Tag Archives: Wedge Mountain

Settling on Wedge

With the successful completion of the Himmelsbach Hut in 1968, the British Columbia Mountaineering Club (BCMC) began looking for another location to build a Gothic arch hut near Whistler.  They already had a couple of ideas for their next location; one was near Mt. Trorrey along the Spearhead Traverse, the other was an alpine meadow on Mount Brew.  The BCMC decided to ask the mountaineering community for suggestions and advertised through a mountaineering paper and a few leaflets.

Werner Himmelsbach recalled, “So this logger, he contacted me and said, ‘I hiked up the peak beside Wedge Mountain and I saw a nice lake don below,’ so I thought that would be a place.”

The Himmelsbach Hut, named for Werner Himmelsbach, as it appears nowadays. Photo: Jeff Slack

Werner, along with three other BCMC members, decided to hike up Wedge in hopes of finding the lake the logger mentioned.  “It took us five and a half hours to get up there because we got lost in there because it was bush.”

This exploration of Wedge also involved finding a way across the river as there was no bridge access.  “Wedgemount Lake… was beautiful and when you come over the rise… there is this lake, turquoise colour and the glacier right into the lake,” Werner reminisced.

The idyllic Wedgemount Hut, with Wedge Mountain looming above left.  The glacier has noticeably receded as Werner remembers the glacier coming right into the lake.   Photo: Jeff Slack

The BCMC held a meeting to decide the new location and the vote was decidedly in favour of building the hut near Wedgemount Lake.  At Mount Brew, as mentioned in a previous article in The Whistler Question, the UBC Varsity Outdoor Club would later struggle with their own Gothic arch huts in the 1980s and the Spearhead Traverse would be revisited in the future by the BCMC.

The BCMC was granted building permission by BC Parks on October 9, 1970 and quickly organized a work party to construct the hut over the Thanksgiving weekend.  Werner was away on a trip to the Kootenays, so “master-builder” Manfred was in charge of putting the hut together.  The majority of the hut was built on the Saturday and the finishing touches and aluminum siding were added on Sunday.  The outhouse was built on the Monday but no trench was dug because the snow had already started to fall.

The Wedgemount Lake Hut. Photo: Federation of Mountain Clubs of British Columbia.

Brian Wood, a BCMC member and former President of the Federation of Mountain Clubs of British Columbia, recalled the BCMC assembled a work crew to go back to Wedgemount Lake to complete the construction of the hut in 1971.  When the crew arrived wind and snow creep had pushed the hut off of its foundations.  The crew used fallen logs to help maneuver the hut back into place and attached a couple of guy wires to help keep the hut on its foundations.  The crew dug the pit for the outhouse and the hut was ready to officially open that summer.

The Wedgemount Lake Hut remains a popular destination for hikers, rock-climbers and ski mountaineers to this day.  Because the hut only accommodates eight people. BC Parks has build camping spots and a bear cache nearby.  Reservations are required to camp or use the hut year-round.  If you’re interested in heading out, visit the BC Parks website for more details.

Mountain Profile: Wedge Mountain

On this blog we try to highlight many of the unique characters in Whistler’s history. Being a mountain community, however, many of the local mountains are arguably as familiar as any person.  In the past we’ve set the spotlight on Fissile Mountain; today we shift slightly northwards to Wedge Mountain.

Wedge is an iconic local peak first and foremost because at 2895 m (9497 ft) it’s the tallest peak around. In fact, it’s summit is the highest point in Garibaldi Provincial Park (not Mount Garibaldi, as is commonly assumed), and all of the southern Coast Mountains. To find a higher peak you need to go the remote Mount Dalgleish, 100km to the north west, or to Mount Baker, across the border in Washington State.

Wedge Mountain is visible from just about anywhere in the valley, Rainbow Lodge and the entire westside have an especially clear view. Wedge is the most prominent peak, directly above the cabin in this photo, it's wedge-like shape quite evident from this angle.

