Wind lashes the ridge as we climb toward an elusive summit obscured by thick cloud blowing in from the southwest. A solid kick with my crampons allows me to punch barely a half-boot length into the snow, one step after another. “How much farther do you think it is?” asks a hopeful Cassie Rempel, who, along with her partner and fellow Vancouverite Norm Paul, and Edmonton’s Joe Stadler, make up our rope team of four. We hunker down on a crumbly notch of exposed rock for a brief respite; a chance to sip water and munch on chocolate.
The wind gusts. Mist swirls around us.
“Half an hour, maybe an hour,” I venture, trying to sound authoritative in spite of the whiteout conditions that have us pinned to Mount Sir Wilfred Laurier’s northeast ridge, making it difficult to determine our position. Norm produces a stick of beef jerky, and I catch the mouth-watering but incongruous scent of spicy dried sausage.
Mountaineering is often about long periods of drudgery punctuated with fleeting moments of euphoria, when a summit is reached, the clouds part and one gazes down upon verdant valleys and sinuous rivers of ice. Currently we are experiencing the drudgery portion of our climb.
A few days ago, we four were strangers. Today we are partners connected by a thin cord of climbing rope, brought together by a masochistic love of scaling mountains. We’re also participants in the Alpine Club of Canada’s annual General Mountaineering Camp, which runs for six consecutive weeks on a different cluster of mountains in western Canada each year.
This is my sixth time out as an amateur leader, but this year’s camp in the lofty Premier Range, 25 kilometres due west of Valemount, B.C., is particularly special: an historic marking of the 100th anniversary of the Alpine Club and its hallowed mountaineering tradition.
Thoughts of the centenary are blown aside by a biting wind that spurs us on. Somewhere, up there, lies the 3,516-metre summit of Sir Wilfred Laurier, the highest, marquee peak in this rarely traversed range of heavily glaciated mountains, their names a roll call of Canada’s past prime ministers.
Yesterday, Wilfred Laurier’s frozen dome and impressive north-face icefall was a sun-kissed pearl against a deep blue backdrop. Today, volatile weather has rendered the mountain a giant ping-pong ball, barely distinguishable from the white clouds that envelop it. The voice of veteran mountain guide Cyril Shokoples abruptly crackles over my hand-held radio. It’s the scheduled 10 a.m. radio call to base camp, but I’m unable to discern from the jumbled exchange the progress of his climbing team on Wilfred Laurier’s southwest ridge.
The teeth of our crampons bite as we ascend snow that becomes ever steeper, like the wall of a cresting wave that might brush our noses at any moment. Laboured breathing marks a steady cadence. Plunge the ice axe up slope, kick two steps for the feet – repeat until the terrain dictates some other technique. I fall into a meditative, almost hypnotic rhythm. Each step upward, each metre gained is a communion with the thousands who have climbed with the club since its first congregation of Swiss guides and mountaineering neophytes gathered at Yoho Lake near Field, B.C., and gazed up at an enticing collection of peaks that had never seen boot prints.
It’s as if we are climbing with ghosts.
When Canada was still defining itself as a young nation, an energetic and loquacious Irishman dreamed of a truly Canadian climbing institution. It was the early 1900s, and Arthur O. Wheeler, surveyor and mapmaker of repute, began trumpeting the idea of a Canadian alpine club. At the time, mountaineers in North America mirrored the conservative, post-colonial society from which they came. And Wheeler made no secret of his disdain for the exclusivity of “alpinism,” a pursuit then possible only for wealthy bluebloods who could afford a transcontinental journey on the Canadian Pacific Railway, a luxury suite at the Chateau Lake Louise and private Swiss guides.
Finding his fellow Canadians slow to pick up on the alpine club concept, in 1905 a frustrated Wheeler dashed off a letter to the Manitoba Free Press, Canada’s leading newspaper at the time. In it, he argued that the mountains should be accessible to all and that, to manage this, the young nation could easily form a chapter of the American Alpine Club. In other words, join the Yanks.
