Climbing and Exploration in the Northern Purcells
ROBERT C. WEST, JR. and PETER ROBINSON
Spillimacheen and Carbonate Ranges
In the summer of 1952, looking southeast into the Purcells from Mt. Sir Donald in the Selkirks, we noticed some attractive-looking peaks projecting from a high snowfield. When we later found that the area was practically virgin territory for mountaineering—and, better still, that a road was rumored to run from the Columbia River to within striking distance of the peaks—the idea of a Harvard Mountaineering Club expedition to the Purcells was a logical result.
August 10th found four of us, Winslow Briggs, John Humphreys, Peter Ray, and myself, on our way into the Purcells, at last, in “Bessie,” my veteran 1938 Chevrolet. The road leading westward from Parson Station deteriorated rapidly, and the last 20 miles were a muddy horror, especially for the owner of the car. Fortunately, we had to be pulled out only once, by a jeep belonging to two friendly lumbermen. We arrived thankfully at the end of the road after four hours, having driven just 28 miles! Here there were several lumber camps, where spruce logs and lodgepole pine were being cut and floated down the Spillimacheen and Columbia Rivers to lumber mills at Parson.
After dividing our equipment and supplies for two weeks into four 65-pound packloads, we started off to the Spillimacheen Range. The trail up McMurdo Creek follows a jeep road constructed only a few years ago but now impassable to vehicles, which leads gradually uphill through beautiful forests of spruce and fir. From occasional clearings we could identify the three western Spillimacheen peaks which were to be our first climbing objectives. After about seven miles we reached the abandoned lead-silver mine of the Beverly Company at the headwaters of McMurdo Creek. The next half mile provided the only really unpleasant going on our pack trip, as we struggled up through alder growing in the steep bed of the stream which drains the Spillimacheen Glacier. At last we located a suitable spot for base camp, a small sheltered gravel flat on an old medial moraine, about a mile from the present terminus of the glacier.
Since we had labored to place our camp high, we allowed ourselves the luxury of late starts. We left camp the next morning at 8:45 and walked up the medial moraine to the cirque basin below the Spillimacheen Glacier. We then climbed up a snow tongue between the bands of cliffs which nearly surround the basin and out onto the glacier itself. The route up the névé to the col between Cony and David1 Peaks presented no difficulties. One rock pitch brought us to the easy western snow ridge of Cony Peak, which we followed to the summit, arriving at 1:30 P.M. We found the cairn built by Wexler’s party, who first climbed the mountain in 19472, but the cony for whom the peak was named was not in evidence.
From the summit we could gain a good idea of the geography of the range. The three western and alpine Spillimacheen peaks are all between 9300 and 9400 feet in height, and are quite closely spaced, while four other major summits lie at wider intervals to the east. Although earlier maps indicate that the Purcell divide passes to the west of the range,3 actually the three western peaks are on the divide, which then circles westward again over some low rocky peaks to the Carbonate Range. Across the deep Purcell trench, which contains the Beaver and Duncan Rivers, we had a superb view of the southern Selkirks. We were even more interested, however, in the view to the south, where we could see the high peaks of the Carbonate group, our ultimate objectives. The two eastern peaks were sheer rock spires which looked uncomfortably difficult.
After half an hour we continued down the rocky east ridge of Cony Peak, over two conspicuous gendarmes, and up easy rock to the westernmost peak of the range. This summit comprises two towers of almost equal height, which suggested our name of “Twin Towers Peak.” We reached the western and highest tower 50 minutes after leaving the summit of Cony. Although this peak may have been traversed by David Simpson when he climbed Cony Peak in 1947, we found no sign of a previous ascent. We climbed down a steep rock buttress to the glacier and picked our way carefully across a series of wide crevasses, eventually rejoining our route of ascent. Returning to camp required three hours.
Our plan for the next day was to climb David Peak, third and highest of the western Spillimacheen peaks, as further conditioning for our trip into the Carbonate Range. Instead of reaching the glacier by the snow tongue which we used the day before, we spent an hour forcing a route up the cliffs just below David Peak. Once on the glacier we rapidly reached the Cony-David col, and one rock lead brought us to the grassy ledges of the west ridge. Soon the ridge steepened, and the grass gave way first to shattered broken rock and then to cliffs. John led the final two nearly vertical pitches to the narrow summit, which we reached three and a half hours after leaving camp. Following a typical lunch of Ry-Krisp, jam, apricots, and chocolate, we returned to the col by the same route. Win and Pete now decided to traverse below David Peak to the snow-covered pass on the east, to search for a feasible route over to the Carbonate Range, while John and I crossed the glacier and prospected pack routes along the eastern edge. The others arrived in camp an hour behind us, optimistic about the route into the Bobbie Burns valley.
We left camp the next morning carrying 45-pound packs, after carefully caching our extra supplies to keep them out of reach of the persistent ground squirrels. We followed the east lateral moraines of the Spillimacheen Glacier and eventually went out onto the glacier itself, well above the névé line. Thanks to the route-finding done by Win and Pete on the previous day, we felt safe in travelling unroped up the long, gently curving “interminable snowfield.” The névé led us just below a fortresslike formation east of David Peak, which we dubbed “The Castle.” The sky was crystal clear and absolutely cloudless, and we were in high spirits as we studied possible climbing routes in the Carbonate Range.
Crossing a band of low cliffs, we entered a region of beautiful alpine meadows. We angled westward for as long as possible and even struck straight down the steep wall of the U-shaped valley, through dense spruce and alder. We were happy to see roaring little Bobbie Burns Creek, until we realized that we would have to ford the icy waters, using the rope for a belay.
