Over the past 125 years Glacier National Park has gone from the centre of mountaineering to the centre of backcountry ski touring. The View looks into the history of backcountry adventure in Rogers Pass.
In late March I was out ski touring with some friends in Glacier National Park. As we climbed up along the Bonney Moraine towards the Lilly Glacier, Mount Bonney loomed above us. Looking back we could see the pyramid-shaped Mount Cheops, towering on the other side of the Trans-Canada Highway.
We skinned our way up, skirting past a pile of avalanche debris and onto the glacier. A bit further and we crested the ridge separating the Lilly Glacier from the Dome Glacier. The rocky summit of the Dome loomed above, while below lay 4,000 feet of open bowls down to the Asulkan Creek below. Across the valley was Glacier Crest and just beyond that was the Illecillewaet Glacier, with the spire of Mt. Sir Donald looming above it, partly shrouded in clouds.
All around us was the area once regarded as the centre of mountaineering in North America. While its lustre in that regard has faded, Glacier National Park has remained a prime backcountry destination and has emerged as the Mecca for ski touring in the world.
The first man credited with travelling to the area of the Glacier Nation Park is Walter Moberly, who visited the area in 1865. His assistant Albert Perry travelled up the Illecillewaet a year later.
However, it wasn’t until 1881, when Major Albert Bowman Rogers hiked up Mount Avalanche and discovered the pass through the seemingly impenetrable Selkirks that the area boomed. Within four years, Canadian Pacific completed the railway through Rogers Pass and in 1886 the first tourists stopped in the park. The fall of that year also saw the creation of Glacier National Park.
The popularity of the park rose with the construction of the Glacier House hotel. Originally built as a dining stop along the CPR line, it was quickly turned into a hotel when the railway realized the area’s tourist potential. The main draw at the time was the Illecillewaet Glacier, commonly known as the Great Glacier, as it was an easy hike from the hotel.
The man credited with popularizing mountaineering in Glacier National Park is Rev. William Spotswood Green. In the summer of 1888 he ascended Glacier Crest, crossed the Illecillewaet neve and Asulkan Pass and summited Mount Bonney.
His accounts and maps of the area spread far and wide. Soon enough, intrepid mountaineers were flocking to the Selkirks in search of new peaks to summit.
“The early climbing in the area were the premiere sites for mountaineering in North America,” said Irv Graham of the Golden Museum. “With all these explorers coming it became a scene for mountaineering. That’s why CPR expanded and developed Glacier House in its promotion.”
The goals, in those days, were first ascents, and those were occurring from the day the railroad first reached the Pass. Mount Avalanche and Mount Cheops were ascended in 1885, Mount Macdonald the following year, Mount Bonney, Terminal Mountain and Mount Abbott in 1888 and a whole host of peaks in 1890 – including the king of them all, Mount Sir Donald, who’s imposing peak earned it the nickname the Matterhorn of the Selkirks.
After the initial flurry of activity, the next key development in the park was the hiring of Swiss Guides to lead tourists and mountaineers up the various routes.
Their biggest legacy, however, was the trails they built and maintained. The Great Glacier trail, Glacier Crest, Avalanche Crest, Marion Lake trail, Hermit Trail, Balu Pass, Sir Donald, Perley Rock, and Asulkan Valley – all classic day hikes that exist today – were developed in that area through the challenging terrain of the Selkirk Mountains. The trails helped casual tourists enjoy the amazing views and allowed mountaineers easy access to surrounding summits. The Nakimu Caves, first discovered and developed in the early-20th century also contributed to the rising popularity of the park. More than 1,000 tourists each summer would stay at Glacier House and spend time in the area.
After Glacier House was taken down in 1925, the park went into a quiet period, with few visitors due to difficult access and lack of facilities. There is little written about the park in this era, aside from the 1971 PHD thesis by John Marsh, Man, Landscape and Recreation in Glacier National Park, British Columbia, 1880 to present,
His research showed a national park with visits numbering in the mere hundreds and consisting mostly of dedicated mountaineers. The Alpine Club of Canada maintained a presence in the park, constructing the Wheeler Hut in 1947 and conducting several summer camps (and one winter camp) in the park during the era. After each camp, the club would produce a report on its activities.
