Conquering Mount Alberta, 1925
Conquering Mount Alberta, 1925
Jean Weber foreword
JEAN WEBER, a young Swiss, came to Canada as an emigre and fell in with high adventure—the first ascent of the last great unclimbed peak of the Canadian Rockies.
Several years before, in Switzerland, in 1921, a brilliant Japanese climber, Yuko Maki, tackled the Mitteleggi arête of the Eiger and succeeded in pioneering a new route which, even today, festooned with fixed ropes, is considered one of the finest climbs in the Alps.
After Maki’s return to Japan, he made a skiing trip with Prince Chichibu. As their train passed Mount Asama, the Prince turned to Maki and pointed to the frontispiece of the book he was reading, Palmer and Thorington’s 1921 edition of A Climber s Guide to the Rocky Mountains of Canada. There—was a photograph of unclimbed Mount Alberta. The challenge had been heard around the world.
Maki organized an expedition under the sponsorship of Marquis Mori Tatsu Hosokawa, the Tokyo Nichi Nichi, the big Tokyo newspaper, and the Osaka Mainichi. In due course his party landed at Vancouver and traveled to Jasper, noting with keen interest the rugged terrain, the cowboys, mounted police, bear cubs, and beaver. By great good fortune they met there the well-known Swiss guides Heinrich Fuhrer and Hans Kohler, who had been brought over by the Canadian National Railway, and Weber. The climbing party now numbered six Japanese and three Swiss. Maki also met the redoubtable Val Fynn, who had just been driven back by forest fire from an attempt to reach the same objective, Mount Alberta. Fynn generously gave the Japanese all the information he had gained about the mountain.
Knowing that the region was a national park, the Japanese had brought with them an oil stove on the assumption that collecting and burning firewood would be prohibited. Learning of the danger of forest fire, each had provided himself with a tin can as an ash tray. It is unfortunate, as the records continually show, that not all visitors to the parks are as conscientious.
Immediately upon his return to Jasper, Jean Weber typed out an original account of the expedition and gave it to Mr. J. A. Weiss of that town. Mr. Weiss very kindly lent it to me so that copies could be made. Permission to reproduce this highly graphic and moving account has been given by the author. The editors have tried to keep to his spirit and intent, attempting to preserve the unique appeal of this classic of mountaineering literature.
John C. Oberlin
Even the mere fact of one’s nationality may be in the hands of chance a sort of clay to create with a new sphere of adventure and thrills not even dared to dream of. The circumstances of my birth made me a subject of Swiss nationality and this was the main reason that my Canadian environment attributed me with the legendary Swiss qualities of being an expert climber, yodler, cheese and watchmaker, not to speak of the sweet craftmanship as chocolate candy artist!
Contrary to my insisting claims to be inossent of all these venerable attributes except that of a climber was I called at times to the deathbed of a watch of American birth or to produce on different occasion the marvelous acustic phenomena of yodel echos with the effect that by and by people looked with obvious glances of discredit at my alleged Swiss origin.
But, when in the summer 1925, a distinguished Japanese party of climbers arrived at Jasper to get a crack at the unconquered Mt. Alberta in the Columbia Icefields, was I given a chance to save the honour of my nationality with my climbing virtues.
The party was under the leadership of Mr. Yuko Maki, that time aide de campe of the Crown Prince now Emperor of Japan. Mr. Yuko Maki, a prominent alpinist who earned his laurels with the first ascent of the Eiger over the Mittellegigrat in 1921, was well informed about the Canadian Rockies in the connection with eventual first ascents of outstanding character and found in the task of Mt. Alberta which was attempted several times before but unsuccessfully, a very alluring temptation, the more as this mountain was in the eyes of daring alpinists a matter of doubtful accessibility. The late James Outram says about it in his book “In the Heart of the Canadian Rockies” as they looked from the top of Diadem Peak over to Mt. Alberta: Quite close, as it seemed, the overpowering mass of the Mt. Alberta towered frowning many hundreds of feet above us. It is a superb peak, like a gigantic castle in shape, with terrific black cliffs falling sheer on three sides. A great wall of dark thundercloud loomed up over its summit; and there was a sublime aloofness, an air of grim inaccessibility about it that was most impressive.” Other authorities who were impressed by this majestic peak expressed themselves in other not less effectiv words of admiration.
Thus was the attitude towards the Mt. Alberta in the beginning of the summer season 1925, Unconquered, but holding different parties in a seductive spell to tackle the last virgin peak of its altitude in the Canadian Rockies. Yuko Maki’s party left Jasper on the 11th of July, 14 men and 39 horses and an outfit that would stirr up any connaisseurs envy. Not only was there every thing to enjoy the culinary tastes of the sons of the rising sun, strange seafood in airtight tins and different candies of Japanese origin as well as the old standby to satisfy on short order hungry stomachs the good old canned “prk and beans” and many more delicate specialties but also ingeniously concentrated outfitts for the different purposes for scientific and technical ends of the expedition.
Yes, it was an expedition in the literal sense and with every prospect for successful and enjoyable time for its supposed monthly duration. Neither was the movie-camera missing and in the run of time it found many favorable opportunities for excessive shooting at man, horses, wild game and scenic targets. The combination of the six Japanese gentlemen was a very intelligent and happy one viewed from different angles of fitness, first of combined strength in case they were dependent on their own alpinistic abilities shouldn’t they have had the opportunity to hire in Jasper Swiss climbers of reputation, so Mr. Yuko Maki selected very carefully members of the Jap alpine club with the merit of recogniced achievement in skill and endurance, second from the aspect of the scientific part this party had the advantage of a combination consisting of members of the geological, metrological, astronomical, botanical, medical, geographical, photographical and an all around artistic faculties.
To give a clearer idea of this men in their different function I pass them in a short review. Mr. Yuko Maki, leader, organisator and arbiter in any case of misunderstanding a man of small phisical size but of the highest intellect and charming character and not supposed muscular strength, with a smile he was able to disperse clouds of annoying circumstances which allways will appear on parties of some weeks duration and many different minds.