The valley contains a perfect valley-ring recessional moraine, now more than a mile from the nearest ice, bearing trees which appeared to be at least 40 years old. We climbed up the south side of the valley, near this moraine, to an extensive plateau about a thousand feet above the creek, which provided a perfect campsite for climbs in the Carbonate Range. The Plateau is about at timberline and supports only a few dwarf alpine firs and whitebark pines, along with much heath.
The immediate problem—we had noted from the other side of the valley—was to gain access to the Upper Carbonate Glacier. This high névé was protected by cliffs on the northeast. The long north side ended in four 1500-foot icefalls, interspersed with more sheer cliffs; the western flank consisted of a large and active vertical icefall, where the Upper Carbonate Glacier was breaking off in large chunks to become the Lower Carbonate Glacier. On the southwest was the rock ridge of the westernmost high peak, a very dubious route. The only break in these formidable defenses was a narrow arête leading up to the northwest corner of the glacier. The plateau campsite lay just below this arête, and as Win and John established camp, Pete and I scouted a route up onto the arête and part way up toward the glacier. Several large gendarmes had appeared from below as possible difficulties, but we were happy to find that they were provided with broad ledges; as Pete put it, they “moved aside as we came to them.” But some hundreds of feet of the route up to the glacier still remained hidden from view.
We spent much of the evening discussing whether or not our proposed route would “go”; and when the next morning dawned again clear and cloudless, we seized the opportunity to settle the argument. We rapidly retraced the route that Pete and I had taken the day before. From the arête the view of the four high Carbonate peaks was striking, but even more impressive were the icefalls on the north side of the Upper Carbonate Glacier. Though no longer very active, these icefalls are unusual in height for this area. Far below us, we could see that the icefalls again coalesce into a waning valley glacier.
As we had hoped, the arête offered easy climbing all the way to the upper glacier. Here it was necessary to cross a small in- tensely-crevassed area, which snapped ominously under us. We then tramped across the névé to the west ridge of the westernmost peak, which we were now sure was Carbonate Mountain itself, the highest in the range. The snow on the ridge was crusted hard and required step-cutting, so we soon gave it up in favor of the easy broken rock. We raced to the summit, reaching the top just three and a half hours after leaving camp. The climb is absurdly easy. Except for the crevassed area where we got on to the glacier, it could all be done unroped.
We spent almost two hours on the summit, taking pictures, admiring the views, eating lunch, building a “colossal” cairn, and relaxing in the glorious sunshine. Not a cloud was in sight, even over the usually stormy Selkirks. The Selkirk mountain group southeast of the Battle Range, which Wexler and Hendricks named “Mt. Nemo,” appeared from here to be a massif of considerable size, including several fine peaks. To the north and east, hundreds of peaks were visible in the main chain of the rockies. To the south, we could see clearly the Bobbie Burns and Bugaboo Ranges, and the intervening wilderness of lower peaks, at that time completely unexplored.
Finally, almost reluctantly, we left the summit and went back down the ridge to the névé. We then traversed the glacier below Carbonate Mountain to the adjoining peak, which was the second highest in the Range. Passing by the steep snow of the face, we started up a promising-looking rock buttress. Here the climbing became more challenging, requiring occasional belays. The buttress eventually intersected the main summit ridge, and we had several good leads over sound quartzite to the summit. We reached the top just two hours after leaving the higher peak. We decided to name this second summit of the Carbonate Range “Richards Peak” for Dr. and Mrs. I. A. Richards who, with the guide Conrad Kain, were the first to venture into the Bobbie Burns group to the south. From measurements with a spirit level, we estimated the height of Richards Peak as 10,050 feet and that of Carbonate Mountain as 10,200 feet. These are the northernmost Purcell summits to attain 10,000 feet; between the Carbonate group and Mt. Conrad in the Bobbie Burns range, only one peak, a fine wedge-shaped summit, rises to this height. Each of the two spires east of Richards Peak appeared to be about 9850 feet.
We spent the next several hours in a fruitless attempt to find an alternate route onto the glacier from the east ridge of Richards Peak. The ridge is quite steep and heavily corniced, and we traversed two minor summits to the east without locating a safe route of descent. In the end we were forced to climb back almost to the summit of Richards and back down the rock buttress again. Once on the glacier we returned rapidly to camp, elated at our easy success with the two principal peaks of the range.
When the weather still held the next day, we decided to try the spires at the eastern end of the upper glacier. Reaching the glacier by the same route, we plodded across the névé in the warm morning sun. At the corniced col between the two spires, we decided to turn to the right toward the nearer of the two, over very rotten rock which required careful roped climbing. The rock soon improved and the angle increased to near vertical.
We had brought sneakers along for just this sort of climbing; so after leaving our boots, we continued upward, John Humphreys and Win Briggs each leading a rope. One quite difficult lead ended at an airy knife-edged belay position. In turn we straddled the knife edge, each leg pointing to different parts of the glacier, 500 feet below! One exposed lead from this point brought us to the tiny summit platform, just large enough to hold four of us at one time. We immortalized the spectacular belay position by naming the peak “Horseman Spire.”
The climb had required five and a half hours. We had lunch on top and then headed down, negotiating the most difficult pitch with the use of a rappel. Our initial enthusiasm for high- class rock climbing had temporarily abated, and since it was getting late we decided to leave the other spire, which looked even more difficult, for the next climbers to visit the Carbonate peaks. We returned rapidly over the glacier and down to a low point on the arête, where we slithered down a steep talus slope to explore the Lower Carbonate Glacier. We walked across the glacier to examine a possible route on to the west ridge of “Battlement Mountain,” a 9600-foot summit rising steeply from the lower glacier.
