West of the Divide
Sterling B. Hendricks and George I. Bell
IN the Canadian Rockies west of the Continental Divide, between Howse and Fortress Passes, there is a pure wilderness which, being difficult of access and rich in unclimbed peaks, offers a great challenge to the mountaineer. An even dozen of us accepted the challenge and set about planning a summer’s outing for 1951. There were to be two parties, one starting from Fortress Lake for the Clemenceau region and the other travelling northwestward from Glacier Lake. Transport and provisioning would be affected by air from Kinbasket Lake. Four flights would be required, with supply drops on the Clemenceau Ice Field and on snow slopes west of Mount Alexandra.
We had to wait out a spell of bad weather at the mosquito- free(!) camp at the mouth of Tsar Creek. Thereafter, plans worked out smoothly. The six of us in the southern group—Ed Camack, Sterling Hendricks, Don Hubbard, Alvin Peterson, John Smith and Arnold Wexler—saw the four members of the northern party1 on their way before heading for Glacier Lake. The trip in the DeHavil- land Beaver was worth the planning, the wait for clear weather and the little money. On the supply flight to Mount Alexandra, I was the pusher, packed in behind the baggage; up front were Andy Kauffman (one of the original dozen, but now a supercargo) and Alvin Peterson. We took off southward up the Columbia and started climbing to 10,000 feet. The northern Selkirks were spread out to the west, with the Adamant Group dominating the scene. Then we headed up the Bush, where Stutfield and Collie spent the summer of 1900 in a futile attempt to reach the higher mountains. In a few minutes we had passed Bush Mountain (10,770 ft.) and started up Lyell Brook, flying even with the white summit of unclimbed Ice- fall Peak (10,420 ft.). Then I performed my task of throwing out the provisions; and, after a swing around the upper end of the valley, we flew over the Lyell Ice Field toward Glacier Lake, buzzing the southeast icefall on the way. As Pete and I stood beside the lake (4700 ft.), watching the plane take off on the return flight for the rest of the party, we felt that an hour could not have held more, and that the wilderness was without limit.
With food for three days and hopes for fair weather, we started late in the afternoon toward a camp at the head of the valley. Early the next afternoon, well up in the Lyell Ice Field (9800 ft.), we deposited the baggage before starting for Lyell 2 (11,495 ft.). On top, after Clemenceau (our objective) had been pointed out on the distant horizon, beyond vast rows of other peaks, Ed looked rather dubious.
A mild night softened the snow field and slowed our travel westward and then northward between Lyell 5 (11,150 ft.) and Mount Lens (10,160 ft.). Here the unclimbed group of mountains along the ridge leading westward to Bush Peak was within striking distance, and Mount Arras (10,180 ft.) stood out across Icefall Brook; but these we had to forego. The way to Lyell Brook was supposed to follow down a smooth glacier seen from the plane. Such was the excitement of the ride, however, that some confusion resulted: the glacier turned out to be a couple of ridges away, and our passage was soon blocked by cliffs and icefalls. We spent an afternoon of mountaineering, ending in a struggle with a box canyon, before we made camp on a flat of great beauty in the aspens beside the brook 5000 feet below the ice field.
Thence the main tributary stream from the north led, through some mild bush, to the lily-covered alps below the air drop. Having made another camp, we set out to recover the packages, strewn over a course of several miles. What had taken a minute in the plane took now hours on foot. Mounts Douai (10,230 ft.) and Oppy (10,940 ft.) were climbed from this camp. A cliff band was passed, and then a long snow slope led steeply to the crest of the divide between the two. We turned northward to Douai, which lies close under the higher summit of Mount Alexandra (11,214 ft.). A 25-foot chimney in the principal cliff band forming the summit gave the only trouble. By roping-off on the return, we avoided this and saved time in our travel southward to Oppy. The walking was so easy that caution was thrown to the winds—which were blowing quite a bit by then. Near the summit I supplied additional evidence that the simplest places are the most dangerous by breaking through a two-foot cornice and tumbling downward toward the scenery of the upper Alexandra Valley. I brought up on the rope, firmly held by both Arnold and Ed. The return from the summit to camp, down a ridge to the west and a steep couloir, took only two hours.
