Barrett, Robert L.
(1871-1969)

Robert LeMoyne Barrett was the wealthy son of a Chicago tar-paper manufacturer and businessman. He studied at Harvard University in 1893 but considered it “too stuffy” and after one semester departed for the Canadian Rockies.

R.L. Barrett first visited the Canadian Rockies in 1893 beginning with a three week trip with Laughlan A. Hamilton of the CPR. Following this he, guide Tom Wilson, and cook George Fear followed the old Indian trails over Simpson Pass to the Simpson River. From there they struggled to reach Ferro Pass and down again into the valley of the Mitchell River before reaching the base of the mountain and became the first to visit the base of Mount Assiniboine. In a letter to Tom Wilson some years later after visiting the Himalayas, Barrett wrote, “K2 at 28,000 feet didn’t look as high and imposing and terrible as Assiniboine when you and I finally won through to where we could get a look at him.”

Upon returning to the U.S., he spent some time living in a cave and in an Indian teepee that he had erected on a hilltop in New Hampshire. He did, however, return to Harvard to complete a degree in 1898.

In 1895 Barrett returned to the Mount Assiniboine area with Walter Wilcox, J.F. Porter, and guide Bill Peyto. After reaching the base of the mountain, they decided to circumnavigate the immense mountain in order to view its hidden southern slopes. According to Wilcox, the trip was “attended by considerable hardship,” as it became a 46 hour, 51 mile struggle involving travelling over downed timber, at times ten feet off the ground, through burned out forests that turned them, “black as coal heavers,” and a 500 foot slope that, “appeared nearly vertical.”

Barrett returned to the Rockies again in 1896 when he joined Walter Wilcox, and outfitters Tom Lusk and Fred Stephens on a trip north of Lake Louise to search for the legendary Mount Brown and Mount Hooker. Tom Wilson had sent Barrett some photographs of the area north of Lake Louise and, “It knocked me flat. I’ve got to go!”

The party travelled north over Bow Pass, up the Saskatchewan River and became the first to reach Sunwapta Pass. They were on a sixty day expedition and searching for a pass through which to reach the Athabasca River. Impressed by, “the tremendous grandeur of mountain scenery,” the group explored the area, Barrett even attempting to climb, “a beautiful, glacier-hung peak” which must have been Mount Athabasca.

In order to determine if the party could continue over the newly discovered pass, Fred Stephens was able to pass between the toe of the Athabasca Glacier and the steep slopes of Mount Wilcox but found that, “the route which first appeared most promising was blocked by a canyon.” The party then proceeded over a high grassy pass to the east of what is now known as Mount Wilcox, descending into the Sunwapta Valley beyond Tangle Falls and the steep canyon to continue their explorations. The pass was later named in honour of Walter Wilcox.

During the same trip, Walter Wilcox and Robert L. Barrett, "...set out to climb the peak north of the lake (Fortress Mountain) in order to discover the location of the highest mountains. We had a long and tiresome walk, through a heavy forest, and discovered a very old trail, so much blocked, however, by fallen trees as to be almost useless. After reaching a point about forty-five hundred feet above the valley, the weather became threatening, and I set up by camera at once and took a set of views around the horizon. The clouds formed constantly a few yards above by head, but I got the distant mountains, though the smoke and gloom made the results very poor. Barrett continued up the mountain, though the climb involved some rather perilous work among rotten limestone cliffs. He reached the summit, which is about ninety-six hundred feet high, where the clouds shut out everything from view."

In a letter to J.M. Thorington, Walter Wilcox wrote of Barrett, "Barrett. . . was very efficient in all that concerned camp life and a marvel for taking punishment on the trail. For instance on our trip north to Fortress lake he would join up with Fred Stephens after seven or eight hours on the trail and explore the new region ahead for half a dozen miles and return to camp with full knowledge of every ford and burnt timber patch in the distance. This of course was a killing proposition for any normal man but it saved us a lot of time the next day.

"While on the Wilcox Pass several days were spent trying to locate some trail or route off the pass and into the Athabasca. Barrett disappeared and did not turn up for three days without so much as saying goodbye and then walked casually into camp one night about eleven pm. So far as I understand it he got lost in burnt timber down the Brazeau." [Beers]

In 1901 he accepted work in his father’s warehouse on the Chicago River but when he was promoted to the downtown office he rebelled and in 1902 travelled to Russia. He continued to travel extensively visiting many areas in Europe and Asia, including the Himalayas. It has been written that, “He shunned life in settled places, was deliriously happy when perched on a mountain top, and in particular enjoyed exercising there vigorously at dawn and dusk. His diaries, notes, sketches, and published works reveal, amidst cunningly wrought narrative, a rare quality of spontaneity and an enthusiasm for life and nature. He was a founder of the Association of American Geographers.

In 2006, Bert Anderson of Ashland, Oregon contacted Peakfinder and wrote, "I knew Barrett and hiked with him in the 1940s (He was in his seventies, I in my teens). Robert Barrett is possibly one of the most impressive people that I've ever known. He was born six months before the great Chicago fire. That may have been enough to convince him that life, without doing exactly as you want to live it, may not be worth living."

Additional Information: The Professional Geographer, Vol 24, February 1972, Issue 1

“Robert Lemoyne Barrett, 1871-1969; Last of the Founding Members of the Association of American Geographers” by Geoffrey J. Martin –Southern Connecticut State College

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