Yvon Chouinard and Fred Beckey made the first ascent up the daunting north face of Mount Edith Cavell in 1961, and a lot has changed since then, including the physical characteristics of the mountain and the sport of mountaineering itself. But much, too, has stayed constant, like the lifestyle of Beckey, ever the consummate climber, and the appeal that Cavell's most prominent aspect still holds for adventure seekers of all ages.
That July, as Chouinard and Beckey first made their way up the north-face route that would come to bear their names, a glance down at Angel Glacier must have looked different to them than it would to climbers following in their footholds today.
While still stunning, the once enormous glacier has receded significantly in recent decades. Named for its likeness to the shape of an angel, the glacier's “wings” sweep off to each side in the cirque between Cavell's summit and Sorrow Peak to the north, connecting into a “body” which descends towards Cavell Pond. The body, however, has shrunk considerably from the imposing mass it used to be and, as the ice continues to melt away, it is expected the wings will eventually begin to disappear as well.
For now, though, the glacier's distinctive shape remains recognizable, if somewhat eroded, to the countless tourists who come to visit each year. Cavell's north face looms just above but one need not make the 27-kilometre trek from the Jasper townsite in order to feel in awe of its presence. The 3363-metre peak imposes itself over the national park, standing out from lesser mountains with its stratified look and perpetual snow cover. It continues to simultaneously attract adventurers towards it while also keeping them at bay.
“I've been up there many times but have never climbed the north face,” says Henry Timmer, who maintains the climbwild.net website, which contains information on many climbing routes in the Jasper area. Cavell is “not for the casual adventurer,” he adds. “It's one of the very few mountains on the site that I have not climbed. Weather prohibited me.”
The north face must have seemed that much more daunting to Chouinard and Beckey a half-century ago as they considered making the first ascent with climbing equipment that was relatively rudimentary. But Chouinard, who later went on to found the massively successful Patagonia, Inc., was an innovator in the sport, teaching himself blacksmithing and building his own climbing tools. Beckey, meanwhile, was simply born to climb, starting as a teenager and continuing well into his 80s, making hundreds of first ascents in his lifetime and earning legendary status in the climbing community.
Dana Ruddy has climbed with Beckey in recent years and says the Seattle resident, who turned 88 this year, always manages to find his way back to Cavell and the Jasper area.
“He usually shows up in the summer, looking for partners and a place to stay,” Ruddy says. “The last three summers he's come up here and found someone to go climb with.”
Indeed, Beckey has earned a reputation for continuing to climb with groups of people in their 20s and 30s, regardless of how old he gets. He has also expressed a fondness for young climbers on this side of the border.
“I have the most luck with Canadians because most of them don't have set jobs,” he said in a 2003 interview with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. “They (mountain) guide or heli-guide or they're carpenters. It's kind of networking: once you get to know a few of them, you know 20 or 30 of them.”
While the climbing lifestyle has been a fixture for Beckey regardless of his age, the sport itself has changed significantly. Ruddy notes that, from a technical point of view, the Beckey-Chouinard route up Cavell's north face wouldn't be considered particularly challenging by today's standards. But it does require a different kind of skill set that many modern climbers seem to have forgotten about.
“The actual movement skills required to climb are of fairly low standard, but the judgment skills are quite a high standard,” Ruddy says. “With this kind of a climb it's not how strong you are or how flexible you are or how strong your fingers are. It's more about the choices you make throughout the day that are going to dictate your success. It's more of an experience kind of thing. You have to have the right experience to make the right choices.
“That style of climbing is not extinct,” he adds, “but it certainly has lost popularity since the '60s.”
Ruddy says today's sport climbing, usually done using pre-set anchors in the rock, offers more of a “quick fix” but he finds alpine climbing to be a more “pure style” of the activity.
“I think the big difference is that there's a lot of risk involved in climbing something like that [Cavell], whereas when you go sport climbing, the risks are very easy to mitigate,” he says. “It's like two different sports entirely.”
Like the climbers who went before him a half-century earlier, Ruddy felt drawn to Cavell's north face and the challenges it presents. While more technically demanding climbs are out there, the combination of hazards one must successfully navigate to reach the summit presents a true sense of adventure.
“One of the major hazards that I pick up on is the fact that the ice and snow bands are getting smaller and as they get smaller, the rocks on either side of them get exposed to the elements. Those piles of rock have never seen the light of day before, so there are just piles of loose rock sitting there and I had a bad experience with that a few years ago,” he says. “I had a huge chunk of the mountain—maybe a 15-foot chunk of rock—release on me and I fell quite a ways.”
The incident left Ruddy with cuts and bruises but no major injuries. But it stands as a testament to the challenges today's climbers must still face when following the Beckey-Chouinard route, regardless of their skill or advanced equipment.
And for those who would rather just observe and imagine what it must be like to take on the north face of Mount Edith Cavell, a short hike from the parking lot at the end of Cavell Road towards the foot of Angel Glacier can provide at least a vicarious thrill. From there you will get a close-up view of the route first conquered a half century ago. V