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Feature - Mountain perspectives from Rogers Pass

Celebrating the 2002 International Year of Mountains at the birthplace of North American mountaineering

Strange things happen when you hang out in the high mountains. I'm sitting on a rocky outcrop atop Abbott Ridge in Glacier National Park when I meet a Canadian mountaineering legend. Pat Morrow and his wife, Baiba, appear - or at least it seems so - out of thin air.

Morrow is one of the first Canadian climbers to summit Mount Everest. He is also the first person to climb the highest summits on each of the Earth's seven continents. He is now a renowned outdoor photographer and filmmaker.

While we sit there drinking in the view of the entire Rogers Pass area, we chat about life in the mountains. Morrow was born and bred in B.C.'s East Kootenay region, where he developed a passion for high places. His global travels have given him a series of unique insights that now form a well-rounded mountain perspective.

"My experience in foreign mountains have shed light on the treasures we have here in Canada and the national parks," he says. The Morrows now make their home in Canmore, Alberta. When they moved there in 1987, Canmore was a sleepy mountain town of coal miners and mountain climbers. Then came the 1988 Winter Olympics and an improved economic climate and the town has since experienced a non-stop development boom.

"In 1987, Canmore's population was 4,000," he says. "Now, it's 10,000 and still growing."

Canmore is no longer a bucolic mountain hamlet, but home to golf courses, strip malls and condominium complexes. Morrow's lament for his adopted home sheds some light on what is currently happening in Whistler and other B.C. mountain towns like Golden and Fernie.

"This is happening in mountain towns all over the Canadian and American West," he says, "and it is altering the quality of the experience."

The Morrows and I are here in Rogers Pass as part of a weekend full of events to celebrate the 2002 International Year of Mountains. We stop talking for a minute, sit silently and stare out at the scenery of the Selkirks.

Rogers Pass is a fitting place to meet a legend like Pat Morrow. In 1888, two members of the British Alpine Club summited the hulking 3,100-metre Mount Bonney and started a long history of mountain climbing here. Rogers Pass is now recognized as the birthplace of North American mountaineering. On Abbott Ridge, I followed in footsteps that are more than 100 years old.

The Morrows leave and start their descent back down towards the valley. I decide to stay put for a while and pull out my topo map. My finger traces across contour lines until it stops at my present location. I'm sitting at about 2,400 metres - higher than either Whistler or Blackcomb mountains - in the midst of high peaks and great glaciers.

In front of me is the Matterhorn-shaped Mount Sir Donald and the crevasse-riddled Illecillewaet Glacier. To my right, I can see the Dawson Range - home to the highest peaks in the park, some of them more than 3,300 metres tall. Glinting in the sun behind me is Mount Bonney, its tumbling glacier losing its ongoing battle with gravity. To my left is the fortress-like wall of Mount Tupper and the serrated peaks of the Hermit Range.

After spending some time alone with my mountaintop thoughts, I start my descent down the rocky ridge, through a boulder-strewn meadow, past a Parks Canada snow research station and into the thick forest. In the valley bottom, I pop out at a clearing where the Canadian Pacific Railway's Glacier House hotel once stood.

The hotel - sister of the Banff Springs Hotel and Chateau Lake Louise - was built soon after Glacier National Park was established in 1886 and the railway was pushed through the pass. Glacier House served as a hub for early mountain tourism and exploration and Rogers Pass became so popular that the CPR hired Swiss mountain guides in 1899 to lead visitors around crevasses and up the peaks.

But Glacier House's halcyon days were short-lived. The hotel was torn down in 1926 after the CPR decided to re-route the rail line under Rogers Pass through a tunnel. More than 200 lives were lost trying to keep the line open through Canada's most notorious avalanche alley. There is nothing left here now except for the hotel's crumbling foundations and an abandoned rail grade.

On the way back to my car at the Illecillewaet campground, I stop in at the Alpine Club of Canada's Wheeler Hut, where I meet another mountain legend.

