THE GLITTERING
MOUNTAINS OF
CANADA


OLD TRAILS OF THE ROCKIES

BY

J. MONROE THORINGTON


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1925


JOHN W. LEA, 1520 N. ROBINSON STREET
PHILADELPHIA, PA.

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Compiled by Giorgio Zanetti - December 2001

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CHAPTER VI

MOUNT SASKATCHEWAN AND MOUNT COLUMBIA

EAST FACE OF MT. SASKATCHEWAN *** S.W. FACE OF MT. SASKATCHEWAN

COLUMBIA GLACIERS *** PEAKS OF THE COLUMBIA ICEFIELDS

    Filling the great angle between Alexander River and North Fork, a thing of towers and battlements, rises Mount Saskatchewan. Formidable in appearance, and long sought by climbers, it had never failed to attract the attention of those who came into the region. A symmetrical monolith on the jagged northeast ridge is well known as the "lighthouse", and serves as a landmark in the valley of the North Saskatchewan.

     We knew the mountain well by this time. From the east, on the slope of Mount Coleman, we had gazed upon its unclimbed heights, wondering at its sheer forbidding face of snow-powdered cliff. The bounding ridges are broken with deep gaps below the summit and bristle with gendarmes. On the icefield we had again seen this sky-cleaving wedge and examined its southwestern face, which, although formidable, offered a more feasible approach. It was always challenging.

     On awakening after our long and weary journey to North Twin, I found the sun high in the heavens. Tommy had the fire going and was putting together a tremendous lunch. From the teepee came intermittent strains of a harmonica, for which only Conrad could be blamed; and you have missed real music if you have not heard his orchestrations! This time, however, it sounded as if he were suffering from sunburned lips. In the direction of Ladd's tent there were no sign of life.

     A day camp put us in good shape again and we were ready for further work. Early on July 12th, we started up the gradually rising slopes behind camp and made our way to the low snow-saddle connecting the head of Castleguard with Terrace Valley. It was just five o'clock; and descending the meadows on the far side, we were soon in the shadow of Mount Saskatchewan, which rose above us in the outline suggestive of the Matterhorn as seen from Zermatt. We approached the southwestern face, above terrace Creek, where a slanting, subsidiary ridge descending, north of the summit, breaks the face into an eastern and western cirque.

     Entering the smaller cirque, which is also the more precipitous, over scree and winter snow, we came close to a "jolly little company of goat" - five old ones, with several kids – who scuttled off across a subsidiary ridge to the east and showed us a route thither. A deep couloir, snow-filled, afforded access to the ridge; but the goat arrived much more gracefully and rapidly than we.

     We were now on the crest between the two cirques, and followed it up to the first cliff belt. Far away through Terrace Valley rose the white, north face of Forbes and the glaciated range from Thompson Pass to Lyell and Alexandra. Snow, mist, and sky; partially hidden in cloud, with sunlight breaking through: the Columbia Icefield revealed itself. We turned for a moment to watch the goat; after attempting to dislodge stones on us in the couloir, they had crossed some higher ledges to the north and were soon out of sight. A big billy remained behind on guard. High on a cliff-edge was poised an enormous boulder; behind this he went and was quite hidden. But every once in a while we could see his bearded face poke out through a crack; he was quite curious about us and we found him very amusing, the entertainment undoubtedly being mutual.

     Through slabby chimneys, where little showers of icy water came down; up bits of broken cliff, traversing eastward, we found cracks which led upward. The first belt, about forty feet high, was surmounted at a point nearly a hundred yards east of the rock crest between the cirque, and we crossed some steep bits of snow on the way thither. Under the second line of cliff, we again traversed eastward before finding a suitable break. On a small buttress we built a direction cairn to guide our return, and as possible service to future climbers. A short distance farther east, we reached 10,000 feet at a point below and north of the summit. Then followed long slopes of wet, down-tilted scree and shale, leading to steep pitches of snow by which the arête was eventually gained. It was hard work, but the cliffs were well covered, and only once or twice did small superficial avalanches go down behind us.

     In the Italian valleys of Monte Rosa, there is an ancient legend of a "Lost Valley"; and, just as the peasants of days gone by may have looked over to the unknown meadows of Switzerland, so we gazed from the precipitous north face of our mountain. It was 2.40 P. M., and it became apparent that the point we had aimed for was not the highest, but that the true summit lay several hundred yards farther east. To reach it, due care and attention were given to the cornices overhanging on the north; but with some step-cutting and a final bit of rock scrambling we reached the top.

     North Fork and Alexandra River meet in a broad sunlit angle; with care we looked down the wall to the lighthouse pinnacle, now almost under us. We built small cairns, leaving a record of our North Twin ascent as well - there had been no visible rock outcrop on its summit – and started down again at just half past three.

     On descending, we had scarcely gotten off the steep snow, when a thunder-shower overtook us. We crouched in a corner until its violence had passed, and then with speed were down the rocks and glissading in showers of spray to the meadows below. We stopped and finished what remained of our provisions, and strolled homeward over the snow pass. All the western peaks were aglow with the radiance of sunset; we were refreshed, carefree, and happy. Without hurrying we arrived in camp at nine o'clock, satisfied beyond expression that we had been the first to ascend a mountain whose impressive and imposing architecture had for years excited our admiration.

     Mount Columbia, the despotic, white monarch of the icefield, on occasion - with an oft-worn crown of storm and mist removed – assumes an aspect more benign, although always serene and majestic. From the north, in the gorge of the Athabaska, its elevation is best appreciated. It was from the depths of this valley that the German explorer, Habel, in 1901, saw it and named it "Gamma." He was misled by its appearance as a rock-pyramid, and failed to identify it as the rising, soaring snow-peak which Collie had described.

