Pass Finder

Kicking Horse Pass

  • 1627 m (5339ft)
  • Naming History
  • Peaks and Rivers
51.4527N 116.2833W
Province: Alberta/BC
Park: Banff/Yoho
Year Named: 1858
Named by: James Hector
Named for: While approaching the pass from the west in the vicinity of Wapta Falls, James Hector was kicked in the chest by a horse.
Mountain (NW): Mount Bosworth
Mountain (SE): Divide Mountain
Headwaters (NE): Bath Creek
Headwaters (SW): Blue Creek

The Trans-Canada Highway and the main line of the Canadian Pacific Railway travel over this historic pass between Lake Louise, Alberta and Field, B.C.

Blue Creek flows west from the pass for about 1.5 kilometres before entering Wapta Lake. The Kicking Horse River then flows west from Wapta Lake. A small, un-named creek flows a similar distance to the east before joining Bath Creek.

Mount Hector and Hector Lake were named for James Hector but Kicking Horse Pass was named for a horse that kicked Dr. Hector. As the party was struggling eastward towards the pass one of the pack horses, in an attempt to escape the fallen timber that made travelling so difficult, plunged into the river. Hector described the events that followed, "...the banks were so steep that we had great difficulty in getting him out. In attempting to recatch my own horse, which had strayed off while we were engaged with the one in the water, he kicked me in the chest, but I had luckily got close to him before he struck out, so that I did not get the full force of the blow."

Peter Erasmus was Hector's guide during this part of his explorations and he later wrote, "We all leapt from our horses and rushed up to him, but all our attempts to help him recover his senses were of no avail... Dr. Hector must have been unconscious for at least two hours when Sutherland yelled for us to come up; he was now conscious but in great pain. He asked for his kit and directed me to prepare some medicine that would ease the pain." Although not recorded in Hector's journal or in "Buffalo Days and Nights" by Peter Erasmus, there is a story that Hector's men gave him up for dead at one point and dug a grave for him. It is said that he regained consciousness within a minute or so of being buried alive and that he managed to wink an eye to show that he was still alive. Hector's men thought it was appropriate to name the river in honour of the "Kicking Horse" and the pass above was assigned the name as well.

Even without Hector's injury, the party was having great difficulty finding food and was near starvation. They struggled towards the pass, eating blueberries along the way until they reached Wapta Lake at the summit where they camped and were able to kill a grouse and, "were happy to boil it up with some ends of candles and odd pieces of grease, to make something like a supper for the five of us after a very hard day's work. The next day a moose was shot and the men began to regain their strength.

In 1948 Dan McGowan wrote that, îIn that great chain known as the Canadian Rockies there are many lofty mountains but only one Big Hill.î These steep slopes that form the western side of the Kicking Horse Pass were a major challenge during the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway and continues to cause difficulties even today. When the railway was first completed in 1884, the tracks headed straight down from the summit of Kicking Horse Pass to Field at a grade of up to 4.5%. The dangers inherent in this steep descent were recognized and three safety switches were incorporated and constantly manned to divert runaway trains and cars. In 1909 the tracks were re-aligned when the Spiral Tunnels were constructed reducing the grade to 2.2%. Although an additional 6.4 kilometres of track was required, two locomotives could be used instead of four and the speed of the trains was able to increase from eight to forty kilometres per hour.

The Trans-Canada Highway now follows, more or less, the route taken by the original railway line.

[Additional Information: James Hector's biography; Mount Hector]

[Additional Information: "The Spiral Tunnels and the Big Hill" by Graeme Pole]

[Additional Information: "Canadian Pacific's Big Hill" by Floyd Yeats]