Much has been written about the role and impact Swiss mountain guides have had on alpinism and tourism in this region. But less is known about how it all started and why.
On the lake front promenade at the Chateau Lake Louise, visitors can admire a small bronze statue of a mountain guide with eyes cast skyward. It commemorates the guides of the last century that for decades took amateurs and pros alike safely to the peaks.
Standing by the statue today, visitors can look over the lake to what must be the most photographed mountain on earth, Mt. Victoria, and just to the left, Mt. Lefroy, an imposing peak of 3423m/11,230 feet.
Lefroy is so imposing that according to the New York Times of 1896, local residents advised Philip Stanley Abbot against trying to climb it, “… to climb to the summit of the great Lefroy Mountain, a feat so difficult and dangerous that few have attempted and fewer have accomplished it.” In fact no one had accomplished it and Abbot wanted to be the first. Nearing the summit on August 3, 1896 with 3 companions, twenty-eight year old Abbot fell to his death to become the first mountaineering fatality in North America.
That accident had far-reaching consequences. The CPR railroad was keen to develop tourism to fill their trains and hotels and was actively promoting the “Canadian Alps” as a mecca for hiking and climbing. Abbot’s accident no doubt made them realize that experts were needed to develop the business safely and the well-known story of recruiting professional Swiss Guides unfolded. On August 3, 1897, the anniversary of Abbot’s death, a party of climbers including friends succeeded in reaching the summit. This time the group paid all expenses to import a professional Swiss guide, Peter Sarbach. By 1899 the CPR had contracts with the first Swiss guides and many more followed.
Abbot Pass and the Abbot Pass Hut are named in honor of Philip Stanley Abbot and in many ways they symbolize the very roots of Alpinism in North America. Abbot Hut, a stone building constructed in 1922, is nestled in the saddle between Mt. Lefroy and Mt. Victoria and is the second highest hut in Canada. It’s a refuge for mountaineers operated by the Alpine Club of Canada. Abbot Hut is also the only true mountaineering hut in the country according to Edward Feuz, one of the original Swiss Guides.
Philip Abbot was a lawyer from the Boston area who learned climbing in Switzerland and had made several ascents in the Alps. He was a member of the Appalachian Mountain Club but he also joined the Sierra Club in his wish to foster cooperation and advancement of alpine climbing. Ironically, his death may have done more for mountaineering than he could have hoped for.
What happened, exactly?
For inquiring minds, the following summarizes an account written by one of the ill-fated party.
With the light starting to fade at about 6 PM, Abbot was leading the group only a few hundred feet from the summit when they came up against a rock wall. An easier route was visible to one side but it meant cutting steps into a steep icy traverse and there was not enough time to take that option and still get off the mountain before dark. Abbot thought he saw a promising lead up a chimney in the rock and asked the others to un-rope so he could climb up the difficult section to a safe point where he could secure himself as an anchor for the remaining three.
The account describes an extremely precarious situation in which the other climbers clung to the mountainside waiting for Abbot to find a secure position. They were pushing the limits of the technology and equipment of the day. The equipment was basically hemp rope, hob-nail boots and an ice axe — no pitons or carabiners that a modern climber would use today.
As he was free-climbing toward the summit Abbot’s hand-hold broke loose and he fell backwards off the rock face and then tumbled about 900 vertical feet down a steep slope of ice and snow, taking the group’s only rope with him.
The remaining three were shaken and especially unnerved when they realized that they had to somehow get down with nothing but their axes for security. They immediately started the perilous descent without a rope “… each responsible for his own safety.” It took them hours to reach Abbot who was still alive but with a serious head injury. They lifted the semi-conscious man and supported him as they started down but he died a short time after. It was almost dark so the 3 survivors stumbled on until they couldn’t see anything then huddled in the deteriorating weather waiting for first light before continuing their descent. Abbot’s body was retrieved a few days later when the snow and rain abated.
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