Outram’s Bryce

Mount Bryce in 1902

Darkness was gathering apace. The sun had set nearly an hour ago. A piercing wind from a world of glaciers was whistling by on its wild course; and the rising moon, shining feebly athwart a mist of clouds, revealed two shivering human forms silhouetted upon the sky-line of a rocky ridge 10,000 feet above the sea.

One, perched on the apex of a cliff some seventy feet in height, a precipice on either hand, watches intently the painful progress of his companion in adversity, who, in the dim, shadowy distance, is clinging with chilled fingers to the vertical face of rock by hand-holds of the tiniest dimensions, and wildly waving first one leg and then the other in a blind search for some small broken ledge or scant projection which may bear his weight, and form another step in the slow, difficult descent.

The mountain was Mt. Bryce, named in 1898 after the well-known British statesman, who then held office as President of the Alpine Club. Projecting westward from the Continental watershed, the mountain rises in splendid isolation from a massive base to a long and extremely narrow ridge, crowned by overhanging cornices of snow, and culminating in three sharp peaks of increasing elevation in the direction of the ever deepening valleys, till the final, sudden precipice of the main summit looms almost vertically above the timbered slopes and foaming torrent of the Bush River, more than 8000 feet below. Its rugged flanks present a long expanse of rocky walls, frequently sheer and always inaccessible, scored here and there by icy gullies, or hung with a glistening mantle of ice and snow, rendering access to the highest, or western, peak possible only by traversing the long ridge almost from end to end.

Mt. Bryce was first brought to notice by Professor Collie and Mr. WooUey, when they climbed Mt. Athabaska and subsequently explored the great Columbia ice-field. In 1900 Messrs. Collie, Spencer and Stutfield forced their way from the west along the valley of Bush River, in the hope of reaching the three great peaks that rise preeminently in that vicinity, Mt. Columbia, Mt. Bryce and Bush Peak; but so dense were the forests on the Pacific slope, and so untoward the weather conditions, that they were compelled to return without achieving the main objects of the expedition. Obviously the line of least resistance was by the North Fork, and on that account I had selected the West Branch as the centre of operations, it being not only the simplest approach to Mt. Columbia and Mt. Bryce, but also a key position to the general topography.

The second day after our Columbia climb, July 2ist, Christian and I ascended to Thompson Pass for a reconnaissance of the other big peak from that side, as the northern precipices had been seen to be out of the question. Felling a big spruce, we obtained a bridge across the swift glacial torrent and entered the woods beyond. The usual forest experiences of fallen trees and tangled brushwood marked the fairly steep ascent for three-quarters of an hour, till we emerged upon the shores of a delightful lake; a splendid rocky pinnacle, which I called Watchman Peak, towers like a sentinel 4000 feet above the vivid blue-green waters, which are fringed on three sides by firs and pines; a lofty rampart, massed with trees, rises to the pass, 6800 feet above the sea, where lies a second lakelet, still more attractive, with indented shores, clothed with brilliant greenery of every shade, grasses and moss and undergrowth, relieved by the dark trees and broken here and there by rocky outcrops. On the far side a tributary of the Bush River runs sparkling down a narrow, rapidly descending valley, sombre with heavy forests and frowning precipices, Mt. Bryce on one side and a long range of snow-capped mountains opposite.

We clambered up the rugged slopes and ledges to the south, and, from an altitude of about 8000 feet, obtained a fairly comprehensive survey of Mt. Bryce and its approaches. Perhaps, strictly speaking, I should say ” approach,” as we could see but one that seemed to offer any prospect of success —and that was an inordinately long and trying one. Great cliffs girdled the base as far as our view extended, and even with strong field-glasses we could detect no break sufficient to afford any inducement to make a journey far enough down the valley to find out for certain. A considerable overhang was evident in places, but it is quite possible that a closer inspection may reveal at least one line of ascent whereby a scramble may effect the desired result, and, if so, that will prove by far the easiest and quickest route. Failing this, the one remaining chance was by the long ridge over the eastern, and possibly also the central, peak. But the character of the peak involved a serious problem besides length. Almost the entire ridge from end to end was corniced heavily. These huge cornices hung sometimes on one side, sometimes on the other. The arete was everywhere extremely narrow and the sides often hideously steep. Vast mantles of the winter’s snows, as yet unmelted and evidently awaiting the slightest pretext to avalanche, were massed upon the upper slopes; and away in the distance, at the head of the final peak, a weird, indistinguishable pile of broken glacier, buried in snow, hung beneath the summit and looked to be a most appalling barrier in its then condition. Remembering that we were but two, these dazzling possibilities of a first-class avalanche appealed strongly to our bumps of discretion and self-preservation, so reluctantly but valiantly we came to the conclusion that it would be wiser to postpone the climb until a greater portion of the fresh snow should have had time to disappear. A drop in the barometer and several thunder-showers confirmed the wisdom of this decision. Next morning our camp was shifted down the valley, and it was not until the 20th of August that we were again in quest of victory over the fascinating difficulties of Mt. Bryce.

