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Mount Albert Edward 1938
The First Winter Ascent

From the Victoria Daily Times February 19, 1938.

Mount Albert Edward climbed in winter.
By Don Munday

"What pleasure can there be in winter on the Forbidden Plateau when spindrifts and icy winds make it forbidding and forbidden in earnest?"

Doubtless people who have seen only the summer loveliness would ask some such question about a trip so bold-sounding as a winter crossing of the Forbidden Plateau to climb Mount Albert Edward, the highest mountain yet attempted on Vancouver Island, in winter.

But mountains and snow and skis make a magical combination - sports writers have hardly guessed it, but skiers outnumber devotees of any other form of sport.

Mount Albert Edward had been an objective of several unsuccessful attempts by members of the Comox District Mountaineering Club, under the leadership of R. [Dick] Idiens.

Miss Ethne M. Gale of Saanichton and Capt. Rex Gibson of Edmonton had visited Mount Becher at the edge of the Forbidden Plateau with Mount Albert Edward in mind. My wife and I appreciated an invitation to join them in a definite attempt on the mountain, although we had no delusions about January weather probabilities in the mountains.

A story had been circulated that Miss Gale, Capt. Gibson and Mrs. F. G. Maurice lost themselves on Mount Becher. No climbing associate of Gibson would believe it. But Eugene Croteau exacted a pledge that we take a local guide when he gave us the key to his cabin at Croteau Lake at 4,000 feet on the Plateau. Getting a guide to our liking took some time, so that night we went "to snore upon the hospitable floor" of Mr. and Mrs. [Ted] Greig at Royston. Mr. and Mrs. Silence found a bed for two of us, so we tried to refrain from snoring.

Next morning Len Rossiter, the experienced Forbidden Plateau guide, agreed to come along, although not quite recovered from a severe skiing injury.

At the Forbidden Plateau Lodge, 2,100 feet, we met Mr. and Mrs. C. [Clinton] S. Woods, and lunched above the clouds before buckling on skis and shouldering heavy packs for ascent to Mount Becher cabin of the Comox District Mountaineering Club. The club courteously permitted us to use it.

Startling red light of a wintry sunset singled out peaks here and there along 200 miles of the Coast Mountains as we neared the cabin. My wife and I in particular thrilled to discover the wild color lingering long on mighty Mount Waddington ("Mystery Mountain") while all else dimmed in twilight shadows which were entrancingly unusual but too prophetic of storm.

Richard Idiens we accused of bringing a blizzard on his heels when he joined us near midnight. But indoors the overfed stove made us toss all night with too much warmth.

The cabins entrance looked like a grizzly's lair hidden in a clump of storm-twisted trees. Any wise bear would have gone on hibernating in the morning, but we hoped to cross the Forbidden Plateau to Croteau's cabin in spite of the storm.

Though the local men said the steep slope to be climbed above the cabin had never been known to avalanche, we urged haste when we discovered a tendency to form "wind slab," a treacherous type of snow which causes many of the fatal avalanches in the Alps.

Swirling snow and the thin light confused heights and angles of the slopes as we descended the other side of Mount Becher. There were half-guessed precipices whose brows the wise skier shunned because a ski track might be all needed to release the tension on settling snow on convex slopes.

Down in the woods we often sank thigh-deep in spite of skis. Packs handicapped us; we carried sleeping bags and food and equipment for a week.

Crossing a vague valley, we climbed towards a pass beside Indian Head. The storm blotted out tracks behind us as if to fill us with fear of being unable to retreat.

By the time we had wallowed down the side of Mount Drabble to the cabin at Lake Mackenzie all were more or less wet from snow melting on us. Rossiter and Idiens were not too confident of finding the way through the more difficult country ahead. Trail blazes were too low to mark the way in winter. Obviously we could not reach Croteau's before dark - if at all. January nights are very long to spend out of doors on a mountain top.

So we shoveled out the stovepipes and dried clothes, some on, some off. Idiens almost promised us trout for supper from the snow-buried lake, but he could not dig through the ice because of deep water above it.

Dense clouds smothered the Plateau when we started the third morning. The map told us that ahead sprawled broad ridges, hummocky hollows, scores of meadows and lakes, all without an orderly drainage system. Our course would be too devious to make travel by compass really practicable.

Only the winter traveler in the mountains knows how 10 feet of snow alters summer landmarks, but Rossiter displayed now - as throughout the trip - thorough knowledge of the Plateau as well as mountaineering instinct for the line demanding least outlay of energy.

Pit ant-lions dig to engulf ants are crude traps compared with holes hidden from our eyes by a filling of six feet of fluffiest snow. If the luckless skier plunged in wrong end up, his pack held his shoulders down and his skis held his feet up. Onlookers usually grin and gibe while the buried contortionist detaches pack and skis to right himself - of course, in rare cases, lone skiers have suffocated in deep snow.

