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Camping in the Canadian Rockies
Chapter V

Castle Crags—Early Morning on the Mountain Side— View from the Summit—Ascent of the Aiguille—An Avalanche of Rocks—A Glorious Glissade—St. Piran—Its Alpine Flowers and Butterflies—Expedition to an Unexplored Valley—A Thirsty Walk through the Forest—Discovery of a Mountain Torrent—A Lake in the Forest—A Mountain Amphitheatre — The Saddle—Impressive View of Mt. Temple—Summit of Great Mountain—An Ascent in Vain—A Sudden Storm in the High Mountains —Phenomenal Fall of Temperature—Grand Cloud Effects.

WHILE poor F. was recovering from his injuries, and before the two other men had arrived, H. and I carried on the work of surveying the lake, and made several interesting excursions on the adjacent mountain sides.

One fine cool morning, we went up the valley about half a mile beyond the end of the lake, and commenced an ascent of the sharp-crested ridge on the east side of the valley. This ridge forms a connection between the massive mountain on the left of the lake, known as Great Mountain, and a very high summit, crowned with a fine glacier, and named by some one Hazel Peak, which lies about two miles due south of Lake Louise. This connecting ridge we called Castle Crags, a name readily suggested by the irregular forms and outlines of the sharp needles and fingers, pointing heavenward, which adorned its highest crest, and seemed to represent the battlements and embrasures of some great castle. Several sharp columns of stone, with vertical sides, and narrow, graceful forms, rose up from this great parapet built by nature. Resembling feudal towers or donjons, they seemed by their great altitude to pierce the blue vault of heaven, and to dwarf by their proximity the snowy crest of Hazel Peak, which, in reality, is several thousand feet higher.

To ascend this ridge, and, if possible, gain the summit of one of these needles, from which we hoped to obtain a fine idea of the valley to the east, was the purpose of our excursion. The ascent proved easy almost from the start. On leaving the stream, which we crossed by means of some great trees, long since overcome by age or storm, and now serving as convenient bridges at frequent intervals, we commenced to ascend a long, even slope of limestone boulders, stable in position, and affording easy walking. The air was fresh and cool, for the morning sun was just rising over the crest of Castle, Crags, while the rays of light seemed to skip from boulder to boulder, and, gently touching the higher points, left the others in shade. There were no bushes or tangled underbrush to impede our way, and so we had abundant opportunity to enjoy the beautiful flowers which cropped out in little patches among the yellow, gray, and cream-colored limestones. This was a mountain climb that proved thoroughly enjoyable, for all the conditions of atmosphere, of weather, and easy ascent were in our favor. There is a charm about the early morning hours among the high mountains. The bracing coolness of the air, as yet still and calm after the chill and quiet of night, the gradually rising sun and increasing light, the unusual freshness of the flowers and green vegetation, in their sparkling bath of dew, and the quiet calls of birds,—all seemed to herald the birth of a new day, far richer in promise than any heretofore. The afternoon, with its mellow light and declining sun, is like the calm, cool days of October, with its dusty foliage and sear leaves, brilliant in autumnal colors, but ever suggesting the approach of bleak winter, and pointing back to the glories of the past. The morning points forward with a different meaning, and hopefully announces the activity of another day, even as spring is the threshold and the promise of summer time.

As we advanced, and gradually increased our altitude, the plants and flowers changed in variety, character, and size, till at length we left all vegetation behind, and reached the bottom of a long, gentle slope of snow. The sun had not, as yet, touched the snow, and it was hard and granular in the frosty air. The first snow on a mountain climb is always pleasant to a mountaineer. To him, as, indeed, to any one, the summer snow-bank has no suggestion of winter, with its desolate landscapes and cold blasts, but rather of some delightful experiences in the mountains during vacation. These lingering relics of winter have little power to chill the air, which is often balmy and laden with the fragrance of flowers, in the immediate vicinity of large snow areas. The trickling rivulet, formed from the wasting snows of the. mountain side, is often the only place where, for hours at a time, the thirsty climber may find a cold and delicious draught. Instead of destroying the flowers by their chilly influence, these banks of snow often send down a gentle and constant supply of water, which spreads out over grassy slopes below, and nourishes a little garden of Alpine flowers, where all else is dry and barren.