Having proved quite unequal to the task of persuading Professor Collie’s party to travel up the West Branch and share in the interests of the undertaking, Kaufmann and I were once again left to our own devices; and in the afternoon we wandered through the trackless forest from our Columbia camp to bivouac somewhere above Thompson Pass. In two hours we found a snug spot under a clump of balsams, in a hollow on the flanks of the massif of Mt. Bryce. A clear stream gurgled through the rich grass close at hand; the abundant heather and spruce boughs, chopped with our ice-axes, provided material for most comfortable beds. Dry wood for fuel was collected and we looked forward to a good hot supper, when, to our dismay, it was discovered that we were matchless ! Christian, probably for the first time in his career, had omitted to bring a single one, a doubly reprehensible oversight for a habitual smoker, —and every last one of my supply had been jerked from my pocket during the forceful struggle through the forest tangle. Every corner was ransacked without avail. Not a solitary match rewarded our united search. Ruefully the inevitable was accepted. Kicking the pile of firewood away, I subsided in chill despair, and Christian deposited a ” billy ” full of ice-cold water on the grass before me and solemnly announced ” Supper is ready.” We tried cold-water bovril, but cannot warmly recommend it, and the chill of evening at our elevation of more than 7000 feet, combined with a plague of mosquitoes and yellow stinging flies, drove us betimes to the recesses of our sleeping-bags. We tried to slumber, ineffectually for long, and then, of course, we overslept, and, having no fire, decided to wait for breakfast till we got into sunlight, hung up our blankets on the trees to preserve them from voracious marmots, cached our spare provisions, and started at 440 on our journey round the steep shoulder that intervened between the bivouac and the main ridge of Mt. Bryce.

Crossing the Divide, we skirted along slopes of loose scree, which gave place later to heather and coarse grass, where flowers blossomed in wonderful profusion, driven upward by the advancing season, and stunted spruces reached an altitude several hundred feet higher than on the Atlantic side. Ascending steadily, we soon arrived at the little glacier that nestles in a rock-bound hollow at the mountain’s base, and, crossing the high bank of lateral moraine, found pleasant going on the hard surface of ice and snow, towards the rocky face of a subsidiary point just to the east of the main mass of the mountain. On one of the lower ledges we halted for breakfast, and then by snow and slippery slabs clambered up to the connecting ridge above. Striking this at its lowest point we encountered the first really awkward obstacle. A snow wall about ten feet in height, and crowned by a small overhanging cornice, faced us across a yawning chasm in the hanging-glacier on which we stood. The snow was soft in the extreme and gave way at each attempt to form a step in its vertical surface, pouring like dry sand into the crevasse below. By dint of care and patience, however, two or three sufficient holes were excavated, and Christian, breaking through the cornice and planting his ice-axe in the firmer snow above, drew himself up to solid ground once more.
We were now at the east end of a long slope of neve^ trending gently down to a tongue of the Columbia icefield on our right, and ending abruptly on the side of our ascent in a large cornice surmounting a rugged precipice. Beyond it rose the steep ridge along which we had to travel, comparatively broken and easy at first, but narrowing rapidly till the southern wall grew perpendicular and the northern slopes tilted at a tremendous angle, leaving but a razor-edge of jagged rock between, or crested by a great overhanging shelf of frozen snow.

