and the first ascent of Mount Robson
High on the Emperor Face of Mount Robson, on Friday, August 13, 1909, George Kinney and Donald Phillips awoke to a clear sky. Climbing was excellent on the hard snow above their bivouac, which they figured to be around 10,000 feet. Approaching what he thought was the summit, Kinney stated they were met by a storm “so thick that we could see but a few yards, and the sleet would cut our faces and nearly blind us.” Kinney continued, “When within five hundred feet of the top, we encountered a number of cliffs, covered with overhanging masses of snow, that were almost impossible to negotiate. The snow driven by the fierce gales had built out against the wind in fantastic masses of crystal, forming huge cornices all along the crest of the peak. We finally floundered through these treacherous masses and stood, at last, on the very summit of Mount Robson. I was on a needle peak that rose so abruptly that even cornices cannot build out very far on it.” [Kinney and Phillips 1910]
Kinney had no doubt about the magnitude of his achievement. “I doubt if ever a peak was fought for more desperately, or captured under greater difficulties, than was that of Mount Robson,” he wrote. “Situated in the heart of the Rockies, some fifty miles or more north of the Yellowhead Pass, and hundreds of miles from civilization, the mountain could only be reached by pack-trail after long weeks of strenuous effort, through trackless forest and muskeg, by nameless mountains and raging torrents.” [Kinney and Phillips 1910] “For three long years, expedition after expedition had failed. Climb after climb, up every side of the mountain, had hitherto left that noble peak still unconquered; till hope long deferred, had sapped our courage and left the spirit faint.” [Kinney 1909b]
Four years later, on July 31, 1913, mountain guide Conrad Kain announced to Albert H. MacCarthy and William W. Foster atop Mount Robson, “Gentlemen, that’s so far as I can take you.” [Kain 1915] MacCarthy and Foster thought this meant that their attempt had failed; then realized that they were but two steps shy of the summit and could complete the ascent on their own.
If Kain could take them no further, there awaited at base camp a person who could: Donald Phillips. Philips was catering a special mountaineering camp organized by Arthur O. Wheeler, director of the Alpine Club of Canada. The fifty-odd camp attendees had arrived at Mount Robson Station on the virgin tracks of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway, and were carried to Robson Pass over Phillips’s newly-completed horse trail. Pressed by the crowd, Foster and MacCarthy related the details of their climb. “When the tale was finished,” camp attendee Elizabeth Parker recounted, “Curly Phillips, who had listened eagerly, went up to Mr. Foster and said: ‘We didn’t get up that last dome.'” Parker asked Phillips how high that dome was. “Between sixty and seventy feet.” [Parker 1914]
George Rex Boyer Kinney was born in New Brunswick in 1872. Following his father, he became a minister of the Methodist Church, serving briefly in Nova Scotia and Manitoba before filling temporary positions in Banff, Alberta, and Field, British Columbia. [Mortimore 1950] In Field he investigated the fossil beds on Mount Stephen: “With hammer and chisel, I opened Nature’s book, and there, page after page, were trilobites of rarest form.” In October, 1904, at the age of 32, Kinney made a solo ascent of Mount Stephen, a feat recorded in the first volume of the Canadian Alpine Journal [Kinney 1907]. CAJ editor Arthur Wheeler remarked, “Never before or since has the climb been made by one man alone, and at a time of year when the conditions are such as to be almost prohibitive.”
Kinney was one of the 79 original members of the Alpine Club of Canada. The member’s list gives his residence in 1907 as Michel, B.C. [Alpine Club of Canada 1930]. (Michel as a settlement is not listed in the current Gazetteer of British Columbia; but Michel Creek is near Crowsnest Pass.) In addition to ascents of Mount Stephen and Mount Vice-President, the 1907 membership list credits Kinney with a number of climbs between 8,000 and 10,000 feet in vicinity of Crowsnest Pass. Kinney later wrote that he had also climbed mounts Aberdeen, Temple, Pinnacle, and Fay. [Kinney 1909a]
At the ACC’s first annual general meeting and mountaineering camp, in the Yoho Valley in 1906, Kinney assisted in guiding nine club members to the top of Mount Vice-President, the club’s first official climb. (In the early years, members graduated to the active class after making an ascent above 10,000 feet.) [Bridgland 1907] Kinney also attended the 1907 camp in Paradise Valley near Lake Louise, where he was “one of the gentlemen placed in responsible positions as guides to various ascents and expeditions.” [Bridgland 1908] (He apparently missed the camps in 1908 at Rogers Pass and in 1909 at Lake O’Hara. In 1910 at Consolation Valley, Kinney was again an assistant, but afterwards he is not mentioned. [Canadian Alpine Journal 1910])
Kinney presided over a congregation at James Bay in Victoria in 1907 when he was asked to join Arthur P. Coleman, also a founding member of the ACC, and his brother Lucius, a rancher at Morley, Alberta, in an attempt on Mount Robson. [Mortimore 1950] (Kinney may have met Coleman through the intercession of W. Lashley Hall, custodian of Ebenezer Robson’s diaries. [Hall 1934]) Coleman, a professor of geology at the University of Toronto who had been exploring the Canadian Rockies since 1884, was being pressed by Wheeler to conquer Mount Robson in the name the Alpine Club of Canada before a foreign team claimed the prize. [Parker 1914] Kinney’s father came out of retirement to take over the congregation and “caused a great revival.”
