Thursday 9 November 2017

The walk to Kinney Lake

Immediately behind us, a giant among giants, and immeasurably supreme, rose Robson's Peak. This magnificent mountain is of conical form, glacier clothed and rugged. When we first caught sight of it, a shroud of mist partially enveloped the summit, but this presently rolled away, and we saw its upper portion dimmed by a necklace of light, feathery clouds, beyond which its pointed apex of ice, glittering in the morning sun, shot up far into the blue heaven above, to a height of probably ten thousand or fifteen thousand feet.*

Unless you approach from the west on the Yellowhead Highway, Mount Robson remains hidden from view by other mountains in the Rainbow Range. This obscurity might be one explanation as to why the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies was a latecomer to European exploration and mountaineering, despite its elevation. Its presence is often likewise concealed by the prevailing weather conditions which have the mountain covered in cloud for long periods of the year. One early traveller dubbed it Cloud Cap Mountain and another local guide reported that out of the 29 times he had passed it, he had only seen the top once.

How the mountain got its present-day name remains something of a mystery. One possible explanation is that a trading party camping close to the mountain in the 1820s was under the direction of a man named Robson, but this is complete conjecture. The Texqakallt, a First Nations people and the earliest inhabitants of the area, call it Yuh-hai-has-kun, or ‘Mountain of the Spiral Road’, an infinitely more befitting description given its distinctive horizontal bands of snow that taper towards the summit.

The truth is, Mount Robson remained unchartered for a long time by European travellers. The Yellowhead Pass over which fur traders, early explorers and gold prospectors spasmodically journeyed was largely ignored as a realistic option for a major east-west link when the railways arrived in Western Canada, being too far north. However, when the Canadian Pacific Railway finally connected the Atlantic with the Pacific via the Rocking Horse Pass much further south in the 1880s, it did signal the gradual opening-up of the Canadian Rockies.

In 1865, Walter Butler Cheadle and Viscount Milton travelled over the Yellowhead Pass from Edmonton on an expedition to find the Northwest Passage by land. They immediately fell under the spell of the mountain’s beauty. The citation above, a somewhat embellished description of the mountain, comes from the popular account of their adventures.
But since it was only the frontiersmen that ventured this way, trails were few and far between. Until the end of the 19th century, the Mount Robson area and the northern Rockies remained largely untrampled by tourists, let alone mountaineers. Its relative inaccessibility and some of the far-fetched accounts of lofty mountains that travellers came back with only added to the mystique of the region. Some estimates of Mount Robson’s height were wildly exaggerated with early reports of it exceeding 15,000 feet (or 4,600 metres). In 1898, geological surveyor, James McEvoy whittled that down to 13,700 feet (4,174 metres), which still made it the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies. More accurate surveying ultimately revealed its height to be 12,972 feet, or 3,954 metres.

Thus established, Mount Robson’s stature was enough to attract a growing number of mountaineers. Alpinism was becoming a popular sport and mountain-bagging was now no less de rigeur here than it had been in the Alps a few decades previously. But make no mistake, early attempts on the peak were a major logistical undertaking.

The first expedition to Mount Robson proper was in 1907, organised by A.P. Coleman and  George Kinney. Coleman was Professor of Geology at the University of Toronto, as well as an accomplished artist who had explored widely in the Rockies in the 1890s. Kinney, a Vancouver-based Methodist minister, was one of the original members of the Alpine Club of Canada who would develop an all-consuming passion for the mountain. Starting out from Laggan (present-day Lake Louise), such were the obstacles they faced on their way – blizzards, snowed-up mountain passes and fallen timber amongst then – that it took them a whole 39 days to reach the base of the mountain. (By contrast, today’s tourist on the Icefields Parkway can complete the same journey in half a day.) By the time they set up camp, it was already 10 September and, with dwindling supplies, there was precious little time to make an attempt on the mountain before the weather closed in again. They reconnoitred the mountain from several sides and Coleman recorded the spectacular beauty of the place in some of the earliest sketches and watercolours of the surroundings.

A 1908 expedition proved similarly frustrating for Coleman and Kinney. The 21 days they spent in the shadow of Mount Robson consisted of further mapping and exploration. Kinney made several forays on the mountain and this time reached a point 1000 metres short of the summit, but supply lines and limited daylight hours ensured that Robson remained unvanquished.

In June 1909, having heard that foreign parties had designs on the mountain, Kinney became so worried that he set out on his own on what was another fraught trip, at one point having to swim for his life after being tossed into a swollen torrent. En route he enlisted the services of Donald “Curly” Phillips, a 25-year-old outfitter, game for the challenge, but who had no experience in the high mountains. On 13 August 1909, after many aborted attempts and close shaves, they made one last, desperate attempt on the south-west face of the mountain. Enveloped by swirling mists and sleet, as they got closer to the top, they had to make their way upwards on all fours. They could only see a few yards ahead of them and Kinney wrote of the ordeal, “our clothes and hair were one frozen mass of snow and ice”. In dense cloud and encountering cliffs covered with overhanging masses of snow and huge cornices, they eventually found themselves on the summit ridge and were at last able to claim the summit. Without the aid of professional guides it was acclaimed by the climbing fraternity as an astonishing accomplishment.

