Aug. 6, 2014, Castle Mountain Summit: Twenty-eight hundred metres into the sky atop the scree-strewn peak of Castle Mountain, Erik Carleton hunts for clues behind a 60-year family mystery.
The 36-year-old ParaNordic guide is accustomed to leading para-legend Brian McKeever around the toughest courses on the IPC (International Paralympic Committee) circuit, but today, he’s tearing apart a six-foot cairn on the mountain’s main peak.
Sixty years ago, his grandfather, District Warden Ed Carleton and mountain climbing legend Walter Perren helped two photographers from California bury a time capsule near the summit of Castle Mountain, which bore Dwight D. Eisenhower’s name at the time (Mt. Eisenhower).
Since then, the time capsule was thought to be lost, hopelessly buried somewhere under a football field’s worth of scree atop the limestone mountain.
The rest of the search team watch eagerly as Erik finds a hole at the base of the cairn. His parents, Mike and Sylvia, Walter Perren’s son Perry and friend Romeo Bruni, Erik’s girlfriend Karen Messenger, her friend Sanne Van Der Ross and her dog Mito were all on hand to seek the capsule.
Reaching into the heart of the cairn, Erik grabs an oddly shaped piece of wood, but keeps flipping rocks.
“I didn’t know what it was at the time, I just thought it was a junk piece of wood,” Erik said.
A silver insignia on the wood flickers, and the shape reveals itself to resemble the bottom of a rocket. Michael Carleton’s eyes light up with a fire of recognition.
January 1946, Ottawa Canadian Club: Entertaining U.N. Supreme Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower in Ottawa, Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King discusses how Scotland had renamed one of its historic castles after his guest of honour.
After conferring with aide Sir Leonard Brockington, who insisted no one would be offended by the name change, and against the advice of the Geographic Board of Canada, King decided to rename the peak after Eisenhower as a sign of good will after the Second World War.
“We have no ancient castles in this country, but we have other things that are even more enduring. We have ancient mountains. We can’t very well present you with a mountain, but we have this mountain named Castle Mountain and it is the wish of the Government of Canada and the people of Canada to change the name from Castle Mountain to Mount Eisenhower,” Prime Minister King said.
Eisenhower was touched by the gesture, reportedly tearing up at the Canadian Club, vowing to visit the mountain one day and quipping that it should be a bald peak, to match his own vanishing hairline.
The news delighted Americans and the news was trumpeted in numerous big city daily newspapers, but did not sit well with some in Alberta. The Alpine Club of Canada officially protested the name change, as did Banff ski clubs who thought Castle Mountain was a suitable name, and another mountain should be re-named instead.
The Crag and Canyon reported on Jan. 12, 1946 that the name change, although popular in Ottawa, did not sit well locally as numerous complaints came in to their office. “Two generations or more have known this mighty monarch of the Rockies as Castle Mountain, and it will take some educating to change its name. Surely the choice of another mountain would have been more in order.”
This didn’t deter Jacob and Agnes Verwoerd of Long Beach, California, from coming up with a plan to honour Eisenhower in their own way atop Castle Mountain. By 1957, they had planned an exhibition to the peak, and to commemorate the 1857 Palliser expedition, which is credited with “discovering” the mountain in 1858 (despite the prior existence of First Nations people in the area, who told legends of how the Chinook winds, mischievous sister of the south winds, lived in the mountain and snuck into the valley in the middle of winter.)
The Verwoerds announced their intentions at a press conference on July 8, 1957 at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, stating they would cement a red, white and blue rocket-shaped time capsule atop the mountain filled with 150 microfilm documents and newspaper clippings detailing the history of the Castle Mountain area.
They would also erect a sign on the peak that read “Erected in honor of President Dwight. D. Eisenhower, by Jacob and Agnes Verowerd. Eisenhower – Pathfinder to World Peace.”
Through their connections, they were given an American flag from the White House to fly atop the peak, a letter of support from Eisenhower himself, and blessings from former prime ministers Mackenzie King and Louis St. Laurent, the executive secretary of the Canadian Geographic Society, and I.B.M. Strong, Banff National Park administrator.
The Verwoerds began visiting Castle Mountain in the 1950s, where they met Ed and Dorothy Carleton. Ed, a member of the Calgary Highlanders who fought at Dieppe and Normandy, was district park warden at Castle Mountain from 1954-1960, while Dorothy ran the phone directory, sold fishing licences and checked parties in and out of the backcountry from the warden cabin (which was burned to the ground by Parks Canada in the 1970s after wardens were centralized in Banff and Lake Louise. All that is left is the parking lot at Castle Junction.) They raised their family at the warden station before moving to Banff in the 1960s.
Mike Carleton was just a boy watching for exotic licence plates when he first met the Californians. Agnes was originally from Canada, having grown up in Prince Rupert, B.C., while Jacob was born in The Netherlands but was a naturalized Alaskan. Together, they came to Canada to photograph wildlife and the Rocky Mountains, selling their shots to the likes of Newsweek. They also reportedly shot two films in the Canadian Rockies, and had a third planned for Mount Eisenhower.
“I can remember they liked to do unique things. They were always looking for unique pictures. Mount Eisenhower was likely a big sale back home for them. They were not mountaineers. In Long Beach, they had probably built up a bit of an aura for what they did,” Mike Carleton said.
