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The Glittering Mountains of Canada
Chapter V. The Ascent of North Twin


“Our course lay, for the most part, over vast fields of snow, but the early portion of it presented scenery of surpassing beauty, far more magnificent and dazzling than that of the day before. There were broad and bridgeless chasms, whose depths the eye, from their dizzy edges, vainly sought to ascertain;—towering masses, in forms that, from their strangeness, seemed unreal;—spires of brightness, grottos and palaces of frost,—here recent, soft, of snowy whiteness,—there older, hardened, passing into crystal azure,—sprinkled with frozen dew, festooned with silver fringe; their inmost caverns dark,—vast stalactites of ice, in line, guarding the portals.”

Dr. Martin Barry

The Continent of North America possesses two hydrographic apices which are remarkable for the river systems extending therefrom. In each of these areas occurs a watershed of the triple-divide type whose streams form great and lengthy rivers, flowing enormous distances to terminate in widely separated bodies of water.

The southerly of these interesting regions is found, near Latitude 43°, in the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming, south of Yellowstone National Park. Here rises the Snake River, flowing to the Columbia, its waters carried through British Columbia and emptying into the Pacific at the northwest corner of Oregon. Not many miles distant are sources of Green River, flowing southwest to the Colorado and reaching the Gulf of California. Eastward, branching headwaters of the Missouri find their way to the Mississippi basin and the far-off Gulf of Mexico.

Less well known is the Canadian watershed to be found in Latitude 52°. There, in a region extensively glaciated, are sources of river systems whose waters make their way for hundreds of miles, by winding, devious routes to three separate oceans.

The Rocky Mountains of Canada form the Alberta-British Columbia Boundary and extend northward, from the Montana line, at the 114th Parallel, until the 120th Parallel is reached, near Latitude 54°, and

the range becomes subalpine. Great icefields mantle the Continental Divide between the Canadian Pacific and the Canadian National Railroads, the scenic grandeur culminating in the Columbia Icefield, in Latitude 52° 12'.

This icefield, the largest known in Canada, containing approximately one hundred and fifty square miles, forms an unusually compact triple-divide. From its snows, on the Continental Divide, attaining an elevation of 10,000 feet over a large area, are formed the headwaters of the Athabaska, which, by way of Great Slave Lake, joins the Mackenzie system whose delta is beyond the Arctic Circle. Western ice-tongues supply Bush River, tributary to the Columbia and reaching the Pacific. From many converging streams on the eastern slope is formed the Saskatchewan River, emptying into Lake Winnipeg whence the Nelson River continues the drainage to Hudson Bay and the North Atlantic.

Thus do two mountain uplifts form the drainage sources for much of Continental America between Mexico and Alaska.

The two water-partings possess no little of historic interest. In 1805, the Lewis and Clark Expedition, reaching the forks of the Missouri, pioneered the Jefferson River and crossed to the Clearwater branch of the Columbia on their way to the Pacific Coast. Only a little later, Canadian fur-traders, in 1807, made use of the Howse Pass in travelling across the Rocky Mountains, from the North Saskatchewan—the Kootenay Plain—to the Columbia Valley. In 1811, the Athabaska Pass was opened by David Thompson of the North-West Company and served for many years as a much-frequented route between Athabaska trading posts—Fort Edmonton, Henry House, and Jasper House—and the Columbia Loop.

Anyone who has even superficially examined the map of a Continent, will realize that rivers of any length possess sources in elevated portions of the earth’s surface. It is the land uplift, usually a mountain region, in which occurs the greatest precipitation; the ranges and inland table-lands, or even lofty plateaus, serve the further purpose of providing the potential energy, the vis a tergo, for stream flow. It will be further understood that such a region is topographically more complex than an area of coastal plain; and that, to unravel the complex features which a mountain range often possesses and which are frequently hidden, it is quite essential for a field observer to attain lofty ridges—if not the very summits themselves—in order to discover what may lie beyond.

