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The Glittering Mountains of Canada
Appendix F. The Panorama from Mount Columbia


The Panorama from Mt. Columbia, 12,294 Feet (Second Elevation: Rocky Mountains of Canada)

The mountaineering results of an Expedition to the Columbia Icefield, made, in 1923, in company with Dr. W. S. Ladd and the guide Conrad Kain, have already been presented in Chapters V-VII.

On July 14, in fine weather, we accomplished the second ascent of Mt. Columbia, and for several reasons interest has centred in a photographic panorama obtained from its summit.

In the first place, there are but four peaks—Robson, Columbia, North Twin, Clemenceau—of the Rocky Mountains of Canada exceeding 12,000 ft. in elevation. Mt. Columbia was first ascended in 1902 by Sir James Outram and Christian Kaufmann. Mt. Robson, 12,972 ft., succumbed in 1913 to Messrs. MacCarthy and Foster, with Conrad Kain. North Twin, 12,085 ft., fell to our party in 1923, while later in the same season Mt. Clemenceau, 12,001 ft., was captured by the guideless party of Messrs. de Villiers-Schwab, Hall, Durand, and Harris.

Outram was favoured by clear weather on Mt. Columbia and has graphically described the view. The summit was reached shortly after two o’clock and an hour was spent on top. . . . “Thirty miles to the south-east Mt. Forbes (as yet unconquered) towered high above everything in that direction, and alone challenged comparison with our elevation. But at twice that distance to the northwest Mt. Robson showed up grandly and is perhaps the one mountain in the Canadian Rockies that exceeds 13,000 ft. . . . Some old friends in the distant south, fully eighty miles away, Mts. Temple, Goodsir, Hungabee, Dawson, and Sir Donald, and more recent acquaintances of the past fornight, gave one great pleasure to recognize amongst the myriads of peaks of every shape and size.” Outram never published his summit views.

The first party to reach the summit of Mt. Robson arrived after five o’clock, and, although the prospect was fair, they had no camera and could stop for only a moment.

Our own group attained North Twin, in weather that was far from ideal, and so our pictures from Mt. Columbia are the first to give a comprehensive idea of a Canadian Rocky panorama from above 12,000 ft. It is, therefore, of some interest to determine just what and how far one can see. It will be quite evident, however, that while the eye can perceive things beyond the range of photography, the camera preserves the record permanently and more accurately than the mind. The after-cogitation—“Now just what did we see?” —led to some remarkable delusions in the days before photography: witness the prevalent pre-Alpine Club opinion that the Mediterranean was visible from the summit of Mont Blanc.

It is the purpose of the present communication briefly to outline what was revealed from the summit of Mt. Columbia, 12,294 ft., the second elevation of the Canadian Rocky Mountains. The photographs were snap-shots, 4 by 5, taken on roll-film, without filters other than a cloud filter which did not alter the exposure time. The complete, drafted panorama has been made from tracings from the prints, plus additions obtained by lens examination of the negatives and from enlargements. (See insert facing p. 80.)

The central position of Mt. Columbia is emphasized if one draws on a map—with the mountain as a centre—a circle of radius approximating forty-two miles. The circumference will nearly pass through the tip of the Columbia loop, the Columbia River-Canadian Pacific intersection at Beavermouth, Howse Pass, and Whirlpool Pass. Within the circle are included Kinbasket, Glacier, Brazeau, Maligne, and Fortress lakes, and headwaters of the Columbia, Saskatchewan, and Athabaska River systems. Within it are found the most important icefield groups of the Continental Divide, together with the notable Maligne and Wood River mountains, and the crest of the Selkirks in the Sir Sandford area.

From the summit of Mt. Columbia, the foreground of icefield is perhaps the most impressive thing. The Columbia field is a tri-oceanic watershed, nearly 150 square miles in extent, from whose snows drain head-sources of the Athabaska, through the Peace-Mackenzie system to the Arctic; through the Bush-Columbia to the Pacific; and by way of the Saskatchewan-Nelson system to Hudson Bay.

Northward, one has the Twins and Mt. Alberta almost in line; the Twins above the deep gorge of the banded Columbia glacier, an Athabaska source. On either side of North Twin are peaks of the Maligne group, Mt. Brazeau standing out prominently although twenty-five miles distant.

In the north-east are many unnamed peaks—one does not have to wander far from the Continental Divide to find unnamed peaks— several of which, south of Brazeau River, exceed 10,000 ft. and may be much higher.

Eastward, one looks across the icefield toward Snow Dome, the hydrographic apex of the field, and Mt. Athabaska, the latter rising above Sunwapta Pass—the Athabaska-Saskatchewan divide—with Athabaska glacier on its northern flank and the Saskatchewan glacier on its southern.

In the south-easterly direction, Mt. Castleguard is seen, low-lying on the margin of the icefield, with Mt. Saskatchewan towering above and flanking Alexandra River—the old “West Branch”—down which one glimpses Mts. Wilson and Murchison, between which the North Saskatchewan emerges to the eastern prairie. Across Thompson Pass are massed the peaks of the Continental Divide: Alexandra, Lyell, and a host of others. Mt. Forbes, 11,902 ft., the fifth elevation of the chain, lies in Alberta, but, due to a bending of the Divide, it appears just over Peak 3 of Mt. Lyell. It is this irregularity of the Divide, in the vicinity of Howse Pass, which makes the Freshfield Group show up across the western shoulder of Mt. Alexandra, and between the latter and Mt. Bryce.

