The People

Early Climbers, Tourists and Settlements

Historical photos © Byron Harmon, courtesy of the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies

By Jeff Waugh

conradAlong with the surveyors and pack trains came men that knew how to handle the horses. Many of these, greatly impressed with the beauty of the area, decided ton stay and make a living. One of these was John Yates. He “came into real prominence early in 1907 when he was able to outmaneuver, outdrink and outride his opponents in a contest for the contract to carry the mail to the railroad construction camps between Edmonton and Tete Jaune Cache”. (Ted Hart, 1979)

In 1906, A.O. Wheeler, organising the Alpine Club of Canada with Sir Sandford Fleming as Honorary President, decided that the organisations first assault should be on untrodden Mt. Robson. Wheeler convinced three experienced Canadian climbers to undertake the challenge – A.P. and Lucius Coleman and the Reverend George B. Kinney of Victoria.

After leaving the Saskatchewan River it took the climbing expedition 41 days to reach the base of “the imperial mountain of our aspiration; one vast, lone, snow-clad, cloud capped peak wrapped in the solitude of centuries” (Esther Fraser, 1969). Unfortunately, it had taken the group weeks longer than anticipated. Their food was almost gone and their horses were sick and lame. Finally, after reaching Emperor Falls, the weather worsened and they decided to retreat. On their journey back to Edmonton they happened upon none other than John Yates. As the three climbers were in need of food, the meeting was a fortunate one. Yates volunteered food and a horse (to speed A.P. Coleman to Edmonton for his necessitated return to his Toronto professorship). Coleman was duly impressed with Yates abilities and requested his services as an outfitter and guide for another attempt on Robson the following year (1908). Yates accepted.

“He was the most resourceful man with horses and in general conduct of camp life imaginable: strong, courageous, and alert in all emergencies. His skill in packing a horse so as to avoid a sore back on the trail was only equaled by his versatility in turning dried goat meat, smoked fish, desiccated potatoes, and odds and ends of rice, oatmeal and bannocks in flavoursome ‘bouillon’ or ‘Mulligan’.” – A.P. Coleman, 1906

John Yates and Adolphus Moberly (one of H.J. Moberly’s descendants) guided the 1908 expedition up the Moose River, over Moose Pass into the headwaters of the Smoky, and over Robson Pass to the foot of Robson Glacier. The group named Adolphus Lake in honour of the assistance provided by Moberly. Another lake in the vicinity was named Berg Lake for the icebergs (calved from Berg Glacier) found floating there. Again, continuous rain and snow excluded the possibility of an attempt on Mt. Robson and, as they waited, their food supplies dwindled. Yates was sent back to Athabasca for more supplies. Luckily, he ran into some of Moberly’s band (who supplied him with provisions) a short way down the Moose River. They camped at the base of Mt. Robson for three weeks amongst the wind, rain, sleet and snow. After a number of assaults, one of which Kinney attempted alone, they decided to retreat from the mountain. Plans were made to return the following year and again Yates was asked to accompany the expedition.

In the Spring of 1909 Kinney heard rumours of the approach of a group of foreign mountaineers bound for the Alpine Club of Canada’s Mt. Robson. Fearing a successful non-Canadian assault Kinney set out from Victoria early in hopes of beating them to the summit.

On arrival in Edmonton Kinney learned that Yates would not accompany him. Yates felt it was too early in the season to attempt a climb, especially after the particularly heavy winter snows. On June 17th, Kinney set out from edmonton alone with three pack horses, three months provisions, and just under three dollars in his pocket. Along the Athabasca in the Jasper area he was trapped by rising flood waters on an island in the river. When the waters subsided Kinney made his way along a high trail to the cabin of John Moberly. Here he found another man, Donald “Curly” Phillips, who had been similarly stranded.

Kinney eventually persuaded Phillips to join in his endeavors and they began their ascent to Mt. Robson.