Sitting at one of the tables is Bob Sandford, a well-respected mountain writer and chair of Canada's International Year of Mountains efforts. Beer in hand, he is scribbling down some notes.

Sandford is also the driving force behind Parks Canada's heritage tourism strategy, and was the co-ordinator for the 1999 Swiss Guides Festival and last year's Year of the Great Bear celebrations.

The Wheeler Hut - which is named after the ACC's founding member A.O. Wheeler - was built in the mid-1940s to replace Glacier House. I take a quick look around and find a copy of The New York Times Magazine lying open in the kitchen. If this small rustic cabin attracts the sort of people who read such a high-brow publication, I can only imagine what sort of visitor holidayed at the swanky CPR hotel.

Sandford stops writing for a minute and we chat about the International Year of the Mountains and his perspective on mountain places.

According to Sandford, the International Year of Mountains idea evolved out of the 1992 United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where it was realized that the health of the planet's mountain ecosystems was just as serious a concern as tropical deforestation, desertification and climate change.

In Rio, it was concluded that many of the world's mountain ranges were threatened by overuse and development. The International Year of Mountains was declared to focus on the nature of threats to these mountain ecosystems.

Sandford says Canadian mountains are as threatened as places elsewhere on the planet due to the increasing cumulative effects of human use and environmental impacts.

"There is no place in the mountain regions of Canada that has not felt the influence of human-induced change," he says. "It is now recognized that the only way we can sustain the long-term health of Canada's mountains is to actively manage natural processes and systems."

Glacier National Park is a good case in point. Logging, hydroelectric power generation and recreation - including heli-ski operations, snowmobile activity and ski resort developments - happen right outside park boundaries.

As these encroaching activities get closer and closer, the park increasingly becomes an isolated island in a sea of industrial use. Other mountain parks such as Banff, Yoho and Garibaldi are no different.

I leave Sandford to his writing and head up to the Rogers Pass Centre. The centre is home to a variety of interpretive displays that portray the natural and human history of Glacier National Park. I watch a couple of movies in the theatre, and it is here that I finally relax after my climb and meditate on the meanings of mountains.

I conclude that mountains are great places, not necessarily because of their inherent features but because of the people they attract. And despite such seemingly impenetrable barriers as avalanches, rockfall, devil's club and raging torrents, mountains cannot protect themselves. It is our duty to protect them.

At dinner, I meet up again with the Morrows and Sandford, and we continue to chat about our mountain adventures. Later, we are joined by mountain guide Craig Ellis and writer Lynn Martel. Ellis and Martel attempted to climb 2,927-metre Uto Peak earlier in the day but, despite being early August. were turned back because a thin coating of verglas made their objective impossible.

The mountains are not an easy place to live or play. But that doesn't dampen our spirits. And as we all sit around the campfire, drink down a bottle of smooth Irish cream and share our stories, the surrounding peaks and ghosts of Glacier disappear into the darkness.

Greig Bethel lives in Golden, B.C. He is currently working on a book about Kootenay ski-town culture.

Further information

Glacier National Park is located in the Selkirk Mountains halfway between Revelstoke and Golden. The Rogers Pass area is renowned for its world-class summer mountaineering and winter ski touring opportunities. Events celebrating the International Year of Mountains, which includes a centennial climb up Mount Columbia and an expedition to Mount Logan, continue throughout 2002 in various western Canadian mountain communities. Indispensable reading includes a guide to climbs in the Rogers Pass area and a book on the history of mountaineering: Selkirks South by David P. Jones covers 500 alpine climbs in the region, including Abbott Ridge and Uto Peak. The Rogers Pass area offers a number of fine routes of varying difficulty, many of them accessible to novice or intermediate mountaineers. The northwest ridge of Mount Sir Donald is rated as one of North America's top 50 classic climbs. Pushing the Limits: The Story of Canadian Mountaineering by Chic Scott should be read by any self-respecting climber, skier or armchair adventurer. This hefty tome is exhaustively researched and covers the past 200 years of Canadian achievements in the mountains, at home and abroad.