Mountain Road

When completed the 150-mile Jasper-Banff highway will traverse one of the most spectacular scenic routes in North America

EDWARD E. BISHOP July 15 1938

Mountain Road

When completed the 150-mile Jasper-Banff highway will traverse one of the most spectacular scenic routes in North America

EDWARD E. BISHOP July 15 1938

Mountain Road


When completed the 150-mile Jasper-Banff highway will traverse one of the most spectacular scenic routes in North America


IT WAS quite dark now, and we were anxious to get to the Graveyard as soon as possible. This may seem a strange state of affairs, but it was not so queer as it sounds. “Graveyard” is the name given to an old Indian camp site situated about halfway between the wellknown Alberta mountain resorts of Banff and Jasper. Accessible until recently only by several days journey by pack train or on foot, this little-known spot is marked only by a warden’s cabin and two sets of old tepee poles.

Belying its depressing name. Graveyard is beautifully situated on the flats at the junction of two rivers, surrounded by some of Canada’s most impressive peaks. The valley of the North Saskatchewan at this point is more than a mile wide and perfectly flat. From the west, the valley of the Alexandra (the old West Branch of the North Fork of the North Saskatchewan) comes in, not quite so broad but just as flat.

Graveyard is the place that will represent the Halfway Point on the new Jasper-Banff Highway, being almost equally distant from those two points. Still comparatively unknown to tourists, this new road will stretch for approximately 150 miles through the heart of Alberta’s hinterland. It will join the crowded tourist centres of Banff and Lake Louise, on the transcontinental route of the Canadian Pacific Railway, to the equally popular resort of Jasper on the main line of the Canadian National Railways.

Working from both ends, the Dominion Government has been constructing this highway for ten years. By the end of the 1937 season, there was open to tourists some seventyfive miles of completed road on the Jasper end, and about forty-five miles on the Banff end. The 35-mile gap will undoubtedly bç bridged by a tote road during 1938. Just when the construction will be finished depends entirely upon the amount of funds available for the project. In any case, although neither section of the highway as yet reaches to Graveyard, the drive from either Lake Louise or Jasper to the end of the present road construction equals, if not surpasses, any of the mountain trips at present available to tourists on this continent.

To reach Graveyard from Banff had taken us almost three days of steady hiking, on top of an eighty-mile automobile drive from the town of Banff to the end of the gravel on the new highway. Our route first took us along the old road that parallels the main line of the C. P. R. as far as Lake Louise station. It is here that the new road branches off to the northwest up the valley of the Bow River toward Jasper. Following up the Bow, the highway reaches beautiful Bow Lake, which constitutes the headwaters of the Bow River. To the westward, across the lake from the road, the Bow Glacier tumbles down the cliffs from the Wapta Icefields into the valley and melts, to form the source of the river which we had been following.

Above the lake to the northwest is the height of land known as the Bow Summit. Just under 6,900 feet above sea level, this is the highest point reached by the as yet uncompleted highway between Lake Dwise and Jasper. Approaching it as we did from the south, over a completed section of the road, we could not believe that we had gained 2,000 feet from Lake Louise. The valley floor is so flat and the gradient so regular that there is no impression of climbing. The hair-raising stretches of road clinging to the side of a cliff, so often associated with mountain drives, are entirely missing. The turns are few, and are long sweeping curves rather than hairpin bends. Even the most nervous motorist, fresh off the prairies, could negotiate this trail with ease.

At the summit we left the car. to take a half-mile walk through the woods to a promontory known as the Peyto Lookout. This viewpoint hangs 800 feet above Peyto Lake, which is of an opaque apple-green hue and is almost entirely surrounded by the nearly black color of dense pine forests. The lake is fed by Peyto Glacier, a long curving tongue of ice that comes down from the Great Divide to the west. Looking north, the view on clear days extends over fifty miles, down the valley of the Mistaya and up the valley of the North Fork. The eastern side of these valleys is bounded by the three giant peaks, Murchison, Wilson and Coleman. On the western sides are peaks too numerous to mention.

