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REVIEW: Mount Assiniboine—The Story

Chic Scott's new work, Mount Assiniboine — The Story is a sweeping, presentation-style book with more than 100,000 words and 382 photos
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Mount Assiniboine—The Story is a new book that explains the area’s exploration.

It's not the highest mountain in Canada; topping out at 3,618 metres, it ranks only ninth. But is may well be the most beautiful mountain in the country, largely because of its distinct, near-symmetrical, pyramidal shape. That shape inevitably led to comparisons with the Matterhorn and so Mount Assiniboine was dubbed the "Matterhorn of the Rockies."

Remote, even for the largely unexplored wilderness of the Canadian Rockies, the first verifiable sighting of the mountain came in 1883 when George Dawson, a geologist mapping for the Geological Survey of Canada saw it from atop nearby Copper Mountain. Legend has it he named it in honour of the Assiniboine tribe because, "... the peak with its plume of snow and cloud resembled a teepee with smoke coming out of the vent at the top." Three years later, Dawson's map of the area was the first to officially show Mount Assiniboine.

While there is evidence to conclude the first non-indigenous person to, "... have passed within viewing distance..." of the mountain was likely Sir George Simpson, Governor of the Hudson's Bay Company, when he was making his epic trek across Canada in 1841, and, of course, there was physical evidence of indigenous presence near the base of the mountain, such is the importance of written history.

All this is revealed in Chic Scott's wonderful new work, Mount Assiniboine — The Story. In a sweeping, presentation-style book, Scott weaves more than 100,000 words and 382 photos — many never widely seen  — through 325 pages that describe the "discovery", exploration, conquest, development and popularity of Mount Assiniboine.

Epic in scope, the book was something Scott had mused about for over a decade, having discussed the notion with Barb Renner who, with husband Sepp, operated Mount Assiniboine Lodge for 27 years between 1983 and 2010 and whose photos appear generously throughout the stories of the Lodge's growth period.

But it was conversations with Barb's son, Andre — who grew up at the Lodge with his two sisters and who now operates it on the back side of a 20-year lease from BC Parks with partners, Claude Duchesne and his wife Annick Blouin — that set the stage for Scott's deep dive into the mountain's history. With personal history, Scott, who set out to climb the mountain in 1965 but was turned back by weather and 'settled' for spending a week with local legend Lizzie Rummel, and finally was able to make the first winter ascent of Assiniboine two years later, found himself with a clear calendar and the chance to write a book he'd longed wanted to write.

It seems apropos Andre, Claude and Scott put their heads together three years ago and got this project off the ground. Since the beginning, the story of Mount Assiniboine has been a family affair. Since the early years of Arthur Oliver (A.O.) Wheeler, who was the Commissioner for British Columbia in 1913 when the province, Alberta and the federal government decided to survey and set the boundary between the two western provinces, the mountain's story has been one of family, if not nuclear than certainly extended.

Wheeler, who in 1906 founded the Alpine Club of Canada, was an Irish immigrant whose life was inexorably tied to the Rockies and Mount Assiniboine. It was through his efforts the BC government created Mount Assiniboine Park in 1922. The exploits of Wheeler and his 'family', his team of surveyors, his Alpine Club cohorts, his Walking and Riding Tours of the area, planted the seed for everything that followed.

Scott's tireless research puts readers there, throughout the mapping and development of what would be named, in 1984, a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of its, "exceptional and universal value..."

In researching the book, Scott uncovered an historical anomaly. While it was always thought the Lodge dated to 1928, it turned out it had been built a year earlier by the Canadian Pacific Railroad, whose efforts to bring tourists west on its rails spurred much of the interest and development in the Rockies. So anxious was the CPR to give reasons for people to travel west, they built the lodge prior to securing a lease from the government to do so.

It was delving into the records of another Mount Assiniboine pioneer, Erling Strom, a Norwegian who, along with the Marquis degli Albizzi, brought skiing to Assiniboine in 1928, discovering the Lodge already standing.

Strom stayed for half a century and ran the Lodge like it was his own. It was a rich 50 years with a cast of characters from cowboys —  Chuck Millar, Charlie Hunter, Al Johnston — who led guests and ferried supplies to the Lodge by horseback, to pilot Al Gaetz who first utilized a plane's horsepower for the job, to an Austrian who would go on to leave his mark on the development of mountain recreation in BC: Hans Gmoser.

The Renners succeeded Strom, raised their three children at the Lodge, made endless improvements and had endless battles with the bureaucrats in Victoria who considered Mount Assiniboine's attractions neither fish nor foul since it was situated in BC but largely accessible from Alberta, which meant it was Albertans and Alberta companies who derived the lion's share of revenue from tourists anxious to visit the area.

The Lodge's history is brought up to date with Andre, Claude and Annick who, after much effort finally were awarded a 20-year lease from the government in 2010 and a commitment to rebuild the Lodge to more modern standards.

It's a storied history of a remarkable part of a remarkable province that, until the advent of airplane and helicopter access was a three-day trek, a two-day horse ride or an unknowable ski-in given weather best described as capricious — for example, the log from 1933's summer operation reads, "Last storm of winter '33 occurred July 19. First snowstorm of '34 on August 2."

Richly filled with remarkable photographs, it's a book that will have pride of place in the library of anyone with a love of mountains. And there's only one place you can get it — directly from the Lodge.