Covid and the silver ice axe

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I don’t care that some politicians travelled over the holidays. Fretting over it is like wasting time stressing about what’s happening south of the border. I’ll continue to follow guidelines put in place to reduce the spread of covid. Let’s just chill out, read a book, play in the mountains, and help – not hurt – the fight against this deadly little virus.

This past weekend was busy in the mountains. Shovelled rinks were full, ice climbs had line-ups and skiable terrain was packed with those looking for fresh air. There’s been some sweet powder days lately, and it looks like there’s a lot more snow on the way. The new Canmore Climbing Gym is ready to go whenever restrictions are lifted and fitness facilities are allowed to open again. It looks awesome, congrats to the team who made it happen.

Did you know that an ice axe was left by Japanese climbers on the summit of Mount Alberta in 1925 after the first ascent? The team of six Japanese climbers and three Swiss guides, which was led by Yuko Maki, left the ice axe in a summit cairn.

The second ascent of the peak was 23 years later by Fred Ayres and John Oberlin. In that time, the legend of the axe grew into folklore that suggested it was made of pure silver and was given to the expedition by the Emperor of Japan. In 1948, Ayres and Oberlin discovered that the axe wasn’t silver, but a Swiss design with a wooden shaft and steel head. It dispelled the myth that it belonged to the Emperor of Japan.


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The Americans also found a note and summit registration in a tin can. The note said, “We came from Japan so far called by this charming great mountain.” In trying to free the axe, the wooden shaft broke, leaving the ferrule buried in the ice. The shaft was taken and placed in the American Alpine Club Museum in New York City.

In 1965, the other piece was found and taken back to Japan. For the ensuing years, the pieces of the ice remained separated. In 1992, Greg Horne, Park Warden and executive member of the Jasper/Hinton section of The Alpine Club of Canada, was on a research trip to the American Alpine Club Museum. In a pile of axes, he found one with only three quarters of the handle and with a label that read Mount Alberta. He had the piece returned to Jasper.

In December 1997, Japanese Alpine Club (JAC) and Alpine Club of Canada members met in Japan to fit the two pieces of the axe together for the first time in half a century. However, the summit register that Ayers and Oberlin discovered is still mysteriously missing.

On the 75th anniversary of the first ascent, Hiroyoshi Otsuka, president of the JAC, said, “It is said that an ice axe is the soul of a climber.” Visit the Jasper Yellowhead Museum to see the axe.

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