Where’s Home From Here?
We modern humans may have a world of information and virtual thrills available to us at a click of a button, but we still like to get up to a high vantage point, drink in the clean mountain air with the wind in our faces, and get our bearings on the world around us. Things really haven’t changed that much from 100 years ago when Banff meteorologist, Norman Sanson was busy hiking up the 6 km trail on Sulphur Mountain every 10 days or so to collect weather data from his observatory at the summit. What’s remarkable is that between 1902 and his retirement in 1931, he made the trek 1,000 times! Sanson was a member of the Alpine Club of Canada, formed in 1906, and the first president of the Skyline Hikers of the Canadian Rockies in 1933. Even after retirement, he liked to hike up to his favorite vantage point on Sulphur Mountain, and in 1945, at the age of 83, he was there to observe a solar eclipse.
In 1959, a gondola was built, and since then, most visitors are whisked to the summit so that they, too, can get a 360-degree view of a large portion of Banff National Park. However, many hardy souls still choose to follow Sanson’s footsteps and continue to hike his trail to the summit. His stone weather observatory still stands, and is accessible by Parks Canada’s 1 km interpretive boardwalk that snakes along the mountain’s crest, linking the observatory to the Banff Gondola Upper Terminal.
At the top of Sulphur Mountain, Sanson used a compass to get his bearings and to fix his position relative to known locations. Modern-day explorers now find their way to the rooftop of the Banff Gondola Upper Terminal, where they step into a giant compass.
The entire circular view deck is divided into the points of a compass, with plaques indicating direction and distances to over 40 major cities around the world. Visitors from Bern, Switzerland; Shanghai, China; Pretoria, South Africa and beyond are able to directly face, call out, and wave to friends and family at home, thousands of kilometres away!
Interpretive panels on the inside wall of the giant compass orient the visitor to the special significance of this area as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and Canada’s extensive National Parks system.
Some visitors are fond of saying, “The mountains are beautiful, but they block the view!”, and many lose their sense of direction amongst the jumble of rocky peaks. From Norman Sanson’s viewpoint, the panoramic view is laid out below the visitor, and the rooftop compass quickly orients visitors to their position — at the top of the world!
By Andrew Whittick
(Image: “A giant compass on top of Sulphur Mountain, Banff National Park,” photo courtesy of Andrew Whittick)