The weather, to our satisfaction, gave more hope than at the start, when clouds, clustered low on every lofty peak, augured ill for a clear view, without which any climbing success would count for comparatively nothing. A breeze had sprung up and the clouds lifted gradually; several summits already were emerging from the gloom, and Mt. Columbia, with its pure snowy dome wreathed in trailing mists, appeared like an ethereal vision against the pale azure of the sky, aglow with radiant dawn, and at its feet swept the broad snows of its vast ice-field.

But we were obliged to hasten on, for we were only 9500 feet above sea-level (about 2500 feet above the bivouac), it was already half-past seven, and many difficulties lay ahead. The route, of course, was quite untried and all we knew about it was that it would be very long, and that there must be several exceedingly troublesome bits of climbing, certain to test our powers
to the full, if not impossible to overcome. We had roped together before tackling the snow wall, and continued thus throughout the day. Advancing rapidly over the level surface, steps had to be cut up the steep icy slopes to the rock base, where ledges large and small, scarred rock-faces or rugged buttresses, with now and then a scramble on the sky-line, provided for the most part an easy and rapid progress, the customary rotten rock being the only drawback. Later on, the traversing of occasional icy or snow-filled gullies gave variety, with their alternative opportunities for us to slip on them or for them to slide with us. The southern precipices were getting very sheer; those opposite, increasing in sharpness to rugged escarpments, scored by narrow gullies and ribbed with minor buttresses, plunged downward some six or seven thousand feet, with no halting-places on the way, to the great glacier below.

Eventually, near the apex of the rock arete, well over 10,000 feet above the sea, we came to a bit of cliff, about seventy feet high, which appeared so serious a problem as to threaten a summary defeat. We stood on the edge of the arete and it towered above us as a narrow buttress, smooth, nearly perpendicular, with few excrescences to grip or place even the corner of a boot upon, and of a consistency so rotten that only a small percentage of the existing few would probably be reliable. The only relief was the existence of a tiny rift extending part of the way up, which broke the face in some degree. We peered round the angle on our left and discovered
that we were about midway along a great bare wall, without a vestige of foot-hold as a rule, sheer in its drop of two to three thousand feet to the glacier at its base. There was no escape in that direction. Then to the right. A narrow gully broke the directness of the rocky face, descending abruptly, with occasional wickedlooking spikes of jagged limestone protruding from the surface and swept by showers of debris from the cliffs above. Beyond this, more buttresses as steep and uninviting as the one confronting us.

So there was nothing for it but to try to scale the escarpment straight ahead, and Christian immediately led the way. Perhaps it might prove easier than it appeared; oftentimes when things look absolutely beyond all hope it turns out a case of solvitur ambulando and though we knew the shortness of our rope was a serious drawback, we hoped that fifty or sixty feet up more favourable conditions might develop. The first dozen feet were fairly broken and not particularly vertical, but then commenced a strenuous conflict with the difficulties of this natural outpost, set to bar approach to the stronghold’s central tower. Hold after hold gave way as the guide tried them one by one, and fragments rattled down the gully and leapt from rock to rock in ever growing bounds till, lost to sight and sound, they dashed to final rest upon the glacier 6000 feet beneath — a most suggestive journey to those who were engaged in an attempt to climb that selfsame cliff by means of very slightly more reliable supports.

Fortunately Kaufmann is a magnificent rock-climber, and it was a treat to watch the skill and science he displayed in his advance slowly and cautiously towa-rds the goal. Now he was clinging to the rounded surface of the buttress edge; now swinging into the narrow cleft at its side. Sometimes with arms and legs outstretched, like a gigantic starfish, in a wild endeavour to grasp a possible support; or bunched together after a huge step upward, where no intervening foot-hold offered in an expanse of a yard or more. A tiny resting-place, perhaps an inch in width and two or three in length, on which a portion of a nailed boot-edge can maintain a transitory grip, is hailed with delight and looked on as a luxury. The least projection, if happily not slippery, suffices for a hold, and one slow gymnastic effort succeeds another as the climber gently draws himself upward foot by foot. As little spring or jerk as possible is the invariable rule, lest it detach one of the treacherous supports, and leave him hanging precariously on a fragile remnant, or hurl him in an instant on the cruel rocks that line the gully at his feet.

