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Thursday, October 2, 2014

8 Fascinating Facts About Mount Robson: Monarch of the Canadian Rockies (B.C.)

Note: This blog post has also been printed as a series of articles in 
The Rocky Mountain Goat News which serves the Robson Valley. 

Many men are taller and stronger than their king, yet they cannot match a good king for his authority, his majesty or the respect he commands. As with men, so with mountains.

Mount Robson is not the tallest peak in the world, or the continent, or the country…or even the province. But it does indeed command authority and respect, its sheer vertical pre-eminence providing a jaw-dropping, soul-enthralling sight. As Milton and Cheadle recorded in 1865: “On every side the snowy heads of mighty hills crowded round, whilst, immediately behind us, a giant among giants, and immeasurably supreme, rose Robson’s Peak”.

Growing up in the small town of Valemount, just twenty minutes south of this mountain, I was always fascinated with Robson and the provincial park surrounding it. I remember the specific bend in the Yellowhead highway where we could first see its stunning rugged outline on a sunny day. Though not a climber, I hiked to Kinney and Berg Lakes many times and drank in the wonder of nature, one time even staying in the ranger cabin on the far side of Berg Lake as my friend’s dad was a Park Ranger (He made us spaghetti that night).

So it is with great delight that I attempt to put together a few geographic and historic facts that will help others appreciate this mighty peak. Most residents of the Robson Valley will likely know most if not all of this information already but I hope they too will enjoy this little blog along with folks who have not yet known the magic of Mt. Robson! 

#1 The Peak 

At 3,954 metres ( 12,972 ft), Mt. Robson is not the tallest mountain in Canada or even British Columbia; it is however the tallest peak in the Canadian Rockies mountain range and by far the most spectacular mountain in the province to behold.  It is part of the Rainbow Range of the Rockies and is the second tallest peak in B.C. behind Mt. Waddington of the Coast Mountains.

However, there are many factors that set Mt. Robson apart from other taller summits. For instance Mt. Robson is classified as an Ultra Prominent mountain and is ranked as the 119th most prominent mountain in the entire world and the single most prominent in the North American Rockies Range.  So what does that mean? defines Prominence as: “the vertical distance between a peak and the lowest contour line surrounding that peak and no higher peak. You can visualize this by saying that if you flooded the world to a level where the peak in question was the highest peak on an island, its height above the water is it's prominence”.

Southeast face
North face

And, in addition to its stunning appearance, it has (from Kinney Lake) almost 3,000 metres ( 10,000 ft) of pure vertical ascent – something that “few mountains anywhere in the world can claim to offer”. It is also considered one of the most challenging mountains to climb (a mere 10% success rate) due to it’s vertical ascent, unexpected changes in weather, avalanches, ice and rock fall etc. 

                        #2 The Name

The Texqakallt were the first known inhabitants of the Upper Fraser area, they were nomadic and a band of the Shuswap people. They built lodges and fish drying racks near the confluence of the Fraser and McLennan rivers.  Their name for the mighty peak was “Yuh-hai-has-kun”, meaning The Mountain of the Spiraling Road which referred to the strata-like layers of the mountain that angle upwards to the East.

Spiral Lines on Mt. Robson

The modern name of Robson was most likely, though not certainly, linked to Colin Robertson, a Scotsman who worked for both the North West Company and Hudson’s Bay Company. One theory suggested in the book Mount Robson: Spiral Road of Art is that Tete Jaune ( Yellow Head or Pierre Bostonais) named the peak after Mr. Robertson who was his employer at the time in 1819. It is worth noting that the original location of Tete Jaune Cache was near the Grand Fork of the Fraser River where it was met by the Robson River (Milton & Cheadle).

The first reference to a name for the mountain is found in the diary of fur trader George McDougall in 1827 – he referred to it as Mt. Robinson. Then, in 1863, Milton and Cheadle, who were crossing the Yellowhead Pass, referred to it as “Robson (or Robson’s) Peak. It is presumed that the name was “carelessly pronounced” and gradually evolved from Robertson to Robson.

Colin Robertson: Library & Archives Canada

Due to its great vertical mass the westerly winds have a difficult time rising up and over Mt. Robson and therefore the summit is often hidden by clouds. Thus another name for it is Cloud Cap Mountain.

                           #3 The Park

Founded in 1913, Mt. Robson Provincial Park is the second oldest park in B.C. and, along with Jasper National Park, makes up a portion of The Canadian Rocky Mountain UNESCO World Heritage site (one of the largest protected areas in the world). It was the tenacity of A.O. Wheeler, an Irish-Canadian and one of the founders of the Alpine Club of Canada, that persuaded the B.C. government to make the Mt. Robson area a protected park.

