On the top of 8364' Centre Peak of the Livingstone Range (the Cowley wave generator)
there is a six foot tall rock cairn with a plaque which dedicates it to soaring pilots.
Below is the adventure of how it came to be constructed. photo: Tony Burton
THIS STORY RELATES the events leading to the fulfilment of a dream. It was a dream born in early May of 1987 while working in the Pincher Creek area of southwest Alberta. This particular evening I drove out to Beauvais Lake Provincial Park, never having visited it and wanting to become more familiar with the local terrain. Many times I had overflown this area during our annual Cowley flying camps; now I could more closely investigate potential off-field landing sites.
As I strolled about, the brisk westerly wind tugged at my jacket as though it was trying to get my attention, a reminder that I was in the Crowsnest Pass. The sun was setting as I looked northwest toward the Livingstone Range whose eastern flanks were now a sombre shade of dark gray. At this time of year the upper reaches still held some stubborn patches of snow, now barely discernable in the failing light. The mountains cast a mantle of darkness over the Cowley valley. To the east, the last rays of light touched some of the more prominent fir covered knolls clearly illustrating the origin of the name of the Porcupine Hills.
The sky now occupied centre stage as it prepared a light show that held me spellbound. Stacks of lennies shifted about; building here, vanishing there, the leading edges almost a luminescent yellow with deep magenta undersides and slate gray trailing edges - all this against a deep orange zenith. These were the untamed stallions of the sky which permitted the fortunate few to climb on board in search of diamonds and broad horizons. "For I have slipped the surely bonds of earth..." Indeed, an all-encompassing performance consisting of primary, secondary and tertiary lenticulars. The onset of darkness brought me back from my reverie.
Driving back to Pincher Creek I recalled that many entries in The Cook Book were made during this very time of year. And so in turn other eyes had surely been witness to what I had seen - Stachow, Hea, Mamini, Riddell, Audette, Eley, Cook - some of these I had the fortune to meet through personal contact, others through our literature, and still others I would never know. I was overcome by an overwhelming urge to form a bond with these wave pioneers. To be accepted as a kindred spirit among their ranks would require personal sacrifice as well as recognition of their accomplishments. I thought that a cairn in their honour erected on Centre Peak of the Livingstone Range might meet that need.
As ideas formed they were put into action. A visit to the county office in Pincher Creek resulted in two maps, a 1:50,000 topographical map with 100 foot contour intervals which would prove useful in planning a route up the mountain and a county land map which would give me landowners' names in the event I needed to cross privately owned land. Several evenings were spent travelling local roads at the base of the mountain and spotting the eastern slopes with my telescope. After choosing an ascent route I contacted Peter Hucik for permission to cross his land with the intent of climbing to the summit of Centre Peak. (He recounted how in past years he had been to the top on more than one occasion.) Meanwhile, I also decided to incorporate a plaque into the cairn so that others who might venture to the summit would understand the significance of this pile of stones.
A month passed by, and as June ended an inscription evolved over the course of five drafts. This was then stencilled onto a one foot square aluminum plate one eighth inch thick. I test drilled into limestone rocks in my back yard with a hand drill and masonry bits to be sure I had the appropriate tools to set the rock anchors for the plaque once I was on the summit.
Cowley Wave Site This cairn is dedicated to the
memory of those pioneers who gave
freely of courage and time to explore
this mountain wave area along the
These individuals persevered
both on the ground and in the air to
make their dreams become reality. Their
legacy must be respected and protected
so that future generations might enjoy
the benefits and exhilaration of one of
the world's foremost mountain wave
Soar high on silent wings;
search out the serenity of space.
It was my intention to erect the cairn prior to the Cowley summer camp. Not knowing what difficulties might be encountered during the climb, I decided on a two day excursion with an overnight on the mountain top. This in itself might prove to be a pleasant experience. My brother Bern had expressed an interest in accompanying me on the venture, and so it was that on the morning of Wednesday, July 15, we found ourselves on the eastern slope of the Livingstones.