Wedge Mountain (at right, above the cabin) is visible from just about anywhere in the valley, Rainbow Lodge and the entire westside have an especially clear view. The mountain’s wedge-like shape is quite evident from this angle.

The origin of the name Wedge Mountain is uncertain, although it presumably describes it’s triangular, wedge-like shape as seen from the Whistler Valley. The name is probably local in origin (like Whistler Mountain), as this name was already in use when Vancouver mountaineers Neal Carter and Charles Townsend made the first recorded ascent of the peak in 1923. When Garibaldi Provincial Park expanded in the late 1920s, a suggestion was made to rename the peak “Mount Vancouver,” but for whatever reason it never stuck.

Speaking of Carter & Townsend, we have already written about their two-week exploratory mountaineering trip to the region in 1923 which included the first ascent of Wedge (blog article here, full photo gallery here, and a virtual video recreation of their climb, using their own written account here), but needless to say, it was a dream trip.

The view south from Wedge to our familiar W-B backcountry: (l to r) Overlord, Pattison, Fissile, Trorey, Davidson, Castle Towers and Decker.

The view south from just below the summit of Wedge,  towards our familiar W-B backcountry. Charles Townsend, photograph by Neal Carter.

Today, most people know Wedge because of the notorious Wedgemount hiking trail, arguably one of the toughest and steepest around. The trail leads up above treeline to Wedgemount Lake and the Wedgemount Hut, built by the BC Mountaineering Club in 1970 under the guidance of long-time local outdoorsman, environmentalist and community icon Don MacLaurin. The hut is of the same gothic arch design as the Himmelsbach Hut at Russet Lake, and many other backcountry huts in the region.

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The idyllic Wedgemount Hut and Wedgemount Lake, with Wedge Mountain looming in the distance, right above. Jeff Slack Photo.

This is as far as most people make it, and that’s more than enough. Summiting Wedge is a far more challenging ordeal, requiring proper ice and rock gear and the skills to use them, but the standard North Arete route is considered one of the classic mountaineering routes of the Coast Mountains. There are also a number of popular steep skiing lines on the mountain, the most popular being the massive NW couloir visible from Highway 99 at the north end of town.

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Wedge’s massive North face. Jeff Slack Photo.

Few places in our region feel as “big” as the high alpine area around Wedge Mountain, but it is just one of many peaks that make our mountainous milieu special. What mountain would you like to see profiled in a future Whistorical post?

Virtual Mountaineering? The First Ascent of Wedge Mountain, 1923

This week we’ve got something a little different for you.

We’ve written before about the beautiful Neal Carter photo collection, which documents a two-week exploratory mountaineering expedition into the mountains surrounding Alta Lake by Neal and his friend Charles Townsend  in September 1923.

Approaching the summit of Wedge Mountain.

Approaching the summit of Wedge Mountain.

Well, since we also have the written account that Charles wrote for the British Columbia Mountaineering Cub’s journal, we plugged some of their photos and words together into Google Earth, and have recreated their encounter with these mysterious, unexplored peaks as a sort of virtual tour that you can follow from the comforts of your home:

This first video revisits the first two days of their trip, during which the pair managed the first ascent of Wedge Mountain – the highest peak around. Instead of contently heading back to Rainbow Lodge, Neal and Charles continued deeper into the Coast Mountain wilderness towards the lesser-known but equally formidable Mount James Turner, which they named after a popular Vancouver reverend.  Check back next week for this episode, as well as their subsequent climb of Whistler Mountain and more first ascents deeper in the Fitzsimmons Range.

Of course, watching this little video doesn’t provide quite the same experience as actually climbing  these peaks.  Since we’re currently enjoying a wonderful window of late  summer weather similar to 1923, hopefully the virtual tour inspires you to get up into the alpine for some fresh air, exercise, and inspiring views!

Neal Carter climbing album

Among the tens of thousands of historical photos that the Whistler Museum holds in our archives, I think Neal Carters’ are my favourites. Carter was one of the most prolific mountaineers on the BC Coast during the 1920s and 1930s, gaining several first ascents. He also managed to turn his climbing hobby into a career, working as a surveyor first on Hydro crews around Garibaldi Lake, and then playing a major role in creating the first official topographic map of Garibaldi Park in 1928.

