American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing
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Athabaska Pass

  • Feature Article
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1953

Athabaska Pass

Bradley B. Gilman

(No ballad—no sonnet, but a very few brief lines* suggested by a trip up the Whirlpool River in July 1952.)

High in the Canadian mountains lies a tiny lake,

Nestled between two giant ice-clad guards;

It hangs upon the height of land to make Its waters flow half East, half West,

Into two oceans a continent apart.

A century past, this spot was full of life,

A place of celebration and good cheer,

“Committee Punchbowl,” it was called; and Every hardy Voyageur who reached its shores Toasted his comrades for pure joy of having made The perilous passage of the long slopes below.

It marked the summit of the barrier Blocking the fur trade from its London shops.

From far York Factory on Hudson’s Bay By horse, bateau and trappers’ board They packed supplies and trade goods west.

From the Pacific came returning caravans

Laden with precious beaver skins

Up the Columbia, back to Athabaska’s Crest.

Like the lake’s waters the human stream flowed East and West, Unchecked by every natural obstacle en route.

Who were these sturdy warriors of the woods and wilds? Voyageurs they, from Scotland, Ireland and from Montreal. Thompson, the first to find the pass,

Struggled through seven-foot drifts of snow,

Winning a way downward to the western sea.

There followed then a growing stream of men Douglas, the botanist, for whom the firs are named,

Henry, the elder, from our own eastern coast,

William M’Gillivray, whose resounding name Titles the great black ridge that parallels the trail for miles below the Pass.

Fur traders, all, daring this mountain route,

Reaching the Astor’s post on far Columbia’s shore Daring and dying, yet never lacking Men to replace those gone before.

Today the lake remains. Its guards are there,

Shrouded in ice and threatening all who come beneath.

But passers-by are rare.

Gone are the beaver and the men who sought them out.

Trade seeks a swifter route and wings its way Over the barrier peaks. Save for the wandering Alpinist, hunter and fisherman,

The Pass now lies deserted and at rest.

Camped by the Punchbowl at the height of land I roused at night to hear

The ghostly traffic of the Voyageurs cresting the last long slopes,

Flinging their packs aside and

Cheering that the “Grand Cote” was done.

They told of hazards on the way,

Of quick sands, whirlpools, falls and glacier ice.

I shivered and lay still, swelling with pride

That I had bested these same obstacles today

Yet knowing I was no equal to the men I listened to,

They who had struggled up the Pass as part of their life’s work, Where I was doing it for fun, with no compulsion to achieve or fail. I slept again, content to let the Voyageurs pass on,

Oblivious of the camper by the trail.

Their trials and sufferings mean so little now When river boats have been displaced by trains And those in turn displaced by fleet-winged planes Yet my brief visit with the Voyageurs Brings a trite message often overlooked That modern life is ringed about with luxury,

Soft beds, rich food, warm clothes are in our very grasp,

Taken for granted they count for little now.

Perhaps we should oftener view events of bygone days, Seeing the hardships that such earlier men have overcome So that with new perspective we may weigh more dear Our twentieth century comforts that grow year by year. You, Worcester fire-flies, bound by ancient rules,

Living in 1790 by your book,

Accept my message easily as told.

But those who doubt, I cordially invite

To join me in a climb to Athabaska Pass

To learn first hand the valor of these Men of Old.

*Written for the 1953 Annual Meeting of the Worcester Fire Society.

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