Living in an Era of Adaptation: A Study on the "Riskscape" of Abbot Pass
Updated: Aug 16
By Kate Hanly, 2022/23 Lillian Agnes Jones Fellowship Recipient
Climate change is contributing to the rapid warming of mountain environments, resulting in glacial retreat, diminished snowpacks, and permafrost thaw (Adler et al., 2022). But what does this mean for life in the Bow Valley? A place famous for its lofty peaks, inspiring ridge lines, and vast glaciers.
My first face-to-face experience with climate change was in 2012 on a guided glacier trip with my dad on which we set off to complete the historic "trip over the passes", stopping to spend a night at the famous Abbot Hut. It was early July, but it felt like winter up there with long snow patches that provided good kick steps most of the way. Though we donned helmets, I don’t remember seeing much for rockfall. I do remember listening to our guide talk about how some of the nearby mountains were changing and the route down the infamous Death Trap was different than it used to be. But I found it next to impossible to imagine that the frozen massifs surrounding me, glued together by snow and ice, could crumble in my lifetime.
A mere four years later, in 2016, slope instabilities on the route my dad and I had walked up were first noticed – a sign that the slope Abbot Hut rested upon was imperilled. The previously solid foundation of frozen material began to slide down the slope, threatening the structural integrity of the hut and by 2018, $600,000 had been spent on remediation to reinforce the structure (Parks Canada Agency, 2022). However, safety concerns in 2019 and COVID-19 health measures in 2020 stopped stabilization efforts. The heat dome of 2021 was the final nail in the coffin, causing 114m3 of material to fall from the slopes supporting the hut resulting in irreparable damage (Parks Canada Agency, 2022). In 2022 Abbot Hut was dismantled and removed.
The dramatic speed at which the slope and hut crumbled left me wondering, what more do we have to lose? The last night spent in Abbot Hut, the last adventure through the Death Trap, the last ascent of Mts Lefroy and Victoria, the last glacier walked on with my dad.
In response to these questions my research reviewed the Abbot Hut registers from 1923 to its closure, transcribing almost 7000 entries into Excel and analyzing them to see how the landscape of risk, or the "riskscape" of some of the Canadian Rockies most iconic climbs have changed (Figure 2) and if/how mountaineers have adapted to these changes (Figure 3). I found that there has been an increase in the reporting of rockfall, diminishing snowpacks, and exposed rock/ice in the two most popular approach routes to Abbot Hut – the Swiss Guide’s Route, better known as the Death Trap, and the Lake O’Hara gully. The same increasing trends were also found on climbs that sit on either side of the pass – Mt Lefroy and Mt Victoria (Figure 2).
The “Riskscape” of Climbing Routes in the Abbot Pass Area Over Time
But what are the implications of these changes for mountaineers? Can they adapt to increased risk of rock or serac fall? I believe that mountaineers can and have adapted to these changes. For example, the Swiss Guides Route from Lake Louise was historically the more common approach to the hut. However, by the 1970’s the number of climbers using each approach reached equilibrium, followed by a significant decrease in the use of the Guide’s Route in the 1990s. This change corresponds with increasing trends in rock/serac fall, problematic crevasses, and diminishing snowpacks (Figure 3A) which all conspired to create climbing conditions well-known guide, Peter Fuhrmann, described, requiring that, “Anyone travelling the Death Trap should buy additional insurance and have his head checked" (Abbot Hut Entry, August 21, 1997).
Simultaneous to the decrease in use of the Guides Route, there is an increase in use of the gully approach (Figure 3B), which has been described as comparatively less hazardous. This could be interpreted as a form of spatial adaptation – where climbers are preferentially climbing in areas with either less consequential impacts of climate change or areas that have yet to reach a threshold that necessitates behavioral change: “SEVERE CREVASSE DANGER FORCED US DOWN L. O’HARA SIDE” (Abbot Hut Register, September 2, 1985).
