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Chic Scott takes on Mount Assiniboine's storied past

"It is not just a special place in the Canadian Rockies, it is one of the most special mountain scenes in the whole world ... this is a special book for a very special place." 

Rising into the sky and through the clouds like one of the great pyramids of Egypt, anyone who has stood beneath the grandeur of Mount Assiniboine knows they are in a truly special place. 

The modern history of this peak, dubbed the Matterhorn of the Rockies, includes the history of European exploration in the west dating back to the mid 1700s; as well as the history of the railway, horsepacking, climbing, skiing, and backcountry lodges.

The subject was so expansive that author and historian Chic Scott has been thinking about it for some time prior taking on the project to write a book telling the history of this iconic peak. 

"I have known for many years, for probably two to three decades, that there was a really good story in Mount Assiniboine and I have always considered that it would be a good story you could write a good book about," Scott said.

"It really started about 10 years ago. Barb Renner and I talked about doing a book on Assiniboine, but nothing ever happened out of it and I was busy with other projects," he added. 

"Then about three years ago, spring 2018, I was talking with Claude Duchesne and Andre Renner and we felt this was the time. I had a clean calendar and a few years ahead of me with nothing booked and I said 'let's do it.' " 

Scott's impressive bibliography of titles published over the years, including his books on Hans Gmoser and the Whyte family, made him the perfect candidate for the job. 

Mount Assiniboine – The Story was published in 2020 by Scott and his company Assiniboine Publishing. The 325-page book includes 110,000 words and 3,000 historical photos. 

It takes readers on a journey through the history of the mountain from the early days of exploration, the A.O. Wheeler years, the building of the lodge, Erling Strom's era, the Renner family's time managing it and its current operators – Andre Renner and Claude Duchesne – who consider themselves the stewards of the legacy of Assiniboine. 

Renner said when his parents – Barb and Sepp – began running the lodge in 1983, they had a chance to meet many of the "old-timers" and hear their stories first hand. He said his mother was keen to learn about the history, and even published a cookbook at one time. 

He said they wanted Scott to take on the project before many of these stories are lost in time, adding the author had the experience needed to write the history of such a special place. 

"We had the First Nations, then the early mountaineers and explorers, and then the early tourists and tourism operators that started up horse and walking tours, " Renner said. "I am part of a progression of people that love this place, work here and care about it."

Scott said over the past 50 years, he has been collecting books, stories and history of Assiniboine. The name itself was adopted in 1917 by the Geographic Board of Canada after the Assiniboine, or Stoney, First Nation, whose traditional territory includes this area, which was been a world heritage site in 1984. 

The cast of characters that are included in the mountain's storied past includes recognizable local legends like Lizzie Rummel, Gmoser, Bill Peyto, the Brewster family, Mary and George Vaux, and James Outram, the first to climb the 3,618-metre tall peak. 

"It surprised me," Scott said. "The story was way bigger than I had imagined. I was not thinking of a book this big and this complete when I started working on it. I was thinking of a much smaller book." 

Scott's historical research and attention to detail allowed him to incorporate many primary sources and details into the book, including the reflections of Sam Allen on seeing Assiniboine appear out of a mist and clouds for the first time more than 100 years ago.

In 1894, Allen was one of a group of Yale College students staying in the Lake Louise area to explore the surrounding landscape. In September that year, Allen set out with an Indigenous guide and University of Toronto graduate, Yule Carryer, to make their way to the bottom of this mountain that Allen had previously seen in the distance from the top of Mount Temple during his first ascent of that peak.  

"I had followed the left bank of the lake to get a few more photographs, and that was about to leave when, happening to glance up at the rapidly moving clouds that hid the top of the wall, I observed through a sudden opening a single needle-like point glittering against the blue sky behind like a bit of black obsidian beneath a silver veil," Allen wrote. 

"It was indeed Mount Assiniboine; for, though the apparition lasted but a second, I obtained other sectional views of the gigantic pyramid ... Carryer, when I joined him, had also seen the peak, and was much impressed by what he considered the most awful mountain he had ever seen." 

Scott credits his editor, Gillean Daffern, with helping him organize the comprehensive history in a way that made sense. One of the biggest surprises, he said, was the discovery that the lodge was built in 1927. Scott said the history of the lodge dated its construction to 1928, according to Strom.

Strom had arrived that year in Banff with the Marquis delgi Albizzi and two others for a guided ski adventure that took them to Assiniboine.

"He [Strom] basically said that he and Albizzi went in there in 1928 and thought the area was so special and would be good for a lodge, that they went to the CPR and talked them into building the lodge there," Scott said.

"We got a hold of a bunch of documents from the B.C. government ... we found when they went in there in 1928, it had already been built in 1927 by the CPR.

"For years, everybody had [believed] Erling Strom's stories and nobody had really dug into it."

Adding even more details to this newly uncovered history, Scott said the railway company jumped the gun and built the lodge before it had secured a lease from the B.C. government. He added the government was not able to give leases to private businesses in what was now a provincial park and the lodge remained an illegal, non-conforming use for five years before a lawyer for the railway company secured an order in council to remove the footprint of the lodge from the park. 

It was two decades later that the railway company's lease ended and it returned the site to the government and it was put back inside the park. Ever since, those who managed the lodge have had a permit to operate. 

For Scott, it has been a labour of love and friendship. He said the time he has taken to learn about this particular cast of historic characters means his circle of friends goes back more than 100 years. 

"The nice thing about writing these books, is your community of friends and companions goes back 100 years and these people become real – it is pretty neat," he said. 

The book includes the most recent history of the area and lodge, like the 2011 project by the B.C. government to dismantle the lodge and build a new foundation, then reassemble it at a cost of $2 million. 

Renner said the renovations will help the building last for hundreds of years into the future for the next generations of stewards of the legacy of this special place. 

The book, too, is meant to last as an heirloom to keep on display for years to come, with money invested into its production. That includes a hand-tinted photo on the cover of each one. 

"A place like Assiniboine deserved a book like this, with all those stories, people and the love and care that people have for this place," Renner said. "It was bigger than all of us. Even me, growing up at Assiniboine, I know I am just a part of the history here." 

Even with helicopter access, Scott notes that the area remains relatively isolated from the bustling crowds at places like Lake Louise and Moraine Lake due to its remote location and the distance needed to travel to get there. 

"It is such a beautiful area," he said. "It is not just a special place in the Canadian Rockies, it is one of the most special mountain scenes in the whole world ... this is a special book for a very special place." 

Mount Assiniboine – The Story is available for purchase through Assiniboine Lodge for $75. The book can be shipped around the world, or picked up in Canmore. Email [email protected] fore more information. 

Tanya Foubert

About the Author: Tanya Foubert

Tanya Foubert started as a news reporter at the Rocky Mountain Outlook in 2006. She won the Canadian Community Newspaper Award for best news story for her coverage of the 2013 flood. In December 2018, she became editor of the Outlook.
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