Canadian Alpine Journal/Volume 1/Number 1/The Canadian Rockies, a field for an Alpine Club


By Arthur O. Wheeler

The first question is: What constitutes a field for an Alpine Club? The second question, and one of primary importance, is: Do the Rocky mountains of Canada fill the required conditions?

With reference to the former, it is necessary to trace the origin of the word "Alpine." We have the Latin word alpes, meaning a high mountain, and said to be of Celtic origin. The Irish ailp and its Gaelic equivalent alp have the same meaning as the Latin. The word alp is identical with the word alb, which would seem to be synonymous with the word albus, meaning white. We have, therefore, by a process of deduction, a meaning for the word alps, of high white mountains, or mountains clad with snow, holding stored in their recesses more or less extensive bodies of the same material.

An Alpine Club is one that has for its field of operations a tract of country fulfilling the above conditions. And herein lies the difference between an Alpine and a Mountain club: while any mountain tract will supply the requirements of the latter, those of the former can only be satisfied by a region where there is a permanent snow line, above which snow and ice may be found throughout the year.

Do the Rocky mountains of Canada fulfil the required conditions? To ascertain this fact, it is only

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Photo, Byron Harmon


necessary to apply to the Department of the Interior at Ottawa for a topographical map of the Rocky or Selkirk mountain ranges, or to look up the maps and text in "Baedeker's Guide to Canada."

Better still, pay a visit to the region. It will not be necessary to leave the train to obtain a view of vast snow-fields and glaciers. If you can spend a few days by the way, a trip to some of the alpine, glacier-hung valleys will soon convince you; for, in these deep recesses, high above timber line, tumbling ice-falls break in every direction through openings in the rock-battlements and sweep in broken cascades of crystal ice to the morainal flats below. Following the path of the mountain goat from crag to crag, until sky-line is reached, the eye wanders over fields of purest white, rolling gently in billowy mounds, broken only by islands and reefs of jagged rock. Many of these snow-fields are of considerable extent, varying from ten square miles in the Illecillewaet, twenty in the Wapta, and thirty in the Brazeau, to between one hundred and two hundred square miles in the Great Columbian snow-field.

In a new and as yet inadequately mapped country, such as Canada, it is impossible to do more than approximate the area that may be described as "alpine." Roughly speaking, it can be placed at 250,000 square miles. This area is embodied by the Cordilleran or Rocky Mountain chain, embracing four principal ranges of mountains and numerous sub-ranges and groups. Enumerating from east to west, we have the Rocky Mountain or Main range, the Selkirk range, the so-called Gold range, and finally the Coast range, lying along the Pacific ocean.

Each of these ranges has its own distinct characteristics. In the Main range, the rocks, generally speaking, belong to the Paleozoic period, and consist for the most part of grey and blue limestones, sandstones, quartzites, slates, shales and conglomerates. They have been carved, by the processes of erosion and weathering, into many and varied styles of architecture, rising in such a profusion of fantastic towers, minarets, spires and obelisks as to delight the eye of the most exacting seeker after the picturesque. In these limestone rocks, of the Silurian and Devonian series, are seen fossil sea-worms and shells, and other relics of the low order of life in a by-gone age. They are found even at the very summits of some of the peaks, at an altitude of 10,000 feet above the level of the sea—their former home. At the other places, beds containing fossilized species, closely allied to the trilobite, are to be found. One of these, on the slopes of Mt. Stephen, at an altitude of 7000 feet, has become famous.

In this range, the valleys are wide, owing to the susceptibility of the rock formations to the erosive power of ice and water. Their sides, clad with bronze-green pine and dark blue spruce, sweep upward to open parklands, dotted with golden larch; then, to sunny alplands, where the ground is soft with a carpet of pink heath and white heather and where other alpine flowers of rare beauty and brilliance grow. Hidden in the recesses of these forests and high aloft, surrounded by snow, ice and rock-falls, are lakes of magic hues, like quaint jewels in rare old settings; turquoise green, in Hector, Bow and Emerald lakes; turquoise blue in Peyto lake; transparent emerald in Yoho lake; bright cerulean blue in McArthur and Turquoise lakes; royal blue in Lake Louise; even brilliant yellow may occasionally be seen. It is a land of leaping waterfalls and rushing torrents, of fierce sunlight and black shadow, of rosy alpen-glow and purple twilight, a land of enchantment, where extremes meet; for it is but a step from grim, gaunt and cruel rocks to sunny alps, brilliant with the bloom of rare, exquisite flowers, and teeming with animal life, quaint and uncommon as the surroundings.

