The Stones Of Banff

I never wanted to be a mountain climber, writes LISA ROCHON. Never wanted to walk a narrow ledge with nothing to cling to but a crumbling rock wall and thin air. Stupid, I know.


LISA ROCHON Saturday, June 8, 2003

I never wanted to be a mountain climber. Never wanted to walk a narrow ledge with nothing to cling to but a crumbling rock wall and thin air. Stupid, I know. But, promise me a stone cabin of unparalleled honesty and defiance that requires one of the toughest scree slogs in the Rockies, and I'm willing to see the intelligence of the argument. Why did I climb up 600 metres of sliding, cascading, hateful rock? Because of the architecture on the mountain (photo).


The Abbot Pass Hut still occupies my dreams and my nightmares. It is a fearsome structure that lords itself over a terrible moonscape. Set impossibly high in the Rockies, its construction in 1923 requiring extraordinary human guts and determination, the hut is a rare work of heroic architecture. There’s nothing embellished or frivolous about the cabin, nothing pretty about it. The thick stone walls of the Abbot Pass Hut are as unforgiving and sublime as the cliffs that surround it on all sides.

Seen up close, the hut is the essence of the classic picturesque, a central wooden door with flanking windows under a pitched roof, enough room for about 25 people to prepare meals in a kitchen, dine on pasta around a pot bellied stove and sleep in the loft upstairs. Designated a National Historic Site in 1992, there’s nothing complicated about its form. On a skinny col between Mounts Lefroy and Victoria, where storms can dump three feet of snow in the middle of August, the architecture has been devised to ask only a bare minimum from the site – enough field stone to create its walls, enough room to set itself down. One metre is all you get between one side of the hut and a sheer drop of cascading rock. The other edge of the hut slopes down to a glacier that looks inviting enough to ski but is known as the ‘death trap.’

Rare is the discussion of architecture set at high altitudes, so mesmerized have we become by the stuff located lower down in cities. But there are tea houses, rustic lodges and back country huts located mostly in Western Canada that pay tribute to exquisite siting and design. At 2922 metres (9588 feet), the Abbot Pass Hut is the highest, inhabitable structure in Canada and one that is operated and maintained with tremendous pride by the Alpine Club of Canada. Actually, the Neil Colgan Hut in Banff National Park is set slightly higher but it’s an aluminum clad structure and hardly worth any further notice.

Located above the tree line, the Abbot Hut is a simple, stoic mass set down directly on the border between Alberta and British Columbia, between Banff National Park and Yoho National Park. To one side, a sweeping glacier known to provoke avalanches that leads to Lake Louise. On the other, below rocky chutes, a series of alpine lakes in fictional shades of blue. One of these is Lake O’Hara, described by the American painter John Singer Sargent as the most beautiful lake he’d ever seen. Americans, by the way, were lured to climb the Rockies before Canadians. The Abbot Pass is named for Philip Stanley Abbot, a young lawyer from Boston who, in 1896, fell about 330 metres to his death after nearing the summit of Mt. Lefroy.

Walking up from Lake O’Hara, following a series of switchbacks through dense forest, the trail leads to masses of black rock splattered with neon-green lichen. There are lessons beyond what’s offered in the most esteemed art studio of unlikely, scintillating ways of layering colour. How to design with nature follows next. Large slabs of slate magically appear to create efficient crossings from one boulder to the next. The slate path, artfully composed in spite of its mass and weight, appears to be an inexplicable phenomenon, much like the construction of the Great Pyramid of Giza, and even more once it continues in the form of perfectly hospitable steps carved into steep hills and, as a coup de grace, showing up as a stone boardwalk through a meadow of alpine flowers. Lawrence Grassi, a retired miner, mountaineer and the park warden at Lake O’Hara during the 1950s was the designer, though he might have been embarrassed by the title.

Such are the pleasures that lead through an enchanting landscape. And then, after two or three hours into the hike, comes the ugly part, where the ground becomes very steep and the very steep ground begins to move from under your feet. Not even the big rocks are to be trusted. Nothing is to be trusted, in fact - one of the joyous first principles of mountain climbing. Even the wall of rock that you will attempt to cling to in order to haul yourself up the very steep hill is composed of highly unstable sandstone. And it has the unfortunate, untimely habit of dissolving in your desperately grasping fingers.

Crawling with your face buried into the rock, climbing hemet slipped over your eyes because of the weight of your backpack, you may be surprised to realize that you have left the slightest wisp of a trail – which, clearly, Lawrence Grassi never got to – and are slipping down the very steep ground, blinded by your safety equipment. How could it be that you are experiencing sharp gasps for air rather than deep yoga breathing?

Economy of scale, purpose and means governed the design and construction of the hut back in the 1920s at a time when Swiss climbing guides hired by the Canadian Pacific Railways hauled building materials – cement, lime, windows, timbers, stove and tools – with pack horses from Lake Louise until, on the final ascent, they were forced to carry the loads on their own backs to the Abbot Pass. Imagined in the best tradition of Swiss mountain shelters, the hut was part of the CPR’s attempt to crack open the West and entice Canadians to explore the Rockies, to open our eyes to the aesthetics and cultural possibilities afforded by the mountains. But, by the 1960s, the hut had fallen into disrepair, its cedar shake roof partly caved in and mattresses gnawed apart by rodents. In 1969, Parks Canada determined to burn the hut down. Others saw it differently. The Alpine Club of Canada (ACC) convinced Parks Canada to turn over the funds allocated for the demolition, to be used, instead, for the hut’s repair by the club’s volunteers. The hut is but one of 24 high alpine huts managed by the ACC. Each one boasts a magnificent site and architecture of distinct or serviceable interest.

The Abbot Pass has a certain magnetic pull. How else to explain a group of volunteers from the Alpine Club of Canada who agreed a few years ago to replace a flimsy wood deck tacked onto the hut with a deck and stairs of stone? Working in full winter gear in the middle of summer, the group cut the stone from the site and laid it up with dry pack cement mixed by hand in a wheelbarrow. The same group, led by Banff architect John Harrop and project manager Bruce Hardardt, built the outhouse. Located behind the hut, the zinc-clad outhouse is designed as an invention of remarkable economy and smarts – set at an angle to better suit the lay of the land, the outhouse was located next to a rock which prevents the door from swinging off its hooks in high winds. Never before has an outhouse provided such comfort, and entertainment. A zig-zag cut into the plywood interior represents the border between Alberta and British Columbia. A narrow ribbon window affords spectacular views to the valleys below and the glacier-fed Lake Oesa. The design is considered, even compelling but you will not come here unless you must: from the hut, the outhouse is accessed by a metre-wide passage that drops rather unceremoniously into a rocky couloir. It would be an unfortunate way to go, and hardly picturesque.