The morning sun beamed down out of a clear blue sky. A light easterly wind created a murmur in the fir trees. We slung our 50 pound packs laden with camping gear on our backs and started our ascent following an old seismic exploration line. This trail ended on the spine of a long treed ridge which ran west up the mountainside to within 1000 feet of the top. If we could reach this point we would be 2000 feet north of Centre Peak. I had determined during previous examinations with the spotting scope that a direct ascent up the east slope of Centre Peak was not feasible. The final 1000 feet consisted of unstable scree slopes which terminated in vertical drops of 50 to 100 feet. Our plan would be to cross over top of the Livingstone Range ridgeline north of Centre Peak and then work south from the west side to reach the summit.
The weight of our packs forced us to proceed at a measured pace. Occasionally the sound of a Clark's Nutcracker or raven would break the silence. As we gained altitude the trees became shorter and were spaced further apart permitting a welcome breeze to fan our perspiring bodies. Having broken through the treeline we dropped our packs and paused for a snack of beef jerky and dried fruit. As we gazed out over the broad expanse of the Cowley valley I wondered what impact the proposed Oldman River dam might have on the future of this area. It was 11 am now and we had been climbing for two hours. From this point on the pitch of the slope continually increased and the footing changed to large cobbles requiring attention to the placement of each step. At 7500 feet our ascent was halted by a vertical face some 30 feet high. We diverted southward and intercepted a sheep trail which enabled us to negotiate the otherwise unstable scree slope. Boulders which worked loose under our steps would start a violent rolling tumble, taking others with them as they bounced down and finally disappeared out of sight 1000 feet below. Their crash and clatter bellowed back from the cliff faces. After a scramble over a vertical obstacle that afforded some hand and toe holds we were able to break over to the west side of the range: it was 1 pm.
What a relief to set down those packs! The sandwiches and juice tasted especially good in the noticeably thinner air. A peregrine falcon swooped by, soaring the ridge lift. We heard the clamouring cries of its offspring somewhere in the cliffs but were unable to spot the nest site. Crowsnest Mountain at 9138 feet broke the skyline ten miles to the west. Cumulus were billowing over the mountains as far south as Waterton Lakes although the prairies to the east were not yet spawning any cloud.
Refreshed after our break, Bern and I worked south along a scree slope which became continually steeper and thus also more unstable. But, within 800 feet of the top, we had come to an impasse. To our left were vertical spires which offered no footholds and the steeply pitched scree on which we stood terminated in an 80 foot vertical drop to our right. No more than 600 feet before us lay easy access to the summit of Centre Peak. So near and yet so far! Prudence dictated that we go no farther. We were neither experienced enough nor equipped for technical rock climbing, so to proceed would be foolhardy. One misplaced step or disturbed rock would result in a scree avalanche and certain tragedy.
With a heavy heart I took a last look at the peak, turned north and retraced the path we had just ascended.
During our climb in the morning our legs were pushing against the force of gravity, thus our breathing had been laboured. Now however, gravity was helping us down, our legs had only to check our descent with each step. At 5 pm we were back at our van, the muscles in our thighs screaming for mercy. A frosty beer out of the cooler was our only reward. That evening we swam in the Oldman River at its crossing with highway 22 and prepared a barbecue dinner. As the orange sky silhouetted the sawtoothed spine of the Livingstones, I resolved not to admit defeat after the first attempt. I would come back and try again!
Two weeks later Shirley and I attended the Cowley summer camp and celebrated our first anniversary during the closing weekend. During the week we had driven to Sparwood, BC to replenish my supply of "Kokanee" beer. On our return I detoured north at Blairmore and travelled a dirt road which led to some open pit coal mines that lay west of the Livingstone Range. From this vantage point I once again took out my spotting scope and glassed Centre Peak in search of an accessible route to the summit. An approach from the southwest might be possible. The attempt would have to wait though as my work took me to Texas and then on to Michigan; I did not return to Alberta until Christmas.