Arrived at the top of the long snow-slope, we found ourselves already nearly 3000 feet above the valley and not far below the crest of the ridge. A rough scramble now ensued over loose limestone blocks, where we found the sharp edges, and harsh surfaces of these stones, very hard on our shoes and hands. Upon reaching the crest, we beheld one of those fearfully grand and thrilling views which this portion of the Rocky Mountains often affords. The most conspicuous object in the whole view was the glacier, which descends from the very summit of Hazel Peak, at an altitude of more than 10,000 feet, and sweeps down in a nearly straight channel to the north, and in the course of but little more than a mile descends 4000 feet. A gloomy, narrow valley hems in its lower half, and on the side where we were, the precipice rose, in nearly perpendicular sides from the ice, far heavenward to where we stood. We launched a few large stones over the verge of the beetling precipice, and watched them descend in a few great leaps into the awful abyss, where they were broken into a thousand fragments on projecting ledges, or else, striking the glacier, continued their course till the eye could no longer follow them.

We were standing just at the base of one of the aiguilles which, from the valley, seem like sharp points of rock, but, now that we were near, proved to be about sixty feet high. This needle appeared to be precipitous and inaccessible on our first examination. ' But . we discovered a narrow crevice or gully on the west side which apparently offered a safe method of ascent. I was soon near the top of the needle, but at the most difficult part, where only one small crack in the rock offered a good hand-hold, I was warned not to touch one side where the cliff seemed parted, and filled with loose material. Making a reconnaissance, I found the back of this same crag likewise separated a little from the solid rock, and the crevice partially disguised by loose stones and dirt, which had settled in and filled the hollow. This crag was about ten feet high and six or seven feet square, and though it seemed impossible to disturb so great a mass, I felt inclined to take the safer course and leave it entirely alone, so I scrambled up by a more difficult route.

Arrived on the top of the needle, I told H., who had remained below, to get under shelter while I should put this crag to the test. He accordingly found a projecting ledge of rock a little to one side, while I sat down and got a good brace and started to push with my feet against the top of the crag. A slight effort proved sufficient, and with a dull grating sound the great mass, which must have weighed about twenty-five tons, toppled slowly over on its base, and then fell with a fearful crash against the sides of the cliff, and commenced to roll down the mountain side like a veritable avalanche. Through the cloud of dust and flying stones I could faintly discern the features of my friend below, apparently much interested in what was going on. It was well that I had not trusted to this treacherous stone.

After I had pushed down most of the loose stones, H. came up and joined me on the summit of the aiguille. This needle had a blunt point indeed, for it proved to be a flat table about fifty feet long and ten feet wide. We were 8,700 feet above sea-level, and the wind was raw and chilly as it swept up from the valley and over this ridge. The sun had but little power to temper the air, and we soon started on our descent. In about five minutes we reached the top of the long snow-slope, where we enjoyed a glorious glissade and rapidly descended more than a thousand feet. The best manner of glissading is to stand straight up and slide on the feet, having one leg straight and the other slightly bent at the knee. Trailing the ice-axe behind as a precaution against too great speed, or to check the motion in case of a fall, the mountaineer can thus, in a few minutes, rapidly coast down long slopes which may have required hours of toil to ascend. Nothing in the experience of climbers is more exhilarating than a good glissade down a long snow-slope. The rush of air, the flying snow, and the necessity for constant attention to balance—all give a sensation of pleasure, combined with a spice of danger, without which latter almost all our sports and pastimes are apt to be tame. Do not many of our best sports, such as polo, horseback riding, foot-ball, yachting, and canoe sailing, gain some of their zest from a constant possibility of danger?

A few minutes of rapid descent down the limestone slope led us to a fine, small spring, which dashed in a score of small streamlets over some rocky ledges covered with moss and ferns. Here we sat down in the cool shade of the cliffs and ate our lunch. The air was now warm and still, because we were not far above the valley, and here, instead of seeking the warmth of the sun as we had done on the cold mountain summit, a brief three-quarters of an hour before, we now enjoyed the shade afforded by the rocks and forest near us. We reached the chalet in time for a second lunch, and, as in our mountain exercise we never found any meal superfluous, we were ready to present ourselves at the table at once.

On the 28th of July, W. arrived at the chalet, and, as A. had likewise appeared a few days previously, our party of five was now complete.

One of the first points which we decided to occupy in our surveying work was a high peak above Lake Agnes, called Saint Piran. This mountain is very easy to ascend and on several occasions we found ourselves on the summit for one purpose or another. The summit is far above tree line and, indeed, almost reaches the upper limit of any kind of plant growth. The rounded top is crowned with a great cairn, about ten feet high, which has been used as a surveying point some time in the past.