The main climbing camp was to be at the head of South Spring Rice Brook, on the meadows which are across a 9200-foot col immediately to the west of Mount Alexandra. In broken weather we packed all the baggage and headed across. Most of the day was spent in a struggle with the great icefall above the meadows. We made camp at the edge of timber on the rim of the canyon, where the stream leaps to the lower valley. Possibly three groups have hurried past this spot to the mountain beyond, and each was enthralled by the scene. They could not guess the even greater beauty of the alps to the west, where one can see the full thousand feet of the tumbling stream.
Climbs were made on Mounts Alexandra (11,214 ft.), Spring Rice (10,745 ft.) and Queant (10,200 ft.), by routes which had been followed before. Then, on an off-day, Ed, Don and I set out at 9.00 A.M. to find an approach to Mount Cockscomb (about 10,500 ft.), which seemed hopelessly far away to the west, in the angle between Lyell Brook and Bush River. We travelled rapidly northward over the alps to the west of Spring Rice Brook and then headed up a flat glacier to a low divide. A 700-foot scramble led to the glacier at the base of the peak north of Cockscomb. Starting up, we became involved in a system of crevasses which required an hour of ice work. Finally, we reached the divide over into Bush River and found a ledge leading southward on the west side. This connected with the col below Cockscomb, where at 2.30 P.M. we stopped for a bite to eat and a talk about our intentions. The discussion centered on the nature of a yellow cliff band and the stability of the snow which was avalanching from the ridge. The band afforded a couple of climbing pitches; the snow was pretty thin over ice. Below the summit a ten-foot cornice had to be negotiated. At 6.00 P.M. we stood on the top, looking across the Bush to “Goat Mountain,” where Stutfield and Collie had turned back 50 years earlier from their attempt to reach Mount Columbia. Then came the rush downward. Darkness overtook us on the climb to the divide leading over Spring Rice Brook. But travel in the half-light, down the glacier and over the alps, brought us easily to camp at 1.00 A.M.
Since this part of the country was now about climbed out, we started north, with six days’ provisions, intending to reach the air drop south of Shackleton on the Clemenceau Ice Field. Bad weather set in; and four days later, two days behind schedule, we arrived at the base of Columbia on the Ice Field. The only feasible route to the King Edward Glaciers dropped down to timber—so, with time and provisions running short, we decided to call it a summer. Having waited a day for the summit of Mount Columbia (12,294 ft.) to clear, we climbed the south ridge in early morning and then retreated to the highway at the foot of Athabaska Glacier, passing a sign on the way: “Travel on the Glacier is dangerous. Do so at your own risk.”
The northern group carried out their plans in the Clemenceau region and joined our route on the way out by climbing Columbia from the west. Ed Camack led an H.M.C. group up Middle River from Kinbasket Lake to the base of Shackleton Glacier. Although no one made all the trip, the routes were proved throughout for someone else to follow. Given two months and correct supplies, one could travel on foot from Kinbasket Lake to the Yoho Valley. The distances are great; a choice would have to be made between high travel and climbing. The best untouched climbs are (1) between Sullivan and Bush Rivers, (2) on the ridge leading from the Lyell Ice Field westward to Bush Mountain, and (3) in the region of Mount Mummery, south of the Freshfield Group.
Twenty miles west and a little north of Mount Columbia in the central Canadian Rockies lies the Clemenceau Ice Field. For the most part, this is a relatively uninteresting collection of dying glaciers; but, between the higher valleys in which the glaciers are dying, impressive mountains remain. The principal valleys are at 4000–5000 feet; the Ice Field averages about 8000–9000 feet; the highest peak, Mount Clemenceau itself, rises to 12,000 feet. Although the mountains are attractive, they are hard to reach and have been seldom visited by climbers. Ostheimer and Fuhrer made a remarkable number of climbs around the Ice Field in 1927, and Henry Hall and Sterling Hendricks have had parties in the area.
Some time ago, Andy Kauffman conceived the idea of a trip to the Ice Field with aerial support to simplify the transport of supplies. His plan was to have the plane drop supplies on the center of the Ice Field and deposit personnel at Fortress Lake, whence (according to Sterling Hendricks) the drop area could be reached in a day and a half. Summits ranking high on the “most attractive” list would be Clemenceau, fourth highest in the Rockies, and the then virgin south peak of Shackleton (10,800 ft.).