The Columbia Icefield, one of the largest subarctic fields, was first seen, in 1898, by J. Norman Collie,1 who described the view from the summit of Mount Athabaska, as follows: “A new world was spread at our feet; to the westward stretched a vast ice-field probably never before seen by human eye, and surrounded by entirely unknown, unnamed, and unclimbed peaks. From its vast expanse of snows the Saskatchewan Glacier takes its rise, and it also supplies the head-waters of the Athabaska; while far away to the west, bending over in those unknown valleys glowing with the evening light, the level snows stretched, finally to melt and flow down more than one channel into the Columbia River, and thence to the Pacific Ocean. Beyond the Saskatchewan Glacier to the south-east, a high peak (which we have named Mt. Saskatchewan) lay between this glacier and the west branch of the North Fork, flat-topped and covered with snow, on its eastern face a precipitous wall of rock. Mount Lyell and Mount Forbes could be seen far off in the haze. But it was towards the west and north-west that the chief interest lay. From this great snow-field rose solemnly, like ‘lonely sea-stacks in mid-ocean/ two magnificent peaks, which we imagined to be 13,000 or 14,000 feet high, keeping guard over those unknown western fields of ice. One of these, which reminded us of the Finsteraarhorn, we have ventured to name after the Right Hon. James Bryce, the then President of the Alpine Club. A little to the north of this peak, and directly to the westward of Peak Athabasca, rose probably the highest summit in this region of the Rocky Mountains. Chiselshaped at its head, covered with glaciers and snow, it also stood alone, and I at once recognised the great peak I was in search of; moreover, a short distance to the north-east of this mountain, another, almost as high, also flat-topped, but ringed round with sheer precipices, reared its head into the sky above all its fellows. At once I concluded that these might be the two lost mountains, Brown and Hooker.”

The high rock-peak, which Collie thought might be Mount Brown, was later named Mount Alberta, while the glacier-clad mountain was christened Columbia. Two fine peaks, one rocky, the other snow-covered, which from the level of the icefield hide Alberta, became known as The Twins.

From Thompson Pass, the Continental Divide swings northward across the eastern shoulder of Bryce (11,507 feet), and, traversing the centre of the icefield, rises to the summit of The Snow Dome (11,340 feet), the hydrographic apex of the Saskatchewan, Athabaska, and Columbia River systems. Almost doubling on itself, the Divide then turns sharply southward and westward to the summit of Mount Columbia.

This splendid peak, attaining the elevation of 12,294 feet, according to measurements of the Interprovincial Survey, is the second peak of the Canadian Rockies and is overtopped only by Mount Robson (12,972 feet), the highest of the entire range. Robson is situated on the Continental Divide, there a Pacific-Arctic watershed, north of Yellowhead Pass; but it rises from no icefield comparable to the Columbia.

North Twin, a near neighbor of Columbia, reaches the height of 12,085 feet, making it the third elevation of the range and the loftiest summit entirely in Alberta.

From Mount Columbia, the Divide crosses Mount King Edward (11,400 feet), and Chaba Peak (10,540 feet), and peaks along the crest of the Chaba basin, gradually descending to Fortress Lake Pass (4388 feet).

In the deep valley north of Mount Bryce, and below Columbia, three crevassed glacier tongues supply Bryce Creek, which joins with Rice Brook from

Thompson Pass and the glaciers west of Mount Alexandra to form the North Fork of Bush River and drain to the Columbia Valley. From Mount Castleguard (10,096 feet), the Castleguard Glacier tongues form northern sources of Alexandra River, while to the east of Castleguard Valley minor, separate snowfields supply Castelets and Terrace Creeks. Above Terrace Valley rise the shattered, forbidding cliffs of Mount Saskatchewan (10,964 feet), filling in the angle between Alexandra River and the North Fork.

The northern margin of the Columbia Icefield is bordered by the broad snows of Mount Kitchener (11,500 feet), and The Twins—South Twin, 11,675 feet; North Twin, 12,085 feet—the latter, as we have seen, the third of triangulated peaks in the Canadian Rockies. Between The Twins and Mount Columbia a magnificent precipitous cirque contains the plunging, banded Columbia Glacier and the tongue from The Twins, draining to the main Athabaska River. The Twins and Mount Kitchener, grouped with peaks farther north—Stutfield (11,320 feet), Woolley (11,700 feet), Diadem (11,060 feet), and Alberta—make up the gigantic massif, as yet but partially mapped, between the Sunwapta and Athabaska Rivers.

To see these things we had come up-trail, past Outranks old “Camp Columbia,” with its surprising waterfall, to campground above 7000 feet in the meadows below Mount Castleguard and its ice-tongues. Here, indeed, is the spot of which wranglers dream: plenty of water, wood everywhere, horse-feed for months; and the horses can’t get away! Castleguard Camp fulfills one’s idea of Alpine Paradise. A meadow, acres of it,

with a heather carpet and flowers beyond description; little cascading streams; a tiny canyon, where leaps an arching waterfall. Can you imagine it at evening? Smoke from the campfire rising through tall trees beside the tents; horse-bells tinkling in the distance, as they might on a foreign alpland; snow summits of Lyell turning heliotrope and violet; shadowed walls of Castleguard Valley seen to the Bend; Watchman Peak, with Thompson Pass patched by sunlight, and glimpses of far-away ranges in the west; Mount Bryce, stupendous, its icy peaks silhouetted and incandescent; the low southern Castleguard tongue brilliant with light reflected from the Columbia Icefield; Mount Castleguard itself, and Athabaska, at the valley head, old-rose and golden. One despairs in the telling of it. It is a place to which one will return.

