Blank Spaces of the Canadian Rockies
The First Ascent of Mount Alberta
During the Golden Age of mountaineering in the Canadian Rockies it was not uncommon for first ascents to be attained by non-Canadians. In fact, it was more likely that a peak would be climbed by a European or an American than a Canadian. The first ascent of Mount Alberta in Jasper National Park is no different in that regard. However, the legend that followed, and the international relationship that was formed after that first ascent was very different. As told in Robert William Sandford's book Called by This Mountain: The Legend of the Silver Ice Axe and Early Climbing History of Mount Alberta, the story, the people and the objects involved push the physical, mental and international boundaries involved in mountaineering.
|"Called by This Mountain" by Robert William Sandford|
from the ACC Library Collection
Mount Alberta is located in Jasper National Park at the northern edge of the Columbia Icefields. It is the 3rd highest mountain in the Columbia Icefields area, and the 6th highest in the Canadian Rockies. In Stever Roper and Allen Steck’s Fifty Classic Climbs in North America, they describe Mt. Alberta as “one of the most notorious peaks in the Rockies.” Even Norman Collie thought it was the fabled Mt. Hooker or Mt. Brown, two mountains shrouded in mystery that were believed to be comparable to Himalayan heights. Mt. Alberta remained the “central unsolved problem of the golden age of mountaineering.”
The solution to this ‘unsolved problem’ began in Switzerland with Japanese climber Yuko Maki. Maki was the 1st internationally renowned Japanese climber, earning fame from his 1921 ascent of the Eiger from the Mittelegi arête in Switzerland. In 1924 Maki was skiing in Niigata, Japan with the Marquis Mori Tatsu Hosokawa who showed Maki a copy of A Climber’s Guide to the Rocky Mountains of Canada from 1921 that featured a photo of Mt. Alberta taken by Howard Palmer in 1920. The photograph was captioned: “A Formidable Unclimbed Peak of the Range”. And so the seed was planted.
Maki began to gather information and team members for an expedition to Canada. Information about Mt. Alberta and the surrounding area was scarce. He quickly came to the realization that his expedition would have to “walk into the blank spaces on the map of the Canadian West to reach the peak.” As for team members, Maki brought together a diverse group of climbers with particular interests. Maki would be the team leader, with Seiichi Hashimoto as secretary. Nagatane Okabe was the expedition photographer. Masanobu Hatano was the team geologist and geographer. Tanezo Hayakawa was the expedition’s doctor, and Yukio Mita had an interest in plants and a talent for landscape painting.
Members of the Japanese
The team arrived in Jasper on July 7th 1925 where they stayed at the Jasper Park Lodge. It was here that they ran into Swiss professional guides Heinrich Fuhrer and Hans Kohler, who were invited to join the expedition. They accepted and petitioned for amateur climber Jean Weber from Switzerland to be included as well. With these three additions to the team they left Jasper on July 11th, outfitted with a pack train by Fred Brewster they travelled 70 miles south to the upper reaches of the Athabasca River with an additional six men to look after the horses and supplies, and to cook meals. The expedition was said to have been “marked by good humour”, with the cowboys playing pranks on the Japanese climbers and fireside entertainment of Canadian tales, Swiss yodeling and Japanese songs.
Members of the Japanese
They encountered their first obstacle when a forest fire blocked their way to their preferred route. Thankfully they were prepared for this eventuality due to a chance encounter with Russian-born American climber Val Fynn who warned them about the forest fire. It took time, patience, and determination but they finally arrived at Habel Creek on July 16th where they set up their base camp. While packing their equipment the Swiss noticed an extra ice axe being packed by their Japanese comrades:
“An extra ice axe, the destination of which was not clear to us three Swiss, found its way into the many things our patient backs were to carry on the morrow to the high camp.”
On July 21st at 3:30am they left their bivouac that they had set up on a meadow that Howard Palmer had discovered the previous year. Among the obstacles they faced on the mountain was loose debris and falling rock, a layer of slate so thick the climbers sank in to their ankles, and continuous rock fall. Probably their most challenging obstacle was a rock overhang that required Kohler and Hayakawa (both unroped) to form a human ladder for Fuhrer to climb up using his special felt rock-climbing shoes!
They finally reached the summit at 7:35 PM. Expedition leader Yuko Maki later described the moment:
“When we stood on the summit, it was a most solemn moment for everybody. No exclamations of Banzai. No cries of Bravo. We just shook hands voicelessly. I was simply moved to tears.”
Once the initial rush of overwhelming emotions wore off the Japanese revealed the secret of the extra ice axe. The axe was to be left on the summit to mark the first ascent. They built a cairn and planted the axe in it along with a small tin containing their summit note:
“Half-past seven in the evening, twenty-first day of July in the year nineteen hundred and twenty-five. After 16 hours of strenuous climbing, we, nine, got the top of Mount Alberta. Party of six. And with Fuhrer, Kohler and Weber. We came from Japan so far, called by this charming great mountain.”
In the aftermath of the first ascent a rumour began to spread throughout the mountaineering community that the ice axe left by the Japanese climbers was made of pure silver and that it had been presented to them by the Emperor of Japan himself. Were the rumours true? Find out in Part 2 of the Blog Post: Blank Spaces of the Canadian Rockies: The Legend of the Silver Ice Axe, coming soon...