1988 turned out to be particularly depressing for me. For the first time since 1980 I did not join the Cu Nim Gliding Club as my entire summer was spent in Michigan. I felt far removed from the soaring community which had become a fraternal home for me. I did receive some satisfaction in being fortunate enough to attend both the EAA Convention in Oshkosh as well as the Reno Air Races - anyone even remotely interested in aviation would find either of these events well worth seeing. The year drew to a close and I had not even laid eyes on the Livingstones. In 1989 things would be different. Late March I left Michigan to return home to Calgary. Several Sundays later in April I took some of my radio control gliders out to our club to look for some early season thermals. To my surprise a group of instructors was present to start the annual spring checkrides. Before long I was coerced into a Scout to do some towing and I was once again an active club member.
Several months later I was back at Cowley. At times, when I looked at the Livingstone Range, it felt as though Centre Peak was beckoning me, and I of course was eager to go. While taking the camp's final morning temperature sounding, I took the Scout to 10,000 feet west over the Livingstone Range. This gave me an opportunity to survey my proposed route from a different perspective. On descent I skirted over Centre Peak at 8400 feet - a lone ram mountain sheep was standing sentinel. If the weather cooperated, I would attempt the climb again on the following weekend.
By the middle of the week the weather reports sounded promising, sunny days with scattered evening thundershowers indicated the likelihood of a weekend with some convection for soaring. Friday afternoon I packed my gear and told Shirley I'd be back home Sunday night. She was concerned that I was going alone this time, so I included my hand-held transceiver in my packsack. If I should have an accident I could contact an overflying airliner on 121.5 MHz. I stopped briefly on my southbound route at our airfield at Black Diamond to tow some students. From there it was on to the Crowsnest Pass where I spent the night in the van.
Saturday, August 12, dawned clear and calm. The first beams of light beckoned in through the rear window of the van and woke me, and following a hearty breakfast I made a final check of my gear to see that nothing had been overlooked. My overflight last weekend had shown that all snowfields were melted so I had no option but to pack my water with me. At Blairmore I followed the old coal mining road to the eastern slopes of the mountain range. An east fork on this road in turn took me northward on a jeep trail paralleling Gold Creek, which has its origin at the base of Centre Peak. I hoped to follow this stream through the forest to guide me to my destination.
At 9:15 I was hiking into the sun just now clearing the Livingstone Range. Fortunately I had discovered an old seismic trail which made the first half hour walking quite enjoyable. Our abundant rains this year left the forest floor carpeted in a lush green with a myriad of wildflowers now in bloom. At points where the stream crossed the trail I looked for animal sign in the soft earth and soon saw bear tracks. Although they were only black bears, I kept up a steady whistling of tunes that came to mind to broadcast my presence to whom it may concern.
All too soon my pathway came to an abrupt stop, but I had gained 500 feet in the past one and a half miles and was presently at 6000 feet. The next hour was spent pushing my way through dense undergrowth and tripping often; I'm sure my curses frightened any bear in the area away. On several occasions I heard crashing ahead of me similar to the sounds I was making, but the only tracks I encountered were those of elk. The gain was 500 feet vertical in a half mile when I broke into more open pine in a saddle between two ridges. Another half hour and I finally cleared the treeline at 7000 feet.
Ahead of me the mountain proper seemed to be staring down at me. A steep slope of loose boulders rose 800 feet ahead ending in a 40 foot vertical wall which fell off into an abyss to the north and trailed off to the south out of sight. Forty-five minutes of scrambling brought me to the base of this wall which I followed south in search of a cranny that would permit me to scale it.
Before me on my left a trickle of water wetted the limestone face and provided moisture for a small patch of grass at its base. I removed my pack here and ate a light snack. Half my water supply had been consumed and I realized I would have to replenish the stock. A long shoelace removed from my hiking boot acted as a wick when held against the wet rock face. In five minutes I recovered two litres of water. Proceeding a little further without the packsack I encountered a narrow ledge with suitable handholds to permit scaling the face. A chimney provided the means by which I was able to clear the last of the vertical wall. From this point on it was a straightforward walk up a moderate slope consisting of loose rock. Forty-five minutes of hiking put me on the summit at 2 pm.