We made it an invariable rule that all the members of the party must be accounted for at short intervals, no matter how easy the going. It must be admitted skiing is a bit more dangerous than ordinary mountain travel, but it is the pleasantest, as well as most practicable, means in winter.

Once we found Panther Lake we had a fairly straightforward climb to the pass at the upper end of Croteau Lake. Snow 10 feet deep buried the cabin. Idiens had worked out an effective way to move snow without a shovel - loose snow is tramped hard enough to be cut out in blocks with the end of skis. As the door opened outward, a shaft had to be dug all the way to the ground - an hour of chilling in-action for the non-diggers.

At last the tightly-swollen door was pried open and a shovel found to clear stovepipes. Then additional digging at the doorway revealed a shovel against the wall within six inches of the original pit!

Rafters sagged alarmingly with the weight of snow on the roof. Idiens cheerfully assured us he had seen them much worse, but forgot that rafters, like humans, weaken with age and abuse, only faster.

Tents, mattresses, bed springs and other summer camp equipment seemed to half fill the cabin.

Shifting all this stuff to make sleeping space called for well coordinated efforts. So did the reverse process in the morning.

One mans notion of comfort was to sleep atop nine mattresses and seven springs. My wife and I showed comparatively Spartan simplicity with only two mattresses each on the floor.

We overslept. The first man peeked out and reported sunshine, but three and a half feet of snow drifted against the door. It had to be pried open with a peavey before he could squeeze out with a shovel.

Not too hopefully we started in dwindling sunlight for Mount Albert Edward, the summit possibly eight miles away.

Rossiter led us around the steep side of Elma Mountain by a delightful route which felt as though downhill, either coming or going, because our speed down each dip carried us up the next rise.

Dark storm clouds ahead wrestled from Mount Albert Edward. From Hairtrigger Ridge we swooped on hissing skis into the valley below Strata Mountain, and climbed around its base to the 800-foot shoulder of Mount Albert Edward, which we had been told might not be climbable in winter on skis.

While gobbling sandwiches and cake in the pass above Circle Lake we held a one sided argument with ourselves as to the sense of struggling to the summit (still 2,600 feet) in storm and returning after dark, as against probably better weather and an early start on the morrow.

We had to replenish the wood supply at Croteau's cabin before we went home, so did it this afternoon. At dusk a local storm cloud still clung like a beast of prey to Albert Edward's shoulders. From a pleasant skiing hill near the cabin we sighted lights of Powell River twinkling in the violet void.

Hardships of winter mountaineering on the Forbidden Plateau! - our evening meal always went from soup to nuts, and this night two of the party even emerged from the kitchen with pristine bloom restored by a bath.

Wintry patches of frosty ski excited us as we started before sunrise January 23. The crest of Castle Mountain loomed in folds of clouds streaming stormily from Mount Albert Edward.

Unconsolidated powder snow piled deeply against the great shoulder of the mountain. Our skis sent quantities pouring down, but the slope held.

Still nearly 2,000 feet above us the summit peered briefly over the two-mile-long summit ridge. Shadows widened, clouds scudded across the Plateau; wind raged and snow poured blindingly across the ridge. Except when skis broke wind-scalloped ridges our tracks vanished as soon as made.

When the deceptively long ridge heaved into the final pyramid it looked no more substantial than cloud. The snow-encrusted summit cairn appeared as cold as the outside of an igloo - 20 degrees of frost and a gale soon chilled our interest in glimpses of the 4,000-foot gorge of upper Oyster River. In clear weather the winter view must be superb.

Often while we rattled down the wind-clawed ridge the snow surface literally was indistinguishable beyond our ski tips. While this might suggest real risk of shooting off the edge of massive snow cornices overhanging the precipices above the northern glacier, actually a faint shadow of the abyss always outlined the brink in time.

When we reached the cabin more than one complexion showed effects of wind and flying snow.

Return to Becher cabin, made in a short day, began in light snowfall but ended stormily. Idiens hurried on down to Royston.

A bright morning gave us a pleasant run in prefect snow till we reached the end of the road to Forbidden Plateau Lodge. Men from a forestry camp had just started clearing a ski run beside the road which the snowplough often makes unfit for skiing.

At the lodge, Miss Gale's car refused to start. Hairpin bends on the road below were nearly hair-raising as we swayed down in the wake of a towing car, but the driver's skill saved us from damage.

Although eventually other skiing areas will be made accessible, Vancouver Islanders are fortunate in having a road leading up so close to the Forbidden Plateau.

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