From camp, one is but a short distance from Thompson Pass. Two hours’ walk to the valley head leads over a low divide to the Saskatchewan tongue, whence Mount Athabaska could be climbed. East of camp, a range of minor peaks, of which Terrace (9750 feet) is the chief, separates Castleguard from Terrace Valley. It is easy to cross a low snow pass below the southern slopes of Athabaska South station, and reach meadows below Mount Saskatchewan. Finally, in two hours one may ascend the Castleguard Glaciers to the eastern ridge of Mount Castleguard, at 9000 feet, whence a route to the summit is obvious; or, what is of equal interest, one may circle to the northwest and attain the Columbia neve without having crossed a single crevasse of any size. As many of the icefield climbs are of great length, the gaining of altitude and

the avoidance of icefalls is an immense advantage over Outram’s route to Columbia by the low southern Castleguard tongue or Collie’s attempted route through the crevasses of the Athabaska Glacier.

Mount Castleguard, of which we made the first traverse, on July 6th, affords the finest near views of the Columbia Icefield. Our entire party went up, including Simpson, our cook, and our wrangler. Above the eastern ridge, which we attained by way of the easy central glaciers, are short stretches of steep snow. A little bergschrund is crossed and the summit reached in four hours from camp. The mountain dominates Saskatchewan Glacier and presents a splendid overlook across the icefield, which stretches endlessly westward toward Mount Columbia and northward to The Twins. Little misty clouds scud along in the breeze, their shadows wandering out across the snow and separated by splotches of sunlight. Mount Bryce, in its sheer grandeur, is nearby, with range after range beyond the wooded depths of Bush Valley. Mount Forbes lifts a white fang in the south, while nearer are the flanks of Lyell and Alexandra streaming with glaciers.

Jim and Conrad are lying flat on the shale, with a map spread out; there is a great pointing of fingers toward distant valleys, and the remarks which come to my ears indicate that fur-bearing animals next trapping season had best look out for themselves. Ladd and Frog are dividing the last piece of cheese, and Frog is not getting the best of it. Tommy and I sit with our backs against the summit cairn; one corner of it is decked with a mossy fringe of hoar-frost, which

is dripping in the sunlight and falling into several cups to which we have constructed elaborate aqueducts of flat stones.

Two hours on the summit flew rapidly, and we descended the northern Castleguard snow-ridge in spraying glissades to the icefield. Columbia seemed so near to us; it was early in the afternoon and we walked some distance toward it before turning homeward. It was a day of enjoyment for all, although the momentary disappearance of Tommy through a snow-bridge was startling. We were fond of our cook, and our morale in those strenuous days depended much upon his oft-repeated bellow of “Come and get it.” Four meals in a day never seemed too much!

Next morning a climbing party of four again ascended to Castleguard shoulder, hoping to reach Mount Columbia; but cold wind and snow-squalls prevailed, and drove us ignominiously back to camp where we made short work of a fresh batch of Tommy’s biscuits. Our labor was not entirely useless, for we packed up to the ridge a supply of clothing, condensed fuel, and a small tent, to serve as a high camp in emergency.

July 9th was a day of threatening weather. Ladd went down-trail toward the Castleguard stream and tried the fishing, but with indifferent success. Conrad and I made a little first-ascent of Terrace Mountain (9750 feet), by its southern glacier and the col at its head. The glacier is small, but offers an array of wavy, wind-blown ridges of snow, in whose hollows we counted no less than twelve lakelets, interconnected by ice-tunnels. The mountain, situated between Castleguard and Terrace Valleys, is without difficulty, three hours bringing us to the corniced summit, whence one obtains a map-like view of the Columbia Icefield with its glacier-tongues extending out, like tentacles of some monster of pre-history. Altogether it is one of the most satisfactory views in the vicinity, and the overlook to Mount Saskatchewan served us well a few days later.

To ascend the unclimbed North Twin (12,085 feet), had been the great prospective of our journey. On July 10th we attained this goal. With an early start (3.20 A. M.), in two hours we were high on the Castleguard ridge and off on the margin of the icefield. New snow had fallen during the days preceding; bands of mist raised fingers, swirling skyward, as if to warm them in the glow of morning. Columbia and The Twins, afar, showed only their upper heights above the undulating snowy wastes.

