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.
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.
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up until the 1950’s. The images produced by Wheeler and other photo-topographic surveyors of the day are outstanding historical documents.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 (mountainlegacy.ca) 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.
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.
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.
Map of our route to Mt. Abbott: