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The Glittering Mountains of Canada
Chapter XI. The Mountains of the Whirlpool

(The Ascents of Mounts Kane and Brown)

“Geography is an art as well as a science. And in parenthesis I may say that I doubt whether any science is complete which has not art behind it. We shall never be able fully to know and understand the Earth or to describe what we see if we use our intellectual and reasoning powers alone. If we are to attain to a complete knowledge of the Earth, and if we are to describe what we learn about it in an adequate manner so that others may participate in our knowledge, then we must use our hearts as well as our heads. We must be artists as well as meticulous classifiers, cataloguers and reasoners.

“And, therefore, I hold that if the function of Geography is to know the Earth and to describe the Earth, then the objection that the description of its Natural Beauty is outside the scope of Geography is not a valid objection. The picture and the poem are as legitimate a part of Geography as the map.,}

Sir Francis Younghusband

Twenty years ago, with an objective group of peaks several hundred miles distant by trail, a journey to a remote district was not to be lightly undertaken. The early days of mountaineering in the Canadian Rockies began when there was as yet no railroad through Yellowstone Pass. Consequently, most expeditions, at that time—even when bound for the far north—started from points on the Canadian Pacific Railroad, Banff or Lake Louise.

A. P. Coleman1 and his companions are responsible for the early enthusiasm, resulting in the repeated searches for the mysterious high peaks of Athabaska Pass. In 1888, they attempted to enter the region by way of the Columbia Loop, and actually reached Kin-basket Lake before abandoning the enterprise. In 1892, a second attempt, by way of North Saskatchewan and Athabaska headwaters, led them to Fortress Lake —which but for the absence of Mounts Hooker and Brown, and the discrepancy in the size of the lake, might have been the Committee Punch Bowl.

In 1893, a third expedition, led by Coleman, successfully reached the Athabaska Pass. The highest mountain on the western side of the pass was ascended, and was considered to be the peak which Douglas climbed.

They also ascended M’Gillivray’s Rock, the point where Mount Hooker is indicated on the Palliser map, but noted that “a much higher, finer peak rises a few miles east of the Punch Bowl, with fields of snow and a large glacier, and was estimated at about eleven thousand feet.” Because of the small size of the Committee Punch Bowl, a folding canvas boat, intended for use on the lake, remained in its pack-cover.

None of the other early expeditions actually reached Athabaska Pass, although the search for the high peaks was by no means given up. Wilcox and Barrett in 1896 reached Fortress Lake. Wilcox triangulated the massive glacier-bearing peak to the west—the present Mount Serenity—at 10,500 feet.

Habel, the German explorer, in 1901, spent several days near the lake and mentions Serenity as “a very prominent snowy mountain, visible nearly from top to bottom, in shape similar to Mont Blanc.”

Collie, who came out from England first in 1897, became interested in the Brown-Hooker problem. In those days, knowledge of the topography was so imperfect that it was thought that the North Fork of the Saskatchewan had its source in the neighbourhood of Athabaska Pass. Collie had seen high peaks in the north, from the slopes of Mount Freshfield, and, in 1898, visited many of them by way of the North Saskatchewan. The Athabaska Pass was not reached, but the climbers had their reward in the discovery of the huge Columbia Icefield.

Following the visit of Coleman, the next attempt at mountaineering from the pass was made, in 1913, by Messrs. Howard and Mumm,3 of the Alpine Club, accompanied by the guide Moritz Inderbinen. On the way in from Jasper, minor summits were attained; but in the immediate vicinity of Athabaska Pass the weather became so unfavourable that little could be done. Mumm and Inderbinen ascended Mount Brown and later visited the great glacier—the present Scott Glacier—at the source of Whirlpool River.

The first ascent of importance in the Whirlpool Group was that of Mount Serenity, made from Fortress Lake, in 1920, by Messrs. Carpe, Palmer and Harris. The route to the summit, by way of the Serenity Glacier and the southern arete, required ten hours from a camp at the glacier tongue.

In 1920, the Interprovincial Survey visited the Athabaska Pass and established the present nomenclature. A large number of stations were occupied, including Mount Brown, McGillivray Ridge (Mount Brown E.), Alnus and Divergence Peaks.

The Survey Commission4 published the following conclusions in regard to the Hooker-Brown problem:

“Mt. Brown. The mountain ascended by Douglas and named Mt. Brown by him is the one rising directly on the west side of the pass summit, the altitude being 9156 feet, 3405 feet above the pass.

