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An Unexpected Adventurer at Abbot Pass Hut

By Tera Swanson, Marketing and Communications Manager


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Perched on the precipice of Abbot Pass, a stone hut once sat at nearly 3000 metres, flanked by Mount Lefroy and Mount Victoria, and bordering two worlds below. To the north, Lake Louise – the epicentre of Banff National Park which attracts millions of tourists every year. And to the south, Lake Oesa and the broader Lake O’Hara region – a sensitive alpine area with restricted visitation in an effort to preserve the fragile environment.

Much like the dichotomy of worlds surrounding it, Abbot Pass Hut served myriad purposes over the years: as a basecamp for classic mountaineering routes, as a destination in and of itself, and even as a lunch stop on a day hike. No matter the occasion, it has been a welcoming refuge and nostalgic reminder of a bygone era. As the years progressed, it also served as a time capsule. Although the interior was renovated in 1968 after ownership changed from the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) to Parks Canada and the Alpine Club of Canada (ACC), few changes have been made from the original layout.[1] For a century, it has reliably stood by as an old friend to return to or remember fondly.

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100 years after it was first built in 1922, Abbot Pass Hut was dismantled, with substantial removal of the hut completed on June 30, 2022. With slope erosion and glacial recession caused by climate change occurring at Abbot Pass, it was deemed uninhabitable during the summer of 2018 and was closed to overnight visitors. In February 2022, Parks Canada announced the following:


When planning for the substantial removal of the hut, the Agency considered attempting to deconstruct it in a way that would allow for the hut to be rebuilt, either at Abbot Pass or at another location. This option is not feasible for two reasons:


The unstable condition of the hut and the slopes at Abbot Pass mean that the delicate work required for this type of removal would pose too great a risk to the health and safety of Parks Canada staff and contractors.


Based on consultations with experts in historical masonry, the type of material used to construct the hut (primarily limestone) is likely to fracture if moved and is not conducive to removal and reconstruction.


Plans are being made to salvage some material from the hut for use in future commemoration of the site. Parks Canada will be working with stakeholders and interested parties to identify options for commemorating the enduring national significance of the site itself, the surrounding area, and to mountaineering in Canada. [2]


Early Days of Abbot Pass Hut


The hut was first brought to life thanks to the inspiration of Edward Feuz Jr. and Rudolf Aemmer, both respected mountaineers of the early 20th century. In her recently published book Edward Feuz Jr.: A Story of Enchantment, author D.L. Stephen explains:


The guides were tired of leading guests up and down Mount Victoria in a single day and wanted to make the climb easier and "more enjoyable" for them. Abbot Pass was the ideal location for an alpine hut. Edward and Rudolf, used to high climbing huts in Switzerland, knew what they wanted. Putting their heads together they made some drawings and approached the construction foreman for the CPR, Basil Gardom, with their sketches. "He took things in hand," said Edward. This meant he badgered the CPR until architectural plans were made. The badgering was successful, because construction was begun and completed in 1922, at a cost of $35,000.[3]


A small team of Swiss mountain guides constructed the hut using stones from the pass and supplies hauled up on horseback. The journey started from Lake Louise and over the infamous Death Trap – a route directly up the Victoria Glacier which today is not recommended due to crevasse and serac hazards. Given the location, constructing a building here would be no small feat even by today’s standards, let alone with the limitations of the time.


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In Stories of Ice, Lynn Martel writes in detail about the challenges of this undertaking:


The logistics were stupendous. Two tons of cement, lime, timbers, windows and tools, plus a stove, beds, mattresses, bedding, cooking pots and pans, right down to the cutlery, had to be ferried up to the site. Food, too, to fuel the guides. It was all loaded onto a raft and paddled from the hotel to the southwest end of (Lake Louise). From there every piece was unloaded and carefully packed onto horses led by a wrangler who coaxed them onto the glacier – then extending some two kilometres lower than it does today – carefully guiding them around one crevasse and then the next.


The steeds plodded upward on the bare summer ice until they reached a large gaping crevasse that stopped them in their tracks. From there the guides took over the Sisyphean job of man-hauling everything up the steep slope by rigging the jumbled icefall with a series of ladders and winches to facilitate carrying loads on a sled, each parcel weighing up to 35 kilograms.

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Anything that couldn't be loaded onto the sled they carried on their backs as they continued up the Death Trap – as they named the steep upper reaches of the glacier in apt reference to the unpredictable blocks and chunks that crash down from the unstable ice cliffs above. Once they were at the pass, thankfully, all the stones they needed to build the walls of the hut were already strewn all over the ground. With the help of a skilled stonemason they'd hired, the guides just had to gather up enough of them in the right sizes and shapes. The structure was then fastened to the bedrock with cables. Naturally, their work efforts were interrupted from time to time by howling gales. Abbot Pass Hut opened its doors to guests early in the summer of 1923.