For the rope is practically of no advantage to the leader under such circumstances. Though his companion may be firmly planted at the cliff base, the rope clutched in an iron grasp or anchored round a solid mass of rock, yet should the first man fall, a drop of twice the length of rope paid out must follow, and the chances of escape from, at the least, considerable injuries are small. Christian, however, is equal to almost anything one can encounter on the mountains, and certainly to all that gives a possibility of overcoming it; so, little by little, he made his way higher and higher till the rope was taut between us. Above him still nearly twenty feet remained of the bad bit, perhaps the worst section of it all. His situation was not of the most secure; the slightest slip or jerk on my part would possibly be enough to drag him from his hold and so precipitate us both into the abyss, where the white glacier gleamed apparently so close beneath our feet, yet really more than 6000 feet away. But I must come on or give up the expedition.

And the future! It is an axiom that in nine cases out of ten descent is far more trying than ascending on a difficult rock climb. If we could only just achieve success by dint of all the skill and energy we possessed, how about coming down late in the day, most likely thoroughly tired, with all the additional dangers of a descent? However, the result of our deliberations was that, in the circumstances, there was an overwhelming preponderance of reasons in favour of success; so on we went. Soon I could halt, and Christian clambered to the top, where, anchored firmly, he could have held me or even hauled me up if all my holds had gone at once and left me dangling in the air. Nothing of this sort happened, nor was the rope needed even as an aid, though it was a climb that taxed my powers to the full, and some of the scant projections and occasional spells where in shifting holds one learns the wonderful properties of friction as an almost sole support, brought me nearly to their utmost limit.

In due time the tension was over and the victory was won. A total change in the character of the climb appeared before us now. The gradient of the ridge became quite easy; rocks gave place almost entirely to
snow; but the southern precipices were crowned by enormous cornices, to which a wide berth had to be given, necessitating a traverse of the steep snow-slopes that fell away at an alarming angle till they ended in a “jump off,” beyond which only the valley bed, some 7000 feet below, could be seen. For a short distance the going was delightful, and we had visions of a quick and easy finish, but soon the snow became very hard, solid ice succeeded, the axe was requisitioned and severe step-cutting followed for a while. Several strange transverse fissures had to be avoided, and another snow wall, this time frozen solid, had to be climbed across a wide crevasse^ close to the edge of the projecting mass of cornice. Thence rapid progress along the broken, narrow ridge ended in our arrival at 11:50 at the sharp summit of Mt. Bryce’s eastern peak.

Here, seated on the pile of loose rocks that forms the tiny apex, we enjoyed a well-earned rest for half an hour and an acceptable lunch, meantime taking in with much appreciation the extensive views from our advantageous elevation of 11,000 feet. The chief interest lay ahead. To our relief, the hopes of escaping the tedious and dangerous traverse of the central peak were confirmed. As it was, we had presentiments already of a night out upon the mountain. But nothing short of absolute impossibility was going to deter us from achieving the purpose on which we had embarked, and we were glad to find a shorter route by descending six or seven hundred feet to a wide glacier that swept along the bases of the three summits, skirting the central cliffs and striking the ridge again at a narrow gap between the two highest peaks.

Down rocks and snow we hurried, carefully leaving a substantial staircase in the latter for use on our return, then across the glacier, covered with snow, save where the suggestive lines of huge crevasses showed dark upon the universal whiteness of the otherwise unbroken surface. The snow was soft and we sank deeply in at every step, but before long we were plodding laboriously up the farther steeps, and In an hour and a quarter stood in the little dip where the descending ridges of the main and central peaks converge.

Only nine hundred feet remained for us to scale, but the prospect was not at all inviting. The lower part of the arete was simple enough, though so knifeedged that, as we trod the snowy crest, both toes and heels projected into space, one on each side. Then came a cornice, hanging as before towards the south, with the slope frozen hard, presenting a safe and solid substance in which to cut steps. But beyond this lay the worst of all our difficulties. The crest of the cornice was suddenly reversed and topped the northern precipice. The slope, on which we were obliged to move in order to avoid the danger of the cornice giving way, now faced the south and was exposed to the full blaze of the summer sunshine. So steep was it that it seemed marvellous how the glistening curtain of soft and yielding snow, massed on a slippery substratum of glare ice, could cling at such an angle. It looked as though the slightest touch would tear the treacherous mantle from the shoulder of the peak and in an instant sweep its rude disturbers in the whirling volume of a seething avalanche into the distant depths. Yet at the same time the situation was not without its compensations. Had the configuration of the mountain been reversed, there would be no present record of any conquest of Mt. Bryce, for to dream of attempting the traverse of such a slope, when the failure of a single foothold might mean a fall of nearly 8000 feet, would be sheer madness. Fortunately when this grand abyss was yawning at our feet, the sheltered snow, congealed by an icy wind, was firm, and, though the labour of continuous step-cutting was involved, there was perfect safety. Now that the sunny side was forced upon us as a route, the mountain-side, though steep, was never perpendicular, but covered by a pure expanse of snow, that, unbroken save in its earliest stages by protruding rocks, swept smoothly down to the broad surface of the southern glacier only twelve or fifteen hundred feet below. Even should we take a sudden ride in this unusual kind of automobile, there would be little likelihood of any further damage than the abandonment of our attempt.