“Mt. Hooker. The location is not so clear. Douglas writes in his journal, (1) ‘A little more to the south is one nearly the same height, rising more into a sharp point which I named Mt. Hooker.’ (2) ‘I set out with a view of ascending what appeared to be the highest peak on the north or left-hand side.’ Against these statements is the fact that the direction of the valley at the summit of the pass is practically north and south and consequently Douglas’ ‘north or left-hand side’ would truly be ‘west or left-hand side;’ so also with reference to Mt. Hooker, ‘a little to the south is one nearly the same height’ would truly be ‘a little to the east is one nearly the same height.’ Douglas’ idea of his direction seems to have been as inaccurate as his idea of altitude. On a bearing 18° north of east lies a peak, rising into a sharp point,

Mr. Cautley describes, among other things, the discovery, just north of the pass summit, of the musket-balls lost by David Thompson a hundred and ten years before. (See Chapter VIII, p. 111.) which is distant approximately six miles from the summit of Mt. Brown and which has an altitude of 10,782 feet, or 1626 feet more than that of Mt. Brown. It seems more likely that this is the mountain Douglas refers to as Hooker. (This is the mountain seen by Coleman and Stewart, and estimated at 11,000 feet.)

“From the vicinity of Fortress Lake this mountain peak stands up in a sharp white cone. It is not conceivable that the long, evenly crested ridge (i. e., Mc-Gillivray’s Rock) rising directly above the Punch Bowl from Athabaska Pass summit has anything to do with the question. It was, therefore, recommended to the Geographic Board that the 10,782 foot peak about six miles easterly from Mt. Brown be confirmed as Mt. Hooker, which has been done.” Thus rests the question officially.

For a moment let us consider the modern topography of the mountains south of Jasper. The Whirlpool Group occupies the rough triangle enclosed between the Whirlpool and Athabaska Rivers on west and east, and by Fortress Lake and Wood River on the south. It includes the portion of the Continental Divide between Fortress and Athabaska Passes, an airline distance of twenty miles, and its continuation to Whirlpool Pass. The air-line distance between Athabaska and Whirlpool Passes is eight miles.

The northern tip of the group, in the angle of the Whirlpool-Athabaska junction, although visible and but a day’s trail-riding from Jasper, has yet to be mapped. In this angle is a striking peak, known by local name as “Whirlpool Mountain,” south of which, with its upper crags visible from Jasper above the eastern shoulder of Mount Edith Cavell, is Mount Fryatt (11,026 feet), one of the outstanding mountains of the Park. Other peaks east of the Divide, included in the mapped area, are Lapensee (10,190 feet), and Belanger (10,200 feet), just south of Fryatt; while farther east, Mount Christie (10,160 feet), and Brussels Peak (10,370 feet), culminate a sub-group toward the Athabaska. Only a few miles north of Fortress Mountain, Mount Catacombs, attaining 10,800 feet, is the chief peak in the southeastern section.

From Fortress Pass (4388 feet), and Fortress Mountain (9908 feet), the Divide westward includes no peaks of importance as far as the head of Alnus Creek. At the western end of Fortress Lake, Alnus Valley enters Wood River at an acute angle from the northwest. At the head of Alnus Creek, low passes lead over to Divergence Creek, a Whirlpool tributary, and form a major trench extending through the Whirlpool Group.

It is chiefly with the area west of Alnus and Divergence Valleys that mountaineering interests have been concerned, as this portion of the group contains important peaks and many of the finest scenic features.

At the head of Alnus Creek, on the Divide, is Divergence Peak (9275 feet), whence the watershed swings sharply southward, crossing the summits of Alnus (9673 feet), Ross Cox (9840 feet), Scott (10,826 feet), Oates (10,220 feet), and Ermatinger (10,080 feet) The watershed now swings abruptly westward, crossing Mount Hooker (10,782 feet), and, route from the Whirlpool to Wood River, and we noticed tracks, high on the snow, on several occasions.

The air-line distance between Divergence Peak at the head of Alnus Creek, and the Committee Punch Bowl on Athabaska Pass, is twelve miles. On the Pass summit (5736 feet), are the Punch Bowl and two other adjacent lakelets, giving rise to terminal sources of the Whirlpool River, on the east, and Wood River, through Pacific Creek, on the west.