But when Free Press journalist Elizabeth Parker read the letter, she bashed out a terse reply under a pseudonym, roundly chastising Wheeler for his unpatriotic suggestion. She then turned her considerable literary talents toward campaigning for a singularly Canadian alpine club rather than an American knock-off. The pair made a formidable team, and together galvanized public support for their dream of an Alpine Club of Canada (ACC), born in the spring of 1906 in Winnipeg, a city as far from any serious bump in the landscape as one can get in Canada. Parker became the club’s secretary (it’s said that she never set foot on a single mountain summit but evidently enjoyed the mountain environment), Wheeler its cantankerous first president.
In July of that same year, 100 adventurers who knew next to nothing about climbing, among them pipe-smoking gentlemen and a few dozen ladies in full-length skirts and straw summer hats, arrived on a luxury passenger train in Field, B.C., from points across North America. After sorting luggage, they then took to the trail, following a train of packhorses on a daylong trek into Yoho Pass for the ACC’s inaugural General Mountaineering Camp. The doughty subjects of King and country were out to climb two peaks at the head of Yoho Valley, the President and Vice President, 3,138 metres and 3,066 metres respectively.
The lodgings, heavy tents of canvas supported by wooden poles hacked from the forest around camp, were divided along lines of gender. Gentlemen gathered for dinner in their finest tweeds and ties, ladies in their finery; the entire event bore the trappings of a British smoking club. Today, reading the report of that first camp, one finds a masterpiece of Victorian parlance and propriety, a humorous picture of life in the mountains in the early 1900s. Case in point: “No lady climbing, who wears skirts, will be allowed to take a place on a rope, as they are a distinct source of danger to the entire party.” (Once back in camp, however, ladies were required to don their dresses.) It is an ironic scenario, given that Wheeler had wished the camp to be a place where people of relatively modest means could be introduced to the world of mountaineering – people not unlike himself.
One hundred years later, the ACC is more popular than ever. Yet, though its questing spirit remains the same, on the ground it’s a different beast. It is no longer the clumsy military siege it once was, and fewer camps are held in national parks – which suits the adventurous spirit of those who like to see the ACC break ground (figuratively) in relatively untapped climbing areas, such as the Premier Range. As climber and guidebook author Bruce Fairly notes in his Canadian Mountaineering Anthology, the ACC is also occasionally criticized now by some of its members, puritans who blanch at the use of helicopters and question the ethics of mass camping in the fragile alpine.
Though thanks largely to the efforts of longtime camp manager Brad Harrison, whose late father, Bill, packed gear into camp with horse trains before the age of helicopters, the ACC’s six-week annual alpine foray now sets a high standard of eco-friendliness. Careful handling of wastewater, trash removal and use of solar power when possible are just some of the efforts aimed at minimizing the backcountry “footprint.” That’s not to say there’s no impact on the environment when 200 people pass through an area over five weeks. But a few new trails cutting along a lonely moraine is a far cry from the club’s pioneering days when empty food tins were discarded en masse.
Two nights ago, midway through week four of the 2006 GMC, we celebrated Wheeler’s legacy and the centennial in our own humble manner. As the shadows grew long in the meadows around camp and the quartzite crags of Symmetry Spire were aglow in soft orange evening light, guide Shokoples led an after-dinner procession of climbers from the canvas mess tent up onto a rocky knoll. We were honoured to have among us that evening the equivalent of mountaineering royalty: 90-year-old Richard Guy and his wife, Louise, Calgary residents who have been the heart and soul of the club for generations, as well as Glen Boles, a name synonymous with first ascents in Canada, and his wife, Liz. During week one, participants had begun the building of a small rock cairn, and with each consecutive week it grew into the towering rock monument around which our group now circled.
If anyone is in touch with the history and tradition of the ACC, it is Shokoples. He owes a successful career as a mountain guide and outdoor educator to the experience he gained as an amateur leader at the 1980 Clemenceau Icefields GMC in the Rockies north of Golden, B.C. Then, “a big part of the GMC for me was being surrounded by people who were committed to the mountains and exploration. I had the pleasure of meeting people like Phyllis Munday at the camp, and she was a real adventurer,” Shokoples said about the famed, late Coast Range climber who explored extensively around Mount Waddington with her husband, Don, in the 1930s and ‘40s. “Those kinds of encounters affect you in a very good way when you’re young.”
