Ralph Hilton Rosseau1907 - 1954
Ralph Rosseau was born to Kenneth and Viola Rosseau on December 26, 1907, at the home of his grandparents in Picton, Ontario. His parents, not expecting him quite so early, had traveled there from Toronto to spend Christmas with Kenneth's family. In spite of the snow storm, the doctor arrived by horse and cutter, in time to deliver him.
Two years later Ralph's father was transferred to Vancouver where the family settled in Lynn Valley (1910). They remained there for twenty-four years and Ralph was joined by one more brother (Earle) and two sisters (Bernice and Louise) with the three eldest attending Lynn Valley Public School and North Vancouver High. Ralph and Earle soon proved to be avid outdoorsman and spent many hours on the Northshore Mountains, climbing in the summer; skiing in the winter.
After graduating from high school, Ralph tried his hand at a variety of jobs. He worked as a cook on a fish boat, a cowboy in the Caribou and even did a stint in the woods as a logger. But the vocation of teaching was to be his final choice.
To pursue his chosen career, he attended the University of British Columbia to gain senior matriculation and then went on to graduate from Vancouver Normal School. The 1930's were lean depression years and teaching jobs were scarce, so he was fortunate to be hired as a school teacher at the tiny hamlet of Squirrel Cove on Cortez Island in 1931. He remained there for five years and during that time married Vera Lucas. In 1936 they moved to Bamfield on the Alberni Inlet where he took on the job of teacher at the one-roomed school house. There was little in the surrounding landscape to satisfy his climbing instinct, save for a small rise called Pachena Cone. Ralph often reckoned he had worn a groove in its side climbing it so frequently. Unfortunately, the rural life wasn't suited to Vera's temperament and the marriage eventually dissolved.
In 1942, Ralph was hired as a teacher at Eight Avenue School in Port Alberni. After eight years he moved to the newly built Gill School on Beaver Creek Road where he became the first principal. While at Eight Avenue School he met Lillah Smith, who also taught at the school and shared Ralph's enthusiasm for outdoor activity. She was a willing partner in both climbing and skiing adventures and in 1949 they were married.
The Alberni Valley would provide ample sustenance for his insatiable appetite for climbing and for the economic necessity to make a living. And the latter would be provided by his efforts in a profession he loved; that of encouraging youth, not only in mastering the current curriculum but in understanding the intricate patterns of nature and their effects on all life.
They, along with other like-minded individuals, took a particular interest in the King Solomon Basin at the head of China Creek until it was designated a public water shed. Ralph began seeking an alternate site and soon found the slopes of Mount Arrowsmith and Mount Cokely suited his needs. Although the CPR Trail existed from Cameron Lake, Ralph soon found a log bridge across the Cameron River and a new trail was forged for quicker access to the two mountains. At the 3,500 foot level Ralph and Lillah then set about to build a small shelter which they dubbed "Little Shake". During that time every trip up to the mountain included a pack pack of cedar shakes. They even brought a stove up to the shelter. With a permanent camp at their disposal, Ralph was free to enjoy all the mountain had to offer and to share it with others, especially youth groups. Eventually, with permission from the Canadian pacific Railway, Ralph and Lillah began the construction of a larger cabin of logs, which fate would not allow him to complete.
Mount Arrowsmith was not the sole object of Ralph's mountaineering interest. While he often climbed with friends, he enjoyed the solitude of the mountains without the company of others. He made several solo trips into the Strathcona Park and Della Falls area and in 1946, took a climbing trip in the Rockies. His trip diaries purvey a sense of challenge, courage and calculated risk as well as his sense of humour. His skill with a 35mm camera allowed him to capture many of these vistas on film and to share his experiences with others. He photographed all manner of alpine plants, animals and birds as well as breath-taking scenes during all four seasons. Ralph often jokingly commented that there was nothing at sea level worth photographing. Below is a transcript, in its entirety, of the first of two letters written by Ralph to Lillah in which he describes vividly his climbs in the Canadian Rockies.
July 14, 1946
I sincerely hope that I never have occasion to write another letter under similar circumstances!
The guides advised me against making this trip, and now, too late, I see what they meant. I'm at the Abbott Pass Alpine Hut (alt. 9600 ft.) with no food, no fuel, wet boots and socks, and no one to bury my bones when I perish, as I surely shall. A blizzard is raging outside and the wind is howling and I'm nearly deafened with the roar of avalanches. I have at least ten heavy blankets over me, two sweaters, my wool jacket, and your blue ski mitts on and still I'm not warm. Why didn't I do something sensible, like going to summer school?
