1870 Mack Laing in Alaska

Capturing the Summit: Hamilton Mack Laing and the Mount Logan Expedition of 1925
by Trevor Marc Hughes

Vancouver: Ronsdale Press, 2023
$24.95  /  9781553806806

Reviewed by Sage Birchwater

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When naturalist/cinematographer Hamilton Mack Laing was commissioned by the National Museum of Canada to accompany the expedition making the first ascent of Mount Logan in 1925, mountaineers didn’t have the benefit of Gore-Tex clothing and high-tech equipment they have today.  They also didn’t have satellite phones, GPS, or emergency air support if things took a turn for the worst.

Author Trevor Marc Hughes takes us back to those times in his most recent book, Capturing the Summit: Hamilton Mack Laing and the Mount Logan Expedition of 1925.

Mack Laing wasn’t a mountaineer. But he was an esteemed bio-scientist, writer, and hunter, at home in the natural world. Maybe it was a matter of sovereignty, but the Canadian government felt it was in the country’s best interest to identify the plants and animals that existed in this as yet unexplored corner of the Dominion’s vastness. And Mack Laing was the man they chose to do it.

So Laing accompanied eight international climbers part way on their quest to summit the country’s highest peak. He was taught how to operate motion picture equipment and hired to photograph and take film footage of the 88-mile trek up the Chitina Valley using pack horses from McCarthy, Alaska to the edge of timber where glaciers led to the massif. Then he was to spend the next three months gathering and identifying the flora and fauna he found there.

Trevor Marc Hughes. Tandem Photography & Films photo

What stands out in the book is the clever way Hughes juxtaposes the two solitudes of Laing, on one hand, languishing in the forested lower country interacting with birds and animals, and the mountaineers on the other, ensconced on rock and ice. He compares their dual realities day to day, until the mountaineers return from the climb six weeks later.

In one breath you are brought up close and personal to Laing procuring specimens for his collection; shooting a mother raven, then befriending her offspring and single parent dad by feeding them the offal from his string of other kills. Next you are plunked down in the life-gripping circumstances of the climbers battling fog and whiteout, fighting off frostbite and snow blindness, and marking their route with willow wands stuck in the snow so they could find their way back out again.

Hughes effectively segues between the two realities by introducing each section of Laing’s narrative with an excerpt of instruction from his boss L.L. Bolton, Acting Director of Victoria Memorial Museum in Ottawa. This gives the reader a sense of which lens they are looking through. It also helps explain the unique role the naturalist played in the expedition.

A headline from the period describes the high stakes of the 1925 expedition. Photo courtesy Gordon Olsen

Hughes gleans the information for his book from the diaries of Laing and several of the climbers, particularly that of second-in-command Fred Lambart. He also draws on the writings, reports and articles written by several party members once the expedition was over.

What stands out in Laing’s case is the radically different way species and specimens were gathered a century ago, in contrast to our less invasive techniques today. In 1925, Laing shot or, as he put it, “secured” bird and animals species of every description with his .32 rifle. Nowadays nets are used to snag birds to be studied and cameras with great optics can capture images at a distance.

Hamilton Mack Laing, in a frame from The Conquest of Mount Logan. Courtesy Library & Archives Canada

Laing was a crack shot with a rifle, and like the cartoon character Yosemite Sam, he blasted away and shot what e’r he could without too much concern for preservation. At the same time, he demonstrated compassion like when he befriended a raven family. It seems he exercised constraint, only “securing” the number of birds and animals he needed. Though it seems he needed an awful lot of them, and when it came time to head home he needed three packhorses to haul his booty back to civilization.

Another frame from The Conquest of Mount Logan shows some important locations during the expedition. Courtesy Library & Archives Canada

Hughes introduces the book by describing a public viewing of the silent film The Conquest of Mount Logan. This 45-minute documentary can be tracked down on YouTube and is an excellent companion to the book itself. This film was created by the National Museum of Canada using footage taken by Laing and climber Allen Carpe.

These were the early days of motion picture technology, employing the use of hand-cranked cameras mounted on cumbersome, heavy tripods. So it took some convincing to get everyone in authority on board to recognize the value of creating a motion picture record of the expedition. The film is convincing evidence that it was indeed a good idea.

A frame from The Conquest of Mount Logan shows the camps on route to the true summit. The photograph was taken from Mt. St. Elias in 1897 and was used as a guide for the 1925 expedition. Courtesy Library & Archives Canada

The Mount Logan campaign took two years to organize. It was a multinational effort with Great Britain and the United States throwing in with Canada to climb the highest peak in the British Empire outside the Himalayas and the second highest peak on the North American continent next to Denali.

Logan is part of the Saint Elias Range that borders Alaska, Yukon and British Columbia. Ironically European awareness of the Saint Elias massifs occurred long before the eyes and ears of Great Britain got wind of them. Danish explorer, Vitus Bering, toiling for Russia, first spotted these peaks in 1741. England’s first foray into the region didn’t happen until Captain James Cook paid a visit in 1776, searching for the Northwest Passage.