Before the Trans-Canada Highway went through, the Verwoerds managed to get across the river and photograph Castle Mountain from its most famous angle, which is now the Castle Mountain rest stop off the highway. They recognized the beauty and appeal of the mountain and were eager to climb it.
Ed Carleton and famous mountaineer Walter Perren, (who has his own mountain named after him in the Valley of the Ten Peaks) were chosen by Parks Canada to accompany the Verwoerds on the trip, although both were hesitant. Carleton was accustomed to odd requests from Ottawa, such as the time he was directed to catch live wolverines for a Walt Disney film (it was awful watching them chew the metal bars, Mike remembers), and the idea of cementing a time capsule atop the 2,800 metre peak wasn’t to their liking.
“Dad wouldn’t have touched this with a 10-foot pole,” Mike Carleton said. “The superintendent of the day would have said this is what we have to do, but we don’t know for sure. There wasn’t a huge amount of interest amongst the wardens or the park at the time.”
Aug. 28, 1957, Mount Eisenhower: Following orders, Ed Carleton and Walter Perren escorted the Verwoerds on the faint climbers trail to the back of Rockbound Lake on horseback before tackling the scree-strewn slopes to the summit on foot.
Encumbered with heavy gear, which Carleton and Perren carried most of, including the time capsule, a hammer, rock drill, sand, cement and water, the Verwoerds struggled with the terrain and altitude. Agnes Verwoerd told the Long Beach Independent Telegram the scramble cut her so badly her shoes were full of blood, and she strained herself carrying heavy camera equipment up the peak.
“I just told myself to calm down and breathe deeply. That seemed to do the trick because my breathing became more normal again and we went all the way to the top,” she told the Independent Telegram. “Coming down is the hardest. It’s the after-effects that bother you.”
The trip took much longer than expected. While the mountain can be scrambled in seven hours today thanks to a well-developed trail from Highway 1A to Rockbound Lake, it took the party 15 hours to complete their journey. Aware parts of the plan wouldn’t work, Carleton had to convince the Verwoerds to leave the sign at timberline, where they nailed it to a large tree.
“They were hoping to put a sign on the summit, but Dad said it will never last up there. It’s wooden and would get worn or stolen. So they found a big tree and nailed it to it. Trees change a lot in 60 years. I don’t think we’ll ever find the sign,” Mike Carleton said.
The party did reach the summit, where they placed the 14-inch time capsule under a layer of cement, then covered it with a small cairn. They took photographs of themselves with the American and Canadian flag on the peak, and celebrated a hard-fought victory.
Although they had promoted their summit attempt as the first since the Palliser expedition, and the climbing route up what is now Eisenhower Tower had become popular with ACC members, there were signs many others had beat them to it in the ensuing 100 years. They even found a golf tee on the summit. Undeterred, they left the time capsule buried under a cairn near the main peak (although not the actual peak).
Back at the warden cabin, Dorothy Carleton began to worry about the expedition. It was well past sundown, and there was still no sign of them. Finally, by midnight, they arrived at Castle Junction.
“I remember Agnes was not in good shape. She was exhausted and didn’t have good footwear. Her legs were all scraped up and mom stayed up with them and she put on some tea,” Mike Carleton said.
The Verwoerds returned to Long Beach, where they were celebrated for their efforts. They returned in 1970 and summited the mountain again. But soon enough, their efforts faded into obscurity. By 1975, the Town of Banff put together a petition to change the name of the mountain back to Castle.
It was held up by John Diefenbaker in 1976, who thought the change would insult the Americans. But in 1979, with Albertan Joe Clark as prime minister, it was officially changed back to Castle Mountain, 33 years after the initial change.
However, the time capsule story made an impression on the children, Mike Carleton and Perry Perren. As the years passed, they grew curious if the time capsule had survived, what mysteries it contained and if it could ever be found again. Once his own children were old enough, Mike Carleton and his family went hunting for the time capsule in 1994. His brother Brian, sons Erik and Patrick made it to the summit, but could not find any sign of the time capsule.
“To me, it’s always been at the back of the mind. I wanted to satisfy my curiosity. If we went up and there was no evidence, I can say OK it’s gone.”
Aug. 6, 2014, Castle Mountain summit: Mike’s eyes light up as his son holds onto a rocket-shaped piece of wood. Erik had no clue what it was, but Mike recognized its shape right away: one half of the Verwoerd’s rocket-shaped time capsule.
“You can tell a lot of work went into it. It looks like it was on a lathe and carved to look like a torpedo,” Mike said, noting how remarkably easy the search went.
“There was an opening underneath the cairn and it was just sitting there,”
Thrilled with the find, they realized their discovery presented more questions than answers. Where did the contents go? Why was only half of the time capsule underneath the cairn? If someone vandalized it or simply took the contents, why would they re-bury the other half of the time capsule?
“Now we know where it was placed on the mountain, but don’t know what happened to its contents. It’s of interest for our family and the Perrens … We’d also love to find a photograph of our parents on the summit.”
He’s encouraging anyone with information or knowledge about the time capsule, the Verwoerds, or the capsule contents, to email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dorothy Carleton will celebrate her 95th birthday in September, and the family will bring the time capsule to the party.
“Now that we’ve found it, there’s definitely progress. Now we want to find out more about the people involved.“