“No ascent in the history of the Canadian Rockies demanded more sheer guts and determination in the face of hair-raising brushes with death by avalanche, exposure and starvation.” – Ted Hart, 1979

After two unsuccessful attempts due to inclement weather the pair had to wait one week before trying again. Finally, on August 12, they managed to reach the 10,500 foot level. They hacked a ledge out of the ice and bivouacked for the night. On Friday, August 13th, 1909, as they were making their way up the steep slopes an ominous storm passed over but they continued to climb with ice covering their hands and feet. On the ridge leading to the summit the wind had heavily corniced the snow, but still they pushed on through the blinding storm. Late in the afternoon Kinney “on a needle peak that rose so abruptly that even cornices cannot build very far out on it. Baring my head I said in the name of Almighty God, by whose strength I have climbed here, I capture this peak, Mount Robson, for my own country and for the Alpine Club of Canada” (Ted Hart, 1979).

The descent of the mountain was as hazardous (if not more hazardous) than the ascent. A late afternoon Chinook had melted most of the steps they had cut in the ice. Finally, they reached base camp and devoured a few bits of marmot to end their grueling 24 hour mountain experience.

On their way back to the Jasper area they met John Yates accompanied by the “foreign” climbing expedition of A.M. Mumm, L.S. Amery, Geoffrey Hastings, Mortiz Inderbinen and James Shand-Harvey (another packer) on their way to Mt. Robson. Most of the members of this expedition had attended A.O. Wheeler’s Alpine Club of Canada meeting at Lake O’Hara. When they reached the base of the mountain their Swiss guide, Moritz Inderbiben, suggested that they would climb Robson in 9 hours. In the early morning hours of September 7 they began their attempt to climb the mountain. By 2:00 in the afternoon Mumm realised it was no use and the party retreated to arrive back in camp at 9:00 that evening. They returned to Edmonton with hopes of future success.

sunwaptaAs the Grand Trunk pushed its steel towards the Yellowhead summit a few outfitters from the Banff area decided to move to Jasper and establish their businesses their. Fred Stephens and Fred Brewster were two of these men who were able to establish reputable businesses in the Yellowhead area. Stephens joined up with Yates and the two of them outfitted and guided a second Mumm expedition with Moritz Inderbinen and J. Norman Collie. The expedition was later joined by Allan McConnachie and George Swain. Inclement weather, however, forced another retreat. They planned further exploratory travels in the area between the Moose and Smoky Rivers for the following year (1911).

End-of-Steel villages were beginning to spring up all along the Grand trunk Pacific Railway grade. Movement into the Yellowhead area was being facilitated by the “iron horse” and more and more people took advantage of the ease of transportation. However, life in the villages wasn’t always easy. Typhoid raged from camp to camp, taking its toll of human life. Living conditions were sometimes atrocious, and labour disputes erupted sporadically.

By 1911 work trains were running to Summit City (Mile 0), Lucerne, Moose City and Red Pass (Mile 29).

“At Fitzhugh, which is within the province of Alberta, the lid was kept closed a little by the Mounted Police, but their jurisdiction ended at the border of British Columbia, and there at the summit, right on the boundary, the doors were opened wide and down through Mile 17 and 29 and 50 they remained that way… Mile 29 had a reputation of which even its inhabitants refused to be proud” – Fort George Herald, September 20th, 1923

Nonetheless, the railway went through. In fact, two railways went through: the Grand Trunk Pacific and, shortly thereafter, the Canadian Northern. Lucerne became an important terminal for the Grand Trunk with a depot, a coal tipple, a marshaling yard for freight cars, two round houses, two stores, a school, a doctors office, pool hall, saloons, barbers, bunkhouses and restaurants.