Kinney left Morley, Alberta, at the end of July, and a week later met the Colemans at Laggan (now Lake Louise). The group followed a route close to that of the current Icefields Parkway, running into Mary Shäffer in a blizzard at Wilcox Pass. Coleman was “disgusted to find the upper Athabasca valley burnt and the trail ruined by falled trees during the years since we had been there before [1892 and 1893]; but the promised land was now in sight after our long battle with outrageous trails, and we should soon be on the well-beaten road used by hundreds of packers and railway engineers on their way from Edmonton to the Tête Jaune Cache.” [Coleman 1911] It was September when they first sighted Mount Robson. “Oh what a glorious sight he was that day we first saw him,” Kinney wrote. “There, buttressed across the whole valley and more, with his high flung crest manteled with a thousand ages of snow, Mount Robson shouldered his way into the eternal solitudes thousands of feet higher than the surrounding mountains.” The next day Kinney and Lucius set out separately to seek a climbing route while Dr. Coleman was confined to camp after cutting his knee with a geological hammer. Kinney discovered the lake named after him, and the Valley of a Thousand Falls, which he named. “Eleven thousand feet of frowning cliffs and battlements rose in sheer masses out of the lake; countless tortuous ravines, gushing with many a fountain jet, scarred and chasmed the mountain’s base on every hand: while fleecy clouds drowsily nestled in the sheltered niches of every high flung shoulder. Such was the wonder world that I discovered that day, when as the first white man I explored the base of Mount Robson.” [Kinney 1909a]
The group attempted a climb above Kinney Lake, but “in the morning more than a foot of snow had fallen. Our last glimpse of Robson showed clouds driving past a vast cone of white, broken in the lower parts by bands of nearly horizontal cliff; and then we turned up the Fraser valley and saw no more of the fascinating peak that had cost us so much toil.” [Coleman 1911]
The trio was back at it in 1908, departing from Edmonton with the assistance of packer John Yates of Lac Ste. Anne, Métis guide Adolphus Moberly of Jasper, and “a party of Indians, including men, women, children, and dogs, with a mob of ponies.” On Moberly’s recommendation they ascended the Moose River valley to Moose Pass, descended Calumet Creek to the Smoky River, and followed the Smokey up to the foot of the Robson Glacier. “Rain fell in the valley and snow on the heights day after day,” Coleman wrote, “making a heart-breaking delay after our last year’s experience; and as the upper part of the mountain was shrouded there was nothing to do except map the surroundings and get things ready for a start. Every morning I rose at 3:30 to look at the weather, and then turned in again when the upper part of Robson was invisible.” Two attempts were frustrated by bad weather and early snowfalls. “It was September 9th, and to all appearances our chance of reaching the top of Robson was over; but Mr Kinney, with immense pluck and well-justified in his powers as a climber, wanted to make one more effort, this time by a new route which he had been planning, attacking the mountain from the north-west side instead of the east, where we had met the difficulties of hanging glaciers. My brother thought for a time of joining him, but the effort seemed so hopeless that he gave it up, and Mr. Kinney set out alone. It seemed a foolhardy thing to do, but we knew that our friend was used to working alone and was at his best when depending on himself.” [Coleman 1911]
“All day it stormed,” wrote Kinney, “but as I thought it was our last chance at the mountain, at four o’clock that afternoon I said goodbys to my companions, and with a fifty pound pack on my back started off alone into the storm. I crossed the gravel beds of the big Robson River, then scrambled for another mile over the great boulders that strewed the shores of Berg Lake. The short day was nearly done by the time I had passed over the rock-strewn floor of the valley below the lake and crossed its turbulent river. Then for a thousand feet and more, I packed that load of blankets to a shelf on a cliff in mid air. I had no fire, for the tree-line was far below. I ate in silence my cold goat meat, and drank the drip of the icicles from the cliff. Then night swallowed up the surrounding mountains and valleys, and the great storm clouds swept in ragged tatters all about me as I rolled up in my blankets in the snow. All through all that wretched night, the avalanche awoke the echoes of the hidden hills with din and roar, or the loose rock would clatter down among the canyons. By the first light of dawn I was storming the heights. The day had begun fine. But here I met a screaming gale and the wrack of clouds was already burying the distant mountain peaks now on a level with me. That storm was one of the fiercest blasts that I ever met. Three times, while crossing an exposed shale slope on the west, it literally tore me from my footholds and tumbled me over. While there were times when I could not advance a single step against it. For over an hour I waited in the lee of a cliff, hoping the storm would pass. But instead of it subsiding it added the lash of snow to its fury, and whipped around the jutting crags in a foaming swirl of white. I determined to make a desperate attempt, thinking that possibly I could climb above the storm. I worked my way up protected gullies, and left cliff on cliff behind. But the increased storm brought an enemy that completely vanquished me. All the big cliffs had been climbed, and I now had only to scale the smaller ones on the upper slopes of the couloirs, and it was there that my enemy lurked. There were no big glaciers above me, no frowning cliffs of ice to topple debris upon me, but in that blinding blizzard each and every gully became a foaming stream of hissing snow. At first it came in little dribbles, and cliff on cliff was left behind. But soon I was climbing knee deep in rushing torrents of dry kerneled snow. There was no escaping it. I struggled on till I was ten thousand five hundred feet altitude by my anaroyd [sic], but those rivers of snow were becoming avalanches, and to be swept off my feet meant certain death below. It was hard to have to give it up, but wind and snow were too much for me. I would liked to have made a camp there in some sheltered nook, but I had promised my friends to be back that day, so I turned my back on the peak and tried for the valley below.” [Kinney 1909b]