Mr. Hashimoto the leaders secretary and dramatic agency, knowing enough of the English language to acquire a terrible fluency in the cursing horsewrangler language and giving the whole party a good laugh at his expenses when it helped to animate a somewhat dreary or even dangerous position.
Mr. Hatano, if I remember right was well versed in matters of geology and gegraphy and a connaisseur of horses being a match for any horse wrangler I asked him how it came that he could make a colt go under his guidance like a good broken saddlehorse and he replied very modestly that he owns at home a stable with imported racehorses from England. Mr. Mita, was fond of botanic, always eager to gather some new flower specimens or to sketch with artistic skill a landscape in a few strokes, besides he was never too tired to read off the different scientific instruments or to engage in a interesting conversation.
Attending specially to the photographic part, including everything from taking picture to the finished print was Mr. Okabe’s task. For this purpose was excellent established darkroom tent at his disposition. Knowing only a fragmentary English, some amusing misunderstanding were its results doing nobody harm. The last man was the biggest of them in size and strength a very suspicious appearance full of jokes and enjoying every minute of the trip, Mr. Haiakawa the medical man. He enjoyed to be called rather for assistence to carry some very heavy log than for medical aid.
For their supreme task, they hired at Jasper two Swiss guides professionell engaged at the Jasper Park Hotel and myself an amateur climber with a reputation to possess guides qualities. Anyhow my Swiss nationality and confidence in my usefulness were eminent factors for my engagement and the sesame for my future cariere in the Rockies.
Besides these nine members of the actual climbing party, there were fife men in charge for the transportation of the whole outfit Cliff Rowland at the head of it. He proved to be quite capable of handling it, sometimes even without that famous hearrising cursing which Mr. Hashimoto found so impressiv. Right in the beginning became I the victim of treachery among the horsehands with a humorous calculated effect which seemed everything but humorous to me. Knowing nothing about saddlehorses and packponnies and certain vices of bronchos and colts I put it up to a horsewrangler to give me a quiet fourlegged vehicle and was assured that I would get a lamb of a horse. When they bid me to mount the chosen one it didn’t occur to me to get suspicious for the fact that Roy held it tight on the nostrils. So I got up but not sooner was I in the saddle than this lamb became a wild infuriated lion who seemed to have rather wings than legs and flew spinning and jerking towards a Jackpine thicket. I don’t think I ever touched the saddle with the rightously there belonging part of my body but hung on the saddle botton like a flag on the flagpole during a tornado. I was tremendously sorry for my legs and arms the necessarily pediments for mountain climbing and the carriere which obviously was going to end right then and there in most infamous and premature way. Crash of breaking trees on both sides an annoying feeling of being jammed, laughter in distance and realizing that I hung Absalonlike in the trees were the impressions I got all at once, the next thing revealed the soundness of my personal tools except some tears in the trousers. To feel healthy means to be happy and this reconciled me for the moment with my adversary. A few days later I had the satisfaction to see one of them disappear with his horse in the brown floods of the Athabasca when the gravelbanks gave away all of a sudden, he asserted afterward that it wasn’t a cold bath, but you know how glacierwater is!
The weather was good yet a smocky haze had veiled the mountains on both sides and the upper Athabasca valley appeared to be one mass of smock. We were quite a bit disturbed by messages from a fire fighters squad up there that it probably wouldn’t be possible to proceed further than Chaba junction since the wood- fire was still at large the whole width of the valley.
To come purposedly from Japan to climb Mt. Alberta and then to find themselves unable even to get a crack at it didn’t harmonize with their determination and we all were loyally willing to try even a desperate attempt to break through the fireline if that should be the last chance. But when we arrived at the scene of fires destruction the wind changed its direction and for the time being was a farther spreading of the flying flames averted although fires and red ashes were still active in the roots of many fallen monarch. Wind had its toll with ashes and we were for one day almost continuously victims of those dirty ash showers with that repugnant smell of burnt garbage. Stagnant heat lingered over the disconsolate place and more heat seemed to roll down the mountain side, heat seemed to reflect from the towering rockcliffs which lined the valley and the sun draw pitiless heat from heavenly spheres. Man and beast waded in sweat eagerly absorbed by ever rising clouds of ashes to adhere to the face like dirty glue and no chance to find relief for hours. Finally continued the trail on the marshy river- bank where the fire couldn’t get nourrishment on the ground and only some tree tops were singed by spray fires. Some of the horses found it of advantage to plunge right in the river to get rid of the dirt and the same time to escape the muskeg with all its treacherous attributes. Well, the current right there was good and swift and resultet in the total disappearance of the greedy pack- ponies only to gain foot some ways down stream and towards the other riverbank. It needed a truly strategic plan of the horse bosses to bring the prodigal sons and daughters back. Not so far away was a suitable camplace with a clear spring and we all accepted eagerly to spend the night there although we were not a regular days length on the trail, well the adverse trail condition made up for more than this to balance the time.
That evening an exalted air of joy and readyness to do great deeds perveded the camp; the air clear, a wind cooly descending the valley brought a delightful relief after the days suffering of magnified heat; the fear for a detaintion by an eventually new woodfire was wholly abandoned, ahead up the valley a marvelous view of skyscraping mountains in solemn silence imbued by a magic purple of seemingly translucent attributes so uniformly was near and far, rock and ice satiated of the glamour of the parting sun. The time between supper and darkness found the alpinists gathered on a rocky elevation above the riverbench where a instructiv sight at the mountains of the upper Athabaske could be seen and with maps on hand we reconised among the multitude of peaks, Mt Columbia a beautiful pyramid of regular formation bathing its diadem adored appearance in lofty hights of azure nothingness straight up in the middle of the valley very dominiant in form and hights being the highest next to Mt. Robson in the entire Canadian Rockies. The Twins, partly hidden although of excelling hights, could’nt afford to equel in the grandious impression Mt. Alberta made upon us. Rising from the shadowy darkness of the valleys depth in one almost unbroken flight, first a stand of timber clinging to the steep sides, then a short green slope of a more gentle grade with rock bolders mergi with the last almost perpendicular rise of darkgrey cliffs weatherworn and forbiding to the sublime silver glittering top, a difference in altidude of about 7500 feet. In form a cathedral of gothic stile of tremendous dimensions truly a masterwork of its divine designer. Looking at the peak with powerful glasses and undiveded attention were we not able to discover any route of possible accessibility but Henry Führer a Swiss guide of international fame replied to the many unspoken questions true enough that there were still two other sides to get a look at and as far his experience go it would be a funny mountain to have no weakness. This reconciled us very much with Mt. Alberta which gave us right there a good shock of despair. Until late that night quaint melodies of old folksongs of English, Japanese, Indian and Swiss origin drifted with the flames of a smoldering campfires to the stary sky.
