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The Glittering Mountains of Canada
Chapter IV. The Mountains of the Alexandra Angle


THE MOUNTAINS OF THE ALEXANDRA ANGLE (Mistaya and North Fork Valleys. Pinto Pass and Lyell Glaciers)

“There are none the less moments of irrational passionate revoltmoments in which one would buy back with a year of the life that is left one solitary hour among the untroubled mountains of youth”

Arnold Lunn

It was the unfrequented region surrounding Mount Columbia, a land almost “lost behind the ranges,” which lured Dr. William Ladd and myself into joining forces on our Expedition of 1923. During winter days we had spent hours in poring over available maps and photographs, familiarizing ourselves as best we could with the geography and history of North Saskatchewan headwaters. We were to visit an area much less compact than the Freshfield Group, with peaks carved on a vaster scale and more widely separated. It was plain that the Columbia Icefield must be crossed, in part at least, before climbs could be made; we knew that the distances were very great. A further incentive was the fact that the mountains were situated near the limits of journeys made by earlier explorers, whose observations had frequently been made under conditions that precluded satisfactory results. There would be work for us to complete.

The terminal branches of the North Saskatchewan, as our map-dissection revealed, find their sources chiefly in the eastward drainage of the Continental Divide, between Howse Pass—in the northern Waputiks—and Mount Columbia. Mistaya River, locally known as Bear Creek or the “Little Fork,” flows northward from Bow Pass, receiving streams from the Waputik ice through Peyto Glacier, and joining the main Saskatchewan between Mounts Sarbach and Murchison.

Howse River, the “Middle Fork,” flows from the Freshfield Group, and also receives streams from Bush Pass, as well as from the Lyell Icefield through Glacier Lake. The third branch, the North Fork, comes from Sunwapta Pass, which, in the north, separates Saskatchewan from Athabaska headwaters. The North Fork has its chief source in the Saskatchewan tongue of the Columbia Icefield, but its volume is soon increased by Alexandra River, its old “West Branch.”

Howse River and the North Fork meet from almost opposite directions, and, turning abruptly eastward, receive Mistaya River in a sharp angle from the south, the combined stream finding exit to the plain through the portals between Wilson and Murchison.

Something of the trails in these valleys I had learned from the journey to the Freshfield Group; but beyond the Saskatchewan Forks it was a vast unknown —although Ladd and I, from peaks near Lake Louise, had seen the far mysterious mountains of the north and had wished to make their closer acquaintance. It seemed a shame that these beautiful snowy summits should have no admirers but themselves.

Following the Divide from Bush Pass, in a northward air-line of twenty miles, one reaches Thompson Pass, crossing the Forbes-Lyell Group en route. There is no magic carpet equal to a map for doing such a thing; in reality it would be extremely difficult, for the Lyell Icefield system is a large one and the glaciers of the Lyell massif1 alone occupy more than thirty square miles. The icefield was discovered, as were so many other topographical features of the region, by Dr. Hector. He had gone there in behalf of the Palliser Expedition, in 1859, the year preceding his visit to the Freshfield Group. Encamped at Glacier Lake, he tells us,2 “Two hours, with the aid of the track the men had hewn, brought us to the west end of the lake, where there is a few miles’ extent of open grassy plain, fringed with wood, intervening between the foot of the glacier and the water’s edge.

“Reserving the ascent of the glacier for the next day, I ascended the south side of the valley, and found it to be composed of deep blue lime-stone, full of iron pyrites in nodules. Start at sunrise to ascend the glacier, accompanied by Sutherland. The other men I sent off to hunt for sheep or deer, of which we found a few tracks.” Then follows a paragraph, entertaining, and preserving for us one of the few instances of superstition of Canadian Indians regarding a mountainous area: “I wished Nimrod [Dr. Hector’s chief hunter] to go with me, but he would not venture on the ice, but told all sorts of stories of sad disasters that had befallen those Indians that ever did so; how that, if they did not get lost in a crevasse, they were at least sure to be unlucky afterwards in their hunting.

“I saw now that the glacier I was upon was a mere extension of a great mass of ice, that enveloped the higher mountains to the west, being supplied partly through a narrow spout-like cascade in the upper part of the valley, and partly by the resolidifying of the fragments of the upper Mer de Glace, falling over a precipice several hundred feet in height, to the brink of which it was gradually pushed forward. A longitudinal crack divides the glacier throughout nearly its entire length, sharply defining the ice that has squeezed through the narrow chasm, from that portion of the glacier that has been formed from the fallen fragments, the former being clear and pure, while the latter is fouled by much debris resting on its surface and mixed in its substance.

