It was a remarkable feat of organization, teamwork and patriotism.
In 1967, The Alpine Club of Canada organized the Yukon Alpine Centennial Expedition (YACE) to celebrate Canada's 100th birthday. For two months that summer, after several years of dreaming and meticulous planning, some 60 men and women representing the country's most skilled mountaineers established four camps in the Yukon's Centennial Range to climb 13 peaks named for the provinces and territories, plus Centennial Peak.
In addition to celebrating Canada's centenary, the expedition also marked 100 years of friendship between Canada and the U.S., and the centennial of the transaction that granted the U.S. possession of Alaska. To honour that milestone, a Canada/U.S. team made the first ascent of 4,785-metre Good Neighbour Peak, the south peak of Mount Vancouver, which straddles the Yukon/Alaska boundary in the Saint Elias Range.
The extravaganza concluded with the ACC's Centennial General Mountaineering Camp running for two weeks on the Steele Glacier. By expedition's end, 26 first ascents had been accomplished safely.
As Canada's celebrates its 150th birthday this year, climbing writer Chic Scott, ACC Executive Director Lawrence White and ACC Vice President of Mountain Culture Zac Robinson discussed ways the Club might participate in the celebrations.
They decided on a film commemorating the YACE. With a very small budget to work with, Canmore filmmaker Glen Crawford agreed to work with Scott, and Expedition Yukon — 50 Years Later was in production.
"I feel there is a lot of history that risks getting forgotten," Crawford said. "As people get older, the stories fade away. I think it's important to document some of these stories. This project intrigued me because of the location, what was achieved on the expedition and the fact that many of the people involved are still around."
Beginning in January, Scott and Crawford travelled to Edmonton to interview Stan Rosenbaum, Centennial Peak climber, who later served as ACC President. They interviewed Cochrane resident Glen Boles, one of the Canadian Good Neighbour Peak climbers, and travelled to Vancouver Island to interview Mount Alberta climber Phil Dowling, and YACE coordinator Dave Fisher, both also former ACC presidents. Their interview with Andrea Rankin, Mount Saskatchewan climber was especially memorable, Scott said.
"She was a terrific interview," Scott said. "She's very vivacious and she performed in theatricals when she was young. She's great on camera."
Another interviewee was Peter Fuhrmann, former ACC President and ACMG Mountain Guide who guided at the Steele Glacier camp. Banff helicopter pilot Jim Davies was also interviewed.
"He flew a G473B1 for YACE, a turbo charged helicopter," Scott said. On one flight Davies landed with ACMG guide Hans Gmoser and Judy Cooke on the 5,240-metre summit of Mount Lucania, third highest peak entirely in Canada. The landing remains the highest on record for that type of helicopter.
"It was pretty ballsy flying," Scott said.
For Scott and Crawford, however, the highlight of the project was a three-hour flight with Icefield Discovery chief pilot Tom Bradley in a Helio Courier, thanks to Air North providing transportation from Calgary to Whitehorse, Yukon.
"The flight through the Saint Elias mountains was a bonus!" Crawford said. "I thought the chance of being able to predict a weather window from Canmore and then dash up to the Yukon and actually make the flight was a long shot. As it turned out, we were able to do exactly that. We had the perfect flying conditions for filming and were treated to a spectacular tour of the area. It's a unique part of the planet and an area not many people get to see. To fly through 400 kilometres over three hours was really incredible!"
So is the footage, he promised. While there, they filmed an interview with legendary Yukon pilot Andy Williams, Icefield Discovery founder.
Then Crawford settled into the work of shaping footage into a film. Initially planning on a 15 to 20-minute film, the amount and quality of the footage demanded more.
"The story grew as we worked on it," Crawford said. "My goal with the film was to capture the stories from those involved and weave them together into a film that tells the story of their adventure and achievements. It's been a big project and it's been way more time consuming than anticipated. A bonus of the project was getting to work with Chic Scott. He's an amazing mountain historian and it's been fun swapping stories and getting to know him."
For his part, Scott praised Crawford for completing the project in time for its premiere at the ACC's AGM in Whitehorse on May 27, hosted at the MacBride Museum of Yukon History, a key supporter of the project. The museum's new addition will feature a permanent exhibit celebrating YACE.
"I can't say enough good things about Glen, he worked all day and into the night to put the film together," Scott said. "I guess I'm the producer, but it's Glen's film."
Scott also credited Canmore's Jerry Auld for animating a series of maps for the film, and for adding dynamic touches to historic still photos. A professional was hired to narrate the film, and Robinson helped write the script.
While the YACE was well documented in Expedition Yukon, edited by Marnie Fisher and published in 1972, and in a 30th anniversary booklet by Fisher and R.W. Sandford published by the ACC, the film will showcase the story to a wider audience.
The interviews, Scott said, combined with their flight over and around the Centennial Range revealed to him how difficult the peaks were for the climbing teams, not all of whom were successful in summitting.
"The one thing I learned, they're hard peaks," Scott said. "These were not walk-ups. They're steep with narrow ridges, crumbly rock, huge cornices and no protection. They had very little information on them and they were difficult mountains. They really had their work cut out for them. It was a fabulous expedition."