Athabasca Pass – In Thompson’s Footsteps
The oldest European tradition in the Mountain Parks: toasting the Hudson’s Bay governing committee at the Committee’s Punch Bowl – a pond at the top of Athabasca Pass, draining rivulets to either side, feeding separate oceans.
This year, 2011, marks two centuries since David Thompson crossed the pass and established a trade route, binding Canada together almost a century before the railway. I wanted to walk in the foot steps of the man who described every day as “fine”:
January 10th, 1811. A fine day. Much Ice left in the Mountains & they are abt 1 Mile ascender. Broke my Snow Shoes. We then went 1M to the height of Land. We camped on the Snow, it being too deep to be cleared away. Fine Evening. My Men were not at their ease, yet when night came, they admired the brilliancy of the Stars. One of our rough-spun Canadians, after gazing in silent Wonder, exclaimed with much vehemence, I’ll take my Oath, my dear friends, that God Almighty never made such a place!
I marveled at the toughness of Thompson, breaking his snow shoes but continuing on, marking the snow with his lopsided passage – the track of determination.
Over the years, a myth grew that the mountains that bordered the pass were enormous, the tallest on the continent, and mounts Hooker and Brown were marked that way on the maps still, a century later, inspiring mountaineers and artists. But they didn’t exist. Imagine travelling to Nepal only to find no trace of Everest!
Thompson had no maps, whereas we’re the first generation to have no white spaces. That sense of the frontier seemed to me lost. To see the mountains as Thompson had!
My friend Dustin Lynx and I left the car with fourteen others on January 8th, and continued on the 9th. It was very cold and the travel through the woods difficult. On the river, flood ice under the snow would turn our skis into immovable blocks.
The second day we caught up with Chic Scott and Margaret Gmoser and camped below the Hooker Icefield. Margaret is the widow of ski legend Hans Gmoser.
“Not bad for a granny, eh?” Laughed Margaret.
Chic looked up at the glacier and declared he hadn’t seen it in the 43 years since he pioneered the Grand Traverse – skiing from Jasper to Lake Louise. He’d first done that fabled route the year before I was born.
In our tent, preparing for another 14-hour night of -40C, Dustin and I looked at each other through vapour clouds in our headlamps: if a tough-as-nails grandmother could be here with a smile when all other groups but us and the wardens had turned back, then surely we could do this. After another endless night, we folded our frosted tent like cardboard and continued up the canyon towards the pass.
Below the final meadows, one of my ski bindings snapped with a ping. A horrifying sound 50 kilometres from the car. We were criss-crossing ice bridges on the river and needed the distribution of weight that skis provide. Thompson didn’t have a car to return to, or park wardens for help. With wire and straps cut from my pack, we rigged a binding for my boot. I couldn’t walk without sinking to my hips, yet the wire binding kept snapping in the cold. I stopped and tied cord instead, imagining Thompson doing the same to his snowshoes.
The conditions were similar: –33, a temperature where it doesn’t matter if it’s Fahrenheit or Celsius. But we had what he didn’t: a perfect day, the sun shining from the southern aspect of the pass; the forest a fairy tale, deep-blanketed glades slowly ascending. I finally limped to the pass to find Dustin and three wardens excavating the commemorative plaque.
We raised metal flasks, almost freezing them to our lips, toasting Thompson, the last 200 years, the next 200, the Committee.
Less than a kilometre down the winding trail, my other binding snapped. I was out of wire, out of cord, and fresh out of wardens. Following in Thompson’s footsteps was becoming too literal.
I had no option but to tie the useless ski to my pack and run with one foot as I raced the sun five kilometres of deep snow back to camp, leaving a rare and peculiar trail for the wardens.
I made it to the tent just as the stars were brilliant and close, unperturbed by the last 200 years of human endeavour.
The sound of the broken bindings, like the cold, I remember only as an echo. Instead, the memory of standing at the pass on that day is as clear as my childhood dreams. In the reimagining of Thompson’s journey, I saw past difficulties and renewed my inspiration in the mysterious, in those possibilities which might lie, still, outside the maps.
~By Jerry Auld