March 24, 2016

Byron Harmon, Photographer Extraordinaire, and the Mystery of Mount Habel

A few years ago, one of our fellow guides, Jeff Douglas, was featured on a Canadian stamp. He was perched atop Mount Victoria at sunrise, looking down towards Lake Louise.  Now we know that writing letters is a totally passe activity these days, but it's still cool to see a postage stamp that features someone you know, right in your own backyard.

In a couple of weeks, as part of their ongoing series on Canadian Photography, Canada Post is issuing another stamp that features a peak in our (slightly bigger) backyard.  The photo on the stamp is called “Climbing Mount Habel,” and is by one of our favourite Rocky Mountain photographers, Byron Harmon.

Harmon showed up in Banff  in 1903, and over the next 40 years, he practically invented the way this park is portrayed.  His photos are iconic, and we feature him in one of our shows – Rocky Mountain Madness – as a worthy inspiration for any photographer trying to capture what makes this place special.

Anyway, we wanted to remind ourselves of where Mount Habel was, and found it just north of us, near the Wapta Icefield.

But that's not the mountain on the stamp.

The mountain on the stamp is called Mount des Poilus, and it's located in the Yoho Valley, not far from the famous Iceline hiking trail.  So what's going on?  Well, Mount des Poilus was originally named for German mountaineer Jean Habel, who first explored the Yoho Valley in 1897.

We've long admired Mount des Poilus, and took this photo
while backpacking in the Yoho Valley a couple of years ago.

It was renamed in a fit of patriotic re-naming after the end of World War I.  Here's the rest of the story, from

“One week following the armistice which ended the First World War, eleven peaks in the Kananaskis Area were named after prominent French military leaders who had served during the confict. "Les Annales," a French publication, had suggested that one mountain be named, "for the great hero of the age, the humble and fascinating poilu (the lowest ranking soldiers of the French Army) who had battled the invading Germans."

Arthur O. Wheeler was asked to recommend a peak and the fact that he chose Mount Habel to become Mount des Poilus may have had something to do with the fact that Jean Habel was a German citizen. However almost seventy years later Jean Habel’s name was again placed on a mountain in the Canadian Rockies. Author Graeme Pole’s suggestion that a peak on the Continental Divide just north of Yoho National Park be named Mount Habel was accepted by the authorities in 1987.”