The next morning provided the only bad weather of our expedition. Rain kept us in our tents until noon, when we ventured out to attempt the route we had prospected the day before on Battlement Mountain. The snow close to the mountain became increasingly steep, and the last few hundred feet across to the rocky ridge were very steep indeed. We breathed a premature sigh of relief when we all reached the ridge. The rock appeared fairly rotten, and Win sent down a shower of small stones as he led upward. Since my memory of the next incidents are hazy, the narrative is continued by Winslow Briggs:
“I was climbing about 20 feet above the others, having warned them that the rock was loose, and waited for them to get out of the line of fall. Bob was actually under an overhang, some distance to the right. Apparently spontaneously, a piece of the under side of the overhang came off and struck Bob on the head, causing a scalp wound and a possible concussion. I remained where I was, on a rather unstable ledge, while Pete and John bound up Bob’s head as best they could. The problem then was to get Bob, who was in a dazed condition, across a bergschrund and up about 300 yards of very sharp-angled snow. Pete led up the slope, and, as Bob was able to walk, John followed Bob very closely up to Pete’s belay spots, so that Bob was effectively belayed from above and below. As soon as they were clear, I was able to get onto the snow, and, much to my relief, off of my precarious perch. We all negotiated the slope without incident and made our way down the glacier to camp. About halfway down, Bob was talking normally; the effects of any concussion had worn off. However, once at camp, we put him to bed, rebandaged his head, and tested his pupil reflexes, which were normal as far as we could see. Actually, his reflexes at the sight of our precious bottle of ‘medicinal’ bourbon were far too normal. His eyes lit up, and the light was accompanied by a meaningful grin.”
The next morning I felt quite recovered, and we decided to pack back across the Spillimacheen Range to base camp. Rather than endure again the unpleasant descent into the Bobbie Burns canyon, we decided to work around to the headwaters of the creek and so stay above timberline. We found a complicated route through the jumble of recently deglaciated rock below the three western peaks of the Carbonate Range. These blocklike peaks, though barely over 9000 feet, are heavily glaciated on their northern slopes and should provide good climbing. After crossing a beautiful alpine garden at the headwaters of Bobbie Burns Creek, we continued around through pleasant grassy alps. High above the creek we were surprised to find the ruins of a long-abandoned miners’ cabin. Some samples of galena were lying about, evidently taken from quartz veins in the nearby hills.
We crossed the Spillimacheen Range at the high pass between David Peak and The Castle, taking time out to climb the easy ridge to the top of The Castle and obtaining from there a fine view of the Spillimacheen peaks. Then we headed down the glacier and rejoined our original pack route on the ridge northeast of it. Our return route, though slightly longer, was infinitely the more pleasant of the two, since it avoided nearly all of the steep scrambling and alderslide.
The next day, our last in the mountains, we split into two parties. Pete and Win went off to Silent Pass, explored the area near the two lakes which are perched on the divide and climbed up the steep grassy ledges of the north slope of Silent Mountain to make the first ascent of this 8500-foot peak. Just west of the summit, on their descent, they traversed a prominent gendarme which they insisted should be called “Noisy Needle.” Meanwhile, John and I crossed the ridge northeast of the Spillimacheen Glacier, contoured around the next valley, and climbed the fourth principal peak in the Spillimacheen chain. This easy ascent required only three hours from base camp and was rewarding only for the fine view from the summit ridge. Since the peak overlooks the McMurdo Creek mine, we named it “Beverly Peak” for the company which formerly operated the mine. The elevation was estimated as 9150 feet; the next major peak to the northeast appears about 50 feet higher. Beyond this is the highest peak in the range, a broad summit about 9500 feet high which we named “Corner Peak.” The range then swings east to include Spillimacheen Mountain and Byron Peak, which have been surveyed at 9371 and 8810 feet, respectively. These eastern Spillimacheen peaks will provide long, dry easy climbs for anyone caring to attempt them.
The next day, August 19th, we broke camp and packed up our supplies as black clouds boiled up over the mountains to the south. We had our last look at the Spillimacheen peaks as they disappeared behind the storm clouds. The rain caught us and hurried us on our way as we packed out to the car. On the way along the Spillimacheen Road, we met the Dartmouth party coming in and stopped to wish them luck with their traverse before we drove the last few miles out to civilization.
R. C. W., Jr.
A High-Level Traverse
When seen from peaks in the Bugaboo Group Mt. Conrad stands to the northwest, a great conical peak at the center of a large system of tumbling glaciers. Its bulk is so great that it completely obscures the country on the far side, except well to the right where peaks of the Carbonate Range stand out prominently. Dr. J. M. Thorington originally thought that Mt. Conrad rested within the bend of Vowell Creek, east of the divide. When in 1952 it was proved that the mountain is actually on the divide, it became important to trace the divide northwestward even as far as the Spillimacheen Group, in order to tie in with the Glacier Park Map.
In September 1933 Mr. and Mrs. I. A. Richards with Conrad Kain made the first and only ascent of Mt. Conrad. It was not surprising (as we found out later) that they were confused and came back with no report on the country beyond. More recently the Spillimacheen Group was visited by David Hope Simpson, and in 1948 by Arnold Wexler, Sterling Hendricks, and their party. Wexler gave us the only clues to the country which lies south of the Spillimacheen Group. From Mt. Conrad to the Spillimacheen Range, a vast tract of high country along the divide remained completely untouched by mountaineers. This was the last large unknown portion of the Purcell watershed.
About one-fourth of the distance southward from the Spillimacheen Range, on the upper reaches of Vermont Creek, there is an old mine which was supposedly connected by road to Parson on the Columbia. After due consideration several members of the Dartmouth Mountaineering Club concluded that a high- level traverse would be the best way to explore the country from the mine southward to the Bugaboos. Such a traverse is an old tradition in the European Alps where huts are plentiful. In the 1920’s Dr. J. M. Thorington outlined a high-level route from Jasper to Banff in the Canadian Rockies and covered several sections of the traverse himself. Since the war Wexler, Hendricks, and others have made several successful traverses, not only in the Canadian Rockies but in the Selkirks. In fact, it was at the beginning of a high-level trip through the southern Selkirks that they passed through the Spillimacheen Group.
