. Since the first few pitches were easy, we pressed on. Then the slope increased and the risers became vertical, with shelves of one to three feet for belaying. Packs and ice-axes were left on a ledge, and the leader changed into sneakers. On one pitch the second man slipped in trying to climb a perpendicular finger crack with Bramani shoes, and had to be lowered. It was only a momentary defeat, for by moving five feet to the right he found several small nubbles that solved his difficulty. The exposure of the south face added considerable interest to the technical rock problems. We used four pitons, and the arête succumbed. At a quarter to twelve we were on top.

From the plane and from Belvedere, Turret had appeared so unassailable that it was difficult to believe we had made the ascent. A spectacular view of the immediate peaks was our reward. The east arête of Turret connects with Adamant, but the upper 200 feet of the latter show no obvious break or route up the summit cliffs. The sight of the north faces of the Blackfriars is a memorable one. These are twin masses of black rock with smooth vertical faces.

The darkening of the sky in the southwest gave warning of approaching storm, and so at 12.30 we began the descent. Three long rappels circumvented a number of the tricky pitches. From the col we climbed Austerity, went on to Ironman, and finally reached the snow. On the level of Granite Glacier the storm broke furiously. The wind lashed at us; and hard pellets of hail, some over half an inch in diameter, struck with stinging force. By quickening our pace we made camp by 5.30.

One of the interesting geological features of this region is the sharp division between the igneous rock of the Adamant Group and the metamorphic rock of the Edfalls Group. As one looks northward from Granite Glacier, the contact is obvious, for the black granite contrasts markedly with the brownish yellow of the metamorphic rock. A trip in the Edfalls direction got under way at 6.00 A.M. on Monday. Fabergé, Hubbard, Peterson and I leisurely left camp, took to Granite Glacier above the icefall, crossed to Enterprise Glacier (the small northernmost tributary ice stream), followed it to Yellow Mountain, and climbed the south arête of the latter to its summit (8800 ft.). Yellow is the first metamorphic peak north of the Granite Group. Its rock is well broken and crumbles on touch. The return to camp was made along Yellow Glacier, the lowest westerly tributary to Granite Glacier, and then across Granite Glacier below the icefall.

The time had come for us to bid farewell to Fairy Meadow and depart for home. At 6.00 A.M. on Tuesday, August 3rd, packed and ready, we plunged into the bush of Swan Creek. After a day’s wrangle with slide alder, devil's club, scrub growth and all the other hazards and impediments of trackless wilderness travel, we camped on a gravel bed 150 yards from the Columbia River. The next morning the rubber raft, cached by the Kauffman party and still inflated, was located. In less than two hours, men and equipment were ferried across the Columbia River to the Big Bend highway.

So ended our mountain pilgrimage. The physical accomplishments were greater than we had anticipated. We spent one month in the mountains, of which seven days were utilized in effecting the first northern traverse of the Selkirks, a journey that involved pioneering a route through virgin alpine territory, crossing twelve passes and cols, and climbing 15,000 feet. Sixteen peaks were scaled, of which nine were first ascents and five were second ascents.

1 S. B. Hendricks, “Sir Sandford and the Adamant Group,” C.A.J., XXX (1947), 72 ff.; Arnold Wexler, “Mount Sir Sandford and Its Neighbors,” Appalachia, XXVI (Dec. 1946), 190 ff.

2 Howard Palmer, Mountaineering and Exploration in the Selkirks (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1914), pp. 303-26.

3 Mrs. Kauffman and Miss Mary Neilan accompanied us from Flat Creek to Bostock Summit, down Mountain Creek and back to Bostock Summit.