The following days ride brought us to the west base of our Mountain. We proceded from the camp in want for a trail on either side of the riverbed, mostly in the stream or on its little gravel islands which were aboundantly numerous in the now almost flat part of the Athabaska headwaters. The many streambranches we had to cross gave many exiting moments to the spectators who often played funny parts in the performance when all of a sudden a sand or gravelbar collapsed and horse and rider had to navigate themselves out of these unsuspected waterholes. This traveling in midstream had the further advantage of giving to both sides an unimpeded view having the imposing monarchs always as brilliant background there oppened many lovely vistas to nearby in the forest almost hidden jewels of natural charm, like foaming waterfalls the gentle brise carring its rainbow spray over mossy rockfalls to pines and spruce trees which stood there like statues in scantly a foothold giving niches or cracks of the sheer cliffs, there adorning their slender limbs with a myriad of subtile diamonds.
Sometimes gave a few Deer or even Moose or Cariboos a short escort through their protected haunts, very closely inspecting the kind of visitors they got showing not the least fear until they scented the eternal foe: man, then they parted our company invariably with obvious disgust. Where spring avalanches year after year demand the right of clear way for the delivery of thousands of tons of winter- snow to the valley bottom patches of crimson flowers were glowing in undestructive fire a picture of quaint contrast to the soft darkness of the solemn mountain forests glimmering in the extravagant splendour of noonsun. Every instant revealed new treasures of beauty or impressive glances at some towering peak when a break or a draught nearest environ allowed a further view.
We were traveling in exactly southerly direction and the dazzling sun transformed the Athabaska to a silver chain of a thausand glittering links ever changing in form. From the many glaciers which brake in tremendous cascades off Mt. Columbia and the Twins shone lights so pure as if they were transcendental one could not help prevent an oppressed feeling of awe, awe confrontet with nature’s grandeur and calm sublimity.
At intervals faint thunder of falling ice masses interrupted the quietude which was about perfect when no Hey and Ho or a fluent cursing of some horsewrangler broke it.
On the 17th of July leaving the main valley we proceeded up the Habel creek to move into the base camp for which to find a place was the task of small party of the previous day, while the rest indulged in dolce far niente on the sun swept slope near the Athabaska.
The ascent up the Habel creek was rather difficult with the whole outfitt of packhouses since there was no path which could have claimed to be a suitable packtrail. A few blazes here and there fallen trees rockbolders dense undergrow, fantastic on the ground creeping roots, a short level gravelbed and some bottomless muskegs were the merry varieties to drive the most composed horsehand into a frenetical state of mind and for a while could one easely imagine to belong to an advancing battery somewhere on the Somme.
Then the narrow valley opened and became comparatively level, walled on three sides in amphitheaterlike fashion by steep timbered slopes to find a visible conclusion of rocky precipices over which to the northside Mt Alberta leaped into misty appearance an image of sheer loftiness.
Here on the gentle slope between spruce and balsam trees where a soft carpet of moss silenced every step grew in a few hours a small settlement of international character. The Japanese members of the party brought now into evidence what so far was kept in the secretness of their well packed and voluminous baggage, the outfitt of their own which was proof of their competence and prudence in selecting it, a big quadratic tent with centerpol allowed plenty room for their six colapsable bedsteds and some the same way colapsable tenttable. As beding they used a very expensiv kind of Camtchaca reindeer skin hairside out which kind they already tried out on previous bivacing experience in winter. Within short distances were put up a roomy dining tent which used to be the cooks and his helpers sleeping paradise too and a tent for three swiss climbing experts. A tent darkroom with complete developing and printing facilities for the photographer concluded the tent city near the spring of aboundant clear and cool water pouring from moss embeded holes and shortly to a stream uniting which was with its clearness a striking contrast to the Habelcreek which roared its mudy floods past the camp. The good clear water was unable to influence the biger stream and had its downfall after a weak atempt to be clean1 The scarcety of gras in this side valley was the reason that Cliff and a horsewrangler had to leave with the bulk of the horse the campsite the same afternoon to camp in the mainvalley on their return tripp to Jasper to fetch a fresh load of supplies. In goat like fashion had the four remaining horses to earn their daily ration and the way they succeeded make believe that there are no limits for their ability to accommodate themselves to all circumstances of living, even so they had to grow wings. “A Goat” to sit on a rocky bench some hundred feet above camp, was announced the next morning by somebody and when the highpowered binoculars went into action the surprise that the goat got a horsehead was general in fact it was the good grey colt which possessed a marvelous flying ability according to my experience in the barnyard. After breakfast we spotet on the same shelf another white something which proved to be a regular Mountain goat and rather yellow of envy about the feat of a common tame horse. We considered then ways to shoot some bright green looking bunch of gras to the top of mount Alberta being confident that the colt would successfully tackle the climb to get the seducing food delikatessen, all we had to do hang to a rope to make the ascent. I do no more remember what made us abandon this scheme, probably that the horse could rightously claim the honor of the first ascent.
During the day separate parties scoutet the possible accessibility of Mt Alberta on different routes. The North and west side were corresponding to different observations as out of question. Mr. Yuko Maki with guide Fuhrer was the last party of the day to arrive back at the camp and because they intended to have a look at the East side, everybody was eager to receive their news.
