Glacier National Park: Abbott Ridge and on to the summit

Karen on her way to Abbott Peak

Karen on her way to Abbott Peak – the Illecillewaet Glacier to the left.

On Aug 19, 2013, Mike and I joined friends from the Alpine Club of Canada (Vancouver Island Chapter — yes, we WERE far from our home base) for a fine hike and scramble up and along the Mt. Abbott – Afton traverse in Glacier National Park. This is arguably the most impressive view hike in the Park. One doesn’t even have to gain the summit for amazing vistas of the Mt. Sir Donald group, the Bonney Glacier, the Asulkan group, and the Illecillewaet Glacier — and those are just the leviathans that are right in your face! Take a bit more time and care, gain the the summit of Abbott, and the mountains march on in all directions as far as the eye can see.

Coming down from Mt. Abbott

Coming back down from the Abbott summit

Views notwithstanding, I particularly enjoyed this hike because it closely follows the footsteps of Arthur Wheeler, who, in 1906, co-founded the Alpine Club of Canada. While I am very proud to be associated with the Club he helped found, it is more than Wheeler’s ACC affiliation that endears him to me. It is the number and quality of large format photographs he took of mountains in Western Canada that holds my deep and abiding interest. Wheeler had the good fortune to survey mountains in areas I know and love, so it has become a particular pleasure of mine to stand where he stood, re-photograph his historic images, and observe how the landscape has changed.

From 1894 until 1925 Wheeler was, in one way or another, involved in surveying and making maps of Western Canada. In those days photography came to play a major role in mapping the mountains — traditional rod and chain methods were simply too expensive. Photo-topographical techniques in back then involved taking a panoramic series of mountain landscape photos from a control point that offered excellent views of the surrounding area. The cameras used were bulky and heavy, and the images were exposed on 6 x 4 inch plate glass negatives. Wheeler and the surveys he led produced hundreds and hundreds of these plates.

Mary going up Mt. Abbott

Mary going up Mt. Abbott. Wheeler’s control station for the 1901 images was below on the wide ridge.

Wheeler wasn’t alone in the pursuit of making maps with photography in the Canadian west. Indeed, Library and Archives Canada holds over 140,000 glass plates taken from the 1880’s up until the 1950’s. The images produced by Wheeler and other photo-topographic surveyors of the day are outstanding historical documents. Each high resolution, richly detailed image presents us with a snapshot of what these majestic mountain environments looked like over 55 to 125 years ago.

I have been lucky enough for the past few years to be involved with a dedicated group of researchers at the Mountain Legacy Project ( whose goal is to re-photograph as many of the 140,000 historic plates as possible. Most of my field work has been in the Rocky Mountains — a truly lovely area — but not the mountains of my heart. Growing up in Revelstoke BC, with Mt. Revelstoke National Park and Glacier National Park as my playground, the mountains of my heart are surely the Selkirks.

Mt. Abbott and Mt. Afton

Mt. Abbott on the left and Afton in the middle. The Bonney Glacier to the right.

Even though Mike and I enjoy the mountains of Vancouver Island where we live, when our ACC Section announced that one of 2013’s mountain camps would be based at the Arthur Wheeler Hut (yup, the same guy), in Glacier National Park, deep in the Selkirks, we jumped at the chance to join in. A week rambling in my favourite mountains was just the way to end a summer spent in the alpine. And, our very first hike of the week was up Mt. Abbott via the ridge.

In 1901, when Wheeler was assigned to survey this area, he would have travelled up much the same route as we did — making his way out of the interior cedar and hemlock forest into Engelmann spruce and subalpine fir around Marion Lake, and finally up into alpine tundra along the ridge. Wheeler’s goal was not the peak of Mt. Abbott. His control point was somewhat lower. He must have selected it because of the spectacular view it commanded. He took images looking south west towards Revelstoke, north towards the Hermit group, and east toward the Sir Donald group. This last image set, shown here, is my favourite — the differences between Wheeler’s 1901 photo and the 2011 repeat are astounding. For example, look at the extent of the Illecillewaet Glacier (on the right in both images) in 1901 compared with 2011 — certainly a huge retreat.

Mt. Sir Donald in Glacier National Park

Mt. Sir Donald and the Illecillewaet Glacier: A.O. Wheeler, 1901,
copyright Mountain Legacy Project

Mt. Sir Donald and the Illecillewaet Glacier

Mt. Sir Donald and the Illecillewaet Glacier: Mountain Legacy Project, 2011,
copyright Mountain Legacy Project

I was pleased to make it up to Wheeler’s Abbott ridge control point, thinking what a march it would have been for Wheeler and his crew as they schlepped 25 kilograms of camera, tripod, glass plates, and survey equipment with them. My own pack was heavy enough! However, Mike and I went on past Wheeler’s control point and gained the summit of Abbott after a wonderful scramble amongst huge chunks of granite. Glaciers, neves, icefields, and high ridges opened out in front of us as we ascended. Some in our group continued from the summit of Abbott on to Afton, but Mike and I decided to return back via the main ridge. I had fun scrambling down some of the airy steps I used scrambling up!