Within this treasured park, one not only finds the majesty of Mt. Robson but many other wonders not the least of which is the headwaters of the mighty Fraser River. It begins on the Pacific slope of the Continental Divide in the area of Mt. Fitzwilliam and travels 1,375 kilometres to the Pacific Ocean being called “home” to nearly 2.5 million people (63% of B.C.’s population) along the way. The Park is home to four biogeoclimatic zones, valued wetland habitat, 229 species of animals and the historic Yellow Head Pass.

Western Entrance to the Park

Perhaps one of the most singular facts about the park is that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the famed fictional detective Sherlock Holmes, visited the area from Jasper to to Tete Jaune Cache with his wife in 1914 and wrote a poem about it all entitled “The Athabasca Trail”

                   #4 Kinney & Curly 

George Kinney, namesake of Kinney Lake on the Berg Lake Trail, was a Methodist preacher who first saw, in awe and wonderment, the peak of Mt. Robson in 1907. To scale this mountain became a bit of an obsession with Kinney and in 1909 he headed out on his own to claim the peak before a rumoured group of foreigners could reach it. Along the way he met Donald “Curly” Phillips, a young outfitter with no mountaineering experience – or an ice axe, and decided he would be his climbing companion.

Donald "Curly" Philips, Peakfinder: Courtesy of Whyte Musuem
Eventually the two men, on what would be Kinney’s 12th attempt at the apex, climbed for the top. Amidst a snow storm the two reached what Kinney thought to be the peak and, baring his head,  claimed it in the name of “Almighty God…my own country and for the Alpine Club of Canada”.  The controversy as to whether they had indeed reached the peak simmers to this day although the consensus seems to be that they mistakenly stopped just 60 vertical feet short of it. Much of this controversy is owing to Curly Philips himself who is said to have confessed it after Conrad Kain’s ascent. Some say he was pressured to say it though. At any rate George Kinney was sincere in his belief that he had reached the summit and the two men had accomplished a truly amazing feat:

“No ascent in the history of the Canadian Rockies demanded more sheer guts and determination in the face of hair-raising brushes with death by avalanche, exposure and starvation.” ( Hart 1979)

This was a statement that Conrad Kain, who had great respect for Kinney and Philips, echoed himself. Curly Philips went on to become a renowned outfitter and trail builder in the area and George Kinney continued his ministry, often going to the most remote places where others did not want to go  to care for the people there. At one point he even donated a skin graft to a young girl in Keremeos who had suffered severe burns. He sat next to the girl and comforted her while the doctor removed 24 square inches of skin from his leg with no anaesthetic.

Rev. George Kinney, Peakfinder: Courtesy of Whyte Musuem
“He was a man of God who never pushed religion down anyone’s throat but gently slipped it into conversations. His love of the outdoors, which he referred to as God’s Cathedral, lent itself well to the role of backwoods preacher…he never forgot his Mt. Robson days and always kept an ice axe and climbing boots hanging in his house.” ( Emerson Sanford). 

   #5 Conrad Kain & the Alpine Club of Canada

The first official Mt. Robson camp of the Alpine Club of Canada was in 1911 and included both Kain and Kinney but it was mainly an exploratory mission – although Kain did manage to scale both Whitehorn and Resplendent mountains. In fact Conrad Kain, an Austrian immigrant, made climbs in Europe and Siberia and is credited with 69 first ascents in Canada and another 30 in New Zealand. He is a mountaineering legend in Canada and the world over.

By this time the Grand Trunk Railway, Canada’s second transcontinental rail line, had been built and made reaching the base of Robson much easier. It was A.O. Wheeler ( see #3 The Park) who organized the ACC camp of 1913 and on July 31st of that year Conrad Kain led W.W. (Billy) Foster and Albert McCarthy up the Robson Glacier to the Dome and then guided them up the North East wall ( now known as Kain Face). As they made the arduous climb up to the zenith of the mountain, Kain finally stopped and, as the clouds cleared and revealed that they were on the summit, uttered the famous words “Gentlemen, that’s as far as I can take you.”  

Conrad Kain,

"In all my mountaineering in various countries, I have climbed only a few mountains that were hemmed in with more difficulties. Mount Robson is one of the most dangerous expeditions I have made. The dangers consist in snow and ice, stone avalanches, and treacherous weather."  Conrad Kain

       #6 Phyllis Munday: The First Woman                        To Summit Mt. Robson 

Phyllis Munday ( nee James) was the daughter of a Lipton’s Tea manager and was born in Sri Lanka in 1894. She was also the first woman to reach the peak of Mt. Robson. Her family moved to B.C. in 1901 and she eventually met and married Don Munday in 1920. Together they formed perhaps the most renowned  “power couple” of the mountaineering world.


Above: Phyllis, Edith & Don Munday: Royal B.C. Museum
Across: Phyllis Munday National Stamp

If Don wasn’t smitten with her already, then it surely happened when she rescued him from nearly falling into a glacial crevasse while on a climb. While saving him, she lost her own balance and he in turn held on to her. As Don says “it lent itself readily to being given a romantic aspect”. Then there was the incident in which Phyllis chased a grizzly bear who was chasing Don.  A swiss mountain guide once said of Phyllis that she was “…a strong woman; as strong as any man”. Perhaps even stronger. 