The following evening “the plucky fellow turned up, soaked and defeated, though still in good spirits. He had a thrilling story to tell of his forlorn hope expedition in a howling blizzard at one point well above ten thousand feet as shown by aneroid, he decided that to go farther would be madness, and turned back, facing even worse risks.” They determined to return east the next day, “but with the morning came the finest weather of the season, and we could not resist the temptation to make another assault on Mount Robson, which stood clear cut against the sky without a wreath of vapour.” By five o’clock in the afternoon “we were probably still at least two thousand feet below the top, since one aneroid read 11,300 feet and the other 11,600, while Mr McEvoy’s triangulation gives Mount Robson the height of 13,700 feet [see McEvoy 1900]. It was pretty certain that a night high up on Robson could mean nothing less than frozen limbs, so that idea was given up. Twenty-one days had passed at or near our beautiful camp ground in the grove beside the main glacier, and in that time there had only twice been two fine days in succession.” [Coleman 1911]
“On our way east from Mount Robson,” Coleman continued, “we often talked over the best method of attack on a future occasion, agreeing that perhaps the route most promising of success was that taken by Mr Kinney on his lonely climb up the talus slopes and rock cliffs toward the north-west; and before parting it was agreed with Yates that he should arrange for horses in the following summer if we should join in a third expedition to the unconquered. My brother and I expected to take part in this, but Mr Kinney was able to get off earlier than we could, and learning that he was already on his way up to Mount Robson our plan was given up.” [Coleman 1911] In English climbing circles, “Kinney’s failure to honor these plans would have been a gross breach of climbing etiquette,” according to Philips’s biographer William C. Taylor.[Taylor 1984]
Kinney stated, “I left the mountain that fall , believing that I had had my last try at it. But by the time the Spring of 1909 had come Mt. Robson had such a hold on me that I could not rest satisfied till I had had another try at it. I then made arrangements with John Yates our packer of the year before, for another trip to Mt. Robson. In May I received word that foreign parties were about to attempt Mt. Robson. Telegraphing Yates that I was starting at once and expected to meet him on the trail, I hurriedly borrowed some money, and the second of June l909, left Victoria for Edmonton to outfit an expedition of my own.” [Kinney 1909b]
“On Friday, June 11th,” Kinney wrote in the report of his climb published in the Canadian Alpine Journal [Kinney and Phillips 1910], “with only two dollars and eighty-five cents in my pocket, but with three good horses packed with three months’ provisions, I started off alone (from Edmonton) for Mt. Robson, hoping to pick up someone on the trail to share fortune with me.” Even the few dollars in his pocket were not his own: “I must say,” Kinney wrote Club president Arthur Wheeler, “that the little trouble I had at Calgary on going in was a little embarrassing. I had counted however on being able at least to borrow that $100 grant. It turned out that another $100 that I had counted on arriving at the Merchants Bank, Edmonton, did not get there. Fortunately I was able to get a friend to endorse my note for 3 months so I was able to get a third horse I needed. I borrowed over $400 for this trip,” Kinney concluded, “but since it was successful I should be able to meet all obligations.” [Alpine Club of Canada 1906-1924]
The foreign party that worried Kinney were British mountaineers Arnold L. Mumm, Geoffrey Hastings, and Leopold S. Amery, along with Mumm’s personal Swiss guide Moritz Inderbinen. So prestigious was this group that the executive committee of the ACC set about raising funds “so as to have a club house in which to properly entertain the British climbing party coming out to visit us next summer” (the Banff club house was completed in time). [Alpine Club of Canada 1906-1914]. “Mumm and I knew,” wrote Amery, “that that magnificent peak, Mt. Robson, the highest summit in the main chain of the Rockies, had never been climbed, though once or twice attempted, and we were anxious to have a try at it before the building of the Grand Trunk Pacific made it generally accessible. A rumour that an American party had designs on it made us all the more anxious to pull it off that year if we could.” [Alpine Club of Canada 1913] (The American party was a group of prospectors whose plans did not include an ascent of Mount Robson [Washburn 1912].)
Kinney was delayed near Jasper by high water in the Athabasca River. “Never in the memory of the Indians along the Athabaska was there such a flood. Forests were swept away, and new river channels were made while scores of new mountain torrents swept great rocks thousands of feet out on the grassy meadows of the valleys.” [Kinney 1909b] Nevertheless, Kinney forged on, swimming and rafting the rivers while the prospectors “and even a couple of small parties of Indians” waited for the waters to subside. Twice he picked up companions who could not keep his pace, and on July 11 he reached John Moberley’s homestead, near Jasper, alone.