Early in the afternoon of 9 July 1951, having experienced surprisingly little of the confusion associated with an air drop, our party found itself deposited on the eastern shore of Fortress Lake. Four of us waved farewell to the DeHavilland Beaver as it left to take care of Sterling Hendricks and his party and then, as the disgusted pilot put it, to “get the hell back to civilization.” To the great disappointment of all, Andy and Betty Kauffman were not among the four. At the last moment, on the very shores of Kinbasket Lake, they had found themselves unable to make the trip. We four emigrants from civilization, then, were Graham Matthews, David Michael (alias “Georgia”), John Rodney Rousson (a member of the Alpine Club, London) and myself.
Turning our backs on the charms of Fortress Lake, we spent the rest of the day trudging, for the most part, up easy gravel flats to camp in a meadow just below the snout of West Chaba Glacier. The next day proved to be the most arduous of the trip. It began with a 5000-foot ascent to the col (9600 ft.) between Mounts Amundsen and Brouillard which separates the West Chaba and Perry Glaciers. From this lovely snow col we had our first view of the highly interesting north face of Clemenceau. We then traversed the Perry Glacier, descended more than 2000 feet to the Younghusband Glacier, crossed it and climbed a short distance to the ridge separating the Younghusband and Clemenceau Glaciers.
Georgia and I now ascended the Clemenceau for about 2000 feet (three miles) to visit the drop area and bring down some food. There was some doubt that the pilot’s idea of the drop area coincided exactly with ours. That it did not had become painfully obvious by the time light failed us at 10.30 P.M. We wandered back down to the ridge and spent the night catnapping in odd bushes and small pine trees. Dawn found four disgruntled climbers wondering whether air drops ever came off as planned—but glorious evening rang with our exultant shouts as we uncovered one grubby gunny sack after another. Blessed now with provisions in plenty—rations, indeed, for six—we four gorged and sunned ourselves. Our camp was near a minute spring just behind the eastern lateral moraine of the Clemenceau Glacier; and it boasted a fine view of the east face of Mount Clemenceau and the north faces of Tusk Peak, Mount Duplicate and Mount Shackleton.
By July 14th Georgia and I felt ambitious enough to get up at the unreasonable hour of 6.30 A.M. and start for Shackleton. In an hour we had crossed the Clemenceau Glacier and reached the base of a formidable icefall which fills the gap between Duplicate and Tusk and leads to Shackleton. The lower portion of the icefall involved step-cutting; the middle, a few long stretches; and the upper, confrontation of a long wall of séracs which threatened to bring progress to a halt. We chose the direct approach: a stairway carved up the corner of the lowest obstacle led us to the top of the icefall.
Mount Shackleton is a long ridge with three summits, separated from one another by nearly a mile and differing in altitude by scarcely 50 feet. Our plan was to attain the ridge about 500 feet below the western summit and traverse the main ridge to the central peak. We passed a small icefall by a few tenuous bridges and reached the ridge with little difficulty. Most of the north face of Shackleton is a sheet of sheer, steep ice; the south face is steeper rock. The main corniced ridge, however, was generally broad enough to provide a pleasant if “interesting” route upwards. We found that the central summit is about 20 feet higher than the western and a few feet higher than the eastern. Between the central and eastern summits rose an obstacle in the form of a rock tower, but it was too late for an investigation of this. We left the summit at 4.30 P.M. and were lucky enough to beat a driving rainstorm to camp by 22 seconds.
Directly across from camp loomed the 6000-foot eastern precipices of tigerish Mount Clemenceau. We knew from Thorington’s Guide to the Rocky Mountains of Canada that the “regular route” was on the west side of the peak. As this had been climbed no less than three times, it seemed that the only sporting thing to do was to seek out a new route. Accordingly, we set out four strong on July 16th to examine the north face. We believed that it might be possible to ascend the great northeast buttress which rises 4000 feet from the valley and, from the top of it, to follow the northeast ridge or north face to the summit. We crossed the Clemenceau Glacier and climbed about 1500 feet of talus and loose rocks to the base of the northeast buttress. Then, with the immense wall looming above us, we thought perhaps the north face would look better. Having crossed a little glacier on a small north-northeast face of the mountain and ascended a prominent diagonal couloir, we found a most encouraging lower north face. It appeared that one could traverse diagonally up and across the face and thus reach a prominent ridge which cut all higher portions from view. But snow conditions proved poor; and, as we moved well out and up on the face, they worsened. We found ourselves in about two feet of wet snow over rock and ice. We therefore abandoned the traverse and cut straight up to the ridge through broken cliffs and ice.