Once over the watershed, the character of the journey changes. The elevation drops about 500 feet so suddenly that the road is forced to make a series of long switchbacks to get down the hill. We are now in a different type of country. Whereas the valley of the Bow was broad and flat-bottomed and comparatively open, the valley of the Mistaya is V-shaped and heavily wooded. The scenery is visible only through breaks in the trees.

The Mistaya, which has its source in the Peyto Glacier, is what used to be known as the South Fork, or Little Fork, of the North Saskatchewan River. It runs northwest to meet the other branches of that river at the Big Forks. Mistaya is an Indian name meaning Little Bear. Consequently, wardens, packers and other habitués of the locality usually refer to this river as Bear Creek. The Mistaya valley, then, forms the second convenient corridor down which the prairie tourist will be able to drive in safety.

But this was in June, 1937, and the corridor was not yet open. Soon after dropping down from the summit we were rudely awakened to the fact that we had set out to go on a

hike, not an automobile ride. There was nothing for it but to shoulder our packs, which seemed to weigh a great deal at this time, and start walking.

Beautiful and Impressive

"P\UE TO the heavy timber, the trail down the Mistaya is probably the most uninteresting section of the whole trip from Banff to Jasper. The monotony is broken, how« ever, by the sudden appearance of Waterfowl Lakes. At the point where these twin pools are encountered, the valley is quite narrow. There is enough, but only enough, room for the road to pass by the lakes to the east. From the west, the impressive east face of Mount Chephron appears to drop directly into the water. The top of this steep, coneshaped peak towers nearly 5,000 feet above the lakes.

Plunging back into the forest, the trail skirts the base of Mount Murchison for almost ten miles, until it reaches the Forks. Here the Mistaya from the south meets the North Fork from the north, immediately after the latter has been joined by the Howse River from the west. The Howse was originally known as the Middle Fork of the North Saskatchewan.

A large bridge, now being built just below the Forks, will solve the problem of crossing this water as far as the tourist is concerned. But the situation presented considerably more difficulty to the hiker of former years. The main river is much too wide and deep to be forded on foot. The Mistaya and the North Fork are spanned by tote bridges, but the Howse must still be waded.

We found that the only way to cross this stream was to

go some distance above the Forks to a point where the river spreads out over the gravel flats and divides into about fifteen channels, the total distance from one side to the other being about a mile. Fortunately the complete lack of inhabitants in the neighborhood permit ted us to remove our trousers and wade these channels, the deej>est of which came up to our hips. Since the Howse is entirely glacier fed, it is important to cross it at about ten in the morning, at which time it is lowest. This represents the time of least melting at its source in the Fresh field Icefield, some fifteen miles away.

From the Forks to Graveyard, the trip up the North Fork is beautiful and impressive, consistently interesting throughout the whole distance. The trail lies between the rushing river and the rock wall of Mount Wilson, which presents an almost unbroken line of buttresses for the full fifteen miles, rising a sheer 2,000 feet above the road site. To the west the terrain is broken by several side valleys giving startling glimpses of the snow-capped peaks along the Great Divide, in the distance. This, we considered, was nature at its best, and constituted perfection to us in spite of the weariness induced by the many miles of trail behind us.

But the warden at Graveyard was at home (for the first time in weeks), and a night of hospitality put us back into shape. We were now ready for a foray up to the Columbia Icefields.

The tourist, if he insists on staying with his car after the road is completed, will be forced to continue northward from Graveyard, following the North Fork nearly to its

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source. But if he is willing to make a side trip involving several days of trail riding or hiking, he will be rewarded with scenery that would be difficult to equal elsewhere on the continent, if not in the world.

Looking at Glaciers

TURNING west from Graveyard, the trail leads up the valley of the Alexandra River. Following the gravel flats of this sluggish stream, the hiker or rider finds himself on an easy trail with no trees to interrupt his view. The mountains on all sides are close enough and big enough to be impressive, but not too close to be adequately appreciated. The scene gradually builds up to a perfect climax as the Divide mountains loom larger and larger, until further progress in a westerly direction is cut off by what appears to be a grim vertical wall of rock and ice. This gives the first real view of the big glaciers.

