Academic journal article Alberta History

Chasing the Giants

Academic journal article Alberta History

Chasing the Giants

Article excerpt


The search for the fabled giants of the Canadian Rockies, Mounts Hooker and Brown, was the catalyst for Rocky Mountain exploration at the turn of 20th century. The story, (1) at its barest runs as follows:

* On May 1, 1827, Scottish botanist David Douglas ascended a mountain on the west side of Athabasca Pass.

* Later, Douglas would name it Mount Brown; a smaller nearby peak he named Mount Hooker. To these mountains he assigned heights of 16,000 and 15,700 feet respectively.

* The reported extreme elevation of these peaks later drew the attention of a number of Rocky Mountain explorers and alpinists who searched for the elusive peaks.

The three primary searchers were A. R Coleman, John Norman Collie, and Walter Wilcox. Coleman reached Athabasca Pass in 1893 and found no giants. (2) Collie and Wilcox were unconvinced by Coleman's report and searched for the two mountains elsewhere. (3) The frustration of those searches and their disappointing results would later kindle a debate regarding the presumed sources of the misunderstanding that created those 'giants' that still resonates today in the mountain literature.

The debate hinged upon two issues: was Douglas dishonest when he made his claim or was there some honest error in calculation? The major discussion was between two doughty and stubborn mountaineers, J. Monroe Thorington and Arthur O. Wheeler, and occurred in the pages of the Canadian Alpine Journal (CAJ). (4) Thorington was by and large critical of David Douglas, and had the last word against Wheeler, who fought a losing rearguard action in trying to preserve some of Douglas' honour. In the eighty years since that exchange, there has been no definitive reassessment (5) though criticisms of Douglas have softened (6) over the years with some commentators still preferring to restate the debate in terms of a so-called controversy between either a "fraud or an honest mistake." (7)

At the time, neither Thorington nor Wheeler had all the information at hand to make an accurate assessment regarding how Mounts Hooker and Brown achieved their initial exceptional heights. Following this point, all the actors in this story played their roles honestly; in other words there was neither "fraud" (8) nor "error" (9) but rational behaviour with unintended consequences.

The story begins in 1826, about 650 kilometers miles east from Athabasca Pass, where a horse was having a very bad day.

The trail between Forts Edmonton and Assiniboine was muddy and strewn with windfall and brule. For the pack horses, negotiating this ground was terrible as they stumbled, crashed into trees, and sunk into the mud, at times up to their necks. (10) For surveyor Lieut. Aemilius Simpson this would be a disaster as one of the struggling animals was carrying his survey instruments including one delicate piece--a mountain barometer. At Fort Assiniboine, he found its mercury tube to be broken thereby rendering the instrument useless.

Simpson had been hired in 1826 as a hydrographer and surveyor for the Hudson's Bay Company. The man who offered him the job was a distant cousin (by marriage): the formidable Sir George Simpson, Governor of Rupert's Land. Beginning in July of that year, Aemilius Simpson would begin his survey of the transcontinental express route between York Factory on Hudson Bay and Fort Vancouver, near the mouth of the Columbia River. Along the way he would record compass directions, distances, geographical coordinates, and yes, elevations. The loss of the mountain barometer would limit his elevation estimates to one "based upon his general feeling of how far he had climbed from York Factory." (11) At Jasper House, Simpson estimated his elevation at about 13,000 feet and the summit of nearby Roche Miette as being 3,755 feet higher. (12) Near what is today's Jasper townsite, Simpson estimated the height of a nearby mountain as being about 5,900 feet above its apparent base. …

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