What they had to tell about the beauty of the secenery their days work revealed them made us eager to enter ourselves too the world around the corner. Only fragmentary came the information which collected gave vivid picture of the difficulties we probably would encounter on the way to victory. We were told about some narrow ledges, of almost by blue air only suspended ice or snow- patches, of loose gravelslides which ended above vertical cliffs which cooled off their feet in cracked and torn glaciers. And that there was possibly no other path then by these infernal sounding contrivance just mentioned. But that first we would pass streams whispering of the beauty of blue glacier caves, would see mighty ice avalanches drop over a thousand feet cliff and land a big white cloud with thunder on the lower part slowly steeling down to heaps of crushed ice particles. We would have a rest in the shade of queer formed pinetrees which put up a hard struggle for existence against weather and the destructiv rage of avalanches and rockslides and still higher up where only freaks of trees can exist, there they said is a plateau of beautifull meadows and a brook of glacierwater winds itself through these little green paradise on the crest of darkgrey rocky mountains and frostbreathing icefields. From here it would be that we had to fight the yet unknown obstacles to encounter on the ultimate attempt on Mt Alberta. For this purpose a highcamp was intended on the foot of the southeast buttress, where the mountain at times bombarded the lovely flower speckled alp with rocks and dirt giving now the impression of imense big gravelheaps ready to be used to gravel a road of proportionally the same measure.
Since the next day was a Sunday it was proclaimed a day of rest. It was an excellent opportunity to look in other peoples pot and I began to annoy the cook who unfortunately was not subject to the repose order. When I bombarded him with irrelevant questions, I grasped everything with my eyes to get a hold on and what I saw made the palate gasp for, Canned strawberries, rasperries, pears, cherries, pineapples and that pretty iced cake George just took out of the reflector (the magic baking device of any good trail outfitt) radiated a savoury heat no candystore could compete with such an atmosphere. But George kept jelously track of his sweet children and canned and candied fruits according to instructions not to privilege anybody. It was just as well so for me I developped a caveman appetite for dinner (to be satiated with danties of the twentieth century) the state of physical perception quoted the ideal one by any lad between seven and twenty years of age who partakes on the wedding banquet of a dear sister.
I wondered what George was scratching with a stick in a pile of smocking ashes, seemingly some treasurehunting with the result that he brought to daylight a black ironmortar with a lid on it. This roused my curiosity to a high degree always on the alert for some find of antique or ethnological value. Very obidiently I offered George to carry it to a place where nobody would disturb our invetigation of the contents of this strange deposit under the ground.
Imagine my disappointment to be laughed at revealing the true treasure of the so called Dutch Oven a perfectly baked loaf of bread in cheese form. I swore to revenge myself and I held strictly to that resolution to keep George every day busy baking dutch cheese pardon me, baking bread of cheese form in Dutch Ovens, I guess the dirtiest trick I could play on him; he hated baking and I liked the bread.
Finally we got our dinner, served on table solidly conected with the ground and filling the air with crushed pineapple scent, a new proof of the kitchen genius and his right hand. No use to bother the reader with envy he or she would inevitably experience if I told what an eatable sight was presented and disappeared in a dozen different abysses. In spite we were supposed after dinner to fix our climbing outfitt for the next day the corpses of sleeping and snoring clubmembers proceeded with the second part of the meal the beneficial transformation of it into mind and muscel energy for the big advance. With changing wind direction smoke filled annoingly the atmosphere and the pure air proverbial to envelop natures exalted manifestation the mountains was pure proverbial and caused some coughing and much discussing about the eventualities of the forest fire to bring horror and dismal up to our secluded campsite. The danger was there yet we always conceived ourselves of its impossibility which we argued into reason, that the fire fighters were on their posts, that there were several sidevalleys which a even a flying fire scarecely would be able to cross and a hundert more reasons. Towards evening was a general mobilization to finish the combination of the climbing squads outfitt. Two small canvass tents light weight for the highcamp, pots and table wear, provisions mostly in canned form and of abundant variety, medicaments, scientific instruments, spare wearing apparel etc everything suitable for a several days absence from the base camp. The mountain boots underwent a rigorous inspection and edgenails were replaced where necessary. To the technical climbing outfitt belonged besides the ca. fifehundred feet of silk and manilla rope a number of iron pitons to be driven where natural grips were suspicious by there absence, in the rocks if possible without drilling a hole with a stone chisel but in case it would be necessary was a chisel added to the utensiles and a suitable hammer. An extra ice axe, whichs destinations was not clear to us three Swiss found its way to the many things our patient backs were to carry on the morrow to the highcamp.
George was busy until late into that night to bake a descent supply of bread and breakfast preparations were for him only the continuation of workingtime which began sunday morning. He was supposed to get even with lost sleep during our several day stay-away and therefore not entitled to be pitied.
Shaking hands with the three camp guards George the cook, Rey his everredy helper and McDonald the man for the horses, left we early monday morning for the estimated three days trip. The sun tuched with rosy fingers the highest culmination all around but we were still embrassed in the slowly wearing off nightly shadows when in single file we staggered over rockslides of a loose character along the highwater of Habel creek with fairly heavy packs. About half a mile behind the camp flattened the valley and the creek branched in a multitude of streams and soaked the sandy ground to a degree we found not at all lovely to touch, yet we had somehow to get over it and cluching sounds of a hardworking mudpump, were effectivly reproduced inclusiv the muscular strain with every step.
A big mass of loose rock rose in front of our nose and developd was readily reconiced to be the terminal morain of habelglacier which filled the tremendously voluminous basin back the valley fed by almost unceasingly droping iceavalanches from the ice saddle between the Twins and Mt Stutfield over some thousand feet high perpendicular cliffs.
To get to the slope which was the means to reach the little plateau of meadows where the highcamp was figured to be, we had to cross the glacier tonge which was covered with a dirty film of grey, brown and indefinable colorcombination rock debris. Packed with the whole and heavyweight climbers furniture did we not pay much attention to the rockfragments here gathered from different corners framing the glacier, but occasionally other trips we discovered very interesting pieces of fossils and minerals.
