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The Debt We Owe the Americans, The Alpine Club of Canada Reflects on Its Mentor's Centennial

The Debt We Owe the Americans

The Alpine Club of Canada reflects on its mentor’s centennial

R.W. Sandford Vice President, Publications — The Alpine Club of Canada

Without the influence of Americans, it may have taken a long time for Canadians to develop their own alpine culture. By accident and by design, Americans helped Canada become a world center for mountaineering. The first technical ascents of high mountains in Canada did not occur until the Canadian Pacific Railway granted easier access to Canada’s western mountains in 1885. Though the earliest climbers were from Europe and Britain, it took only a couple of years for the Rockies and the Selkirks to be discovered by American tourists and adventurers. Many of these were mountaineers with experience in the Alps and in the Rocky Mountains further south.

A golden age of Canadian mountaineering followed the tracks west. American tourists would simply get off the train, walk or scramble to the tops of nearby mountains, and name them for their friends. Canadians, in the beginning, were not interested in mountaineering for its own sake. Most Canadian climbers were “inadvertent summiteers,” climbing mountains mostly for such practical purposes as prospecting and surveying. They did not climb for sport. It took the death of an American climber, Philip Stanley Abbot near Lake Louise in 1896, to make Canadians aware of the stupendous mountaineering potential that existed in the West. Three years later, the Canadian Pacific Railway hired professional Swiss mountain guides and posted them at resort properties at Rogers Pass, Lake Louise, and Banff. Over the next 25 years, these guides and their descendents led more than 250 first ascents in the “Canadian Alps,” often with American clients.

Decades of close association with European guides and American climbers helped make Canada the alpine nation that it is today. Through example and direct support, Americans encouraged a uniquely Canadian appreciation of mountain places and experiences. Watching Americans make history in their own land inspired Canadians to become upwardly mobile. Sometimes, as with the creation of the Alpine Club of Canada, Americans simply shamed Canadians into developing our own alpine culture.

A founder of the American Alpine Club, Charles Fay, climbed extensively in Canada in the years following the completion of the CPR through the Rockies. He was the leader of the expedition to Mt. Lefroy on which Philip Stanley Abbot became the first mountaineering fatality in Canada. Fortunately, Fay was not the kind to walk away from disaster or adversity. He made an impassioned defense of mountaineering at the inquiry into Abbot’s death that put an end to the grumbling in political circles that mountaineering ought to be banned in Canada. Fay was also a member of the Anglo-American expedition that made the first ascent of Mt. Lefroy on the anniversary of Abbot’s death, an expedition that opened the door to mountaineering adventure and exploration in the vast alpine regions north and west of Lake Louise.

When Charles Fay helped to bring the American Alpine Club into existence in 1902, he inspired Arthur Oliver Wheeler to try to create a sister organization in Canada. Wheeler tried for years to generate interest in a national mountaineering organization in Canada, but in the end was unsuccessful. It was only after Fay offered that a Canadian chapter of the AAC could be created to suit the needs of America’s northern neighbors that Elizabeth Parker was able to wake Canadians from their apathy so they could realize the importance of mountains to their own identity. This, however, did not mean the end of the American influence on Canadian mountaineering.

When the Alpine Club of Canada was created in March of 1906, it had 117 members, 15 of whom were Americans. At the club’s first General Mountaineering Camp held in the Yoho Valley in the summer of 1906, some 133 climbers graduated into membership of the club. Eight were Americans. Today, the ACC boasts some 6,000 members. Of these some 400 have American addresses. Though he is Canadian, the current president of the ACC presently lives in the U.S.

American influence on the ACC has been profound. The positive nature of this influence can be measured, to a real extent, by the number of honorary memberships that have been bestowed upon Americans. The AAC’s founding president, Charles Fay, was elected an Honorary Member at the ACC’s founding meeting in 1906. Early climber and photographer Walter Wilcox was made an honorary member of the ACC in 1909. Though she was not a noted mountaineer, alpine artist and naturalist Mary Vaux Walcott was made an honorary member in 1914. Albert MacCarthy was a member of a party that made the first ascent of Mt. Robson in 1913. He was made an honorary member of the ACC after making the first ascent of Mt. Logan in 1925. Climbers James Monroe Thorington and Kate Gardiner were made honorary members in 1945. Brad Washburn was similarly honored in 1967, followed by Henry Hall Jr. in 1975. In the long history of the ACC, there are few of any nationality who have done more for climbing or who are more respected in Canada than American William L. Putnam, who was presented honorary membership in 1985.

Perhaps as important as American ACC membership has been the American literary influence on Canadian climbing. Early books by Walter Wilcox drew the attention of the entire world to the alpine glories of Lake Louise. Climbers and adventurers of the caliber of Howard Palmer and Lewis Freeman not only made important ascents in the Rockies and Selkirks, but also published enduring accounts of their adventures that helped establish a mountain literature genre in Canada. James Monroe Thorington became one of Canada’s earliest and most highly regarded alpine scholars.

Nowhere has American involvement in Canadian climbing been more influential than in the writing of mountaineering guidebooks, a tradition that goes back to the first trail guide ever written for the Rockies, in 1897. This tradition comes full circle with popular contemporary guidebooks authored or co-authored by Americans on mountain ranges as accessible as the Alberta Rockies and as remote as the big walls of Baffin Island.

As a centennial gift to the American Alpine Club, the Alpine Club of Canada will be producing a beautifully bound edition of Alfred Ostheimer III’s hitherto unpublished account of an extraordinary expedition he made to Jasper National Park in the summer of 1927. Fittingly, the publication of this joyful account of a summer of summits in the Canadian Rockies was funded jointly—by Canadians and our American friends. On this most important anniversary of the AAC, we hope our gift will become a lasting memento of a century of association and shared appreciation of the glories of Canadian peaks.