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The Glittering Mountains of Canada
Chapter VII. Passage of the Saskatchewan Glacier


“The scenery we were entering was at once strange and exciting. The common features of Alpine landscapes were changed; as if by some sudden enchantment we found ourselves amongst richer forests, purer streams, more fantastic crags.”

Douglas Freshfield

For many years there had existed, among the outfitters, the desire to find a direct route practicable for horses between the heads of Castleguard and Sun-wapta Rivers. If this could be done, it would shorten the transportation time between Thompson and Wilcox Passes. We had had a good look at the glacier from the summit of Castleguard, and, while the climbing party was occupied with Mount Saskatchewan, Jim had been prospecting for a way down.

Two days after our ascent of Columbia, on July 16th, we broke camp at Castleguard. It was the loveliest day imaginable, and we hated to go; the peaks stood out against a turquoise background, so beautifully sharp and clear, with filmy wisps of multi-coloured, diaphanous mist clinging to their lower slopes. The tents were down and the last horse packed; we knew that some day we would come back.

The ultimate sources of Castleguard River head in a low divide,1 with meadows which we crossed to a tiny marginal lake by the Saskatchewan Glacier, nearly opposite Mount Athabaska. A shore of flat moraine permitted the pack-train to progress to level ice. Our horses on the glacier made an unusual pronto identify the route, and because of the dominating peak, the name “Castleguard Pass” is suggested for the pass between the head of Castleguard Valley and the Saskatchewan Glaciers.

cession; but, at first timid, they soon became accustomed to their surroundings and, like true mountaineers, hopped over the little cracks and crevasses. It was necessary, in avoiding a lateral glacier entering from the south, to take to the central ice for a short distance. The horses were taken down the glacier for more than four miles, with devious winding around the large transverse crevasses. The steep terminal moraine, with treacherously balanced boulders and slippery glacial mud, was most troublesome, requiring some trail-building and considerable care to avoid damage to the pack-train. But before evening the last horse was safely off and camp finally made below the tongue on the flats toward the south side near a pleasant waterfall. Close by, the stream enters a narrow canyon, spanned by a natural bridge; apparently no one else, with horses, had ever stopped at our Glacier Camp.

At daybreak, without difficulty, we took the horses northward over a meadowed shoulder east of Mount Athabaska, about 7500 feet in elevation, whence we looked back and over the tremendous expanse of green ice to Castleguard. We could scarcely believe that the cayuses had come down such a place. The descent to Sunwapta Pass was direct, through grassland and open timber to the river, whence we followed trail across the true Saskatchewan-Athabaska divide to camp not far from the tongue of Athabaska Glacier.

It was a place to remember. The valley-flat, bordered by ancient timber—from whose dusky shadows rushing brooks emerge—is sparsely covered by thickets of scrub-evergreen and willow. We spent delightful minutes in watching the antics of gopher: furry little beasts, and childishly curious. Franklin grouse, the “fool-hen” of the Northwest, were abundant; the hens often paraded close to the tents, bringing several chicks for our inspection and showing not a trace of fear. Several lakelets on the Athabaska moraine are remarkably deep and blue for their size; their shores are a salt-lick, crossed and recrossed by game tracks; four sheep bounded away when we first walked there. Several days later the cook served up a savory dish which tasted very much like mutton. None of us could guess where it came from; but, from the grin on Jim’s face, it is barely possible that he might have solved the riddle.

The Athabaska Glacier is the chief source of Sun-wapta1 River, the Sunwapta Pass, some four miles southeast of Wilcox Pass, dividing ultimate sources of North Saskatchewan from Athabaska drainage. Wilcox Pass is really not a pass at all, but a detour on the Sunwapta, by which the eastern meadows of Wilcox Mountain are rounded to avoid a deep canyon below the Athabaska tongue. The glacier itself is spectacular enough; it descends in three icefalls, from the Columbia field, through the gap between Mount Athabaska and The Snow Dome. The tongue flows for more than five miles and spreads in an enormous uncrevassed fan close to the trail. The headwater of the Sunwapta is augmented by the fall of Dome Glacier, plunging down between The Snow Dome and Mount Kitchener. Nowhere else did we observe a greater quantity of falling ice; scarcely an hour passed without resounding crashes announcing a streaming avalanche.