Previously the exploration of the Purcells had been mostly carried out through the use of pack trains in the long fairly open eastern valleys. However, A. A. McCoubrey and his companions had several times battled their way up the west side of the Purcells from Kootenay Lake, carrying everything on their backs.
Dr. Thorington, who with Conrad Kain had “opened up” the Southern Purcells in the years 1928, 1930, and 1931, and to whom we owe most of our present knowledge of the divide, provided funds for aerial photographs to supplement those we already had of the Bugaboo area. Without the use of this modern innovation for route finding, our traverse would have been virtually impossible in the time available. Arnold Wexler was also kind enough to send pictures taken from the Spillimacheen Group.
It was our good fortune at this time to learn that a Harvard Mountaineering Club group under the leadership of Robert West had secured additional aerial photographs and planned exploration of the Spillimacheen Range and an attempt on Carbonate Mountain. Since our two programs meshed so closely, we agreed to combine our new-found knowledge in a single map of the last section of the divide.
During the early part of last summer, scattered members of the expedition worked on food and equipment problems. Besides using standard grocery store items (dehydrated), enough for 16 days (about 3600 calories per day) and to be supplemented with vitamin pills, we developed our own innovation “mung,” a powdered form of hardtack, which can be mixed with water to make “mung balls.” Not only is “mung” very filling, but it is 80% smaller in volume than hardtack and a powerful deterrent to indigestion. We carried two two-man tents, a primus stove, and two quarts of gasoline for high-altitude camps.
The Forest Trek
At Spillimacheen on August 18th Fen Riley, Gene White and I were joined by Rob Day and Bob Brooke from St. Louis, Missouri. The first blow to our plans was to learn that there never had been a truck road to Vermont Creek and that we would have to walk from a point where a trail branches southward from Spillimacheen River. The next morning heavy cirrus clouds moved across the sky heralding the end of a long period of good weather. We hastily loaded Bob’s car with our crammed, heavyweight packs, and then, wishing luck to a party of Iowa Mountaineers heading up Bugaboo Creek, we started north for Parson, whence a lumber road leads over a low ridge from the Columbia to the Spillimacheen Valley.
I will not burden the reader with a description of our confused wanderings because of misdirections. Coming down on the Spillimacheen River side of the ridge, we burst out of the woods and were surprised by a view of Mt. Sir Donald towering beyond the head of the valley.
Already the sky was filling with thunder clouds. As I dog- trotted along in search of the intersection of our trail, I suddenly blacked out with a comfortable, far-away feeling. A split second later I found myself crouched in the road as the sound of thunder died away. I had received a gash on the knee, a torn pant leg, and I felt as if I had been hit on top of the head with a club. Apparently I had been knocked over by lightning. Later, as Fen was bandaging up my knee, who should come chugging by but Bob West, Win Briggs, John Humphreys, and Pete Ray in Bob’s battered ’38 Chevy. We listened to the story of their successes.
At last with the kind assistance of some lumbermen we found the trail to Vermont Creek. The road runs for some distance along the crest of an ancient lateral moraine and then takes a sharp bend uphill to the right. At this corner a path leads steeply down to the Spillimacheen River bridge which can be seen a hundred feet below. It began to drizzle at 3:45 P.M. as we hoisted on our 80-pound loads and started for the wooded divide between the Spillimacheen River (North Fork) and its South Fork, Bobbie Burns Creek. At first we could only walk ten minutes for every two minutes rest, but gradually we increased the walking time. The rain soon ceased and the sun occasionally broke through the clouds as we wound our way gradually upward through the lush virgin forest of towering Douglas firs.
At 7:00 we reached an old trappers’ cabin on the divide. A short side trail leads eastward to a moose swamp on the margin of Summit Lake. We pushed on down the Bobbie Burns slope and camped just after dark at the first source of water.
In the morning there began a series of intermittent rains which lasted for the next two days. Not far beyond Camp I we came to a fork in the trail. The right-hand branch of it runs westward up the northern side of Bobbie Burns Creek to its headwaters on the north side of Carbonate Mountain. The left trail, which we took, leads southwestward across the valley of Bobbie Burns Creek and across a low angle to Vowell Creek, whose magnificent gorge enters from the south at this point.
As we came nearer to the Bobbie Burns crossing, the windfalls cost us a great deal of effort, there often being a tree every ten or fifteen feet for a 100 yards at a time. Finally the crossing over the raging torrent was reached and we were delighted to find facilities which called to mind the Himalayas. Two long logs tied together with wire formed a footbridge and nearby was a heavy wire with a trolley hook to bring the packs across.
Between rainstorms the sun came out periodically as we pushed on up the west side of Vowell Creek through more bad windfalls, shoulder-high bushes, some open country, and finally up a very long hill into the hanging valley of Vermont Creek. Along the way we had an occasional glimpse of the icefalls of a huge glacier many miles to the south which could be none other than the Conrad Icefield. Vowell Creek, because of the great number and extent of glaciers at its head, carries about twice as much water as either Bobbie Burns Creek or Spillimacheen River.
At 8:30 P.M., exhausted and soaking wet, we waded across the upper part of Vermont Creek to the luxurious old cabin on the south side. In a short time the little wood stove was glowing red and Gene pronounced it a “bloomin’ paradise.”
The following afternoon we started off with a relay load in rainy weather. A short tussle with wet bush led to a long traverse on shale slopes below the great cliffs on the south side of the valley. The waters of Vermont Creek curved down from the north, but by heading due west and climbing up a 500-foot head- wall we reached the bank of a glacier which drains to the north fork of Crystalline Creek. An hour’s climb up the gently sloping ice brought us to the névé, where we turned southward and reached the easternmost of two easy passes in a rotten east—west ridge.