During the midsummer months this mountain summit is sparingly covered with bright flowers, all of an Alpine nature, dwarfed in size and with blossoms enormously out of proportion to the stems and leaves. -There are several species of composites which rest their heads of yellow flowers almost on the ground, and a species of dwarf golden-rod about three inches high, with only two or three small heads on the summit of the stem ; but the most conspicuous is a kind of moss pink, which is in reality a mountain variety of phlox. This plant grows in spreading mats upon the ground, with small, rigid, awl shaped leaves gathered in tufts along the stem, while here and there are small bright blossoms of a pink color. Mr. Fletcher, who has spent some time in this region investigating the flowers and insects, once found a plant of the pink family on this mountain, which proved by its little joints to be more than one hundred years old.

One day I came up here alone, and on reaching the summit was surprised to find Mr. Bean, an entomologist, busily at work collecting butterflies. Mr. Bean has lived at Laggan for a number of years, and has made a most valuable collection of the insects, especially the butterflies and beetles, of all this region. Remarkably enough, it is on just such spots as this lofty mountain summit, 8600 feet above tide, that the rarest and most beautiful butterflies assemble in great numbers, especially on bright, sunny days. Here they are invited by the gaudy Alpine flowers, which have devoted all their plant energy to large blossoms-and brilliant colors, so as to attract the various insects to them.

I was much interested in Mr. Bean’s work, as he is the first pioneer in this field and has made many valuable discoveries. He showed me one butterfly of small size and quite dark coloring, almost black, which he said was a rare species, first discovered in polar regions by the Ross expedition, and never seen since till it was observed flitting about on this high peak, where arctic conditions prevail in midsummer. It is wonderful how the various species vary in color, form, and habit; some of the butterflies are very wild and shy, never allowing a near approach by the would-be collector; others are comparatively tame; and while some fly slowly and in a straight course, other species dart along most rapidly, constantly changing direction in sharp turns, and completely baffle all attempts at pursuit.

From the summit of this mountain we discovered a small lake in the valley to the west, and, as no one at the chalet had apparently ever visited the lake, or even known of its existence, we decided to make an excursion to this new region. Accordingly, a few days later, three of us started by the trail toward Lake Agnes, and after reaching a point about 600 feet above Lake Louise, we turned to the right and endeavored to make a traverse around the mountain till we should gain the entrance to the other valley. Our plan was not very good and the results were worse. For about two miles, the walking was along horizontal ledges of hard quartzite rock carpeted with grass and heaths, and occasionally made very difficult by the short dwarf spruces and larches which, with their tough elastic branches, impeded our progress very much. The day was unusually warm, and we were glad to reach at length a small patch of snow, where we quenched our thirst by sprinkling the snow on large flat stones, the heat of which melted enough to give us a small amount of muddy water. The roughness of the mountain and the nature of the cliffs now compelled us to descend near a thousand feet, and thus lose all the benefit of our first ascent. We were constantly advancing westward, hoping to come at length upon some stream that must descend from the valley of the little lake. Every valley in these mountains must have some stream or rivulet to drain away the water resulting from the melting snows of winter and the rains of summer, and we were certain that, if we continued far enough, we would finally discover such a stream. After our descent we proceeded through a fine forest, densely luxuriant, and in some places much blocked by prostrate trees and giant trunks, mossy and half decayed. The air seemed unusually dry, and our thirst, which had been only in part appeased by our draught at the snow-bank, now returned in greater severity than ever.

Suddenly we heard a distant sound of water, which, as we approached, grew still louder, till it burst into the full, loud roar of a beautiful mountain stream. The water was clear as crystal and icy cold, while nothing could exceed the graceful beauty of the many leaps and falls of the stream as it dashed over its rocky bed. Here we took lunch in a shady nook, seated on some rocky ledges at the edge of the water, surrounded on all sides by deep cool forests. How wild this little spot was! Though the railroad was less than two miles distant, probably no white man had ever seen this pleasant retreat where we were resting.

Had our excursion ended here, we should have been repaid for all the toil, heat, and thirst we had endured, by this single experience.


Nor was our pleasure a cool retreat in the forest over, for the stream, we knew, would prove a certain guide to the little lake, and, with the anticipation of soon reaching some enchanting bit of scenery when we should arrive at this sheet of water, we pursued our way along the series of falls and cascades by which our new-found stream leapt merrily down the mountain slope. Such is the charm of mountain excursions in these unexplored and little known wilds, for here, nature is ever ready to please and surprise the explorer by some little lake or waterfall or a rare bit of mountain scenery.

Though we had stopped for luncheon at a place where the dashing water made several cascades and falls of exquisite beauty, we found a constant succession of similar spots, where I was often tempted to delay long enough to take photographs. As the stream thus descended rapidly, we found steep rock ledges, cut in giant steps and overgrown with thick moss till they were almost concealed from view, on either side of the mad torrent. These afforded us an easy method of ascent. The rocky formation of the stream bed revealed many different kinds of stone, conglomerates, shales, and quartzites, in clearly marked strata all gently dipping toward the south.

