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1967: Summer on Mt. Saskatchewan

Posted on: September 25, 2019


[This essay originally appeared in Alpinist 67 as part of a Mountain Profile about Mt. Hubbard, Mt. Alverstone and Mt. Kennedy in the St. Elias Range of Alaska and Canada. Alpinist 67 is now available on newsstands and in our online store. Only a small fraction of our many long-form stories from the print edition are ever uploaded to Alpinist.com. Be sure to pick up Alpinist 67 for all the goodness!—Ed.]

Wendy Teichmann, Andrea Rankin, Gertrude Smith and Helen Butling assemble at camp as they prepare for an attempt on the unclimbed Mt. Saskatchewan in 1967. [Photo] Courtesy Andrea RankinWendy Teichmann, Andrea Rankin, Gertrude Smith and Helen Butling assemble at camp as they prepare for an attempt on the unclimbed Mt. Saskatchewan in 1967. [Photo] Courtesy Andrea Rankin

ON JULY 1, 1967, CANADA observed its centennial year. In a frenzy of enthusiasm and patriotic fervor, individuals and organizations across the country set out to accomplish centennial projects—from creating arts and crafts to undertaking expeditions by foot, ski or canoe. In Yukon, the Alpine Club of Canada coordinated with local and federal governments to organize the country's largest-ever mountaineering endeavor, with more than 200 climbers attempting peaks in the Steele Glacier area, and fifty-two climbers attempting first ascents in the St. Elias Mountains.

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A team of four was assigned to each of the thirteen unclimbed peaks (named for Canada's ten provinces and two territories at the time) in the Centennial Range. The following story is abridged and adapted from my account of the women's attempt on Mt. Saskatchewan that appeared in Saskatchewan magazine in 1967.

JULY 9: WHEN I HIKED along the glacier on that Sunday afternoon, I felt the exhilaration that comes every time I begin a new mountaineering adventure. I was pleased to find myself once again in a world of glaciers, rock ridges and snow gullies. Little did I suspect how different this trip was going to be. Under the Yukon sun, the summits were clear, their flanks serene.

My climbing team was the only one made up entirely of women: Gertrude Smith, our leader; Helen Butling, Wendy Teichmann and myself. As we rounded a corner, we had our first glimpse of Mt. Saskatchewan: a square-top pyramid with a large icefall that clung to its southeast face. We couldn't yet detect either of the two frosted ridges that approached its north side, a horrendous mass of snow and ice that we had seen in photos. So unassuming did this pyramid seem on this first encounter that we wondered if it were really "our" mountain. We planned our first reconnaissance trip to the col between Mt. Alberta and our objective, where we hoped to evaluate possible summit routes and to see the great bulk of the mountain that was still hidden from us.

JULY 11: FOUR OTHER TEAMS shared our base camp on the moraine, a long tongue of solid ice completely covered by loose rock. At 5:30 a.m., our women's team headed out toward the mass of crevassed ice and snow at the head of the valley. Threading our way over the glacier, we reached the base of a steep slope. As we moved upward, loose rock crumbled in our hands. At the col, the snow was quite soft, and we could kick good steps in the fifty- to sixty-degree slope.

The clouds, however, came in faster than we could climb, and we could see that the rock ridge before us would not lead us to the summit. Although disappointed, we were pleased to have reached a height of 10,500 feet. Moreover, we'd found that we were compatible, that we climbed well together, and that we had a very capable leader in Gertrude Smith.

Snow began to fall on our way down from the col. Soon we were soaking wet. Near the moraine, we encountered four male colleagues who feared that we'd been caught in the storm. They'd set out with full rescue gear to pick us off the mountain.

When the sun returned at base camp, the bleak aspect of grey rock and sullied snow was relieved only by the bright orange of our tents and by the vivid colors of socks, hats, mitts and equipment spread on the rocks to dry. The consensus among the five teams was that the mountains were much more difficult than we'd previously imagined. The men began to suggest that Mt. Saskatchewan was no "ladies' mountain." Our women's team grew determined to make an all-out effort to succeed.

