Virtual Mountaineering?

21 10 2012

One of the great pleasures of mountaineering literature is its ability to transport the reader from their comfortable reading chair into a sublime alpine landscape. Conversely, anyone who has read a lot of mountaineering literature has dealt with the frustration of trying to follow the narrative through a complex, unfamiliar landscape.

For the last several weeks I’ve been chipping away at a  fun side project at work where I’ve been embedding our Neal Carter photographs into Google Earth and then re-creating a virtual tour of Carter & Townsend’s complete 1923 exploratory mountaineering expedition into the mountains immediately on the east side of the Whistler Valley.

The narration is drawn from Charles Townsend’s first-hand account of the trip, published in the British Columbia Mountaineering Club’s club journal, the B.C. Mountaineer. The BC climbing community at the time still had very close cultural ties to their largely British roots, and Townsend’s account is written very much in the characteristic “stiff upper lip” tradition. In the few instances where Townsend admits to danger or difficulty, you can be assured that things had turned nasty.

I’m struggling to come up with a clear, concise description of the finished product; “virtual mountaineering”? Digital historical re-enactment? Regardless, my aim was to re-package a mountaineering narrative in a manner that combines the amazing geo-spatial context of Google Earth, the aesthetic and documentary qualities of historical photographs, and the authenticity of a first-hand written account.

The first clip covers their first objective, the first ascent of Wedge Mountain, the highest peak in Garibaldi Park. Note that they did not use the current approach, but began instead from the Wedge Creek drainage, slightly to the south of Wedgemount Creek. Their only glimpse of Wedgemount Lake would have been from Wedge’s summit of ridge. I have down-climbed their climbing route up the south-west face and can attest that the “two-foot cubed” rocks make for extremely awkward travel; too large for “scree-surfing,” too small for the stability of larger boulders, but still large enough to do some serious damage.

The second clip follows the pair as they venture deeper into the Coast Mountain wilderness, completing the first ascent of the lower but equally formidable Mount James Turner.

The third and final clip covers the second half of their trip, for which they hiked up the predecessor of today’s Singing Pass trail and based out of the old prospector’s cabin near the Oboe-Cowboy  Ridge col. (I’m assuming BC Parks disassembled the cabin, probably in the forties or fifties. Does anyone know more about this?). This clip contains perhaps the most interesting scenery since they actually climb a pre-development Whistler Mountain, as well as the most challenging climbing during the first ascent of Mount Diavolo (named in honour of their “hellish” climbing experience).

This was a lot of fun, but also a lot of work. For those who are curious, the process was as follows:

  • Embed the photographs in Google Earth using the “Add photo” function. Familiarity with the landscape and patience with fidgety Google Earth controls comes in handy for getting things to line up just right.
  • Recording a rough of the tour using a video screen capture software (we used the very simple and awesomely named KRUT), using a combination of custom pathways, opacity controls,  and other Google Earth tricks. This process is far from perfect, and I’m interested to hear suggestions from anyone who has used Google Earth Pro, or knows how to customize Google Earth controls beyond the options provided in the program’s “preferences.”
  • Transcribe and record the audio.
  • Mix it all together using video editing software like Adobe Premiere. Substantial editing of the raw KRUT video file was necessary to eliminate the worst of Google Earth’s finickiness.

There’s plenty of potential for similar Google Earth-based historical narratives. Right now I’m looking forward to experimenting with on-screen annotation, integrate contemporary photography, and additional graphics. Such tours could potentially have a lot of different pedagogical applications as well.

Book Review: The Grizzly Manifesto by Jeff Gailus

4 01 2012

The Grizzly Manifesto: In Defence of the Great Bear
A Rocky Mountain Books Manifesto
by Jeff Gailus
168 pages, hardcover

A spectre is haunting North America’s grizzlies–the spectre of knuckleheads (as well as reckless industrialization, urban sprawl, highways, railroads, inert bureaucracies, and public apathy). Fortunately for grizzlies and their supporters, journalist and long-time wilderness advocate Jeff Gailus has written The Grizzly Manifesto (Rocky Mountain Books, $16.95 hardcover) to expose the crimes against grizzlies committed by this unholy alliance.

