Ancient Alpinists: First Nations in the Coast Mountain Past

Two “Indian Trails” were recorded on this 1868 map. One track crossed between the Homathko and Klinaklini valleys, while the other connected the Southgate drainage to the Bridge River country near Bralorne.

Two “Indian Trails” were recorded on this 1868 map. One track crossed between the Homathko and Klinaklini valleys, while the other connected the Southgate drainage to the Bridge River country near Bralorne.

Jeff Slack is the latest participant in theReaching a Popular Audience workshop to see his work in print. The article below was first published in the latest issue of Mountain Life Magazine. Pick up a free copy if you are in the Sea-to-Sky region or Vancouver and then on Jeff’s blog Mountain Nerd. Visit the blog to see more photographs.

Sure, old-growth forests are nice and the ocean’s pretty cool, but the alpine is where it’s at. There’s nothing like standing amidst jagged peaks, sprawling glaciers, and kaleidoscope meadows on a bluebird day. Or, for that matter, not seeing anything at all in a vertigo-inducing whiteout.

It’s no secret that the Coast Mountain alpine offers some of the most mind-blowing opportunities for adventure on Earth. Conversations about “pioneers” in these inspiring, challenging landscapes usually begin with the founders of Whistler Mountain, or, less often, early mountaineers like Don and Phyllis Munday.

But long before these mountain heroes, coastal First Nations people were venturing above tree-line. While local First Nations history has received greater attention of late, these stories are usually set at lower elevations. This alpine amnesia is surprising, considering that anthropologists have long emphasized how the coast’s populous and sophisticated societies developed through full, expert use of our region’s natural riches.

Historically, First Nations people saw the Coast Mountain alpine much like Sea-to-Sky residents today, as a powerful landscape with plenty to offer Bridging this ancient fascination into the present is SFU archaeologist Dr. Rudy Reimer, a Squamish Nation member at the forefront of alpine archaeology. Think Indiana Jones with an ice axe. Reimer combines his own field research with oral histories to write First Peoples back into the social memory of the Coast Mountain landscape.

And a deep memory it is. Reimer has identified sites in Garibaldi Park up to 10,000 years old. “Other locations,” he explains, “were off limits due to their associations with powerful mythical beings such as the Thunderbird, whose perch is atop what is known to some as Black Tusk.”

Drawing materials from their immediate surroundings, they developed gear resembling modern alpenstocks, snowshoes, crampons and climbing ropes for travel into the alpine. And they probably had a lot of fun while up there.

The Tantalus Range, known as Twi’liks among the Squamish, looms in the background as a snowboarder chases his own alpine glory. bradleyslackphotography.ca

The berry patches that thrive in most well-lit areas saw some of the heaviest use. Since fruit ripen slower at altitude, harvesters climbed progressively up-slope, finding fresh berries well into the fall. Of course, berry patches attract other visitors like elk, deer, and bear which were hunted throughout the sub-alpine parkland.

The most sought-after prey were mountain goats, whose meat and wool blankets served as markers of status. The goats’ meat was fattest and their fur thickest in late fall so hunters often grappled with early snowfalls that left alpine rock extra slick, and crevasses thinly covered. Drawing materials from their immediate surroundings, they developed gear resembling modern alpenstocks, snowshoes, crampons and climbing ropes to better navigate the terrain.

Some of the best hunting zones lay among the gnarly crags of the Tantalus Range, named Twi’liks in Squamish after a legendary hunter. The dangers of the hunt demanded years of practice and apprenticeship, but also added prestige to the kill. Imagine headstrong Squamish youths aspiring to chase these woolly beasts, much like today’s groms dream of steep, exposed ski lines.

Vancouver’s Dr. Duncan Bell-Irving witnessed this prowess firsthand on an 1889 North Shore hunting trip guided by Squamish Chief Joe Capilano. One evening while camped beneath the West Lion, Chief Capilano asked the doctor to time one of his men climb the iconic peak. As Irving recounted, “the lithe youth stripped naked then went up the rocky face like a cat, springing from ledge to ledge, all the time in plain view of the watchers below. Reaching the summit he turned, waved his arms, and then commenced a descent so swift as to seem almost incredible.”

Next time you climb the West Lion try to beat one Squamish youth’s time of twenty minutes, clothing optional.

Another alpine lure was forged during the Coast Range’s fiery past. Obsidian is used for razor-sharp blades and fine jewellery around the world, and this volcanic glass can still be found among Garibaldi Park’s ancient lava flows. Further north, Mount Edziza was B.C.’s largest producer, with other sources in the Chilcotin’s Rainbow Range and, possibly, near the glacial dome of Mount Silverthrone, BC’s highest volcano.

Because each obsidian quarry has a distinct composition, scientists are able to “fingerprint” fragments found at archaeological sites and trace them back to their source. Garibaldi obsidian has been found throughout southern B.C. and Washington state, while Edziza filled orders as far away as Alaska and Alberta.

Obsidian was just one of many commodities exchanged across a broad trade network. The “iceman” found melting from a glacier in the St. Elias Range in 1999 likely perished following one of these routes, roughly 500 years ago.

More recently, an 1868 map of B.C.’s central coast recorded two “Indian Trails.” Surveying river valleys for possible railway routes, the mapmakers knew next to nothing about the terrain these trails crossed. Both routes would have traversed massive glacial plateaus– just west of Mount Waddington along the Franklin Glacier, and the Lillooet Icefield, respectively. Nowadays, few venture into these arctic landscapes without years of mountaineering experience.

Two “Indian Trails” were recorded on this 1868 map. One track crossed between the Homathko and Klinaklini valleys, while the other connected the Southgate drainage to the Bridge River country near Bralorne.

Through his work Reimer hopes to challenge long-held perceptions of these cherished places: “I hope that my research will show that mountainous areas have a long First Nations presence. My elders have always told me that our ancestors used the entirety of our territory, from the tops of the mountains to the depths of the sea.” The fact that he is uncovering his own people’s heritage makes his work among the peaks especially rewarding.

And he’s definitely having a lot of fun up there.

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Assistant professor of environmental history at the University of Saskatchewan.

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