Many mountains to climb:

🕔Dec 04, 2006
by Heather Ramsay

He would likely have never made it back to Mount Howson, a craggy, seldom-climbed spire in the remote and rugged range between the Telkwa and the Kitimat Rivers. But 50 years later, with the help of the Alpine Club of Canada, Adolf Bitterlich set out to finally make his own the mountain he had been the first to successfully climb.

Bitterlich, now 72 and living on his farm in Tlell on Haida Gwaii, made his first trip into the Howson Range following on the heels of a tragedy. British Columbia’s close-knit climbing community was devastated when, in 1957, Rex Gibson, one of Canada’s leading mountaineers, died during an attempt to reach the summit of Mount Howson.

Roped to his team, Gibson was leading the way up a seemingly easy slope on the west ridge when he lost his footing. He and two others, Don Hubbard and Sterling Hendricks, were all injured in the fall. Gibson died on the mountain before a rescue party could get to him.

The next July, 24-year-old Bitterlich led a climb into the steep range with the goal of raising a memorial to his mentor. On the south col of Mount Howson, the party built a rock cairn and embedded a bronze plaque in it, then Bitterlich and his two companions, John Owen and Bill Lash, turned towards the peak.

“The mountain was very disappointing to me,” he said years later over coffee in the kitchen of his island home.

Bitterlich had been unstoppable that season. In 1958, he put under his belt a first ascent of Mount Blackburn, the highest of Alaska’s Wrangell peaks, and the first Canadian ascent of Mount Waddington, BC’s highest mountain. But it was the successful climb up Howson, the highest peak between Bella Coola and the Nass River, that has haunted him ever since.

“This was not my mountain. This was Rex Gibson’s mountain,” he said.

Another chance

When Bitterlich read in Northword Magazine’s Spring 2006 issue about the Alpine Club of Canada (ACC)’s plans for a centennial expedition to the area, he knew it was time to go back.

Smithers-area mountaineer Shannon Finnegan, who knew of Rex Gibson’s tragic fate from reading historical trip reports, planned to take a party up the mountain in August 2006. When a call from Bitterlich came out of the blue, she couldn’t place who he was.

“The name sounded familiar, but it didn’t click,” she said.

When she realized she was talking to a living piece of the mountain’s history, she made sure he could come along.

The 100th anniversary of the ACC had even more meaning for Bitterlich. Long ago, he and his friends were guiding Alpine Club members who had been on the first club expeditions 50 years before. When the old ones started nodding off around the campfire one evening, the young ones began to snicker. Bitterlich remembers telling them, “Be careful. We have the chance to be alive for the centennial.”

The Howson expedition was the inaugural foray of the newly formed Bulkley, Skeena and Haida Gwaii chapter of the ACC’s Prince George section. Finnegan, who describes herself as an intermediate mountaineer and a mom, was leading the trip. Although she’s spent 17 years exploring different mountains, she is quick to point out that she is not a guide. Some of her fellow participants had spent a fair amount of time in the mountains, while others were brand new to the sport. Adding Bitterlich meant he would be the most experienced on the trip.

“Having him there wasn’t the objective, but it closed the gap in history,” said Finnegan of how much it meant to everyone that he was a member of the nine-person party. “It brought the people to life.”

Mountain legends

Bitterlich had many mountain stories to share. He was already an experienced mountaineer when he came to Canada in 1954. Growing up in East Germany he’d been part of a unique and rigorous climbing scene. Clusters of sandstone towers dot the rolling countryside around Dresden, and local climbers had cleverly devised a minimalist approach to the soft rock. Rather than use potentially destructive metal pitons and other tools favoured by the international climbing set, they would tie knots into manila and hemp rope and jam these into cracks or pockets. The climbers became so pure in their technique that they eschewed the use of chalk, too, considering the white marks left to be a form of defacement.

Legendary climber Fritz Wiessner, an immigrant to the United States from the same area, and the man who had beat the Canadians to the top of Mount Waddington in 1936, was one of Bitterlich’s earlier heros. Hans Gmoser, the father of heli-skiing , was another of Bitterlich’s mountaineer friends.

The ACC group arrived by float-plane at Burnie Glacier Chalet in the valley below the peaks and had five days to accomplish their mission on Howson. The plan was to set up a base camp on Loft Glacier. Those with the right skills would head towards Howson in the morning while the others returned to the lodge. The climbers knew what route Bitterlich—and Gibson before him—had taken, and they planned to intersect it and continue up the north ridge to the summit.

History discovered

The expedition’s other objective was to replace a summit registry found in a rock cairn by mountain guide and chalet owner Christoph Dietzfelbinger, who came upon the old yellow film canister while out with students on a crevasse rescue course. At first thinking it was garbage, he opened the rusted screw-cap to find a single piece of paper folded inside.

The note, written in pencil, said:
Aug. 15th 1957.
Panorama Peak [now known as Loft Peak]
7000 ft +
S.B Hendricks.
Al Peterson.
Don Hubbard
Rex Gibson
On way back from an attempt on N. Ridge of Howson.
Too much snow + too many avalanches.

Dietzfelbinger brought the note back to the chalet, where visitors can see it today, framed on the wall. A new summit registry and book for people to write in, along with a laminated copy of the original note, went back to the mountaintop.

In the end, the weather window did not allow a serious attempt at the mountain. Increasing storm clouds and the presence of overhanging cornices caused the party to turn around.

“In part, they needed an earlier start,” says Finnegan, who descended the mountain with two others rather than try for the summit. “And one member of the party hadn’t planned on climbing the mountain, but they couldn’t find a safe place to leave him.”

The group tried to get Bitterlich in as close to the peak as they could. With the physical limitations that age can bring he made it to a nearby col, then waited for the climbers to return. When each party came back, Bitterlich rushed to greet and embrace them, telling everyone they’d made the right decision, said Finnegan.

“It took away the sting of not having got to Howson.”

Lessons from the past

Having been on the mountain so soon after his mentor’s death, Bitterlich knew only too well the potential hazards.

Team member Hendricks wrote about the fateful fall in his 1957 trip report:
We fell for a distance of more than 200 feet, bounding from side to side. With sickening thuds and a certainty that the fall would end at the base of the gulley, all hope was gone. But through a daze I heard Don shouting ‘Don’t move, don’t move”. Then I realized we had stopped.

But the final paragraph reminds all mountaineers how easily events can turn to tragedy: “Rex was a careful climber, ever cautious. To have fallen at such a simple place hardly seems possible. But climbing is always hazardous and we paid the greatest toll that can be exacted. Let us remember, and then forget as others climb, with the hope that only joy will be their lot.”

Bitterlich has come to terms with not being able to do what he’d done 50 years before. In the end, the closest Bitterlich came to this rugged mountain from his past was during the flight in when the airplane buzzed past the impressive peak.

“You have to live with that and control your emotion about everything so you are not dangerous to your fellow climbers or yourself,” he said—good advice for all who go into the wilderness.

But he plans to return again so he can put another aspect of his experience with Mt. Howson to rest. He hopes to bring Gibson’s daughter, Kathleen, who was only four when her father died, to see the memorial Bitterlich built so long ago.

“I stood on the summit 48 years ago, but it was not my mountain,” he said. But this year, looking towards the peak from nearby heights, he made his peace.