The mountains immediately surrounding Whistler were of special interest to him. Not only did he personally map much of the area (original copies of his massive topo map are in the Vancouver City and BC Provincial Archives), he was also instrumental in convincing the Provincial Government to expand Garibaldi Park in 1928 to approximately its current boundaries, including the Spearhead Range and the Wedge groups of peaks.

His first excursion into our local mountains occurred in September 1923 when he, along with fellow Vancouver climber Charles Townsend, spent two weeks bagging first ascents in the region. Beyond the sheer joy of two weeks climbing in such sublime terrain, the two were also on the lookout for potential sites for future BC Mountaineering Club summer camps, which had been held almost exclusively in Black Tusk Meadows for the last decade.

Their first night’s camp on the flanks of Wedge. Tent pole technology has come a long way in the last 88 years.

Using Rainbow Lodge as their base (they gave Myrtle Philip copies of their photos from this trip, which is how the museum ended up with them) they first scrambled up Wedge Creek with a week’s worth of provisions. Townsend’s very matter-of-fact account printed in the BC Mountaineer belies their huge, gruelling days of bushwacking, navigating crevasse mazes, and scrambling up terribly steep and loose talus slopes in uncharted terrain.

The view south from Wedge to our familiar W-B backcountry: (l to r) Overlord, Pattison, Fissile, Trorey, Davidson, Castle Towers and Decker.

They managed to bag the first ascents of the twin giants of Wedge Mountain and Mount James Turner (whose summit was almost too small to build a cairn), while surveying and naming many of the surrounding peaks and glaciers, over seven days. Along the way they were treated to remarkably clear conditions, which, combined with Carter’s substantial technical skills as a photographer (crucial for accurate topographic surveys), produced some striking images of the surrounding landscape.

Getting radical near Mt. James Turner.

Returning back to Rainbow Lodge, they revelled in a massive dinner and comfortable night’s sleep in a bed, but were back at it early the next morning heading for the “largely unexplored” Spearhead Range. They first headed for Singing Pass-then known as “Avalanche Pass” and spent a night in the prospector’s cabin.

Impressive solitude near Whistler’s peak.

The rest of that week was spent climbing surrounding peaks such as Fissile (then known as Red Mountain), Overlord, and a further excursion for the first ascents of Mount Diavolo, which they named for their difficult experience on its steep and exposed north ridge.

This is just a small sample from more than fifty photos in our collection that Carter produced over the two-week dream trip. Most of them are beautiful in their own right, but are just as interesting as a unique perspective on a landscape that has become so familiar to us. Scanning through the images, you get a sense of Carter’s excitement and wonder as he peered out over vast expanse of completely undeveloped, largely unknown terrain.

Pip Brock part 2.

This is the second half of a feature on Pip Brock, an early Alta Lake summer resident and pioneer of ski-mountaineering in the Coast Range. For the first half of this article click here.

On 30 July 1935, while Pip and the Mundays were bushwacking north-east of Knight Inlet towards the still-unclimbed Mount Silverthrone, Pip’s father Reginald boarded a chartered a flight from Vancouver to Gunn Lake with Pioneer Airways. That afternoon their C204 aircraft, which also carried David Sloan, managing director of Bralorne’s Pioneer Mines, landed at Alta Lake to pick up Mrs. Brock before continuing northward.

On take-off, windy conditions prevented the pilot from gaining sufficient altitude. The plane banked sharply to avoid the fast-approaching trees and the pilot attempted to re-land on Alta Lake, but without success. They plummeted back to the ground about 400 metres south of Mons, killing the pilot, Bill McCluskey and Mr. Brock instantly. Mrs. Brock and Mr. Sloan were severely injured, and transported via rail to Squamish, where a speedboat and doctor were arranged to take them to Vancouver General Hospital.