Now to go back where I left off in the last letter. I think I was just getting ready to move in to the Plain of Six Glaciers. There's a tea house there operated as a concession from the C.P.R. and they have a couple of cabins for rent. I left most of my belongings with some friends at the Motor Camp and moved up on Wednesday. On Thursday I climbed Mt. Aberdeen (10,350'). It took me over an hour to cross the moraines at the foot of the Victoria Glacier, then I went up the full length of the Lefroy Glacier, up the Mitre Col and on to a shoulder of Aberdeen. It took me 8 hours to reach the peak by that route, so I had to find a shorter way down. I won't attempt to describe it - just wait till you see the pictures! It was short alright. The entire trip took 13 hours.
On Friday I thought I'd rest a bit, so started out at 9:30 for the Upper Victoria Glacier which hangs 1000 ft. above the main valley. "Trixie" who runs the tea house, asked me if I'd take along Gordon, a boy of about 16 who works for them. He had never been off the prairies before and Trix thought it would be an interesting experience for him. We got up to the glacier and took some pictures and it was such a fine day that I lured Gordon into climbing some bluffs at the base of Pope's peak. He seemed to be enjoying himself immensely, so we kept on climbing. You know the old story, so I needn't go on with the details. At 3:00 p.m. Gordon found himself on top of Pope's Peak (10,376') thrilled with the scenery and proud of his accomplishment, but scared clean out of his pants! The snow was getting soft and in traversing the final ridge we had started several avalanches which roared over 2000 ft. of precipices. This unnerved him a bit, and when we came to the first bad spot on the way down, he hesitated a minute to steady himself, then said, "Well, here goes!" At the very moment he spoke, the shale he was standing on gave way, both feet went out from under him, and he was sitting on the edge of a hundred foot drop with nothing but the rope to hold him. I pulled him back and got him on his feet. He was so scared he was trembling from head to foot. Half an hour later, we had to get off a cliff onto a snow slope. Gordon jumped the last two or three feet unexpectedly, and I wasn't prepared to check him. He was right out of control for eight or ten feet before I brought him up with a jerk. This experience shattered his nerve completely, so that I had to rope him down even the perfectly safe parts and we were fortunate to make camp just before dark. Gordon says he's glad he had that one thrill of standing on a mountain top but that he'll never attempt to do it again. Marguerite, Trix's assistant, told him he'd better take the ice-ax and rope to bed with him in case he needed them in his dreams.
Joe Moore, the lad from Texas, came up to see me on Friday. He had been out to the Calgary Stampede and wanted to tell me all about it. I was sorry to have missed him. He's the nicest little fellow, about ten or eleven, with a Texas drawl and a little fox terrier "Yoyo" who never lets him out of his sight for a minute. The tea house is at 7000 ft. so Joe was all in after his 5 and ½ mile walk. They made him cocoa and fed him and kept him talking for an hour because his accent intrigued them so.
With Aberdeen and Pope climbed, there was little else I could do from the tea house. The guides refuse to go on Lefroy or Victoria because of the unusually dangerous snow conditions. Walter Fuez advised me to keep off the Victoria Glacier. He has never gone up it alone in thirty years of guiding. Ernest Fuez guided a doctor over Abbott Pass last week and he says he hopes he doesn't have to do it again this year. We'll you know how these things go. Everybody says mustn't until I begin to feel like I must. I asked to be called at 5:00 a.m. Saturday (the 13th). I needn't have bothered, as I lay awake practically all night worrying about the adventure.
The morning was beautiful, with Mt. Victoria bathed in pink at sunrise. I crossed the Victoria Moraine, a huge mound of gravel over a hundred feet high, and dropped down to the lower glacier. For the first mile the ice is littered with gravel and large rocks and criss-crossed with cracks and crevasses, some over fifty feet deep. Then the valley narrows into a canyon between Lefroy and Victoria. This is the beginning of the dangerous part. Snow avalanches from it day and night and often great blocks of ice break loose and fall to the canyon floor. From the other side, loose rocks and shale from the crumbling peak of Lefroy bombarded the ice below. Early morning is the safest time to go through and late August the safest month. Well, obviously, I got through this part without any ice or rocks falling on me. There was just enough aerial bombardment to keep my hair well on end, but none of it was labeled R.H.R..
