A VERY FINE ASCENT
HISTORY OF THE TORONTO SECTION – 1906 to 1956
THE ALPINE CLUB OF CANADA
by: Paul Geddes
Few of today’s Alpine Club of Canada (ACC) members know that the first “Canadian Alpine Club” was founded at the summit of Roger’s Pass in the summer of 1883 by Sir Sandford Fleming. This was before Canadian mountaineering started in earnest there in 1888, after the construction of the CPR railroad and soon after the opening of Glacier House. It is not hard to understand that this first attempt at a Canadian mountaineering organization did not develop to its full potential and it dissolved within a short period of time.
The American Alpine Club (AAC) was founded in 1902 in Philadelphia. For a time after, some Canadian climbers, led by Professor Charles Fay, President of the (AAC), wanted to form a Canadian Chapter of the AAC. Fortunately Canadian sentiments prevailed after Arthur Wheeler was encouraged by the support of Pastor Herdmen, a climber from Calgary. Wheeler had been trying unsuccessfully since 1901 to generate a sufficient level of enthusiasm. Then, late in 1905, Wheeler finally found the driving force he so much needed in Elizabeth Parker. Mrs. H.J. Parker, a writer for the Winnipeg Free Press, was instrumental in putting forth the vision for The Alpine Club of Canada.
The founding of the national organization of The Alpine Club of Canada finally took place at meetings held in Winnipeg on March 27 and 28, 1906. These events are recorded within the one hundred and ninety-six pages of the first annual printing of the Canadian Alpine Journal (CAJ) dated January 1907. Elizabeth Parker served as the new Club’s Secretary for the first two years of its existence and Arthur Wheeler as the Club’s President until 1910. Sir Sandford Fleming became the Club’s first Patron and Honorary President. Fleming lived in Ottawa until his death in 1915, at which time Sir Edmund Walker of Toronto was bestowed with the title of Honorary President until 1924. Both Elizabeth Parker and Charles Fay were made Honorary Members at the March 1906 meeting. Five others were bestowed with this honour, E. Deville of Ottawa, Rev. W.S. Green from Ireland, Colonel Laussedat from France and Norman Collie and Edward Whymper from England
In December 1906, Wheeler made an eastern tour visiting Winnipeg, Toronto, Woodstock, Ottawa and Collingwood (his first home in Canada). In December 1907 Wheeler traveled to London, England to represent the ACC at the Jubilee Celebrations of The Alpine Club (AC) where he received an Honorary Membership in the AC. At the time, there were already one hundred and sixty-eight mountaineering clubs worldwide.
The National Club enjoyed the support of the railways who extended special fares to ACC members traveling to the Club’s climbing camps. The Canadian Government granted $1,000. each year to the Club in recognition of its promotion of Canadian mountaineering until 1930 when this funding was cut. The Governments of Alberta and British Columbia also provided grants to the Club in its formative years. At the first General Mountaineering Camp (GMC) in July 1907, several mountain outfitters provided their services without charge. With this kind of support the membership in the ACC swelled from seventy-nine in March 1906 to four hundred within two years.
However, the history of the ACC and Toronto climbers goes back even further than 1906. The founding members of the ACC had all been active in mountaineering long before the 1906 meetings. Many of the early Canadian climbers in eastern Canada belonged to The Alpine Club founded in London in 1857 and/or the Appalachian Mountain Club founded in Boston in 1878 by Charles Fay. Prior to the railway being completed in 1885 it was easier to get to the Alps from Eastern North America than to the Rockies. The first ascent of a Canadian peak over 10,000 feet in elevation goes to a Quebecer by the name of J.J. McArthur. On September 9, 1887, McArthur and his surveying assistant, Riley, ascended the snow and ice slopes of Mt. Stephen located just outside of Field, BC.
The most prominent founding ACC member from Toronto was Arthur Philemon Coleman, a geology professor for over 30 years with the University of Toronto, who climbed in the Canadian Rockies as early as 1884. Coleman’s first noteworthy mountain explorations took place in 1892 and 1893 with climbs near the headwaters of the Saskatchewan and Athabaska Rivers. By 1906, Coleman had been on climbing trips to Norway, France and Mexico, with an ascent there of Orizaba. In 1907 and 1908 he led the first party to explore and attempt Mt. Robson when it was believed that the summit elevation was 13,700 feet. Coleman chaired the 1906 Winnipeg meetings and was elected Eastern Vice-President. There were several founding members there from Toronto.