The Vancouver Sun’s feature story on the fatal crash. Click the image to view a full-size scan of the article.

The news quickly reached the central coast via the steamships that regularly plied those waters. When a local homesteader heard of the crash, he rushed up the Klinaklini River in his canoe to give Pip the tragic news. He reached the climbing party just before they ascended onto the Klinaklini glacier, at which point they would have been out of contact for several weeks. Pip rushed back to the city to discover the added tragedy of his mother’s passing; she succumbed to her injuries before their boat reached Vancouver.

The Brocks’ deaths was major news. They were an extremely respected and prominent family. Mr. Brock was the dean of applied sciences at UBC, a former Director of the federal geological survey, and a decorated military commander in World War One. He received a military funeral, and to this day Brock Hall at UBC commemorates the esteemed geologist.

Despite the family tragedy, the Brock boys continued to visit their cabin at Alta Lake. In 1937, Pip re-joined the Mundays for two major ski-mountaineering trips into the surrounding mountains. First, in January of that year, while Pip was on winter break from university, the party headed up Wedge Creek where they set up a base camp below tree line near the crest of Wedge Pass. From here they made the first ski ascent of Wedge Mountain, noting that they stood higher than anyone had before in Garibaldi Park, as the winter snowpack lifted them a few meters higher than summer climbers.

A few days later they proceeded to to the Spearhead side of the valley, making the first ski descents of what is today the Blackcomb backcountry. Don Munday’s description of their ski descent of one of the range’s massive icefields—probably the Shudder or Tremor Glacier—remains one of my all-time favourite skiing quotes:

Life has few thrills to equal ski-ing on a glacier. The quite moderate gradient surprised us with its immoderate speed for an uninterrupted half mile—if champagne has feelings when uncorked, they would match ours during those moments.

Don and Pip heading back to Primrose along the PGE railway tracks. Hungry, no doubt. Photo: Phyllis Munday, courtesy British Columbia Archives.

Buoyed by their success, Pip and the Mundays set out on an even more ambitious exploratory ski-mountaineering trip that spring, to Mount Sir Richard. Even today Mount Sir Richard is a fairly committing multi-day ski tour from Whistler or Blackcomb Mountains, accessed from the back of the renowned Spearhead Traverse. Back then skiers didn’t have the luxury of gondolas to ferry them up to the alpine, so they were forced to follow a far rougher route than modern ski-tourers enjoy.

Awaiting for the end of Pip’s school semester in late April, the party headed out from mile 34 of the PGE Railway to a supply cache that Don had previously placed near Cheakamus Lake. Here the party used a raft to pull their supplies to the head of the lake, a gruelling process which took two days itself. From here they continued to pack gear up the Cheakamus Valley to the base of Sir Richard.

Don (on shore) and Pip (on raft) hauling two weeks worth of gear and provisions up a still-frozen Cheakamus Lake. Photo: Phyllis Munday, courtesy British Columbia Archives.

Fighting thick brush, every sort of snow conditions imaginable, and the logistical headaches inherent in such a route, they managed another fine first ascent and an exhilarating ski through the McBride Glacier icefall. The trip took fourteen days. In an article in BC Mountaineer, Pip summed up their journey in typical understatement: “The trip was certainly an arduous one, but the most worthwhile trips usually do require the most effort, and this trip was worthwhile.”

We know little of Pip’s later years, though he continued to hike and climb well into his silver age. Later climbers who met him on the trail recount his genuinely warm and easy-going spirit. Few would suspect the epic mountain adventurers previously undertaken by this gentle old man.

The Brock boys picnicking near Singing Pass, 1930s.

The widely publicized expeditions that Pip and the Mundays undertook together helped convince the sceptical mountain community of the merit’s of ski-mountaineering. It is a testament to their vision that the Coast Mountains are today recognized as one of the world’s premier ski-mountaineering fields.Their wilful hardship, endured solely due to their love of the mountains, should serve as inspiration for those among us who wish to break beyond the confines of mechanized mountain access to discover all that the Coast Mountains’ alpine landscapes have to offer.