The reward for climbing any mountain is the vista which stretches out around you in all directions. Under a clear blue sky the Porcupine Hills to the east melted into a patchwork quilt of green and yellow until that too finally diffused into the horizon near the Saskatchewan border. To the south the pale gray scar on Turtle Mountain's flank marked the location of the Frank Slide which took place at the turn of the century, burying an entire coal mining town while it slept. Further still, Chief Mountain in Montana stood sentinel just beyond Waterton Lakes National Park. To the west, Crowsnest Mountain marked the continental divide and the British Columbia border.
The charts show Centre Peak at 8364 feet. This peak is actually very small being no more than four feet wide and running north-south along the spine for no more than twenty feet. Here I found a small pile of rock rubble with a post lying across it. The post was wrapped in a faded orange survey ribbon. Under the rock rubble a brass plate was grouted into the bedrock placed here by the Geodetic Survey of Canada. I opened a plastic 35 mm film container which held two pieces of paper. One was dated June 1985 by a survey crew who admitted arriving here by helicopter. The other dated August 4, 1980 was signed by two men aged 19 and 24 respectively. Their comment was simply: "Arrived at the top at 6 pm. Windy as hell and cold. Please keep this note behind."
Work now began on my objective. A three foot square base was carefully prepared upon which subsequent layers of rock were placed using small fragments to securely lock the structure together. I quickly depleted the supply of loose stone in the immediate area and was forced to descend to a point some 50 feet away for a source of rock. Carrying the material at this altitude was tiring but provided security against occasional wind gusts that attempted to dislodge one's footing.
When the cairn was two feet high I decided to return to my packsack and bring it up. This provided a break in the work, as well as allowing me to set up a campsite while there was still daylight. A niche under a rock ledge provided a large enough flat area to lay out the sleeping bag wrapped in a plastic sheet, in turn weighted with stones against the gusty wind. I returned to the Peak, now only a half hour away, with tools, plaque and radio. Before resuming work I set the radio to 123.3 and shortly thereafter the frequency came alive. Several of the Cu Nim pilots were flying cross-country. I spoke with Dick Mamini flying his ASW-12 at Strathmore 175 kilometres away. He promised to telephone Shirley to let her know I had safely reached my goal.
I worked on as the sun slowly settled into British Columbia. A flat-faced two foot square rock six inches thick was rolled up to the base of the cairn and, after several failed attempts, lifted to the three foot level on the south face. After it was secured by placing other rocks around it, the anchors were drilled and the plaque secured to it.
I sat down and rested briefly; the sun disappeared below the orange western horizon and the wind's fingers now had a chill. A scimitar-shaped silhouette approached from the north, flying the ridge lift. I sat motionless as the peregrine passed within twenty feet of me, unaware of my presence. Perhaps it was the same resident my brother and I encountered two years ago.
At 9 pm I went down to my camp for supper. As I crawled into the sleeping bag the southern sky was alive with lightning. The cognac I had packed up with me now provided a warm internal glow, soothing my aching body and quickly weighted my eyelids. Later I awoke with a light drumming of rain on the plastic sheet covering me. My feet and the base of the sleeping bag were wet so I drew them up nearer to me under the sheet. The rain continued intermittently through the night.
Shafts of light broke through the early morning cloud deck and dappled the Cowley valley. I carefully slid out of the sleeping bag, not disturbing the pockets of rainwater trapped by the plastic cover sheet. This water was then funnelled into my canteen. I returned to the cairn and capped it off when I was no longer able to set the rocks any higher. The sun had now burned off much of the overcast and it was an opportune time for some photographs. My own note joined the others in the canister: "This cairn was erected in honour of the soaring movement. Anyone wishing more information on the subject should contact the Cu Nim Gliding Club in Calgary."
I took one last look at the pristine beauty around me and spoke in silence to some inner thoughts. I had established contact with those whom I admired. An inner peace vaulted upwards, spiralling in a thermal not of warm air, but of kindred sentiment. It was time to return to earth.