Mountain tourism and mountaineering as we know it today began with Edward Whymper’s famous first ascent of the legendary Matterhorn in Switzerland in 1865. Interest in mountain places came to Western Canada when the Rockies were made accessible by train in 1885. The Canadian Pacific Railway brought settlers, surveyors, explorers and adventurers into the western wilderness.
The C.P.R. advertised the Rocky Mountains as “fifty Switzerlands in one”, and began to build elegant mountain hotels such as the Banff Springs Hotel and the Chateau Lake Louise, as well as more rustic “bungalow camps” in the backcountry. To promote its fledgling tourism program, the C.P.R. even sponsored trips for Edward Whymper from 1901 to 1905, hoping he could summit Canada’s Matterhorn first (Mount Assiniboine), bag other first ascents and promote the railway.
In 1898 the C.P.R. brought over professional Swiss mountain guides. Outfitters supplied the pack trains of horses and rough and ready wranglers for the bush camps. Imagine arriving in Canada by boat -then taking the train across Canada, to dine and dance in the beautifully appointed hotels! Imagine being met by the burly wranglers and rugged mountain guides and being ushered into the wilderness on horseback or on foot to explore where few people had been before! How romantic! This was adventure travel at its best!
In the early 1900’s very few locals in the Banff area skied. Most of the prospectors and trappers travelled to remote areas on snowshoes.
Prior to 1928 there was very little backcountry skiing in the Canadian Rockies, or North America. In 1928 the Marquis degli Albizzi, an Italian nobleman, adventurer and winter sports director at the Lake Placid Club arrived with Erling Strom and four clients at the Banff train station. It was early March and there was not a flake of snow in sight. Tom Wilson, a well known Banff outfitter, berated the group, telling them they were crazy to take dudes to Assiniboine in the winter. He prophesied that the group would be “taken by avalanches, get lost, or freeze to death if they were foolish enough to start out.”
Erling Strom was a Norwegian ski instuctor. He knew that snow opened up the country. The group was undeterred.
It took a number of days to reach Assiniboine on skis. At the top of Assiniboine Pass Erling recounted; “before us lay the most beautiful little valley one could imagine, as well adapted to skiing as any we could hope to find. They stayed at Wheeler’s Camp, a rustic group of huts buried deep under the snow. A.O. Wheeler had constructed the cabins in 1925 as part of his “150 Mile Riding and Walking Tour from Banff.” Wheeler was a founder of the Canadian Alpine Club and had spent a great deal of time surveying the area as part of the Boundary Survey on the Great Divide between Alberta and British Columbia. In 1922 Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park became one of British Columbia’s first provincial parks.
The intrepid group of skiers spent seventeen glorious days at Assiniboine. Strom had decided that “this was going to be the place where I could spend most of my life if I could swing it.” The Marquis had connections and recognized the winter potential of the area. He approached the Canadian Pacific Railway and convinced them to build a log lodge complex at Assiniboine for fancy clientele.
Mount Assiniboine Lodge was built in 1928. Strom and Albizzi brought the first group of guests to the area in March, 1929. Assiniboine Lodge became the first backcountry ski lodge in the Canadian Rockies. True to his word, Erling Strom spent 50 years at Assiniboine.
Assiniboine Lodge is owned by B.C. Parks. After the Strom family tenure ended, Sepp and Barb Renner and their family operated the Lodge for 29 years (1983-2010). The Renner’s son Andre, Claude Duchesne and his wife Annick currently have a twenty year permit to operate Assiniboine Lodge. In addition to running the full-service Lodge (including meals, accommodation, and winter and summer guiding) they also manage all of the camping facilities in the Park and helicopter access.
B.C. Parks is currently completing a rehabilitation and renovation project at Assiniboine Lodge. The main Lodge has been stabilized on a proper foundation. Subtle improvements have been added to improve efficiency and safety in the main Lodge (ie. a code log stairway, proper fire exits and better lighting). The Lodge remains a “living museum” where guests can continue to experience the ambience of the past.