As the snow became deeper I could make out the route taken by Ernest and was very glad of that as it reduced my chances of falling into a snow-covered crevasse. (I didn't have a portable hand-winch suggested in the book on mountaineering.) This was a short-lived aid, however, as the tracks disappeared under an avalanche about twice the size of the one in the Upper King Solomon. I guess Ernest will skip a heartbeat or two when he sees that.
Halfway up the pass, the Victoria Glacier is broken by a tremendous crevasse called the Death Trap. Some years it is necessary to carry a long ladder up and use it as a bridge. I note some remarks in the log book here regarding the sensations experienced by climbers who had to resort to this method of crossing. Ernest got the doc. across on a natural ice-bridge, which must have been hair-raising considering the steep angle at which the glacier lies. You can imagine my joy when I found that the avalanche had filled in about ten feet in the centre of the Trap. I was even able to enjoy the luxury of climbing down into the crevasse and exploring the cavernous interior, an experience which would not be possible under normal circumstances.
From the Death Trap to the top of the pass the danger diminishes with every step. An avalanche such as the recent one might sweep down, but only after heavy rain or snow. I reached the top of the pass in three hours, which is average time. I had my packboard loaded with wood, as there is no fuel of any kind within miles of the hut. I had very little grub as I planned to go down the other side to Lake O'Hara today (Sunday).
The hut is a remarkable piece of work as you will see if my pictures turn out. It is built of stone with walls about 18 inches thick, is about 22' by 34' and can accommodate about thirty people. There are four bedrooms with four bunks and two cots and the attic has about 18 cots. There are mattresses and blankets galore. The kitchen is large and well-equipped but I can't for the life of me see what good a stove is when you have to carry your wood from timberline (7000') up to this 9600 ft. eyrie.
The Lake O'Hara side of the pass is comparatively safe, thank heaven, so I have some reason to believe that all this writing is not in vain, unless, of course, I freeze to death.
To get back to my story - I arrived here yesterday and after spreading my socks out in the sun to dry, crawled right into a bunk to catch up on some sleep. By this time I had decided that come what may, I must climb either Lefroy or Victoria. The hut is a natural base for either climb and it seemed a shame to be this close to an eleven thousand footer and not climb it.
After an hour's sleep, I was awakened by voices, and found that Bruce and Betty Smith had come all the way from London, England to visit me. Right behind them were two members of the American Alpine Club, from Massachusetts and a Mr. Chisholm from Ottawa. They had hiked up from O'Hara Camp and had been thoroughly warned against going onto the Victoria Glacier.
I enjoyed having company, but since it had started to rain and blow and was bitterly cold, I was compelled to sacrifice my small supply of wood, drying them out and making them tea. However, I got my own socks dry and as soon as they left, hopped back into bed, where I remained until this morning.
At dawn I nibbled a couple of Graham Wafers and a piece of candy and started up Mt. Victoria, which is about 85' higher than Lefroy. The snow was firm fro the first hour or two, but as the sun became warmer it began to get treacherous. I went up some places that I'll probably dream about for the rest of my life, and finally got on top of the South Peak. The North peak was about half a mile away and the ridge connecting the two was a knife-edge of snow corniced on the O'Hara side and sloping off at 70 to 80 degrees fro 3500 feet down to Victoria Glacier. I wasn't sure which peak was higher, so had just about decided to try for the other when a big, black cloud appeared from nowhere and the heavens were practically torn apart with thunder. Then it began to snow. That made my mind up for me, pronto. I had some mighty bad places to get back down and it looked as though there was no time to waste. I've never experienced such as storm before. It seemed to be solely concerned with preventing me from reaching the Abbott Hut. After starting an avalanche or two to add to the din, I made it back. My first entry into the 11,000 foot category was evidently displeasing to the gods, for I had no sooner crossed the threshold than the storm suddenly died and the sun came out again. I put my socks out to dry and climbed into bed. No sooner was I comfortable than the storm burst with renewed fury. This meant a dash out to rescue boots and socks. For the past two hours, thunder, lightning, rain, hail, avalanches and a howling gale have provided some effects in sufficient quantity to supply Hollywood for centuries to come. If it wasn't so cold under the bed, I'm sure that's where I'd be.
We'll I'm right up to date, and if I don't get a crazy notion to climb Lefroy tomorrow, I'll get this to a post office in the near future. Fortunately, I have a severe headache for lack of food, so I'm sure a climb won't appeal to me in the morning.
In fact, I'm pretty well decided to spend the rest of the holiday being a conventional tourist. I can see some advantages in sticking to the beaten track.