The Continental Divide continues from the Pass, rising westward to the summit of Mount Brown (9156 feet), thence turning northward and dropping to the icy lakes at the head of Robert Creek, and to Canoe Pass (6772 feet), connecting Whirlpool River with a branch of Canoe River. Crossing Mallard Mountain (9330 feet), the Divide reaches Whirlpool Pass (5936 feet), linking the Middle Whirlpool with the Mazama Creek branch of Canoe River. It will thus be seen that there are no peaks of importance immediately west of Athabaska Pass and the Whirlpool; the Divide is relatively low and can be crossed at several points. The feature of interest is the large area of glacier and snowfield on the southwest side of Mount Brown, extending into the angle between Wood and Canoe Rivers. The Continental Divide bends considerably in rounding the head of Whirlpool River, consequently the air-line distance between Divergence Peak and Whirlpool Pass is only about eight miles, practically equal to the distance between Athabaska and Whirlpool Passes.

The author’s expedition, in 1924, was the third to reach the Athabaska Pass for purely mountaineering purposes. Fortunate were we in coming to a place so little known—new peaks were everywhere at hand. Within a short space of time we were able to make the first-ascent of Mount Hooker and other peaks of the vicinity, and to explore the intricacies of the Kane and Hooker Icefields, as well as a portion of the vast topography of the Mountains of the Whirlpool.

From the Canadian National Railroad, with fourteen horses furnished by the well-known outfitter Donald Phillips, our party, including Mr. Alfred J. Ostheimer and Dr. Max Strumia of Philadelphia, myself, and the guide Conrad Kain, left Jasper on June 26th, bound for Athabaska Pass. In charge of the horses came David Washington Moberly, a Cree breed, grand-nephew of Walter Moberly who years before served as locating engineer for the Canadian Pacific. Our cook, Jack MacMillan, had assisted his father in building the first trails to Emerald Lake, and had worked for the pioneer Tom Wilson in the old days.

By road leading from The Lodge, across the Miette bridge, toward the snows of Mount Edith Cavell, we started up the Athabaska Valley, a broad trail bringing us to the mouth of Whirlpool River, the stream which we were to follow to its southern sources. Here was the location of the old ford—la Grand traverse— by which the voyageurs crossed to the Prairie de la Vache, or Buffalo Prairie, on their way to Jasper House.

Past the snow-powdered crags of Kerkeslin, through a broad valley, there are glimpses of distant peaks on the Sunwapta and Chaba; while looming in the Athabaska-Whirlpool angle, companion to many another dark tower, the precipices and pinnacles of the Whirlpool Mountain, grim and repellent, hide the towering mass of Fryatt, loftiest of the Whirlpool Group.

Through a small lumber-camp, where railroad-ties are cut and floated down to Jasper, we passed and camped by the Whirlpool, quiet pools nearby reflecting Needle Peak, guardian of the entrance to Simon Creek—the old “North Whirlpool.” Across the river, sunset colouring of the range blends with the dull, glowing embers of our campfire: soft wind-music in the jack-pine tops; rush of the river; distant bells tinkling—first days on the trail are well-remembered.

The second elevation in the central area of Jasper Park,5 Mount Fryatt, has long been recognized by climbers as a mountain difficult to approach. Situated back from the river, with heavily-wooded slopes, a formidable looking peak it is; rising so much above its neighboring valleys that mountaineers have left it severely alone. The Interprovincial Survey had photographed it from the southwest, from the head of Alnus Creek, revealing the presence of three attractive lakes and high meadows at the sources of Divergence Creek, the Whirlpool tributary immediately west of Mount Fryatt.

On June 27th we crossed the Whirlpool by a lumber-camp bridge, and attempted to take our horses up the creek west of Whirlpool Mountain to a low pass leading over to the head of Divergence Creek, where it seemed possible that we might establish a high camp. We were unsuccessful in our effort. After several hours in the dense timber, we gained an elevation of less than 6000 feet, where canyons and cut-banks make the creek bed almost impossible for horses. It would have been necessary to spend one or two days cutting trail through the high timbered shoulder on the west bank of the stream in order to reach the desired upper levels.

While we were investigating the route, several restless pack-horses succeeded in dislodging one of their fellows over a low rock ledge, the horse turning a complete somersault and landing head downward in the water. It required quick and skillful work on the part of the guides to cut the pack ropes and prevent the struggling animal from drowning. As usual, more damage was done to the packs than to the horse; but the delay assisted our decision not to proceed farther. So we recrossed the Whirlpool and camped on a terrace, by an old cabin not far from the mouth of Simon Creek.

