Mt. Ida and Other Climbs
FREDERICK L. DUNN
A history of the northernmost Canadian Rockies, the mountains of the Mt. Ida – Mt. Sir Alexander area, should start well before 1875, for the Cree Indians had recognized the big mountain, Sir Alexander, for centuries as “Kitchi,” “big” or “great.” But a CPR explorer, Jarvis, was the first man to gaze at these hills with anything like a mountaineer’s eye. He accepted the Cree name Kitchi for Sir Alexander and named the sharp peak above his east – west pass (Jarvis Pass) Mt. Ida, for some reason probably not involving the history of Troy. After Jarvis’ visit in 1875 the region languished until the ’teens when a succession of pack trains brought the first real mountaineers to see what they could find. In 1914 S. Prescott Fay traveled north along the eastern flanks of the Rockies from Yellowhead Pass and the following year published the basic article on these mountains in Appalachia. His account, and particularly his illustrations, were responsible for our interest in the area which resulted in the 1954 Mt. Ida expedition.
During the 1914-1916 period Mt. Sir Alexander (then Mt. Alexander Mackenzie) was reached several times by parties led by Mary Jobe. Summit ridge cornices blocked a fine attempt on Sir Alexander in 1915 by the Jobe climbers. In 1916 Frederick Vreeland reached the western flanks of these peaks by canoe from the Fraser river watershed. In 1922 a flight over the area resulted in some early mountain aerial photos which kept interest in Sir Alexander at a high pitch. Finally, in 1929, the Gilmour party climbed Sir Alexander, and with that success interest in these northern peaks waned. For 25 years no one visited this land, though Mt. Ida and a score of lesser lights remained unexplored and unclimbed. The main reason for this was, of course, inaccessibility. A pack trip of at least 12 days each way is a pretty fair obstacle for most modern short-of-time folk. This isolation also had limited the ascents of consequence in this region to two peaks, Mt. Sir Alexander and Mt. St. George, prior to June 1954, in an area first visited by climbers 40 years before!
Mt. Ida (10,472 ft.) stands head and shoulders above its neighbors. It juts up about a dozen miles north of Mt. Sir Alexander, the only other peak of comparable size (10,740 ft.— checked by airplane altimeter this summer) in the region. Around the flanks of Ida and Sir Alexander are a number of fine glaciers and extensive snowfields, and here and there on the general uplift smaller peaks rear up to altitudes of 9000 to 9500 feet. There are about 20 of these, ranging from sheer-walled spectacular towers, like the Kitchi Tower, through quartzite fangs like the ‘Sharks Tooth’, to more typical Rockies of the sedimentary, sheer, loose-rock variety. Just north of Ida is the 4500 foot Jarvis Pass, and north of the pass the Rockies flatten out abruptly. There are many patches of glaciation to the north, but almost no dramatic peaks and no elevations much over 8500 feet. To the east of Ida wooded mountains flatten out gradually and disappear. To the west the country is wooded and rough, cut and chopped by a host of streams churning down to the wide, flat Fraser valley.
The 1954 Mt. Ida party consisted of Alice and Fred Dunn, James Newell, and David Bernays. We left the East in late June, celebrated our escape to the wide open spaces by watching the solar eclipse at dawn in Wisconsin and celebrated further by climbing Mt. Athabaska on the Fourth of July. We were scorched by the fireworks that day—several of us were still recovering from sunburn a week later. We had made arrangements with Pacific Western Airlines to fly in to a lake at Jarvis Pass by seaplane from Prince George, B. C. These plans worked out well. We rolled into Prince George from Jasper on the early morning train on July 6th, and at noon on the same day we and our 600 pounds of gear were perched precariously on the dark wooded shore of Jarvis Lake. We had made a delightful one-hour flight of 100 miles due east from Prince George, a short aerial survey of the mountains, and an easy landing on the lake. Hugh Russell and his powerful yellow Beaver would return for us in 23 days, weather permitting. The Beaver taxied off up the lake, rushed past us 50 feet up in the air a few minutes later, then became a speck in the western sky, and we were left to our own devices.
Our main objective was the ascent of Mt. Ida. We also hoped to explore the mountain area around Ida and north of Sir Alexander. Finally, we hoped to climb a few other peaks and perhaps even tackle Sir Alexander. The landing spot on the southwest shore of the lake was only a steep bank covered with toppled and toppling trees, so our first job was the creation of a real base camp several hundred paces back from the lake shore in the woods.
From the first camp we started a blazed trail toward Ida Creek. Three days were spent working out a 3-mile route through the windfalls and heavy timber before we finally burst out onto the gravel flats of the creek. Ida loomed above us, but there were clearly no routes on the northern or eastern sides of the mountain. We continued upstream for about two miles until we located an ideal site for a second base camp—beside a merry waterfall. Because of the water ouzels here this became Ouzel Falls Camp. Another day of relay packing—we had already relayed from the lake to the first gravel flats—established us comfortably at this camp. Then came the first two of our nine days of really poor weather. It rained and rained.