In 1924, on only the third expedition of its kind, Conrad Kain led a group with two women in it to the peak of Mt. Robson. Phyllis was deservedly the first to stand on the peak and in the dialogue of Kathryn Bridge’s book about Phyllis, Conrad clasped her hand in his and said “There, Lady! Here is the top of Mount Robson! You are the first woman on this peak – the highest of the (Canadian) Rocky Mountains.”

Phyllis and her husband are also credited with discovering Mt. Waddington of the Coastal Mountains (The highest peak in British Columbia). In their second year of marriage Phyllis gave birth to their daughter, Edith, and at 11 months carried her to the top of Crown Mountain. In 1972 she received The Order of Canada for her pioneering work in the girl guides, St. John’s ambulance and mountaineering in general. She passed away in 1990, a female legend. 

Phyllis Munday, Blaeberry Alpine Camp 1957

“A lovely woodsy trail, a beautiful lake, an alpine meadow, a ridge and a peak, for all this had been heaven to me while on earth. They are all God’s great gifts to man.” Phyllis Munday

#7 The Hargreaves and Mt. Robson Ranch

There were many hearty guides and outfitters in the Mt. Robson area in the early parts of the 20th century. Among them were notable names like John Yates, Adolphus Moberly (for whom the lake is named), the Otto brothers, Fred Brewster and, of course, Curly Phillips. It is the Hargeaves brothers, specifically Roy and the Mt. Robson ranch, though that this section will focus on. 

The Hargreaves Brothers: Frank, Roy, George, (unknown), Jack, (unknown), 1922-1930, Mount Robson. Credit: Ishbel Cochrane. Valemount & Area Museum

The Mt. Robson Ranch (named so by later owner, Alice Wright) is located across the Fraser River from the mountain and near the CN railway. Roy Hargeaves, a WW1 Veteran,  ran the ranch from the early 1920’s until 1959 and he and his brothers ( Frank, Jack, George and Dick) homesteaded at the Ranch after WW1. In 1927, he constructed the Berg Lake Chalet on Berg Lake now known as the Hargeaves Shelter (restored in 1982 and just recently) where many a weary hiker has sought refuge - including myself! In 1923 Roy married a Jasper school teacher named Sophie Maclean and in 1988 the operation of the ranch was resumed by their daughter Ishbel and her husband Murray Cochrane. 

Bridge over the Fraser River 1915. Photo Credit - Columbia Basin Trust
                  #8 The Berg Lake Trail 

The Berg Lake Trail from the beginning to the Robson pass is a crown jewel for the monarchy of Mt. Robson and is world renowned for its beauty.  It was A.O. Wheeler ( see #3 The Park) who convinced the government to have the trail built and it was our old friend Donald “Curly” Phillips who received the contract to build it. Curly began his trail blazing around 1913 and was well known for the “flying” trestle bridge that he built on the way up the Valley of a Thousand Falls (This was later destroyed and a safer trail made). In 1924 some of the Hargreaves brothers “renovated” the trail up to Kinney Lake.

The flying trestle bridge. Photo credit Alberta On Record

The trail is 22 kilometres with 7 campgrounds and a suspension bridge. It travels from the south face to the north face of Mt Robson and passes Kinney Lake, Whitehorn Mountain, the stunning Emperor Falls and finally winds its way along Berg Lake to the Robson Pass and the B.C. / Alberta border.  It rises 800 metres and crosses through 3 biogeoclimatic zones. At the top , of course, is the beautiful turquoise Berg Lake named for the large chunks of ice that calve from the 3 glaciers that feed the lake and then proceed to float in the lake. This trail also allowed such famous artists as A.Y. Jackson and Lawren Harris of the famed Group of Seven to explore and paint these wonders of nature. 

Copyright Joe Harder 2014. May be stored or copied for personal or instructional use.

"Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever You had formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, You are God. Psalm 90:2"

You May Also Like:

Ten Fascinating Facts on British Columbia's History

6 Fascinating Facts About Kinbasket Lake: Big Bend Country & The Mica Dam Reservoir

5 Fascinating Facts About Kalamalka Lake: Treasure of the Okanagan


The Spiral Road 

B.C. Parks

Valemount & Area Museum


Life of the Trail: Historic Hikes Around Mount Robson and the Sanke Indian River 

"Phyllis Munday" Dundern 2002 by Kathryn Bridge

Alberta On Record;rad

Other Links of Interest: 

Mount Robson Provincial Park site

Explore Mount Robson Facebook Page

Explore Mount Robson Google + Community

"Berg Lake Rap" by local Jordan Barr:


  1. Yes indeed, Keeping history alive. My step grandfather, Closson Otto was on the Berg Lake trail crew.

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