“The next day Donald Phillips rode into camp. On the side of his Stetson hat was the silver badge that bore the legend of the Guide Association of Ontario. At twenty-five years of age, that blue-eyed, curly headed clean-lived Canadian entered that little frontier scene, perfectly fit for the undertaking I had in hand. We were soon exchanging confidences.” [Kinney 1909b] Phillips had come to Jasper from Ontario earlier that year to start an outfitting and guiding business. [Taylor 1984] “The next day we swam our horses across the Athabaska, and hit the trail for Mt. Robson.”
Following the Moose River, they arrived at the foot of Mount Robson 14 days later. Twenty days of bad weather confined the climbers below 11,000 feet, although they made three grueling attempts, spending the night at “Camp Higher Up” at 10,000 feet on the west shoulder of Mount Robson. Their provisions were nearly depleted (Kinney had bent the barrel of his rifle fording a river) when a clear day dawned. That evening they bivouaced at 10,500 feet. At sunrise the next morning, August 13, “we faced the cold wind and stormed the cliffs. From the eleven thousand foot line, snow covered everything, but on that early frosty morning it was in the finest of climbing condition. We could stick our toes into it and walk right up. The dense clouds of mist soon covered our hair and clothes with a frozen mass of ice. As we saw that the clouds did not bring the dreaded snow we angled off toward the South and headed for the highest point of the peak, of which we caught glimpses now and then. The last few hundred feet of the peak were the hardest of all. The snow was too dry and frosty to hold well. Cliffs of rock, with great over-hanging bunches of snow cornice, were numerous and most difficult to scale.
“All the time we spent at Mt. Robson, the winds were west or southerly, and near the peak we found that those prevailing winds had driven the snow against the rocks, and that great over-hanging masses of most fantastic crystalline formation had built right out against the wind. These were so dry and powdery that it was very hard to get along. Twice we had to climb almost vertical couloirs.
“At the very peak we found its razor edge ridge and needle point fringed with a battlement of these snow masses that were almost impossible to climb.
“Finally, floundering through those treacherous masses, we stood at last on the very summit of Mt. Robson. I was astonished to find myself looking into a gulf right before me. Telling Phillips to anchor himself well, for he was still below me, I struck the edge of the snow with the staff of my ice axe, and it cut through to my very feet. Through that little gap that I made in the cornice, I was looking down a sheer wall of precipice that reached to the glacier at the foot of Berg Lake, thousands of feet below.
“We were nearly frozen, and had to get down out of the wind. The return trip was far more difficult and dangerous than the climbing up. We worked our way over the snow-corniced ledges, and through the snows of the upper peak. Then a few hundred feet below we made a cache of our records, and the Canadian flag, kindly donated by Mrs. Dr. Anderson, of Calgary, in a natural cairn.”
The ascent had taken five hours; the descent to 10,500 feet another seven. They hit the trail the next day. “Our trip to Mt. Robson had been a strenuous one, for there was something doing all the time. I visited old discoveries and made new ones. Of the twenty-three big climbs, four of them were two-day climbs, during which we spent over ninety hours above snow-line, and slept for four nights on the cold bleak cliffs of his upper slopes. And we captured five virgin peaks. ”
The British party ran into Kinney and Phillips at Moberley’s. “We heartily congratulated Mr. Kinney on a triumph won by such stubborn determination and such remarkable pluck. After all, the American peril had been averted.” [Amery 1910] Amery later wrote, “The fact that they apparently did not quite reach the actual summit should not detract from the credit due to one of the most gallant performances in modern mountaineering history.” [Amery 1940] Before leaving England, Amery had cabled his brother Harold at Khartum to join their expedition. Harold caught up with the main party as it neared Mount Robson, “with three packers, a dozen ponies and substantial reinforcements of supplies. He had found my cable at Khartum on returning from a 1200 mile camel ride in Darfur and had made a bee line for Robson via Alexandria, Marseilles, London, Quebec, and Edmonton, taking that way round the world in preference to the alternative of Port Sudan-Yokohama-Vancouver, as his climbing boots and axe were in my chambers in the Temple. After so spirited a performance he naturally longed to have a go at Robson at once. But we were already four on the rope, one too many for rapid movement.”[Amery 1910] Amery, Mumm and Hastings made several attempts on Mount Robson but were thwarted by bad weather and barely missed being caught in an avalanche.
Kinney noted, “Some of the members of the British Alpine party that I met on my way out after climbing the peak August 13, l909, claim they could see Mt. Robson from near the Yellowhead pass. But I have passed along the trail on six different trips (going and coming), and though I anxiously searched for a view of Mt. Robson in the finest of weather I always failed to see it till I swung up the Grand Forks within ten or twelve miles of it; or up the Smokey within the same distance on the East.” [Kinney 1909b]
On September 6, “With clothes artistically patched, and my feet all blistered,” Kinney arrived in Edmonton “to find the city gay with bunting, and a banner that bore the legend ‘Welcome to our town,’ but I found that I was only an ordinary chap, back again to the every day world, and that the city was giving honor to Lord Strathcona, and that Peary and Cook were monopolizing the public interests in the world of discovery.”
