May 21, 2011

The Swiss Guides in the Canadian Rockies

The story of the Swiss Guides is just one of the sections in the new Gateway to the Rockies exhibition being developed by the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies.  We want your input and feedback on this permanent (ten year life) exhibition that we are planning to open at the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies in the spring of 2012. Tell us what you think of this and the other concepts and stories featured here. Let us know how you think we could make this exhibition more interesting. Please keep in mind that this is a draft of the storyline, not the finished product. As the stories develop, information will be updated.

Listen to Michale Lang (Executive Director, Whyte Museum), discussing
the Swiss Guides exhibition:


The mountain guides who were brought from the Swiss Alps to work for Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) hotels between 1899 and 1954 led hundreds of first ascents and taught safe climbing techniques to thousands of climbers. The Swiss guides helped cultivate an appreciation of Canada’s Rocky Mountains and of an environment to be both preserved and revered. Their legacy lives on in the Canadian Rockies and particularly at Abbot Hut at the top of Abbot Pass on the Alberta - B.C.and the Swiss Village in Golden, B.C.

The Swiss Guides left to right: Christian Kauffman, Jacob Muller, Christian Hasler, Sr. prop., unknown, Fred Michel, Edward Feuz Sr., Christian Bohren, Hans Kauffmann, [ca. 1904],(NA66-186 PA 380-1), Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies

At the end of the 19th century, Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) responded to a growing international interest in mountaineering by fostering tourism in the Rocky Mountains. In the 1860s climbing became a highly popular summertime recreational activity in Europe. English alpinists, with their Swiss mountain guides, soon conquered the major peaks in the Swiss Alps and France’s Mont Blanc area. By the late 1880s CPR provided easy access and luxurious accommodation in western Canada and soon English and American mountaineers were attracted to the untouched mountain landscape with the lure of first ascents. The Canadian Rockies had an irresistible allure, a landscape like the Alps full of unclimbed summits accessible by railway.

After a fatal climbing accident in the Rockies in 1896 on Mount Lefroy, the American Appalachian Mountain Club hired the first professional Swiss mountain guide in Canada, Peter Sarbach. Sarbach successfully led the party to the summit of Mt. Lefroy near Lake Louise, on August 3, 1897. Two days later, he led the first ascent of Mt. Victoria. CPR could see the value of having professional Swiss Guides and in 1899 Christian Haesler Sr. and Eduard Feuz Sr. from Interlaken, Switzerland signed the company’s first seasonal contracts. The start of the 20th century brought more Swiss guides to Canada: Karl Schluneggar, Friedrich Michel, and Jacob Mueller all arrived in the summer of 1900. A second generation of guides followed in 1901 with the brothers Ed, Ernst and Walter Feuz. Christian Haesler Jr., Rudolf Aemmer, and Christian Bohren.

After a visit to the Canadian Rockies, Englishman Edward Whymper, renowned for his first ascent of the Matterhorn in 1865, began to promote the Canadian Rockies as “50 Switzerlands in One.”

Between 1899 and 1954, there were approximately 35 Swiss mountaineers employed by CPR during the summer in the Canadian Rocky mountains. Of the 56 first accents of mountains over 3000 meters prior to 1911, not less that 50 first ascents were performed under the guidance of Swiss mountaineers. By 1925, CPR’s 35 Swiss Guides had led more than 250 first ascents in the mountains of western Canada.  During the more than 50 years, there was not a single mountaineering fatality of the thousands of climbs led by the Swiss guides. Some of the guides returned to Switzerland for the winter but others stayed and worked as caretakers for the CPR hotels that were closed during that time.

Eventually, guides from other countries, particularly Austria, began to work in Canada as well. One of the best known of these is Konrad Kain. Generations of guides have continued to make their mark on the Canadian Rockies. They have left a legacy of safe mountaineering techniques from the rich climbing tradition of the alps and laid a foundation for the birth of skiing as a winter pastime in western Canada. Guides continue to instill in their clients a respect for nature and the mountain environment.

The design concept for this section includes a rock wall embedded with images of the guides we are featuring. More to com.

To make your donation to the Gateway to the Rockies exhibition or any of our Giving Programs, please visit http://www.whyte.org/ and click "Get Involved."

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