The view from the ridge was more inspiring than encouraging. Before us lay a glacier basin of considerable extent, and directly across rose the upper north face of Clemenceau in a wholly unassailable series of ice cliffs and avalanche tracks. The savage aspect of the ice was such as to justify doubly the title of Tiger Glacier which has been bestowed upon it. It seemed that the only possible route lay near the crest of the northeast ridge, into which our ridge ran at an easy angle. The summit was still a long way above us; but it was now only noon, and our hopes ran high as we slogged through wet snow and breakable crust to the junction of the ridges. On the highest rocks of the northeast ridge we rested and ate lunch.
Above these rocks the ridge looked innocent enough. It started in a fairly long, wide slope of about 40 degrees. This seemed to be of snow. Seemed to be…Only a few steps were needed to show that beneath an inch of slush lay hard ice. The party came to a halt, debating. Finally, Graham volunteered to begin a flight of steps. Perhaps an hour and a half later, he had cut a way across the worst ice to a region where the snow was deeper. Here Graham and Georgia surveyed the situation: they found the snow under foot treacherous, the ridge above inauspicious, the hour advancing; they elected to return. I persuaded Rodney to follow me further. We climbed directly up the wet snow to the crest of the ridge, which was here broad enough to afford a path free from danger of avalanches, and advanced without difficulty to a point where the ridge was blocked by a line of ice cliffs. Fortunately, these were split by a crevasse. I found it convenient to chop a few steps in one side and wriggle up.
Rodney did not find the maneuver to his liking and fell into something. Reluctantly, we abandoned the attack and descended to the basin by a route on the north face. This had absolutely nothing to recommend it, except speed.
We rejoined Graham and Georgia at the top of the lower north face. The snow below us was very unstable. The only safe route down was by rocks at the western end of the face: they could be followed almost to a schrund below, and then one could traverse eastward along the schrund until a small ridge permitted escape to the north. It seemed that all the avalanches were quite localized and that, as long as two men could belay from the rocks or the schrund, there would be little danger. We reached heavy timber as darkness fell and spent the night around a roaring fire.
On July 18th Graham and Georgia attempted the east summit of Shackleton. As our previous route had so deteriorated as to become almost impassable, they were delayed in the icefall. Finding difficulties also with fresh snow on the east ridge, they abandoned the ascent at about 10,400 feet. On the same day Rodney and I climbed Tusk Peak (10,960 ft.) by the northwest ridge. The bottom of the ridge had some abominable rock, but the top 1000 feet were fairly interesting, with a high degree of exposure. We descended easily via the south ridge and west face, which had been used by Ostheimer and Fuhrer on the first ascent.
We revisited the drop area and then endured a stretch of bad weather. On the afternoon of July 23rd talk turned once again to renewal of the assault on Clemenceau. Graham and Georgia believed that the recent snowfall had rendered the northeast ridge impassable and elected to follow the “regular route,” while Rodney and I elected to have another try at the slopes above Tiger Glacier. Nightfall found the two of us bivouacked below the north face— huddling under a large tree to keep out of the rain. But July 24th dawned clear. We ascended the lower north face directly and, with crampons, rapidly covered the big ice slope of the northeast ridge. As we approached the line of ice cliffs which marked our previous highest point, Georgia and Graham yodelled greetings from the summit. They had found their greatest difficulty on the regular route resisting a well-nigh irresistible sun-bathing spot.
