Dartmouth Mountaineering Club in the Bugaboos
by CMH Guide, Paul Lazarski
After only a few minutes-long flight by helicopter, we step out on the bare glacial ice of the awe-inspiring Dartmouth Glacier. Here, guests are immersed in a truly wild landscape of expansive peaks and glaciers. Standing on the soft ice, reminiscent of frozen popcorn, we safely cross the glacier flats to view the distant ice fall above Bill's Pass. Until the summer of 2009, this area was off limits due to its ruggedness, however, warming ice conditions and glacial recession have made this new hike, at least in the short term, possible.
In reality, the ease of access to this area we enjoy today would have made earlier mountain visitors envious. In the minds of the early climbers and explorers our quick flight eliminates the oft-times long, arduous valley approach, through thick timber and tangled alder. Now we can enjoy the most time in the most exciting areas!
History has a strange way of repeating itself, today hikers and climbers launch personal pilgrimages to the mountains, seeking the same adventure, peace and perspective on life as did those of a much simpler time. Unknown, however, to most visitors to The Bugaboos and Bobbie Burns, is the fact that we are walking literally within the footsteps of history. There is a long lineage of expeditions to this area from American University Alpine Clubs, with climbers from Dartmouth, Harvard, Princeton and The University of California Berkeley launching expeditions as early as 1948. At a time when travel was less accessible, the ordeal of entering these high mountains proved quite challenging. Even after the introduction of road travel into the Bugaboos for example, climbers would load onto a shock-less 1946 Ford truck for the hellish eight hour 'drive' up to where the lodge is today.
The University that left the most extensive legacy in the area were those climbers from The Dartmouth College Mountaineering Club (DMC). Located some 3,600 km (2,300 miles) distant in New Hampshire, The DMC led numerous expeditions into The Purcells, from 1952 to 1959. For us today this time period holds a certain romance and sought after simplicity. Climbing gear was very sparse, often comprising of only a long ice axe, Tricouni boot spikes or heavy iron crampons for crossing ice, the occasional iron rock anchor and a rope. There were no harnesses, climbers wrapped multiple loops of the rope around their waist, tying them with the age-old marine style bowline knot. Climbing objectives respected the skills of the day, ropes more often than not were wrapped around protruding rock horns for fall protection and climbers chose routes that would reduce the chance of a rope-constricting fall. Celebrating their achievements, climbers would construct small rock piles on the peaks, placing within a small metal tube and there leaving their names on paper for posterity. It was on one such remote peak in the summer of 2003 that a CMH guide discovered part of the legacy of the DMC. While opening the rock cairn to place a similar record of his guests achievement, he found a small aluminum Kodak film canister with the initials DMC scratched on it face. Since that time, other DMC film cans have been found and left to remind future guests, of the simple human value that 'we were here'.
The legacy of those early Dartmouth Mountaineering Club climbers lives on in the names of numerous peaks, both in The Bugaboos and Bobbie Burns Ranges. Many features were named in their honour, such as Collins Creek, Bill's Pass and the Dartmouth Glacier on which we stand today. Most, however, were named by the east-coast climbers themselves, often reflecting their university associations, faculties and personal backgrounds. In 1952-53, history major Bob Collins named Mounts 'Sir William' Wallace, Robert the Bruce, Syphax (after the slave of Julius Caesar) and The Scotch Peaks. Expedition leader Peter Robinson named The Whirpool & Catamount Glaciers (for an ice waterfall and a camp visiting cougar), Mt. North Star and Mt Stone (after the President of Purdue University). Likewise in 1953, a physics and biology major named Mounts Kelvin (for Lord Kelvin - discoverer of absolute zero) and Snaflehound Spire (for the sneaky bushy-tailed wood rat).
The DMC accomplished numerous first ascents including Virgin Peak in 1952 and The Whipping Post, which they named in 1956. The later part of the '50s produced more expeditions and more names including Osprey Peak, Robinson Glacier, Mt. McCarthy, Shaft Seven, Climbing Ridge, The Fountain of Youth, and Pleasure Island. One of the most famous of their achievements was the North Purcell ski traverse, from The Bugaboos to Rogers Pass. Bill Briggs, who later gained renown for his stunning accomplishments in the Grand Tetons, accompanied his DMC friends on that first ever expedition.
Many DMC expedition members went on to be famous, Peter Robinson became geology professor at the University of Massachusetts while Bill Briggs achieved ski-mountaineering fame by being the first person ever to descend The Grand Teton on skis.
For the modern heli-hiking / mountaineering guest, equipped with all the modern conveniences of breathable waterproof fabric and lightweight gear, its hard to imagine long lines of woollen clad climbers, sporting long wooden ice axes, heavy canvas packs and iron pitons ascending some of the most arduous peaks in Western Canada.
Today the DMC achievements live on only in their archived mountaineering club journals, and in the imaginations of the few who know and greatly respect their accomplishments. By joining me this summer in the Bugaboos and Bobbie Burns you can help to keep their memory alive and relive some of the same awe and wonder that spellbound those early adventurers.
photo: Bill's Pass, CMH Bugaboo, by Paul Lazarski