     Even from the level of the icefield, at 10,000 feet, Columbia merits its proud position as the second elevation of the chain. It had seemed so far above our heads when we were on Castleguard, we wondered if we should ever reach it. But on July 14th we started out. The climbing party derived added pleasures from the presence of Simpson; Jim had been with Sir James Outram and the guide Christian Kaufmann, but had not climbed, at the time of the first ascent, in 1902, just twenty-one years before. Reaching Castleguard shoulder (3.59-5.30 A.M.), we found the snow in fine condition and rapidly traversed the tracks made some days previously.      Morning sun was gilding the ranges; the wind blew forcefully, and we turned toward Columbia, gleaming in the ice-blue of clear weather distance. Insects innumerable are carried up onto the ice by air currents from the British Columbia side; and, at 10,000 feet and above, we collected moths and beetles of many varieties. One might have some difficulty in obtaining such number at lower elevations; many were still alive, although torpid from the cold. They form the food supply for snow-finches which one sees wheeling and darting about.

     Although favourable conditions of snow made travel more easy than on our tour de force to the Twins, we again had to cross many gaps and deceptive, crevassed hollows. Far out on the icefield, shortly after ten o'clock, we had lunch on the flat snow above the head of Columbia Glacier. The snow cirque of the glacier is encroaching on the head of the basin dropping to Bush Valley; a deep, broken snow pass is formed, which, in years to come, may isolate Columbia from the icefield. In similar fashion, The Twins are being cut away from the field through the "plucking" of the Columbia Glacier basin against the glaciers descending to Habel Creek.

     Sun-glare, reflecting from the high snowfields, may produce severe burns equal to any resulting at the sea-shore, and we were glad enough to protect our eyes with goggles and cover up blistered faces. Thirst is unquenched by the eating of snow; there is practically no water on the ice field, and, on this climb, we had learned the lesson to carry a small amount with us.


     We were soon at the bergshrund, a narrow chasm easily crossed, and on steeper snow beyond. At 11,000 feet we halted by a rock outcrop where water trickled; we were in the centre of and more than half way up the great eastern snow-face, practically treading the Continental Divide. We wondered what the other outfitters would have said if they could have seen Jim with an ice-axe, roped in a climbing party? The pitch steepened; steps were occasionally cut; a stinging, relentless wind tore up the snow-crust until the air seemed full of whirling white shingles. We toiled upward for some time in the gale, in some danger of having snow-glasses, broken by bits of flying ice. Traversing slightly to the north, we were more sheltered, and, cutting through a narrow bit of cornice, soon were shaking hands on the summit. It was half-past one.

     Words fail, and time was insufficient to grasp the complex geography of all that we overlooked. The taking of a dozen photographs occupied many minutes and left one worn out and wondering where the time had flown. High wind made it difficult to stand up-right; the rope whipped out in the icy gale, and fingers became numb. Our thermometer registered 23º (F).

     The immediate foreground was the immense icefield, stretching in all directions, bounded by splendid peaks, which, from our more lofty position, seemed far below. We were above the sources of four mighty rivers: Saskatchewan, Athabaska, Columbia, and, not far away, the Fraser. To gaze down on the Columbia Glacier and the icefalls of The Twins pouring to the Athabaska gorge was as if one peered into the Bottomless Pit. Contrasting with the misty, low-toned colouring of distant river-flats and meadows – meadows whit pale, silvery lakes – was the vivid green of foreground crevasse and chasm. Here was a panorama , cloudless, extending from peaks of Jasper Park to summits of the Bow Valley; from the northern Selkirks, across the Loop, and groups bordering the valleys of Wood and Canoe Rivers, to eastern, nameless ranges on the Brazeau and Cline.

    Above our nearest neighbour, King Edward, Mount Clemenceau loomed in the Wood River area; across the haze of the Athabaska Valley, beyond South Twin, the mountains toward Yellowhead lifted in splendour undiminished by distance. In the direction of Maligne Lake, jagged peaks, of lesser elevation, were dazzling in the gleam of new snow. Mount Alberta and Mount Bryce, respectively north and south of us, were things of primitive beauty, distracting attention from all the rest: Bryce, rising snowy heights one above the other, with avalanches falling from its savage north face; Alberta, cliff-ringed and austere, its head aloof and wreathed in clouds. Lyell, Forbes, Freshfield, and a host of others towered gloriously.

     The wild gorge of Bush River can be traced nearly to the Columbia; the Saskatchewan, across the ice-fields, flows eastward between Mount Wilson and Murchinson to find exit to the plains; into the north, one follows the course of the Athabaska. One retains of it all, chiefly a memory of river valleys-streams sparkling in the sunlight winding on their long journeys to distance oceans.

     Forty minutes we spent on the summit, and fifteen more, out of the wind, on a level spot below the cornice. The top of Gamma! Let no one think that Columbia is a mere snow-hump rising from a névé; it is a distinct peak in every sense, looking its height and quite worthy of its place. Simpson intends to climb it every twenty-one years from now on!     

Softened snow permitted a rapid though cautious descent, a final long glissade carrying us to the icefield. Return to the Castleguard shoulder was made in good time, although we delayed in watching the sunset. The icefield was an empire of silent purity, brilliant in golden sheen; a rosy haze filtering down through the Selkirks, lifting them to unearthly heights.

     In a little while we were at the campfire; just six hours from the summit. We had supper by the crackling logs, with the cross-lights from the fire and western glow. The shadows lengthened, blue-black at the forest edge, and Conrad told us stories until there was no light remaining save that of the glowing embers, and the stars that peeped out above our heads.

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