To cross this lower part of the icefield which right there had the formation of a piece of storm whipped sea which suddenly became torpid, brought the first appeal to kep balance less a nasty fall may result. Of course we did not go on for ever without any stop and when we reached a feeble spring scrambling now in the hot fire of suns ardent arrows, without an exception hung our natural sucking device to every slowly the ground emerginng drop of water and found it exactly the best water anyone of the party tasted in his life.
It was also here that the trees grew fewer and were obviously acrobates in twisting their organs to fantastic shapes. On the ground were found pin cushions of subtile colour variety belonging to flower species cultivated in this high altitude by mother goat. I was led to this assumption when eleven goats were surprised in its vicinity dining on different berbs, yet never touching these lovaly flower cushions.
On timberline we enjoyed a prolonged siesta and everybodys eyes concentrated on the same object: Mt Alberta. In Vain try I to find a striking expression for that benumbing feeling of being totally at a loss of language. I looked at the Mountain, sinister, darkfaced, isolated. Its base emerging the motionless surf of a glacier and its lofty summit adorned with a incandescent silver crown of eternal ice is elevated thousands of feet majestingly demanding unlimited submission and homage.
We were rather there to discover a possible weakness of this side then to indulge in pure subjectiv imagination and after the first awe inspiring meeting, I busily aimed my binoculars at the supposed point of attack, suggested by Henry Fuhrer. The revealation of benchs and couloirs, precipices and breakes through the glasses where without only smooth walls were perceptible, effected a marvelous soothing influence on the mind and, although the riddle was not yet solved in every particular spot, each and everyone showed a convincing feeling of confidence in the finally victory of tomorrow. From this point we moved horizontly over to the green basin on the South-east foot of Mt. Alberta were we errected in a beautiful seclusion our highcamp as last and most advanced campsite from which to attempt one of the most difficult climbs in the Canadian Rockies. To get rid of duties first, the two light tents were erected on a soft white and pink heather exuberantly growing amongst the last advanced pioniers of the coniferous species, the beding disposed of and then indulged in the finite contents of our sacks to appese a rebellious feelings of our stomachs. We confessed each one to himself that it certainly was a shame not to be able to forget at least for a while the earthly appeal of our bodies where nature erected with an immense expenditure of subtile beauty, overwhelming manifestations of three dimensional creation a stage in infinite harmony with the super performance of thundering iceavalanches in the everchanging light effect of the rolling day.
Our minds were climbing, but our souls could not escape the quaint atmosphere of the surrounding. We were not bothered the whole day by the smock menace of the previous day thank a favorable wind-direction, yet towards evening a hardly perceptible film hung in the air and enhanced the grandious view by giving the scenery a wholly mysterious touch. By a few terraces sloping off in a gentle grade picturesque covered with patches of heather, moss and sporadic grown trees of phantastic appearance little pools of watter like mirors embeded in grey rocky frames with artistic ornaments of mineral traces, separated from the almost sheer drop to the about fifteen hundred feet lower laying Glacier basin, our view was unobstructed towards the “Twins-Stuttfield” mountain chain with their perpendicular walls, lofty spires and jewellery of hanging glaciers of tremendous dimensions.
What was nearer for those in the party who love the Swiss Mountains as one does the profoundest sweet secret, than to compare what their eyes and souls could here grasp with the memories of days in the nativ Alps. Each one had his own picture to compare with, but was it the view from the “Fuorcla Surley” over the valley of Roseg to the ice-armored haughty peaks of the Bernina Range or the worldwide known picture of Eiger, Moench and Jungfrau in the Bernese Oberland here was the equal in noble form and conveying the same message to nature’s true sons (or doughters): Onward and upward!
In silence clad was the small camp when day presented on a carmin velvet cushion the world of our environ to the protection of the night hastening with dark shadows up the valleys and bleaching the light on the glaciers. Nine man tried to sleep, to accumulate in few hours left until the early hour of the morning, which would be the signal for the battle, as much as possible of the benefits of rest, but the mind was in advance occupied with difficult problems of climbing and did not when we staggered about half past two in the morning of July the 21st from the tents into the darkness had any one seen the sleepy expression on the faces he would not have been convinced by everybodys ascertion of having had a wonderful rest. A few dry pieces of wood flared up and tooke the chill out of the bodies then was the frugal breakfast prepared a cup or two of hot coffee some cheese and bread and butter were taken in a rather hurry to gain an early start. Very few words were exchanged during these preparations in the semi darkness of only faintly traceable dawn. The more conversations were exchanged with ones own self, questions of how and if about the experiences ahead seemed to hang in the frosty morning air. Half past three! Everybody ready?! Our rucksacks were yet voluminous although the whole camp outfit was left behind since we expected to be back anyhow even if late the same day, but still we carried along all the rope 500 feet, camera and scientific instruments, some food, special rockclimbing shoes with felt soles, sweater or extra jaquet in case the weather conditions should change higher up, gloves and some spare socks, a number of iron pitons, a hammer, thermos bottles which unfortunately drained their contents in the sacks instead the throat and all the ice axes everybodys own and the spare one.
Nine pair of edgenailed boots clattered in to the campsite adjoining rockslide their noise dying away in the emptyness of yet unformed surroundings.
We made good progress the first hour where no difficulties slowed down the pace, darkness gave away to soft dawn embrassing the mountains and valleys like a mother presses the sweet fruit of love to her breast, a miraculous one-ness. But soon day hammered his ironfist cruelsome between the feast of passions lust and there they emerged to light: distinct formes, peak and valley, river and glacier, and life. For a moment stood we facinated in the sun, let his reys of golden aboundance rins the hair and cling caressing to the neck. God—how wonderful, and to be alive, to experience it oneself!
The grade became steeper and the lose rocks demanded steady attention and even then and with all caution collapsed many of these flimsy edifices by the slightest touch with a hollow rumbling noise. Then came the first bulwark which had to be attacked with combined skill and strength, a barriere of about ninety feet highth, solid rock and very few gripps which made it regarding its almost perpendicular feature a good and thrilling test climb for expected difficulties further on.