Passing by the cook-house of the lumbermen, we were just too late to witness a lively incident. The cook, preparing lunch, had heard some scratching noises on the roof of the house. Thinking it was a squirrel, he did not pay much attention to it, but, happening to look up suddenly through the little skylight above, found himself looking squarely into the face of a large black bear. Both were immensely startled, the bear being much the more frightened of the two. The cook threw a frying-pan full of hot grease straight up in the air; bruin made an unceremonious dive over the eaves and galloped off amid a shower of kettles and dishes. We arrived in time to help the cook gather up his scattered utensils, and to confirm his story by examining the muddy paw-marks on the cabin roof.

When we returned along this trail, more than a week later, we found that a sudden rise of water had carried away the bridge over the river. So future visitors, approaching Mount Fryatt from this direction, will cross a difficult ford. From our camping place, evidently a very old one, we could see far sunlit peaks —Scott, Hooker, Evans, Kane—toward the head of Whirlpool River. How thrilling is the anticipation aroused by the first distant view of an unexplored group!

Morning came, brilliant after a night of heavy showers. In two hours we had forded Simon Creek, happily without wetting any packs. Then over parallel timbered ridges, with intervening muskeg and shallow reedy ponds, emerging on river-flats opposite the ribbed cliffs of Mount Scott, with new snow melting and sparkling. Then into the timber again, arcaded groves of cottonwood, with the Middle Whirlpool coming down in no apparent bed of its own, but spreading about the gnarled tree-roots, and the pack-train splashing through. It was as if one wandered in a splendid irrigated garden; a garden of primeval trees, grey-green in their veils of hanging moss, with tops so interlaced that only here and there might shafting sunlight penetrate the forest shadows.

As we neared the timbered point which is the campground, the magnificent ridges of Mount Hooker, with walls of twisted strata above the Scott icefall, slowly revealed their grandeur. Near our tents was an old roofless log-cabin, of spacious dimensions, with hand-forged nails in its crumbling walls. There are huge stumps in the clearing, so rotted that a touch will topple them over. We picked up bits of hand-made boxes with marks of the Hudson’s Bay Company still legible. Not far away, on a bit of cliff, four goats looked down in silent astonishment at our caravan’s arrival. In the evening, white-tailed deer passed close to the campfire on their way to the river: graceful and unafraid they moved along the gravel-bars, from one silvery pool to another, and disappeared at last in the sun-glint along the edge of the bush.

The Scott Glacier will be much visited in days to come because of the tremendous spectacular icefalls in which it plunges down to the valley level, to spread in a broad flat tongue toward the wooded morainal fans far below timber-line. We passed close below it on our next day’s travel and were to know it better within a short time. The upper neve spreads below the northern wall of Mount Hooker, and one must journey far in the Canadian Rockies to find ice-scenery which can compare with the wild splendour of this view. The western margin of the glacier is flanked by the symmetrical rock peak of Mount Evans, contrasting with the sheer snowy wall of Mount Kane just beyond, resembling the southern portion of the Victoria ridge above Lake Louise. From the col between Evans and Kane a slender precipitous icefall hangs in apparent defiance of the laws of gravity, pale-blue with a tinge of green, and its tiny stream ending in an airy waterfall that sprays to a rock-bowl close to the trail.

Rounding the shoulder of Mount Kane, trail leads through evergreen timber and thickets of pussy-willow, and patches of spring snow. Crowded clusters of anemones and avalanche-lilies press up through the melting margins. In the shadow of McGillivray’s Rock, with the snows of Mount Brown ahead, we enter on the Athabaska Pass.

The valley broadens above the gorge at the foot of Kane, snow becomes deeper, entirely covering the trail; pack-horses, floundering at first, gradually gain confidence in their footing. A gaunt cariboo stalks up and over a nearby ridge, moving so slowly. How surprising, to reach the summit lakes on the pass and stop by the central one—the Committee Punch Bowl! A skim of ice lay on the water, too cold for bathing; and, unlike Coleman, we had not brought a canvas boat. But one of us can at least be credited with having swum a horse across the Great Divide! Here Thompson and Douglas had come; here Ross and Simpson had drunk their wine; here had passed De Smet and Kane, and all the rest. . . .

The lakes are desolate, lonely tarns, and in winter may be entirely covered. Of course there are no lofty mountains on either side, and one is almost at a loss to pick out Mount Brown, for on the western side of the pass are several summits all about equal in height and resembling each other in outline. It is all so plain in Douglas’ journal; a visit to the pass is the really confusing thing. A traveller of today, writing on the spot, could never describe the pass and its peaks in Douglas’ words—the journal and the lay of the land simply do not agree.

On account of the snow, we placed camp among the trees on Pacific Creek about a mile below the pass summit, with a group of serrated splintered peaks in view down the valley of Wood River.

