Editor’s note: This article, adapted from No Limits But the Sky: The Best Mountaineering Stories from Appalachia Journal (AMC Books, 2014), originally appeared in the November 1896 issue of Appalachia. The four climbers involved—author Fay, Charles S. Thompson, George Little, and the group’s leader, Philip Stanley Abbot—were attempting the first ascent of 11,230-foot Mount Lefroy in the Canadian Rockies when they encountered the first fatality on an AMC trip.
Almost before our eyes had taken in the wonderful prospect that opened so magically, Abbot had scanned the western side of Lefroy, now for the first time clearly revealed to us, and joyfully exclaimed: “The peak is ours!” And surely his confidence seemed justified. From here an unobstructed way was seen leading up to the long summit arête, which still frowned nearly 2,000 feet above the pass. The vast mountainside rose in a sloping wall, ice-clad for the greater part, yet with here and there long upward leads of rock that probably could be scaled, as the dip was in the right direction.
Assured of what it lay nearest to his heart to know, Abbot now turned his attention to the grand spectacle, and his enthusiasm found ample expression in that ever-happy smile, his beaming eyes, and his quiet remark—and what was ever so convincing as that confident, almost childlike mental repose?—that nowhere had he ever seen that view surpassed for striking alpine effects.
Immediately to the left of the pass the line of the watershed rose abruptly some 200 feet over the promontory, whose farther side was a precipice but that towards us a steep slope utterly buried under large angular blocks of rock. As serious climbing would not begin until we had surmounted this height, we kept on, after brief delay at the col, to a point near its top, where we paused for our noon meal. This slight addition to our altitude (now 10,100 feet) had opened up new vistas.
At 12:30 p.m., we again set forth to complete, as we fondly believed, the largest enterprise in the way of mountaineering that has ever been accomplished on Canadian peaks. Caution governed every movement, as indeed it always did when Abbot was at the fore. On this day we were all deeply impressed with its needfulness. Even our leader smiled at the enormous size of the steps that were left in the wake of the party after each one had contributed his vigorous chipping to their enlargement. Someone, thinking of the possible lateness of the return and consequent necessity for speed, suggested that we might need all the advantage their size would offer when we came to descend. So indeed it proved.
At 5:30 we drew up under an immense bastion possibly 75 feet in height, behind which lay the summit, of which as yet, owing to foreshortening, we had no satisfactory view. This frowning face rose sheer from a narrow margin of tolerably stable scree that lay tilted between its base and the upper edge of the sloping ice that we had just left behind us. On the left the dusky northern arête rose with an easy gradient possibly an eighth of a mile away, but across an ice slope similar to that up which we had so long been toiling, and in truth a continuation of the same. To cross it was perfectly feasible, but it would take so long to cut the necessary steps that a descent of the peak before dark would have been out of the question.
But now, Abbot, who had moved forward along the rock wall to the limit of the rope, cheerfully announced an alternative. His view beyond an angle in the bastion revealed a vertical cleft up which it was possible to climb by such holds as offered themselves. Bidding Thompson and me to unrope and keep under cover from falling stones, he clambered some 30 feet up the rift, secured a good anchorage, and called upon Little to follow.
This the latter proceeded to do, but while standing at the bottom of the cleft preparing to climb, he received a tingling blow from a small stone dislodged by the rope. A moment later a larger one falling upon the rope half severed it, so as to require a knot. As danger from this source seemed likely to continue, our leader had Little also free himself from the rope and come up to where he stood.
From here a shelf led around to the left, along which Abbot now proceeded a few yards and discovered a gully leading upward, unseen from the point first attained, and this also he began to ascend. To Little’s question, whether it might not be better to try and turn the bastion on the shelf itself, he replied: “I think not. I have a good lead here.”
These were the last words he ever uttered.
A moment later Little, whose attention was for the moment diverted to another portion of the crag, was conscious that something had fallen swiftly past him, and he knew only too well what it must be. Thompson and I, standing at the base of the cliff, saw our dear friend falling backward and head-foremost, saw him strike the upper margin of the ice slope within 15 feet of us, turn completely over, and instantly begin rolling down its steep incline. After him trailed our two lengths of English rope—all we had brought with us—which we had spliced together in our ascent over the last rock slope, in order to gain time by having less frequent anchorages than were necessitated by the short intervals of one 60-foot line.
As the limp body rolled downward in a line curving slightly towards the left, the rope coiled upon it as on a spool—a happy circumstance amid so much of horror—for not only did this increase of friction sensibly affect the velocity of the descent of 900 feet to the narrow plateau of scree above mentioned, but doubtless the rope by catching in the scree itself prevented the unconscious form from crossing the narrow level and falling over the low cliff beyond. Had it passed this, nothing apparently could have stopped it short of the bottom of the gorge leading up to the pass from the western side of the [Continental] Divide—a far more fearful fall than that already made.