In 1911, A.O. Wheeler, working as a private surveyor, organised a joint Alpine Club of Canada – Smithsonian Institution expedition into the Robson area. he was able to secure funding from the Dominion Government of Canada, the provincial governments of Alberta and British Columbia, and the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway. The Smithsonian Institution of Washington, D.C. supplied a group of scientists organised by Dr. Charles Walcott (Secretary of the Smithsonian) and headed by Ned Hollister (Assistant Curator of Mammals at the U.S. National Museum), Charles Walcott, Jr., and Harry Blagden. The photographer for the expedition was Byron Harmon and the climbing experts were A.O. Wheeler, Conrad Kain, and the Reverend George Kinney. Curly Phillips, Fred Stephens (who soon left the expedition after an argument with Wheeler) and James Shand-Harvey were outfitters and packers.

Arriving at Moose City Conrad Kain experienced a taste of an end-of-steel village by having his clothes, some food, and a cook stove stolen while he was briefly out of his tent. Fortunately, everything was easily replaced and they were off to Mt. Robson via the Moose River.

While the expedition was waiting at Berg Lake (for the horses to make the return circuit around Robson to avoid the steep cliffs in the Valley of a Thousand Falls) Conrad Kain set off alone and succeeded in climbing Mt. Whitehorn, then first man known to have done so. Wheeler stalled the group and no attempt was made on Robson, the general feeling being that he wanted to save the second assault for the Alpine Club of Canada’s Berg Lake Camp in 1913.

In 1912 F. M. Rattenbury was contacted as an architect by the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway to produce the plans for Chateau Mt. Robson (which would have been located in the vicinity of the present viewpoint) to cater to the expected influx of visitors to the area. In the Spring of 1913 A.O. Wheeler began bargaining with the Grand Trunk and the Government of British Columbia to have a trail constructed up the Grand Fork of the Fraser to Berg Lake. Finally, the B.C. government agreed to pay the costs of having a trail built (if it was possible) and Donald Phillips was awarded the contract at fifty dollars per mile. Phillips, Curly Cochrane and Frank Doucette began the work to fashion a switchback pack trail up the Grand Fork and over the cliffs in the Valley of a Thousand Falls. The most amazing feat of the entire endeavour was a flying trestle bridge around a sheer rock cliff coming up to Emperor Falls.

robeastAfter finishing the trail Phillips joined up with the Otto brothers to pack in the equipment for the Alpine Club of Canada’s Berg Lake Camp. Prior to the camp and at A.O. Wheelers insistence, Mt. Robson was declared a Provincial Park, and the Deputy Minister of Public Works was at Berg Lake to welcome the Alpine Club of Canada to the newly established park. Participants included representatives from Canada, the United States of America, Great Britain, Austria and Switzerland. During the Berg Lake Camp the first truly successful assault on Mt. Robson was executed by Conrad Kain. As Kain descended to the camp Curly Phillips declared that his previously believed “first assault” with George Kinney was not to the very summit of the mountain.

“The view was glorious in all directions. One could compare the sea of glaciers and mountains with a stormy ocean. Mt. Robson is about 2,000 feet higher than all the other mountains in the neighborhood. Indescribably beautiful was the vertical view towards Berg Lake and the camp below. Unfortunately, only fifteen minutes were allowed us on the summit, ten of pure pleasure and five of teeth chattering. The rope and our damp clothes were frozen as hard as bone. And so we had to think of the long descent.” – Conrad Kain, Canadian Alpine Journal, 1913

With the ease of railway transportation many more mountain climbers, tourists and other people seeking recreational and business opportunities ventured into the Jasper and Mt. Robson areas.

By April of 1914, the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway had completed its transcontinental to Prince George and by October of 1915, to Vancouver. Late in 1915 the need for steel in war-torn France had increased and the Dominion Government ordered that steel from one of the duplicate GTP – CNR tracks through the Yellowhead be sent overseas. Most of the Grand Trunk’s tracks were retained while most of the Canadian Northern’s were torn up. By December of 1918 the Dominion Government had amalgamated the Canadian Northern, Grand Trunk Pacific and other railways to form the Canadian national Railways.

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