“The blue pinnacles of ice, tottering over the brink of the cliff, were very striking, and it was the noise of these falling that we had mistaken for thunder a few days before when many miles down the valley. On coming fairly in view of the precipice, when about two miles from the front of the glacier, I found, by watching the fall of these pinnacles, and observing the interval till the crash was heard, that I was a little more than four miles distant, so that the lower part of the glacier is about six miles in length. After examining the surface of the glacier, and arriving at its upper end close to the precipice, we struck off to the north side of the valley, to ascend a peak that looked more accessible than the other.

“Here we found traces of where a bear had been digging roots of alpine plants. We started an old goat, and got quite close to him, but not having a gun could do him no harm. We had a splendid view over the Mer de Glace to the south and west, the mountain valleys being quite obliterated, and the peaks and ridges standing out like islands through the ice mantle.”

Mount Forbes was unnamed in those days, but Dr. Hector saw it and recognized its pre-eminence; for he goes on to say, “The mountains to the north are very rugged, but not so high as those to the south of the valley. In that direction there is one peak which has a pyramidal top completely wrapped in snow, and at least double the height of where I stood.”

Dr. Hector’s narrative is so accurately and clearly written that we found it quite worth while to continue our delving. We learned that, after the pioneers, alpinists came searching for these great mountains of the north. But they too were forced to become explorers, since information was incomplete, and, in many cases, incorrect. Coleman, in 1892, rediscovered Fortress Lake, and, in the following year, visited Athabaska Pass. Wilcox, in 1896, starting from Laggan, was the first white man to journey up the North Fork and cross to the Athabaska. Collie and his companions had come out from England, in 1897 visiting the Freshfield region, and in 1898 discovering the Columbia Icefield itself. Habel, the German explorer, to whom we are indebted for calling attention to the beauty of the Yoho Valley, in 1901 made an extensive study of the western sources of the Athabaska, penetrating to the northern base of Columbia, calling it “Gamma.” Sir James Outram, in 1902, with the guide Christian Kaufmann, and accompanying Collie during a part of the season, accomplished a series of great climbs, including first-ascents of Freshfield, Forbes, Lyell, Alexandra, Bryce, and Columbia. Reasonable enough that we, too, should have been attracted by these stories of such an alpine Wonderland!

It was early in the spring when we arranged our plans. Our outfitter, of course, would be no other than Jim Simpson, who had taken Palmer and myself to the Freshfield Group during the season preceding. Jim was quite keen to go again into the north-country which he knows so well. He wrote to say that Tommy, best of cooks, would be with us again; and that one, Ulysses La Casse—because of his broad grin more conveniently known as “Frog”—would come as horse-wrangler. Finally, and luckiest of all, we secured the promise of Conrad Kain, super-guide and philosopher, whose stories have since quieted our nerves over many a day of bad weather, to lead us up the icefield peaks.

No one, for many years, had visited the Thompson Pass area with climbing purpose; and, as there remained an untouched twelve-thousand-foot peak on the Columbia field, we could scarcely be expected to control our excitement. It was July 27th when we left Lake Louise with our procession of horses. We had quite an audience, for the start of a pack-train is a thing not seen every day. Such a commotion! Boxes and saddles; duffle bags and pans. Squealing horses tethered in the scrub-pine, breaking loose now and then and galloping through the clearing, bells clanging and pack-covers flapping. The cayuse that is being packed —how sleepily he stands, with belly forcibly distended lest the rope be too tight; the shrewd look in his eye as an uncovered axe touches his rump. A heave and a buck; profanity and the operation repeated ... off at last with the horses fighting for their place in line.

Bow Lake, where tumbling icefalls and sparkling water afford a setting in which many an Izaak Walton has become oblivious of his sport, was reached on the second day. Jim has a fine camp there now; a comfortable boat, brought in from the railroad by pack-horses, a snug boat-house on the sandy beach, and a regular block-house of logs where one could spend the most restful sort of vacation. We recommend it.

On the day following, we rode through the meadows leading in gentle slope to the summit of Bow Pass, and down the Mistaya to campground on the Wildfowl Lakes. There we pitched our tents, the nest of a ruby-throated humming-bird above our door, and wandered along the lake shore where we could watch the antics of sandpiper, wheeling and darting in broken flight, and harlequin duck diving and rippling the calm-mirrored images of jagged ridge and ice-hung peak.

