By G.D. Maxwell
To a pioneering country frozen much of the year in winter, the mountains of the western frontier represented nothing so much as an impenetrable barrier. Winter and the Rocky Mountains account for much of the storied history behind the magnificent canoe routes that meandered northwest of Cumberland House, highways to adventure and rich, new trapping grounds, all ending frustratingly at the base of the Rockies.
Nineteenth-century western Canadian history is the story of unlocking the secrets of the mountains of British Columbia and Alberta and the tortured route of the great, watery highway leading east from the Pacific, the Columbia River, dominion over which was feverishly contested by the North West Company and competing American interests.
Though early explorers were awestruck by the glaciated peaks of the Rockies, Columbias, Selkirks and Coast Mountains, their admiration was tempered by their commercial desire to lay claim to the wealth of the land and discover means of traversing these formidable obstacles.
Early mountaineering in western Canada was largely a non-recreational activity. It was, for the most part, exercises in mapping and surveying, finding and refining routes through the mountains and ultimately, plotting the course for the Canadian Pacific Railway.
Ironically, the CPR itself laid the groundwork for recreational mountaineering. Having built a highway of steel connecting East and West and having constructed hotels in some of the most fiercely awe-inspiring spots in the mountains, the CPR did two more things that would indelibly shape the history of Canadian mountaineering. In 1899, as described in Chic Scott’s sweeping history, Pushing the Limits: The Story of Canadian Mountaineering , the CPR imported Swiss mountain guides to help promote tourism to their hotels. The guides and their intrepid clients opened up sport climbing and word of endless peaks and exhilarating sights spread east across the country.
The other major contribution of the CPR was hiring surveyor Arthur Oliver Wheeler to undertake a photo and topographical survey of the company’s right of way through the Selkirk Mountains. If much of the population of Canada was both ignorant of and indifferent to the wonders of mountainous terrain, Wheeler wasn’t. He knew… and cared. He cared passionately about the mountains he had spent much of his professional life photographing, mapping and exploring as one of the nascent country’s preeminent surveyors.
It was in his professional role as surveyor for the Canadian Pacific Railway he decided to do something to raise the consciousness of Canadians unfortunate enough to live east of the Rockies, which is to say almost all Canadians, to the majesty defining the western end of their country. Having been smitten by the grandeur of the peaks he’d learned to climb to discharge his surveying duties, Wheeler was keen on forming a Canadian alpine club. And during his stint with the CPR he chanced upon Charles Fay. Fay was, himself consumed with establishing the American alpine club and suggested creating the Alpine Club of North America of which Wheeler might found the Canadian branch.