On the 13th we were off early to enjoy a beautiful day—one of only three or four such days during the month—on Mt. St. George (9600 ft.). Our route led up the St. George glacier to a near-hanging glacier on the northeast side of the peak. This we ascended with many twists and turns; one particularly nice vertical step-cutting job by Dave took us by a crucial sérac. We came up to a dip on the northwest ridge, which itself offered some interesting rock pitches, followed by a pleasant snow-corniced summit ridge. We were amazed to discover a cairn on a rocky platform a few paces from the top. At that time we thought that Sir Alexander was the only climbed peak in the area. Later we learned that St. George was climbed in 1929 by members of the Gilmour party from a camp above Kakwa Lake. Their climb must have been up the southwest rock ridge, apparently the only possible route from Kakwa Lake valley.
We were able to study Ida carefully from the St. George side of the valley. We decided to tackle the mountain by establishing a camp beside an ice-choked lake on the southern flank and ascending the southwest buttress from there. This looked as though it might be a formidable climb. Once on top of the buttress, we hoped to follow the southwest ridge to the base of the 800-foot high summit cap. This appeared impregnable on all sides but the southeast, where we could see a transverse break in the cliff bands which appeared to give access to the summit ridge.
On the 15th we established our high Merganser Lake camp after a moderate pack of a few hours from Ouzel Falls. A Hooded Merganser was paddling around in the lake amongst the junior icebergs as we settled down in our tents for the night. Our hope for good weather was realized in the morning. We left camp at 6:00 and to our surprise, reached the top of the buttress in only four hours. Though the climb was steep, the rock was not difficult. We were elated until we looked ahead of us. The southwest ridge appeared easy enough except for one steep traverse which would be necessary to bypass a large cornice, but the cap did not look promising.
When we reached the base of the summit cliffs, however, we discovered that the vertical break was a possible route. The break was a narrow, very steep, blue-ice-filled notch, partly overhung by dripping rocks and about 100 feet high. After a struggle up alternating bands of wet down-sloping slab and deep heavy snow to reach the base of the cleft, we climbed it with a good deal of step chopping. A few more hundreds of feet up small cliff bands and steep snow slopes brought us out on a narrow corniced summit ridge. My wife took over the lead for the last few dramatic feet of the climb, scrambled onto a little crest which we thought was surely the summit, and stopped dumbfounded. We came up to her and discovered that the real summit was 30 feet north and 4 feet higher. But no wonder she had stopped, for the summit was a mound of snow on a spire separated from our knob by a narrow webbing of snow. With everyone belaying, we sent Dave out on the web and he crossed to the summit successfully. We all followed and much cheering ensued. Then back we went and Jim, last across, had a crucial chunk of the web fall away from under him as he stepped to safety. We built a cairn on the knob, peered over the awesome brink, and started down. The return to camp was marked only by a thunderstorm which swept by us while we were on the buttress. Mt. Ida was an interesting and varied climb. We feel pretty sure that the summit cap can only be climbed by the southeast notch route.
The weather disintegrated after Mt. Ida was climbed. On the 18th we climbed a small peak of fine solid quartzite above Merganser Lake—“Erastus Peak.” The following day we separated in the hope that by so-doing we could explore twice as much country in the nine remaining days as we could have done as a group of four. Alice and I were planning to travel across the “Sisters Neve,” climb several of the peaks of the Three Sisters group, and examine the western approaches to the range. Dave and Jim were going to move south toward Sir Alexander to look over the northern approach to that mountain and climb one or more of the nice peaks in that region, including possibly a try at Sir Alexander.
Unfortunately, the rains began about the time we parted. Dave and Jim packed south in the rain and finally set up their tent on the north-side snow slopes of Mt. Kitchi (9352 ft.). Alice and I remained at Merganser Lake. For the next six days Dave and Jim kept to their tent, sitting out a nearly continuous snowfall. Alice and I stayed on at the lake three days, bailing the tent hourly. The snowfall on Mt. Kitchi was matched by rain at the lower elevation of the lake. Giving up all hope of traveling out onto the Sisters Neve, we packed up our things and slogged down to the protection of the trees at Ouzel Falls. Two days later in murky weather—it was still snowing with the others—we climbed weirdly shaped “Arch Mountain,” a peak northeast of St. George, which rises in great cliffs above Kakwa Lake. The ascent was not difficult.
On the 25th we climbed another small flanker of Mt. St. George, “Mt. Dragon,” a pleasant pure quartzite rock-ridge climb. A few minutes after our return to Ouzel Falls that day, Dave and Jim trudged in with arctic tales to tell.
The rains continued. We packed out to Jarvis Lake on the 28th, and the next morning a lucky break in the weather allowed the Beaver to drop down to us from the skies. At 11:00 A.M. the pontoons pulled free of the water. We roared past the northern brow of Mt. Ida in a pelting rainstorm, waggled our wings for a few last-minute photographs, and turned our faces toward the Fraser valley.
Summary of Statistics
Ascents: Mt. Ida, 10,472 ft., first ascent, July 16, 1954; “Erastus Peak,” ca. 8200 ft., first ascent, July 18th; Mt. St. George, ca. 9600 ft., second ascent, July 13th. First ascents of “Arch Mtn.,” ca. 9100 ft., July 24th, and “Mt. Dragon,” ca. 8500 ft., July 25th, by Alice and Fred Dunn.
Exploration: Region around Mt. Ida and northern approaches to Mt. Sir Alexander.
Personnel: Frederick L. Dunn, leader; Alice R. Dunn, David Bernays, James M. Newell.