All in all an excellent day spent with a fine group of folks in some of the most glorious mountains in the world. I think Arthur Wheeler would have been proud of his legacy — not only as co-founder of a club dedicated to preserving and promoting Canadian mountain culture and self-propelled alpine pursuits, but as the creator of stunning¬† photographs that let us look back and compare today’s mountain environments with those of over 100 years ago.¬† Here’s to you Arthur, and to the other mountain surveyors whose work all those years ago informs us so eloquently today.

On Mt. Abbott summit

Karen, Diane, Mike, Krista, Mary, Dave, Frank, and Ken. ACC-VI Section: Our motto is “Come back alive, Come back friends, Respect the land, Have fun, Get to the Top.”

Map of our route to Mt. Abbott:

More pictures from our day on Mt. Abbott

Tent Ridge Two-step

On the west arm of Tent Ridge looking back

Lisa and Mike on the west arm of Tent Ridge looking back at our hike and scramble

Kananaskis Country Рwhat the folks who live in south-west Alberta refer to as K-Country Рis the place where the locals go to play. Full of glorious Rocky Mountains,  K-Country has all the vistas, views, and trails of the Mountain Parks, but almost none of the National Park tourists.

Last year, while working with the Mountain Legacy Project ( I fell in love with K-Country, so, when Lisa and John arrived for a bit of Rocky Mountain hiking, I was keen to get out and try our hand at something in Kananaskis. That something turned out to be Tent Ridge (see map below). But, it did take us two attempts to actually get up on the ridge. The first attempt saw Mike, me, John, and Lisa spend an hour in the car at the trail head waiting for the weather to clear. We didn’t exactly waste our time – we played Famous People 20 Questions (pick a famous person – write the name on a piece of paper – give to friend – friend sticks paper on head without looking at it – repeat for everyone playing – everyone asks questions – guess name of famous person stuck to your head). The weather never cleared, so we left for another hike elsewhere.

Mary below the Fist (or Mt. Smuts)

Mary below Mt. Smuts on the high point

The next day was better situated for weather so we headed out again. This time to great success. Tent Ridge is rated as a challenging hike. It is approximately 11 km long, with about 780 metres of elevation gain. It does have a few airy steps where hands on the rock are required.There is some route-finding necessary, however, accomplished hikers and scramblers should have little difficulty. Indeed, all our difficulties seemed to fade away as each step along the ridge offered better and better views. As an added bonus, the approach to the ridge is via a gentle valley trail — not your typical calf-clamping steep gasper of a trail that MOST hikes in the Rockies present.

Storm in the north over Spray Lakes

Storm in the north over Spray Lakes

If our first attempt at Tent Ridge saw us rained out, our second saw us sheltered from nasty weather. As we rounded the western arm of the ridge huge thunderclouds gathered to the north — and sped right past us without so much as a drop. Talk about lucky!

Plant photogs

John and Mary taking pictures of plants – Lisa on the ridge line

The ridge presented us with some lovely wildflower shows – new plants, like Bladder Campion, and Autumn Gentian, that I had never seen before. Everyone took turns trying to get good macro photos. John capped off the day by presenting us with a wee dram of good single malt scotch – Springbank from the bonnie Mull of Kintyre on the west coast of Scotland. In fact, the entire west arm of Tent Ridge, with its wide back, sloping down towards a blue-on-blue lake, reminded me a lot of Scotland and some of the grand hill walking we all enjoyed in that fair country.

A toast to the hike

If you’re lucky enough to be in the mountains, you’re lucky enough!

Our route down off the ridge took us steeply down through lush meadows full of Paintbrush, Arnica, and Saxifrage. We had to exercise a bit of route finding expertise to find our way, but all was accomplished in good time. We arrived back at the trail head just as the first raindrops began to fall. Another day seized traipsing around in the mountains — I could get VERY used to this!

Map of Tent Ridge

More pictures from the hike: Tent Ridge pictures

PS I know I continue to post stories about Alberta here in a BC outdoors blog – but, what’s a border or two between friends. Besides, I promise some BC stories will be coming up!

Eiffel Tower with a difference

Pat on the trail to Eiffel Peak

Pat on the trail: Eiffel Peak on the left, Pinnacle in the middle, Temple on the right

Mike and I did our first over-3000 metre peak of the summer: Eiffel Peak in the Lake Louise area, Banff National Park. It was a moderate scramble with a few moves that were made a bit more difficult because of the weather — nothing like two cold runnels of water pouring from your hands into your armpits and out your pants to get you moving!