Simpson and Ladd walked down to the lower lake to investigate a cache of provisions in a little cabin. I went part way along the lake to photograph and sat down to admire the majesty of Howse Peak and the wall of the northern Waputiks. A stiff breeze was blowing, catching up the water and whirling the surface spray up into curious, transient waterspouts six and eight feet high over a circle twenty feet in diameter. The boys were soon back, reporting that a wolverene—the nightmare of winter trap-lines—had got into the cabin, and made things the worse for his visitation.

Our next day of travel was a delight. Between the lakes Mistaya River is forded, trail leading to the Forks of the North Saskatchewan. We pass through Pyramid Camp, where we had stopped a year before, our blaze still legible on the big tree under which we had slept. The river foams and boils in a misty canyon, far below; towers of Murchison rise across the valley like shattered cathedrals; pack-horses are splashing through pools and sloughs whose borders are riotous in flower colours. The trail is cut and broken by turbulent glacial brooks, with soaring ice-clad peaks above. An eagle soars from the cliff shadows, into blue space, guiding us to the Saskatchewan.

At the Forks, instead of turning up Howse River, the entrance to the Freshfield Group, we crossed the long ford and camped on the far bank below Mount Wilson. If one is unlucky, at high water there will be swimming and wet packs. The river flows between Murchison and Wilson, past the Kootenay Plain and, continuing as Nelson River, connects Lake Winnipeg with far distant Hudson Bay. Here, however, it is broken by gravel-bars into shallow rapids, through which the horses struggle, while their riders make futile attempts to remain dry-shod. Camp is splendidly situated on a terrace, at the junction of the North Fork, Howse and Mistaya Rivers, where in the long-ago the Indians came to tan and cure hides after their hunting trips. The panorama is one of great beauty, strangely suggestive of the Oberland peaks from Grin-delwald—sky-soaring Chephren with its pure white snow-saddle, ice-hung Kaufmann Peaks, and the rockwall of Sarbach, massed in the Howse-Mistaya angle. A glimpse of the Lyell Icefield through the gap of Glacier Lake, and the spire of Forbes, add to a scene whose foreground is a river, lighted by the afternoon sun, with horses grazing on the flats, and smoke rising through gnarled and ancient trees.

In his journal, under date of February 8, 1811, Alexander Henry (the younger) makes the following entry: . . we came to the forks, where the river spread to about half a mile wide, free from islands; but as usual in such places, the bed was choked with bars of sand and gravel. Here a branch of the Saskatchewan comes in from the N. opposite a smaller branch from the S.; both appear contracted, winding their courses through mountains. The main channel, up which our course lay, is still wide, and comes from the W. At the junction of these forks we had a grand view of the mountains, more elevated and craggy than any we had before seen. The upper parts of some of them are curiously formed, some closely resemble citadels, round towers, and pinnacles rising to a great height, with perpendicular summits, so steep that no human being could ascend them. Some of the highest remained all day enveloped in clouds, which were not dispersed for several hours after the wind arose, and even then hovered upon the summits as if loath to leave, until torn away by the violence of the wind, which increased to a gale from the W. Upon the top of a mountain N. W. of us, whose summit appeared level, I observed an immense field of snow, of which a part seemed lately to have separated and fallen down. This frequently happens during winter, when vast quantities of snow accumulate till the mass projects beyond the rocks and then gives way. The noise occasioned by the fall of such a body of snow equals an explosion of thunder, and the avalanche sweeps away everything movable in its course to the valleys. On the sides of some of the mountains S. of us, where the rays of the sun never reach, are vast beds of eternal snow, or, more properly, bodies of eternal ice, their bluish color plainly distinguishing them from the snows of this season; some parts have recently given way and fallen into the valleys, while the remainder presents a perpendicular face of ice in strata of different thicknesses. Here we saw the tracks of several herds of buffalo, which had crossed the river.” —“New Light on the Early History of the greater North-West,” Henry Thompson Journals, 1789-1814, Elliott Coues (F. P. Harper, New York, 1897), Vol. II, p. 689.

The Forbes-Lyell Group of mountains is separated into southern and northern divisions by the Mons and Lyell Icefields, lying on the Continental Divide. The chief peaks of the southern area are Forbes (11,902 feet), east of the Divide, and Bush Mountain—Rostrum Peak (10,770 feet), and Icefall Peak (10,420 feet)—in British Columbia. Peaks of the Divide, north of Bush Pass, Cambrai (10,380 feet), Messines (10,290 feet), and Mons (10,114 feet), show what part the late war played in the nomenclature of the Northwest.