To the south was revealed a great array of unknown mountains tormented by ragged windblown clouds. For the first time I began to understand the true meaning of Thorington’s statement that the Purcells had an atmosphere not unlike the misty Isle of Skye. Caching the contents of our packs and christening our pass “Cold Shiver Col,” we hastened back to the “flesh pots” of our “Vermont Creek Hotel.”
1:00 P.M. the next day found us back on the névé with the rest of our duffle in better weather. Depositing our loads and polishing off lunch, we turned northward up a small icefall to a higher névé which leads to a dark helmet-shaped peak of rotten rock. A few short rock pitches up to the south ridge and up to the southeast face brought us to the upper rubble slope. After much slipping and sliding, we emerged on to the beautiful snow crest of the south summit and a few minutes later scrambled up the rocks of the highest point to the north (ca. 9600 feet).
We were pleased with our conquest, for this was our first opportunity to get a comprehensive view. Fortunately the clouds were high and we could even see Bugaboo Spire looming in the southeast, although Mt. Conrad was heavily wrapped in cloud. Mt. Nemo and hoards of unknown peaks were seen across the Duncan in the Selkirks, while the southern escarpment of the Carbonate Range rose above us to the northwest. It was Mt. Nemo which gave us the idea of naming our peak “Mt. Syphax” for the villain of another Jules Verne story. Mt. Syphax is an important point on the divide in that it drains to no less than four different creeks.
At the southwest corner of the glacier we had come up rose a great serrated prism of rotten rock at least 200 feet higher than Syphax. We felt some chagrin at not having climbed it instead, so we decided to spend the next day in its conquest. Beyond lay a jumble of ice-laden peaks dominated by a towering white truncated cone certainly above 10,000 feet.
Our stay on the summit was none too long, for Fen and I felt colds coming on and we still had to pick up our cache at “Cold Shiver Col” and get down to a camp in the Valley of the Lakes. At 6:00 P.M. we arrived at the cache and began to load on the additional supplies. Once in the valley below the col on the south side, we had a minor north-south ridge to cross to reach the Valley of the Lakes. We experienced great difficulty and danger getting up the rotten east side of this ridge. Future parties should therefore take the more westerly of the two cols, which, though higher, makes possible a route directly into the Valley of the Lakes. Pitching camp on the first patch of grass high above the lakes, we settled down to cooking supper over the primus by moonlight.
Next morning at 9:15 A.M. (August 23rd) found us at the western col below the great prism peak after a rainy night at Camp III, 15 minutes below. Mist obscured all the peak except the nearby southeast tower, but after a short discussion we kicked up a very steep snow slope onto the rotten rocks. The next four hours took us all over the mountain on the only feasible line of attack: Up the east face of the southeast tower, traverse northward (right) below the summit block of the tower into the notch, traverse from the notch westward (left) to south end of the great southwest talus bench, up the talus (east) to the narrow but solid south summit ridge. An exposed traverse across the east face to get around a high tower brought us to a deep notch in the summit ridge. Since the tower was unclimbable, I continued northward up a chimney to a minor peak beyond which rose another high tower. Bob made a fine lead up a vertical crack which at the top turned into a tunnel and emerged on the official summit, which is about the same height as the unclimbable tower. The nearly perpetual cloud blowing over the summit suggested the name Mont Brouillard. Not long after the other three had arrived by a slightly different route, and after we had built a cairn, we began the descent, for there had been several sleet storms and now there were distant rumblings in the west.
Back at Camp III at 4:30 we stuffed down a quick lunch and scuttled for the tents as a heavy shower began. At 8:00 the rain ceased and we got up to cook supper.
As dawn approached on August 24th, the sound of rain on the walls of the tent changed to that of sleet, then snow. Before long enormous snowflakes were falling in a continuous shower, blanketing the ground and cutting visibility to a few feet. Fortunately at 9 o’clock the snow stopped falling and visibility improved. As we found out many times on this trip, nothing whets enthusiasm and stimulates energy more than coming out into the open from a cramped tent and a soggy sleeping bag. Fen and I were out first and our oh’s and ah’s on seeing the marvelous wintry scene brought the others.
There was some talk of retreat, but the memory of the windfalls urged us to go on with the traverse and see if the weather would improve. Fen pointed out to our satisfaction that “great explorers” have always had to overcome serious difficulties in terrible weather, and with this as an inspiration we started down into the Valley of the Lakes with full loads.
In a few minutes we were down below the level of snowfall and a steady rain began which lasted the entire day. We were sorry not to have more time to spend wandering about the two large lakes and vast alpine meadows of this wonderful high valley. Without more than a few pauses Fen led us up a long steep snow slope to a pass on the far side of the valley, and we slid down shale to the next high valley. Here the Late Pre- Cambrian rocks of the Windermere Series are thrown into sharp anticlines and synclines which divide the valley lengthwise and form a structural geologist’s paradise. We crossed these folds to a lake on the far side and followed the lake stream southward into the valley of the Middle Fork of Crystalline Creek.
Directly across the valley on the south side, the end of a great ridge showed through the mist and a 1000-foot cascade plunged from a high snowfield to the valley bottom. We hurried on down past timberline to a forest campsite 500 feet above the valley floor. In an hour we had a roaring fire so that we could at least keep warm if not dry. Tents were pitched on thick beds of boughs and we looked forward to a comfortable night despite the rain.
The Crystal Range
At 9:00 the next morning, after several conflicting weather reports, I decided to see for myself. Outside, the air was distinctly dry, a strong northwest wind was blowing above, and patches of blue appeared off and on. It was time to burn our bridges and get on with the traverse.