I seem to have left out a lot that I wanted to tell you, but this headache is wearing me down. I think I'll try to get some sleep and see if it helps. The altitude doesn't bother me at all. The only reaction so far was bleeding gums, but that didn't last long.
To be continued.
What a life. Not a comfortable moment for a decent letter. Down to
O'Hara today (Mon. 15th). Back to L. Louise tomorrow.
Ralph did test Mount Lefroy the next day but found the snow in dangerous conditions after the storm so went down to Lake O'Hara where he spent the evening and next morning talking with Rudolph Fuez about climbing. On the 23rd he attempted Mount Edith Cavell and got within four to five hundred feet of the summit. In his second letter to Lillah he wrote:
I was on the East Ridge, which Joe Weiss the guide said was a tough ascent and an impossible descent. I couldn't even see the peak above me and was on a narrow corniced ridge with alternate snow and rock. I didn't dare go higher so just simply had to descend. Weiss was sure I was bluffing when I saw him again yesterday and he made me describe the ledges etc. When he was satisfied that I was telling the truth, he got quite excited.
I'm beginning to have some suspicions about the Swiss guides. The ridge in question was not much worse than the final peak on Arrowsmith, though several times higher of course, and certainly not as bad as Septimus. Several places that the guides have classified as hazardous have really been not too bad.
Ralph went on to make many trips into the mountains including a spectacular fourteen day trip in July/August 1947 up the Drinkwater Valley, over Mount Septimus to Flower Ridge, across to Shepherds Ridge, over Tzela Mountian to the Cliffe Glacier, down to the Moving Glacier and Milla Lake, up both Iceberg Peak and Mount Celeste on Rees Ridge, back up onto the Comox Glacier, over the summit of Argus Mountain to the Cliffe Glacier, up and over the Red Pillar, down to Tzela Lake and back out onto Flower Ridge, up and over Septimus and back down the Drinkwater Valley to Great Central Lake. This trip was completed on his own.
Sadly, on July 3, of the first of July long in weekend in 1954, the mountains claimed Ralph's life. A small party that included Ralph and Lillah, Alma Currie and Ulf Bitterlich, broke away from a larger party while making there way up to Della Falls from Great Central Lake. After taking the trail up to Love Lake the four traveled up onto the glaciers at the east end of the Septimus massif. On the return trip they were crossing a snow bridge when it collapsed, plunging Ralph to his death. Ralph was only forty-seven.
On July 7, at a crowded service in the Alberni Legion Hall, Reverend Stevenson honoured Ralph with a moving address: "Such men are few who find true holiness in the beauty and wonder of nature and who teach and influence others by what they see, believe and love. They possess a faith far above the droning priest and the insipid ecclesiasticism of today."
In recognition of Ralph's love of the mountains and his work with government survey crews, the highest peak to the east of Mount Septimus was named Mount Rosseau in his memory. His ashes were spread on Mount Arrowsmith where a trail is also named for him.
Where scrub pine ends and rock begins
Up there, upon the great world's roof,
Virginal pure, these icy peaks
Stock, Dave. "Disaster Overtakes Island Climbers. Alberni Schoolmaster Killed on Ice Ridge." Victoria Daily Times. [Victoria, B.C.] (July 5, 1954) p. 1.
Davy, Humphrey. "Rosseau's Mountain Lore Guided Lost Times Newsman to Safety." Victoria Daily Times. [Victoria, B.C.] (July 5, 1954) p. 1.
Body Flown To Port Alberni." West Coast Advocate [Port Alberni,
B.C.] (July 6, 1954)
"Hundreds Attend Funeral of Alpinist Ralph Rosseau." West Coast Advocate. [Port Alberni, B.C.] (July 8, 1954) p. 1.
"Mountain Slide Claims Life of Native of Picton." The Picton Gazette. [Picton, Ont.].(July 9, 1954)
Reith, W.D. "Chalet Honors Mountaineer." Daily Colonist. [Victoria, B.C.] (August 26, 1956) p. 12.
"Rosseau Chalet Officially Open; Dedicated to Youth." West Coast Advocate. [Port Alberni, B.C.] (August , 1956) p.
"Chalet on Mountain Honors The Memory of Ralph Rosseau." West Coast Advocate [Port Alberni, B.C.] (August , 1956) p.
"Hikers' Rest Stop Needs Protection." West Coast Advocate. [Port Alberni, B.C.] (October 29, 1969) p.