Guide Fuhrer tied a rope on his body and tackled as the first the problem which he solved in a splendid way advancing at times like a caterpillar and clinging to the sheer surface with seemingly defying properties concerning the laws of gravitation. A last stretch and a heavy pull brought him on the rim where a mass of loose rocks just waited for an excuse to rattle down but we were on the look out and no blood got spilled. With the aid of Henry Fuhrer’s vigorous pull on the rope and oral advice where to find a suitable step and gripp in our endeavour to reach his higher attitude succeeded the rest of the party in comparitivily comfort except some symptoms of strangulation! The tents were beckoning far below as tiny white dots and a vacilating murmuring of some hidden waterfall crept now and then to our higth.
From this shelf on we proceeded in three parties each one connecting their member by a rope for mutual aid in case it was needed on the many steep bluffs which now with short intervalls slowed down considerably the quick progress of the first morning hours.
The conversation was scanty and almost restricted to technical communications regarding the climb or relaying some signals to the following members, like “attention,” “loose rock,” “more rope,” etc.
We entered now a belt of yellowish slate the general strata unfavorably tilted about extreme angle covered with a thick layer of coarse and foin fragments of rockslides of untraceable age. With every step disappeared our shoes almost up to the ankle in this very loose rubbish which by the mere touch took up a flowing motion down the steep grade and disappeared over precipices. Clashing sounds at short intervalls which grew fainter and fainter from depth after depth revealed sufficently what would happen if instead of stepping quickly one would become entangled in the moving slate debris.
This yellow slate layer of some hundred feet thickness upon which rests the real top massif of the mountain from distant points the appearance of an imense monument sculptured of dark grey rock and put on a pedestal of amber. But now that we struggled step by step against the effect of giving away ground, diminishing to a great extent the efficency of exerted power, we found only words of disapproval for using such a material of unsufficiant resistance as base for this mighty work of creation under extreme exposure to meterological adversities.
Like a fragment of a gigantic bowl opened a semi circus to our right, overtowered by frail spires of dark material conected with the main-arrete of Mt. Alberta by perpendicular sheets of almost black rock. Patches of snow on underlying ice were dazzling ornaments in the upper part of the circus for which we headed in rising spiral-line. Those glittering patches had to be tackled with delicate understanding, since the ice was of a very brittle quality and a hit with the iceaxt not given in exactly the right (angle) and well chosen strength would have spoiled many a good step which after a short time lead the whole party comfrotably over these otherwise unpleasant intersections to a much broken ridge or buttress on which stability the safety of the southeast corner of Mt Alberta is depending.
Beyond the butress was the eye surprised by an impressive and instructive sight upon the east face of the Mountain in a close-up. Sheer walls upon sheer walls laced together with silverlined mouldings rose from unseen depth overtook us on the buttress and disappeared to our eager glances high up in the brownish smocky mist which again advanced from the forest fire devasted lower valley.
Without remarkable difficulties was the buttress ascendet to the top to find there that a deep crack both sides lined by smooth rocks separated us from the seemingly natural continuation the crack bottom covered with hard ice. We retreated to a point which allowed us to reach the bottom of the crack over the steep north- side of the buttress in an almost horizontal way by the aid of scanty foot-and-handholds which proved to be of rather loose character. For safety to cross the smooth ice were quickly a few step cut by the expert Fuhrer and then came a few note worthy climbing pulls on the opposite wall. Only some rather imaginary gripps which had besides the disadvantage to be unpleasantly far apart were the means to surcome the obstruction. Again Fuhrer as the leading guide gave splendid proof of his reputation and for the rest of us was it quite an easy matter to get on the top of this narrow extension of the lowest bench of a system of several which lead around the foot of the last raise of Mt Alberta like a stairway with badly worn out steps. The next half hour brought us almost level to the place which held the key to the possibilities for attaking the steepest part and eventual success. So far were we unable to find out a inviting mark in the appearently unbroken and practically vertical wall that girdled to a considerable highth right here the higher rest of the mountain.
Luckily for us we discovered a very narrow band which wound itself slowly rising along the dark sheer wall towards a couloir which lower end emptied right there into nothingness, but the sides upwards seemed to permit a pursuit.
To gain said band, we climbed now with utmost care from bench to bench over lose gravel on icy ground to the dark rock- formation of the final errection. Until now everybody was covinced that this rock of smocked shade would be of a solid construction and allow a most enjoyable climb with plenty of trustworthy grips. Too bad, the first acquaintancy busted the last glamour of hope; every gripp had the tendency to remain in the hand a piece of sharp edged gravel. This discovery shattered too the assumption that if we eventually would succeed in the climb, we would be back in highcamp the same evening, since the loose rockformation increased the difficulties manyfold and therefor was not to think of a speedy solution of the undertaking.
It released a quaint feeling to creep along the band with about no holds for the hands to keep the body from overbalancing where excrescences in the wall almost forced one out into the empty space. One after one moved at the time so far the rope allowed and the fact that the rope was not extensible was the reason to ackward positions if one had to stick on a place where wings had better taken the place of arms. The Japanese tourists of lesser bodily proportions then we three Swiss had on this particular traverse some advantage as regarding the space at our disposal, yet we Europeans were used to similar positions and aided by climbing qualifications not to be had a priori.
Right here gave the Niponese the test for fitedness mentally and physically, any other but mentally very well balanced man who is not a born or habitual climber would have had difficulty to face those airy sights finding literally only rest for the toe nails and clasping with the tips of the fingers on a uncertain hold, is able to look down and listen to the thud of rocks thousands of feet almost vertically below, yet they did it with the impression of being their dayly work.
At the end of the band of apprx. two hundred yards length were several so called gendarmes, rocky excrescences of limited highth but often extrem difficulties to overcme according to their spire like appearance. We had the pleasure to tackle one after the other as the only opportunity to get any further up hills. To the right side was a deep ravine, smoothly polished by meltwatter of snow and ice and at noontime shot a stream down mixed with rocks and dirt.