The Grizzly Manifesto is a welcome addition to Rocky Mountain Books’ timely “Manifesto Series” of concise, provocative hardcover essays about pressing environmental concerns. Where other authors might have adopted an orderly, systematic structure when confronted by the series’ confined format (maximum 25,000 words), Gailus has instead crafted a meandering essay that traces the authors’ own education in grizzly conservation interspersed with frequent insights about grizzly biology, politics, and popular culture.

A single chapter can wander from the grizzly’s diet (voracious and varied, but mostly plants), to their reproductive processes (slow, with some curious surprises), through their post-glacial migrations (often millennia ahead of humans), to their supreme roles in the spiritual lives of indigenous peoples across North America and Eurasia. This last bit even leads into a sustained consideration of the theory that the grizzly’s annual hibernation might have inspired the ancient human mythology of resurrection.

Such a literary scenic route contributes far more in terms of readability than it sacrifices in coherence. The effect is an enthralling narrative that navigates the intricacies of grizzly-conservation politics as purposefully as a well-worn game trail through a dark, overgrown forest, with hidden wonders sign-posted along the way.

The book confronts Canadians and their long-cherished wilderness values with the provocative challenge: like it or not, the fate of these archetypal wild beasts presents an unavoidable test-case as to whether or not we actually give a damn about preserving this nation’s natural heritage. Right now it doesn’t look good.

For many readers, Grizzly Manifesto will destroy the same illusions about Canada’s pre-eminence in all things environmental that Gailus has been forced to abandon through his decades-long efforts to improve Canadian conservation policies. While corrupt politicians, greedy industrialists, “knucklehead” recreationalists, and popular indifference all feel Gailus’ scorn, nobody comes away from The Grizzly Manifesto more abused than Parks Canada.

A firm believer in the Parks Branch’s primary responsibility to protect and preserve national park’s ecological integrity, Gailus scathingly details how the iconic institution is failing its sacred mandate. In perhaps his scathing climax, after outlining several severe and undeniable threats to Banff’s bruins, Gailus condemns the conservation objectives crafted by our park’s custodians with the damning assessment that “Parks Canada has set the bar so low that even a snake could slither over it.”

For any literary advocacy to be as moving as Gailus’ it must be aimed steadfastly at manifest injustice, but it must also be sustained by at least a modicum of genuine hope. In this regard Gailus’ efforts are nourished by the small, imperiled, but undeniable victory south of the border at Yellowstone National Park. Here, thanks to adaptive (and downright courageous) leadership and beefier environmental laws than our own, the region’s once-doomed grizzly population has tripled in recent decades. Canadians should take note.

In such a condensed form there are bound to be omissions, some glaring. While the imperiled fate of Alberta’s 700-odd grizzlies receives full treatment, only a few sentences go to the 25,000 that live in B.C. and the Territories. The word Alaska does not enter the text. Gailus does well to stick to his area of expertise, and the general terms of Banff’s grizzly battle may be largely universal, but a brief survey of other fronts would have made this book more immediately relevant to a larger audience.

Still, Gailus should be commended for crafting an argument on behalf of the great bear that is at once measured and passionate. The Grizzly Manifesto is an attractively packaged book that makes excellent work of the Manifestos‘ refreshing, punchy format. Anyone concerned about the continuing (accelerating!) loss of North America’s wild spaces and species will feel informed, disheartened, enraged, inspired, and, before Gailus is through, even a little empowered.

Neal Carter Climbing Album

8 11 2011

Among the tens of thousands of historical photos that the Whistler Museum holds in our archives, I think Neal Carters’ are my favourites. Carter was one of the most prolific mountaineers on the BC Coast during the 1920s and 1930s, gaining several first ascents. He also managed to turn his climbing hobby into a career, working as a surveyor first on hydro-survey crews around Garibaldi Lake, and then playing a major role in creating the first official topographic map of Garibaldi Park in 1928.