Having reached the headwaters of the Alexandra, the only means of proceeding onward is to turn north up the Castleguard River, which comes in at this point. The next six miles are steep and rough going. While the trail up the Alexandra rises less than 200 feet in about fourteen miles, fully 2,(XX) feet are climbed in the six miles up the Castleguard. This trail peters out in Castleguard Meadows, a beautiful alpland valley, situated just about timber line at 7,000 feet above sea level. This is the last place a suitable camping ground can be found. Directly at the foot of Mount Castleguard, one is less than a mile from the edge of the Columbia Icefield.

From this camp site may be attempted the most thrilling part of the trip— the climbing of Mount Castleguard. This ix;ak is not one which mountaineers would consider by any means difficult, and the actual climb from camp is only 3,(XX) feet. However, the beginner must bear in mind that any ascent on snow or ice can be dangerous unless proper care is taken. Being exactly on the edge of the icefield, Castleguard is covered with snow and ice on all sides except the southeast, which is not easily climbable.

The top of Mount Castleguard has been called the greatest viewpoint in the Rockies, and with reason. To the north and west stretch the Columbia Icefields, comprising some 150 square miles of ice, estimated to vary in depth from 1,500 to 3,000 feet. To the west and southwest the view extends forty or fifty miles, to reveal the long line of white summits of the Selkirks. Southeast, the Great Divide twists and turns in a series of forbidding crags composed of black rock and hanging glaciers. The sight to the east is in startling contrast—a sea of peaks, completely snow free in summer, composed of horizontal rock strata which can easily be followed with the eye for miles from one range to the next.

Thus the climber has a view of what might be two entirely different worlds, albeit both mountainous. To the east the landscape is composed of the warm colors of the varying shades of red and brown rock. To the west is the purest white, changing only in the far distance to a gradually deepening blue. This icy fastness reminds one of pictures of Alaska or the mighty Himalaya.

Probably the most striking single feature of the whole impressive scene is Mount Bryce, wrhich rises some 1,500 feet above us

to the southwest. Although separated from Castleguard by six miles of snowfield, it appears only a step away. Immediately behind it on the British Columbia side is the narrow wooded cleft occupied by Rice Brook, more than 7,000 feet below the summit of Mount Bryce.

Other giants of the “foreground” include Columbia, nine miles to the west, at 12.294 feet above sea level, and the Twins, about twelve miles across the ice. Of these latter, one is just over 12,000 feet and one just under.

Not quite so high, but of great topographical interest is the Snow Dome (11,340 feet) six miles to the north. This smooth knoll, shaped more like a huge hill than a mountain-, is no less than the “hydrographic apex of the North American continent.” It is at the top of this mountain that the Great Divide between the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean meets the divide between the Atlantic and the Arctic Ocean. Ice and snow from the slopes of this one mountain help feed the sources of the Saskatchewan, flowing into Hudson Bay and the Atlantic; the Athabaska, flowing into the Mackenzie River and the Arctic; and the Columbia River, flowing into the Pacific.

Being fortunate enough to have made this climb in perfect weather, we stayed on the summit for nearly four and one-half hours. Beverley Herbert, who was officially the photographer on the party, took nearly seventy exposures from this one point. The rest of us alternated between gazing in awe at the scenery and endeavoring with indifferent success to avoid being snapped by the cameraman. In spite of the miles of ice and snow all around us, no one in the party was bothered by the cold, so great was the heat of the sun. It was only with the greatest regret and a determination to make the climb again, that we finally started to work our way down the mountain.

15-Mile Ski Runs

BACK AT Graveyard a few days later, we were again on the route which will be followed by the tourist in an automobile. If he prefers to look at his mountains from the bottom, he will be able to do so in comfort, following the highway up the North Fork to the point where it comes into the valley from the west through a narrow gorge. Should he wish to see beyond this gorge, he will view the place where the river he has been following so long actually starts at the melting tongue of the Saskatchewan Glacier, which in turn flows out of the Columbia Icefield.