The SS Alaska brought expedition members from Seattle, Washington to Cordova, Alaska (Courtesy Vancouver Archives)

In winter of 1925, leader of the Mount Logan campaign, Albert H. MacCarthy, led a freighting expedition into the lower reaches of the proposed route, bringing food and equipment to several strategic caches along the way. This included heavier items like tents, toboggans, snowshoes and air mattresses that proved vital for the success of the undertaking. How he freighted everything in there is never explained. Was it by dog team, motorized transportation of some kind, or by packhorse? We are never told. But the foresight to provision the campaign ahead of time in such remote and challenging terrain was paramount to its success.

Expedition team aboard SS Alaska en route to Cordova. Left to right: (Man unknown), Norman Read, H.M. Laing, Henry S. Hall, Jr., W. W. Foster, Allen Carpe, Fred Lambart, Robert Morgan. Courtesy Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies

Mack Laing’s role with the expedition kept him out of the high country. Self-described as the “tail of the kite”, he stayed busy collecting specimens, while at the same time standing at the ready to support the other members of the party if needed. As it turns out his support was significant. His base of operations at Hubrick’s Camp, was eight miles (12 km) from the Trail End where he and the two wranglers turned the eleven packhorses around and left the climbers to their own devices.

That was on May 18 and the mountaineers were to spend the next 44 days on rock and ice. Six members of the party managed to summit Logan’s highest peak on June 23rd, then estimated to be 19,850 feet in elevation. Later calculations knocked 300 feet off that height, listing it officially at 19,551 feet. But if it’s any consolation, the mountain is still growing – rising in height a third of a cm per year thanks to tectonic uplift. So, who knows, maybe someday in a million years that earlier estimate might prove correct.

The return trip for the mountaineers even after they reached the summit was still an ordeal. Severe frostbite forced two of the climbers to turn around early on June 21st. A week later on June 28, Henry Hall and Robert Morgan stumbled into Hubrick’s Camp after having not eaten for three days. Bears had destroyed several food caches they were counting on.

Laing said the two men were hardly recognizable. “They were thin and haggard,” he described. “Their faces were sunburned, their gait suggested frostbitten feet, and they were starving.”

He kept the kettle going and the hot foot coming while the men told of their ordeal. Laing marveled at the amount of grub the men were able to pack away.

After resting up for eight days the two men headed out on foot for McCarthy, 88 miles away. Ironically that same day, on July 6th, the rest of the mountaineering team straggled into Hubrick’s Camp.

Several members of the party were unfit to walk any further due to frostbite, so they decided to build two rafts to transport the six adventurers down the Chitina River to civilization. One of the rafts safely navigated the route, but the other floundered and tipped over, swamping the crew and their gear. Miraculously everybody made it home alive.

A frame from The Conquest of Mount Logan. Mack Laing would secure specimens with a rifle, but also capture wildlife on film using the newfangled technology of the motion picture camera. Courtesy Library & Archives Canada

Laing meanwhile had one more month to spend alone at in the wilderness collecting specimens. By the time the horse packers got there on August 15th to take him home, he had four horse loads of plant, bird and mammal specimens ready for the exodus. Unfortunately, packer Andy Taylor only had three pack animals, so Laing had to consolidate his gear accordingly.

Trevor Marc Hughes concludes the book with an insightful Afterword addressing the shift in human values from a century ago. Technology allows us to track bird migrations without banding them, he says. The need for scientists to “secure” specimens like Laing did with his .32 auxiliary rifle, has become a thing of the past.

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Sage Birchwater

Sage Birchwater, a long-time resident of the Cariboo-Chilcotin, has written several books about the area including Chiwid (New Star, 1995). Born in Victoria in 1948, Birchwater was involved with Cool Aid in Victoria, travelled throughout North America, and worked as a trapper, photographer, environmental educator, and oral history researcher. Sage served as the Chilcotin rural correspondent for two local papers for 24 years while raising his family south of Tatla Lake. He has also lived in Tatlayoko, where he was a freelance writer and editor, and Williams Lake, where he was a staff writer for the Williams Lake Tribune until his retirement in 2009. His other books include Williams Lake: Gateway to the Cariboo Chilcotin (2004, with Stan Navratil); Gumption & Grit: Extraordinary Women of the Cariboo Chilcotin, (2009); Double or Nothing: The Flying Fur Buyer of Anahim Lake (2010); The Legendary Betty Frank (2011); Flyover: British Columbia’s Cariboo Chilcotin Coast (2012, with Chris Harris); Corky Williams: Cowboy Poet of the Cariboo Chilcotin (2013); Chilcotin Chronicles (2017), reviewed here by Lorraine Weir; and Talking to the Story Keepers: Stories from the Chilcotin Plateau (Caitlin Press, 2022), reviewed here by Richard T. Wright. Editor’s note: Sage Birchwater has recently reviewed books by Hamilton Mack Laing, Mykhailo Ivanychuk, Adrian Raeside, Matti Halminen, and Erskine BurnettPaul McKendrick  for The British Columbia Review.

 

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The British Columbia Review

Interim Editors, 2023-24: Trevor Marc Hughes (non-fiction), Brett Josef Grubisic (fiction)
Publisher: Richard Mackie

Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board now consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. The British Columbia Review was founded in 2016 by Richard Mackie and Alan Twigg.

“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster

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