The mountains immediately surrounding Whistler were of special interest to him. Not only did he personally map much of the area (original copies of his massive topo map are in the Vancouver City and BC Provincial Archives), he was also instrumental in convincing the Provincial Government to expand Garibaldi Park in 1928 to approximately its current boundaries, including the Spearhead Range and the Wedge groups of peaks.

His first excursion into our local mountains occurred in September 1923 when he, along with fellow Vancouver climber Charles Townsend, spent two weeks bagging first ascents in the region. Beyond the sheer joy of two weeks climbing in such sublime terrain, the two were also on the lookout for potential sites for future BC Mountaineering Club summer camps, which had been held almost exclusively at Black Tusk Meadows for the last decade.

Their first night’s camp on the flanks of Wedge. Tent pole technology has come a long way in the last 88 years.

Using Rainbow Lodge as their base (they gave Myrtle Philip copies of their photos from this trip, which is how the museum ended up with them) they first scrambled up Wedge Creek with a week’s worth of provisions. Carter’s very matter-of-fact account printed in the BC Mountaineer belies their huge, gruelling days of bushwacking, navigating crevasse mazes, and scrambling up terribly steep and loose talus slopes in uncharted terrain.

The view south from Wedge to our familiar W-B backcountry: (l to r) Mounts Overlord, Pattison, Fissile, Trorey, Davidson, Castle Towers and Decker.

They managed to bag the first ascents of the twin giants of Wedge Mountain and Mount James Turner (whose summit was almost too small to build a cairn), while surveying and naming many of the surrounding peaks and glaciers, over seven days. Along the way they were treated to remarkably clear conditions, which, combined with Carter’s substantial technical skills as a photographer (crucial for accurate topographic surveys), produced some striking images of the surrounding landscape.

Getting radical near Mt. James Turner.

Returning back to Rainbow Lodge, they revelled in a massive dinner and comfortable night’s sleep in a bed, but were back at it early the next morning heading for the “largely unexplored” Spearhead Range. They first headed for Singing Pass-then known as “Avalanche Pass” and spent a night in the prospector’s cabin.

The rest of that week was spent climbing surrounding peaks such as Fissile (then Red Mountain), Overlord, and a further excursion for the first ascents of Mount Angelo and Mount Diavolo, which they named for their contrasting appearances.

Impressive solitude near Whistler’s peak.

This is just a small sample from more than fifty photos in our collection that Carter produced over the two-week dream trip. Most of them are beautiful in their own right, but are just as interesting as a unique perspective on a landscape that has become some of the most-visited “backcountry” terrain in the province. Scanning through the images, you get a sense of Carter’s excitement and wonder as he peered out over vast expanse of completely undeveloped, largely unknown terrain. I dare anyone who’s lost their stoke and has begun to take our amazing surroundings for granted to come browse Carter’s photo albums and not get inspired.

Deep Summer slideshow

1 08 2011

My new job at the Whistler Museum has given me the opportunity to work on a bunch of interesting projects. For one, I’ve been contributing weekly content to  the new site Whistler Is Awesome (part of a network of “_____ Is Awesome” sites).  This week’s post is the second half of a profile I wrote about pioneer local ski-mountaineer Pip Brock; a longer version with more photo content can be found on the Whistler Museum’s own blog, Whistorical.

Writing for WIAwesome led to the opportunity to produce a slideshow to be screened during the intermission of the Deep Summer Photo Challenge, one of the marquee events of Whistler’s annual Crankwork mountain bike festival. Deep Summer was, as always, an amazing show and I was really excited to have my work shown during the event (click here to see the top 3 shows from Deep Summer).

The Whistler Museum doesn’t have many mountain biking photographs in our archives (something we intend on rectifying in the future), so I decided to put a show together featuring a selection of the great summer mountaineering photos we have. This seemingly simple task  was more work than I expected, but I’m not going to complain about a few days of sitting at my desk listening to a great song and looking at beautiful old mountaineering photos.

