Old-School Climbing: Learning the Ropes on The Mitre (1952)

Old-School Climbing: Learning the Ropes on The Mitre (1952)
December 11, 2019 Bruce Fraser

“The Mitre” a 9,480-foot peak is part of the Lake Louise Group, as noted in the Climbers Guide to the Rocky Mountains of Canada. It is located between Mts. Aberdeen and Lefroy but can not be seen from the pathway in front of the famous Chateau Lake Louise featured in many of the Banff Park scenic brochures.

My friend Jim along with an American climber whose name now escapes me (we will call him Frank) had decided to climb this well-named peak with Frank leading the climb, Jim, my best friend and climbing mentor on the end of the rope and me in the middle.

This was one of the first big climbs I was to do after joining the Calgary Section of the Alpine Club of Canada in 1952 and attending their climbing and ice and snow schools.

The route skirts the northern margin of the Lefroy Glacier which is reached by the tourist trails along the North Side of Lake Louise, boulder-hopping and stream-jumping to the scree slopes and ledges and up broken rock to the East Mitre Pass between The Mitre and Mt. Aberdeen. The route then traverses horizontally to a wet slanting couloir on the Paradise Valley side. A chock-stone blocks the gully at this point and we had to climb a nasty wet slab to bypass it. Frank managed to climb this pitch without difficulty whereas I could find no decent holds and after several unsuccessful attempts, I was hauled up the pitch like a sack of grain.

Jim, meanwhile, had been sheltering under the chockstone while waiting his turn on the slimy slab. He had looked up and thought he saw enough daylight behind the chockstone and thought he might be able to climb through. He unroped, and very soon had wiggled his way past the chockstone and avoided the nasty pitch I had just struggled with. Roping up again we climbed the rest of the way to the summit through the “letterbox” noted in the guidebook to the summit. I was thrilled to be on top of my first peak, not realizing that on the way down it might turn out to be my last.

After taking pictures, eating our lunch and admiring the splendid views all around us we started down again using the same route as before but of course in reverse. When we reached the couloir with the chockstone, Jim quickly disappeared down the hole and it was my turn.

I soon discovered that Jim and I are different sizes and although I was quite slim in those days I soon found myself stuck in the hole. It was very tight and I could not see below me. In my struggles to get through I began to dislodge some of the rocks trapped in this gully. I knew Jim was somewhere below me but had no idea where and whether he was out of the line of fire of the rocks beginning to bounce down the couloir. I had visions of being trapped there for weeks while people brought me food and drink when suddenly a large boulder tipped forward onto my thighs. It was VERY heavy and I squawked to Jim “I’ve got a boulder on my lap!”. Jim shouted back “What? Did you say you have a boulder on your lap?”. “I can’t hold it any longer.” I screamed fearing that if I dropped it it might crush him. “Let it go!” he shouted and as I was being stretched by the massive weight it broke free and thundered down the gully along with tons of other rock now loosened by this boulder with a roar and much dust they all flew down the gully and into Paradise Valley below. Miraculously I was left hanging on the rope and Jim was crouching off to one side and had a grandstand view of the whole episode and was unmarked.

Frank, holding my rope from above was sure he had lost both of us in a horrific accident and was much relieved when we shouted that we were both OK.

The only casualty of the rockfall was a partly crushed baby finger on my left hand which had been spit open. A gauze pad and a few band aids staunched the bleeding and we descended the mountain to the snow slopes and scree where I slipped and sat down many times while roped between the two the whole time telling them I was fine while no doubt suffering from shock.

Once back on the trail to the hotel I was feeling better. Upon reaching Deer Lodge next to the hotel we met Leonard Leacock a music teacher from Mount Royal College in Calgary who had a first aid kit in his car. Leonard then dumped raw iodine on my split finger causing such pain that I just about ricocheted off the parking garage roof.

My first climb had been a memorable one but left me with nightmares of falling rock for weeks. Surprisingly it didn’t put me off climbing as I continued on with the Club and my newfound climbing companions for the next 50 years.

Bruce Fraser
ACC Calgary Section Chairman 1961, 1966, 1973


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