Legendary Canadian Rockies rock and alpine climber Brian Greenwood passed away on April 6, at the end of a good life.
He was born in 1934 in Hebden Bridge, a steep-hilled woolen mill town in the Pennines of West Yorkshire. His climbing philosophy was influenced by reading Gaston Rebuffat, Hermann Buhl and Giusto Gervassutti.
Greenwood arrived in Canada in 1956 at the age of 21 and quickly established himself within the Calgary Mountain Club.
Over a period of a dozen years, with partners Dick Lofthouse, Jim Steen, Glen Boles, Charlie Locke, Heinz Kahl and John Moss, he racked up an unprecedented resume of serious new routes.
On Yamnuska, his name became synonymous with steep, classic and conservatively-rated routes.
He made his first statement on the big south-facing wall in 1957 with the his new route Belfry, a short but difficult line. It took him two attempts, the successful one with Ron Thomson from Manchester. They used no pitons in true British style, only gear they could remove. They climbed it in one day and it’s now graded a hard 5.9.
In 1961, Greenwood and Norwegian Jim Steen teamed up and climbed their new route called Unnamed, now famous for a giant pumpkin painted on the final pitch. On their way up, they stopped for a drink at a natural spring, which is now gone.
Greenwood and Lofthouse then made the first ascent of Gollum Grooves. Greenwood had recently discovered Lord of the Rings and would go on naming many climbs after names from the book, even a few of his children. Soon after that, he climbed the new A Route.
The following year, Greenwood, Lofthouse and Kahl made the first ascent of Red Shirt, which they graded IV (loosely translated to 5.4/5.5), but is now considered by many to be 5.10a in sections.
It was the first route to venture out onto the steep walls between the natural corner systems. They would climb up, hang a red shirt and then head down to the valley to see where they could go next.
When it rained, the low-angled grey rock darkened between the steep yellow rock, they could eye-up the path of least resistance and link them.
Around this time, Greenwood starting selling climbing gear from his home in the prestigious Elbow Park in Calgary. For two decades, his home would be a focal point for the climbing community and would often rock late into the night. He sold top gear from his basement, such as Charlet ice axess, Galibier boots and Himasport down gear from France and the latest pitons from Yvon Chouinard.
If you were a young climber at the time, the greatest honour was to be invited by Greenwood to have tea and look through his collection of books.
Greenwood then teamed up with Don Vockeroth for the first ascent of Missionary’s Crack, which has since fallen off the mountain. Vockeroth led the crux pitch up a serious layback crack with only a sling around a loose choc-stone as protection. Greenwood seconded, cursing as he climbed, but would not take a tight rope. Greenwood soon climbed the new C Route.
Vockeroth and Greenwood then climbed the new B Route, a Direct start to Bottleneck and, with Lofthouse, established the now popular Pangolin 5.10+.
In 1968, Greenwood and Urs Kallen attempted one of the steepest sections of the wall using extensive aid climbing, which Greenwood had dubbed Super Direct.
In 1969, Greenwood and Kallen, along with Billy Davidson, returned and climbed higher. When one of them got scared, he would put in a bolt and then head down and let the other try. That worked pretty well, and they with difficulties to A3. The problem was that it took a lot of time. They returned on many weekends and would climb their fixed ropes. On some attempts, they found the ropes had been chewed by rats.
After a number of pushes they got over the overhangs and entered a big dihedral. Greenwood and Kallen agreed to head down to Davidson and get off the mountain. At the anchor, Kallen was preparing the ropes to rappel when two pitons pulled out of the rock and only one bolt remained that kept them attached to the mountain. Greenwood calmly bashed in the pitons, again, and they got out of there.
Kallen and Davidson made the first ascent of the route in 1972 and called it CMC Wall after the Calgary Mountain Club.
In 1968, a mountain rescue hut was built at the base of Yamnuska by the Calgary Mountain Rescue Group, which Greenwood was a part of. A piece of ice fell of Yamnuska the next year and took the hut out. But that didn’t stop Greenwood and others from carrying out a number of bold rescues.
On Nov. 9, 1969, a climber fell on Red Shirt and hurt himself. Greenwood climbed down with food and water and spent the night with the injured team. The following morning, he then climbed them to the top.
Greenwood then established what would be his most notable statement on Yamnuska. With John Moss and Nat Nicholas, they made the first ascent of a massive left-facing corner they called Balrog. The upper five pitches have basically no protection and now go at a sustained 5.9++.
Other top Calgary climber John Martin noted, “Brian was really persistent on Balrog. I guess it was the project that took him the longest. Certainly it was a big step ahead in terms of hardest route on Yam for at least 10 years after that.”
Greenwood simply recalled, “I just happened to be there at the right time.”
On May 27, 1970, Greenwood climbed his final new route on Yamnuska with the first ascent of Smeagol 5.9 with Urs Kallen.
Greenwood and Kallen then published the first guidebook to Yamnuska and the first guidebook in the Canadian Rockies. It has two-dozen pages and half of the routes had been put up by Greenwood. Over 13 years, he climbed 11 new routes and in 1997 when asked if he had any unfinished projects, he said, “Yes. Most of them.”
In the 1970 Alpine Journal printed in the U.K., Greenwood wrote:
“It is here then, in the Rockies and the Interior Ranges of British Columbia, that the Calgary climber looks for his satisfaction. And even here the opportunity is as yet unlimited and a climber might develop a detailed knowledge of only selected areas within these ranges. He will always have his list of climbs to do, ranging from the horrific 4,000-foot mixed face on one of the larger peaks to a probably interesting 1,000-foot rock climb of very difficult standard, but seldom does anyone climb seem to develop a top priority rating. Competition is low and if someone else should do a climb first there are always many more on the list.”