Eiffel Peak is 3084 metres high and affords outstanding views of the Valley of the Ten Peaks (the image that used to be on our – Canadian – $20.00 bill). Temple Mountain, Pinnacle Mountain, and the popular Sentinel Pass are also right in your face on this scramble.

The Valley of the Ten Peaks

The Valley of the Ten Peaks

The day started out overcast and cool, and we did get some rain at about 1:00 (just in time for the hard stuff). The trail up was challenging, especially the interminable switch backs up out of Moraine Lake, but once on the mountain the views opened out beautifully. I stopped about once every 100 steps, let my heart rate settle for a moment, gulped down some water, and looked around.

Mary on Eiffel Peak - Eiffel Tower in the background

Mary on Eiffel Peak – Eiffel Tower in the background

We were a group of six, with Rick, a nurse from Washington state, joining us for the majority of the hike. Doug and Pat – our hosts from Canmore – along with their daughter Arianne and her boyfriend Gijs completed our group. This was a fit group and we moved along smartly. Sadly, I was the caboose on this hike, but I don’t think I held the group up too much. And besides, someone has to be last.

This hike and scramble were exactly what I hoped our sojourn in the Canmore area would yield: great views, interesting terrain, some physical challenges, new wildflowers, wildlife sightings, and good times with friends. Here’s hoping our Eiffel day will be the start of more to come.

More pictures from the day: Eiffel Peak Scramble.

Once more I have to ask forgiveness that this is not in BC – although the Valley of the 10 Peaks, pictured above, has the BC / Alberta border running right along the crest of the peaks.

Castle Queen

Mary - Queen of the Castle

Mary – Queen of Castle Mountain

Castle Mountain from just off the TCH

Castle Mountain from just off the TCH

Castle Mountain is, perhaps, one of the most iconic symbols in the Banff National Park pantheon of peaks. Driving down the Trans Canada Highway visitors see the south west slopes of the mountain rising, like a fortified medieval castle, almost straight up from the valley.

I know I’ve looked up at it many times and dreamed of standing on top, but always thinking its cliffs and crags were too much for me. Imagine my surprise to find that Castle Mountain has a much gentler aspect: the north / north-east side above Rockbound Lake affords scramblers an easier route to the summit. Well, perhaps “gentle” is not quite the right description – at 28 km round trip and an elevation gain of 1500 metres it is still a bit of an excursion, but Mike and I found it well worth the effort.

The first few km of the trip is a tad dull as the trail ascends through pine and spruce forest. Red squirrels and lovely wildflowers do hold one’s attention, but when the first views of the Eisenhower Tower heave into view, sailing above the treetops, the vistas quickly open out. Soon enough we reached Tower Lake, ready to begin the final on-trail push to Rockbound Lake.

The Tower above Tower Lake

Eisenhower Tower above Tower Lake

Castle was named in 1858 by Scottish geologist and surgeon James Hector. Using common Scottish good sense he named the mountain for what it looked like: a castle. But, with the stroke of a government pen, in 1946 the mountain was renamed Mount Eisenhower in honour of the US general (an soon-to-be President) Dwight D. Eisenhower. Happily, public pressure caused its original name to be restored in 1979, but the tower on the southeastern side keeps the Eisenhower moniker.

The view from Rockbound Lake gave us a good idea as to what the 2nd half of the route had in store — limestone galore! We went up and to the right around Rockbound and started a counter-clockwise scramble along the limestone terraces, gullies, and rocks high above the lake. What a day! We walked on ancient limestone laid down under the ocean 530 million years ago. In places the rock was so bright I had to shade my eyes to look at it — kind of like sunning on a Pre-cambrian beach.

Looking South-east from above Rockbound LakeThere was a bit of optimal route-finding to be done in getting to the summit – to say nothing of some scree-slope slogging. But, once there we had some stunning views. While lounging around the top two climbers showed up. They came up the cliffs on the highway side. We chatted for a few minutes and found we had someone in common — the lead climber knew my sister Janice back in Revelstoke. What a small world.Pre-Cambrian limestone above Rockbound LakeComing down we retraced our steps, enjoying yet more views and the golden evening light. We even came across some White-tailed Ptarmigan. Normally Mike and I would not bother birds like this, whose existence in the Ptarmiganalpine is already quite difficult. But, these two walked right out in front of us – less than a metre away. I didn’t feel too guilty about snapping a few shots before moving along.

We got back to our car around 8:00 pm that evening, after spending about 11 hours on the mountain. I can say without a doubt that Castle Mountain left me feeling like a queen for at least one day. I give our time on Castle my royal seal of approval.

Our route:

More images on Flickr

PS. I know this isn’t BC, but it is very close to the BC/Alberta border so I thought I’d include it — what’s a little border between friends!