Capturing Canada’s highest mountain
In early 1925, Mount Logan, standing 19,550 feet high, had yet to be climbed. That was soon to change.
June 25th, 2023
Joined by naturalist Hamilton Mack Laing, who went to collect specimens, a climbing expedition faced a maze of towering ice blocks & deadly crevasses with only their courage and the primitive climbing equipment available at the time.
Review by Mark Forsyth
In 2019 an image of hundreds of climbers ascending Mount Everest went viral. In recent decades Everest has become a hot tourist attraction that lures underqualified climbers who are ushered to the summit by commercial guides. When storms or avalanches strike, the risks are extreme: eleven climbers, from that photo of hundreds, died on the overcrowded mountain.
Wind the clock back one century. Mount Logan, Canada’s highest peak (19,550 feet or 5,959 metres), had yet to be climbed. Its giant massif is situated in southwestern Yukon hard against the US border; a remote, icy fortress that crowns the highest coastal range on the planet. It took two years of planning, fundraising and caching of supplies for the first successful ascent, completed in 1925. That spring, an international team of Canadian, American and British mountaineers boarded ship in Seattle, sailed north, travelled inland by train to McCarthy, Alaska, and then by foot and pack horse to the Chitina River Valley. This was just the start.
Sponsored by the Alpine Club of Canada, the expedition included Hamilton “Mack” Laing, a naturalist, hunter and writer living in Comox. Raised in Manitoba, he became a school teacher and principal, trained as an artist, and served with the Royal Flying Corps during the First World War. He was a crack shot who collected animal specimens for the Smithsonian Institution and National Museum of Canada; he also wrote more than 700 natural history articles for North American magazines and journals.
Always up for adventure, Laing rode a Harley-Davidson motorcycle named “Barking Betsy” across the continental US in 1915. He also learned how to travel light.
Trevor Marc Hughes shares a passion for motorcycles and has written about his own two-wheeled adventures in BC. It led him to edit a previously unpublished Mack Laing motorcycle memoir about his 1915 journey called, Riding the Continent (Ronsdale, 2019). Hughes’ new book, Capturing the Summit: Hamilton Mack Laing and the Mount Logan Expedition of 1925 (Ronsdale Press $24.95), draws from multiple diaries, journal reports and a groundbreaking National Museum of Canada film that Laing helped shoot on a hand-cranked camera. The Conquest of Mount Logan can be watched on YouTube.
When Laing joined the Mount Logan expedition as naturalist and cinematographer in his early 40s, he was already a wilderness veteran. Contracted by the Department of Mines to collect flora and fauna specimens for the National Museum of Canada, his diaries of the time are filled with highly detailed accounts of shooting, or “securing,” birds and mammals. Most anything that moved was shot. Current sensibilities make this hard to grasp, but in 1925 the Mount Logan region was a virtually unknown biological zone. Orders from the Department of Mines were clear: “Use your time and resources to get as much scientific material as possible.”
Hughes traces Laing’s hunting prowess to life on the Manitoba family farm. “It was with a sense of pride that he took up a rifle at the age of eleven, given the responsibility of pest warden. He learned early on that by getting to know those creatures he hunted, he would be most effective in maintaining this responsibility on the farm. His role as naturalist began with the rifle.”
Once the mountaineering team reached the “edge of timber” at Hubrick’s Camp, Laing handed filming duties off to Allen Carpe, an accomplished mountaineer with the American Alpine Club. Laing stayed behind to collect his specimens and observe animal behaviour, suffering daily windstorms and relentless mosquitoes. His diaries also document individual bird sightings and their calls, including the olive-sided flycatcher with its memorable, “Quick, three beers.” (A bird guidebook is useful to have at hand.) He explored the Chitina Valley area, tracked grizzly bears and mountain sheep, and was on alert for golden eagles known to snatch lambs from nearby slopes.
Laing’s expanding menagerie included Arctic three-toed woodpeckers, porcupines, ground squirrels, pikas and various plants, including orchids in multiple hues. He endeavoured to make friends with a family of young ravens that woke him each morning by sharing offal from skinned animals (the mother already having been collected as a specimen). He oversaw food caches for the returning mountaineers and colourfully called this rearguard role “the tail of the kite.”
Capturing The Summit deftly weaves two compelling stories: Laing’s solo mission as naturalist and the mountaineering team’s attempt on Mount Logan. Archival photos and still images from The Conquest of Mount Logan film help lift the narrative from the valley floor to soaring peaks. We see climbers decked out in multiple layers of wool, snow glasses (to prevent blindness) and snowshoes as they lug heavy pack sacks and drag tons of supplies on sleds to the advance camps. Along the way, the team stab willow wands into the snow every 100 feet to help find their way back, especially difficult during whiteouts. “Thus, the willow wand method was already proving to be beneficial to the mountaineers for finding their way, like the trail of breadcrumbs in Hansel and Gretel,” writes Hughes. It was exhausting work, made all the more difficult as the mountaineers moved into rarefied air. (Oxygen tanks weren’t commonly used at this time.)
Tracing a safe route to the summit and back took 44 days of living on ice and snow. Air mattresses and eiderdown bedrolls helped make it possible. A maze of towering ice blocks and deadly crevasses were constant obstacles as the mountaineers tested the limits of endurance by huddling in tents or burrowing into snow banks to wait out storms, and to endure extreme cold, frostbite, sunburn, and hallucinations. Deputy leader H.F. Lambert of the Geodetic Survey of Canada later described the experience as, “the test of our lives.”
The six mountaineers successfully scaled Mount Logan under extreme conditions, and all returned alive. Careful planning, teamwork and indomitable grit underscored this exceptional achievement, long before satellite phones, high-tech gear and Gore-Tex. Mack Laing’s contributions at the “tail of the kite” as naturalist and cinematographer are notable, too, and later put him on a path to becoming a dedicated conservationist who stalked animals with a camera rather than a rifle. Hughes explores this evolution in the afterword. Laing’s legacy lives on in Comox, where his seaside property is now preserved as Mack Laing Nature Park. 9781553806806
The book is dedicated to Richard Mackie, author of the definitive biography on Hamilton Mack Laing, Hunter-Naturalist (Sono Nis, 1986), and to the late Ron Hatch, publisher at Ronsdale Press, who encouraged Trevor Marc Hughes in his writing projects.
Mark Forsythe is author/co-author of four books and a former host of CBC Radio’s BC Almanac.