At length the woods opened up on either side, while, simultaneously, the slope decreased in pitch, and the stream ran over a bed of loose, rounded stones and boulders in the bottom of a shallow ravine. In a moment more we reached the lake, much more beautiful than our first view from St. Piran had led us to expect, but, also, much smaller in area. It was a mere pool, clear and deep, but intensely, blue in color and partially surrounded by a thin forest. Passing round the shores and up the valley, we found ourselves in some beautiful meadows, or rather moors, wherein streams of snow-water wandered in quiet, sinuous courses and gathered at length into the stream that feeds the lake. We came on a great number of ptarmigan—the high mountain species of grouse characteristic of this region,— which, with their young broods hardly able as yet to fly, were the most abundant signs of life that we found in this valley.

A vast amphitheatre or cirque, with lofty,, bare walls nearly free of snow, formed the termination of the valley. We were not compelled, however, to return over the same route as we had come, for we found an easy pass with a long gentle slope of snow on our left. This led us over the divide and, by a long steep descent, brought us to Lake Agnes, where we took advantage of the trail down the mountain side to the chalet.

Our attention was next turned toward the exploration of the mountains and valleys to the east of Lake Louise, which seemed to offer greater possibilities of grand scenery than those on the opposite side. Accordingly, we made several visits to a high upland park or alp, which was in reality a sort of depression between Great Mountain and a lesser peak to the east. This depression and the two mountains, one vastly higher than the other, resemble in outline, a saddle with pommel and crupper and suggested a name for the place which seems eminently appropriate. A trail now leads to the Saddle, and the place has proven so popular among tourists that it is frequently in use.

The Saddle is a typical alp, or elevated mountain meadow, where long, rich grass waves in the summer breezes, beautified by mountain flowers, anemones, sky-blue forget-me-nots, and scarlet castilleias. Scattered larch trees make a very park of this place, while the great swelling slopes rise in graceful curves toward the mountain peaks on either side.

But this is only the foreground to one of the most impressive views in the Rocky Mountains. To the eastward about three miles, on the farther side of a deep valley, stands the great mass of Mount Temple, the highest peak near the line of travel in the Canadian Rockies. This mountain stands alone, separated from the surrounding peaks of the continental watershed to which it does not belong. Its summit is 11,658 feet above the sea-level, while the valleys on either side are but little more than 6000 feet in altitude. As a result, the mountain rises over a mile above the surrounding valleys, a height which approaches the maximum reached in the Canadian Rockies. All sides of this mountain, except the south, are so precipitous that they offer not the slightest possible hope to the mountain climber, be he ever so skilful. The summit is crowned by a snow field or glacier of small size but of remarkable purity, since there are no higher cliffs to send down stones and debris to the glacier and destroy its beauty. On the west face, the glacier overhangs a precipice, and, by constantly crowding forward and breaking off, has formed a nearly vertical face of ice, which is in one place three hundred and twenty-five feet thick. I have seen passengers on the trains who were surprised to learn that the ice in this very place is anything more than a yard in depth, and who regarded with misplaced pity and contempt those who have any larger ideas on the subject.

Avalanches from this hanging wall of ice are rather rare, as the length of the wall is not great and the glacier probably moves very slowly. I have never had the good fortune to witness one, though the thunders of these ice falls are often heard by the railroad men who live at Laggan, just six miles distant. They must indeed be magnificent spectacles, as the ice must needs fall more than 4000 feet to reach the base of the cliff. The compactness of this single mountain may be well shown, by saying that a line eight miles long would be amply sufficient to encircle its base, notwithstanding the fact that its summit reaches so great an altitude.

The strata are clearly marked and nearly horizontal, though with a slight upward dip on all sides, and especially toward the Bow valley, so that the general internal structure of the mountain is somewhat bowl-shaped, a formation very common in mountain architecture.

The surroundings of this great mountain are equally grand. Far below in the deep valley, the forest-trees appear like blades of grass, and in the midst of them a bright, foamy band of water winds in crooked course like a narrow thread of silver,—in reality, a broad, deep stream. A small lake, nestling among the dark forests at the very base of Mount Temple, is the most beautiful feature in the whole view. The distance renders its water a dark ultra-marine color, and sometimes, when the light is just at the proper angle, the ripples sparkle on the dark surface like thousands of little diamonds. On the right, an awful , precipice of a near mountain looms up in gloomy grandeur, like the cliffs and bottomless abysses of the infernal regions pictured by Dore. This we called Mount Sheol.

