In July, from Philly we crossed Canada on the Trans-Canada Highway in Sam Tatnall’s boxy van. With Peter Herbine, Peter Helmetag and his wife Julie we were five.
We took in the obligatory Niagara Falls.
Sam’s van had a surface area somewhere near 50,000 square inches. At our first campsite, west of Toronto, we parked and got out. In the darkness the air hummed faintly, ominously; we estimated that one-million mosquitos darkened its white surface.
We swam in Lake Superior.
Farther west we encountered an Airstream caravan many miles long containing hundreds of shiny trailers, requiring hours completely to pass on the two-lane highway. After that we dared not tarry long for fear of being re-overtaken.
Each night we had stopped to camp until I, who had less vacation time, convinced the group to begin moving continuously—taking turns with the driving and crashing amid the sleeping bags on the deck in back.
At a state park near in Saskatchewan parents launched suddenly into frantic action, grabbing kids and running for their cars. Strange, bulbous clouds had covered the sky—cumulus mammatus; tornado predictors, I later learned. On the road again we saw a distant tornado to our north. And on the radio, reports of damage in Regina.
We stopped at Mt. Yamnuska where we fought the steep, ever-descending limestone scree, made various ascents, and hiked in the evening into CMC Valley where the classic climbing route names are taken from Winnie the Pooh. We shared the Simpson Hut with legions of mice. Eager to do battle I fashioned a figure-four trigger to support a heavy iron frying pan as deadfall, but its clanging clamor each time it tripped threatened sleep. Disclaimer: No mice were harmed in this production.
First we hiked the steep névé to Perley Rock for views of Uto, Sir Donald (10,774), Terminal Peak, and the huge (and ever receding) Illecillewaet Glacier and its vast snow field to the west. The Canadian National Railway’s grand nineteenth century Glacier House, built for alpine tourism, is long gone, having been gradually abandoned by the glacier itself. Today (2021), owing to the Earth’s warming, this region, famous for its glaciers, has greatly reduced permanent ice or snow. Except in the spring, the streams rage only when it rains.
Of interest to us was the North West ridge of Mt. Sir Donald—one of Steck and Roper’s Fifty Classic Climbs of North America.
And so, the next day—after a late start and a turbulent stream crossing—we packed steadily up the Vaux Glacier to the Uto Col, stamped out platforms in the snow, and pitched two tents at 8,300 feet.
In the morning we attacked the ridge—a massive and steep assemblage of huge tilted blocks over and around which we scrambled. Considerable snow filled the gaps between the blocks. Owing to our party’s suddenly evident conservatism we roped-up and belayed many of the pitches. This slowed us to the point that I could see we would never reach the summit with time to return. And so, in the early afternoon, we finished our snacks and headed down making a few rappels along the way, struck the tents, and returned to the hut.
One evening while checking the weather forecast at the ranger station deux mecs showed up, headed for the hut, and—as it turned out—the NW Ridge. When they discovered that we had been part way up we were pressed for information. I engaged them in some fractured French and immediately sensed that they wanted me to join them. Despite the fact that I felt it might be a bit unfair to my own group, I agreed and we planned a four o’clock start the next morning.
They were René Boisselle and Bernard Fauré, aspiring Association of Canadian Mountain Guides members who, I discovered later, viewed me as their practice client.
During the evening’s preparations I was amused to see what counted as snacks for the climb; a huge sausage that must have weighed three pounds, a pound of cheese, and a long baguette protruding from a knapsack. Trop d’alimentation ? I inquired. Ne jamais! L’alimentation ne pèse rien! they replied.
What worried me more, though, was the length of their proposed rope—lightweight, but only one-hundred feet long, meaning that we were limited to fifty-foot rappels. I couldn’t convince them to take my one-hundred-sixty-footer.
We were up before four and by the time it was light we had reached the major stream crossing, still flush and dangerous with the previous afternoon’s snow melt. Stepping in balance and hopping rock-to-rock was scary but we managed to cross safely, and reached the Uto col hours earlier that we had the day before.
We “fourth-classed” the ridge, meaning that—while roped—we moved more or less continuously stopping to belay wherever it seemed prudent. Because I was their client I was tied in to the middle of the rope. The ridge was steep but smooth going; huge blocks of granite half buried in snow with airy drop-offs on either side.
At noon we were on the summit—10,774 feet—where we barely made a dent in the alimentation.
The traditional (guide-book) descent follows a ridge to the south to gain Terminal Peak, followed by scrambling to the Vaux Glacier below.
René and Bernard had other plans.
We would descend by the precipitous direct West Face. I objected but was overruled: “Beaucoup plus courte, n’est ce pas ?”.
It proved dreadful! Steep and scary! The geology was such that the potential hand and footholds—the ledges big and small—were upside down. It was everywhere wet with patches of snow and running with meltwater. There were few places to set up anchors for protection or belay.
We came eventually to a narrow couloir down which, once or twice, we were able to rappel with our short, wet rope finally to reach a point on the face above the Bergschrund of the glacier below. This cliff looked as though it might be less than fifty feet high. I hate to think of its having been more. But where to anchor? Fortunately, we had with us a few pitons and a hammer; finding suitable cracks took forever. Our breaths and the pitons held as we rappelled to the snow.
My guides were more than happy to share with me from a flask of Scotch I had hidden in my pack. Salut! all ‘round. It had been a long day: sixteen hours door-to-door.
In the ensuing days we spent a night at the Hermit hut, and hiked to the top of Afton (8,350) and Tupper (9,239)—a world of flowers and silvery cascades everywhere—before heading to the Selkirks to beard the Bugaboos.
Hans Gmoser’s ski lodge, the trailhead for the Bugs, terminates a rough thirty-mile logging road, much improved since the ‘Gunks Vulgarians first navigated it in 1959. The parking lot is famous for its porcupines who dine at night upon automotive rubber—tires, water hoses, and electric cables. The lodge furnishes, free of charge, barriers of chicken wire with which to wrap the car.
Our proximate objective was the Alpine Club of Canada’s Conrad Kaine hut (9,500)—formerly Boulder Camp—set among towering granite spires rising out of the glacier above. Today (2021) this region retains much of its spectacular glaciation although now noticeably reduced from the time of our visit.
No need here for tents or air mattresses—the hut’s vast, open upper floor being strewn with “foamies.” We cooked on propane stoves in the light of lamps powered by a turbine in the glacial stream above the hut.
The next day after a snow slog up the glacier Peter Herbine and I climbed the south ridge of Bugaboo Spire (10,450); the Kain route. Somehow, we missed the famous “airy friction traverse” which led to Peter’s leading what I thought a desperate vertical section below the top.
Later with Peter Helmetag I crossed the crevassed Vowel Glacier to reach the east ridge of Pigeon Spire (10,250). The descent along the “roof tops” affords a spectacular view of the Howser Towers (11,500); and of an endless realm of snow-covered peaks as far as the eye can see.
My vacation time was up. I had the good fortune to meet a guy at the hut who was driving to Calgary. I spent a night on a bench at the airport and caught a flight east the next day.