Check it out:

Mining Whistler’s Past

9 07 2011

This is a re-post that I originally wrote for the Whistler Museum blog.


Whistler draws people from around the world for any number of reasons: skiing, biking, wildlife viewing, night clubs, fine dining, mining… wait, mining? Although a largely forgotten aspect of our region’s past, the (mostly unfulfilled) promise of underground riches was one of the Whistler Valley’s main draws in the days before “world-class shopping.”

Our local mining industry is actually 10,000 years old. Squamish archaeologist Rudy Reimer has found obsidian quarries in Garibaldi Park that were in use shortly after the retreat of continental ice sheets permitted the initial peopling of the region. Used for razor-sharp blades and fine jewellery, this volcanic glass can still be found among Garibaldi Park’s ancient lava flows.

Because each obsidian quarry has a distinct mineral composition, scientists are able to “fingerprint” fragments found at archaeological sites and trace them back to their source. Garibaldi obsidian, a valuable trade item, has been found throughout southern B.C. and Washington state.

The first non-indigenous visitors to Whistler–William Downie, a Scottish veteran of the California  gold rush (a “49er”), and Joseph Mackay, a former Hudson’s Bay Company employee (a fur trader, not a retail clerk)–were commissioned by the colonial government to explore the territory between Lillooet Lake (Pemberton) and Howe Sound (Squamish) in September 1858, hoping to find a better coastal access route to the booming gold mines of the B.C. interior. Dwindling rations forced Downie and Mackay to press on to to the coast before exploring the surrounding mountains.

Scouring our archival holdings is a little like exploratory mining. Our archivists recently uncovered a gem, this massive 1916 map of recorded mining claims in southwestern BC.

Following on their heels, tens of thousands of goldseekers rushed into B.C. during the 1860s. While the majority of them travelled along the Douglas Route up Lillooet Lake then northwards beyond Pemberton,  many other prospectors came up from Howe Sound and rooted around the surrounding creeks and mountains en route. Since mining men are notoriously secretive, however, very few records survive of prospecting activity prior to the twentieth century.

Among Whistler’s earliest known commercial mining operations was the Green Lake Mining and Milling Company, beginning operations at least as early as 1910. Run by Mr. A McEvoy of Vancouver, the Green Lake Co. worked 10 small claims at the 1000 – 1300 metre level on Whistler Mountain above Fitzsimmons creek. The workers lived  on the mountain’s lower slopes in cramped, drafty housing with a regrettable male-to-female ratio. Sound familiar? They found gold, silver, and copper, but never in commercially viable quantities.

Harry Horstman, a lanky prospector from Kansas, was to have greater staying power but similarly meagre returns. Despite his prairie roots, Horstman was at ease up high, living for decades in a log cabin near the 1600-metre level on Mount Sproatt. Digging several tunnels, Horstman found enough copper to eke out a modest living (supplemented by trapping), but he never struck a major load.

Harry Horstman at his Mount Sproatt cabin.

The Horstman Glacier on Blackcomb is named after this pioneering local. Horstman was a fixture in the Alta Lake community for decades, but still appreciated the seclusion of his mountain-top retreat. I wonder what he would think of the neon circus that goes on every summer on his namesake glacier!

Beginning in 1916, a group of twenty-odd men began operations as Alta Lake Mining near today’s Alpine Meadows neighbourhood. They excavated bog-iron ore, which occurs when iron dissolved in run-off water forms deposits in bogs or swamps. At their height of operations they sent 150 tons of bog iron a day down the PGE railway to Squamish, where it was then shipped to the Irondale smelter at Port Townsend, Washington.

Other locals also pursued small-scale prospecting and mining. Fitzsimmons Creek, which runs between Whistler and Blackcomb Mountains, is named after  Jimmy Fitzsimmons, who prospected throughout his namesake valley. Mining shafts that resulted from his exploration can still be found along the Singing Pass trail.