Many other Torontians joined during the first year’s GMC held in July 1906 at Yoho Pass. A total of one hundred and twelve people were in camp that first summer. Fourteen years later the GMC would revisit this site in order to celebrate the Victory Camp after five years of war.
In April of 1910, the Toronto Star recorded the forming of the Toronto Section with “Mr. Coleman as Chairman, John Kay as Vice-Chairman, John Watt and Frank Yeigh as Councillors and C.B. Sisson of Victoria College as Secretary.” By this time local Sections had started up in three other Canadian centres: Winnipeg, Calgary and Vancouver and Foreign Committees in New York and London. The purpose of the local sections was, where feasible, to conduct the business of the Club through the chairmen and secretaries of the local sections.
By 1910 Coleman had become the second President of the Club and served in this position until 1914. The membership in the Club by 1911 was six hundred and fifty members. Wheeler visited the Toronto Section during the winter of 1910. That same year Coleman published his popular narrative, The Canadian Rockies New and Old Trails. In the summer of 1915 and 1916, Coleman made the long journey into the Torngat Mountains of Labrador, making several first ascents. Several CAJ articles record Coleman’s adventures. In 1930, Coleman was awarded with an Honorary Membership in the Club. Coleman continued his association with the Club into the 1930’s and wrote several articles for the CAJ. Mount Coleman 3135m in the Canadian Rockies was named in 1898. Coleman died in 1939 at the age of 87. Coleman remained a bachelor. In 1941 his manuscripts were donated to the Victoria College library in Toronto by his sister Helena.
Two founding members, W.S. Taylor and John D. Patterson attended the 1906 meetings in Winnipeg from Woodstock, Ontario. Taylor went as a delegate and Patterson subsequently became very involved in the Club. At the March 1906 meeting Paterson donated $25.00 to the Club and became one of its first Associate Members. Patterson was a skilled mountaineer who volunteered as an amateur leader at the earliest GMC’s. By 1908, Patterson had taken over from Coleman as the Club’s Eastern Vice-President. In July 1911, Patterson was responsible for running the Sherbrooke Lake GMC attended by one hundred and fifty participants and for organizing the Club’s Annual General Meeting (AGM).
Patterson served on the “Adviser Committee” for the years 1912 to 1914. In 1914 Patterson took over the Presidency of the ACC from Coleman and held the position through the difficult years of the First World War. In 1915, eighty ACC members were in active wartime service. In August 1921, as Past President and for many more years after, Patterson attended the summer GMC’s.
Frank Yeigh, who lived on Spadina Avenue in Toronto, attended the 1906 Yoho Camp and wrote a lengthy account of the Camp for the first issue of the CAJ. Yeigh, an author donated a copy of his 1910 work, Through the Heart of Canada, to the ACC library. Yeigh served on the “Adviser Committee” of the Club for the years 1908 to 1912. In 1908, the first recorded gathering of ACC members living in the Toronto area took place at the home of Yeigh. Yeigh’s frequent articles in The Toronto Star helped to promote the Club in those early years.
John Kay took over from Coleman as Chairman of the Toronto Section for a short period in 1912 and was followed in the role by John Watt in 1913, Frank Yeigh in 1914 and C.B. Sissons in 1916. Sissons who was a founding Club member became the Section’s first Secretary. R.A. Grey took over as Secretary in 1914 and became Chairman in 1920. Sissons attended the early GMC’s and at the 1911 camp assisted in a three day expedition on the Waputik Icefield. During these early years of the Toronto Section there was a strong connection with the University of Toronto, several of the Section executive chairs and secretaries had their working careers there.
In the fall of 1918, an ACC Photographic Committee was established with J. Addison Reid representing the Toronto Section. Over the next decade the Club built up a collection of 1400 lantern slides which were available for loan to the Sections and members.
In April of 1921, the ACC started to publish The Gazette as a means of keeping the members informed about the activities of the Club and local Sections. The membership fees were $5.00 and would increase in 1923 to $10.00. Life Membership was $50. and increased in 1923 to $100. Overseas members paid half rates.
The reports on the Toronto Section’s activities detailed the Section’s 1920 AGM held at the Sissons’ home in Oakville. Brigadier-General C.H. Mitchell, ACC Eastern Vice-President, was at the meeting and gave an account of the 1920 GMC held at Mt. Assiniboine and the welcoming home of those who served in the Great War. Twelve ACC members were killed in service including Club President-elect Major Stanley Jones. Mitchell had joined the Club in 1908 and been elected Eastern Vice-President in 1916 prior to going overseas. Mitchell held this position again during 1930 to 1932. From 1930 to 1940 Mitchell also served as the Club’s Honorary Secretary. He died in 1941.