The northern division extends from Mount Lyell to Thompson Pass (6511 feet), in the splendid range encircling the head of Alexandra River. Lyell possesses five peaks, all above 11,000 feet, from the central one of which the Divide continues northward over Farbus, Oppy, and Douai, and rises to the abrupt, snowy summits of Alexandra—11,214 feet, and 10,990 feet—whence it crosses Fresnoy (10,730 feet), Spring Rice (10,745 feet), and descends to Thompson Pass from the summit of Watchman Peak.

Morning came; daffodil glow preceding a succession of delicate colours, and leading us up the North Fork Valley. Bars of sunlight relieve the shadowy recesses of primeval forest—cottonwood, poplar, and cedar—through which winds the trail. Close to the cliffs of Mount Wilson, meandering streams, suggesting lines of a jig-saw puzzle, gleam through the meadows. Tiny fish dart in the shallows; and all the toads seem to be amphibious, hopping into the water as our horses pass. Mount Saskatchewan, mirrored in many a quiet pool, stands guardian of the entrance to Alexandra River.

“Graveyard,“ because of ancient hunting relics which adorn it, is the name given to the camping place opposite the mouth of Alexandra River. A bit of buffalo skull, white and friable, recalls the days when these huge animals ranged even into the remote valleys of the north. Pinto Pass, with an old Indian trail leading over the Cline4 River, may be reached in a few hours; Ladd and I strolled out above it to the bench-land below Mount Coleman for a far-reaching view of the Saskatchewan Valley. We sat down among the forget-me-nots; Bow Pass could still be seen, a dim grey-blue saddle on the southern skyline. We looked into Alexandra Valley where brilliant light outlined the distant range. The sun was setting behind the outlying pinnacles of Mount Saskatchewan—antique towers and air-castles—while purple shadows lengthened in the gorge below, and against this glorious background we watched three sheep, in silhouette row, walk up a nearby ridge and disappear.

With the exception of a few travellers and Indian hunters, there have been but few visitors to the valley of Alexandra River. Locally known as the “West Branch,” the first white men to gain even a partial view of it were Wilcox3 and Barrett who in 1896, en route to Fortress Lake, ascended a spur of Mount Saskatchewan and looked up the river to its bend.

Based on information from Tom Wilson, of Banff, that there was an Indian trail across the pass at the valley-head, Mr. C. S. Thompson, an enthusiastic mountaineer, in 1900, travelled as far as the pass now bearing his name. He took one packer with him, and although no climbing was attempted because of bad weather prevailing, they explored the pass and visited the northern glaciers of Lyell.6

During the summer of 1900, Messrs. Collie, Spencer and Stutfield attempted to penetrate to the Columbia Icefield by way of the Bush Valley and the western slope of the mountains. C. S. Thompson at the same time went north by the Saskatchewan Valley, hoping to locate Collie’s party by way of the pass at the head of the “West Branch.”

The hardship of pack-train travel on the British Columbia side of the Divide is amusingly set forth in a letter, dated Dec. 31, 1902, from Collie’s outfitter, Fred Stephens, to Mr. Walter D. Wilcox:

“Better late than Never so as i Promised 3Tou; would Rite and tell you something of our Bush River trip i will just give you a Pointer to Pass it By. We left Donald and followed an old trail which Led through a Dence forest to the mouth of Bush River. We apparently followed the Columbia but was out of sight of it most of the time; never saw such undergrowth mud and wet, with mosquitoes that would stop a syclone, the poor Englishmen looked like Plum Puddings walking around with their faces swoolen up to twice their Natural size. Well we wanted to get to the head of the Bush River but found it in high water to be impossible to follow up the Bank. We took the trail back 6 miles then climbed up over a mountain with the outfit and struck the River 7 or 8 miles up. It was raining 7 days out of 6, to make it more Pleasant. The Pack horses got covered with Brittish Columbia mold, the oat meal soured, the hard tack swelled up so we had to Pack our saddle horses. The wood would not burn and a few more things went Rong. We finally got up the River far enough so it commenced to get deep and the valley was Narrow and filled with Burnt fallen timber. We

There is still a faint trail, with many crossings of the stream which divides and wanders between little green islands, where birds hide and disclose their presence only when one approaches closely. Alexandra and its tumbling glacier-falls loomed ahead. Several deer bounded away when they got wind of the horses. Little drab buffalo-birds followed us; friendly fellows who like nothing better than a ride on the back of a cayuse. There are many game tracks, but in the heat of the day the larger animals—deer, moose, and sheep —are high up near timber-line where cooler breezes drive off the flies. Just as the Freshfield area was the home of big goats, so this and neighboring valleys form the territory of the sheep; for sheep and goat are on unfriendly terms and do not range together.

