Legacy Article "Icefields Review"
by Alwynne B. Beaudoin
My fascination with the Rockies began on August 8 1976, my first day in Canada. Arriving
in Calgary from England, I was driven straight to Jasper National Park to begin fieldwork.
Dizzy with jet-lag and culture-shock, I resolutely refused to appear impressed by the
Rockies, while inwardly stunned at my first encounter with real mountains. Subsequently,
I spent several summers doing fieldwork in Sunwapta Pass near the Athabasca Glacier,
the thinly disguised locale of Icefields. The mountains intrigued me, not only for
their geological and environmental history, which I was studying, but also for their human
history. I read accounts of 19th century climbers, Walter Wilcox's expedition, the amazing
journey of the Earl of Southesk, Mary Schaffer's botanizing, and the exploits of the
colourful cast of guides, outfitters, and mountain men like Peyto, Brewster, and Simpson
who accompanied them. Clearly, Thomas Wharton has felt the same fascination for a record
that is so close, yet just beyond living experience. Taking that whole mix of history,
local legend, and tall tales, in Icefields he has distilled from it an alternate
reality, a history-that-might-have-been.
The central character in his lyrical tale is the ice itself, grinding inexorably down the
mountains, changing both the landscape and the people who come in contact with it.
Chief among these is Edward Byrne, an Anglo-Irish physician, who joins Stutfield and
Collie's climbing expedition in the Rockies with the aim of making a name for himself as a
plant collector. His ambitions are abruptly terminated when he falls into a crevasse in the
Arcturus Glacier. As he hangs upside down in the ice, waiting for death or rescue, he has a
vision that haunts him for the rest of his life. It initiates an obsession with the glacier
and its behaviour that compels Byrne to return to the icefields and begin a decades-long
project to learn as much as he can about the movement of the glacier and the properties of
ice, beginning with measurement and diagnosis as meticulous as any for a human patient.
Solitary and self-sufficient, concerned with processes measured in centimetres per year,
he tries to ignore the events that swirl around him, as the railway is built, a World War
is fought, and progress, in the shape of Frank Trask, a scheming promoter and former guide,
brings a hotel, visitors, and ice-tours to the glacier.
Wharton perfectly captures a sense of wonder at the power and relentless-ness of the ice.
His scientist is driven but believable, his observations recorded in elegant prose, spare
but evocative. Wharton's tale is like the sensation of standing at the toe of the Athabasca
Glacier, looking up at the ice and shivering as the chill thin wind flows from it, bringing
echoes from the past. If you love the mountains, you'll love this book.