The first meeting of 1921 was held at the Adams’ home with a showing of films on Mt. Robson, Mt. Assiniboine and the Yoho Valley. C.B. Sissons took over as Eastern Vice-President of the Club.
The big news within the mountaineering world in 1921 was the organization of an expedition to explore a route to Mt. Everest. Wheeler’s son, Major Oliver Wheeler, R.E. of the Survey of India, was selected as one of two surveyors, along with Major H.T. Morshead of England, to contribute to this effort. The ground work continued in 1922, reaching an altitude of 27,300 feet.
In 1921 Professor Charles Fay continued to pursue an affiliation between the AAC and the ACC. An Association of American Members was again formed in New York City with twelve founding members. On March 27, 1926 eighty members and guests attended this new Section’s annual dinner. At their AGM in 1930 Dr. J. Monroe Thorington took over as Chairman of the NYC Section with ninety-five members and guests in attendance.
In 1922 the Toronto Section recorded several meetings. The first on February 14 at the Tait’s home, “with lantern slides and moving pictures”. The Section’s annual dinner was held on March 27 (the anniversary of the Club) with a speaker from the CNR. Several outings took place during the summer months including trips to the Niagara Glen and Rockwood. In June, Sir James Outram the author of the book, In the Heart of the Canadian Rockies, visited the Section. The number of Canadian Sections had expanded to seven including Saskatoon, Edmonton, and Vancouver Island and a Foreign Section started up in Minneapolis. At the 1922 Palliser Pass GMC, Captain G.M. Smith was elected Eastern Vice President, and Brig. Gen. C.H. Mitchell, Honorary Secretary both residents of Toronto. Mitchell would later become the Toronto Section Chairperson in the early 1930’s.
1923 was an active year for the Toronto Section. One hundred members attended the February 27 meeting to hear a lecture by Mr. C. Price-Green. A month later a similar number attended the lecture by Major Oliver Wheeler on the 1921 Everest Expedition. The annual dinner was held on April 28, attended by J.D. Patterson and Malcolm D. Geddes*, the latter having relocated to Toronto from Calgary. From 1924 to 1926, Geddes was the National ACC Secretary. He joined the new Huts Committee in 1925. From 1926 to 1928 served as the National ACC Librarian. Geddes often traveled to other Sections to give slide presentations.
The beautiful Clubhouse in Banff which the Club built in 1909 with a capacity of forty continued to draw members from Toronto each summer. During the July 1908 Paradise Valley GMC, attended by one hundred and fifty members, the idea of a new Clubhouse had been on the AGM agenda. Fifty members each donated $10.00 to start the fund raising effort needed to ensure a start to the construction. Three and a half acres of land on the side of Sulphur Mountain had already been leased to the Club by the Dominion Government. The Banff Clubhouse was a focal point for the Club for sixty years before it eventually closed in 1971 due to a change in the National Parks’ policy.
During the years 1924 and 1925, the idea of conquering Mt. Logan, put forth by Arthur Coleman in 1922, came to fruition. Subscriptions totaling $12,790 had been collected by the ACC to cover the cost of the expedition. The first reconnaissance expedition in the summer of 1924, led by Captain Albert MacCarthy, covered 240k from the end of the nearest rail line at McCarthy, Alaska to the base of the mountain. MacCarthy realizing the enormity of the goal, soon began work on the task of organizing a six man preparatory expedition in 1925 with horses and dogs to establish the caches that the climbing team would need at the base of the mountain. After this phase on the project MacCarthy wrote in his trip log, “We had traveled nine thousand and fifty miles under arctic conditions (February. 17 to April 26), and cached eight thousand seven hundred pounds of provisions, feed and equipment where it would be needed by the expedition.” MacCarthy then waited on the Alaska coast in the town of Cordova for the climbing team to arrive by steamer at the beginning of May. Andy Taylor, MacCarthy’s Expedition Supply Manager who had been with MacCarthy through the first two preparatory expeditions was waiting for the team to assembly in McCarthy, where he had lived since 1913. The eight man team consisting of MacCarthy, Taylor, Lambert, Foster, Carpe, Hall, Morgan, Read, Laing set out from McCarthy on May 12 and as planned were soon at the pre-established cache on the glacier. Supplies were moved up to their climbing base camp, but this was still 30k from the final summit.
