Following in her dirt-covered footsteps

Women warriors, the Illecillewaet Glacier, and the battle to preserve the past and transform the future

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Actor Liliane Lambert portrays Mary Vaux in a new production by Agathe Bernard that will debut in May. Photo: Agathe Bernard

This article first appeared in print in the July, 2018 issue of Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine.

Mary Vaux was a groundbreaking scientist and female adventurer who helped break down the glass ceiling, but Google her name and you’ll find she’s more often remembered for being a painter than a scientist. A local adventurer, scientist and documentary filmmaker wants to change that

It’s been more than 130 years since Mary Vaux first stood atop the Illecillewaet Glacier. At the time, the narrow confines of the Victorian mindset still demanded women cover their legs. Relegate themselves to domesticity. Raise children. The thought of a woman studying science, no less — just studying — raised eyebrows. Add to that equation climbing mountains, and you had a sure fire recipe for controversy.

But Mary Vaux didn’t mind.

Among her many accomplishments, Mary Vaux was published by the Smithsonian, published by the Canadian Alpine Journal in 1911, the first woman to successfully ascend the over 10,000 ft. Mt. Stephen in Yoho National Park, and the president of the Society of Women Geographers. Photo: Whyte Museum

Rather than simply be a man’s wife or a mother, the affluent daughter of Philadelphia Quakers spent her life drawing the flora of the American West, climbing and photographing the mountains of North America, and conducting glacial research. And not just before men were doing it. But before, well, really, almost anyone was.

In fact, her research methods, which relied on early large- and medium-format photography, (because hauling a large format camera and glass plates up a mountain isn’t an accomplishment in its own right) were considered a breakthrough in the emerging field of glaciology, and her work photographing and recording the melting and movement of the Illecillewaet Glacier, just west of Rogers Pass and on the south side of Mt. Sir Donald, has made it the longest observed and recorded glacier on the continent, and among the most studied in the world.

Yet, even though she helped pioneer a science, 131 years after Vaux first stepped foot on the south side of Mt. Sir Donald, and almost 80 since she last visited Rogers Pass, Google her name and you’ll find she’s more oft remembered for her watercolor paintings, or for being the wife of a prominent explorer, (one she didn’t marry until she was 54) than for being among the first people to study glacial movement in North America, a prominent mountain climber, or the first woman to complete the more than 10,000-foot ascent of Mt. Stephen in Yoho National Park.

One of the female adventurers, scientists and woman warriors who followed in Vaux’s dirt covered footsteps, wants to change that.

Finding a glimpse of the past, and moving forward

Agathe Bernard nearly went blind in a work accident before she found her calling. She thought she’d never be able to take a photograph again.

“My first thought was that I wouldn’t be able to take pictures anymore, and that’s what I live for.”

It marked a critical turning point in her life.

Among other things, it took Bernard from being a full-time scientist to a photographer and storyteller.

It also led her to Mary Vaux.

It was during her recovery, some six years ago, that she caught a glance of a picture of a woman working up in a glacier in a Victorian-era dress. It astounded her.

“I thought to myself: how the hell could she do this? Even working in Gore-Tex is difficult. And it was visually striking. It made me want to dig into her story. And the more I looked at it, the more I realized we had similarities. We had both had to overcome similar challenges.”

Years later, Bernard teaching photography to teenagers on the Illecillewaet Glacier when she realized that this story, one that had seemed to follow her around, kicking in the back of her head, drawing her in for years, was one she wanted to tell.

Now, after successfully applying for a $50,000 in funding from STORYHIVE and the Columbia Basin Trust, the scientist turned storyteller is working on an immersive film, two years in the making, that she hopes will help cement Vaux’s place in the history of glacial science and research. She hopes it will motivate people to take action on climate change, and empower women to get out into the mountains.

Bernard’s film, shot by FD Productions this June, sets out to tell Vaux’s story by monitoring the recession of the glacier over time.

But it is more than simply about a glacier, or about a woman. It is about both, she says, and also, the state of the contemporary world. One that is constantly changing and evolving, for the better, and the worse.

The south side of Mt. Sir Donald saw Vaux return to its glacier nearly every year, watching it slowly recede over the course of her life. That recession, a natural process of the earth, has been accelerated by climate change. Bernard hopes her research will not only inspire more women to get out into the mountains and kick ass, but for more people to help save the planet, one small action — or even photograph — at a time.

Fact List:

Among her many accomplishments, Mary Vaux was published by the Smithsonian, published by the Canadian Alpine Journal in 1911, the first woman to successfully ascend the over 10,000 ft. Mt. Stephen in Yoho National Park, and the president of the Society of Women Geographers

Despite the many obstacles she encountered, Vaux’s research has helped make the Illecillewaet Glacier, just west of Rogers Pass, on the south side of Mt. Sir Donald, the longest studied glacier in North America.

Vaux first visited the Illecillewaet Glacier with her brothers in 1887.

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Jake, 26, is a graduate student in the history faculty at the University of Victoria and a reporter at the Revelstoke Mountaineer. His research has looked at counterculture and alternative media in the Pacific Northwest and Jewish identity in post Holocaust Central and Eastern Europe. Got a lead on a story? Feel free to drop Jake a line at, Jake@revelstokemountaineer.com