Kinney’s achievement did make the front page of the 11 September issue of The Banff Crag and Canyon : “Mount Robson, the highest peak in the Rockies, has been conquered by Dr George Kinney, a retired clergyman from Keremos, B.C. Dr Kinney reported his success in Edmonton on Tuesday, and left at once for Winnipeg”.[Crag and Canyon 1909]
Kinney was approached by Wheeler for conclusive evidence of his climb. “It was impossible to build a cairn on the peak of the mountain. Deep snow effectually buried what little rock is there I carried with great difficulty and risk my camera all the way to the peak but I was utterly unable to use it for a storm was on and so dense that I couldn’t get results. I have three or four cairns on the mountain, one I built on a ridge at right angles to the main peak and about 100 ft below. It was positively the first place below the peak or the nearest to the peak where I could build one, and that was a natural cairn. A chunk of cliff 3 or 4 ft high by 2 ft so wind-swept that I could get no loose rock excepting two or three as big as my fist in cracks. But a split in its side offered a splendid place to make my cache containing flag and card, which I wedged in with the loose rocks.” Kinney offered to furnish certificates “signed by a number of witnesses including the names of Amery and Hastings of the British party that met near the Yellowhead Pass on my return, as they were going in to the mountain. These state that they met Mr. Phillips & I on our way out and that we claimed to be just returning from a successful climb to the very top of Mt. Robson. I do not know what better evidences I could have provided and I feel satisfied that they should be conclusive.” Kinney added that “I must say that the little trouble I had at Calgary on going in was a little embarrassing and nearly proved ruinous to me as far as the trip was concerned though certainly no one could be blamed but myself. I had counted however on being able at least to borrow that $100 grant. It turned out that another $100 that I had counted on arriving at the Merchants Bank, Edmonton, did not get there. Fortunately I was able to get a friend to endorse my note for 3 months so I was able to get a third horse I needed. I borrowed over $400 for this trip but since it was successful I should be able to meet all obligations. P.D. McTavish and some more of the boys very kindly presented me with a cheque for $100 which nicely met that note referred to above.”[Alpine Club of Canada 1906-1924]
Between the Climbs: 1910 to 1912
In March 1910 Arthur Wheeler forwarded $100 to George Kinney, “voted by the Alpine Club as a slight recognition of your feat in making the ascent of Mt. Robson. In sending this I can assure you that we all feel very deeply and appreciate very greatly the credit you have brought to the Club through performing this feat, and we only wish that we were in a position to acknowledge it in a more generous manner. I might say that I have not yet seen any official account of this climb and I am certainly of the opinion that one should appear in some recognized Alpine publication, if only as a matter of record.” [Alpine Club of Canada 1906-1924]
“Words cannot express my gratitude to you and the Alpine Club,” Kinney replied, “for the very generous and hearty way with which you have treated me and I appreciate the spirit of the gift even more than I do its monetary value. Were it not for the fact that my trip of last summer ran my finances to a very low ebb, I would have immediately turned the money back into the treasury of the club for I know how surely money is needed for it.” Kinney also replied to Wheeler’s concern “with reference to my operation.” A school-girl in Keremenos had suffered severe burns, and a skin graft was necessary. Kinney volunteered “to donate the needed cuticle. I sat on the table so that my left leg above the knee would be handy as the little girl was given an anesthetic. She suffered severely in having her wounds dressed and I helped to hold her. When her wounds were ready the Dr. sliced off a few inches of my hide and then grafted it with her wound, repeating this process till he had taken some twenty four square inches off my leg. As I had taken no anesthetic it hurt some while the Dr. was carving me.”[Alpine Club of Canada 1906-1924]
At the ACC’s annual general meeting and camp in 1910 in Consolation Valley, Kinney shared the place of honor with Tom G. Longstaff, a celebrated mountaineer who had explored in the Himalaya. “Rev. George Kinney is with difficulty persuaded to talk of his great Robson achievements. One evening he is made the recipient of a purse from some of the Vancouver members of the club, who took this way of expressing their gratitude to the man who brought glory to the Alpine Club of Canada and performed one of the greatest feats in the whole of history of mountaineering. Congratulatory addresses are given by Mr Wheeler, Dr Longstaff and others. [Alpine Club of Canada 1910] At the meeting Kinney was elected one of three advisors to the ACC, and his residence listed as Keremeos, B.C. [Alpine Club of Canada 1906-1914]
Kinney was invited to lecture before the Canadian Club in Vancouver, the Appalachian Club in Boston, the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C., and the American Museum of Natural History in New York. [Mortimore 1950] In his speech to the Canadian Club, Kinney effused about the economic prospects for western Canada. “It will be only a matter of a few years before we have the great fleets of China and Japan, as well as of the United States and Canada, carrying the commerce of nations across the great Pacific,” he wrote. “I say from my heart we have not yet touched on one of our greatest assets, our wealth of mountain and scenery. We in British Columbia have here many Switzerlands. We should have great parks all along this mountain region. I believe it is to the interest of our nation, not only to British Columbia but to Canada, to protect the game and forests and flora and all such of those great mountain features. I believe that as we appreciate our mountains, as we stand in awe of their grandeur, as we behold their beauties, we may in or hearts become men indeed. They are aids to a better manhood and to nation building.” [Kinney 1913]