JULY 14: THE MEN TOOK PICTURES and shouted their blessing as we trudged beyond their sight. With our packs loaded with food for five days, our women's team set off to establish a higher campsite at 8,000 feet.

The evening was calm, and as we followed the already familiar trail over the broken glaciers, we felt confident once again—we were striking out on our own to encounter the mountain on our own terms. The peaks never appeared in such splendor as they did that evening, clad in a light mantle of roseate cloud.

From our high camp two days later, we managed one reconnaissance trip before a blizzard closed in, consigning us to our tent for two days. There, we read aloud accounts of Vilhjalmur Stefansson's 1913-1916 Arctic explorations. How luxurious our glacier life seemed by comparison! Because we were expecting visitors on the second day, we organized a betting game—each of us guessed the time the visitors would appear and who they would be. The winner (Gertrude) got to wear my down booties for two hours.

On the morning of July 19, the storm lulled, and we began our summit attempt at 3 a.m. Clouds hung over the moraine base camp below, but at our elevation the sky was clear. We headed rapidly toward the ridge that led from the col between Mt. Saskatchewan and Mt. Manitoba. Eight hours after we left camp, we were on a narrow, corniced knife-edge—still 1,000 vertical feet from the summit. Gertrude, who was leading, could not find a plausible route anywhere on the rotten rock. We knew that if we tried to go on, one of us would probably fall off, and so we reluctantly turned back.

The rock pitches that we'd enjoyed climbing up proved much less enjoyable and much more time-consuming going down. By 10 p.m., it had started to snow, and we were wet and tired. The newly fallen drifts made the exit gully unrecognizable, and we'd mistakenly begun descending a dangerous avalanche chute. Discouraged and weary, we edged our way back out of the chute and over to a rock ledge, where we wrapped ourselves in tinfoil emergency blankets and promptly fell asleep.

We awoke an hour later to find that the Yukon darkness had passed. With renewed energy, we began to work our way down another ice gully. Toward the bottom, we heard the shouts of other climbers: members of the Mt. Alberta team had abandoned their ascent because of the bad weather, and they'd turned their efforts to "finding the girls." They accompanied us down the correct exit gully (the next one over to the one we were in). Thirty hours after we had first set out, we were back at our high camp. The men bustled about making us tea and soup. They took their leave only after assuring themselves that we were snuggled deep in our down bags, warm and dry.

At base camp, a helicopter arrived to take half of our team back to civilization. Wendy and I planned to continue climbing in another area. When the aircraft took off, Helen and Gertrude waved at us through the bubble of its windows. I felt somewhat envious: they would have a bath that night and perhaps even a gourmet dinner. As my mind turned to the expedition ahead, I pondered the strange makeup of the mountaineer who is lured again and again to the highest frontiers of the world where the impassive elements seldom allow an easy victory.

EPILOGUE
IN THE 1960S AND 1970S, the number of women climbing in the Canadian Rockies continued to grow. Though men often occupied the lead position on expeditions I participated in, I felt that we were all comrades and equals in the mountain quest.

After the expedition in 1967, I reflected, "The idea of women on their own was a novel one, and one that we felt was good; women need practice in leading the rope and making the decisions if they are to be accepted as full-fledged mountaineers.... Perhaps our experience will highlight the need for this sort of all-women outing."

Today, we find women's teams pushing the limit on the highest summits of the Himalaya and Karakoram ranges. In the world of mountaineering, skill, knowledge, adaptability and endurance remain the criteria that matter most.

Despite other recent attempts, the summit of Mt. Saskatchewan is still unclimbed.

[This essay originally appeared in Alpinist 67 as part of a Mountain Profile about Mt. Hubbard, Mt. Alverstone and Mt. Kennedy in the St. Elias Range of Alaska and Canada. Alpinist 67 is now available on newsstands and in our online store. Only a small fraction of our many long-form stories from the print edition are ever uploaded to Alpinist.com. Be sure to pick up Alpinist 67 for all the goodness!—Ed.]

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