We passed by Camp Content, where Outram had stopped years before, and, crossing an angle of the nearly drouned Harry Long because he could not ride a raft of water soaked logs. We found it impossible to follow up the valley to the foot of Mt. Bryce and Columbia so we took to the hills and camped 7000 above sea Level. Here it snowed for 4 days and the wind blowed so we had to tie down the Pack Saddles to keep them in camp. I suppose this would be Delightfull to you But somehow it dont catch me. This was as far as we got although i could go mutch farther but the weather was so cloudy that it was useless to go farther. Here we turned and came Back to Donald. I think we were about Due west of the west Branch whitch comes into the west fork of the Saskatchewan.

“I will wind this interesting slip to a close; have no Doubt you would find this a very interesting country to go to as the mountains are verry high and craggy. The whole country is verry Rough and the weather in July will freeze a kyote so I am sure you would call it Grand.” river, placed our tents close to the Alexandra Glaciers, naming our stopping place—the reason was obvious— “Last Grass Camp.” Mount Oppy (10,940 feet), with its gabled ice-crest, rises with Alexandra above this spot, with the northern Lyell basin close at hand. It was our intention to attack this basin in the hope of attaining the Lyell-Farbus col and the unclimbed Divide peak of Lyell (No. 3; 11,495 feet), just equal in height to the central peak ascended by Outram. There also one might traverse the arete of Farbus (10,550 feet), and across a steep little ice-col reach Mount Oppy itself, peaks well guarded by icefalls above the Alexandra Glaciers.

But weather was ever unkind. We visited the glaciers, scarcely half a mile distant; enormous, with flat tongues spreading below broken seracs so placed that one can only with difficulty reach the upper snows. The western Alexandra Glacier is conspicuous with its regular, parabolic dirt-bands, differentiating the seasonal variation between winter and summer snows.4 On our first walk over the ice, a little shower passed, followed by an entrancing double rainbow which arched from the ice-tongue to our camp in the woods below.

Next day the peaks were again shrouded in mist. It was July 4th, and we ascended, in three hours, into the northern Lyell basin. Crevasses and the icefall of the eastern Alexandra Glacier soon forced us to the moraine, a direct ascent to which is made unpleasant by muddy cliff and running water. By a little fire, kindled on an upper meadow, we sat and watched for momentary glimpses into the upper ice-world as the snow-tops played hide-and-seek in the fog. So many times from the viewpoints above Lake Louise we had seen the triple-headed snow-mountain clear, against an azure northern background; now to be on its very slopes and find it hidden. Still it was not an unpleasant place to be, there beside our smouldering fire. Although the heights were often invisible, we could always gaze downward on those marvelous glaciers. The masses of ice were softened here and there by the interposition of thin vapors, drifting back and forth; towers and pinnacles of ice seemed on the verge of splitting and crumbling; sea-green arches, transparent as our finger-tips seem when held before a strong light, were all luminous with the pale yellow glow that came through a distant snow-saddle beyond Rice Glacier. Then, as we descended, rain drenched us. But a roaring fire at camp, and a bit of bear-steak that Simpson brought in—I think he said he found it growing on a tree—made us quickly forget the weather.

A few days later we rode to Thompson Pass. It had cleared off, and we followed the trail up Castleguard River—the name given to the stream above the Alexandra angle—and through dense forest to the broad grassy levels leading to the summit lakes. Watchman Peak is charmingly reflected in the lower lake, while from the pass summit, below Spring Rice, we could look far into the gloomy depths of Bush Valley with the unbroken wall of Mount Bryce descending into it. This western country is wild in its appearance and looks nearly impossible for horses.

It must have been about this time that Jim, apropos of nothing in particular, remarked that his birthday was about to recur. Tommy and I made secret plans. When the day arrived, Tommy concocted a gigantic doughnut, liberally powdered with sugar and mounted on a pedestal of heather. We stood the candle from our folding-lantern in the centre and the result was almost artistic. At lunch-time it was brought in with all ceremony and presented to “Chief Nashan”—for Jim is known as the Wolverene among the Stoney Indians, because of his uncanny ability as a hunter. Jim was much surprised; but we were still more so, when he confessed that although the date was right he had been a whole month short on time! Still we had had our fun and the monotony of a day of showers was broken. After all, time on the trail is an impossible thing to keep track of.


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