In 1911, Wheeler arranged the collaboration of the Smithsonian Institution for a scientific expedition to the Mount Robson region. Conrad Kain of Austria was the expedition guide, Byron Harmon of Banff was the official photographer, and Phillips and Kinney were among the assistants. The expedition circled Mount Robson, but Wheeler allowed no attempts at climbing, to the chagrin of Kain and Kinney. In 1934, after Kain’s death, Kinney wrote to Thorington about the expedition: “I first met Conrad at the meets of the Canadian Alpine Club. Then in 1911 as you know he was our official guide during our Mount Robson expedition. He and I and Byron Harmon had many things in common, and had each been especially promised by Mr. Wheeler, as the main attraction to us, that we should have a chance to climb Mount Robson. Conrad had his own reasons. Harmon wanted photographs, and I wanted pictures that I had failed to get on my climb. We often talked over and planned for that event. The whether (sic) was perfect. We had time on our hands. Day after day we were taken on trips for survey work on peak after peak. But never a word about our climbing Mt. Robson. When I asked Wheeler about it he always sidetracked me with some imminent plan he had. [Kinney 1934] Kain expressed his own reasons: “Ever since I came to Canada and the Rockies, it was my constant wish to climb the highest peak.” [Kain 1913] [Kain 1915]
Kain made a thorough reconnaissance of Mount Robson, “and picked out what he claimed to be the proper route of ascent.” [Wheeler 1912a]. The proper route was on the other side of the mountain from Kinney’s route. “Seen from our point of view, [Kinney’s] route looked impossible, and certainly one of great peril,” Wheeler wrote. “The great wonder is that they returned alive, and, had the day not been cloudy and the snow not remained in good condition throughout it, there might have been a different tale to tell, as the opportunities for avalanching are here excessive. Kinney took a desperate last chance and succeeded.” Wheeler added, “He has been criticized rather severely by practical mountaineers for taking on so extremely dangerous a climb a companion who had no previous experience. Had it been any other man the criticism would hold good, but Phillips is a natural athlete and quite the equal of Kinney as a mountaineer.” [Wheeler 1912b]. In setting Phillips equal to Kinney, Wheeler in effect stated that the Canadian Rockies’ highest peak had been climbed via an impossible route by two novice bushwackers. “Thinking over the situation,” William Taylor surmises, “Wheeler must have considered the slap-dash nature of Kinney’s attempt. It had none of the hallmarks of a carefully planned expedition. Few climbers of any standing would have tried the ascent without a Swiss guide. And here was Kinney, accompanied only by an unknown trail guide. He had neither a reliable witness nor a photograph. No, it was not good enough!” [Taylor 1984]
Wheeler measured the height of Robson to be 13,068 feet, a reduction from surveyor James McEvoy’s 1898 measurement of 13,700 feet. [McEvoy 1900]
As Wheeler noted, criticism of Kinney’s climb was starting to appear. After the 1913 climb, Elizabeth Parker called Kinney’s route “the most dangerous climb ever made in Canada, the upper reaches being by a route that guides and experienced men condemn.” [Parker 1914] Late in 1911, according to Wheeler’s biographer Esther Fraser, word reached Wheeler that “Rev. Mr. Kinney had not reached the actual summit of Mount Robson. It is intriguing to speculate about how the news reached Club officials,” Fraser continues. “Wheeler’s first letter came from Club President Patterson of Toronto. Dr. Coleman and Mumm also conveyed the news to the Club director.” (While writing her book, Fraser had access to Arthur Wheeler’s personal papers, which are in the possession of Wheeler’s grandson.) [Fraser 1978]
Late in 1911, Phillips and Kain, who had become friends during the Smithsonian/ACC expedition, were trapping furs in the wilderness north of Mount Robson. [Phillips 1914] Fraser continues her speculations. “During those days of isolation, Phillips undoubtedly shared his secret. He and Kinney had reached a point within a few yards of the summit in bad weather and it was too dangerous to complete the ascent. Conrad considered their feat remarkable, but would have been reluctant to have it falsely recorded as an official first ascent of the great peak. He may have been the first to write Wheeler about the incident, but this is doubtful. It would be difficult for Wheeler to accept the fact that a man of the cloth, a class traditionally held in the highest esteem by Wheelers, could perpetuate such a deception. More likely Conrad broke the news to some of his good friends in the English Club. Wheeler and Club officials discussed the matter and one senses that Wheeler’s views as to the best solution prevailed: a crack Canadian team under the auspices of the Club must make the ascent and remain discreetly quiet about the previous claim to avoid unfavourable publicity. Immediately Wheeler went to work soliciting the necessary public support and that of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway for the Robson camp in 1913.”