In the 1930s, locals Billie Bailiff (who also kept a trapline in the Singing Pass/Cheakamus Lake area) and Bill “Mac” MacDermott also dug mine shafts on the north side of Whistler Mountain, hoping to find the north end of the Britannia Mine’s massive copper vein. They didn’t succeed, but interest in Whistler Mountain’s underground remained.

Most of us know that the first ski lifts on Whistler Mountain started from Creekside. Fewer realize that the original plans included lifts and runs on Whistler’s north side, rising from near the present-day village. These plans had to be abandoned, however, because the provincial government chose to protect mineral claims on that side of the mountain now held by two companies, including the Canadian giant Noranda.

Unsurprisingly, mining claims didn’t interfere when plans to develop the north side of Whistler Mountain resurfaced in the late-1970s, as the provincial government was now a key investor in the planned resort expansion.

While never developing on a comparable scale to the Coast Mountain mega-mines at Brittania Beach or the Pioneer Mine, the quest for underground riches still played a formative role in Whistler’s early days. If one knows where to look, traces of this past mining activity can still be found throughout the local landscape. Local whitewater folk are familiar with the abandoned Ashlu gold mine because it is the drop-in point for a popular kayaking run.

Kayaker at the entrance to the abandoned Ashlu gold mine.

Though interesting to history buffs, this hidden legacy also poses significant physical and environmental hazards. For more on this context, track down the Summer 2011 issue of Kootenay Mountain Culture Magazine  for a short article on this titled “Rider Dun Gone.” (The article isn’t available on-line, but the magazine is free and can be found here.) For more info on industry and government efforts to track down and regulate Canada’s thousands of abandoned mines, check out the National Orphaned Abandoned Mines Initiative.

Want to learn more? Book an appointment to come mine our archives which contain old reports from the provincial Ministry of Mines, among other records. If you’re really keen you can even take your new knowledge into the woods and find some old mining ruins that haven’t yet been completely overtaken by the relentless coastal rainforest. But be careful! And remember, although relatively young these are archaeological sites; try to leave them undisturbed for others to enjoy.

Garibaldi Park: “Vancouver’s Alpine Playground”

13 05 2011

I’m deep in the final stages of thesis writing here, so I’ve got a bit of a “lazy” post this month.

Last weekend I attended the bi-annual BC Studies Conference in Kelowna. This year there was a good deal of environmental and recreational history- themed presentations, including papers on the fertile ground between these two fields about the Skagit Valley in BC’s Cascade Mountains by UBC’s Phil Van Huizen, the Bowron Lakes in the Northern Cariboo Mountains by my UNBC colleague Mica Jorgenson, the Forbidden Plateau on Vancouver Island by Dr. Jenny Clayton. As always, the informal discussions between sessions and at dinner/a pub were my favourite part of the conference.

Just as I was on my way out the door on the final day, I was happily informed that my paper on Garibaldi Park won the prize for best paper by an MA-level presenter. Below, I’ve included the opening passage of an earlier version of the paper (I think I like this intro better), in which I discuss efforts by Vancouver-based mountaineers to have a road constructed linking the city with the recently created Garibaldi Provincial Park.

Essentially, Garibaldi was envisioned as a grand mountain park akin to the “crown jewel” national parks like Banff and Jasper, except that Garibaldi’s proximity to an urban centre would make it accessible to people of more modest means. In effect, Garibaldi’s advocates hoped that the park’s development would integrate Garibaldi into the Greater Vancouver urban network, “democratizing” access to wilderness in the process.

Looking back upon a sojourn in the park, one is intensely aware of

a feeling that one has been living in an atmosphere differing peculiarly

from any afforded by other mountainous districts of British Columbia.

It is difficult to analyze this feeling, but it may possibly be because of

the close proximity of this beautiful wilderness to Vancouver, with its

teeming thousands. The contrast is so sharp. To be surrounded by the

din and roar of the big city in the morning, and the same evening to be

enveloped in the silence and grandeur of this vast mountainous region, 

tends towards the suggestion that one has  suddenly been transported

into different world.[i] 

Though undeniably wild and grand, in many ways Garibaldi Provincial Park is an urban park.