The Selkirk range lies west of the Main range. It is practically a vast island of rock, ice and snow, insulated by giant loops of the Columbia and Kootenay rivers. The material composing it is of a much older and harder formation, consisting chiefly of archæan rocks: grey, pink, green and white quartzites, glittering mica-schists, argillites and rocks of gneissic character. The valleys are narrow, and the mountain masses rise swiftly up, their sides scored and seamed by giant scaurs. The fantastically carved limestone shapes of the Main range are lacking.

The two most striking features of the range are its impenetrably luxuriant forests, filling up the valleys, and the immense accumulations of snow and ice stored in its mountain recesses, high up among the clouds. The former contribute much to the seeker after the picturesque in Nature, and the latter are a source of joy to the true alpine enthusiast. Both effects are from the same cause, viz.: the large amount of precipitation deposited in the form of snow, accumulating from year's end to year's end until the entire cap of the range appears in perspective as an endless succession of snow-fields, with precipitous black faces of rock rising at intervals from their midst, where the sheer is too steep for snow to lie. Nor is this to be wondered at when it is considered that the average snowfall at the summit of the range is thirty-six feet, with an additional rainfall of thirteen inches; making in all an annual precipitation of fifty-seven inches of water. In comparison may be mentioned the annual average snowfall of about fifteen feet, and annual precipitation of about thirty inches, at the summit of the Main range.

The excessive precipitation in the Selkirks is due to the fact that it is the first high range of mountains to intercept the moisture-laden clouds borne eastward from the Pacific ocean by prevailing winds. The decreasing pressure, as this current is deflected upward over the range, causes a rapid cooling of the air and a consequent deposit of the large bodies of snow found in these mountain fastnesses.

Where, in the Main range, the slopes are clad with pine, spruce and larch, according to altitude, in the Selkirk range, Douglas fir, hemlocks, cedar, giant spruce and balsam take their place. These forests of green, so deep in color as to appear almost black, rise grandly to the snows, and often amidst the trees may be seen crystal cascades of ice, tumbling in a wild confusion of séracs down rocky beds.

The Selkirk range is remarkable for the number, purity and picturesque formation of its glaciers. In size they may not compare with the ice-rivers of other ranges, but what they lack in size, they more than make up in their wonderfully crevassed surfaces and in the grotesque séracs that are formed where they break over cliffs and rock ledges. Specially beautiful are the hanging and confluent glaciers, high up on the mountain sides, dropping tons of crystal ice daily to the trunk streams below. Splendid examples of these may be seen above the Battle glaciers at the head of Battle creek, and in the hanging valley of Cougar creek; also, in the Main range the narrow gorge, known as "The Death Trap," leading between Mts. Victoria and Lefroy to Abbott pass. During the warm summer days the roar of ice falling from these upper glaciers is incessant.

The Gold range, situated westward beyond the Columbia river on its southern course, resembles the Selkirk range, but here the great ice-plough of a by-gone age has done more serious work, and the sharp peaks and jagged edges of the Selkirks give place, as a rule, to rounded domes and elevated plateaus, covered most of the year by snow. The rock formation is more purely achæan and consists chiefly of grey gneisses, varying from massive to schistose, and highly micaceous.

The Coast range, reaching into the far northland, is cut and intersected by many inlets from the sea. These inlets are often narrow and enclosed by precipitous sides of rock, over which cascades fall hundreds of feet to tide-water below. The steeps are clad with forests of tropical luxuriance, through which it is only with great difficulty a passage can be forced, and giant trees of fir, cedar and balsam grow nearly to the summits of the mountains. As you proceed northward, the timber-covering becomes more scant until, at length, it is found only at the bottom of the lower valleys.