The official first ascent: Kain, Foster, MacCarthy, 1913
William W. Foster, in his report of their 1913 climb, called Mount Robson “a peak which the Club’s executive had determined to make its own” [Foster 1915]. After Kinney’s climb,was it not already was their own?
The team put together by Arthur Wheeler in 1913 consisted of Foster, deputy minister of public works for the B.C. government (whose wife Olive was daughter of George Stewart, the first superintendent of Banff National Park); Albert H. MacCarthy, a retired U.S. naval officer (Foster and MacCarthy were later among the team that made the first ascent of Mount Logan); and the illustrious Austrian-Canadian guide Conrad Kain. They were ferried to the foot of Mount Robson on the Grand Trunk Pacific railway, still under construction in the Yellowhead Pass, and shepherded to base camp by Donald Phillips and his ponies, and lavished with all the support necessary for a summit bid.
Phillips didn’t realize that he had not made it to the top of Robson until early in the 1913 camp, according to a letter Wheeler wrote to James Monroe Thorington after Phillips’s death in 1938. Wheeler said that he “did not know of any controversy concerning Kinney’s and his [Phillips’s] ascent of Mount Robson in 1909. There never was any blame attributed to either and the facts are simple: Kinney was perfectly honest in his belief that they had attained the summit of the mountain. You have doubtless read the joint narrative by Kinney and Phillips in the 1910 issue of the Canadian Alpine Journal, which set forth their climb in detail, and they were credited with the first ascent until the Club’s 1913 Mount Robson camp, at which Phillips made the statement that subsequent study of the mountain convinced him that they had not reached the highest point by some sixty feet. This is easily understood,” Wheeler explained, “when it is considered, as is told in the narrative, that the whole top of the mountain was densely enveloped in cloud. There is no doubt they reached the summit crest, but were unable to distinguish the actual highest point, which otherwise they would have attained. Acting upon Phillips’ statement at the 1913 camp, Foster and MacCarthy followed the guide, Conrad Kain, to the real summit and made a traverse of the mountain. These are the facts as I know them,” Wheeler wrote.
“While Conrad’s ascent was a magnificent feat,” Wheeler continued, “he was a professional and much experienced guide, climbing under excellent weather conditions and with a full stomach, and technically the first ascent belongs to his party. On the other hand, Kinney and Phillips were amateurs and had only their own individual, half-starved efforts and their indomitable courage amidst storm conditions to rely upon. I always feel the actual first ascent belongs to them and Phillips’s statement and its results nearly broke Kinney’s heart.” [Wheeler 1938]
J.W.A. Hickson, a professor of metaphysics at McGill and president of the ACC from 1924 to 1926, also writing to Thorington after Phillips’s death (in an avalanche), did not agree that Kinney had made an honest mistake. “Phillips knew nothing of mountaineering, and it was reported to me afterwards that he was instructed by Kinney to support the assertion that they had reached the top of Mount Robson. It was at the A.C.C. camp  when Kinney gave an account of his alleged triumph, and I remember expressing doubt to Dr. Longstaff, who was unable to follow the description then given. Phillips showed pluck.” [Hickson 1938] In addition to impugning Kinney’s honesty, Hickson seems to doubt that they lacked only 20 m, for such a shortcoming would not be evident in the route description.
According to Elizabeth Parker, Phillips did not make his assertion until after the successful ascent. When Kain, Foster and MacCarthy’s tale was finished, Parker recounted, “Curly Phillips, who had listened eagerly, went up to Mr. Foster and said: ‘We didn’t get up that last dome.'” Parker asked Phillips how high that dome was. “Between sixty and seventy feet,” she reported his reply. “This quite artless and spontaneous statement is not repeated in the mood of the hair-splitter, but merely to illustrate the ingenuousness of Phillips, who, in telling his own story, would giggle ever so little over his own terror on the narrow ledges and almost vertical slopes on new snow. ‘The rest of you may tackle Mount Robson as often as you like, but not me! Not for ten million dollars!'” [Parker 1914]
Kain corroborates Parker: “Phillips words are as follows: ‘We reached, on our ascent (in mist and storm) an ice dome fifty or sixty feet high, which we took for the peak. The danger was too great to ascent the dome.'” Kain does not say when Phillips made this statement; he does not imply that it was a response to his own, Foster’s and MacCarthy’s statements. [Kain 1915]
In a close-knit group like the Robson camp attendees, one might presume a rapid spread of news that fellow members had just made “the first complete ascent” (as it was written up in the journals) of the highest mountain in the Canadian Rockies. But when Lawrence J. Burpee, travelling in the Mount Robson region at that time, “sat down to rest among the tents of the Alpine Club,” he was told “of how George Kinney and Donald Phillips against all possible odds fought their way to the supreme peak of Robson.” Kinney’s story was still current, even though “a few days before two members of the Alpine Club with the Swiss guide Konrad Kain had climbed to the summit of Robson, and while we were in camp another party came down, unsuccessful, after three days spent on the peak.” Burpee1914.