After long inspection and deliberation, the same old argument that turned the scale upon the first occasion of hesitancy again prevailed, and, in the firm conviction that skill and care could overcome, we decided on giving the snow a thorough test at least. It was a period of intense strain and watchfulness. Of course but one moved at a time. A jerk or spring would probably send us swiftly hurtling downward in an eddying hurricane of snow. Scarcely a word was spoken and not a needless movement was allowed. Even the hole made by the leader’s Ice-axe had to be utilized by his companion, lest any undue shaking or splitting of the crust might start a slide.

With cat-like tread, face inward towards the slope. Christian would make a cautious sidelong step kneedeep in the soft, powdery snow, his ice-axe planted firmly and securely grasped; gently and patiently he trod a fairly solid resting-place for one foot, then quietly drew the other leg to the same hole and carefully trampled a moderately stable little platform there. Another planting of the ice-axe and a further step was gingerly negotiated in the long, slow advance. Afterten or a dozen were thus laboriously accomplished, he would halt and I as cautiously move forward to his side; and so da capo. It was exhilarating work. At almost each fresh step a patch of crust, perhaps as large as a man’s hand, would break away and, sliding downward with an ominous hiss, in a few yards gouge out a trench some eighteen inches wide and six or seven deep, and, gathering strength and volume as it sped along, form a fine specimen of a miniature avalanche and thunder to the glacier below.

Two on a rope is a wee bit uncanny for such an undertaking, but foot by foot we made our way in safety until the worst was over and we took a welcome rest upon an island of projecting rock. Beyond this was yet another of the vertical snow walls which were a peculiar feature of the climb. First came a traverse on a narrow ledge under a canopy of dripping snow, so low that a most uncomfortably constrained position was necessitated. Keeping one’s balance was not easy, and so unstable was the snow that a mere touch might readily displace the mass above, and our weight alone suffice to loosen the ledge and shoot us down the icy, snow-swept gully at our feet. Then the usual patient striving to gain a foot-hold in the sliding snow was resumed, and the usual ultimate success achieved, and solid ground once more rewarded us. All our toils were now forgotten. The long-desired summit rose quite close above, and eagerly we hastened towards the goal. A splendid hanging-glacier clings to the northern flank of the mountain’s topmost pinnacle, a wild chaos of gaping fissures, ice-towers and seracs. We threaded our way through its weird arctic jumble, climbed a short, sharp arete, and, breaking through a little cornice, stood at last upon the mountain-top.

A platform of unblemished snow crowns the great peak, a matchless natural observatory. The mighty walls are sheer or almost sheer on every side, save where the narrow ridge of our approach connects the bastion outpost with the rest of the upland world. Except for this, we seemed to be severed from earth and isolated in the realms of space. In front, to right, to left, over the brink of the rocky ramparts, we gazed into the heart of the green forest depths more than 8000 feet below. Above these wooded chasms

“Hills peep o’er hills, and Alps on Alps arise”

in most bewildering complexity, rugged and desolate huge, fantastic piles, with frowning precipices and jagged pinnacles, and vast, majestic domes, whose shapely forms are clothed in snowy splendour.

