St. Nicholas Peak

You better watch out
You better not cry
You better not pout
I’m telling you why
Santa Claus is coming to town.

He sees you when you’re sleeping,
He knows when you’re awake,
He knows when you’ve been bad or good,
So be good for goodness sake!
(J.F. Coots & H. Gillespie, 1934, © EMI Feist Catalog Inc; Haven Gillespie Music)

How can Santa Claus see all of this? How can he know what we are doing all of the time? Where exactly does he get his information? While some more imaginative people believe that Santa Claus must have magical, all-knowing, all-seeing powers. Other, more practical-minded folk, insist that he must have a vast network of elfin spies keeping tabs on every boy and girl in his domain. However, here in Alberta we know better. Santa Claus obviously does his recon from his lofty vantage point in the Canadian Rockies from which he can see great distances – perhaps even into your own home (and isn’t that just a little bit creepy?).

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St. Nicholas Peak, North elevation as seen from the Wapta Icefield, 1903. Photograph taken by Arthur Oliver Wheeler. The “Santa Claus” gendarme is the small rocky projection on the right side of the peak. Image Source: Source: Mountain Legacy Project, 85.

Located on the Alberta-British Columbia border is St. Nicholas Peak. This 2931 metre (9,616’) mountain peak rises from the Wapta Icefield just north of Mount Gordon, approximately 30 km NNW of the Lake Louise town site and 50 km north-east of Golden, BC. The peak was named by Arthur Oliver Wheeler of the Dominion Land Survey.

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Arthur Oliver Wheeler, December 1944. Wheeler has a long history regarding place names in the Canadian west. He was responsible for surveying substantial portions of Northern Ontario, the Canadian Prairies and the Rocky Mountains. He was also a noted explorer and mountain climber and was a founding member and first president of the Alpine Club of Canada. In these capacities he gave names to many geographical features across Western Canada. Image Source: Alpine Club of Canada

Although an exact date is not known, Wheeler sighted the mountain peak he named St. Nicholas Peak during one of his many explorations of the area. What is known is that on the wonderfully fitting day of December 24, 1908, Wheeler submitted a list of proposed names, including St. Nicholas Peak, to the Secretary of the Geographic Board of Canada. Explaining the origin of the name, Wheeler wrote that “[t]here is a striking rock formation on the side of the peak that looks exactly like Santa Claus. The effect is very striking and the name suggested itself immediately.” The name St. Nicholas Peak was accepted by the Geographic Board of Canada and it was officially adopted on January 14, 1909; notice of the name’s adoption was published in the Eighth Report of the Geographic Board of Canada, which was published in 1909 and presented to Parliament as Sessional Paper No.21A in 1910.

Wheeler’s chronicling of St. Nicholas Peak was not finished. In 1913, he was appointed as a Commissioner of the Alberta/British Columbia boundary survey which was charged with surveying and marking the provincial boundary. In 1917, Wheeler led a party undertaking photo-topographical surveys and installing brass bolts demarking the section of the border between Kicking Horse Pass in the south and Howse Pass in the north; an arduous task due to the rough mountain terrain. Wheeler’s official report for this leg of the survey was published in 1924 under the exhaustive title Report of the Commission Appointed to Delimit the Boundary between the Provinces of Alberta and British Columbia, Part II, 1917 to 1921, From Kicking Horse Pass to Yellowhead Pass. St. Nicholas Peak was found to lie on the provincial boundary. In the report, Wheeler describes the route of the boundary and offers a more detailed explanation of how he was inspired to name the mountain:

The route [of the boundary] from Yoho Glacier is over the icefield around the north end of Mt. Gordon and descends the more southerly of the two icefalls of Bow Glacier; in so doing it passes close to a somewhat remarkable peak on the east side of the watershed which owing to an outstanding gendarme* of rock that closely resembles the patron saint of Christmas time, has been named St. Nicholas Peak; its altitude is 9616 feet (page 10-11).

*Note: a gendarme is a pinnacle of rock projecting from a ridge or peak. The term originated in the French Alps and is so called because the rock pinnacles often resemble soldiers or policemen standing at attention (gendarme is a French term used to describe a member of the armed forces serving civilian police duties).

Due to its relative isolation and location amidst an icefield, St. Nicholas Peak attracted little attention for some time. It was first climbed in September 1930 by J. Monroe Thorington, an American mountaineer and writer, and Peter Kaufmann, a Swiss guide working for the Alpine Club of Canada. It is not known if the members of that climbing party were rewarded with presents for reaching the great heights of Kris Kringle’s lofty Rocky Mountain home, or if their audacity for disturbing the late-summer slumber of the great Claus was met with lumps of coal for years to come.

St. Nicholas Peak, Satellite Image

Regardless, the gendarme that inspired A. O. Wheeler to bequeath such a festive name to the mountain peak remains, eternally looking out over the icefield and beyond. So, the next time you gaze at the Western horizon, be on your best behaviour because Santa might just be perched high on St. Nicholas Peak watching you and making little notations to that famous list of his.

Written by: Ron Kelland, Historic Places Research Officer and Geographic Names Program Coordinator

Location: 

National Topographic System Map Sheet: 82 N/09 – Hector Lake

Latitude/Longitude: 51° 37′ 27″ N & 116° 30′ 00″ W

Alberta Township System: Sec 4 Twp 31 Rge 18 W5

Description: Approximately 30 km NNW of the Lake Louise town site and 50 km north-east east of Golden, BC

Additional Resources:

More information about and images of St. Nicholas Peak, Arthur Wheeler, the Interprovincial Boundary Survey and J. Monroe Thorington can be found in:

Dow Williams. “Wapta Icefield \ St. Nicholas Peak,” Summitpost.org, [website], accessed 13 December 2011, available from http://www.summitpost.org/st-nicholas-peak/168036.
[NOTE: This link is provided for informational context. The Government of Alberta does not endorse the advice and routes discussed or the products advertised at this link. Mountain-climbing is done at your own risk and should only be attempted by or with trained professionals].

Alberta Land Surveyors Association, “A. O. Wheeler,” Alberta’s Land Surveying History, [website], accessed 13 December 2011, available from http://www.landsurveyinghistory.ab.ca/Characters/Wheeler_AO.htm.

Canada. Office of the Surveyor General. Report of the Commission Appointed to Delimit the Boundary Between the Provinces of Alberta and British Columbia (Ottawa: Government of Canada)

–       Part I: 1913 to 1916 – From 49th Parallel to Kicking Horse Pass, published 1917),
–       Part II: 1917 to 1921 – From Kicking Horse Pass to Yellowhead Pass, published 1924,
–       Part III: 1918 to 1924 – From Yellowhead Pass northerly, published 1925,
–       Part IV: 1950 to 1953 – From Latitude 57° 26’ 40.25” northerly published 1955.

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