But the highway will continue north to climb the Big Hill, long the bugbear of packers through this territory. Suddenly leaving the level valley of the Saskatchewan, the present pack trail starts straight up the mountain in a series of short steep switchbacks, gaining 1,000 feet in altitude in very short order. However, the highway will take several miles to climb this height rather than trying to do it all at once.

The road route now crosses the AtlanticArctic watershed by means of Sunwapta Pass, which is so gradual on both sides that it is very difficult to tell just wffien the summit is reached. This is made possible by the boundary-line cairns which tell the tourist he is passing from Banff National Park to Jasper National Park.

The automobile traveller will now' see his first glacier at close range. Once Sunwapta Pass is crossed, the projected road passes

within a few hundred yards of the tongue of the Athabaska Glacier, which pours down from the icefield at this point between Mount Athabaska and the Snow Dome. Approximately four miles long from the point where it appears on the skyline and about a mile wide, this glacier is all he will see of the more than 150 square miles of icefield. The icefield proper is mostly at an elevation of 9.000 feet above sea level, while the highway at this point is not more than 6,500. So it is obviously impossible to see onto the snowfields from the road. However, the view of the ice from this close range is undoubtedly impressive, several little side glaciers on Mount Athabaska and the Snow Dome helping to enhance the wildness of the scene.

It was at this point that our party, consisting at this time of Douglas Crosby, of Banff, Bruce Keith, of Edmonton, and the writer, ascended the Snow Dome. The climb, which was done easily within twelve hours elapsed time, was made by first following up the Athabaska Glacier onto the icefields. No great difficulty was found except at the point where the glacier flows out of the icefield proper. Here it was so badly crevassed and such care had to be taken, that we spent fully two and one-half hours in covering what we estimated to be a point-to-point distance of a mile.

The same climb was made in the middle of the summer (1937) by a party headed by Captain Rex Gibson, of Edmonton. On that occasion they were greatly facilitated in their efforts by the use of skis. This same expedition also climbed Columbia and the North Twin, demonstrating clearly the attractions this area can have for the skier as well as the climber. Perfect downhill runs for as much as ten or fifteen miles in a straight line may be found here, and the skiing can be at its best on the hottest days in July or August. It is not suggested, of course, that this place should be made the Saint Moritz of the Canadian Rockies. The skier must first carry his skis four miles up the glacier, pass the terrors of the crevasses and, last but by no

means least, be prepared to weather one 1 of the sudden icefield blizzards during which he might lose his way entirely in the vast expanse of ice. Ice axes, alpine rope, and possibly crampons, are essential for safety on the way up.

The tongue of the Athabaska Glacier | melts to form the source of the Sunwapta, | which the road will now follow. Rushing : through the Sunwapta Canyon, the river leads the highway along a route which formerly even pack trains could not traverse. Perched high above the river on the canyon wall, this location gives an extraI ordinary view of the steep valley and the ¡ 11,000-foot peaks of Kitchener and Stutj field across the way. But the road will be I so wide and well built that the prairie tourist will need have no fears for his safety.

Past the canyon, the trail drops down to j the floor of the valley, which now becomes ¡ wide and fiat. For the next fifty-odd miles, j the road follows the valley bottoms of the j Sunwapta and Athabaska Rivers, which i form the last great corridor leading directly into Jasper. On the way it passes the wellnamed Beauty Creek, as well as the impressive cataracts of Sunwapta and Athabaska j Falls. This part of the road has been open for some years, and is already familiar to I many tourists.

The end of the 1937 season saw the I highway open to Waterfowl Lakes on one j end, and to Sunwapta Pass on the other.

It is expected that very soon this great ; tourist thoroughfare, ten years in the ¡ building, will be completed. When that time arrives, Canadians would do well to take this opportunity of seeing some | of the beauties and wonders of “their own back yard”—the highest group of mountains in the Canadian Rockies, the largest icefield south of the Arctic Circle.

Alberta is continually discovering and developing more and more of her natural resources. Not the least of these are the ■ beauty and grandeur of her alpine scenery, ; now being made accessible by the JasperBanff Highway.