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Legendary Climber Rob Wood Remembers Brian Greenwood

Rob Wood with gear from Brian Greenwood Photo Brandon Pullan

Top climber Rob Wood hasn’t climber for a number of years, he’s been living in a commune on Maurelle Island on Canada’s West Coast since the mid-1970s.

With Mick Burke, he was one the first all-British team to climb The Nose in Yosemite. In Canada, he made first ascents on Colonel Foster, the first ascent of Takakkaw Falls with Jack Firth, Bugs McKeith and John Lauchlan in 1974, and many other ice first ascents.

Wood recently visited Canmore for Brian Greenwood’s memorial, Greenwood recently passed away in his 80s, see here for more.

The two climbed for many years together and were both member of the Calgary Mountain Club (CMC) back in the 1960s and 1970s.

Together, they made the first ascent of Kellogs, an unrepated 1,500-metre alpine mixed route on Mount Kitchener with George Homer and Bob Beale.

Tim Auger, John Lauchlan, Jack Firth, Bugs McKeith and Rob Wood

Wood married Laurie Manson, who he met at The Cheiftan bar in Squamish in the mid-1970s after a day of climbing, and with her daughter Kiersten they built an off grid homestead.

For years, Wood taught wilderness self reliance at Strathcona Park Lodge and was a founding member of the Friends of Strathcona Park 1986 protest that stopped logging and mining in the park.

Wood approached the town of Canmore in the 1970s, as an architect and urban planner, with the idea that the town of Canmore would one day be a centre of Canadian recreation. Canmore, then a coal mining town, said he was out of touch. Jack Firth told Wood he should have worn a tie.

Remembering Greenwood by Rob Wood

Brian Greenwood on what would become CMC Wall Photo Urs Kallen

I first met Brian in the Bugaboos in the summer of 1968, I was there with Mick Burke right after our historic ascent of the Nose of El Cap, just 50 years ago almost to the week. Brian invited us back to his home in Calgary for a “piss up”.

During the next few years I was lucky enough to rope up with Brian on several first ascents in the Rockies. I’m sure anyone who has ever been on a big route with Brian will agree what a privilege that was. He was undoubtedly the master at that time. His ability to remain calm and positive with his laconic and highly irreverent humour and the camaraderie it generated, even in extremely scary circumstances, was inspirational even transformational.

So it was on our ascent of the north face of Kitchener with George Homer and Bob Beale in early summer of 1972. The planned attempt to make a two-day first ascent of the Grand Central Couloir was foiled by a non stop barrage of falling rocks.

Rather than packing up and going home we started climbing up the rock ridge to the left of the couloir, where in the cold morning we hoped to get back onto the ice. Well, the rocks never stopped coming down the couloir and in the meantime, because we could not find anchors solid enough to rappel off, we became increasingly committed to climbing up the massive, very steep and hideously loose unclimbed wall of Kitchener.

Even George, in my opinion, the best rock climber around at the time, was stretched to his limits, lead climbing pitch after pitch, without secure belays, on what he later referred to as “vertical kellogs.” For three days mostly without food, fuel, water or rest, we struggled with the debilitating fear of fear before Brian’s experienced, calm demeanor steered us into a deeper level of reality, the fight or flight syndrome. This fundamental human survival mechanism empowered us with beyond normal physical capability as well as extra ordinary confidence and security.

Consequently when confronted with the final vertical headwall of glacier ice, the icing on top of the extremely crumbly cake, so desperate was I to get us all up and off that night mare face, that I led that difficult pitch, way beyond my previous limit, without stopping to place any protection.

Brian Greenwood out for a sail

We finally reached the car park at the Columbia Icefields right in front of coach loads of Japanese tourists, crawling on our hands and knees, starving and exhausted but laughing hysterically with joyful relief, possessed by a powerful sense of connectivity with something much bigger than ourselves, the love of life.

In the aftermath of this transformational experience adjustment to the normality of every day life in Banff was nothing less than a complete culture shock. The only way we knew how to reconcile our righteous indignation against the reality we perceived as pretentious and superficial, was to spend the next three days and nights getting ourselves into all kinds of trouble in the bars in Banff for which I am not at all proud.

Looking back I can now see the whole Kitchener experience contributed to a each one of us turning away from extreme climbing adventures at weekends and holidays in the Rockies. We searched and found lifestyles that took us back to the land, with small doses of adventure and connectivity with nature in our everyday lives. This enabled us to share more completely the happiness, peace and freedom we had found in the mountains with our loved ones back at home.

The only adventures I had with Brian after that were a two-month tour of Mexican beaches in a Volkswagen bus and avoiding hitting Vancouver Islands’s under water rocks (solid granite) in each others sailboats.

Jack Firth and Rob Wood relive old times at Greenwood’s memorial Photo Brandon Pullan