Swiss Influence & the Canadian Alps

lake and mountain image

Situated on the confluence of Western, Central, and Southern Europe, Switzerland has enjoyed its geopolitical station and has used it to its advantage numerous times throughout history. Switzerland lies in between two mountain ranges, the Swiss Alps which straddle the southern border of the Swiss Confederation and the Jura Mountains which are a sub-Alpine region and cover most of the country’s northern border. Due to the rugged terrain and harsh weather on both mountain ranges, most of the Swiss population lives in the valley that lies at the base of both mountain ranges. Switzerland’s unique geography has played an immense role in the survival of the famous “neutral” state. Throughout the centuries Switzerland has managed to stave off war by embracing its mountainous terrain and using it to its advantage.

During WWII Switzerland managed to become the only neutral state in a ravaged and
war-hungry Europe by playing its cards right. Switzerland’s mountain ranges represented a large part of the country’s transportation systems and they decided it would be the wisest choice to plant thousands of landmines and bombs on their bridges, tunnels, and strategic outposts in the mountains, threatening to blow up any invader that wanted to test their luck.

Canada can be compared to the tiny Swiss state, politically and geographically, in that both modern nations began as confederations and that they share a love for the mountains. Even renowned English mountaineer and explorer Edward Whymper, who was the first to summit the Swiss Matterhorn, one of Europes highest and steepest mountains, once said that the Canadian Rockies are “Fifty Switzerlands in one.”

Canada’s Rocky Mountains represent a small portion of the country but it provided a host of problems for Canada in its infancy. The Rockies were immensely hard to traverse and limited the movement of people and cargo across the country, stifling Canada’s population and economic growth. Thus, Canada embarked on a journey to connect Eastern Canada, which held most of the nation’s population at the time, to the newest addition to the confederation, British Columbia. The Canadian Pacific Railway was founded to provide a link from the province of British Columbia to the eastern provinces. The main difficulty in providing such a link were the Rockies themselves: treacherous mountain passes, fast rivers and sheer drops made for a difficult railway construction process. Nonetheless, CP Rail managed to create Canada’s first transcontinental railway system.
CP Rail was one of the most powerful corporations at the time as it represented the only means by which cargo was transported between the various provinces and across the country.
Additionally, the train provided people across Canada the fastest way of moving in the country and greatly contributed to the settlement and development of Western Canada.
Consequently, CP Rail saw the opportunity to expand its business by funding and building a series of grand hotels to supplement its rail infrastructure and provide travellers with a comfortable and luxurious way of travelling. One of their greatest accomplishments was the building of the great Fairmont Springs Hotel at the base of the Rocky Mountains.

The Fairmont Springs Hotel. Banff, Alberta, Canada.

On August 3, 1896, an American lawyer and avid mountain climber by the name of Phillip S. Abbots slipped and tumbled to his death while free climbing Mount Lefroy. Phillip’s tragic and untimely death on Mount Lefroy in the Lake Louise Region shocked the North American world at the time as it became the first recorded mountaineering fatality in North America. This shocking event led Canadians to see that they were amateurs in the art of mountaineering and decided to invite the renowned mountain experts, the Swiss. The Swiss mountaineers would set up camp in the Fairmont Springs Hotel, sitting at the base of the idyllic Lake Louise. Over the course of the century and with the help of the Swiss experts, Canada would avoid registering another fatality in the Rockies.

Eventually, the influx of Swiss mountaineers would greatly contribute to the unique culture surrounding the Banff Area. R.W Sandford, a Canadian historian and author of “The Canadian Alps: The History of Mountaineering in Canada,” stated that “It was the Swiss guides who made manifest the meaning of having so many beautiful mountains.” Today, 15 of Alberta’s mountain peaks were named in honour of the various Swiss mountaineers.

In 1949, John Monod would open the first ski shop in the Banff area and would enjoy
massive success as the leading authority on skiing. John Monod was a Swiss mountaineer and ski guide who was attracted to Canada by the spectacular Rocky Mountains. John crossed the Atlantic guided by a sense of pioneering spirit and a love for mountains, having been surrounded by them in his native Switzerland. Today, Monod Sports is still operating in Banff and enjoys a famed history. It isn’t hard to see the effects that Swiss culture has had on the Rocky Mountains, from the fondue, a traditional Swiss dish that is shared communally, to the Ski lifts and gondolas, the first ski lift being built in 1908 by a German living in Switzerland, that dot the ski resorts and national parks.

Thanks for reading!

Kareem Abdurazag


Writer | Culture & Humanities Blogger

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