What should have marked the closing of the first chapter in Mount Robson’s mountaineering history however, took another twist …

Following the publicity surrounding attempts on the mountain in previous years and the subsequent construction of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway beyond Jasper, the Alpine Club of Canada sent an expedition to the region in 1911, not specifically to ascend the mountain, but instead to look at ways of opening up the area to mountaineering and recreation. However, Mount Robson having now been surveyed from almost every conceivable angle, there was a growing scepticism about Kinney and Phillips’ claim of having reached the top via the route they described. A.O. Wheeler, the club’s first president and leader of the ACC expedition, wrote that the route “looked impossible”. And the doubts persisted.
Another Mount Robson Camp took place in 1913, this time with Wheeler organising an expedition to climb the mountain for certain. He called upon the services of Conrad Kain, an Austrian guide (who went on to become one of the most celebrated figures in Canadian mountaineering). This time, Kain - along with Colonel “Billy” Foster and Albert “Mack” McCarthy – attacked the peak from the north side in what was to be another legendary climb. Kain had to cut hundreds of steps through a maze of ice walls near to the summit. “Never before have I seen such ice formations,” he recorded. After setting off at 7.30 a.m. from a  camp high up on the mountain’s flanks, Kain and his team eventually reached the summit at 5.30 p.m., whereupon he is reputed to have said to his two clients, “Gentlemen, that’s so far as I can take you.” When they got back to base camp the next day, around the campfire that evening “Curly” Phillips (who also happened to be part of the 1913 expedition) made the startling revelation that he and Kinney had in fact not attained the summit in 1909 – “We reached an ice-dome fifty or sixty feet high, which we took for the peak. The danger was too great to ascend the dome.”

Though Kinney would always insist that he and Phillips had reached the true top of Mount Robson and despite the remarkable achievement of that unguided climb, the first ascent is now credited to the party led by Kain in 1913.

And thus the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies was conquered.

Dubbed the Monarch of the Canadian Rockies, Mount Robson rises a full 3,000 metres from the valley bottom, near to where the Mount Robson Provincial Park visitor centre is situated on the Yellowhead Highway and from where most tourists can marvel at the grandeur of the peak, weather permitting.  From here, walkers can hike the 21-kilometre Berg Lake Trail up the Robson River to a spectacular glacial-blue lake at the top of the trail, which is fed by ice- and waterfalls descending from the heights of Robson. Partly because of the trailhead’s proximity to the east-west highway, this well-maintained path is one of the most popular backpacking trips in the Rockies, with some of the best mountain scenery in British Columbia.

Most tourists to this part of the Rockies are strapped for time and only see the spectacle of Mount Robson from the viewing platform at the visitor centre. When my companion and I stopped by in early June this year, we were fortunate to have most of the day to get close up to the mountain. With the weather set fair for the day, when a cloudless Mount Robson loomed into view that morning, it was a safe bet that the hiking boots we’d thrown into the back of our rental car would be put through their paces. Whilst Berg Lake was sadly out of the question, the short 4.5-kilometre trek to Kinney Lake along the same trail recommended by the park rangers would at least go some way to assuaging my appetite and bring us within spitting distance of the mountain.

As the walk ascends the valley of the Robson river, the sheer scale of the mountain with its precipices closing in doesn’t fail to impress. However, its southern face is partly obscured by forest, which is unusual because the cedar, hemlock and Douglas Fir in abundance here are more akin to the temperate rainforests of British Columbia’s Pacific Rim. But such is the domineering presence of Mount Robson, the prevailing westerly winds laden with moisture get pushed up over the summit here, causing heavier rainfall and producing a unique microclimate. On a clear day like this one, it is also possible to see the ‘gargoyles’ on the summit ridge, weird snow formations sculpted by the wind that whips up over the mountain.

After an hour’s gentle uphill climb, the gradient relents and the forest opens out to reveal Kinney Lake, an expanse of emerald-green water, hemmed in by high cliffs with views of Whitehorn Mountain beyond, a handsome peak that would perhaps draw considerable more attention if located elsewhere. A.P. Coleman decided to name the lake in honour of his good friend George Kinney when it was first ‘discovered’ by his 1907 expedition. If one reason alone was enough to justify our decision to choose Canada as a destination this year, then Kinney Lake was it. And not only that, it was the perfect spot to tuck into a hard-boiled egg.

As if to remind us that we were in the great outdoors, not simply taking a leisurely country stroll, on our return to the trailhead we ran into a black bear sauntering along the path and thus impeding our way. Normally, bears are harmless if you avoid attracting their attention, which is why I was somewhat startled by my companion’s gung-ho impulse of pulling out her camera and wanting to get a closer glimpse. Needless to say, after keeping a safe distance and demonstrating some watchful vigilance, we arrived back at the trailhead in one piece having lived to tell the tale of a bear and an unforgettable walk in the shadow of Mount Robson. 

* opening text from The North-West Passage by Land by William Fitzwilliam Milton, Walter Butler Cheadle, published 1865 

Jane Lytton Gooch, Mount Robson: Spiral Road of Art (2013)
Bill Corbett, The 11,000ers of the Canadian Rockies (2004)
Bart Robinson and Brian Patton, The Canadian Rockies Trail Guide, 9th edition (2011)
Chic Scott, Pushing the Limits: The Story of Canadian Mountaineering (2010)