As suggested by prominent Victoria artist A.M.D. Fairbairn in the 1932 Victoria Daily Colonist article quoted above, the ability to enjoy the solitude of a remote mountain setting without enduring a lengthy voyage was more than a pleasant convenience; it was at the core of one’s encounter with the Garibaldi landscape.

The jarring experience of being rapidly transported between these two antithetical landscapes—like bolting between a sauna and a frigid winter lake—seemed both to enhance Garibaldi’s alpine grandeur, and, upon safe return, to underscore the exciting modernity of Vancouver.

A.M.D. Fairbairn, “Vacationing in Garibaldi National Park,” Victoria Daily Colonist, 30 October 1932, t, p3 (magazine section).

By 1932 Fairbairn could assume that such ideas would be well-received by British Columbia’s urban newspaper readership. A mere four decades earlier, however, most Lower Mainland residents would have considered the Garibaldi region as a marginal and mysterious wilderness.

An earlier Vancouver Province reporter noted that even the much-closer Grouse Mountain, a 1,200 meter peak that rises abruptly from Vancouver’s North Shore, “had a far away sound… such as is associated with Timbuctoo or the South Pole, and no one seemed to care to break in upon the virgin slumbers of the Sleeping Beauty.”[ii] In the 1890s, just as British Columbia’s Lower Mainland was rapidly urbanizing, Vancouver-based mountaineers began their first forays into the alpine wilderness.

While people had long ventured into British Columbia’s Coast Mountains, these mountaineers were peculiar because they did so simply for the sense of well-being they derived from experiencing these alpine landscapes first hand. No longer an ancient homeland, a place of work, a vast field of unexploited resources, or a regrettable, even “frightful” barrier to progress, the Coast Mountains were rediscovered as a still-wild, but now uplifting and “pure” natural environment.

Driven by the discovery of new mountain vistas, these climbers soon ventured beyond the rugged, but relatively small North Shore Mountains. 1904 witnessed the first attempt by coastal mountaineers to scale Mount Garibaldi (2,675m), the volcanic massif that dominates the Howe Sound skyline, seventy kilometres up coast from Vancouver. Three years later, a similarly composed party finally claimed victory over the Howe Sound giant.

These well-publicized expeditions drew attention to the region’s recreational potential while opening up a whole new field of alpine opportunity.

Beyond Garibaldi lay a vast, unmapped expanse of sprawling glaciers, volcanic landforms, picturesque meadows, and jewel-toned lakes. This territory soon became the preferred destination of coastal mountaineers.

Heavily flowered slopes above Garibaldi Lake. Photographer: John Davidson, ca. 1915. Courtesy City of Vancouver Archives.

Upon return, these same climbers began campaigning for the protection of the Garibaldi district through the development of a national or provincial park. Success was had in 1920 when the area surrounding Garibaldi Lake was set aside as the Garibaldi Provincial Reserve, and further in 1927 when the Garibaldi Park Act formally created the greatly expanded Garibaldi Provincial Park.[iv]

Through these activities Garibaldi came to be portrayed as “Vancouver’s Alpine Playground,” representing a new set of ideas which had obscured and displaced other narratives about the Garibaldi landscape. What began as the curious outlook of a handful of pioneer mountain-climbers became an increasingly normative way of thinking about the Coast Mountain landscape.

The widespread social benefits attributed to this wilderness park, Garibaldi’s champions argued, would play a crucial role in Vancouver’s future well-being and continued ascent as a world-class, modern metropolis. As such, the creation of Garibaldi Provincial Park was part of broader efforts to incorporate this region of the southern Coastal Mountains into Greater Vancouver as the city’s recreational hinterland.

Local newspapers were highly supportive of plans to develop Garibaldi Park. Using colourful illustrations and dramatized story-telling, dozens of stories recounted excursions to Garibaldi and portrayed the park as a favourable travel destination for Vancouverites, if only a road were built. Vancouver Province, 6 October 1929, 5 (magazine section).