Life was becoming interesting for Rodney and me. We climbed the ice cliffs by using a crevasse as a chimney and followed the ridge for several hundred feet. The snow was treacherous on both sides of the ridge—and we saw that the ridge became exceedingly narrow. We paused and looked ahead. The summit was only about 300 feet above; but to the right the ridge dropped vertically for about 50 feet before reaching steep snow on ice, and to the left lay steep wet snow, and ahead flowered a delicate cornice. Our indecision ceased as a substantial section of the left slope slid, with an evil hissing sound, into the void. We retreated. When we came to the lower north face, we enjoyed another demonstration that snow conditions were poor: Rodney threw a small stone onto the north face—and almost instantly a strip of wet snow, perhaps two feet deep, six feet wide and (in time) a thousand feet long, was roaring downward. We descended rocky sections of the face.
By July 27th we thought it time to move south and east to climb Mount Tsar and visit the Athabaska Valley north of Mount Columbia. To obtain good snow conditions, we set out for the drop area at 2.00 A.M. By dawn we had packed up the remainder of the drop. Cursed with the burdens of Sisyphus, we stumbled across snow fields and through an unlooked-for icefall, and eventually reached pleasant meadows east of Mount Tsar. On the 29th Rodney and I made the first ascent of Mount Somervell (10,050 ft.), north of Tsar. We ascended a couloir on the east face and then, with little difficulty, the south ridge. On the following day Georgia, Graham and I made the second ascent of Mount Tsar, following mostly the north ridge but taking to the west ridge to pass the summit glacier.
By August 1st, having eaten enough to bring our loads to more reasonable poundage, we were encouraged to move eastward to the Athabaska Valley. We had with us a handsome map compiled by the Alberta-B.C. Interprovincial Boundary Commission. It had 100- foot contours, impressively printed in black, brown and blue. We had observed that, in the region we were to cross, it disagreed with Ostheimer’s sketch map—but who could be so impious as to question a map with 100-foot contours? Alas, the map and the terrain bore no resemblance to each other. The map said Tsar Creek; we found a great glacier. The map showed a gentle slope; we found a cliff. Indeed, those contours could have been drawn as well on a desk in Ottawa as on a plane table in Alberta. Suffice it to say that by evening we found ourselves in the Athabaska Valley north of Mount King Edward. For those who are interested in this route, let me add that there is a valley glacier extending three to four miles west of the Divide, with an icefall (which could be difficult) one mile west. The best way to the Clemenceau Ice Field appeared to be a blunt ridge two and a half miles from the Divide.
Georgia and I now aspired to climb King Edward and Columbia; and we considered that a high camp would be desirable, as both peaks rise more than 6000 feet above the campsite. The weather had been fair for a good ten days, and we were emboldened to carry our sleeping bags and some food up the valley which drains the western slope of King Edward. We found a small ledge at 9000 feet on the southwest ridge of King Edward and remodelled it to provide two sleeping platforms. After a snack, we clambered to the top of King Edward by the original route.
Next day we wanted to climb Mount Columbia by the southwest arête. We had read in the Climber’s Guide that “the mountain was rounded on its S. side and ascended by its S.W. arête (loose rock) to the summit snow (6 h.).” From the summit of King Edward, due west of Columbia, the southwest arete did not appear any too obvious. A south ridge was clear, but it ended in a series of precipices. Yet we of great faith made out what might be an arête leading up the west face, and we were confident that this must be the route. When on the following day we stood at the base of the west face, the thing did not look like an arête any more. But this must be the route: after all, “the mountain was rounded on its S. side,” and there were only the south precipices to our right. So we started up the west face, slightly to the south of center. All went well enough, and presently we became convinced that an easy way through the band of cliffs at the top of the face would appear. No disgustingly easy pathway actually did thrust itself upon us. The first band of cliffs was black, and we surmounted it by an easy vertical chimney. Above was a yellow band—impressive enough to persuade us that we were on no southwest arête. We roped up. I led up a shallow chimney and over a big orange bulge to a rotten system of ledges. We followed this to the right and joined the arete which looked to us like the south arête—the southwest to anyone from the other side—as easily accessible from the east as appalling from the west. We scampered up to the summit and found that we had taken only three and a half hours from the base of the west face. We returned to base camp that afternoon.
On August 5th we moved camp to the mouth of Habel Creek, getting doubly wet from the Athabaska and the rain. Next day we skirted the now snow-clad flanks of Mount Alberta and walked out to the Banff-Jasper highway.
1See pp. 253-60 below.