There can be little doubt that the characteristics outlined above, furnish not only a worthy field for an alpine organization, but a field of immense magnitude, and one that will continually offer something new for many years to come. It is true we have not the great height of other mountain systems of the world. Mt. Blanc, the giant of the European Alps, is 15,780 feet above the sea; Mt. Tacoma, in Washington, is 14,526 feet; Popocatapetl and Orizaba, in Mexico, are 17,500 and 18,300 feet; Mt. McKinley, in Alaska, is said, by a recent explorer, to be 20,300 feet, and the Himalayas reach the enormous altitude of 29,000 feet. Against all this, except in a few isolated cases—Mt. Logan, 19,500; Mt. Hubbard, 16,400; Mt. Vancouver, 15,600; Mt. Augusta, 14,900, and others in the Yukon Territory, with Mt. Robson, 13,700, and Mt. Columbia, 12,700, in British Columbia,—we can only boast a general altitude of 10,000 to 12,000 feet; but, for primeval forests, beauty of glaciers and labyrinthine organization, the Rockies of Canada cannot be surpassed.

Up to the completion of the Canadian Pacific railway in 1885, there was no thought of mountaineering in Canada. Prior to that date, by one year, attention was first called to the claims of the Canadian Rockies as a field for alpine work, and the great attractions they offered to mountaineers, by the Honorary President and Patron of our Club, Sir Sandford Fleming, K.C.M.G., who had the year before made a journey on foot through this rock-bound wilderness, along the route it was proposed to lay the rails. In his book, "England and Canada, a Summer Tour between Old and New Westminster," he frequently refers to the massive, snow-clad peaks and crystal ice-falls of the Rocky mountains as affording a suitable field for mountaineers.

In 1888 the Royal Geographical Society, represented by the Rev. William Spotswood Green[1] and the Rev. Henry Swanzy, made explorations and rough topographical surveys in the vicinity of Glacier, near the summit of the Selkirk range. They then made the first ascent of Mt. Bonney (10,200 feet), at that time an arduous two-day climb from Glacier station. As a result, Mr. Green's able and instructive book, "Among the Selkirk Glaciers," appeared in 1890, giving a delightful and humorous description of the range and of his climbs and surveys.

It was in 1890 that the region was visited by representatives of the English and Swiss Alpine Clubs: H. W. Topham of the former, and Emil Huber and Carl Sulzer of the latter. Both parties realized that, at that early date, the most accessible alpine material lay in the Selkirks; so they made their headquarters at Glacier and, joining forces, accomplished many splendid climbs together.

This year also, Professor Charles E. Fay[1] of the Appalachian Mountain Club of Boston, visited the Selkirks and was so impressed with what he saw that he not only repeated his visit but brought many others
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with him, the result being: first, the formation of an Alpine section of the Appalachian Club, and eventually the organization of the American Alpine Club, of which Professor Fay is now President. From 1890 on, "Appalachia," the organ of that Club, set forth the conquests made by its members in the Canadian mountains, and furnishes much instructive and interesting reading.

An account and map of the expeditions of Professor A. P. Coleman[2] and Professor L. B. Stewart of Toronto University, accompanied by L. Q. Coleman,[2] to the headwaters of the Athabaska river, by new and unmapped routes, will be found in "The Geographical Journal" of January, 1895. These trips, made in 1892 and 1893, resulted in the discovery of Fortress lake, lying directly upon the Continental watershed, and in the dethroning of Mt. Brown, on the west side of the Athabaska pass. The mountain was climbed by Professor Stewart and L. Q. Coleman and the altitude fixed, by barometric readings, at 9050 feet instead of over 16,000 feet, as it is, even at the present date, shown in standard geographies and on published maps. At this time, eight peaks over 9000 feet above sea level were climbed, and three over 10,000 feet. A later expedition in 1903 resulted in the mapping of the Brazeau snow-field, never before visited by white men.

In 1894, W. D. Wilcox, S. H. S. Allen and two other young college men visited Lake Louise, of which the striking beauty had already been realized to such an extent that the Railway Company had built a small chalet on its borders to accommodate a few visitors. On this occasion, they discovered Paradise valley, where the Club will camp during the present summer. The explorations then made and, the following year, to the headwaters of the Bow river, resulted in Mr. Wilcox's artistic and beautifully illustrated book, "Camping in the Canadian Rockies," which has since been amplified and brought up to date as the author pushed his investigations farther afield, both north and south, accompanied in the latter direction by Henry G. Bryant of the Philadelphia Geographical Society.

The late Jean Habel of Berlin, a noted explorer and enthusiastic mountaineer, explored the Yoho valley in 1897, and it was due to his representations that it first attained notoriety. Again, in 1901, he travelled to the headwaters of the Athabaska river, visited Fortress lake, and gazed upon the mighty Mt. Columbia, which he designated in his records as "Gamma."