By noon we were able to assemble reasonably dry loads and plunge over the wooded precipice en route to the valley bottom. The extreme upper part of the deep east-west valley is terminated by a high-mountain barrier and the stream hooks around to the southwest to drain a glaciated watershed pass above 8000 feet, our next objective. We were sorry to leave the lush grass and flowers of the valley for the icy regions above, but the day was wearing on and this might be our only chance.
The clouds were blowing away gradually, but it was still cold enough to wear all our clothing as we followed Fen’s lead up the ice and snow of the glacier. About 3:30 we made a chilly stop on a large boulder to gobble up “mung balls” liberally spread with jam and peanut butter.
The final slope of fresh windpacked powder snow emerged onto a broad saddle and into bright sunlight. Packs were forthwith eased to the ground that we might scamper about and enjoy a wintry panorama such as is rarely seen. The south side of the pass fell away at our feet to the deep valley at the head of Hume Creek which shortly plunged into the Duncan. Beyond were many peaks in the southern Selkirks, both known and unknown. We recognized Mt. Templeman, the Badshot Towers, and Mt. Thtiff. Mont Brouillard, looming up in the north, had lost its old cloud banner and its upper ledges were outlined by wide stripes of white. To the east the snowflecked west flank of the Crystal Range was spread before us with its many high peaks and spectacular hanging glacier. The crux of the entire traverse, a high, difficult pass, the lowest point in the Range, lay due east and 1000 feet above.
Resisting the temptation to stop overnight and attempt the high 10,000-foot truncated cone peak, we pushed up the east side of the saddle and then with some difficulty climbed down to the right to the small glacier which flows from the high col down the West Kootenay slope. From the head of the glacier it took more than an hour of step kicking on steep snow and freshly snow-covered shale to reach the high pass which we called Climax Col. The sun, which had warmed us during the climb, disappeared behind the 10,000-foot cone peak as we pulled ourselves over the last steep ice-feathered rocks to the windswept crest at 7:45 P.M.
On the other side the peaks at the western edge of the Conrad Icefield were bathed in golden light which gradually took on a rosy hue, until only the great north face of a peak southwest of Mt. Conrad (No. 9 on the Thorington map) shone like some distant Himalayan giant. We rushed down the steep eastern slopes of lightly windpacked powder snow in the gathering darkness and reached trees about 8:30. A warm fire held off the evening chill while we cooked a hearty supper. From this perch high on the western side of the South Fork of Crystalline Creek we watched the moonlight play on the icy peaks at the head of the valley.
The morning of August 26th was unique. From a flawless blue sky the rays of the sun gradually moved down into the valley until our camp was removed from the frozen shadows. Slowly our minds and bodies became tuned to the warmth and we emerged from tents and sleeping bags to bask in the sun. We had known the night before that we would not want to attempt a long climb the following day, but at 11:30 we set out for a nearby ice-capped peak in the Crystal Range.
Already, gray storm-front clouds were moving in from the southwest. Long flower-strewn talus slopes led us to the tongue of one of the many steep glaciers of the Crystal Range. Climbing up the ice a few hundred feet, we bore left up a series of westward-dipping bedding planes on the northeast face of the mountain to their intersection with the east ridge. The rotten ridge in turn brought us to the foot of the hanging ice cap which clings to the eastern face and runs up to the very summit where rocks are exposed. It was snowing when we reached the top, but visibility improved greatly soon after we sat down for lunch on the pile of phyllite bars at the highest point.
The North Peak of Crystal Mountain, as we named it, is about 9700 feet in elevation and is the fourth highest peak in the Crystal Range. The South Peak, a quarter of a mile away across a deep gap, is slightly higher. South of Crystal Mountain are two higher peaks and several lower ones, while north of it is a long, high nondescript ridge broken by Climax Col. A southern extension of the Crystal Range, consisting of less spectacular glaciated peaks, curves around in a broad arc ending in a northwesterly- trending ridge close to the Duncan.
Northwestward we could examine the group of peaks dominated by the 10,000-foot truncated cone which did not seem a great deal higher than we were. At least two of the four or five peaks in the group are probably granite and will make difficult ascents.
At the head of the South Fork of Crystalline Creek is a fairly low pass containing a small lake, which we propose as the division point between the new Crystalline Group and the old Bobbie Burns Group. East of the pass is a high snow-plastered ridge two miles long, like a miniature of the Dawson Range in the Selkirks, with a western tongue of the Conrad Icefield along its northern flank. We named this ridge Mt. Thorington in honor of the patron of our expedition, who during his long association with the guide Conrad Kain brought to light most of our present knowledge of the Purcell Divide and compiled Conrad’s memoirs after the latter’s death into the stirring autobiography Where the Clouds Can Go. Beyond Mt. Thorington is the pure, white symmetrical outline of Mt. Conrad, rising to over 10,000 feet directly from a vast icefield.
Our descent back to Camp V was enlivened by a long glissade down the east snow face. We were able to finish supper just as the inevitable rain began.
In the morning the usual lull in the rainfall allowed us to pack up. We gave up hope of further ascents from this camp and moved in two hours to a comfortable camp in the last tall timber directly below the west tongue of the Conrad Icefield. In the late afternoon Rob and I carried extra food and climbed up steep talus slopes for 1½ hours in rain and sleet to the northern edge of the icefield tongue. We returned to a cozy little shelter, a warm fire, and supper just before dark. About 10 o’clock the rain stopped and the air became drier. Things looked auspicious for a dry night’s sleep and moderate weather for our first day on the Conrad Icefield.
