Playing in the ‘beautiful’ – early backcountry skiing in Revelstoke

Pioneers defined ‘first tracks’ as they ventured into the Columbia Mountains on skis.

  • Nov. 14, 2012 7:00 p.m.

This is the fifth of an eight-part series of excerpts from First Tracks: A History of Skiing in Revelstoke, the latest book from the Revelstoke Museum & Archives.

By the Revelstoke Museum and Archives

When Ole Sandberg made that first ski trip at Albert Canyon, locals called snow ‘the beautiful.’ Whether snowshoeing, tobogganing or skiing, snow was embraced as a source of fun, recreation and beauty. Ski jumping mostly attracted men and boys but women and girls took an active part in long-distance skiing, on the flats and in the mountains, and in the many social ski events.

In 1909 the Revelstoke Mountaineering Club built the Balsam Lake Chalet near the top of Mount Revelstoke. Ski parties would head up the mountain, spend a night or more in the cabin, and ski the surrounding area. The March 14, 1914, Mail-Herald mentioned one ascent by ski enthusiasts Rose Haggen and Cecil Atkins who climbed to the cabin on foot “owing to the glassy crust of the snow” and skied down.

For recreational skiers the line between cross-country and backcountry skiing was not clear. Marge Meier (née English), who skied in the 1930s and 1940s, recalled that the term cross-country skiing was used, but backcountry skiing was just called ‘skiing.’ Most early skiers came from working-class families and could not afford specialized skis. Some used one pair of skis for all skiing but in general two main types were used: specialized jumping skis; and general purpose skis for cross-country, backcountry and downhill.

Longer trips up Mount Revelstoke also became popular. Brothers Don, Alex and Bill McCrae were keen but initially inexpert skiers who began skiing to the top of the mountain in the mid to late 1930s. They led groups of energetic skiers, including Vimy Middleton, Marge English and Mary Burridge to explore the beauty of the summit on weekends. Mary would later describe the ascent in her February 1967 column:

The mountain trail was some six miles (ten kilometres) from the railroad crossing to the summit and this trail made 8 crossings over the mountain road.  Average ski climb to the first auto road was three quarters of an hour and most of us took 5 to 6 hours to reach the lodge. Knotted ropes were used on the back sections of the skis, although an excellent Norwegian ski wax, called ‘Klister Vox,’ was often used in place of the ropes. The dabs of ski wax could then be rubbed by hand along the running surface of the skis and provided a fast wax for either the deep powder snow or the various snow types encountered during the spring season.

While the trip up was not so bad and skiing the summit was a joy, Mary found the descent terrifying because “none of them skied that well,” according to her son, Donny McCrae. In the same column, she described how they learned to ski down:

The telemark turn was favored during this era and those of us who couldn’t manage a telemark, would make our turns to right or left by clasping both ski poles in one hand, dragging the poles and swinging around them. It was a tiring method.

Don McCrae was our inspiration in learning the proper way to slalom. After competing in a ski meet at Banff, Don had climbed to a high vantage point on Mount Norquay and from there was able to study the various styles of the visiting Swiss and Austrian skiers. The Austrian style, Arlberg, appealed to him very much and due to this encounter, Don came home, chock full of enthusiasm and insistence that we all must learn to ski Arlberg. It was a struggle and a challenge to break ourselves of our ‘bad habits’ but try we did, thanks to our teacher. The descent of Mount Revelstoke now became a joy.

This method must have worked well. Mary noted that Don McCrae and Jim McDonald once skied down from Heather Lodge to town in 22 minutes.

Mementos of happy times

In 1941, several talented local skiers, including the McCrae brothers, Mary Burridge and Marge English, were filmed on Mount Revelstoke for the tourism film Beautiful British Columbia. Heavy camera equipment was dragged to the top of the mountain on sleds. Skiers were photographed skiing deep powder set against the magnificent backdrop of the Columbia River Valley. The cast wore thick wool sweaters that they had to return right after filming.

Skiers of Revelstoke not only summited Mount Revelstoke but also toured the surrounding mountains in the Selkirk and Monashee ranges. Bob Lymburne, always a pioneer, achieved the first ski ascent of Revelstoke’s signature peak, Mount Begbie (elevation 2,732 metres/8,963 feet) in May 1932. Mount Begbie’s magnificent double summit and extensive north-facing glacier can be seen from all aspects in town. He described his ascent in an article for the Canadian Alpine Journal:

“I left Revelstoke at 4 a.m. and was fortunate in striking good traveling. It was not necessary to gain much altitude before putting on my skis. Not knowing how long it would take to reach the summit, I set a very fast pace. On reaching the foot of the glacier I was surprised to find that it was just 8 a.m. I enjoyed the wonder ski-ing that is you be had on the long, smooth slopes of the glacier.

After two hours ski-ing on the glacier, I halted and enjoyed my lunch. this consisted of raw eggs, oranges and raisins which, in my opinion, forms the most satisfactory lunch for strenuous exercise.

Lunch over, I continued upward to the highest peak. In places there were crevasses four feet in width, thousands of feet in length and so deep that I could not see the bottom. The safe passage of these was much facilitated by the fact that  I was wearing skis.

Climbing to the last pinnacle, I was forced to remove my skis as it was necessary to hack out holes in the ice with my ski poles, in order to get a foot hold. The ice-walls were exceedingly steep and I had to go very carefully as a misstep would have led to a two thousand-foot fall. Before attempting the last bit, I sized up the situation very carefully and convincing myself that I could complete the climb, reached the summit at 1 p.m.

After a good look at the surrounding country which could be seen for miles, I started to descend about 2 p.m. After many wild, swift rides down the mountain side, the valley was reached and I arrived at Revelstoke the same evening at 6 p.m.”

***

First Tracks, the History of Skiing in Revelstoke, is due out in early December. Pre-orders can be made at the Revelstoke Museum & Archives or by calling 250-837-3067. The book is $40 inc. HST if ordered before Dec. 1, and $45 inc. HST afterwards.

 

 

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