The altitude was about 11,750 feet, the time 3.40, exactly eleven hours from the start, with only 4700 feet of actual ascent, which reveals the character of the climb better than much description. With Christian continually hurrying me up, I could only allow a bare half-hour for photography and observations, and at ten minutes afterfourweturnedourfaceshomeward. Thedescent was fairly rapid. The sunlight had passed from the snow-slope, and the cool of evening, aided by a keen wind, hardened it sufficiently to enable us to move with greater freedom than we expected. In spite of some photographic halts, we reached the eastern peak by 6.20 and snatched five minutes for rest and a mouthful of chocolate before hurrying on along the upper portion of the east arete. Throughout, the steps made in the morning were of great assistance, and there were no delays beyond especial care at some of the most difficult places.

It was almost dark when we approached the well-remembered cliff, which had been continually on our minds, and to reach which before nightfall had been the object of ourhasty,foodlessmarch. Butwearrivedtoolate. And now the question arose as to the wisest course to take. We were on the horns of a dilemma. To go on meant descending practically in the dark a cliff which we had deemed so difficult by daylight as almost to be deterred from undertaking it at all. But on the other hand, a night out 10,000 feet above the sea, without the smallest vestige of shelter, on the exposed sky-line of a ridge swept by an arctic wind, with boots and stockings saturated and certain to freeze (and possibly the feet inside as well) before the dawn could aid us on our way, and almost destitute of food, offered a prospect particularly uninviting. I left the decision entirely to Kaufmann. The risk was practically his alone. For me, descending first, with the good rope in his trusty grasp, there was no danger, even should I slip or fail to find a hold, except for the short distance when both would be upon the face at the same time. For him, a slip, a lost grip or a broken hold might mean destruction. But again he voted for advance, and at any rate I could make a trial and report upon my personal sensations before his turn arrived. So I turned my face towards the rock, slipped over the edge, and entered on the fateful climb.

It will be long before I lose the recollection of those seventy feet of cliff. Drawn out for one long hour of concentrated tension were the successive experiences of helpless groping in the dark depths for something to rest a foot upon, of blind search all over the chilled rocky surface for a knob or tiny crack where the numbed fingers might find another hold, of agonizing doubt as to their stability when found, of eerie thrill and sickening sensation when the long-sought support crumbled beneath the stress and hurtled downward into the blackness of space, whilst the hollow reverberations of its fall reechoed through the silence. Then the strain of waiting on the best, but very questionable, protuberances for several tense minutes of motionless suspense, whilst the exigencies of the rope compelled Christian to climb down fifteen or twenty feet, and I could move again. At long last came the marvellous relief of feeling solid and sufficient standing-room once more, followed by the still more trying period of inactivity, the patient intensity of watching and hauling in the slack as the rope came slowly and spasmodically down, telling of Christian’s gradual descent, the strained anxiety lest any accident should happen to my comrade, and, finally, the thankfulness of seeing his figure looming close above and in a few moments standing by my side, and we could breathe again.

In the dim light we poked on slowly down gullies, walls and ledges, tracts of loose debris, patches of snow and ice, to the broad neve where the mountain proper ends. It was past ten when we emerged from the gloom and difficulties of the rocks and allowed ourselves a few minutes’ rest before commencing the final portion of the journey. To avoid several awkward places, a variation from the line of our approach was made by taking a wide detour, probably to our advantage, but involving more trouble than we anticipated in the negotiation of a steep, corniced ridge, which in the dark had to be descended backwards with a good deal of labour in making steps in the hard snow. The lower glacier reached, with staggering and unsteady gait we swung along the rough, uneven surface in the deceptive light, until about midnight we left the snow behind and could unloose the rope that had bound us together during nearly seventeen hours of adventurous companionship.

Rough scree and boulders, thickets of dwarf spruce and tangled heather, were our next experience, but eventually at 1 A.M. we sighted the clump of firs that marked our cheerless bivouac. Though nothing but a little chocolate had been our sustenance since noon, it was too dark and we were too tired to enjoy cold bovril and canned mutton at this dismal hour. The blankets appealed most strongly to us, and we crept into our sleeping-bags and slept the sleep of the just till dawn. Off again at 4.30, we arrived in camp by six, and soon were seated before a glorious fire, enjoying the luxury of a hot meal once more, and doing ample justice to a varied menu. A few hours later the “outfit” commenced the return journey from these mountain solitudes to prosaic civilization, and a last farewell was said to this strangely fated camping-ground, where all three expeditions had involved us in post-midnight returns from more than twenty-hour climbs.