How the terrible disaster occurred we shall never know. In all probability Abbot’s foothold, or more likely his handhold, gave way; though it is not impossible that he was struck by a stone descending from above. The facts that no outcry preceded his fall and that the fatal wound was on the back of his head seem, however, to argue against this latter hypothesis. I know not how to account for my immediate impression, unless I actually saw something to create it during the momentary slackening of his swift rush past us, but it was an increase of horror lest a large stone, clasped in his arms, should crush him as he struck the slope. The visual memory itself is exceedingly indefinite as regards details.
A Perilous Descent
You would not pardon me if I could find words to describe our feelings. A single instant of supreme emotion may equal hours of grief or joy less intense. A single instant only was ours to yield to it. Little was still in a critical position, particularly if his nerves were unstrung. To ascend such a cleft is far easier than to descend, and he had had the aid of the rope in going up. He must forgive me if I mention here the self-forgetfulness with which he called down to us: “Never mind me. Hurry to help Abbot.”
“Our help is for the living,” one of us said. “To reach Abbot will require hours. Everything must be forgotten save care for the present moment. Come down as far as you can with safe holds, and, Heaven helping, we will do our part.”
Happily the footholds lasted until he was far enough down to reach with his hob-nailed shoe an ice ax held braced against a projection by one of us who had crowded himself for a purchase into the base of the cleft. Another ax under his thigh and such handhold as he could grasp aided the remainder of the perilous descent. It was 6:30 as we stood together with grateful hearts at the base of the fatal bastion.
A brief gaze to where Abbot lay so still, a mutual promise of self-command and unremitting caution, and we began our descent with ice axes only, each responsible for his own safety. Our ample footsteps were now a priceless safeguard. On the treacherous rock slopes we could indeed secure a tolerable substitute for 7 feet of rope by attaching two ice axes together by their straps, a wholly inadequate resource for this dangerous passage. Thus for three hours and until the beautiful sunset glow had faded on the high arête of Lefroy, we worked our slow way downward and at length stood beside the motionless form that all this time had lain in full view.
To our surprise life was not yet extinct. The fatal wound in the back of the head, evidently received in the short initial fall of perhaps 20 feet, was the only grievous outward mark, and the autopsy later proved that not a limb was broken. A faint murmur, which my imagination interpreted as a recognition of our presence and expression of gratitude that we at least had escaped from peril, alone broke the silence for a brief moment, and then we three bared our heads in the twilight, believing that his generous spirit was already passing. But a moment later the faint breathing was resumed.
If living, then of course we would bear him down with us, difficult as the labor would be. We now at least had the ropes, and with their aid such a task did not seem impossible. To tarry in this spot was at all events out of the question. With tender hands, having first disentangled the ropes, we raised him, and began the dreary descent; but we had scarcely reached the brink of the little cliff when he again ceased to breathe. Not satisfied with this evidence, we tested pulse and heart. That all was over in the mortal life of our loved companion was subject to no manner of doubt.
The seriousness of the task we had assumed as a matter of course at once became evident. To lower even the lifeless body down this short precipice was a labor involving a large risk for three persons. Only with competent aid and by long daylight could it be brought from its lofty resting-place to the chalet we had left so hopefully that morning.
Twilight was deepening into dusk as we decided to leave it here and descend as far as possible before darkness should prevent further advance. By the dim reflection from the sky and the snow we could faintly discern our upward footsteps in certain places; in others merely divine them. The general course avoiding dangerous precipices on our left we could make out without difficulty.
Assembled again at the pass—it was now 10:30 p.m.—we accepted the decree that we should here spend the reminder of the night.
The following morning, a party of six bridge-builders, sent in by the management of the Canadian Pacific Railway, whose sympathy and offers of aid knew no stint, went to the point where we had left the body, accompanied by Messrs. Little and [W. J.] Astley [manager of the Lake Louise chalet], and bore it in a litter over the rough way to the head of Lake Louise and thence by boat to the little landing of the chalet.
In the afternoon it was transported to Laggan and by the evening train to Banff, where on Friday it was embalmed and the autopsy and inquest held in accordance with the law. (The autopsy revealed a fracture of the occipital and left parietal bones, with some depression of the former, which renders it practically certain that Abbot was unconscious as he fell past us, and that he never regained consciousness.) Then began the long journey across the continent. On Wednesday, August 12, the remains were laid to rest in Mount Auburn [a Boston-area cemetery].
Thus closed the saddest episode in the history of our club, for this is the first fatal accident in its 20 years of existence. It occurs at the very dawn of a new era of genuine alpine climbing, for the extension of which among our young countrymen Abbot was so earnest an advocate.
That a man like Philip Abbot should love this form of recreation—and to him it was an education as well—argues for its nobility. Let his death, then, point no moral against it, but rather let it be regarded with the same unquestioning spirit, silent before the mysterious dispensations of the controlling Power, with which we stood a few weeks before when a life of extraordinary promise for the commonwealth [of Massachusetts] and the nation found an early end.