Yet the campaign for park development put forth by Garibaldi’s champions was only partially fulfilled. Central to the “Alpine Playground” idea was the development of tourist accommodations and a motor-road from the heart of the park to make its recreational opportunities more accessible to residents of and visitors to Vancouver, any semblance of which would not come until the 1960s. Examining the failure to achieve this vision provides further insights into this crucial period of park formation in Canada.

[i] A.M.D. Fairbairn, “Vacationing in Garibaldi National Park” Victoria Daily Colonist, 1932 30 Oct. 1932, 3 (mag. sect.).

[ii] “Bring on New Peaks,” Vancouver Province, 16 April 1910, 20 (2nd sect.).

[iv]Report on Garibaldi Park and Contiguous Area, for the Honourable, Minister of Lands, B.C. (Victoria: B.C. Dept. of Lands, 1932), Frederick Charles Bell papers, British Columbia Provincial Archives (hereafter BCA), MS-1095..

Not So Humble Roots

11 04 2011

Growing up on a farm south of Winnipeg, I dreamt of British Columbia.

Totem poles and snow-capped mountains symbolized the west coast

province. I fell in love sight unseen with the west beyond the west.

In these opening lines of her best-selling history of British Columbia, The West Beyond the West, Jean Barman, nicely summed up the romantic sentiment that has inspired so many Canadians to “Go West!”

Boasting the mighty Gatineau Hills, the Outaouais region of west Quebec where I grew up was only marginally more mountain-like than Barman’s Manitoba farm. By the time I was in junior high, still a few years away from even seeing a mountain firsthand, I already knew that I would one day call “The West” home.

Overlooking the Ottawa Valley from the Gatineau Hills in winter.

The dominant orientation of nearly four centuries of North American history has been westward. While the lure of cheap land and abundant resources (enabled by the tragic effects of colonial encounter) propelled the continent’s initial resettlement, in later years, the call of the mountains helped sustain this westward migration.

North America’s first mountaineers (in the modern, European sense) came from eastern Canada and New England along newly-built railroads, seeking adventure in the famed Canadian Rockies. Even the Alpine Club of Canada was founded in Winnipeg of all places. Surely, every western Canadian town has strong eastern ties, dating back centuries and continuing up to the present. It is a recurring joke here in Whistler to wonder out loud if there are any people left in Ontario (or Australia, for that matter), for they all seem to have moved here.

Many of my friends here in Whistler went to the same high school as me, and I have childhood friends spread throughout western mountain towns. Recently, I uncovered two much older links between my childhood home and the Mountain West.

"Mouth of the Homathko River" by Frederick Whymper, 1864. The painting depicts the terminus of Waddingtons Road, also known as Waddington Harbour, where the Homathko flows into Bute Inlet. Source: British Columbia Archives.

I’ve been studying Alfred Waddington for a few years now. The British-born, Victoria-based entrepreneur was the brains, money, and enthusiasm behind an audacious plan to build a wagon road from British Columbia’s Bute Inlet to the booming Cariboo goldfields in the early 1860s. Despite having to pass through the incredibly rugged central Coast Mountains, by April 1864 the project was progressing well and the work crew optimistically hoped to complete the road that summer.

But it was not meant to be. Following a dispute over pay and maltreatment, a party of local Tsilhqot’in men attacked and killed fourteen of Waddington’s work crew. In response the colonial authorities organized a massive manhunt through the central British Columbia wilderness which ended with the hanging of six Tsilhqot’in men. This series of events, now known as the Chilcotin War, was one of the most tramautic and controversial episodes in British Columbia history.

(Great Unsolved Mysteries in Canadian History, an innovative tool for teaching high-school-level Canadian History, has a great account of the Chilcotin War here. Chapters 2 and 3 from Frederick Whymper’s 1868 Travel and Adventure in Alaska, provide a fascinating contemporary account of Waddington’s road project, the Coast Mountain landscape, and the Chilcotin War. Older brother of the famed alpinist Edward Whymper, Frederick visited Bute Inlet in 1864, en route to Alaska, leaving  just weeks before the Chilcotin War.)

