The “Matterhorn of the Canadian Rockies” has captivated climbers for more than a century.
Sunshine glances off Lake Magog as I trudge along the trail with my older brother; the peaked roof of Assiniboine Lodge now visible like a brush-stroke of red at the far end of the lake.
Fatigued from a long day in the mountains, I slip into a meditative state and with each step, sift through the memories of my first visit to this place. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I was far too young then to appreciate this he-man truism; my belly grumbled with a hunger that eclipsed the astonishing beauty of our surroundings. Nuclear families are not democracies; they’re autocracies. It was 1972. As usual, being the runt of the Findlays, I was dragged along obliviously on another epic family backpacking trip (shorthand for long treks with heavy packs fueled by freeze-dried rations), this time into the heart of Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park.
With its classic symmetrical beauty, Mount Assiniboine is known as the “Matterhorn of the Canadian Rockies.” People have been drawn to this mountain region straddling the BC-Alberta border for almost a century, ever since the shrewd businessmen behind the Canadian Pacific Railway built Assiniboine Lodge in 1928, only adding to their efforts to cash-in on the boom in mountain tourism. This historic lodge and Lake Magog shimmering at the foot of the Canadian Matterhorn have together been the subject of millions of postcard snaps and countless amateur and professional artistic renderings. A young Hans Gmoser helped pioneer ski touring in the region, and legendary mountain-woman Lizzie Rummel ran the Sunburst Cabin between 1951 and 1970. But all this nostalgia and mountain history was lost on a six-year-old. After the punishing 28-km slog into Lake Magog from the Smith Dorrien Highway, Assiniboine represented to me the ultimate privation that could be visited upon a child: an empty stomach.
You see, my dear mom and dad had miscalculated the amount of freeze-dried rations needed to feed a hiking family of two adults and four kids. Two nights into our trip, stores were already running thin, and all we could do was salivate like children locked out of a chocolate shop and watch as well-fed Assiniboine Lodge guests waddled through flower-dappled meadows with cameras and field guides in hand.
The Findlays were not lodge dwellers; my dad, a stoic Scotsman, was a dedicated backpacker committed to the carry-on-your-back-everything-you-need-to-survive philosophy. But eventually, in order to preserve calm and sustain a growing family, he swallowed his pride and traipsed over to Assiniboine Lodge to ask if it would be possible to buy a meal or two. He wasn’t looking for charity; he had money and was willing to pay cash for some seats at the table, or even space on the back steps behind the kitchen and a plate of leftovers. However, he was met by Erling Strom, the legendary Norwegian who had managed Assiniboine Lodge for decades and who, in some ways, treated the entire park as his personal fiefdom. Peons like us who chose to dwell in tents at the nearby provincial park campground were often afforded a measure of disdain, even contempt. Needless to say my dad’s plea for placemats in the dining room, or at least for a few scraps from the pantry, was met with a perfunctory no, directions back to the campground and a quickly closing door.
Thankfully, a trail maintenance crew took pity and parted with a few tins of chicken, which as repulsive as it sounds to me now, must have tasted like Michelin Three-Star fare to the ravenous Findlay brood. Of course, I survived to participate in many more family hiking adventures, and my youthful short-term memory allowed me to quickly forgive our parents. In fact, being my sixth birthday, I was promised a restaurant feast in Banff after hiking back out of Assiniboine. I recall multiple trips to the dessert bar.
Despite the psychological trauma of my early visit, Assiniboine Provincial Park hasn’t lost its allure. More than 30 years later, I returned with my brother and a few friends to climb the park’s namesake mountain, which tops out at 3,618 metres. After a night at the R.C. Hind Hut, a cramped Quonset tethered to rocks at the base of the peak, we shuffled into pre-dawn half darkness, following a quick instant coffee and porridge breakfast. We lucked out, finding the mountain in almost perfectly dry late-summer condition, except for a layer-cake frosting of snow on the upper third of the sedimentary massif. Calm blue skies blessed our ascent of the sixth-highest peak in the Canadian Rockies and by late that afternoon we were already strolling through meadows of Indian paintbrush and shrubby cinquefoil, next to the impossible turquoise of Lake Magog. Just four hours earlier, we had stood atop Assiniboine, which now towered almost 1.5 vertical kilometres above us. When we arrived at Assiniboine Lodge, the reception we got was the polar opposite of what the Findlays experienced so long ago. In 1983, Strom passed the torch to Sepp and Barb Renner, who managed the lodge until 2010, before also handing over the wheelhouse, this time to son Andre, who was lucky enough to be raised in this incredible mountain paradise. Today, he manages it along with business partners Claude and Annick Duchesne (Annick is the lodge’s longtime chef). We were just in time for the guides’ meeting, shorthand for staff happy hour. The sun was setting, casting Assiniboine in an alpenglow that has enraptured countless others before us. The clink of ice in gin-and-tonic tumblers punctuated the laughter and chatter. Places like Assiniboine have a way of clutching the soul; it took me more than three decades to come back, but I knew I would eventually—this time on a full stomach.