I mentioned befor the loose character of the mountain and now it bombarded us quite often with a shower of rocks of different size.
We tried as much as possible to avoid the attacks by leaning close to the wall and succeeded splendidly so far except that several rucksacks got hit and with the said effect to break the two only Thermo bottles with warm contents.
Beliving these gendarmes would be about the extreme limits of climbing difficulties were we surprised to find right after them an overhang in the structur which to the right ended in a straight drop of many htundred feet and to the left side other qualities of inaccessability that it deepended wholly on the overcoming of the overhand on its least highth about twelve to feefteen feet, if we were to go any further or to declare us defeated right then and there.
The prospects were rather discouraging, the ledge we stood on was narrow and led around a sharp cliff to the abys on the righthand, to the left it run out into a few grips of loose rock after a short distance. Right underneath were the gendarmes a doutful comparison of restfulness for the eye that was searching for some substantial means from where to give aid to Fuhrer in his attempt to reach the upper part of the balcony and to be able to choke an eventual fall with the aid of the rope from a safe standpoint. The determination to succeed was great enough to convince us that both points under question were on hand, well later on we agreed they were really only of problematical value, but anyhow they had not to stand the extreme test and that was just the lucky thing. After a short counsel of war, were the forces distributed to their places. Mr. Hayakawa and Hans Kohler unroped to be used as a human ladder. Fuhrer was to climb first and put on for this keen test his special rock climbing shoes to make use in the best way of any unevenness and plenty of rope ready to not to hamper him in the advancement. On the very edge of the bottomless abyss Mr. Hayakawa stood facing the wall on the narrow ledge, then Kohler mounted him and ankered his legs around his horses shoulders and tried to catch with his hand a firm gripp on a not too solid hold; after this Fuhrer climbed with the push of someone over both and could just reach the borde of the exposed balcony. Fortunately was he sceptical to gripps he was feeling and he begann a thoroughly cleaning anxiously watched by the rest who gave rope a little by little as he proceeded and ankering ourselves to imaginary holds in case that terrible thing should happen none dare to think of.
At least gave the tension away to the joy when Fuhrer disappeared above the precipice and he declared from unseen spaces better conditions ahead. The progress of the rest to get up was rather slow since each one hung for an instance in the air until he was able to grasp some rocks which mostly just yielded with the result of experiencing a choking sensation conectet with the dropping back into airy spaces. Although it was neither easy nor harmless what followed after this performance of alpinistic accrobatic, the grade was quite agreeable to the body’s craving to be at intervalls at ease in a straight up human like position. The smooth wall of rejecting appearance accompanied us still on the opposite side of the polished watercourse, but where we fought our way seemed the mad resistence against our advance be broken. Shelf upon shelf we gained in careful clinging to the approved gripps and feeling with the toes for some recess often guided by a voice blow and above to where the desirable holds could be found, the steepness of the ground made a complete adhesion to it imperativ and left therefore no space to look through between the body and the rock, to discover a suitable place for the feet.
It was two o’clock, when a narrow band allowed us to reach the rill. One after the other took opportunity to quench the thirst and have a bite, and to take a deep breath on the comparativily lixurious abode of a few square feet, leaning to an overhanging formation of the usual loose condition. Being safe at least for a few minutes from almost unceasingly falling stones, which were loosened now by water sprinkling over the rocks, we enjoyed a very welcome short rest.
To proceed over the wall immediately overhead seemed not very negociable, so Fuhrer and Kohler tried to discover a solution on the other side of the ravine, but only a few moments of scouting around over there convinced them of the uselessness of any further attempt.
That left but a trial to the southerly extension of our band and it had the satisfactorily result of finding a much broken ledge by which we overcame this latest and nasty obstacle in an oblique direction that brought us above the overhanging part back to the water rill.
From here we got a good impression what the country looked alike between us and the main arrete which extended slowly rising to the top on its north end. A sheer bluff barricaded a further proceeding this side’s the watercourse but the other shore presented a passable route to the top of a precipice the lower end of partly sharp edged ridge which extended steeply down from the vertex. Farther up was the rib almost submerged under snow and flattened out into a wholly snowcovered iceslope.
This prospect was really encouraging, specially that we believed the top ridge would not offer any worth mentioning difficulties.
The sun was in spite of smocky mist quite effectiv, snow and ice melted and loosened more and more rocks taking all attention to avoid their kicking power. Just in attempting to ridge the top of the arrete on the right side of the ravine, bombarded a volley of different sized gravel the middle party choosing Mr. Hashimoto as victim, hitting his face. He used to wear white gloves for the climb and when he passed one hand over his face holding still with the other to a gripp. He turned his face to the followers and with a dramatical geste showing the blood soiled around declared solemnly “The first blood” and forgetting the ernest of the situation everybody burst into a hearty laugh.
By and by we came to the snow, Fuhrer put on again his edgenailed mountaineering shoes, because on snow the felt-soled rock climbing shoes were practically useless. Where there was not enough snow on the ice to tramp a safe step, the ice axe had to do its part and cut under skilled guiding the dozen holes which lead us finally up to the southerly and lower end of the top arrete, at four PM.
With a sigh of relief accepted everybody again a rest under thinkable most comfortable conditions, the ridge being several feet wide and big plates of slate offering splendid sitting opportunities.
And then tried our eyes to find the bottom on the west side of the mountain where perpendicular cliffs drop thousands of feet to the yellow foundation. Being used to airy sights still it was a ghastly revealation under the prevailing conditions. The whole world was veiled in a brown smocky mist not allowing one glance at other royalties in the environ like Mt Columbia, the Twins or the nearest one Mt Woolley.
We had the feeling of beeing utterly isolated of the entire world being cast on a island of desolation where stormwinds howled around queer formed spires and blew pieces of snow and little rocks through the air and whining voices fell and rose in bottomless chimneys. Almost horizontal in the West hung a red disc of huge dimensions, the sun slowly descending in the liquid like mist as were it a ball of pure carmin falling to the bottom of a strange brown ocean. By and by found our eyes a fascinating hold, far, far down on the very floor of the valley, the Athabasca, transformed by a strange accident into a spiderweb of a hundred red-golden threads, lacing both shores of dreambound forests.
