Mountaineering | The Canadian Encyclopedia



People have climbed mountains for centuries, either for religious reasons or simply to see the surrounding land better, but mountaineering as recreation is less than 150 years old.
Kain Monument
The Kain Cairn monument in Wilmer, BC is a tribute to one of Canada's greatest climbers (photograph by Karin Dart).
The CPR erected a Swiss Village (or Edelweiss) for Swiss guides hired to promote mountaineering in the Canadian Rockies. Here, the author and a companion pose by one of these early homes (photograph by Karin Dart).
When Canadian mountain climber Laurie Skreslet and his Sherpa guides Sungdare and Lhakpa Dorje reached the summit of Mount Everest on 5 October 1982, they wore \u0093Everest Supreme\u0094 snowsuit that Skreslet co-designed with Sun-Ice Ltd. (photo by Laurie Skreslet, courtesy Sun-Ice Ltd.).
The Canadian mountaineering tradition is celebrated in a mural erected in Golden, BC (photograph by Karin Dart).
Morrow, Patrick
Pat Morrow on the peak of Everest, the highest spot on Earth (photo by Pema Dorje).


Mountaineering is the practice of climbing in mountainous terrain for pleasure or research. Although it is usually associated with dangerous assaults of formidable summits, there are several elements to the activity, each often pursued for its own sake. Many people restrict their mountaineering to hikes in the lower regions of the mountains; others specialize in steep rock climbing, whether it be a 5 m boulder or a 1000 m cliff; others prefer climbing snow and ice; and yet others combine all 3 elements to stand atop the great alpine peaks of the world.

People have climbed mountains for centuries, either for religious reasons or simply to see the surrounding land better, but mountaineering as recreation is less than 150 years old. Towards the middle of the 18th century, European naturalists turned their attention to the glaciers of the Chamonix Valley of France, and their studies, combined with the Victorian era's interest in natural phenomena, gave birth to a general fascination with mountains. The earliest climbs in the mid-European Alps, such as Mont Blanc in 1786, were undertaken in the name of science, but by the early decades of the 19th century the Germans, French and Swiss were pursuing summits simply for pleasure. It remained for the British, however, to popularize the sport. During mountaineering's golden age - the years between 1854, when Alfred Wills climbed Switzerland's Wetterhorn, and 1865, when the combined teams of Edward Whymper and Reverend Charles Hudson conquered the Matterhorn - more than 60 of the most difficult, spectacular climbs in the Alps were made for the first time, primarily by British climbers.

Within 15 years of the Matterhorn ascent, all the Alps of consequence had been scaled, and mountaineers began to look for new challenges. Some tackled more difficult routes up mountains previously ascended, and others explored new mountain ranges - the Andes of South America, the Caucasus of Russia, the Himalayas, the mountains of Africa and the western mountains of North America.

The Canadian Mountaineering Tradition

Interest in mountaineering spread from Europe to Canada in the latter decades of the 19th century. Many of the impressive and challenging summits in Europe had been conquered. British climber Edward Whymper's tragic ascent to the peak of the Matterhorn in 1865, during which 4 people were killed and Whymper barely escaped, gave the glacier peaks in Canada a growing allure and charm.

Upon completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway through the Rockies in the 1880s, European tourists soon embarked on elaborate tours of the Selkirk Mountains and Rocky Mountains. Most of the early climbing in the Selkirks and Rockies was done by British members of the Alpine Club or by American members of the Appalachian Mountaineering Club of Boston. Phillip Abbot, a young lawyer, was climbing with a party from the AMC in 1895 when he fell from the icy flanks of Mount Lefroy above Lake Louise to become North America's first mountaineering casualty. Landmark climbs of the early years include Mount Sir Donald in 1890, Mount Temple in 1894, Mount Lefroy in 1897 and Mount Assiniboine in 1901. Mount Robson, at 3954 m the loftiest of the Rockies, was not successfully climbed until 1913, after attempts by 5 separate parties dating from 1908.

By the end of the 19th century, Glacier House in Rogers Pass had opened its inviting doors (1885), the first climbing death in Canada had occurred, and the CPR began bringing Swiss Guides to Canada in the late 1890s. All of this activity meant mountaineering in Canada was waxing with much appeal.

Swiss Guides undeniably dominated the early decades of Canadian mountaineering, and their chalet village, Edelweiss, in Golden, BC still stands as a reminder of those early years. A large mural in Golden was created to honour these early pioneers of the sport. Canadian mountaineering was not limited to Swiss Guides, however. Although Austrian-born Conrad Kain (1883-1935) did not live as long as many of the Swiss Guides, he set a daring and challenging stamp on Canadian mountaineering. Kain climbed rock faces and topped summits that many of the Swiss Guides would hesitated to approach. Kain was one of the most important mountain guides in Canada, and the Kain Hut in the Bugaboos was named for this icon of the rock slabs.