"The cabin had a big room for the kitchen and dining, a gentleman's dormitory, an attic with lots of mattresses," Feuz described. "There was even a sleeping room for ladies." For a time, there was even a pump organ for musical entertainment. As it was equipped with a pot-bellied stove, the guides carried firewood up to a spot below the hut where they kept it hidden, and then sold it by the bundle to hut users. No doubt they'd earned every cent, not an extra crumb of which was ever offered by the railway.[4]



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An Unexpected Adventurer


When news broke of the decision to dismantle Abbot Pass Hut, staff at the Whyte Museum dug into the vault of the Archives and Special Collections Library, bringing out Alpine Club of Canada hut registers that are stored here.

Familiar stories jumped from the pages, both tragic and legendary. One related entry from Ernest Feuz in 1954 was also told on the walls of the hut itself, in a historic hut plaque written by Meghan J. Ward. It read:


On July 30, 1954, Abbot Pass Hut played an integral role in sheltering and warming survivors of a tragic mountaineering accident on Mount Victoria in which three Mexican women and their guide were killed. In the safety of the hut, the rescuers, led by Ernest Feuz, “took off the girls’ boots and rubbed their feet, wrapped them in blankets and poured hot soup and tea into them,” wrote Harry Green in the 1955 CAJ.[5]


In another entry from 1965,19-year-olds Charlie Locke and Don Gardner refer to themselves as "amateurs" on their traverse of the Ten Peaks. This still unrepeated route covered 22 peaks above Moraine Lake and Lake Louise over six-and-a-half days.[6]


But a particular, peculiar entry stood out. It may be unusual for most to see a child’s drawings and “Count Dracula” signature in the logbook of the highest structure in Canada in the '60s, but for the author, Shauna Gillies-Smith, this wasn’t out of the ordinary.

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Having grown up at the Plain of Six Glaciers Teahouse, trips up to Abbot Pass – over the Death Trap, no less – were a treat to look forward to. Shauna recounts her experience as a young seven-year-old girl on her first trip to Abbot Pass Hut with Pierre Lemire, a hired hand at the teahouse who frequently went up the pass.


“We went up as a trip for my birthday present, late in the afternoon,” Shauna recalls. “Pierre was like a big brother to us so we’d go on lots of hikes and scrambles, but this one was kind of epic. I remember the snow bridges and being pulled across things really quickly by Pierre to make sure we were in good shape. I remember it being very steep. But I had absolute trust in him."


Then in his early 20s, Pierre was at the start of his career as a respected photographer and mountain guide. His path toward becoming an ACMG mountain guide began around the same time as his summers working at the teahouse, making various trips in the nearby mountain ranges, and eventually passing his first guide's exam in 1971 with Hans Gmoser and Leo Grillmair as his examiners.[7]


"As we started getting up, the weather got more and more intense," Shauna continued. "By the time we got to the top, the weather had turned for the worse. Pierre had a big sense of humor so he had me take off all of my mountaineering gear, and he sent me into the hut full of people all by myself. I made quite an entrance walking in there alone with the stormy weather outside, the snow and rain, and everybody cozy and warm inside.”


She recalls the laughter from the mountaineers shocked to see a child in their midst, seemingly appearing from thin air in nothing more than climbing boots and the clothes on her back. The next morning they awoke to beautiful, clear skies for their descent to Lake Oesa, a stark contrast to her experience the day before.


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Shauna and her family have a special connection to Abbot Pass Hut and the Feuz family, as it was because of this hut that her childhood home was created.


A few years after it was built in 1924, Edward once again persuaded the CPR to build the Plain of Six Glaciers Teahouse in the valley below, under the supervision of the same foreman. Although he initially, and unsuccessfully, pitched it as a personal residence, the CPR agreed to the structure serving as a teahouse for tourists. Feuz often used the teahouse as an overnight stop with clients en route to Abbot Pass for mountaineering objectives.[3] His family owned and operated the teahouse until the '50s, serving pie and tea to guests from Chateau Lake Louise. To this day, the teahouse is open every summer serving visiting hikers.


In 1959, the Feuz family sold the Plain of Six Glaciers Teahouse to Joy Kimball who raised her two daughters, Shauna and Susanne, right on the mountain. The younger of the two, Susanne, still runs the Teahouse today.


“Abbot Pass Hut has always felt like a part of our teahouse home, as if they were siblings or a part of our family,” Shauna says. “It had been there for so long and as kids we’d always try to track the climbers, watching them going up and down. So going up there was an incredible source of pride, but also a coming of age. It’s really special to us to look back on.”



The Whyte Museum Archives and Special Collections Library houses several resources to aid in research for stories like these, including the Canadian Alpine Journal, Alpine Club of Canada fonds, archival photographs including the Edward Feuz fonds, and much more. Explore for yourself online at www.archives.whyte.org – or book an appointment to visit in person.


Purchase your own copy of Edward Feuz Jr: A Story of Enchantment by D.L. Stephen and Stories of Ice: Adventure, Commerce and Creativity on Canada's Glaciers by Lynn Martel at the Whyte Museum Book Shop, located at 111 Bear Street.


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Endnotes:

[1] Parks Canada Directory of Federal Heritage Designations, Government of Canada. “Abbot Pass Refuge Cabin.” December 24, 1999. https://www.pc.gc.ca/apps/dfhd/page_fhbro_eng.aspx?id=8717&i=75126.