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Mount Rundle as captured in 1949 by Walter J. Phillips, an artist who came for a visit and stayed 20 years. (Collection of the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies)
Mount Rundle as captured in 1949 by Walter J. Phillips, an artist who came for a visit and stayed 20 years. (Collection of the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies)

Ian Brown: Why we are so drawn to the magnitude and beauty of mountains Add to ...

“Do you like the mountains?” I asked.

He said he loved them. “I like being surrounded by the size of them. And I like that you have to be who you are and where you are around the mountains. You can’t be anything else. They’re demanding.”

“Demanding?”

“Because they can be like your elders. They can say, like, ‘What were you thinking those last few months? We gave you everything and you come back like this? Get your shit together.’ You know?”

Mount Rundle was named for Rev. Robert Rundle, a romantic Wesleyan Methodist missionary from Cornwall, England. In 1840, at the age of 29, he took up an open offer from Hudson’s Bay Company governor George Simpson of transportation, room, board, an interpreter and £50 a year to any clergyman willing to tend the souls of natives in western North America.

After a 26-day boat journey from Liverpool to New York, and a further three-day trip to Montreal, Rundle set out on April 29, 1840, in a Hudson’s Bay canoe – for Edmonton. He arrived in October, eager to make his way to the Rocky Mountains, which seemed to hold a supernatural allure for him. Some historians claim that he was the first Protestant minister to make it west of Winnipeg.

Judging from sketches, he looked exactly like Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments after Moses receives the tablets from Jehovah – slightly mad, but keen. Finally, in February of the following year, Rundle left Edmonton on the seven-day journey (his first) to Rocky Mountain House and the foothills. He was wearing lamb’s wool hose, woollen drawers, lined trousers, leggings, gaiters, a flannel shirt, a waistcoat, a coat, a pilot coat, a shawl, moccasins and a sealskin cap, and was further wrapped in a buffalo robe in his dogsled. Layering, it turns out, has been around a long time.

Rundle’s moods swung wildly. He missed England. He suffered from migraines and nosebleeds, and thought that the sled driver mistreated the dogs. He also found that roasted beaver tasted like pork (delicious) and that travelling at night prevented snow blindness. By the end of the month, his longed-for mountains were still disappointingly obscure. “How uncertain is everything here below,” he wrote in his journal, adding that “much depends on the state of the atmosphere.”

In the meantime, he encountered a party of much-feared Blackfoot Indians. “I felt the insignificance of my stature in comparison to these tall sons of the plain,” he wrote. But Rundle had a way with natives: The Blackfoot invited him to their camp. He spent more time with the friendlier Stoney Indians, who believed that he had descended to earth from heaven, folded up in a piece of paper.

April had come around before Rundle recorded having a good look at the mountain peaks, albeit from a distance. “The sight seemed too grand and too glorious for reality,” he noted. He thought the view was what he see in heaven. He finally breached the front ranges and reached what is now Banff, “quite amongst the mountains,” in 1847 – “a time never to be forgotten.” To honour the occasion, he conducted services by moonlight in Cree. I wish I’d seen that.

On his way back to Edmonton, he fell off his horse (something he did with regularity) and broke a wrist so badly that the arm was nearly useless, forcing a trip back to England at the age of 39.

He never returned. But Rundle’s good reputation with local tribes persisted, so much so that, when James Hector, the lead geologist (and surgeon) of the Palliser Expedition, which was surveying routes for the Canadian Pacific Railway, passed through the area in 1858, the Stoneys were still singing hymns and praying. Hector named Mount Rundle for the earnest reverend. The mountain proceeded to make its next mark in Canadian history by blocking the way of the oncoming railway.

The CPR had hired Major A.B. Rogers, an American, to find a route through the Rockies. (Rogers Pass, the site of some of the best skiing and worst avalanches in Canada, is named for him.) He was an impatient, irascible ass – his mustache was so long and white and thick that it looked as though two streams of smoke were billowing from his infuriated nostrils – who proposed getting around Rundle by running the railway through its much smaller neighbour, Sleeping Buffalo Mountain, via a 275-metre tunnel. CPR president William Cornelius Van Horne was outraged at the projected delay and cost, so the idea was dropped. But the mountain is still called Tunnel, except by the Blackfoot and other tribes, who stick with Sleeping Buffalo – what it looks like if approached from the west.

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