In addition, Don and Phyllis Munday were the royal family of Canadian mountaineering for many years. They made many first ascents, and placed Mount Waddington (the largest mountain in BC) on the map for many climbers both from within Canada and abroad. Although the Rockies have remained internationally popular with climbers to the present day, the quest for new terrain carried climbers throughout Canada's North and West in the 1920s. In 1924, inspired by a daring British attempt on Mount Everest, the Alpine Club of Canada sponsored a climb of 5959 m Mount Logan, the highest elevation of Canada and second highest of the continent. In May 1925 a team of climbers under Albert MacCarthy entered the St Elias Mountains on the boundary between Alaska and the Yukon Territory. After 2 months among the highest, most glaciated mountains in North America, the men emerged to say they had reached the summit on the afternoon of 23 June.

During the late 1950s and early 1960s, many fine British- and European-born climbers settled in Canada, and under their tutelage a core of excellent Canadian climbers has emerged. Using refined climbing techniques and modern technological aids, the new generation has been quick to attempt increasingly difficult climbs on well-known mountains - winter ascents of the great north walls of the Rockies, or the knife-edge ridges and soaring buttresses of Mount Logan, for example - or untried peaks in places as far-flung as Baffin and Ellesmere islands. Canadian centres of mountaineering activity include Montréal, Ottawa, Toronto, Thunder Bay, Calgary, Edmonton, Banff, Vancouver and Vancouver Island, all of which are members of the Alpine Club of Canada. Climbers are rapidly extending the limits of both rock and waterfall ice climbing.

The Swiss Guide tradition in Canada began to wane in the 1950s, but a new age was in the making. Bruno Engler and Hans GMOSER became transitional figures. Engler and Gmoser opened up new ways to approach the mountains via heli skiing, founded the Canadian mountain guiding system, and set standards for guides that were quite demanding.

Canadian mountaineering continued to mature and become more sophisticated with the coming of Walter Perren to Canada. Perren played a leading role in building up the mountain rescue system in Canada. Canada had come of age by the 1960s and 1970s. Canadians were beginning to take leading roles in shaping and defining the unique and indigenous mountaineering way. Swiss and Austrian mountaineering origins still lingered and had an impact in Canada, but Canadian mountaineers were assuming leadership.

Canadians were also beginning to make their presence felt outside of Canada with the most ambitious undertaking of the early 1980s, which came in late August 1982, when a team of climbers under Bill March of Calgary left Katmandu, Nepal, bound for Mount Everest. More than a month later on 5 October, Laurie Skreslet of Calgary became the first Canadian to stand on top of the world's highest mountain, followed 2 days later by Pat Morrow of Kimberley, BC. The British Columbia Mountaineering Club (founded in 1907 - a year after the Alpine Club of Canada) pioneered many classic climbs. Members of the Mount Everest Expedition returned to the Himalayas in subsequent years to attempt ambitious climbs on, among other peaks, Makalu (8490 m) and Kanchenjunga (8598 m). In 1986 the 12-person non-Sherpa-supported Canadian Everest Light Expedition put 2 more Canadians, Dwayne Congdon and Sharon Wood, on top of Everest via the challenging West Ridge. A contingent of 5 Québec climbers joined mountaineers from Poland in 1988 in an unsuccessful attempt at the first winter ascent of K2, an endeavour considered by many to be mountaineering's greatest contemporary challenge.

Canadian Mountaineering in Literature

Historians have begun to take an interest in the Canadian mountaineering tradition; Chic Scott has emerged as one of the most important Canadian mountain historians. Scott embodies Canadian mountaineering practice in a variety of ways. He has accomplished many impressive climbs, done much backcountry skiing, and writes about such challenging treks in a compelling way. In addition to recording the activity's history, Scott has raised the bar for a new generation of Canadian mountaineers. The significance of Canadian mountaineering has not escaped Canadian literature: Earl Birney's poem David is the classic Canadian poem on mountaineering. David raises all the hard questions about both the romantic appeal and tragedies that await those that turn to the mountains. Ralph Gustafson's Rocky Mountain Poems and Dick Culbert's The Coast Mountain Trilogy: Mountain Poems 1957-1971 further illuminate the Canadian mountaineering tradition.

The torch has now been passed onto a new generation of Canadian mountaineers. Canadian alpine clubs abound, mountaineering magazines are abundant, sophisticated mountain training, rescue techniques and mountain safety exist at a high level, the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides has put Canada at the forefront of guiding, and mountaineering history, philosophy and poetry have found a place in popular culture. Canada has become a paradise for aspiring mountaineers.

See also Mount Everest Expedition.

Further Reading