The Logan Expedition and many more ACC adventures were the riveting events which held the Canadian climbing community together in the days before instant worldwide communications. At the 1925 AGM, MacCarthy was bestowed with a Honorary Membership in the Club. Read Chic Scott’s, Pushing the Limits, published in 2000, for a complete history of Canadian climbing.
The first published (in The Gazette) reference to rock climbing in Ontario by Toronto Section members was the result of a May 29, 1926 outing to The Devil’s Pulpit where some simple rock climbing was done. General Mitchell “mapped a route up the isolated pinnacle with a tricky traverse, but conditions prevented an attempt.”
At the July 1926 GMC in the Tonquin Valley, Wheeler retired as the volunteer Director of the Club. In addition Wheeler had been Editor of the CAJ since 1907. A fund of $2,725. had been collected from the Sections and members and was presented to Wheeler. Wheeler was a colourful character, who in 1910 after twelve years as head of Canada’s topographic survey department for the Canadian Rockies resigned when the Minister of the Interior refused to grant leave for Wheeler to attend the Club’s AGM. Wheeler was made Honorary President of the Club and stayed involved for many more years until his death in 1944.
The 1927 GMC held in Little Yoho Valley was attended by Noel Odell of Mt. Everest fame and one hundred others. Odell delighted the camp with his story of the last 1924 attempt by Mallory and Irving, told in vivid language at the camp fire. Odell continued his association with the ACC by attending other GMC’s. In May 1928, Odell addressed the Toronto Section’s annual dinner and donated copies of two books to the ACC library, The Epic of Everest and The Fight for Everest.
During the 1927, AGM Geddes on behalf of the Huts Committee, gave the report on the progress made on the completion of the Club’s first hut, the Fay Hut in Prospectors Valley. Tragedy struck later in August when Geddes was killed while descending Mt. Lefroy. A twelve minute silent film was made during part of this expedition entitled, Way Up and Back and is available for viewing at the Whyte Museum in Banff.
In the summer of 1928, a memorial cabin to the memory of Geddes was constructed on the grounds of the Clubhouse in Banff. By the 1930’s twelve small cabins (replacing earlier tent cabins) were built beside the main Clubhouse providing additional year round accommodation for thirty members.
At the Toronto Section AGM in 1929 it was decided to provide a replacement of the Club’s flag which had been donated to the Clubhouse in Banff by the Section some years earlier.
Adding to the Fay Hut and the CPR gift of the O’Hara Meadows Hut (Elizabeth Parker Hut), a third hut, The Memorial Hut, was opened in 1930 in the Tonquin Valley. The ACC membership in 1930 was 681, an increase of thirty-five members over 1929. By the early 1930’s skiing had become a Club event, after earlier attempts at using skis in the mountains had failed. The author F.S. Smythe, presented a copy of his new book, “Climbs and Ski Runs” to the ACC library.
And so it went, with the Toronto Section maintaining an active social schedule for over twenty years. The last recorded activities of the Section appear in the June 1932 ACC Gazette and there where no local meetings after 1933. With the aging of the original Toronto Section members, the Section’s sustained involvement in the management of the Alpine Club of Canada ended and the Section dissolved. The Toronto Section had been able to contribute greatly to the mountaineering activities of this early period.
The pressures of the long economic depression and the approaching World War II put an end to the leisure time required to maintain an active Section in Toronto. The GMC’s held each summer in the western mountains continued as the main focal point for the Toronto ACC members.
An account of the ACC’s first fifty years (1906 to 1956) is detailed in the 1956 CAJ in an article by Major Oliver Wheeler, Honorary Member and the son of the Club’s founder Arthur Wheeler.
The activities of the original Toronto Section were closely integrated with the activities of the national organization. The Toronto Section was reformed in 1956 after being dormant for over twenty years. The activities of the Section became much more independent with local climbing development dominating the activities of the majority of the members for the next fifty years (1956 to 2006).
During the early years of World War II, John Brett was exploring the cliffs in the Laurentian Mountains north of Montreal. Condor Cliffs near Val David provided the most challenging climbing. The Montreal ACC members formed their Section in 1943 with John Brett as the first chair. The Ottawa Section followed in 1949 with Col. H.S. Robinson as their first chair.
- CAJ’s 1907 through 1921 and 1933 through 1956
- ACC Gazettes April 1921 through 1940
The Canadian Alpine Journal (CAJ) has been collected by the Toronto Public Library, Reference Department since 1907 and the complete set is available there for research.