Within the Canadian climbing community there is a tradition of rebelliousness and iconoclasm. Even in these days of excessive media hype and blatant commercialism many climbers still see themselves as outsider, as somehow different. Where did this attitude come from?
Before the Second World War in Canada, climbers were pillars of the community; clergymen, Major-Generals, police chiefs even. The class conscious, British style, Alpine Club of Canada was the dominant organization and conformity was the rule.
Four mountain summits of a truly alpine nature were required to be admitted to the Alpine Club of Canada (ACC) ranks. At the club’s annual camp no climbing was allowed on Sunday. Instead, a church service, often led by Major Rex Gibson, a leading alpinist of the day, was in order. What changed all this?
In 1945, much of the world was in ruins. Disillusioned Brits and Europeans found their way to Canada, bringing with them a new climbing ethic, an ethic that had flourished earlier in depression era Austria, Germany and Italy. It was one of hard living and very hard climbing. It was a working man’s ethic and most of the leading climbers of the era were tradesmen: iron workers, stone masons, gardeners, carpenters and plumbers.
This was the philosophy that drove Anderl Heckmair on the North Face of the Eiger, and Ricardo Cassin on the Walker Spur of Les Grandes Jorasses. And it was the ethic that would drive Joe Brown and Don Whillans from the Welsh crags to the Himalaya. Climbing had become a sport where the poorest of men could achieve great deeds.
Here in Canada this egalitarian approach found fertile soil. It did so first in the province of Quebec, during the 1950s, where Englishman John Turner teamed up with Quebecois Claude Lavelle to take the Club de Montagne Canadien to the leading edge of the sport. Politics and language were left behind in the searh for adventure and the joy of life.
In Calgary, the Rockies crowd joined together in 1960 to create the Calgary Mountain Club. Originally Austro-German in nature, the club eschewed outdated ACC traditions. Pitons and aid climbing were accepted, and so were the rebellious local teenagers.
There was no longer any need to go through an ACC ice school carving steps up a modest slope with and aging patriarch. Instead, the CMC encouraged young climbers like myself to take our chances on Yamnuska. “Go for it,” they said. “If you can’t get up the hard bit, you can always rap off. It’s the only way to learn.”
During the late 1960s and early 1970s climbing legend Brian Greenwood led the CMC through its most prolific era. Jon Jones, Bugs McKeith, George Homer, Rob Wood and Jack Firth, all working class Brits, set the standard for the day: hard drinking, hard climbing, little protection and no pretences. “Taking the piss” out of innocent young Canadian climbers was their favourite pastime.
The Canadian climbing revolution arrived last on the West Coast. Here it was Gordie Smaill in the late 1960s who started the Squamish Hardcore. Even to this day Squamish climbers know they are supposed to be rebels but they don’t know why.
With partners like Neil Bennett, Smaill set a standard of bold and fearless climbing on routes like Grim Reaper in Yosemite and an early ascent of North America Wall. Not long after, Steve Sutton and Hugh Burton picked up the torch, climbing Magic Mushroom and Mescalito on the great wall of El Capitan, two of the most difficult climbs of the era. Their drug o choice was not alcohol however.
Today we live and climb in a different world. Sport climbing has gone mainstream and TSN regularly broadcasts ice climbing competitions. Some climbers are even seen as role models and give high-priced lectures on personal growth.
Climbers come from all walks of life and that person next to you at the climbing gym may be an executive for some major corporation or perhaps a suburban mother of three. But today’s climbers still bask in the inherited glory of our rebellious past and many of us in our own small way still try to keep the flame alive.