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TALES AND LEGENDS OF THE MOUNTAIN KINGDOM: The Met Men of Old Glory

As a recreation mecca, we have a lot to be proud of in Rossland. Obviously, the ski hill is our big draw, but so is our fantastic trails system, which is maintained by the hard work of the Kootenay Columbia Trails Society. The trails system’s foundation goes back to the time of the boom era, which, when it ended, left behind as its legacy a network of wagon roads, rail grades, and miners’ trails.


With the cooperation of local landowners and Teck, the system expanded over the years into what is now the Mountain Kingdom’s non-snowy premier attraction. The Seven Summits Trail is the premier attraction of this premier attraction. Spanning 30.4km of alpine ridges at 2175 metres in elevation, with stunning views and challenging terrain, this particular trail is a favourite of mountain bikers and hikers alike - and for good reason.


What are the Seven Summits, though? Well, they are Mount Plewman, Old Glory, Mount Roberts (previously called Mount Spokane back in the day), Grey Mountain, Granite Mountain, Record Ridge, and Nancy Greene Summit (and did you know, by the way, that Nancy Greene Lake was previously called Sheep Lake before it was named after our most famous skier in 1968?). The mountain I want to talk about in this column, however, is Old Glory, which has a bit of history attached to it. It also, incidentally, was the image and title of all the RSS year books that were published in my time at that school, and had been for some time before.


Old Glory is the highest peak in the Rossland Range, reaching to an epic point in the sky 2376 metres above sea level, and it’s a popular hiking destination. The north face of the peak drops dramatically down 1000 feet, and was once - and perhaps is still - called the “Goat Hole.” Old Glory was also the site of a very old meteorological station and a forestry fire lookout, and was the scene of a dramatic rescue several decades back in the middle of a snowy, frigid night.


But let’s go back to 1950, first, when an article appeared in the Rossland Miner on August 31, a personal interest piece about the men that manned the meteorological station - nicknamed the “Met Men” - and the man who several times a week made the treck from a base camp to the station to provide supplies for them.


The weather station was built between 1942 and 1943 and was the highest one in Canada, and in fact, on the continent, and was part of a network of reporting stations making weather predictions as far north as Resolute Bay in the Arctic. Of course this was back before automation and technology - not to mention cutbacks - so of course the station needed humans to run it. On the top of Old Glory, three men stayed in the small cabin watching storms and enduring wild winds, fog, St. Elmo’s Fire, and pretty much any other weather phenomena Mother Nature could throw at them at that location.


During the summer, a man named Wilf Gibbard and his wife, Ruth, and their three children, lived at O’Brien’s Camp somewhere near the base of Old Glory (I’m not sure where it is exactly but if anyone does know, please leave a comment!). Wilf was contracted to provide the men at the weather station with all the supplies they’d need to get through the winter, “from marmalade to coal.” To do this, he employed a team of seven horses that each day made the seven mile trek to the top of the mountain laden with cargo. The entire winter’s supplies were delivered within this three month period. According to the article, Gibbard enjoyed his job immensely and his family enjoyed the lifestyle. Presumably, they came back into town somewhere to sojourn with their horses over the winter.


The fire lookout, obviously, was only manned during the summer months, and often it was university students who were hired to watch out for forest fires and radio back if they saw any signs of conflagration.


Met Men manned the weather station until the winter of 1968. In early January of that year, there was a near tragedy on the slopes of Old Glory. And it wasn’t the first, either. Earlier in the station’s history, a Met Man named Mike Dolan literally froze his toes off in a winter descent of the mountain, necessitating some time in hospital for an amputation. But on this fateful night in January 1968, the station’s technician, William Russell Raithby, who was alone at the top of Old Glory, barely escaped with his life. The weather station caught fire and burned to the ground, and Raithby, only lightly clothed, took shelter in the unheated fire lookout cabin. Having no means of radioing for help, it was his lack of weather reporting on one Sunday that alerted the Weather Service that something was wrong.


A rescue party of three men was organized. They left Rossland at 9:30pm Sunday night, and at 2:40am Monday morning, in hideous weather--high winds of 35 mph, “blinding snow”, and with a temperature around -10 degrees Celsius--they arrived at Old Glory’s peak to find Raithby huddling in the lookout cabin. For an additional five hours, these three men kept Raithby alive with their own body heat, after bandaging up his hands and feet. Then the storm died down, and a helicopter came to take them all back to safety.


The weather station had stood, cabled down so it wouldn’t fly away in the high winds, for just over 25 years, and had seen many people come through its doors, both Met Men and weary hikers needing a rest after the trek to the peak of Old Glory. Visitors were always welcome in that lonely little oasis at the top of the Rossland Range, where on a good day you could see from 90 to 110 miles in any direction. As we know, the meteorological station was not rebuilt, though the fire lookout cabin, I believe, is still there in some form.


I have always loved the look of Old Glory, which is in my opinion the crown jewel of the Rossland Range just because of its dramatic Rocky Mountain-like peak, but I have yet to explore the mountain personally.  It’s on my to-do list, though, along with climbing Mt. Roberts. One of these days, I’ll get there...


In keeping with the Seven Summits theme, next time I’ll be telling you about how Mount Plewman got its name. Stay tuned!


Sources:


http://www.rosslandrange.org/articles/500831%20Miner.pdf


http://www.rosslandrange.org/articles/680111%20Miner.jpg


http://www.rosslandtrails.ca/