We came to know the Columbia Icefield on that day. It was six o’clock when we left the ridge. Soft snow and distance: North Twin is twelve miles in air-line from Castleguard shoulder, but looks less than half of that. One descends, above the head of Saskatchewan Glacier, into a broad, nearly level basin, whence the slopes rise gradually along the base of an unnamed snow-crest adjoining Athabaska on the west. Just this much takes hours; and, on rounding the head of Athabaska Glacier to the base of The Snow Dome, one is but half way to North Twin.

The Snow Dome does not rise conspicuously from the icefield; it is broad-based, situated west of the Athabaska Glacier, and slopes gradually up to a summit slightly more than a thousand feet above the main field. It is more attractive when seen from Wilcox Pass, in which direction it presents gigantic ice-crowned cliffs and terraces, with a spectacular icefall ending near the Athabaska tongue. The chief interest of the mountain is in its position as hydrographic apex of the region. From its slopes, melting snow flows to the North Saskatchewan; to the Athabaska, through the Sunwapta River; to the Columbia, by way of Bush River headwaters. These rivers, flowing to three different oceans, spring from one of the greatest of Continental watersheds.

As we skirted the western slopes of The Snow Dome, North Twin loomed apparently close at hand; but distances are as deceptive as on the ocean, and nearly level snow hides many deep depressions. We circled widely to avoid crevasses at the head of Columbia Glacier, which slopes to the Athabaska Valley. The Twins are an isolated pair, ringed by cliff and icefall, North Twin alone being connected with the icefield by a snow col—a ribbon of snow—leading down toward Habel Creek. And after weary hours,2 when one has crossed the last long slopes and plateaus, it is necessary to lose altitude in crossing this deep saddle to gain the peak.

Here we made the first stop, for lunch, at two o’clock. Over the head-cirque of Columbia Glacier rise Mounts Columbia and King Edward, above icy terraces and benches of cliff. South Twin is close at hand, with grim, pinnacled walls, towering to a sharp ice-peak, difficult in appearance, and only to be attacked by the col connecting it with its northern relative. Framed by North Twin and the snow-humps of Stutfield, the valley of Habel Creek is a foreground for cliff-ringed and unclimbed Mount Alberta.3

Our own peak, immediately above us, its corniced summit ridge intermittently hidden by snow-flurries and wind-blown mist, rose in a slope of glistening snow, steep and unbroken. Conrad was leading, I was second, and Ladd last on the rope. The wall of snow was ever before us as we went up; there was considerable step-cutting, not in hard ice, but in crusted snow, and our pace slowed before the top of King Edward came into view above the sharp arete of South Twin. We reached the summit just thirteen hours after leaving camp: fleeting glimpses of winding rivers in the west and of shining summits in the direction of Maligne Lake and Wilcox Pass were blotted out in the closing mist.

Still, it was warm enough—just a moderate breeze blowing—and we remained twenty minutes on the summit; but the view we hoped for never came. The descent to the col was without incident (4.40-5.40 P. M.) ; we had made the first traverse of the Columbia Icefield, from Castleguard Valley to the head of Habel Creek—from the Saskatchewan to the Athabaska slope —and the last untrodden twelve-thousand-foot peak of the Rocky Mountains of Canada had fallen to us.

Someone, following in our track, may one day understand that journey back across the icefield’s vastness. For an analytical mind, it will at least afford insight of the psychology of fatigue: the half-hour in a blizzard, obscuring the trail and exhausting us; the clearing at sunset, with crimson and orange light banded against masses of lead-blue storm clouds behind The Twins; mist and snow-banners wreathed about and trailing from Columbia and catching up the light —we three mortals in the middle of the field, in all its immensity, struggling on in insufficiently crusted snow until the light failed.

We had brought some portable fuel and a small kettle with us and left it on a snowy hummock far out on the icefield against our return. It was dark when we approached it, but we soon had some water melted to slake a burning thirst. While Conrad and Ladd were attempting to make tea, I walked on alone to the slopes below Castleguard. The unbroken snow was hardening a little, the air comfortably cool, and only a gentle wind stirring. I sat down to wait for the others. Beyond Athabaska dark clouds hung and lightning flashed; in another direction, above Mount

Bryce, stars appeared in all the glory of high altitudes; in the western horizon there was still a pale afterglow, and bits of mist floated about on the surface of the icefield, as if earth and sky were mingled in one.

The rest of the party came up; I had seen the flickering lantern, and located them by their shouts. We roped up together and went on through the night, over the Castleguard shoulder and down the long slopes beyond. It is not easy to thread crevasses in the dark—lucky that we knew the way, but how we cursed that lantern! When we pulled into camp, it was three o’clock, and morning was on the hills as it had been when we departed.

Twenty-three hours we had been out; we were very tired, and the grass beside the campfire seemed luxurious in its softness as we sat there breakfasting in the light of the rising sun.


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