Blank Spaces of the Canadian Rockies, Part 2:

                                                          Legend of the Silver Ice Axe

In the last blog post of Blank Spaces of the Canadian Rockies Part 1, we recounted the first chapter of the mountaineering history of Mount Alberta. We followed the Japanese team up the mountain and watched as they planted the ice axe in a cairn near the summit. In the aftermath of the first ascent a rumor 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. Continue reading to discover what happened next…

On the 30th of July, 1948 (23 years after the first ascent) the second ascent of Mount Alberta was made by Americans Fred Ayres and John Oberlin. During their ascent one of their ice axes had to be used as a rappel point in order to descend into the saddle. When they reached the summit and found the ice axe left by the first Japanese team they decided to use it for their descent. Unfortunately the axe was so solidly frozen into the cairn that when they tried to remove it the shaft snapped, leaving the bottom spike end frozen to the mountain. They discovered that it was not made of silver, but decided to bring it down with them to be preserved in the museum of one of the Alpine Clubs. They also retrieved the summit note left by the Japanese team to likewise be preserved, as they noticed the effects of snow, ice and wind had begun to deteriorate the fragile paper. The ice axe fragment was displayed in the museum of the American Alpine Club in New York.
Photo by Fred Ayres
On summit ridge of Alberta, looking south, summit 250 yds. behind camera to north
M200/AC090M/031, Mount Alberta summit records

Photo by Fred Ayres, Part way up the back cliff on Alberta.
M200/AC090M/031, Mount Alberta summit records

Ten years later, the first Canadian ascent of Mount Alberta took place on August 18th. Climbers Neil Brown, Heinz Kahl, Sarka Spinkova, Leo Grillmair, and Hans Gmoser made note of the broken shaft but left it in situ. One week later, British climbers Brian Greenwood and Dick Lofthouse, completing the first British ascent, did not see the ice axe, speculating that it was covered by snow.

In 1965, the Nagano High School Old Boys Alpine Club planned an expedition of Mount Alberta, 40 years after the first ascent. The team received advice from park warden Max Winkler, and used the now more direct route over Woolley Shoulder to approach the mountain. The team’s early days were tough, encountering bad weather which stopped them from climbing nearby peaks in order to get a better look at the possible routes on Mount Alberta. Finally, on July 29th the team was successful and even found the broken shaft from the first ascent. At the time, they were not aware who the shaft had belonged to but the expedition leader, Mamoru Tajima, decided to bring the shaft with them, as well as the summit notes from the last ascents by the Canadian and American teams.

From this point onwards, our story changes settings from the peaks of mountains to the museum galleries and Alpine Club clubhouses closer to sea level….

For many years rumors circulated in Canada as to where the ice axe and the summit notes had ended up. In 1992, Greg Horne, a park warden in Jasper and executive member of the Jasper-Hinton section of the ACC, visited the American Alpine Club museum in New York. He noticed a bundle of ice axes and recognized the axe from Mount Alberta’s first ascent based on the “M.T.H” engraved into the head. “M.T.H.” were the initials of the Marquis Mori Tatsu Hosokawa, who, if you recall, had introduced Maki to Mount Alberta through A Climber’s Guide to the Rocky Mountains of Canada. These initials indicated that the ice axe had not been presented to the Japanese team by the Emperor of Japan, but rather by the Marquis. At the time, Greg Horne admits that he contemplated stealing the ice axe:

“Thoughts of ‘justice’ swirled in my head. I would smuggle the axe out of the building and return it to Canada. Now, how to cover my tracks?”

Mt. Alberta ice axe on display at
Jasper-Yellowhead Museum.
Thankfully, however, he thought better of it and instead spoke to Edith Gourley at the Jasper-Yellowhead Museum and worked with her to write a request to Frank de la Vega, Executive Director of the American Alpine Club, asking for the return of the axe to Canadian soil. In 1995, after the AAC moved to Golden, Colorado, the top section of the axe was returned to Jasper.

Over the course of the next five years the ACC was beginning to make plans for the 75th Anniversary Celebrations of the First Ascent of Mount Alberta in 2000. This included joint work with the Japanese Alpine Club, and numerous trips and commemorative events in Japan where they ceremoniously re-joined the two pieces of the ice axe.

One of the biggest events took place in August of 2000, when a group of ACC and JAC members set out to climb Mount Alberta together. The team included Cam Roe, Kazuhiro Kumasaki, Peter Amann, Takaaki Morikami, Sylvia Forest, and Hirotake Takeuchi. Unfortunately, the weather was again a major obstacle to the team and they were unable to summit. They did manage to climb a few of the surrounding peaks and even named an unclimbed subpeak of Mount Engelhard “Mount Tomodachi” or “Friendship Peak” in honour of the bond created between the Canadian and Japanese climbers.

Sylvia Forest said it best:

“No we did not climb this mountain, but we were successful! Yes, we were. We celebrated the union of two cultures, two clubs, and the ice axe was brought home. We made strong friendships and developed bonds that can only be achieved through a mountaineering adventure such as this. And, we respected the mountain, as she demands. One day, when she is in a better mood, we may come back, and stand on her summit.”  

On Saturday, August 19th 2000 at the Jasper Recreation Complex crowds gathered for the formal and final reunification of the two halves of the ice axe. The Japanese Alpine Club President Hiroyoshi Otsuka said this:

“It is said that an ice axe is the soul of a climber. This ice axe which symbolizes the history and tradition of the climbing of Mount Alberta is going to be exhibited here forever.”

*          *          *

The story of the Mount Alberta ice axe captivated and inspired people in both Canada and Japan for decades. Robert William Sandford's book "Called by This Mountain" gives a well-researched and detailed account of the mountain's climbing history. It was even translated into Japanese. 

In 2013 this story was adapted into a Japanese children's book by Junko Haga, daughter of Yukio Mita, the leader of the team that made the first ascent in 1925. Junko sent a copy of her book to the Alpine Club of Canada along with a paper copy of the English translations of the text in the book. 

The Story of the Mount Alberta Ice Axe by Junko Haga
with English translations

The book tells the story from the perspective of the ice axe. You follow it on its journey through words and beautiful illustrations that easily capture the reader and include them in the story.


Come to the Whyte Museum Library and Archives to take a look at this whimsical addition to the Alpine Club of Canada's Library.


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