But it was on serious alpine routes where Greenwood really established his reputation.
Back in 1957, he climbed the first route up the steep quartzite wall on the Tower of Babel above Moraine Lake.
Three new routes were completed in 1961: the North Ridge of Mount Babel, the Northwest Ridge of Deltaform and the North Face of Mount Edith.
In 1962, he joined Fred Beckey and Don Gordon for the first ascent of the East Face of Oubliette in Rampart Creek.
In 1966, he set new standards of commitment with his new route on the north face of Mount Temple, the now famous Greenwood/Locke V 5.10, which rivals in scale the North Face of the Eiger in Switzerland.
Locke wrote in a story after their climb, “It began to rain as we cooked soup and made ourselves as comfortable as we could. The rain later turned to snow but as we were huddled under an over-hang we kept relatively dry. Dawn came and we found ourselves enveloped in a sea of mist.
“Wet snow was falling as Brian prepared to lead the first pitch. Above, the climbing seemed difficult but not excessively so. Whereas on the previous day Brian and I alternated leads, today Brian led all but two short pitches of the final 500 feet. The continuous tension of the never ending grade-five pitches, unrelieved by easier climbing, was beginning to have its psychological effect on me and I was only too glad to let him lead.”
The following year, Greenwood and Lofthouse completed the fourth ascent and first in one day of Mount Alberta’s Japanesse Route. It was a remarkably fast climb of the mountain, which is still one of the more difficult in the Canadian Rockies.
But his crowning achievement may well have been the first ascent of the East Face of Mount Babel in 1969 with John Moss. The route advanced Greenwood’s alpine big wall standards and that of the entire Canadian climbing community.
Greenwood had tried the East Face of Babel in 1966, with Charlie Locke, but it ended with a rescue. Locke fell near the summit, injuring himself, one of Banff’s first rescues ensued the event.
Moss wrote in a story after their climb, “Greenwood led through up the final steep wall which went free with several pegs for protection, then he was out in the sun again on the summit ridge.
“I quickly followed. It was a great relief to be off the face but our joy was short-lived as the descent by the northwest ridge and face was long and very tedious. Would the mountain ever give up? We got back down to Moraine Lake as the thunder clouds were rolling in and a storm was imminent — this time our luck had held.”
Greenwood also made the first ascent of the now-classic 500-metre Northeast Face of Ha Ling in 1969, which annually sees well over 100 ascents. Two years later, he and Jon Jones climbed Catch 22, a 375-metre 5.9R overhanging test-piece that has seen only a few repeats.
Also in 1969, Greenwood and Jim Jones climbed the northeast buttress of Mount Temple. The route is now called The Greenwood/Jones V 5.10 and is one of the most popular serious alpine routes in the range.
Greenwood’s last serious new climb in the Rockies was in 1973 with Bob Beall, Rob Wood and George Homer. They climbed a serious grade-five direct route on the north face of Mount Kitchener in August.
There was 30 pitches and 200 metres of unroped climbing up the Grand Central Couloir at the bottom. The roped pitches included six of ice, which ranged ranged from WI3 to WI5. Three pitches were on verglas-covered rock. The rest was on rotten rock.
The rock was so bad, that they called the climb Kelloggs. All climbers were hit numerous times and Beall suffered a broken finger. Greenwood wrote the following about the climb, “It was one of the best climbs I’ve ever done, one of those times when everything seemed right.
“I don’t know why; we were short on food, on pitons (unethical now!); rocks kept falling and missing. The issue was in doubt right to the final pitch. In spite of this the four of us got on really well for the three days.” The route has never been repeated.
Greenwood then travelled to Yosemite with a group of Canadian in 1974 and climbed Satlathe Wall.
In his 40s he moved to Golden, B.C. where he met Nancy, the community librarian. In 1980, they started their life together and moved to Duncan on Vancouver Island where he transitioned from climbing to sailing.
He spent the next 10 years up and down the inside waters, often single-handing, in his 27 foot sloop. At home he dug a basement under their hillside cottage with a shovel and wheelbarrow. He built dry stone walls and granite terraces and rock stairways. When his sailing days were over, he started cycling and continued into his 80s. He loved to garden and he grew amazing strawberries.
Greenwood was one of the founding members of the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides, but he lists his most important contribution to Canadian climbing as representing an alternative attitude to the sport, which was more attractive to the younger generation of climbers who emerged in the 1960s.
Greenwood will be missed by many in the climbing community and his fast and light alpine style will continue to inspire generations of Canadian climbers.
Nancy will miss him forever, but in his journey toward death he always said he would die with gratitude for the good life he had had. He felt fortunate for the enduring friendships with fellow climbers.
He will be missed by his daughter Arwen, named for the princess in Lord of the Rings. She was the apple of his eye. He was so proud of his sons, all good men, all loved: Robin, Brandy and Dorn.
There will be no service, but please raise a glass in memory of Brian. He went “gentle into that good night.”
“These are but a few examples of the opportunities immediately available to the enthusiastic Calgary climber. Even for those who do not wish to undertake expeditionary-type trips the scope is virtually limitless. Today, climbers are few, yet no doubt in the future the Rockies and the Interior Ranges will together form one of the great climbing areas of the world.” – Brian Greenwood, Alpine Journal, 1970.