One may ascend from the Saddle to the summit of Great Mountain in an hour. Mr. A. and I ascended this mountain in 1893, before there was any trail to assist us, and we had a very hard time in forcing our way through the tough underbrush, while below tree line.

In the course of a great many ascents of this peak I have had several interesting adventures. The view from the summit is so fine that I have made many attempts to obtain good photographs from this point. One day, after a period of nearly a week of smoky weather, the wind suddenly shifted, and, at about ten o’clock in the morning, the atmosphere became so perfectly clear that the smallest details of the distant mountains were distinct and sharp, as though seen through a crystal medium. This was my chance, and I proceeded at once to take advantage of it.

I had a large 8 x 10 camera and three plate-holders, which all went into a leather case especially made for the purpose, and which was fitted out with straps, so that it rested between my shoulders and left both hands free for climbing. It weighed altogether twenty-four pounds. With lunch in my pocket, I set out from the chalet with all speed, so as to arrive on the summit before the wind should change and bring back the smoke.

I climbed as I had never climbed before, and though the day was hot I reached the Saddle in an hour, and, without a moment’s pause, turned toward Great Mountain and commenced the long ascent of its rocky slope. In fifty-five minutes more I reached the summit and had ascended 3275 feet above Lake Louise. The air was still clear and offered every promise of successful photographs, even as I was unstrapping my camera and preparing to set it up for work. Suddenly, the wind shifted once more to the south and brought back great banks of smoke, which came rolling over the snowy crest of Mount Lefroy like fog from the sea. In five minutes all was lost. Mount Temple appeared like a great, shadowy ghost, in the bluish haze, and the sun shone with a pale coppery light. Such are the trials and tribulations of the climber in the Canadian Rockies.

One day at the end of August, H. and I ascended this mountain with our surveying instruments. The barometer had been steadily falling for several days, and already there were cumulus clouds driving up from the southwest in long furrows of lighter and darker vapors, which obscured the entire sky. A few drops of rain on the summit compelled me to work rapidly, but, as yet, there was no warning of what was in store.

After all the principal points were located we packed up our instruments and commenced a rapid descent to the Saddle. The slope is of scree and loose material, which permits a rapid descent at a full run, so that one may gain the Saddle in about fifteen minutes. Arriving there I paused to get a drink at a small stream under some great boulders, fed by a wasting snow-bank. H. had gone off toward the other side of the pass to get his rifle, which he had left on the way up.

Suddenly I heard a rushing sound, and, looking up, saw a cloud of dust on the mountain side and the trees swaying violently in a strong wind. A mass of curling vapor formed rapidly against the cliffs of Great Mountain, and a dull moaning sound, as of violent wind, seemed to fill the air. The sky rapidly darkened and black clouds formed overhead, while below them the thin wisps of scud rushed along- and seemed white and pale by contrast.

I was no sooner up on my feet than the approaching blast was upon me, and with such unexpected force did it come that I was laid low at the first impulse. My hat went sailing off into space and was never seen more. The first shock over, I gained my feet again and started to find H. The air changed in temperature with phenomenal rapidity, and from being warm and muggy, in the space of about five minutes it grew exceedingly cold, and threatened snow and hail.

Though everything betokened an immediate storm and a probable drenching for us, I had time to notice a magnificent sight on Mount Temple. As yet there were no clouds on the summit, but, as I looked, my attention was called to a little fleck of vapor resting against the precipitous side of the mountain, half-way between summit and base. So suddenly had it appeared that I could not tell whether it had grown before my eyes or was there before. From this small spot the vapors grew and extended rapidly in both directions, till a long, flat cloud stretched out more than a mile, when I last saw it. The vapors seemed to form out of the very air where a moment before all had been perfectly clear.

Realizing that the sooner we started the better chance we should have of escape, we flew rather than ran down the trail, and were only overtaken by the storm as we approached the lake. The temperature had dropped so rapidly that a cold rain and damp snow were falling when we reached the lake. The boat had drifted from its moorings, and was caught on a sunken log some distance from the shore. I waded out on a sunken log, where I expected at any moment to slip from the slimy surface and take an involuntary bath in the lake. The boat was regained by the time H. had arrived a few minutes later and we reached the chalet thoroughly drenched.

Such sudden storms in the Canadian Rockies are rather rare, and are almost always indicated in advance by a falling barometer and lowering sky. I have never at any other time observed such a sudden fall in temperature, nor seen the clouds form instantaneously far down on the mountain side as they had done in this storm. The sudden rush of wind, the curling vapors, and flying scud afforded a magnificent spectacle on the Saddle, and one that was well worth the drenching we suffered in penalty.

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