Return of the rhinos: Rocky Mountain perissodactyl climbs, 1979

by Raymond Parker on July 11, 2012

in Adventure, Climbing

Lake Louise (Click to enlarge)

 The profits of crime

If not for the charity of the beautiful Micheline—a fellow hitch-hiker from Québec—the trip back from the Bugaboos ski adventure would have been a hungry affair. I arrived in Vancouver penniless, with my rent due.

Since escaping The Great Escape/Nippon Cycle, I’d been surviving as a peripatetic handyman. Now, as the summer climbing season approached, I surveyed my bank book: $60.00

In the nick of time, I got a job with a local cocaine dealer. He was behind bars, but had left his wife flush enough to maintain their semi-waterfront home, in tony Kitsilano.

And so, aided by the proceeds of crime, I set out on July 11th, 1979, with Tom Hocking on the Second Annual Perissodactyl Expedition to the Rockies (Perissodactyl Climbs I), hoping to dodge the earthbound NASA Skylab as it headed for Earth on its uncontrolled re-entry, over North America.

 Waiting for Chic Scott

On July 14th, the 14th anniversary of my arrival in Canada, we passed through Glacier in a sleet storm, continuing to the Columbia Valley and Invermere.

A climb of some rotten chalk cliffs on Stoddart Creek was seen as training for the friable rock on the East Ridge of Mount Edith Cavell. Tom had set his sights on this classic route, prominent above the Icefields Parkway, south of Jasper.

The previous winter, Tom and I had partied with mountain guide Chic Scott and Banff park warden Tim Auger at Vancouver’s Silvia Hotel. Subsequently, Tom had arranged to hire Scott to lead on Cavell. But repeated phone calls from Invermere to his Calgary home went unanswered.

Following a visit with my young daughter, I was eager to return to the the Columbia Icefields, the peaks above Lake Louise (from which we had retreated ignominiously the year before), the Bugaboos … anywhere. But Tom remained attached to the moribund plan.

As it turned out, Scott—disconsolate since a debacle during the filming of the Clint Eastwood movie The Eiger Sanction that led to the death of a cameraman high on the Eigerwand—had withdrawn from an expedition to Peru and was convalescing in Calgary.

Terminus on Terminal Peak

We wandered around the Rockies without a plan, returning to Rogers Pass, we scrambled onto the Illecillewaet Glacier and the South Ridge of Terminal Peak.

I swarmed up the steep tumble of rock, thrilling at the view south along the sprawling glacier toward Mount Macoun. Tom balked. He didn’t like the look of the weather. I retreated, mumbling into my beard.

“We could’ve done it, man.” We’d come a long way to bail because of a few dark clouds on the horizon.

The retreat, at least, was happy. The softened surface of the glacier made for some memorable glissading (boot skiing) and hilarious face-plants.

Throne Room of the Mountain Gods

We continued on to the heart of the Rockies, boarding the bus into Yoho National Park and the fabled Shangri-La of Lake O’Hara (which Auger, stationed there as a seasonal warden for six years, describes as “the most beautiful place on earth, but don’t tell anybody!”)

Following a shakeout climb on Odaray Mountain, we arose early the day after to hike up to the Abbot Pass Hut, a stone refuge, built in 1922 by Swiss guides working for The Canadian Pacific Railway. The hut balances improbably on the col separating Mounts Victoria and Lefroy, perhaps the most photographed peaks in the Rockies, as the backdrop to Lake Louise and its famous chateau.

We zig-zagged up from the valley through stunted larches, guided by stepping stones artfully arranged by warden Lawrence Grassi in the ‘50s, until the emerald oval of the lake could be seen in its entirety and the surrounding peaks, one by one, hove into view: Neptuak, Deltaform and the fabulous Mount Hungabee, shimmering grey in the afternoon sun, later gold and pink under evening alpenglow.

At midday the heat was enervating, it’s effect on the snowpack powerfully demonstrated by a gigantic wet snow and rock avalanche pouring off the face of Lefroy, cascading over its lower cliffs, to sweep the gully behind us.

At the hut, we joined a group who had made the ascent from Lake Louise and the Plain of The Six Glaciers, site of our abandoned bid, in ’78.

Perhaps the ghost of Phillip Stanley Abbot, whose death on the mountain in 1896 marked the first mountaineering fatality in North America, had visited us in the night. But Tom and I agreed at 4am that our ambition for the day would be a safe descent to Lake Louise. After watching the great avalanche the previous afternoon, the thought of setting foot on Lefroy’s western flank during this heatwave had evaporated.

The route down the Victoria Glacier is commonly swept by ice avalanches from collapsing seracs on the northeast face of Mt. Victoria. We began the decent of the “Death Trap” in darkness, the buttery light of our headlamps picking out dark fissures in the glacier and weakly illuminating the brooding cliffs of Mounts Lefroy and Victoria.

We picked our way between the black veins. Far below, a red puddle of light bloomed at the end of the valley, as the rising sun varnished the surface of Lake Louise. We arrived at the Plain of the Six Glaciers in full sun, pausing only to scan the great canyon we had descended before hurrying down the trail to Lake Louise.

After the Fall

“Whut’s a hayest mount’n y’evah cla-a-m’d?” demanded the tall Texan.

“50,000 feet,” I lied, without apparent incredulity on his part.

“How heavy’s that pack, son?”

Again, I quoted a dubious number, which seemed to define for the American tourist the purpose of our adventure.

While Tom hitched back out to collect his car, I propped my head on a coil of rope and dozed on the Chateau lawn. I dreamt I was alone, high on a mountain, negotiating an overhanging cliff. Black clouds were building behind me, moving at speed across the intervening valley. Could I reach the summit? Should I retreat?

A flash of lightning. Another. Need to find shelter. And quick.

Squinting into the sun, I make out a circle of dark, backlit figures. More flashes.

Have I descended into purgatory? Yes. Crossing the western border of Banff National Park has landed me in the middle of a surrealist nightmare–and a gaggle of Japanese tourists, armed with cameras.

Yoho Map | Abbot Hut History

{ 1 comment… read it below or add your spin! }

Ray Parker July 11, 2012 at 12:31 pm

What a great adventure!


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