Twenty-seven GMCs later, Shokoples has recently turned 50. And along with the wisdom he has gleaned from the ACC, he now feels a strong sense of duty and a desire to give back to the alpine mountaineering tradition that continues to shape his life and work. “Today, my alpine club extended family must number in the hundreds, if not thousands,” he said. And though age may have slowed the steps of some of its gracious old-timers, he noted, nodding toward the Guys and the Boleses, they are still as sure-footed as mountain goats. Their presence alongside GMC newcomers “says more about the club than anything else,” illuminating its subtle synergy of old and young, experienced and neophyte – the key to longevity and health for any organization.
After we had added our rocks to the great cairn, we returned quietly to camp, each with a greater sense of the tradition and history of the ACC. “We have nothing like this in the States,” said visibly moved GMC first-timer Celtha Crowe, from Vermont. Chalk one up for Canadian patriotism. Parker and Wheeler would have been proud.
Today, just as it did so many years ago, the ACC continues to bring together unlikely combinations of people in unlikely places, like this wind-whipped northeast ridge of Sir Wilfred Laurier, where sunlight suddenly blazing through a hole in the sky briefly lifts spirits suppressed by the ever-circling clouds. But the weather remains fickle and the sun quickly disappears. It is by a process of elimination that we reach the summit of Wilfred Laurier, groping around in 10-metre visibility until we realize there is nowhere else to go but down.
As is often the case in mountaineering, summit celebrations are tempered by the knowledge that the climb isn’t over until the team is back in camp with hands around mugs of hot tea. The wind is fierce as we huddle around a plastic orange wand that someone has planted in the snow as a navigational aid to mark the peak. Cassie, Norm, Joe and I pose for a photograph – four windburned faces bobbing in a sea of white. I watch as a spider skitters across the snow at my feet, an example of life persevering against the odds that is always encouraging in these circumstances. Still, waiting around for a view that will never come seems pointless. We continue our summit traverse and are soon plunging down a precipitous snow ridge when suddenly we hear a shout, “Yeah oh!” Downward to the left, in the direction of where Mount Mackenzie King should be, Shokoples emerges from the mist like an apparition, towing a pack train of five, silent, labouring climbers. After departing camp at the same time as us this morning, he is ascending by a different route, our chosen line of descent.
“How much farther?” Shokoples asks, his eyes obscured behind dark sunglasses. No time for polite formalities in deteriorating weather.
“Forty-five minutes, an hour maybe,” I reply, hazarding a guess.
“You guys better keep going, it’s way too cold to wait around,” he says, before stoically continuing to punch steps upward into the mist.
His caravan rapidly disappears from view, swallowed by the clouds.
Some two months later, as I write this, the winter snows have obscured all physical traces of our 2006 GMC – all but one. A tall cairn now sits on an outcrop of rock and on its side a black plaque that says simply: “The Alpine Club of Canada, In Celebration of 100 Years of Mountaineering.” Perhaps in the next hundred years, a new generation of climbers will return to this lonely, remote landscape of rock, snow and ice, to walk with our ghosts.
A Meeting of the Hut-most Importance
The 2006 centennial year was a busy one for the Alpine Club. While local chapters celebrated in various ways, the national office (now headquartered in Canmore, Alberta) kicked off its 100th birthday celebrations with an historic March 2006 dinner in Winnipeg. In June, the club’s executive and invited dignitaries rode a Canadian Pacific steam train from Field west to Rogers Pass, then held its AGM at the rustic A.O. Wheeler Hut in the heart of the Selkirk Range. (It was here that many of Canada’s earliest pioneering ascents were made.) And in July, Canada Post unveiled a commemorative stamp in recognition of the anniversary and an organization that has been at the forefront of mountaineering, alpine guiding and teaching generations of Canadians how to get up and down mountains safely. Created by Xerxes Irani of Calgary’s Nonfiction Design, the stamp is vertically oriented to capture the ascending nature of the sport. A wooden ice axe set horizontally below a white, silhouetted graphic of four climbers symbolizes the ACC’s early pioneers. The photo of a woman scaling a cliff face on the upper half of the stamp suggests the club’s modern spirit – an enduring legacy 100 years in the making.