Hoping to reach Mount Hooker, on June 30th we left camp at 5.20 A. M. Following the north margin of the glacier-tongue coming from the shoulder of McGillivray’s Rock and the Kane Icefield, in two hours we had reached the upper snows. But on crossing to a higher ridge of the Divide, at 9300 feet, we found ourselves cut off from Mount Hooker’s southern wall by an impassable snow precipice, overhung with cornices and dropping to the broken Wood River glaciers of the Hooker Icefield. The arete connecting with Hooker rises into an intervening peak which would have to be traversed and forms a route impossibly long for a single day. So realizing that we were defeated, we followed our ridge northward and tramped the long stretches of snow to the Kane-Evans col, which we reached over a small schrund and up some slabby chimneys. We were now at the head of the hanging glacier which is so striking in appearance when seen from the Whirlpool, and upward over snow and ledge made our way to the top of Mount Kane. It was a few minutes after two o’clock when we arrived.

A little to the southeast there is a break in the curiously banded rock-wall separating the Kane Glacier and Hooker Icefield, affording a possible approach to Mount Hooker; but from Athabaska Pass it will be a very long journey. Beyond the north face of Hooker the view extends to far-away Athabaska sources, with Mount Alberta, The Twins, and Mount Columbia, stupendous even through the distances.

The Wood River Group is seen from an unusual angle and presents a fine array of glacial cirques on the northwest, by which the flat upper snows of Bras Croche might be reached and other peaks explored. Yet one hesitates to recommend a visit by way of Athabaska Pass and the low, timbered reaches of Wood River.

The northern snows of Mount Kane, so steep they are, seem to overhang the Whirlpool. It was the first summit from which all four of the 12,000 foot peaks of the Rockies are visible that any of us had attained. Far beyond the Rampart Group and southern Fraser sources, our gaze was held by Mount Robson. Towering nearly two thousand feet above its highest neighbours, its elevation emphasized by low surrounding valleys, one is yet attracted more by the mountain’s isolation than by its appearance of height. No great group masks its precipices. From our viewpoint the peak is a steep-angled pyramid, slightly blunted in the summit ice-cap, a streaming glacier continuous with the neve in a vertical rise of nearly 4000 feet, and the southeastern shoulder, conspicuous from the Grand Forks Valley, so fore-shortened as to be almost unrecognizable.

The west is a chaos of unravelled topography: the northern peaks of the Columbia Loop, the Fraser-Canoe divide, the Gold Range, the Cariboos and far peaks of the Fraser Valley. Long familiarity with the main chain of the Canadian Rockies cannot dull the overwhelming sense of hopeless awe aroused by the extent of those unnamed western peaks.

It is not easy or profitable to describe precisely the Kane traverse. Suffice it to say that the arete west of the summit affords a delightful climb of several hours, with work which does not lack in excitement. The snow-ridges encountered are quite narrow, with airy drops to the Whirlpool Valley; the arete possesses a blunt central tower, with opportunities for interesting hand-and-friction traverses on the southern slabs. A last curling ladder of snow leads to scree slopes, and broken rock descending to the glacier. We walked home across the Kane field, in the lengthening shadow of McGillivray’s Rock, and the evening glow on the ranges beyond Wood River. At precisely 8.20 P. M., Jack was requested to cook an enormous supper for four!

On the following day we wandered up Mount Brown, past ice-glazed lakelets on benches of snow, like gigantic steps, above the Committee Punch Bowl. Then following the eastern margin of the Brown Icefield, we took what climbing we could find—the rope was unnecessary—and were soon walking up the long shale ridge to the top. The ascent took five hours, and we arrived at a quarter before three; the time was slow, but it was a blistering day and we were a lazy lot. Still it makes one doubtful whether David Douglas, under winter conditions and with limited time due to a late start, could have reached this particular summit.

The Brown Icefield drains to Canoe River and to Wood River; the peaks on its western margin, all unnamed, are attractive and should preferably be reached from a camp at the head of Jeffrey Creek. The unnamed pass through the Divide, immediately north of Mount Brown, deserves a visit. Three lakes, icy and varying in hue, form the sources of Robert Creek and drain to Canoe River. The Wood River and Columbia Groups are practically in line, Alberta and The Twins visible, but Columbia hidden by square-topped Bras Croche. Two hours passed; cameras clicked busily, pipes were smoked; we snoozed in the sunlight. The view delighted us—we could not think of it as being “too awful to afford pleasure.” In another two hours we had glissaded merrily back to the campfire, tracking in over the lower snow-patches just before seven o’clock.

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