Trailblazer: Stanley Smith, Forgotten Explorer

For every visionary mountaineer and frozen-bearded explorer whose exploits are immortalized, there have been dozens of equally remarkable backwoods hardmen stalking the wilderness in search of wealth, adventure, or even solitude, but not fame. Fair or not, history is not their friend.

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Dave Barnes illustration

By Jeff Slack

Take the enigmatic Stanley Smith, whose coastal adventures would now be completely forgotten if it weren’t for a handful of old newspaper articles.

In July 1893, accompanied by a “Mr. Doolittle” and two anonymous Squamish guides, Smith set off up the Squamish Valley in search of two surveyors who had disappeared the previous summer. All they found was a grey tweed cap and a burnt-out campsite near the head of the Elaho River. Undeterred, and with little more than a shotgun to ward off starvation, Smith and Doolittle continued northwards.

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According to Smith’s police report – the only surviving firsthand account – from here they ascended massive icefalls unroped, crimping along narrow rock ledges above heavy exposure, crossed box canyons on suspended logs hundreds of feet above boiling rapids, and at one point spent six days immobilized on a glacier waiting out a severe case of snow-blindness. As most of the terrain they crossed was unmapped and unnamed, their exact route is unclear. Almost certainly, they traversed much of the Lillooet Icefield before finally descending from the ice one last time to find “rock formations and plant growth that showed we were on the eastern slope” of the Coast Range, a few miles from Chilko Lake.

“According to Smith’s police report – the only surviving firsthand account – from here they ascended massive icefalls unroped, crimping along narrow rock ledges above heavy exposure, crossed box canyons on suspended logs hundreds of feet above boiling rapids, and at one point spent six days immobilized on a glacier waiting out a severe case of snow-blindness.”

Surviving on half rations from an earlier goat kill, from here they took three days to carve out a canoe and cross the freshwater fjord, purchased fresh provisions and clothing from a group of Chilcotin men, felled and carved out a second canoe, and descended the treacherous Klinaklini River to Knight Inlet. Finally back on the coast, they hitched a ride on a passing steamer back to a hero’s welcome at Vancouver, arriving on October 26th more than three months after setting out.

Victoria newspapers described Smith as a “well-known British Columbia explorer” who “had a great deal of experience in the unexplored parts of the province,” but sparse details remain of his other journeys. His career came to an abrupt halt when a Homalco chief found Smith’s corpse stuck in a log jam on the lower Homathko River in November 1895. Reports stated that a partially legible diary was found in Smith’s pocket recording some of his mineral finds and travel routes, but this little black book of Coast Range secrets is long gone.

“Surviving on half rations from an earlier goat kill, from here they took three days to carve out a canoe and cross the freshwater fjord, purchased fresh provisions and clothing from a group of Chilcotin men, felled and carved out a second canoe, and descended the treacherous Klinaklini River to Knight Inlet.”

Smith’s obituary portrays a unique, even eccentric character. “A college-bred man, possessed of considerable means [with] rich parents living in the East,” Smith rejected his privilege and chose instead to live alone in a humble cabin on the outskirts of Vancouver. When not wandering the coastal wilderness, Smith put his education to use by providing pro bono legal services for those of lesser means, turning his cabin into a “tramp’s court,” like a nineteenth-century Judge Judy.

The article concludes: “All who knew Stanley Smith here revered, respected and admired him as a man, while in his public character as an explorer, the province loses the valued assistance of one whom it will be almost impossible to replace.” For whatever reason, however, his memory quickly faded. A half-century later, mountaineering legend Don Munday was astounded to learn how “mountaineering circles in British Columbia [had lost] even word-of-mouth knowledge of [these] great glaciers discovered in 1893.” Today the only monument to these epic adventures is the Stanley Smith Glacier near the remote heart of the Lillooet Icefield.


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