Our time in the Rockies was inspired not only by the mountains but also by a sense of history. Without that band of people who looked on this same landscape as a source of something more than just a physical challenge, it might have remained off-limits and closed to our minds. Stepping into the realm of adventurous uncertainty is available to all of us. The stakes can be high but the rewards make the risks seem worthwhile. Even with today’s ease of travel once you leave the roads and trails of the Canadian Rockies you’re still pretty much on your own. Following in the footsteps of those who first stood on these lofty summits you can still sense something of that spirit of exploration.
For our first day, easy progress went as far as the top of some wind-scooped patches of snow. Then our fortunes changed and we were pedalling. The fragile equilibrium of the final 1000 feet up the ‘scree of marbles’ was destroyed by the merest touch of a boot. Bigger pieces of rock, ones you thought you could trust, just surfed the slope all the way down to a malachite coloured Lake Oesa. Sandwiched between the rotting walls of the two Rockies classics of Mount Victoria and Lefroy, the ascent to the pass was becoming a grind. Still, running the gauntlet of the rocks was a better option than a passage through the ‘Death Trap’.
Finally, from the saddle there it was, quiet but malicious. The notorious Victoria Glacier dropped steeply away towards the alpine centre of Lake Louise. Now receding and probably more threatening than when it saw the first climbers, danger from falling seracs, heavy crevassing and an immense bergschrund have sadly proved fatal on too many occasions. Few people come that way nowadays.
To the team attempting the first ascent of Mount Lefroy back in 1896, it wasn’t the Death Trap that had proved fatal. The four tired Americans, including Charles Fay, the founder of the American Alpine Club, were climbing a mere 300 feet from the top on the west face. Phillip Stanley Abbot decided to unrope, declaring that he would push the final section alone and climbed out of sight. Moments later he flew past his friends on his 1000ft journey to the pass that now carries his name and where we stood. Trying again exactly one year after his death, the remainder of the original American team, supplemented by the Swiss guide, Peter Sarbach, and the English chemist and mountaineer, Norman Collie, stood on the summit. Their business on Lefroy was finished.
The west-bound trains of the newly completed Canadian Pacific Railroad had brought with it a whole new way of seeing the mountain landscape. With the growing popularity of alpinism in Europe, foreigners grasped at the opportunity to step out of the carriages and head for countless unclimbed summits. Abbot’s death, in a similar way to the tragedy during Whymper’s descent from the Matterhorn in 1865, caused quite an impact. Uproarious calls denying people access to the high summits were made on both sides of the Atlantic. Those early days of mountaineering were an enigma to many. The motivations remain unfathomable today.
On our left, smoke plumed horizontally from the chimney of the stone-built Abbot’s Pass hut. Opened in 1923, it serviced the burgeoning mountain-guiding trade established by the railway’s hotels to satisfy the rising numbers of adventurous travellers. It is now one of a network of eighteen backcountry refuges run by the Alpine Club Of Canada and was our base for three days, the first of which was to be a write-off. Strong winds, low cloud and snow greeted our four o-clock peek at invisible Lefroy but the mattresses were soft, the coals still glowing and warm. Maybe tomorrow we would follow in the footsteps of Collie and Fay one hundred years after their successful first-ascent.
Frosted air nipped at the two rope-pairs that set out beneath the dimming stars the next morning, one aiming for the central gully and us up the right. Moving together, conscious of the consequences of Abbot’s slip, we climbed through the rock-bands on snow of differing quality, some scoured by the wind, some not. Cloud scudded over as we rounded a steep corner just sixty feet from the crest. I popped my head over the top and whispered a chain of profanities under my breath. I had grave concerns as to the stability of the ground. Away to my left the slopes looked loaded, ready to go. Scaleless cornices hung in the mist. I lowered myself back down and hoped my belay had solid foundations.