Only timidly dared one break the period of enthralling silence which expressed the reverential devotion for nature’s ways to speak to man’s soul.
After a quarter of an hours recreation did we continue our climb on or along the arrete which lead the shortest way to the top.
We had to experience a number of disappointments since we regarded the ridge according the impression we got from far away as an unbroken line of a soft grade and we found now a composition of a multitude of climbing problems. Gendarms had to be overcome with skill and patience either by traversing or climbing over them as each instance suggested as the best solving. Narrow parts in the arrete were dealth with in horseriding fashion of the most spectacular features, the looks on both sides droping thousands of feet before gaining a rest in the thrilling flight. Then again were cuts in the ridge of considerable depth, ice-edged intersection with added a farther slowup to the already aboundant defering qualities the Mountain put with a tenacity on our rod. Many times were we fooled, beliving an appearing elevation as the ultimate top, since we had no further view only to find the ridge was extending itself on the other side to a still higher point.
All of a sudden oppened a big gap before us an elegantly lined ice-edge steeply leading to the bottom and on the other side unmistakably the arrete rising without any further nasty caprices to the—top. The spare silk ropes once more had to do their duty, taking them doubled, puting above the ice around a big rock for suspension, Fuhrer let himself down to the bottom and cut quickly the steps for descent of the rest, coming uphills as being far easier than the contrary.
The wind blew strongly, yet Fuhrer was not aware that the wind tooke right there his hat first up in the air and played kind of a game with it in airy spaces until tired and then droped to glacier fife thousand feet below.
A not to be named emotion held us in its gripp so near the destination, the aim of a careful arranged expedition by these determined lovers of nature from the isle of the rising sun, and so from the gap up where no difficulties deferred any wanted gate we continued despite the almost sixteen hours of hard work, up the broad and gentlesloped rest of the way in enthusiasme showing speed to arrive literally together on the
Top of Mt. Alberta, 11,874 ft.
at half past seven PM. 16 hours after we left the highcamp on timberline about 6800 ft above sea-level.
Mutual we shaked hands and Mr. Yuko Maki extended his sincere appreciation to Fuhrer for the excellent leadership and his thanks to all of us Swiss for the aid to which he said the party owes this wonderful achievment of alpinism.2
When Fred Ayres and the writer made the next ascent of the mountain nearly a quarter of a century after the Japanese, we followed in general much the same route as they had worked out. Apparently, however, we turned directly upward at a point where our predecessors had continued their traverse northwards. We found much more snow on the mountain, with the long narrow summit ridge heavily corniced and the summit cairn nearly buried. In the cairn was found the “silver” ice-axe of Count (formerly Marquis) Hosokawa—now hanging on the wall of the American Alpine Club—and the note left by the Japanese party.
Upon returning to Jasper we received an enthusiastic greeting from Joe Weiss, who dug out the typewritten manuscript left with him many years before by Weber. I learned that Fuhrer, Kohler, and Weber had all returned to Switzerland. Soon after our own return home we began a lively correspondence with Weber and found that he had married and now holds a responsible position with the telephone company. When my parents visited with him one day in Chur four years ago, they found him as charming and debonair as might be expected. Periodically, he relives his foot-loose days in Canada by re-reading Thorington’s Glittering Mountains or by telling stories to his marveling friends and neighbors of his life while guiding and trapping in the mountain wilderness.
Since my uncle, then Capt. B. G. Oberlin, was in Tokyo at the time, I wrote him to see whether any contact could be made with the Japanese climbers and, before long, had a reply that he had located the four who were still living. A flourishing correspondence soon grew up, with exchanges of photographs, journals, newspapers, and books until Fred and I had accumulated several boxes full. The Japanese sent each of us an inscribed nata, a sort of machete, and we reciprocated with a silver-plated ice-axe inscribed “Mt. Alberta—1925—JAC,” in remembrance of the legend of the silver ice-axe found by us in the summit cairn.
Some further details about the climb were learned from Maki. He described the three-man courte echelle as follows, “Fuhrer ascended onto Hayakawa’s shoulders while Kohler held his hand and I steadied his feet. Just when it seemed Fuhrer was about to crawl over the top, the rock appeared to give away. Fuhrer held the rock with his chest and then put it back in place.” Every member of the party was struck at one time or another by falling stones. At 7:30 P.M., when they finally reached the summit, Maki writes, “Not a word was spoken, but doubtless everyone felt victorious. There were no banzais or bravos.” In the summit cairn which they erected he placed a note thanking the guides, listing the members of the party, and stating, “We came from Japan so far, called by this charming great mountain.” After spending the night on the summit ridge, the party climbed slowly down, rappeling from pitons and taking 15 hours to regain their high camp.
Count Hosokawa invited my aunt and uncle and the four survivors of the original Japanese climbing party to dinner, and all had a lovely time.
From the legend of the silver ice-axe we had gained new friends on both sides of the globe—a fitting sequel to the adventure told with such gaiety and goodwill by Jean Weber, when Japanese,
Swiss, and Canadians rode through the fire toward the towering black walls of Mount Alberta.
J. C. O.
Ayres, F. D., “The Second Ascent of Mt. Alberta,” Canadian Alpine Journal, 1949, Vol. 32, p. 1.
Hickson, J. W. A., Appalachia, 1926, Vol. 16, p. 245.
Oberlin, J. C., “Alberta and the Silver Ice-axe,” American Alpine Journal, 1949, p. 124.
Palmer, H., “Travel and Ascents Among the Highest Canadian Rockies,” pp. 259-260.
Smythe, F. S., Climbs in the Canadian Rockies, Hodder and Stoughton, 1950, London, Chap VI, p. 67.
Jasper Park, south sheet
1 End of page 10 in the original manuscript. A portion of the original may be missing here.—Ed.
2 End of page 28 in the original manuscript. A portion of the original may be missing here.—Ed.