By the north glacier and the northwest arete we made, on July 19th, the third ascent of Mount Athabaska (11,452 feet). It is such a radiant, dazzling mountain when the sun shines on its unbroken northern snow; and it was a pity that we had wretchedly bad weather. The route, above timber-line, was entirely on snow until the final crest was reached and an occasional rocky outcrop found. There are several steep slopes where one must traverse laterally for short distances under a bit of hanging glacier; some enormous blocks lie frozen high up in the slope, and here only were we glad that the day was not too bright. Less than six hours brought us to the summit, a rising snow-wedge, without cornices. It was snowing hard, and through holes in the fog we had just occasional glimpses of the Saskatchewan Glacier. There was little to indicate the presence of the Columbia Icefield, and although it was discovered from this very point it would have been unseen if the first-ascent had been made under weather conditions such as we experienced.

The northwest glacier, by which we descended, is a variant of former routes, but interesting and repaying because of a tumbling icefall which one may safely approach. On the moraine we picked up a large trilobite fossil, quite different from the small shell-fossils which load the strata below the summit of Nigel Peak across the valley. There is a fine view over the Athabaska Glacier to the peaks of Diadem and Woolley beyond; but lowering clouds prevented our seeing very much of it, although the sun came out again as we reached the lower moraine and walked back to camp.

We had now completed our northern program as far as weather had permitted. North Twin, Saskatchewan, Columbia, Athabaska, and lesser peaks had fallen. The distances covered had been great: we had made two journeys across the Columbia Icefield— North Twin a round trip of more than thirty miles; Columbia but slightly less. North Twin, Saskatchewan, and Columbia had been captured within five days, perhaps constituting, if there be honour in it, a long-distance and altitude record in Canadian mountaineering.

Simpson told us an interesting tale, portions of which I was able to amplify, regarding the fate of Professor Coleman’s folding boat. It seems that this craft, which had been taken to Athabaska Pass in 1893 for the purpose of navigating the Committee Punch Bowl, was utilized on the return journey to carry one of the party down the Saskatchewan from the Kootenay Plains to Edmonton. A canvas boat, presumably the same one, was again taken by Coleman’s party in 1907, when travelling from Laggan to Mount Robson. That it never arrived beyond the sources of the Athabaska is indicated by the statement,3 “As our loads were heavy and some of the horses had sore backs we cached the folding boat and fifty pounds of supplies, enough to take us home from this point, in a thick spruce-tree, fastening everything up tight in bags to keep out winged or four-footed marauders. We hoped thus to make better time. This cache we were fated never to see again, and if some later traveller has not lifted it from the crotch among the branches of the old spruce, it may be there still in its waterproof wrappings.”

The cache, near Athabaska Glacier, remained untouched for several years. Then along came an outfit and camped beside it. An outfitter, waking suddenly in the night at the scratching of a small animal at the tent door, and with dreams of a grizzly still confusing him, fired his gun point-blank. The porcupine seems to have escaped unscathed, but a gaping hole was blown in the side of the folding boat.

Later in the season Simpson took the boat down to the Saskatchewan Forks, repaired it and used it for several years at the ford. It was finally burned up by a couple of Indians who, for reasons unknown, bore Jim a grudge. Thus ends the strange maritime history of a craft whose lengthiest voyages were made on the back of a pack-horse through high mountain regions!

On July 20th, camp was broken, and in seven hours we had negotiated the “Big Hill,” past Panther Fall, and the miles to Graveyard Camp. We could not help walking out on the river-flat that evening for a last look at Mount Saskatchewan. It is such a magnificent peak, the landmark of the entire valley, and it seemed no less glorious now that it was ours.

On the following day we crossed the Saskatchewan ford, camping below Mount Murchison, and in the afternoon enjoyed a much-needed bath in a warm shallow lake behind the tents. The old route was followed up the Mistaya to Wildfowl Lakes and Bow Pass. We had come back from the sources of the North Saskatchewan—it was journey’s end.


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