The Chilcotin War put an immediate halt to Waddington’s road-building enterprise, and although his route was nearly selected as the final leg of the first trans-Canada railway, only a handful of people of European descent visited the region over the next half century. The central Coast Mountains became deepest, darkest British Columbia.

When Don and Phyllis Munday “discovered” a massive peak somewhere in the middle of this foreboding wilderness in 1925, they called it, appropriately, “Mystery Mountain.” And while this title remained widely used for decades, the provincial government preferred to honour the valiant, if unsuccessful, exploits of one of the province’s most energetic pioneers by officially naming British Columbia’s highest peak “Mount Waddington.”

The remains of Waddingtons trail through the Homathko Canyon. Photograph taken by Charles Horetzky, a member of the 1872 Canadian Pacific Railway exploratory survey, led by Sir Sandforn Fleming. Source: British Columbia Archives.

I’ve been fascinated by this story for some time, but only while reading an out-of-print biography of Waddington a few months ago did I learn of the man’s final years. Waddington spent much time in Ottawa promoting his national railway scheme, and it was here, in February 1872, that he succumbed to smallpox. As was common for prominent Ottawans at the time, he was buried at St. James Cemetery, across the Ottawa River in Hull, Quebec.

I have passed by this cemetery hundreds, if not thousands, of times, though I have never been in. It lies on the main route between my childhood home and downtown Ottawa, and is only a few hundred metres from my junior high. Little did I know that in that unassuming field lay such a close connection to the great peak whose jagged summit astounded even Sir Edmund Hilary when he, accompanied by Phyllis Munday, toured Mt. Waddington in a helicopter in 1955.

Alfred Waddingtons gravestone, St. James cemetary, Hull, Quebec. It reads: ALFRED WADDINGTON the original promoter of the CANADA PACIFIC RAILWAY. Born at Crescent House, Brampton, London, Oct. 2nd, 1801. Died at Ottawa, Feb. 26th, 1872.

At he time of Waddington’s burial, just a few kilometres down the road (in Aylmer, my hometown), lived a teenager named James McArthur, Perhaps he was prone to dreaming of mountains, sight unseen, as well. for within a few years McArthur made the move out west to work for the Dominion Land Survey.

"The Field Hotel below Mount Stephen, British Columbia" by Edward Roper. Painted in the same year as J.J. McArthurs historic ascent of the same mountain. Courtesy

In September 1887 while mapping terrain adjacent to the recently completed CPR, the same railway that Waddington promoted but never lived to see, McArthur climbed to the summit of Mount Stephen which looms above the village of Field, British Columbia just west of the Continental Divide. This was the first non-indigenous ascent of a Canadian peak above 10,000 feet, leading Chic Scott, in his excellent history of Canadian mountaineering Pushing the Limits, to proclaim McArthur “the first Canadian mountaineer.”

McArthur would have a long, successful survey career, first in the Rockies, and later in the St. Elias Mountains, eventually being appointed Canadian Commissioner of the 1917 survey to locate the boundary between Alaska and Yukon Territory.

When I was fifteen, on my first visit to the Canadian Rockies, I can recall being surprised to read the name “Mount Aylmer” written above a massive pyramid-shaped mountain on one of those interpretive panoramic photos which one finds at roadside lookouts in our national parks. I figured the name was just a funny coincidence with as little to do with my home town as the canned tomatoes.

In fact, the peak was another of McArthur’s many first ascents, and he felt it appropriate to commemorate his eastern roots by attaching the name of the west-Quebec logging town to the highest peak near Banff.

Many historians and public figures have celebrated Canada’s western mountains (often, incorrectly, referred to collectively as the Rocky Mountains) as symbols of national identity. Certainly, the allure of our mountain landscapes resonate far beyond their immediate neighbourhood, and it is perhaps worth pondering how many life trajectories have been shaped by these unyielding peaks.


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