“They kept that whole backcountry spirit and alpinism alive,” said John Wells, the Glacier National Park historian.
At some point people started skiing in Glacier National Park. It was a natural progression – the tremendous snowfalls were notorious for their avalanches so it was only a matter of time before people started skiing in the park.
A photo from the 1920s shows someone skiing somewhere near Rogers Pass summit. A 1938 account by a man named C. Abell titled Skis over Balu Pass that appeared in the Canadian Alpine Journal.
At some point in the 1940s, people started venturing up from Revelstoke to enjoy skiing at Rogers Pass. Paul Salva, who still lives in Revelstoke, was one of the early skiers there, first heading up in 1945, at the age of 16, he said.
“We got there so early in the morning, we slept in the station until we got daylight,” he recalled. “Once we got daylight we headed up to some of the ski areas where the old hotel grounds used to be, skied that areas and then caught the train later to go back.”
Occasionally, they would stay overnight with the railway workers living at the Pass. According to Salva, there were very few people skiing in the pass at the time. He recalled a few railway workers skiing in the area but very few other people.
“There were operators and ticket agents who were very good skiers working up there,” he said. Later on, he would venture to the pass by train to measure the snow levels at the Mt. Fidelity weather station.
Even summers were quiet then, with only a few hundred visitors staying in the park in any given year, a far cry from the days of the Glacier House hotel.
Another early skier in the Pass was James Webb, who, along with Noel Gardner, ventured up and down the area mapping out slide paths in preparation for the construction of the Trans-Canada Highway.
For 2.5 years, starting in November 1952, they studied the avalanches in the area. It was work, he wrote in his book Tales of a Highwayman, but once in a while the two of them would go on “snow reconnaissance” missions to the Illecillewaet Glacier and up Balu Pass.
“The only real recreation happened about three times a year when there were no avalanches to look at, the snow looked good and we would just take off and enjoy ourselves for a day,” he said in an interview. “It was certainly great skiing at the time.”
The opening of the Trans-Canada highway through Rogers Pass in 1962 changed everything. Once again, access was easy and facilities were developed to service the millions of travellers that passed through the park. Three campgrounds were established and a hotel was opened near the summit of Rogers Pass.
The highway brought thousands of people into the park. Most would only make a brief stop, but many others would take the time to hike the day trails, which largely follow the same routes as those built by the Swiss guides at the turn of the century, with a few route changes designed to protect ecosystems.
“Since a lot of these trails date back so far in our history, they weren’t really established for any reason except to access the mountains,” said Ian Brown, the resource conservation manager in Glacier National Park. “Nowadays we look at it in terms of quality of the vistas, the experience, the views – with a strong focus on our ecological objectives.”
That means modifying trails to avoid bear habitat and reduce bear-human conflict. Preserving and presenting the history of the trails is also something Brown would like to do.
“When you’re ski touring up the Asulkan or the Illecillewaet – do you know you’re ski touring in a rich cultural landscape that is really the beginning of mountaineering if Canada, or is it like ski touring anywhere else?” he said. “If we can improve those trails so that people learn a lot more about that history and that rich cultural landscape that they’re hiking in, that would be really important for us.”
While hiking and mountaineering remain popular and summer sees the majority of visitor, it’s the ski touring options in Glacier National Park that keep the area in the international spotlight. The copious amounts of snow (Mt. Fidelity has the highest annual average snow fall in Canada) and easy access via the highway have made it a Mecca for backcountry skiers. In 2010, about 20,000 people went touring in the park.
Chic Scott, the legendary Canadian mountaineer and guide, has called it the “heart of ski touring in North America.”
“It’s the best easily accessible ski touring in the world,” he said in a past interview.
In the summer, more than 400,000 people visited the park last year, though most were only passing through. The most popular trails in the Illecillewaet area see upwards of 6,000 hikers each summer
What lies next for Glacier National Park? The new management plan talks about the possibility of mountain biking and horseback riding trails. The spirit of adventure is still there. Mt. Sir Donald is still considered a challenging climb, though it can now be done in a long day by a skilled amateur.
This year Glacier National Park is celebrating its 125th anniversary. While it does get overshadowed by the much more popular Rocky Mountain parks, its legacy is evident in the rich history of backcountry exploration.