The Conrad Icefield
We had reached a transition point in our journey. Up until this time we had been passing through a country of folded Pre- Cambrian sedimentary rocks which form deep valleys, high jagged mountain ranges, and small, steep glaciers. Travel was comparatively slow because of the many steep passes, vegetation, shale slopes, and the amount of vertical distance necessary for every horizontal mile gained. On Vermont Creek, and on the Middle and South Forks of Crystalline Creek, we saw water- worn canyons in the bedrock 10 to 50 feet deep. Since they are within half a mile of the present glaciers, they would seem to indicate that there has been very little advance or retreat in the last few thousand years.
We then entered into a high region of relatively flat icefields where fast mileage can be made as long as weather permits. Although partially underlain by Pre-Cambrian sedimentary rocks, the icefields are chiefly supported by intrusive granites of the Mesozoic Bugaboo stock, which extends as far north as the northern end of Mt. Conrad. Some theorists believe that granite, besides being more resistant to erosion and valley cutting, reflects more heat than sedimentary rocks, thus discouraging melting and allowing more snow to accumulate.
On August 28th, Bob’s birthday, we pulled out of Camp VI at 7:15 A.M. after getting up at 5:30. The weather looked good and we were even favored with a little sunshine through the clouds.
By 10:45 we had picked up the small cache and climbed to the broad glacial pass at the head of the west tongue. Beyond the pass, crevasses concealed by soft snow became dangerous and the rope was put on. We were still passing along the northern flank of Mt. Thorington with its spectacular peaks cloaked in fluted snow and blowing clouds. To the left we could look down the huge north glacier of the icefield to the deep trenches of Vowell Creek and its tributaries. Slowly new horizons opened to us as the granite spires north of the Bugaboos and many unknown peaks swung into view.
Two hours of steady plodding through the soft snow brought us to the southern end of “Noon-attack” which comes roughly in the middle of the north overflowing glacier. We flopped down in a protected spot and devoured our lunch. On the east side of “Noon-attack” is the largest part of the north glacier, the part which comes directly down in an icefall from the high neves surrounding Mt. Conrad. Much was concealed by clouds, but our route to the névé east of Conrad was clear.
At 2.00 we climbed down a short icefall onto the eastern part of the glacier and crossed it in a southeasterly direction. After a short rest on the far moraine we curved up past the main icefall and continued up a long, gentle grade toward the high point of the névé east of Conrad. The lead was exchanged from time to time in order to share the work of breaking trail through the soft snow. As the late afternoon wore on, it became necessary to halt every 15 minutes for rest.
The world of trees and meadows was far below. Only the tops of mountains showed above the edge of the domelike icefield. Heavy clouds glowing with the afternoon sun boiled over Mt. Conrad, bringing snow flurries. Very gradually, as the slope eased off, granite spires to the east and southeast came into view until almost imperceptibly about 6:30 the snow became perfectly level. This was the top of the icefield from which all ways led downward.
We turned off to the eastward, seeking a camp which we could reach before dark. On the far side of the glacier which flows to Malloy’s Creek from the Malloy’s Creek-East Creek glacial watershed pass, we sighted a snow-free boulder pile. To reach this it was necessary to find a way down a 500-foot snow-covered icefall. At the edge of the névé, windblown snow had smoothly concealed several crevasses which I discovered the hard way by going into one up to my neck. A peculiar ridge down the center of the icefall was selected as a route because there was less snow and crevasses were better exposed. I had to probe carefully and laboriously at every step without regard for the encumbrance of my pack. We all realized that this was a critical time in which we were moving over very dangerous ground at the end of our hardest day.
Meanwhile the eastern peaks were lit by a sunset light which reflected on the jagged blowing clouds and set the sky on fire. Bugaboo Spire and then snow-sheathed Howser Spire came into view as we passed the last dangerous parts of the icefall and started across dry glacier toward the boulder pile. The last shreds of storm were being driven from the sky. We paused several times on our weary march to gaze out over the valley of Malloy’s Creek to the dark forms of Carbonate Mountain, Brouillard, and Syphax outlined by the last copper glow of twilight. Ever so slowly the campsite seemed nearer until at last we were there, congratulating each other on our perseverance. The unknown territory had been crossed and we had only one more day to go to reach Boulder Camp in the Bugaboos.
We managed to fashion two tent platforms among the rocks and cooked supper from sleeping bags to protect ourselves from a freezing wind blowing off the ice. Soon we retired to the chilly tents and a long-earned sleep.
Despite bright sunlight it was very cold when we got up the next morning. Rob had been nervously exhausted by the previous day and resisted all persuasion to accompany the other four of us when we set out for Mt. Conrad at 11:00.
With Fen leading the rope we retraced our route of the previous evening up the icefall to the high névé. The upper part of Mt. Conrad was completely obscured by clouds, but the névé and the foot of the climbing route on the north ridge were clear. By 1:30 we had crossed the névé and were kicking steps in steep snow leading up to the ridge. A short detour around a rock tower brought us onto a very broad snow ridge and we climbed upward into the clouds.
To our left the steep east face fell away, while to our right the snow of the ridge pitched off gently into the west snow face which runs directly to the high west névé of the Conrad Icefield. From time to time we sighted rock shoulders on the crest of the ridge which we easily circumvented by snow on the west face. Each of these we fondly imagined was the rocky summit which Professor Richards had described. Fen was doing a marvelous job up at the head of the rope, fighting through ever deeper snow. The wind and cold were beginning to take their toll although we had on all our clothing. I was a thousand times thankful that Fen, Gene, and I had had experience with similar conditions on Mt. Washington in New Hampshire. Without this we would surely have turned back.
At last we came across the steep west side of a tower we felt sure must be the summit. We climbed up some snow-covered talus to the crest of the ridge and thirty feet farther south found the remains of the cairn built twenty years before. Fen soon found a battered cigarette tin with a soggy piece of paper enclosed. With this deposited in my pack, the others huddled close around me to have a bite of cheese and to protect my hand from the cold wind while I quickly scribbled a note to be left in our own can. Ten minutes later, at 3:10 P.M., we started down.
