It was September 1965 and outside the window there was only rain and gloom. Water dripped from the eves. But inside Lizzie Rummel’s little cabin the cook stove radiated warmth and the coal oil lamp cast a golden glow. Lizzie Rummel (actually Baroness Elizabet von Rummel) was teaching me to play crib. My climbing companion, Don Gardner, read quietly in the corner.
A few days earlier, Don and I had walked to Mount Assiniboine from Banff in a marathon 60 km hike over Allenby Pass. We had planned to climb the great peak but the rain, and snow at higher elevations, kept us valley bound. Lizzie and Don were close friends, his father Smitty Gardner was her doctor, and Don had spent summer holidays here at Lizzie’s camp below Mount Assiniboine.
Lizzie gave us the key to Ken Jones’s Ranger Cabin and said, “If you boys will chop a little wood for me, I will feed you.” I had little appreciation for the great honour that was being offered. For the rest of the week we hiked (in the rain), fished a little, chopped some wood and enjoyed Lizzie’s company and great food.
Lizzie was born February 19, 1897 in Munich Germany, the daughter of Baron Gustav von Rummel, an officer in the German army. She grew up, a privileged child, in the upper strata of European society, was well educated by governesses and could speak several languages. In later years she fondly remembered to me her days living near the Piazza del Popolo in Rome.
In 1914 she and her mother and two sisters were vacationing at their ranch south west of Calgary, near Priddis. Her mother by some accounts had won the property in a poker game, something that was not uncommon for folk of her station. When war broke out on August 6th, they were marooned here in Canada and all they had left was the ranch. But they adapted. They learned to work the ranch and Lizzie loved the life in the west. With the exception of brief visits to Germany after the war the four women stayed in Canada.
In 1938 Lizzie changed course: she was 41 years old and unmarried. She went west to the mountains to begin a new life. She first worked for Erling Strom at Mount Assiniboine Lodge. Then in 1942 she took over managing Skoki Lodge, high in the mountains east of Lake Louise. It was the start of a remarkable career as the hostess of the Canadian Rockies. She came to personify all that is special about mountain culture: modesty, generosity, hard work and a passionate love for the outdoors.
Lizzie was not the first of the nobility to experience Skoki Lodge. In March of 1932 Lady Jean Rankin, Lady in Waiting to the Queen of England and her husband Niall had spent a month skiing at Skoki Lodge. Niall telegrammed to a friend, “Skiing far better than any Alps. You must come Skoki. Have stayed an extra month.” Almost eighty years later Prince William and his wife Catherine would visit Skoki Lodge and later write that it was the highlight of their trip to Canada.
Assiniboine Sunburst Lake
Lizzie finally achieved her dream in 1951 when she bought Sunburst Lake Lodge, below Mount Assiniboine, from Pat Brewster. She had always wanted her own lodge. It was a simple affair — a central cabin, a storage shed and several wall tents. But it suited Lizzie who, despite her background, was modest, humble and down-to-earth.
For twenty years Lizzie welcomed guests from around the world at Sunburst Lake. She led them on hikes, told them of the flowers and the wildlife, fed them and sat round the fire philosophizing with them. She was the perfect hostess for this rugged country — a cheerful companion around the wood stove on a rainy night but the next day could work alongside the toughest cowboys and outfitters.
In 1953 she gave Hans Gmoser, a young immigrant from Austria, his first job as a mountain guide in Canada. The two of them spent the winter in her little cabin. Hans carried water, chopped wood and guided the guests while Lizzie cooked and kept the fires burning. Lizzie was a mentor and friend — a surrogate mother to this young mountaineer so far from home.
Lizzie Rummel’s cabin
Hans later wrote of Lizzie, “At Sunburst Lake Lizzie was completely at home. She was one with the trees, the flowers and the deer that would visit her place. In the winter she loved the snow that almost covered her cabin, and she enjoyed to glide on skis through the larches and over the hills around her. I think that there has seldom been a situation where someone was so much a part of a place. In a way she was like Mount Assiniboine itself. She stood out above all around her — not domineering but like a beautiful spirit.”
Lizzie left Sunburst Lodge in 1970 and lived out the remainder of her life in Canmore. In her little house near Policeman’s Creek she continued to welcome visitors from around the world, who came to share in the peace and beauty that she radiated. Although pained by arthritic hips, she never complained. Lizzie received the Order of Canada in 1980 for her contribution to our mountain community. Not long after, on October 10 of that year, she died. Two beautiful lakes, a creek, an elementary school and a street in Canmore are named in her honour.
In 1966, the year after I first met Lizzie, I went back to Assiniboine, this time with another friend Gerry Walsh. Not wanting to bother Lizzie we stretched a piece of plastic between two trees near the campground. Of course it rained and we were wet and hungry. One day we came back from a sodden walk to find a brown paper bag by our shelter. Inside were bacon, eggs, bread, beans, and butter — all the things that taste so good around the campfire. When we asked the other campers where it had come from, they said that an older white-haired lady had left the bag. It was a gift that I will never forget. Thank you Lizzie.
By Chic Scott