Even club secretary Paul A. W. Wallace didn’t hear the news until a few days later. “Curly Phillips, who accompanied Kinney up Mount Robson, was telling me tonight that they did not reach the actual summit. The weather was bad, four feet of snow were lying on the mountain. They did not intend, when they started out, to attempt the peak, but only the angle where the slope towards the summit begins to ease off. But they went on further until they reached the foot of the final dome. Above them stretched a slope of snow (about 60 feet high). It appeared as if they could surmount it in a few minutes, but their clothes were frozen, and the snow was uncertain, so they turned around and went back” [Wallace 1913a]
Wallace wrote the Club’s official account, which was published by the Banff Crag and Canyon: “Thirteen hours of strenuous fighting up rock cliffs and dangerous slopes of snow and ice, where sixteen hundred steps had to be cut with the ice axe, brought them [Kain, Foster, MacCarthy] to the summit at 5 o’clock in the evening. They were the first persons to set foot on the actual summit of Canada’s greatest mountain.” [Wallace 1913b]
The Alpine Journal (London) reported: “The first complete ascent and traverse of Mt. Robson (13,068 ft) was made by one party.” [Alpine Journal 1914]
Wheeler, in his address to the 1914 annual meeting of the ACC at the Upper Yoho Valley Camp, recounted the previous year: “The crowning feat of the year was the first complete ascent of Mt. Robson by Conrad Kain, accompanied by W.W. Foster and A.H. MacCarthy, all three of whom are here present. It is a source of much gratification to me to have had the ascent made by a gentleman high up in official Government circles one who at that time was a Deputy Minister and whom I hope before long to see a Minister of the Crown. It serves to show that the thrall of the mountains reaches to the highest estate in the land as well as to the lowest, and it does one good to meet a politician who can climb a mountain.” [Alpine Club of Canada 1906-1914]
Bert Wilkins grew up with Donald Phillips in Ontario; he worked for Phillips in Jasper between 1913 and 1922. In his opinion, Kinney and Phillips “reached the base of Mount Robson sometime in late July and after four attempts, which was made from the south side, they reached what they figured the top, except for an ice pinnacle which stood up about thirty-five feet. The weather was stormy and bad, but as they reached the tip at five o’clock in the afternoon, the sun broke through, and they could see all around. It was impossible to climb this pinnacle, and as it was late, and they must get down from there, they went back to about ten thousand feet. Mt. Robson at that time was supposed to be 13028 feet, but when it was climbed by the Alpine Club, led by Conrad Kyne (sic) in 1913 they did not find that ice pinnacle, and Mt. Robson is just under 13,000 feet now. Their provisions had run out and they had to strike for civilization and supplies. Curlie got very little credit for his help in this, but he never was one to ask for any credit, but us that know him know that he was a big factor in this climb.” [Wilkins n.d.]
Bert Wilkins’s son Clarence (“my mother was Curly’s sister and we lived side by side in Jasper until they moved to Edmonton after the last war”) has written, “Myself, I believe they climbed Mount Robson. They encountered a pinnacle or spur of ice, so steep they were not able to climb it. In 1913 four years later the top was attained by another group and they found no ice pinnacle. Therefore, it must have melted or eroded and that being at the base of the ice spire they were on the top of Robson in 1909, and I see no reason for either of them to say it was there at that time, then in four years there was no ice spire. There seemed to be great rivalry among climbers, in those years, of being the first to climb any mountain peaks, and they sometimes like to discredit other accomplishments. Is this the case? We will never know because all the participants of that episode in climbing are now gone. Some misinformation of facts has been written, other information lost.”
After 1913, Kinney disappeared from the Canadian alpine scene. During the First World War he served in Europe as a stretcher bearer, and in his off-duty hours he toured the front lines lecturing on the Canadian Rockies. On leave in England, he lectured to the Royal Geographical Society in London and was made a fellow of the Society. After the war he continued his ministry, which for many years took him to isolated logging camps and fishing villages along the west coast of Vancouver Island. During this time he explored and climbed the Comox Glacier. [Browne, 1979]
In 1957, John T. Coleman interviewed Kinney for the B.C. Magazine. His story, entitled, “Magnificent Failure” reported that it “was not until a few months ago, after years of controversy, that George Kinney was finally convinced that they had not reached the summit of Mount Robson. In that howling storm they had climbed a high pinnacle and had missed the real peak by a mere 60 feet.” [Coleman 1957]
Kinney’s daughter Betty McFarlane has stated in personal correspondence that “Many articles have been written on his failure but we the family don’t feel he did fail. For years he tried to straighten it out but finally he said it was just too old to fight it. I feel Phillips was wrong in stating that he and Kinney had not ascended the final fifty foot dome. We feel he was pressured by the Alpine Club. Even Phillips’s relatives of whom I met, felt they did reach the peak. At the age of 81 years Dad conceded because he said he was too old and tired to fight.” [McFarlane 1989]
Kinney was a pioneer in alpine photography, but very little of his collection is known. There are only a few photographs contained in the Provincial Archives of B.C., the Alpine Club Collection (about ten photographs in early editions of the Canadian Alpine Journal) or any other collection in the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies; nothing in the National Archives; his family is unsure of the whereabouts of any collections. Several films do survive at the B.C. Provincial Archives.[Browne, 1979] George Kinney died in Victoria in 1961.
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