In the south, Mt. Bryce—a veritable Finsteraarhorn—its eastern shoulder on the Divide, projects into British Columbia to flank the gloomy gorge of Bush River. One traces the river with certainty past the junction of the North and South Forks, but it cannot be followed to the Columbia.

South-westerly, across Tsar Creek, are extensive snowfields and, more distant, high peaks: presumably within the tip of the Columbia loop. The foreground is a sea of unnamed peaks.

The western foreground is dominated by Mt. King Edward, icefields mantling the Divide, and, except wThen broken into different levels by crossing ridges, continuous for miles toward the Wood River area. The distant named point in the west is Alt. Tsar.

In the north-west, thirty miles away, is the Wood River Group, on the British Columbia side: most impressive, with Mt. Clemenceau looming hugely. One looks across the glacier-hung Athabaska-Chaba Divide to ranges in the direction of Fortress Lake.

So much the camera identifies as a permanent record; now of what the eye could reach. Outram mentions the peaks of the Lake Louise district; we looked for them in vain. Temple was nowhere to be seen; although, of course, from Mt. Temple, on a clear day, especially if one looks with binoculars, there is not much trouble in finding Mt. Columbia. But from Columbia, in the south and southeast, the Continental Divide is seen in a foreshortened line: the peaks are massed, and of such an average height that it is exceedingly difficult to locate distant individuals from an unfamiliar point. Even Mt. Forbes was not a conspicuous summit, although little more than thirty miles away. It will then be recalled that Lake Louise is seventy-five miles in air-line from Mt. Columbia. It should be remembered that Outram was exceedingly familiar with this topography, having mapped a considerable portion of it.

Taking it for granted then that Lake Louise peaks are visible from Mt. Columbia, or vice versa, let us lay out a circle from Alt. Columbia, on a seventy-mile radius. It will cut Lake Louise; it will cross the southern Selkirks just north of the Beaver-Duncan Pass and the Battle Range. Following on, the circumference just touches Clemina station on the North Thompson River and again cuts the Canadian National Railroad, midway between Yellowhead Pass and Moose Lake. Fraser sources and all of Jasper Park are included in the circle.

Our party spent nearly an hour and a half on the summit of Mt. Columbia; we had arrived at 1.30. In the south-east the most distantly identifiable points were peaks of the Freshfield Group— Mt. Forbes, and Mt. Chephren near Howse Pass. If we had known exactly where to look between summits, we might have located a peak in the Lake Louise area.

In the south and south-west, the horizon was sharper and the peaks not so massed as on the Divide. Sir Sandford was distinct, although it does not show in photos. We thought we recognized Mt. Rogers; one can, of course, see Mt. Columbia and even the Wood River area from Mt. Rogers. Conrad, ever optimistic, attempted to show us the Purcells and even identified the Howser Spires. We were not entirely convinced. In the west, we saw high snowfields which are possibly in the Gold Range.

The question arose as to Mt. Robson. Conrad had been on the first-ascent of it; the writer had camped north of it in a former year. We had no small-scale map with us. The mountain should appear between the Wood River Group and the direction of Fortress Lake. Mt. Clemenceau was splendidly in view and there were fine peaks beyond, outside of photographic range. But we were never sure of Mt. Robson; we felt that we should have seen it; Outram had seen it.

A remaining fact is this: if one draws from Mt. Columbia as a centre a circle seventy miles in radius it will include the Lake Louise area. From Mt. Temple, the highest peak of this area, Mt. Columbia is visible; but with some difficulty and only in the best of weather. On the other hand, peaks on the Divide, massed in line, are exceedingly difficult to identify individually. The position of Mt. Robson, almost due north-west of Mt. Columbia, falls at least twenty-five miles beyond the seventy-mile radius already laid down as approximately the limit of visibility. Outram speaks of Mt. Forbes as being thirty miles to the south-east, just about correct. But when he states that Mt. Robson showed up grandly at “twice that distance to the north-west,” he is nearly forty miles short of his mark.

From the direction of Mt. Columbia, Mt. Robson would present an acute A-shape, narrow and sharp, and easily over-looked, even by an observer with binoculars. Local conditions, such as light, shadow, smoke, cloud, and heat-haze, have often more to do with visibility than mere distance. A small peak in line with a greater one may hide it at such a distance.

Mt. Robson often has a cap of cloud which might easily render it invisible; and, from Mt. Columbia, many high peaks of the Continental Divide intervene. One concludes, therefore, that, while Mt. Robson—under very exceptional circumstances—might be picked up from the summit of Mt. Columbia, no one has yet done so. It would certainly not “show up grandly”; and it is barely possible that Outram was looking at Mt. Clemenceau.

It used to be quite traditional to make high level panoramas in the Alps. Here is an interesting problem and a chance to amplify and carry on a bit of investigation in the newer Alps of Canada.


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