Evolution of Where Mountaineers are Climbing Over Time
Similarly, hut visitors appear to be spatially adapting to poor climbing conditions on Mt Lefroy by preferentially climbing Mt Victoria. Historically, Victoria was the more desirable climb (Figure 3B) as the picturesque ridge appears perfectly framed by the windows of Château Lake Louise, capturing the imagination of countless visitors. In fact, it was so popular that Ernest Feuz is purported to have fibbed that the Death Trap was impassible for almost an entire summer to avoid having to climb the mountain (Stephen, 2021, p. 131). While Mt Lefroy did gain popularity over time, since the early 2000s the number of trip reports on this mountain have decreased significantly (Figure 3B). This was found to correspond with increases in rockfall and encounters with exposed ice and rock, both of which can give rise to poor climbing conditions:
Lefroy is another matter. The snow is melting off the face so there is some bare ice and exposed rock steps on the normal route and LOTS of rock exposed on the face around the gully. Rock barrages started on Monday afternoon in a thunder and intense rainstorm. Saw a couple of BIG blocks rattle down during the storm and that was not pretty or survivable. (MCR, July 14, 2019)
In what could be inferred as spatial adaptation, mountaineers at Abbot Hut appear to have preferentially climbed Victoria’s SE ridge where conditions are comparatively better in the face of climate change. For example, while increased encounters with exposed rock on Lefroy seemed to be related to increases in rockfall, on Victoria this relationship was less significant. Instead, a dry ridge appeared, at least at times, to make climbing easier and faster, with one hut entry reading, “Victoria was in just about perfect conditions, dry on the ridge” (Abbot Hut Entry, July 27, 2013). Thus, the identification of a persistent change in the spatial behaviour of mountaineers seems to imply that they are adapting to climate change by altering where they climb and preferentially choosing routes that are comparatively less hazardous.
In doing this research, my goal was to identify the ways in which the climbing community is vulnerable to climate change and if/how it can adapt in order to maintain safe practices in Canada’s increasingly endangered mountain environments. What I found was a highly sensitive environment, deeply impacted by climate change and a community of mountaineers who are decidedly adaptable. And so, while the future of our mountains remains uncertain, I certainly believe there will be a future for climbers in them.
Archival Materials Used
1. Chateau Lake Louise fonds. 1923-1953. Chateau Lake Louise. Chateau Lake Louise fonds. M180. Archives and Library, Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies.
a. M180 / accn. 1074 - Abbot Hut Registers, 1923-1953
2. Alpine Club of Canada fonds. 1906-2017. Alpine Club of Canada. Alpine Club of Canada fonds. M200 / S6 / V14. Archives and Library, Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies.
a. M200 / accn. 6623/ unprocessed – Abbot Hut Registers, 1954-2016.
Adler, C., Wester, P., Bhatt, I., Huggel, C., Insarov, M. D., Muccione, V., & Prakash, A. (2022). Cross-Chapter Paper 5: Mountains. In: Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability. Contribution of Working Group II to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [H.-O. Pörtner, D.C. Roberts, M. Tignor, E.S. Poloczanska, K. Mintenbeck, A. Alegría, M. Craig, S. Langsdorf, S. Löschke, V. Möller, A. Okem, B. Rama (eds.)]. 2273–2318. https://doi.org/doi:10.1017/9781009325844.022.
Parks Canada Agency, G. of C. (2022, August 11). About—Abbot Pass Refuge Cabin National Historic Site—About. https://parks.canada.ca/pn-np/bc/yoho/culture/~/link.aspx?_id=0AF382BB05604F859137C177303C8CD2&_z=z
Stephen, D. L. (2021). Edward Feuz Jr: A story of enchantment (First edition). Rocky Mountain Books.
About the Lillian Agnes Jones Fellowship
In 2001, the Peter and Catharine Whyte Foundation/Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies received a bequest from the estate of Lillian Agnes Jones. From this bequest, a fellowship was created to promote the study and research of materials related to Western Canada. Initially, this fellowship was administered through the University of Calgary. The Whyte Museum began to oversee this fellowship in 2019.
The Call for Applications for the 2022-2023 year brought forth a variety of unique and exciting research topics. From the many applicants received, three individuals were chosen by the Lillian Agnes Jones Fellowship Committee. Kate Hanly, from Canmore, Alberta, explored the concept of how iconic mountaineering routes are changing in the Canadian Rockies due to climate change. Keara Lightning Long, from the Edmonton region, delved into the complex relationship of Indigenous ecology and the history of environmental management. Lastly, Amanda Foote, who lives in Mînîthnî facilitated a group of Îethka (Stoney Nakoda) people in hands-on archival, library, and curatorial research on a variety of topics.
Want to read the full research reports from each recipient? Please visit whyte.org/fellowship.
In the coming months be sure to watch for our upcoming events as these recipients will be presenting on their topics soon!
Are you looking to submit and application for an upcoming fellowship call? Stay tuned to our social media and newsletters. Announcement coming soon!
Interested in learning more about Canadian Rockies history? Book a research appointment at the Whyte Museum Archives and Special Collections Library.