The only incident of the descent occurred when Fen, now last on the rope, popped into a small crevasse high on the ridge. Lower down I was barely able to find our footprints which had been filled by drifting snow. Once the tension of the climb was over, we began to shoot pictures in all directions. Again the vast field of ice and snow held us fascinated.
At 5:25 we greeted Rob back at Camp VII. He had found a small cave under a boulder where we could cook and be sheltered from the wind. This came to be known as “Shaft No. 7” and will probably be used as a bivouac on future exepditions.
The morning of August 30th was very cold and windy. We left Camp VII at 10:40, expecting a reasonably easy final day. Soon mist settled down around us as we walked up the long gentle snow slope toward the Malloy’s Creek-East Creek pass. A few minutes after noon we began to encounter crevasses on the southern slope beyond the pass and put on the rope. In ten minutes we arrived on the brink of a large icefall which we had not suspected from the aerial photographs.
Moving along the edge of the first crevasse which was in some places 40 feet wide, we went out on the end of a sort of “peninsula” which came to within 15 feet of the other side. Setting down our packs, Bob gave me a belay and I cut a line of ice steps down the extremely steep end of the “peninsula” to a point where the crevasse narrowed. I jumped across to the other side and climbed to the top of a mass of seracs. Bob came across the same way and then we began hauling the packs across on the rope.
After the loads were across and Fen had come over via the crevasse, Bob and I picked up our loads and began exploring the route along the narrow tops of the seracs. We went first left, then right, until confronted by a 130-foot cliff overhanging at the top, below which the chaotic part of the icefall ceased. Luckily we were able to cut a precarious route along the edge of an ice flake and into a sort of cave under the overhang. A little chipping on a projecting piece of ice gave us a rappel point or “ice bollard” from which we rappeled with our packs to a small platform halfway down. A few feet lower a second “bollard” was hewn from the ice, and with the use of this we all reached the bottom safely at 2:30 P.M.
Mt. Syphax—ca. 9600
Mont Brouillard—ca. 9800
Mt. Ruth—ca. 9200
Unnamed Granite Peaks
North Peak, Crystal Mountain—
South Peak, Crystal Mountain— ca. 9700
Mt. Thorington—ca. 9900
Mt. Conrad—ca. 10,400
Mt. Malloy—ca. 9800
Vowell Peak—ca. 9800
Mt. Kelvin—ca. 9700
Wallace Peak—ca. 9600
Blue Lake Spire
We especially want to express our appreciation to the Surveys and Mapping Branch, British Columbia Department of Land and Forests, for making available aerial photograph laydown sheets and advance copies of drafted material. Glaciers and peaks were determined from personal observations and a study of R.C.A.F. aerial photographs. We want to express thanks to Dr. J. M. Thorington for making available funds to purchase an important share of the R.C.A.F. photos.
KEY TO PEAKS ON PURCELL MAP
# — Indicates official survey station
(8500) — elevation in feet
We stopped for lunch when we reached the level glacier and then started up a 500-foot snow chute toward the northwestern edge of the Warren Glacier, which we reached at 4:30. At last I was on familiar ground and knew no serious obstacles could block our progress. We headed out across the great expanses of dirty gray ice toward Bugaboo—Snowpatch Col. To the southwest, heavy clouds hung low around the bases of the spires. The glacial pond of previous years had drained, leaving a chaotic pile of blue ice blocks.
At 6:30 P.M. we finished the tedious grade up to Bugaboo- Snowpatch Col and started down the steep east snow slope which was in very bad condition. We were soon strolling down the Crescent Glacier and following human footprints among the terminal moraines. A thin column of smoke could be seen curling up from Boulder Camp. By 8:30 we were back in “civilization,” among many friends from Boulder, Colorado, the Sierra Club, and the Iowa Mountaineers.
We had completed the traverse exactly on schedule. Surely there is no finer feeling in mountaineering than that derived from looking back on difficulties overcome only by a strong combined effort in the spirit of loyalty and companionship. Two days later the weather turned perfect and remained so for nearly a week.
Summary of Statistics (Part I)
Ascents: First ascents by party of David Peak, Cony Peak, Twin Towers Peak, Carbonate Mountain (ca. 10,200 ft.), Richards Peak (ca. 10,050 ft.), and Horseman Spire in the Purcells, British Columbia; first ascent of Silent Mountain (ca. 8500 ft.) by Briggs and Ray; first ascent of Beverley Peak (ca. 9150 ft.) by Humphreys and West.
Exploration: Spillimacheen and Carbonate Ranges, British Columbia.
Personnel: Robert C. West, Jr., leader; Winslow Briggs, John Humphreys and Peter Ray.
Summary of Statistics (Part II)
Ascents: Mt. Syphax, ca. 9600 feet, first ascent, August 22nd (1953); Mt. Brouillard, ca. 9800 feet, first ascent, August 23rd; Crystal Mountain—North Peak, ca. 9700 feet, first ascent, August 26th; Mt. Conrad, ca. 10,400 feet, second ascent, August 29th. All climbs made in the Purcells.
Exploration: First crossing of the Conrad Icefield, approximately 15 square miles of ice with nine outflow glaciers.
Personnel: Peter Robinson, leader; Robert C. Brooke, Robert C. Day, Fenwick C. Riley, and Gene F. White.
1 Formerly known derisively as “David’s Folly” by McMurdo Creek miners, following the first ascent by David Simpson and Carl Johnson in 1946.
2 A. Wexler, Appalachia, 27, 21 (1948) .
3 J. M. Thorington, The Purcell Range of British Columbia, American Alpine Club, New York, 1946.