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The ACC Ascent of the Strathcona Matterhorn 1912

by Lindsay Elms

One of the most spectacular mountains to be seen anywhere on Vancouver Island is Elkhorn, the second highest peak at 2,166m, a mere thirty-four metres lower than the Golden Hinde.

Elkhorn Mountain can be seen from Highway 28 between Campbell River and Gold River, and is one of the first mountains that appears on the skyline of Strathcona Provincial Park. It is a sharp, striking snow-covered peak and for many people it reminds them of the famous picturesque Matterhorn in Switzerland, therefore, it is no surprise to learn that it was originally known as the "Strathcona Matterhorn."

The name Matterhorn is synonymous with mountains all over the world, as any sharp peak will be referred to as the Matterhorn. Mount Aspiring in New Zealand is known as the Matterhorn of the Southern Alps, while Mount Assiniboine in the Canadian Rockies is called the Matterhorn of the Rockies. Even in countries such as Russia, Japan and the African country of Namibia, they have peaks they call Matterhorns because of their distinctive shape.

Elkhorn is one of the most accessible high mountains of the island nowadays. It is only one hours drive from Campbell River to the Elk River trailhead and then an hours' walk will put you at the river crossing where the ascent of the mountain begins.

The relatively easy access to the mountain is not reflective of the mountain's climbing history. In early 1912 during the course of winter meetings in the Provincial Government in Victoria, the Deputy Minister of Public Works, Colonel William Foster, negotiated and persuaded the government that the recently formed Alpine Club of Canada should go in and evaluate the alpine attractions of the newly established Strathcona Provincial Park. Strathcona had become the first provincial park in British Columbia on March 1, 1911.

Finally, as a result of the discussions it was decided that transportation and other basic facilities would be available to a party of no more than twenty people. With the finances for the trip solved, the club was then able to proceed with the rest of its plans.

The party, under the leadership of Edward Wheeler, the son of Arthur Wheeler one of the founders and President of the Alpine Club, consisted of sixteen members. In August 1912, the party arrived in Campbell River and found themselves in the hands of Reginald Thomson, an American from Seattle, who was appointed by British Columbia's Premier Sir Richard McBride, as the chief engineer of the park. His job was to ensure that things went smoothly for the expedition and that they were able to reach the base of their objective.

On the first day they managed to cover twenty-seven miles from Campbell River to what was known as Warnick's Camp. They first had to travel by wagon and foot seven miles to McIvor's Lake and then a twenty foot canoe took them across the lake. Three quarters of a mile by trail to Lower Campbell Lake and from there the Forbes and Honour Transportation Company conveyed them by motor launch and canoe to the head of the lake and some distance up the river to a point known as the British American Timber Company's Landing, in all, nine miles. From the B.A.T. Landing, eight miles of good pony trail led them to Upper Campbell Lake and another mile by canoe to Warnick's Camp.

Next day a motor canoe transported them five miles to the head of Upper Campbell Lake and it was while on this lake they first saw their mountain. Thomson called it the "Strathcona Matterhorn" and he dared the Alpine Club to make its ascent. The die was cast.

From the head of the lake they canoed another mile up a slough to a landing place where a good trail led off. They tramped for eight miles through a magnificent forest of fir and cedar with trunks twelve feet in diameter and so dense was the shade that the undergrowth was sparse and the ground open and mossy. Arthur Wheeler commented: "…and the sun glinting through the openings, created fairy glades that looked like a scene in wonderland." They crossed both the north branch (Tlools) and the south branch (Cervus) of the Elk River to Lewis' Camp where they spent the night.

Early the next morning a reconnaissance party moved up the valley to ascertain the best route to the "Strathcona Matterhorn." From a bare rock point, which formed a natural observatory, they were able to get a good view of what lay in store for them on the mountain.

It was then they decided it was necessary to find a more suitable name for the mountain. Since it stood above the Elk Valley and rose sharply, from their point of view they decided to recommend to the Geographic Board that it be known in the future as "Elkhorn."

On August 20 from there camp on Drum Lake, a party of nine consisting of Arthur Wheeler (ACC founder), his son Edward Wheeler (leader and Mount Everest fame), Albert MacCarthy (of Mount Logan fame), David Gillies, A.R. Hart, L.C. Wilson, Francis Robertson, Herbert Frind (photographer) and the Reverend James Robertson, equipped with three day's supplies, set out for the peak. They were fortunate that a trail had been blazed for three miles up the Elk River valley by James Melville Macoun, the Assistant Dominion Botanist and father-in-law of Arthur Wheeler. Macoun had the foresight to suspect that the "Strathcona Matterhorn" would probably be their selection. By the end of the day the Alpine Club climbers were high on the West Ridge of the mountain and ready for the final assault the next day.

Leaving camp the next morning at 7:30 they followed along the ridge and by 9:40 were at the base of the Northwest Ridge. Arthur Wheeler then moved out onto the North Face to prospect ahead and after twenty minutes of scrambling up steep but solid rock with plenty of holds, he reached a ledge that led across the North Face. He then signaled the others up.

The party traversed out onto the ledge below a large patch of snow to the middle of the North Face and there, finding a small stream, decided to stop for lunch. At 12:45 they went on, cutting steps up the ice for about one hundred and fifty feet and then moved onto a scree slope that brought them back onto the Northwest Ridge. A wide crack brought them up one hundred feet to another scree ledge. A three hundred foot traverse out along this ledge onto the West Face saw them at the bottom of a thirty foot chimney which led up through the cliffs to the left. This required the use of the rope and contrary to their original hopes they found the rock at the top to be very loose. Another two hundred feet of loose scree and rotten rock brought them out onto the summit ridge one hundred yards from the top at 2:10.

On the summit they gave three cheers for the Alpine Club; three cheers to the leader and three cheers to the alpine fields as yet unconquered that lay ahead of them. The contents of an emergency brandy flask served to christen the peak "Elkhorn" and a cairn was built in which a carefully sealed tin tube containing their names was placed. An hour and a quarter were spent on top and eventually at 3:25 they left their airy spot and retraced their route back to camp.

Once they were all off the mountain and had returned home their reports had nothing but praise for the mountains of Strathcona Park. They all agreed that: "…a considerable portion of the alpine area in view lay within the confines of the park and is worthy of close attention as an attractive feature." Wheeler also noted that to extend the park's boundaries should be a matter for serious consideration.

Today, Elkhorn has been climbed in less than four hours and by at least eight different routes and the pioneering of these routes didn't occur until the 1970's with the advance of modern climbing equipment. Elkhorn still only receives a few ascents a year, but for those who challenge the heights of the island's second highest mountain, the rewards of the ascent are worth all the hard work and sweat.

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