Subsequently, we have records of explorations and first climbs, in 1897, 1898, 1900 and 1902, by Dr. J. Norman Collie,[1] Hugh E. M. Stutfield, G. P. Baker and Hermann Woolley in the mountaineer's paradise on the north side of the Blaeberry river, along whose banks lay the old Howse pass route of early furtrading days. These have been embodied in a splendid book: "Climbs and Explorations in the Canadian Rockies," written jointly by Mr. Stutfield and Dr. Collie. Accompanying the book is the only existing detail map of the region.

In 1901, and following years, came Mr. Edward Whymper[1] with four Swiss guides. The same year, the Rev. James Outram captured Mt. Assiniboine, and, in 1902, he made his big killing in the north country, first explored by Collie, Stutfield, Woolley, and Baker. Mts. Columbia, Bryce, Lyall, Alexandra and many others succumbed to his attacks, a truly wonderful mountaineering record for one summer. Mr. Outram has set forth his achievements in a well-written and charmingly descriptive book, entitled, "In the Heart of the Canadian Rockies."

Each year two or three travellers penetrate into the wilderness of snow-clad peaks and rushing glacier-torrents, described in the works named, and some publish accounts of their impressions, but they follow only the beaten paths of the pioneers and see the sights they have seen.

Minor explorations have been made of valleys and passes opening from the main routes along the Bow and Saskatchewan headwaters by members of the Appalachian Mountain Club, among whom may be named: C. S. Thompson, G. M. Weed, Rev. H. P. Nichols, C. L. Noyes, and H. C. Parker;[3] also, at the sources of the Beaverfoot river by J. H. Scattergood. Accounts of these investigations will be found in the various numbers of Appalachia appearing since 1890. There are but two deviations from the beaten line of travel that have given us mapped results: Collie and Stutfield's exploration of the Bush river and vicinity, on the western side of the Main range, and Wilcox and Bryant's expedition to the headwaters of the Kananaskis river.

Notwithstanding the large amount of information contained in the books referred to, our absolute knowledge of Alpine Canada is confined to a strip of little more than ten miles on either side of the Canadian Pacific railway, possibly some five or six thousand square miles, and what may be seen by travelling the paths cut by Collie, Stutfield, Baker, Wilcox and a few others. The books published all cover, practically, the same ground, with the exception of the trips up the Bush river and to the Kananaskis headwaters. The region lying between the Columbia river on the west, the Blaeberry on the south, and the Saskatchewan on the east, is unknown territory except to the pioneers who have published its fame. The only map we have of it is the one accompanying Dr. Collie's book, and that is admittedly a "sketch map." This field alone, embracing from 20,000 to 25,000 square miles, the finest alpine country of the entire Continent, is sufficient to supply an alpine club with work, both scientific and athletic, for many years to come. In the Selkirks, north of Mt. Rogers and south of Mt. Purity, lie unknown tracts, with peaks, towers, pyramids and pinnacles, rising from wide snow-fields, that are unknown, unnamed, and unmapped, and have only been seen from Selkirk summits near the railway and from the more distant Rockies.

The Dominion Government is steadily pushing its topographical surveys into the unknown terrtiory, but these surveys are slow and costly and some adequate return must be in sight before they can be undertaken.

The books, etc., published by the authors named have attracted a great many people to the region, and, to meet the demand, the Canadian Pacific Railway Company have erected a number of hotels at beauty-spots along the line, which have been enlarged and modernized, until now the acme of luxury may be found in the heart of these wilds, where the many forces of Nature that contribute so largely to a civilized world are seen at work.

A list of the publishers of the accounts of the expeditions named above will be sent on application to the writer. It is strongly recommended that each members of the Club study these writings and thus obtain such elementary knowledge of our alpine tracts as at present exists, with a view to increasing that knowledge by making more extended explorations into the partly known districts, and organizing methods for reaching the parts that are quite unknown.
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  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Honorary Member of the Alpine Club of Canada.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Active Member of the Alpine Club of Canada.
  3. Life member of the Alpine Club of Canada.

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This work is in the public domain in Canada because it originates from Canada and its term of copyright has expired.

According to Canadian copyright law, all private copyrights expire fifty years after the year marking the death of the author. Government works are held under Crown copyright which expires fifty years after publication.